A Freedom is a freedom is a free DOM

Ren Powell (an essay for the now defunct VIDA project Lady in the House).

 

A diary means yes indeed.” – Gertrude Stein

  

Sixteen months ago, the man who abused me for a decade, and who robbed me of my extended family in the almost thirty years since, committed suicide. He drove his car into a semi. I watched a stream of coverage from the local news station, in what was once my hometown, just to reassure myself that it was true.

At that moment, watching the computer screen, I anticipated relief. I expected some part of me to be reborn like a phoenix from the wreckage strewn across the highway, half a world away. Or at least some spell would break, like at the end of a fairy tale. Ding Dong, the witch is dead.

I thought I would finally have my freedom. 

*

In my first semester of college I managed to wriggle my way into an advanced special topics course in Philosophy: Technology & Human Values, 4-oh-something. It was a course that put ethics into praxis through thought experiments. I loved it. All the thinking. Imagining. Writing.

Second semester, I took two big steps back – trying to catch up – and I took an introduction class that covered everything from Plato through Arne Næss at breakneck speed.

I got sick around Being and Nothingness.

And I got married.

And I wrote my first play.

And I burned my first manuscript.

And I got divorced.

And I started taking lithium.

*

In 2005, I was one of three European women to attend a women writers’ conference in Kyrgyzstan. The writers in Bishkek told us a story about a poet who published a book of sensual poems that her in-laws interpreted as evidence of her infidelity. Her husband left her. The translator tried to paraphrase: She says that, if she had lived in Europe, it wouldn’t have been a problem. 

*

Freedom is a fluid and free signifier. Context is everything.

*

Last winter I took an improvisation workshop with my colleagues from the high school. We were partnered and told to give each other small tasks to mime. “Say the first thing that pops into your mind. Don’t censor yourself!”

The first thing that popped into my mind? Masturbate.

* 

Last Friday I saw a performance work that featured an actress with Down syndrome. “Anti-abortion themed Agit prop theater,” I complained. “Not my thing.”

My colleague said, “But she is free to express her opinion.”

When I worked for PEN I came to realize that there is a sea dividing the right to free speech, and the privilege of being heard.

And that no one is free from consequences:

  • I know a writer from Eastern Europe who is living in New York and teaching at a reputable university. He has dinner parties with his respected colleagues, but is not able to return to his homeland to work. Because he exercised his freedom of speech.

And his government didn’t like it.

  • I know of a once-respected writer from Kyrgyzstan. Her colleagues don’t know where she is living today.
    Because she exercised her freedom of speech.

And her relatives didn’t like it.

*

When I was an undergraduate, one of my professors invited me to stage three of my own performance pieces within the larger context of a series of storytelling projects that he was working on for the autumn production. About a week before the premiere, I heard rumors that there was trouble. Another professor in the theater department had asked the dean to stop my work from being produced.

It wasn’t the word fuck that was the problem. It wasn’t the subject matter of sexual abuse. Or even the blasphemous texts. The professor was concerned about the work being too personal. He wanted the university to protect me from myself.

This was the same professor who, in playwrighting class, would raise his voice and gesticulate like a Shakespearean actor, declaiming his slogans: “Write to the Pain”, “Never Censor Yourself”.

*

In 1933, Gertrude Stein published someone else’s autobiography.

*

I have written things.
I have written things that I have lived.

I have written things that I have lived to regret.
My chronology is never explicit.

*

Ask me, while I am staring at a blank page, and I will tell you that freedom is a value-neutral state.


 

There is no such thing.

We are palimpsests. There is no essence, only sums – in the end.

And only then.
Meanwhile, we are continually re-formed, re-contextualised. Erasures.
Recorded, fragmented, rerecorded, as accurately as before –
but different.

We are as many stories as viewpoints, as points of contact. We will be
clouds seen through a cardboard tube on a windy afternoon
with the world on its back in a field.

We are the itch of a blade of grass on its lower back.

We were, in that present, an annoyance. Now, this gust of cold, North Sea.

We are the twelve year-old boy, living in the cave and painting
the pleasure of an erection.

We have been his mother’s rolling eyes.

IMG_20150701_171839I was listening to a Radiolab podcast, and a scientist was explaining that there is no such thing as the present.

He compares time to the shoreline. The past is the sand, the future is the sea water.

There is no line that is the present.

In art class they kept telling us there are no lines in nature. So that part makes sense. As long as I keep making my associations in leaps forward.

But the scientist explains that there is no arrow of time: no forward, no backward.

This is all sort of screwing up my daily meditation.

IMG_0460Not in Utopia, –subterranean fields,–
Or some secreted island, Heaven knows where!
But in the very world, which is the world
Of all of us, — the place where, in the end,
We find our happiness, or not at all!

(Napoleon Bonaparte, 1791 – “Residence in France,” The Prelude, book 11. Found in Darrin McMahon’s Happiness: A History.)

I had been thinking about the title of this blog for a while now, and had considered “In this World”, weeks before I read the above quote from Napoleon’s essay, the essay that was ridiculed by the gatekeepers, and that possibly marked the end of his ambitions as a writer.

I’ve been thinking about blogging, or not blogging. About false starts, abandoned ideas, and ambitious reinventions. Thinking about the trope of the Great Adventure: the privilege of taking off into the wilderness to find oneself.

About what we give up, what we give.

What we take.

About narcissism, hubris, delusion.

And purpose.

About writing. Always about writing.

Excuses.


Recently, I read Alan Watts The Wisdom of Insecurity because a former student whom I admire a great deal recommended it to me. About a third of the way through, I couldn’t push from my mind the thought that I had already asked all these questions by the age of 12. About halfway through, I began to ask myself why I had stopped asking all these questions.

Part of the answer lies in the fact that I read a lot as a kid, as a teenager, and as a young adult. And, obviously, people smarter than me were asking the questions already. In fact, every idea I ever had: someone had already been there – done that.

I’ve been waiting for pre-approval for my right to speak. Waiting for the gatekeepers to invite me in. But even when they did, and they have on occasion, I’ve felt like a fraud: exposed and vulnerable.

So this is me being brave. This is me, not walking the Camino, not spending a year at an ashram, but me living the life I have chosen, with all its routines, obligations, and joys.

This is me, moving on, finding inspiration in Sondheim:

– “I’ve nothing to say, nothing that hasn’t been said before.”
– “Not by you, George.” [from Sunday in the Park with George.]