There is a very interesting Ted Talk that I have been thinking about lately. Stella Young, who is physically disabled, talks about her frustration that stems from being held up as an object for what she calls “inspiration porn”.

In a very strange way, I can relate.

I’ve been thinking about “inspiration porn” since I let loose on a friend’s Facebook post last week. She was upset about the way the church heart rockhas looked the other way when it comes to the sexual abuse of children. She said that it had to be stopped “because it ruins lives”.

It is a fair enough statement. Child abuse, and the social narratives surrounding it, does contribute to the destruction of some lives.

However, sexual abuse of children has to be stopped regardless of the fallout.

It is wrong. Period.

There should be no need to parade out examples of victims who have turned to drugs, or taken their own lives as part of the argument against the sexual abuse of children. Lives should not be moulded into poster slogans.

I see two problems with perpetuating the “ruined for life” stereotype for the cause:

One is the stigma that speaking up brings in its wake. No one wants to be labeled as damaged. I remember all the years when my children were small, and the concern I had that people were looking over my shoulder (because, after all, another thing we so often hear about is the “cycle of abuse”). Any opinion I had on gender, violence, abuse  or even sex in general was often disregarded as biased.

If you do speak up, it is important to tow the party line.

The second problem I see is the guilt I know I feel when I say, “You know what? I’m doing as well as anyone else out there.” I feel like I am undermining the cause. An apologist of sorts. I should be screwed up. And, yes, when I say that my problems have little to do with my childhood experiences, I have heard: “You’re in denial.” The claim of having thrived, despite it all, is held up as proof of how essentially messed up I really am.

And then I can’t help but wonder: Maybe I really am more damaged than I think?

The fact is, I have been more damaged by the way society handles victims of child abuse than I ever was by the incidences of abuse themselves. And that is a frightening thing to say out loud. I prepare myself for a barrage of questions and accusations when I do. I struggle with the response to the onslaught of circular reasoning: Sexual abuse causes emotional damage, so if you haven’t been emotionally damaged, there was obviously no sexual abuse. Not real sexual abuse, at any rate.

People who have experienced sexual abuse are pressured to choose a camp: Be fine and have your experiences invalidated, or choose to assume the role of victim or one as damaged-but-surviving.

It isn’t okay to murder a homeless person who is incoherent, who has no family to mourn her; while, say murdering a young mother of two would definitely not be okay. What is morally wrong, isn’t measured by the damage done.

The sexual abuse of children is not okay.

But, you know what? Some of the children will be, if we let them.

 

“When works of art become commodities and nothing else, when every endeavor becomes “creative” and everybody “a creative,” then art sinks back to craft and artists back to artisans—a word that, in its adjectival form, at least, is newly popular again. Artisanal pickles, artisanal poems: what’s the difference, after all? So “art” itself may disappear: art as Art, that old high thing. Which—unless, like me, you think we need a vessel for our inner life—is nothing much to mourn.” (William Deresiewicz.)

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about the fact that I wrote poetry before Facebook, before the internet. What drove me? I’d never actually met a writer. I had no concept of what the future could be. No ambitions for fame, or a textbook footnote.

But, at 15, I wasn’t spilling my hormones on the page in automatic writing in an effort to express myself, I was striving to emulate St. Vincent Millay, to express that something that was not unique. I figured that was the point of writing: the attempt to connect to other people by finding, revealing, fashioning through mimesis, this common ground: See? You see this, right? This is true.

Maybe I wrote because I was lonely.

A form of necromancy, since I didn’t let anyone read what I wrote.

At any rate, I mentioned this to a colleague a few days ago: my concept of the artist as someone who is able to present the essence of being human to others; in this way, a visionary and a guide, a kind of midwife to the experience of being more than an individual in the world.

She said she thought that was the one of the most arrogant things she’d ever heard: artists having special talents – “Everyone can be an artist.”

But how is my idea more arrogant that believing that every individual, if she pays close enough attention to her own experience, has something worth sharing with others?

Something that other people should pay her for (time is money, after all)? If all expression is of equal worth, isn’t all expression equally worthless?

How is it that we find ourselves in an economy that assumes it is a viable model to compensate each other for our unbridled (read: undisciplined) self-expression?

Who is the new underclass?

I cringe when I read/hear the term “Creatives”, which implies that, not only is it pompous to strive to be an artist/master, but that some people aren’t creative. Oscar Wilde, who held that no everyone had the ability to appreciate art, would be proud.

Or, in a more generous vein: some people aren’t ambitious enough to harness their creativity and instead, choose to work in factories or other mundane jobs that don’t involve following their dream, or leading a herd to do the same.

Who is washing the toilets at these motivational conventions?

To be very honest, “creatives” in my mind are people skilled at manipulating the market – they can actually (often) bypass excellence and sell their wares; in some cases, they can take the absence of a “ware” and turn it into income. I am not saying they don’t deserve their paychecks. These people have skills.

