Thursday, February 26, 2015

Such Great Heights

Lately, I've been suffering from vertigo. For real. No joke.
The sensation? Spinning when I am still.
Reminiscent of? Childhood games, binge drinking in college, standing at top of a tall building.
It's an interesting combination of memories - excess linked through feeling dizzy.
Standing on top of a tall building is the association I've connected most with lately.

Why? Because on the way to San Francisco and back recently, I was editing the copy editors version of the book we are about to release. Because at the Karuna Training program I was attending, we spent the entire time exploring egolessness, aka: Who am I? Do I even exist?

Because during the program, I had a conversation that lead to the fortune in the photo above. It reiterated a reckoning I've been feeling getting urgent lately: that I need to leap into a deep end, begin telling The World I am available for things I've been offering so far in beta mode. For instance: creativity coaching, one on one instruction, and more. 

Finally, because I read all three Tara Gentile's titles on the way home and answered some big, hard questions for myself about my business.

I was very happy with all this hard work and thinking, but arrived home exhausted. And I crashed, physically, mentally, from pushing too hard.

The end result, vertigo. Doc says its from an inner ear infection.
My intuition says it's more than that. Both/and.

The Postal Service has a track called Such Great Heights that's been in my head the last couple of days. Ilana often sings the part about freckles in our eyes to me, but the part I've been thinking about is the heights. Queasiness, unsteadiness to go where I need to go. Fear of failing, of falling. I've know ever since turning the corner of the Western New Year that I am so terrified of this book getting out and that I have delayed it some out of that fear. Now that Losar, the Tibetan New Year has also passed, I realize it needs to happen. Now. And I also can't push myself. And it will happen whether I like it or not.

My trying to control it, what comes out of all this change, is causing the vertigo.

It's a paradox. And yet, it's not. It only seems contradictory to me - the idea of getting something done and also being kind to myself. My story is they are incompatible. And yet, this is how I've gotten here so far. I haven't gotten here on self abuse. I've gotten here on self care, on letting go, on being kind. And I'll need even more where I am going, my vertigo seems to know better than I do.

My fear of heights is not telling me not to go. It simply knows these are big heights. While the rest of me pretends it's no biggie to keep her cool, my vertigo knows the truth. I try to listen to it without panic, simply noticing the spinning sensation. Also noticing that some part of me knows that while there will be some falling, some failing, I will not die. This will not kill me.

Part of me knows I will fly. But the step that it takes to get to that point? Seems impossible.

Here it comes. Here I go. Here I come. Ready or not.


Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Americans

My father in Northern Ireland, early 1960's*
Ilana and I began watching the series The Americans yesterday. It's a fantastic show. The acting is subtle and strong, the depictions of spying and undercover life understated and compelling. Ilana told me, after just one episode, that she had had a fantasy that her family was undercover, secret Soviet spies, when she was young. I never knew that, but it makes sense in light of some other fantasies she's shared with me.

Funnily enough, I never had this fantasy, despite the fact that I experienced my mother as a Russophile.

The photo above shows my dad in Northern Ireland. This is the beginning of the era where they drove to Russia together, peeping behind the Iron Curtain in a VW Bug. The story goes that they were taking a co-worker of Dad's back, but of course Mom wanted any reason to head to Russia. She was fluent, with a Master's degree in Russian. I haven't dug deeply enough to see what her personal reaction was to being there (I have letters and whatnot somewhere), but I know she joked that people mistook our father for a young Lenin. The facial hair probably had a lot to do with that.

You can see it even more obviously in this theatrical shot of him from when my parents first met. He was Judge Hawthorne in a production of The Crucible at the time:
My dad as Judge Hawthorne, late 1950's. Pretty Lenin-like, eh?!
What is funny to me is that I grew up in Joseph McCarthy's hometown and burial place - Appleton WI - and my mother was a Russophile. We had Russian books and artefacts all over our house. This was mid-Cold War - 70's, 80's. Not an easy time to be into Russia in midwestern America. My mom was pretty quiet about it - didn't have many close friends in our town anyway. Dad made jokes (and likely actually did both) about pissing on McCarthy's grave and dating one of the Rosenberg's cousins before marrying Mom.

So it wasn't exactly a secret. Then again, there was nothing to hide.

If you are a spy, you cover it all up.
My parents had nothing to hide.

But I didn't grow up in a typical American family. Definitely not average Midwesterners, and certainly not the suburban-like neighbors we had. Mom taught me that New York was the promised land, and even more so, Europe. Travel was to be expected, if not living abroad. They would have raised us in Ireland if there hadn't been "the troubles" at the time. Mom went to a private, very well cultured school in Chicago growing up.

To be a small-town Midwesterner meant things she disdained: well-kept lawns, carpools, gossip and doing your nails. It's hard now to tell what was her own shame in comparing herself or our family to the surrounding community, and what was actual ethic or cultural preference for her. But the ebony bust of Nefertiti on our grand piano and the brass-and-glass Russian tea sets on the side board certainly imply she had other tastes.

Very few objects in The Americans look familiar to me. They don't indulge in Russian culture - the spy KGB couple have to act as if they have no idea what caviar is when they encounter it. And yet, there is something about their lives - trying to get by in the 80's in America as non-Americans - that I get. My parents were Americans by birth, but they didn't act like the other Americans around us. So something feels familiar to me in the way these Americans act. A little bit off. A little bit disjointed.

*I made some revisions to this post after my eldest brother brought some family stories - and definitely some dates! - into better alignment for me.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Mea Culpa


Finally, I am going to write a blog post about Charlie Hebdo.
I know it's a bit late.
It's taken me awhile to get clear on how I feel, and to apologize for my initial reactions.

