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Archive for the ‘Love’ Category

Twisted Tree

After my marriage ended about a year ago, I had no real intention of dating, at least not through my own efforts. As it happened, I ended up doing a surprising amount of dating that just sort of happened without my feeling like I’d gone much out of my way to cause it. In this willy-nilly fashion, I ended up getting into a five-month-long relationship, which very recently ended – again, without my meaning it to. The unexpected breakup, as these things do, has me trying to make sense of why I got myself into this in the first place and where I go from here. And so in this post, I wanted to take some time to remind myself what my goals are with relationships and what it’s all about for me.

Relationships (not just romantic ones, but all kinds of relationships between people), like a lot of things, can be said to have a form and a content. The form is the shape it takes: how often you see each other, what kinds of things you do when you meet, the words you use to describe it and each other – “marriage,” “dating,” “boyfriend,” or “friend,” or “the person I’m seeing.” And then there’s the content – who you both are as individuals, what you bring out in each other, the shape your interactions take, the emotions they provoke.

When I was younger, I think I tended to focus more on the form of romantic relationship I wanted than the content. I wanted a fling, or a relationship, or a boyfriend, or a fiance, or a marriage, and it didn’t matter as much who exactly filled the role as long as the role was filled by some acceptable candidate. I think I wasn’t alone in this. I would occasionally go on dating sites or look at personal ads, and they were set up a lot like shopping sites and regular ads. There were so many people to sort through that you almost had to start off with a checklist. You set your criteria for a person in a certain age range, having x religious beliefs and y political beliefs and z non-negotiable interests or aversions. Having decided on your preferred format of personal qualities and the form of relationships you were aiming for (long-term, fling, etc.), you then shopped around for a person who fit into it. It was a lot like having a certain pair of shoes in mind – strappy white sandals with no more than a 2.5-inch heel for no more than $80 – and looking until you found just what you wanted.

That is one way of going about things. And there’s a certain lovely idealism in searching for the grand love affair, the one that includes flowers, nights of passion, stimulating conversation, shared aesthetics and values, and progresses to a tasteful, well-attended wedding and eventually growing happily old together, watching your grandchildren play and sipping lemonade out on the front porch. But in the end, that, too, is just another checklist.

Then there are those who talk of “settling.” Which seems to mean accepting that you might just not get everything on the list checked off, heaving a sigh, and going ahead with it anyway, but never really putting aside your resentment or sense of inadequacy about those boxes on the list that didn’t get a checkmark.

At some point, though, I’d had my fill of looking for the perfect form, and I didn’t want to do it anymore. I had experienced all the main forms, and in the end, a form was just something empty, like a madeleine pan without any madeleines in it, or a jello mold without any jello. In the end, it was the organic shape the relationship took as it grew that made me and the other person either happy or unhappy. And so the goal stopped being a relationship of this or that kind, but authenticity in my interactions with the people around me and generally doing what made me and others happy (with all the caveats of ethics and social and moral responsibility). I decided I would try to just take the people I encountered for what they were and let that content dictate the form of my relationship to them. If I could love someone, I would love them, if I could like them, I would like them. If I enjoyed spending time with someone, I would try to spend more time with them, and so on. I’d worry less about what it was called and what it looked like to other people than about what it did for us.

So with the passing of this last relationship, I wonder what I’m mourning for. Am I more sad to lose the person, or am I just sad not to have a boyfriend anymore? I think even with my healthier philosophy of authenticity, it’s still easy to get caught up in the forms. It was nice being able to say I had a boyfriend, to put “in a relationship” on my Facebook page, to use plural pronouns like “we” and “us.” It was nice having an automatic date to bring to things like weddings and concerts. I will miss all of that.

But I have to remind myself that while the form might have fallen out of shape, the content is still there. We’re still the same people we were before, even if we’re no longer a “we.” The experiences and memories don’t lose their value just because they’re now of things I did with an ex instead of things I did with a boyfriend. And while nothing that comes to me in the future will ever take just the same shape that grew up with this past relationship, there’s an infinity of lovely, twisting and branching new structures that can form as I go on loving whomever I can love and liking whomever I can like, and spending time with people I enjoy being with, as much and as long as I can – or being alone when I need to be.