It seems to me, that on a very basic level, the new measure of the artist with a little A, the “creative”, is the total dominance of the familiar measure of P.T. Barnum’s capitalism. Perceived value. Perceived results of perceived “labor”? Who says we live in an age devoid of the mystical? The momentary feel-good vibe they provide has value. I pay for that, too.

617231_204306873038735_552840742_oThe figure left in the photo: Someone made that. Some pre-Dynastastic Abyssinian.

Someone knew those heavy breasts. Those curves. That hollowed-torso posture. I know those things, too. Recognize them. But I can’t share that knowledge by carving a figure from bone.

That artist/artisan lived, and breathed, and carved, and made a bridge from then to now. She wasn’t the only person living then. There’s no reason to think that she was among the more interesting of the people living then, the most intelligent, the most clever.

But she built the bridge: the object, conduit, magic portal that made this connection. Through some fluke of archaeology, this anonymous bit of humanity endured. Something in it transcends historical and cultural context.

This recognition I experience, is it just another kind of feel-good vibe? Nothing more? Is context vs. transcending context irrelevant/illusionary?

Is this Art? art? What is it worth? (Is it Branded? A Rembrandt? A Rembrandt’s pupil?)

I suppose the British Museum as a specific sum in mind. For insurance purposes.

Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking about my PhD.: my pursuit of excellence. About what a destructive time it was, and how I am still working to heal. How, on some days, I can’t remember why I write. Wondering if all this frustration flows from envy, because I am not one of the “creatives”; if I’m still a necromancer at heart –

Half-in-love with Mr. Wilde.

Because I’m half-in-love with the book on my shelf.

*And, by the way, I am all for artisan pickles. I can’t make those either.

IMG_20151201_161947I’ve been reading Lonely by Emily White this week. Taking stock and remembering the Christmas I spent alone in my mid-20s, when the phone didn’t even ring. Remembering deciding not to kill myself because no one would know for weeks – and then, there would have been no one to call.

It wasn’t that I had anything to prove to anyone, but rather, I was in the position I was in because I knew I had more to give, and was worth more than I had gotten in the past. I was in a cocoon and had to have faith I’d break out when I was ready.

Two years ago I had to go in for an ultrasound. The blood tests indicated pancreatic cancer, and every google search found the same story: the no-symptoms-but-three-months-to-live story.

I’d left my husband (a lovely man) the previous year. My best friend lives in the US, and my (now) fiancé and I had just begun dating.

I finally told my oldest son about the test. He happened to be visiting from London that month, and he asked if he could go with me for the scan. My first response was no. But then, I realised that it was his place, his *right* to be there for me. We made a 48 hour plan in case the scan showed a tumor. He’d come back to my apartment to be there for me. We’d call his boyfriend to come be there for him. We’d take it from there. I spent the weeks in the meantime accessing whether I should live differently in the time I might have left, whether I had huge regrets. What would I miss? What would I be spared?

After the scan, the three of us went out for a celebratory dinner. The scare made me realise that I am on the right track, if not there yet. Made me realise my oldest son had grown into a wonderful young man with more resources than I had given him credit for.

The thing is, since I was a kid, I’ve thought we are probably here for someone else’s sake. And we don’t know whose. Could be the man on the subway the morning you said hello and smiled in passing.

I have no idea who would miss me. I wrote a chapter in a book some years back, and I have had two letters from people thanking me. Just two. But that is one more than reason enough to have written it.

What I have to keep in mind is that I may not have yet written the chapter that the person I am here for needs to read. Might be my boys. Might be a student. Might be a stranger. But it is arrogant to censor myself out of feelings of inadequacy. (Still not sure I’ve completely convinced myself of this one.)

I don’t have a huge network of connections. I haven’t had a tribe since Jr. High School. But I have made a positive difference in individual people’s lives. Most of them have moved on, so they won’t miss me. But they would have, had I not been there when. I’ll just keep showing up, and hold onto my childhood faith.

I spent a half hour texting with my youngest son last night. He is in Denmark with his girlfriend and they had just finished watching Inside Out, as had I and my fiancé here. Coincidence. Connectedness. My macho-military dude texted that he almost cried when he realised how important sadness was. Today I am thinking loneliness is pretty important, too.

 

I was over forty when my grandmother said, “You didn’t have an easy childhood.”

20150620_154629It was the first time she’d admitted it. She was edging around the perimeter of what was unspoken between us for nearly twenty years. Her daughter. My mother.

It could be that, at her age, she was facing her  the guilt of her own complicity. It could be that, at my age, she figured I would have experienced enough complexity in life, and could understand that love almost always entails a choice between two kinds of pain.

Maybe she said it because it was finally safe to do so; finally safe to believe I wouldn’t use her compassion to prop up my self-esteem, label myself a victim, and cultivate my own warm, little martyrdom.

Maybe her coldness, and her trivialising all those years were based on a kind of hard wisdom. A shove towards something better. I can’t know.

It still makes me happy that she said that. She acknowledged what we had in common, a childhood that “wasn’t easy”, and a necessary strength.

“You sound like you’re just next door. I wish you where here,” she’d say often, and then she’d always follow up with, “No. I don’t really. You’re better off where you are.”