It’s interesting times, being an American Francophile. Most of my friends who are fans of the French or of France jumped on the “Je suis Charlie” campaign ASAP. I waited a few days, absorbed in a retreat I was teaching, only able to read on my phone, never able to read deeply enough. I kept everyone I know in France and all those I don’t know in my practices – Metta, Tonglen – the victims, the terrorists, everyone. I posted little-to-nothing on Facebook, which is my main social media outlet.

Then some folks I trust and respect started pointing out more critical articles, pointing to Hebdo being a “not innocent” institution. While I am usually wary of this line of thinking (“She asked for it, judge, she was wearing a skirt!”), I never particularly – nor do I now – liked Charlie Hebdo. Living in France, traveling in France over the last twenty some years of my life, I generally leafed through the issue, repulsed by its images while also knowing their satirical nature. However, in my moments of reactiveness, of feeling I needed to say SOMETHING. Why did I feel I need to say something? Friends who know me as Francophile were asking how I felt, wanted to know how they should feel, for better or worse. I reacted and posted based on those old reactions. I broke a cardinal French rule: neglecting Voltaire’s maxim (paraphrased: I may not like what you say but I will defend your right to say it) I based my reactions on not liking Charlie Hebdo.

I started re-posting articles that criticized the publication, even as they clearly stated they were not saying the cartoonists or magazine asked for it. They still imply it.

The French, generally, are pro-criticism and pro-critical thinking. This is what I betrayed in my need to say something: I dropped my own more subtle awareness of Charlie Hebdo’s satire in favor of reactivity. Why? 

I understand full well why they use racist images/cartoons in their issues. (Here’s a good article on Al-Jezeera about how satire is sacred in France. Here's one on vox that explains how double-layer satireworks in the French culture, including a great statement: "satire that indulges racism along the way:) In short, Hebdo doesn't actually create many of its ideas. It uses images already described in media. For instance, this heavily reproduced image is made from the Front National's leader's description. It is used to make her out to be the racist, in a direct way that the majority of readers would understand. This is a part of the double-layer satire I mention above. I know that a lot of American media missed this. I didn't miss it.

However, I still think it is problematic. It is not as simple as "Hebdo is racist" for me. For me, satire does not justify perpetuating aggression. I simply think there are other ways to do it. I don’t agree with them, in other words. But it’s a subtle not-agreeing. A not agreeing with a particular tack, angle. Not a disagreeing with a world view. The cartoons are racist, even though they are using racism to leverage against those who initially expressed it. I don’t think the cartoonists are racist, or the magazine is. That takes awhile to explain. I feel like I can finally state it clearly.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates points out in this careful post to Atlantic Monthly (which also has, as always, very intelligent discussion following, for once on the internet!), he took heed in Paris as this was happening and listened to all sides and parts, like a good student of any foreign culture does. After reading his post and the comments, I finally felt I could write what I have been experiencing. And part of it is something akin to guilt. Guilt that I let ignorance fill me, first, literally trying to ignore it was happening, then letting much simpler posts and articles speak for me, when I could be responsible for my own more nuanced view. 

My mother always hated it when we said, like teenagers and kids do, “I’m so-rry,” with no actual apology behind it. She warned us, like other mothers might warn kids to eat their veggies, to not apologize without real feeling. Save it for what we meant. For what we actually felt sorrow for.
Later, in my teens, she taught me Mea Culpa: Latin, a more formal way of saying, This is My Fault. Reserved for very specific and special circumstances, I feel it is appropriate here. It is appropriate for me to say I am sorry for not expressing myself more clearly about Hebdo, earlier, with so many people waiting on me to have a read on what is happening.

Because the fact is, Charlie Hebdo, which I do not identify with and never will, did not ask for this action. And the fact also is that the state of being any minority – visual or verbal – in France is pretty awful right now: Jewish, Muslim, African, Middle Eastern. There’s a lot of anger and aggression going around there and it’s extremely confusing and scary. Adding blame to that game is not helpful. 

The “I am Charlie” manifestation is expressing solidarity – a key feature of French society – that means far more than identifying with the publication. And yet I couldn’t say it. Maybe because I am not there right now, not connected enough, not reading enough. Maybe because my knee-jerk inner French-leanings ironically got in the way of me doing a very American thing: jumping on the band wagon and saying that I am Charlie. And yet, my very American habits then kicked in and put me on an opposing bandwagon.

I won’t say I am Charlie. As Coates says “I may be Charlie?” I don't actually think it's my place to say. I am not French. I may, despite all my study and sympathy, be missing something. Likely I am. But I am also not not Charlie. It saddens me to see the French government tightening up in a potentially post-911 manner, ala Patriot Act. I worry about reactivity everywhere, including those in Coates' post who say that “Je Suis Charlie” means the future of Europe. 

After a tragedy, we are all subject to quick reactivity – whether it is jumping to support or denigrate, it tends to be dualistic. I promise to spend more time in the coming weeks and months, connecting with my French folks, going more deeply into myself. This means I will never be able to say in one line how I feel about it, and certainly can’t tell anyone else how they should feel. That’s just not how I roll. But at least I can admit nuance and take the time to commit to only knowing my own confusion.

Finally, let us not forget that while all of this has been happening in France, awful and for the most part overlooked massacres have been happening in Africa. Not enough of us are considering saying "Je suis Afrique," an especially challenging possibility considering France's post-colonial relationship with Africa.

Here are even more, subtle and varied views (all in English) on Hebdo. These folks also helped me to understand how to express what I am feeling...
Slavoj Zizek
Amy Hollowell
Roxane Gay
Olivier Cyran
Joe Sacco