The pain of losing someone you care about can’t really be reasoned or blogged away, but still, I think it helps to remind myself of all this.

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Jabberwock Review

I have a new print publication out in Jabberwock Review, a literary magazine published by Mississippi State University. It’s a nonfiction essay called “The Economy of Souls.” It’s kind of a long essay, so I will make cookies for anyone who manages to read the whole thing. There will be a quiz afterward. Enjoy!

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A shiny new bag

A Shiny New Bag

Chanson of Letters from a Broad has memed me. I am flattered to be memed, plus meming people back is much easier than thinking of a blog post on my own, so here goes. (For opaque reasons, the meme is called “Happy 101 Sweet Friends,” hence the title of my post.)

The instructions are: List 10 things that make your day & then give this award to 10 bloggers.

Okay, then, ten things that make my day, in no particular order of preference:

1. My daughter. Yes, I realize that is not very original, but really, honestly, I absolutely am monkey-bananas crazy about being a mom, and the great thing about it is that there is no social disapprobation there, the way there might be with other things I like such as eating warmed-up Spaghetti-os with meatballs from the can, or enjoying Stephenie Meyer novels. It’s rare for me to have a day that is not made far more awesome by having my daughter in it. (Although yesterday, when we had a long plane ride which began with her peeing on the seat, yesterday may have been one of those rare days …)

2. Badger sightings. There is this badger who lives in the neighborhood, and every now and then, I catch sight of him gamboling on the grassy hill between my row of townhouses and the one facing it. As sort of a city girl by nature who grew up in the desert, it never fails to astonish me that I am seeing an actual badger, live, in the flesh, right before my very eyes.

3. A shiny new bag. I get a good, old-fashioned, girly thrill from stalking a potential new purse for weeks online, drooling over it in private, mentally calculating how much I need to save up to afford it, fretting over other things I could buy instead of it, finally just breaking down and ordering it, and then wearing it everywhere even with outfits it doesn’t remotely match. Same goes for shoes.

4. Catching an obscure literary reference. It is so deeply satisfying when someone tosses off a phrase like “young Werther, here” in conversation (see the movie (500) Days of Summer), or has a quote in Classical Greek up on their Facebook page, or somebody refers to something as Proustian, and you’re all like, “Ah, yes, of course, so Proustian, that!” or “Ha, he is just like young Werther!” or “True—as they say, meden agan.” And you are suddenly filled with the happy sense that your many painful years of over-education may not have been a total waste.

5. Getting a piece of writing accepted for publication. This has happened to me a handful of times now, and it always feels like winning ten thousand dollars in the lottery, even though the most I’ve ever been paid for a piece is … oh, never mind … and even though I know from the start only my friends and family are ever going to read it.

6. Hearing about new, mind-blowing scientific research. Example: a philosophy prof friend told me about this book The Imprinted Brain, and it sounded so interesting I checked it out of the library and started reading it. So interesting, although I won’t bother trying to explain it here—read my friend’s review instead; the author has this mind-blowing theory involving the relationship between autism and psychosis and male vs. female brain characteristics and genetic expression. And then there was that great piece in the Atlantic on the orchid vs. dandelion genes a while back. Anyway, I just love stuff like that.

7. Communiqués from long-lost siblings. I love all my family to pieces, but certain siblings who shall not be named often go for weeks or months without calling or writing, which makes hearing from them extra exciting. Maybe that is all part of their devious plan, to be more appreciated as a sibling by being mysterious and rarely seen or heard from, but if so, I totally fall for it.

8. Seeing a large body of water. As mentioned previously, I grew up in the desert, so I still get a little frisson whenever I first catch sight of a river or lake or ocean or beach. All that blue, all at once. Heck, I even get excited about the creek in the park behind our neighborhood.

9.Participating in the pop-cultural zeitgeist. By this I mean those times when there’s something everybody is excited about—the new Harry Potter film, or the latest Battlestar Galactica episode, for example—and I am also excited about that same thing. I feel all swept up in the cultural  moment and one with the rest of humanity.