A few years later, she no longer recognised my voice on the phone. I lost her before the rest of her family lost her. I learned of her death via Facebook.

I didn’t go to her funeral. She wouldn’t have liked that: “You’re better off where you are.” Pain is unavoidable, but there is no reason to court it. My grandmother was a practical woman.

“Honey, you know I love you, but, most of the time, I have no idea what you are talking about.”

We had little, and everything, in common.

I miss her. Though I will never be certain of how well I knew her. There were stories in those later years: told in fragments, like a surreal soap opera, an episode a week, two hours each Sunday. She told me about her husbands, about being a single mother of four in the 40s, about her complex relationship with her sister, and how she never forgave her mother.

She had stories about my mother and my father. About what came before what was never spoken, the big, black swath in my life that matched the big, black swath in hers. She never picked at wounds, but seemed to have found a way to walk away from them. Something I’m not always willing to do, to leave parts of myself behind like that. Lies of omission.

There were barriers. I don’t recall her ever hugging me when I was in pain. Our most intimate moments were over the phone once I was an adult and living overseas. Once I was a mother, myself. But what made it through the barriers was real. That’s what matters: taking what you get, and being grateful.

I have yet to write her eulogy. My story is too entwined with hers still: reflections through generations, like repeating images in facing mirrors. But now there’s empty space. It’s a good thing. A painfully good thing, like love always is.

Last night I was listening to Andrew Solomon’s Ted talk about forging identity. Which is about taking hold of the narrative and creating a point of view. And this morning, on the train, I read an article in Aeon by a professor who disputes the idea that he is a story.

Strawson writes: “Life simply never assumes a story-like shape for us. And neither, from a moral point of view, should it.”

I couldn’t agree more. Life never does that. We do. If you have ever held a grudge (an awfully universal human thing to do, I would think), you are clinging to a story, not a sequence of events.

Events happen. [His]Stories are remembered and often told.

Dr. Strawson is a philosophy professor. I’m not. But when he writes:

I don’t think an ‘autobiographical narrative’ plays any significant role in how I experience the world, although I know that my present overall outlook and behaviour is deeply conditioned by my genetic inheritance and sociocultural place and time, including, in particular, my early upbringing. And I also know, on a smaller scale, that my experience of this bus journey is affected both by the talk I’ve been having with A in Notting Hill and the fact that I’m on my way to meet B in Kentish Town.

I can’t help but wonder if he leaves the possibility open that the knowledge he has of his own personal history, that his history perhaps* being rather unexceptional/not in conflict with, while embedded within, the larger cultural history, means that he is unaware of how significant his “autobiographical narrative” is or might be under other circumstances, circumstances under which the disparity between the autobiographical narrative and the culture’s larger narrative bring the former into view.

I’m not sure why he put the term “autobiographical narrative” in quotes, but I do because I think it is just jargon for our sense of identity. Which can be nothing but a history. A story.

Stories are not necessarily Scribe’s well-made plays. In fact, the best ones never are.

Nor are we likely to engage or encompass ourselves in a single story. I am one story with my children. One with my students. One with my lover. I can selectively block details of my personality when responding to situations that are embedded within larger stories. Sometimes my stories change.

Sometimes they involve me changing dramatically: a turning point. I choose to acknowledge and aspect of myself in the story and attempt to change it–I don’t attempt to alter the facts. I find a balm for guilt in the new story of redemption, or growth. And life goes on.

It doesn’t make me insane. It doesn’t even disturb my sense of identity. The very fractured nature of my daily existence is part of my personal narrative. I’m comfortable with that. Strawson repeats Henry James’ description of life as a “great shambles”. That is a story. And at junctures, my story.

Strawson’s article describes in praxis his own story by describing what it is not.

If you were to wake tomorrow in a hospital bed and no one claimed you. You would have to begin to forge an identity. To get to know yourself. And, as much as we want to live in the present, we only know how we fit into the larger story when looking at the past. Even if the past is nothing but a single day, or a matter of a split second and a recollection: “I don’t like peas.”

I am sure if someone disputes Strawson’s standing as a philosophy professor he has a history to bring out as an “official record”. Those are the facts. His narrative, my narrative, each of his students’ narratives–that of his mother–will differ just slightly.

And sometimes slightly is just enough to cause trouble.

Strawson writes: “Salter in Light Years finds a matching disconnection in life itself: ‘There is no complete life. There are only fragments. We are born to have nothing, to have it pour through our hands.’ ”

This, too, is a story.

Not mine.


*I say perhaps because I do not presume to know anything at all about Dr. Strawson’s life, nor do I intend to imply anything. But since he wrote his critique based on personal experience and literary quotes, so will I now: I have found that when stories are told – when people talk about how their experience on a bus journey was affected by a talk they were having, it usually, if significant, reaches back to other talks, connects to other experiences that shaped that person’s personal history. It gave it a significant meaning. Or, “narrative”. This is in no way an attack on his perspective. Just the questions that came to my mind based on general experience, not specific philosophical study. 

(Again, check out Solomon’s Ted talk! That’s my literary quote.)