10. Offers of babysitting. Much as I love being a mom (see #1, above), the occasional break from motherhood is also very nice.

Here are my 10 blogs—again, in no particular order of preference. It was kind of hard to come up with this list because I don’t have too many friends who are really into blogging, at least not that I know of. I realize not everyone is into being memed, and for some of you the meme would not fit into the theme of your blog at all. So I will not be offended if you don’t meme back, no worries.

  1. Self-Portrait as
  2. Chocolate & Garlic
  3. Dan-Dee-Lyun
  4. The Post-Pessemist Association
  5. The Snarr Zoo
  6. The Sundance Burtons
  7. LDS Food Critic
  8. DCARTOONS
  9. Yopping
  10. Abdul Ali

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Illustration by Sylvia Long

Illustration by Silvia Long, via http://www.sylvia-long.com/

The morning daycare for Amandine is working out great so far. She seems to like it, and I’ve been able to get some revisions done on my book. I think the manuscript is just about ready to send out to some of my friends who’ve said they’d be willing to take a look at it. Apart from that, I’ve been filling out loads of federal job applications, some of which require the applicant to write more or less a novel-length description of their KSAs (knowledge, skills, and abilities). So the writing stamina I’ve developed by getting novels down on paper has stood me in good stead. You can’t say novel-writing doesn’t have its collateral benefits, even if one never gets published.

A friend lent me The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and I finished that this week. I enjoyed the book as much as the movie, even already knowing the main plot points. The prose style was nice in the English translation, although obviously I can’t say how well it reflects the original Swedish. It’s kind of Ikea-style writing—clean and uncluttered lines, with function taking priority over form, but concern for pleasing design as well.

Amandine, who’s going on two-and-three-quarters now, is becoming very talkative and using complex sentences. She also makes up long, interesting songs about cats and bunnies and naps and diapers. I was particularly impressed the other day when she modified the lyrics of a lullaby that I’ve sung to her a lot. There is a children’s book by Sylvia Long with beautiful illustrations and alternative lyrics to the “Momma’s gonna buy you a mockingbird” song, that go like this:

Hush little baby, don’t say a word, Mommy’s gonna show you a hummingbird.
If that hummingbird should fly, Mommy’s gonna show you the evening sky.
And when the night-time shadows fall, Mommy’s gonna hear the crickets call.
As their song drifts from afar, Mommy’s gonna search for a shooting star.
Etc.

The author’s idea was that the traditional lyrics are too materialistic—“I’ll buy you this, I’ll buy you that.” So instead she wanted to make the song about a mother comforting her child with the beauty of the world around them and her own love. I liked the idea, so I’ve always sung that version to Amandine as a bedtime song. The other day she was putting her favorite stuffed cat down for a nap and singing the song to the cat. Except Amandine’s version went like this:

Hush lillel baby, don’t say a wook, Mommy’s gonna show you a … cupcake.

Alas, the non-comsumerist subtext has clearly not sunk in. But at least it appears my daughter is a poet in the making. At any rate, I took the hint and made cupcakes yesterday.

Some soothing music to send you on your way:

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Illustration from William Blake's "Songs of Experience"

Illustration from William Blake's "Songs of Experience"

(With apologies to William Blake, this is a post I’m writing specifically to submit to this Humanist Symposium thingie for bloggers I just learned about—the next one will be hosted April 4th by Letters from a Broad, a blog whose author is also a novelist.)

Given the phase of music enthusiasm I’ve been going through lately, I thought I’d link to and discuss a few songs I like that deal with the experience of being an unbeliever in a believing world:

First Song: The Virginian, by Neko Case

Lyrics:

When I was young, I knew a girl
Who wouldn’t love God as a test
Or gamble with her happiness
And so led astray
So she did turn
Her father would say,
‘You’re only a guest of the master’
But passion was her Sunday best
And she fell away

She fell away
She fell away
She fell away from the side of the Lord
And she was free to do what she wanted
With clouds of her own
Na na na na

When she grew up, she fell in love
She thought it was all that she wanted
She knew how it felt to be haunted
And he ran away
Picked herself up
And said through her tears
Don’t waste anymore of your time
You’ll spend it all standing in line
They’ll turn you away

(Refrain)

Oh but superstition
And your heart’s permission
‘Cause you’re good enough, good enough, good enough
To make it alone
Then when she died
She didn’t ask God
To take her back into his graces
She’d taken on to many shapes
And too many were strange
And as they lay her in to the ground
Her spirits, they all flew all away
The sun shone so bright on that day
You thought it was spring
(Refrain)

Comments:

One of the many interesting things about this song is the connection it draws between the spiritual and the romantic. It seems to me that in many cases, part of what draws people to religion is a longing for intimacy. The relationship with God is a love-relationship—no one knows you so intimately and loves you so unconditionally as God. Psychologists and occasionally philosophers talk about romantic love as an impulse to submit one’s will to another, to have the self subsumed in another self, to have the borders between self and other fall and merge into one another—it’s a means of transcending one’s solitary, solipsistic existence. At the same time, it’s a flight from freedom and independence, from the necessity of having to choose for yourself and take sole responsibility for your existence.

Of course, the trouble with God as a substitute for human intimacy is that God seems to have intimacy issues. He tends to resemble a guy (or girl) who’s just not that into you. He never calls, doesn’t send a card on your birthday … and when was the last time you had a two-way conversation with Him? If He does appear to communicate, it’s always indirectly, by way of other people, sort of like when one of the Sex and the City girls is dating a rich business mogul who has his secretary send flowers instead of calling.

The girl in the song sees that human passion and intimacy are what she really wants. She’s not going to gamble with her happiness by waiting around for God to call; instead she leaves Him and moves on to fall in love with a real person. But then she realizes human love isn’t dependable either—ultimately she learns not to flee freedom either through God or through romance. The moral of the story for freethinkers is that leaving dogmatism behind may not necessarily open up new doors to happiness. It’s something that ultimately has to be done out of integrity and honesty and love for these things in themselves, rather than with the expectation that greater happiness will result. If a person can manage that, they’ll have no regrets even if they turn out to have been wrong on Judgment Day.

Second Song: One Man’s Shame, by William Elliott Whitmore

Lyrics:

Don’t alter my altar
don’t desecrate my shrine
My church is the water
and my home is underneath the shady pines
Don’t underestimate the spine in a poor man’s back
when it’s against the wall and his future’s black
One man’s story is another man’s shame
I ain’t bound for glory, I’m bound for flames
Take to the woods boy, and cover up your tracks
Go away child and don’t look back
Sad is the lullaby from a mother’s heart and soul
when she knows her child has strayed from the fold
The parish will perish
by death’s cruel hand
and finish the job that fate began
All that static in the attic,
that’s just an old drunk ghost
His chains are rattlin’ but his end is close
Ain’t no hell below and ain’t no heaven above
I came for the drinks but I stayed for the love

Comments:

Here the unbeliever is prepared to defend his own concepts of altar, shrine, church, and home, and warns others not to underestimate his strength—he’ll stand up for himself; he’s a poor man with nothing to lose. He realizes and accepts that what to him is simply his story will be viewed as a shame to others; they’ll see him as someone who’s strayed from the fold and is bound for the flames of hell. But his advice to anyone in doubt is to leave and not look back. (Presumably, to leave dogmatism behind, that is.) Ultimately, the “ghost” of religion rattling in the “attic” (our subconscious? the collective unconscious?) will be fade away … And there’ll still be drinks and love.

I just like the attitude of defiance in this song, the stance of embracing your own story even if it looks like shame to others.

Third Song: Mercy Seat, by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds*

Lyrics:

They are long, so I’ll just put the refrain—you can see all the song’s lyrics here.

And the mercy seat is waiting
And I think my head is burning
And in a way I’m yearning
To be done with all this measuring of truth.
An eye for an eye
A tooth for a tooth
And anyway I told the truth
And I’m not afraid to die.

Comments:

This is a ballad about a man condemned to death. (Incidentally, Johnny Cash does a great cover of it also.) Again we have the attitude of defiance, and to me there’s also something very Socratic about it. The narrator is willing to accept responsibility for his own existence and choices, even if that means death. And whatever he may have done, he’s kept his integrity and told the truth. Like the girl in the first song, he doesn’t fear death or a Day of Judgment; both narrators have made their choices and will stand by them, come what may.

The religious believer is ideologically equipped to deal with death—she has comforting concepts like an afterlife and the promise of seeing loved ones again in the hereafter. To some, giving up these consolations and accepting the reality and finality of death may be one of the most difficult aspects of leaving religion behind. And even for the determined unbeliever, there’s a lingering uncertainty about what really happens at death. (Consider the strange story of atheist philosopher A.J. Ayer’s near-death experience.) In The Apology, Socrates says death is likely one of two things: either a state of unconsciousness comparable to a pleasant sleep, or a chance to continue doing exactly what he’s done all his life:

Above all, I shall be able to continue my search into true and false knowledge; as in this world, so also in that; I shall find out who is wise, and who pretends to be wise, and is not. What would not a man give, O judges, to be able to examine the leader of the great Trojan expedition; or Odysseus or Sisyphus, or numberless others, men and women too! What infinite delight would there be in conversing with them and asking them questions! For in that world they do not put a man to death for this; certainly not.

I think of this as meaning that if my consciousness goes on, I’ll still be myself, with all my curiosity and wonder about people and things around me. I’ll continue to regard my actions and decisions as I do now: as those of a fallible person who tried to be decent, live a good life, and not hurt others. Yes, a God might emerge out of the clouds in a burst of bright light and condemn me to eternal punishment, but there’s no guarantee that couldn’t happen to me here in this life, too, five minutes from now. Such a judgmental, dictatorial, punitive God would be no less a bully there than here, and I’d be no more inclined to obey Him and follow His orders.

So while I won’t exactly say bring on the Mercy Seat and the hemlock, or that death isn’t scary, fear of divine judgment is not one of the things that makes it scary and potentially painful, and that’s one of the lessons of these songs.

I’d love to hear what others’ favorite songs are.

*Thanks to my friend Denise for making me think of this song last week in commenting on the other Nick Cave song in my last post.

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Mothers and Children

Gustav Klimt, Detail from The Three Ages of Women

Gustav Klimt, The Three Ages of Women (detail), 1905

When I have an intimidating pile of books I want to read and am not sure where to start, sometimes I’ll go through and read the just first chapter of each book in turn. Then I’ll read the second chapter of each, and so on, until I get hooked on one and drop the others. Last week, the book that hooked me was Tom Perrotta’s Little Children. I was already tipping at Chapter 2, and when Chapter 3 started it was a done deal. (First sentence: “He should just be castrated.” And that’s before you even get to the kissing and lust.)

I haven’t seen the movie, which everyone said was good, but this is was a great read. Perrotta’s writing is close to my ideal. His prose is clean and uncluttered, and he seems to follow the principle that the story takes precedence over the language, without the language suffering from its supporting role. There is very little here that’s extraneous, either in the diction or in the plot.

The magic of the book isn’t in the level of craftsmanship in the writing, although the craftsmanship is there. Rather, it’s the sympathy every character gets. Even the repugnant characters are humanized and we feel sorry for them. And the hero and heroine conversely aren’t idealized, but I still fell hard for both of them. Compassion and liking for your own characters is something no writing class or book can teach you. Tom Perrotta seems to have both, and they elevate the book from a clever, self-aware tale of modern marital malaises to something beautiful and deeply satisfying.

Also, in a bunch of places, the writing is funny. Not guffawing, thigh-slapping funny, but funny enough to make you stop mentally every now and then and say “ha!” It’s so rare to find literary writing that’s also funny, although maybe it’s just the books I pick. I can count on one hand authors of good literary fiction I’ve read in the past decade who were funny: Tom Perrotta, David Lodge (e.g., Therapy), William Kotzwinkle (The Bear Went Over the Mountain), and grudgingly I might put Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections) on there too, because whatever other failings The Corrections has, I have to admit there were some funny bits. But I think Perotta is a much better author than Franzen—unlike Franzen, Perotta doesn’t come across as trying too hard, and Franzen especially suffers by comparison on the measure of character likeability. I should have been able to like a tormented bisexual female chef, for example, but Franzen made even that difficult. While on the other hand, Perrotta arouses my sympathy (to a limited extent) for a convicted pedophile, which is a pretty amazing accomplishment.

Of course, part of the problem is that I just don’t get to read nearly enough (does anyone these days?) If anyone has more suggestions for funny-but-literary authors, I’d love to hear them. A dear friend from high school who like me is an aspiring novelist recently posted on his troubles with overly serious writing. So hopefully he’ll eventually write something “allegedly funny,” as he likes to say and I can read that. But in the meantime, suggestions welcome.

Speaking of little children, last week was my daughter Amandine’s half-birthday—she’s now officially 2 and a half. So in Amandine’s honor, and in honor of all my mom friends who recently had a baby or are about to have one any minute, I thought I’d link to a few songs on the theme of mothers and children.

The Neko Case song isn’t really a mother-child song, but the refrain used to run through my head constantly when Amandine was just born and would cry all the time. I find the Madonna song simultaneously kitschy and moving, like a lot of her songs that I like. But it’s not often that pop megasuperstars sing about tender feelings for their children rather than hookups and doomed love affairs and such, so I just think it’s awesome that song exists. And the Lucinda Williams song is an amazingly good description of the ache and richness of mother-love.

Book status update: Still revising and revising and revising. Starting to trade off critiques with a few people, which is going to be helpful but involves a lot of work reciprocally critiquing others’ manuscripts. I do think the book is gradually sucking less, so that’s good. If anyone is interested in being a beta reader, give me a holler.

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Snow and Settling

Holy cow, it’s snowing a lot here. The snowbanks are taller than my toddler. This is the front of our little townhouse—you can see that the snow is as tall as our trash can.

snow covered trash bin

Trash bin in snow

So I got some great news this past week. One of my nonfiction essays got accepted for publication in a literary magazine called Bayou. I’m really happy about it, because Bayou has had a number of essays get notable mentions in The Best American Essays in the past several years (I have a giant anal-retentive spreadsheet where I keep track of such things, so I know which literary magazines to submit to). The essay is slated to appear in their May 2010 issue, so I’ll post about it when it comes out. This will be my first literary publication in a print journal, too. It’s all making me feel almost legit as a writer.

When I got the acceptance e-mail from Bayou, I immediately sent off e-mails to the other literary journals that were still considering the essay to tell them the piece was no longer available. It turned out one of these other journals had actually flagged the piece for acceptance, too, which made me embarrassed and regretful (to have to tell them they couldn’t have the piece) but also pleased, because it meant the other acceptance wasn’t just a fluke instance of some editor being high on crack.

As for revisions on the novel, they are coming along sloooooowly. I’ve heard writers say they like revising better than writing the first draft, but I’m finding it not as fun—a lot more of a slog than the initial drafting was. I am giving myself this whole month just to focus on revising without starting any new projects. I think I need the time anyway to recover and reintegrate myself into society as a normal non-novel-writing person. Writing the book took a major toll on my social life and housekeeping and I’ve kind of got to dig myself out of the rubble for a while now.

By the way, I came across some entertaining articles this week about a new book, Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough. The author argues that single chicks should stop being so dang picky and just settle down with some reasonably nice guy before they get too old and ugly.

Give Up On Mr. Perfect

You Don’t Have to Settle

To some extent, I kind of sort of agree with the author, though. Settling can be a good thing. If my husband hadn’t settled for me, where would I be now? Goodness knows. But I think she could have picked a less sexist-sounding way of stating the argument. If it were me, I would have talked about it in terms of risk-taking, rather than settling. Romantic relationships are risky, no bones about it. When your partner is less than perfect, that increases your risks. But you don’t want to be too risk-averse, or you end up impoverishing yourself emotionally and spiritually.

Maybe that’s a mere semantic quibble on my part, but doesn’t it sound a whole lot more empowering and enlightened than “Hey you, stop being so picky and just settle down already”?

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