Tuesday, September 2, 2014

When They Were Humans


It began a couple of months ago when I came across an old wedding photo of my parents. It's one I've seen many times before - two fresh faced "kids" to whom I bear a vague resemblance, dressed in wedding garb, smiling as they look out of the back window of the get-away vehicle. A thought I'd never had before while looking at that picture came barreling through, "They're looking out the back window at all their friends and family waiving them on and wishing them well. Meanwhile, the car is speeding forward to an unknown future. A future that is as wide open as any can be." I can imagine them as newlyweds, nervous about their first night together, excited about building a home together, maybe even wondering if they'd just made a tremendous mistake (c'mon... they wouldn't be the first couple in history!).

I stared at those two in the picture, familiar yet so completely foreign to me. I couldn't help but wonder, not for the first time in my life, "Am I at all what they had in mind?" I mean, my parents were Catholic. Barring any medical issues, they were going to have children. They ended up having five. I was the fourth. It's not a matter of self-doubt or self-loathing or anything like that when I ponder this question. It's more of a..... *sigh*... I wonder if they pictured a family beyond babies or school aged children. I wonder if they ever pondered an adult child, female, headstrong, creative, emotional, funny, intelligent and nowhere near perfect and entirely okay with that.

I could ponder this very question with regard to any of my siblings, again, in no way implying anything derogatory. "Is he what they had in mind? Is she? Were we?"

Because it isn't in their eyes in that picture. The look in that picture is the perfect mash-up of  here-we-go and dear-god-now-what-do-we-do. That was back when they were humans. Before they became parents. Before the world stuck its big nose and its meaty fist and its grimy foot in the door. They had dreams. She had dreams of being a teacher; he had dreams of being an artist. In a way, both of those dreams came true. She ended up with a captive classroom of five; he became a commercial artist - a sign painter.

How many times over the years have I forgotten that they were humans? Countless. They were my parents. As far as I was concerned, that was their identity and their only identity. Put a seal on it, and call it done. I wonder how many times they sighed heavily and thought, "I wish I was something besides a mother doing something besides housework and raising children. I wish I was still a human." Or. "I wish I was a guy going off to the woods to fish and do artwork and that I didn't have to worry about protecting and feeding these people. I wish I was still a human."

Am I what they expected? After all that.

I know my aged mother is proud of her children, of that there is no doubt. I know my father was too. That's not in question. Was this person, the one sitting here typing at you, was she in any of the imagery of some distant future? I just wonder about that. That's all.

I found myself delving further back. There's an old adage that says you can't know where you're going if you don't know where you come from. I traced a line back to my father's great great great grandparents - the Blacks in my lineage who first came to this country from Ireland, Archibald and Sarah. They would have been young, early 20s at best. Yes, back when they were humans. They came on a promise of land that they could own and work themselves and upon which they could build a family.

Am I what they expected?

Are any of us ever?

Yet we, as Lionel Ritchie once said of his own heritage, "stand on the shoulders of greatness."  Never mind the personalities that didn't always see eye to eye, never mind the occasional clash in ideals. Generations sacrificed without once thinking, "There will be a woman named Barb. We're doing this for her." No. They just did it. They persevered through adversity and never wasted time in complacency. They did what had to be done and now, here am I.

I owe a tremendous debt to those who cleared a path. I owe them my own dedication to the work I do. I owe them my own tenacity when faced with impossibilities or inevitabilities. I owe them an authentic life.

I may not be what they expected, those people, back when they were still humans. But I'm determined to make sure they're at least pleasantly surprised.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Inevitable

Change. It happens every millisecond of every second, of every minute, of every hour, of every day. Nobody is immune. In the words of that inherently brave Cowardly Lion, "Not nobody, not no how."

You'd think we'd get used to it, or at least get used to expecting it. We never do. I don't care how Zen you pretend to be. We ignore subtle changes, the slowly creeping lines across our own faces, grass straining to grow tall enough to reach the sun - things like that - until one day we take time to notice and, "Holy shit! Where did those wrinkles come from?! And when?!" Or, "I swear I just mowed that lawn. I guess it has been a couple of weeks..."

What I'm really talking about is bigger, more sudden change. The stuff that comes with no warning, flying straight at our foreheads from a clear blue sky. There is not enough Zen in the Universe to hold that shit at bay. All we can do is acknowledge whatever it is and try to live our own truth in the midst of it.

This is why I am writing about the death of Robin Williams when I swore to myself I wouldn't. The fact is, I feel like I've lost a nearly life-long friend, a friendship that began in 1978 when that crazy alien burst into view on the TV Series Happy Days (Mork & Mindy was a spin-off).

Here's the thing. I understand suicide. I understand it, but I don't like it - understanding doesn't necessarily make me a proponent, y'know? I know what huge physical hurt feels like and I understand completely why some people would do anything and everything, even that ultimate thing, to end that pain. I've endured some pretty hefty emotional pain too, so I can only imagine what a tremendous weight of that kind of pain it takes for someone to want that pain to end at any cost. I can only imagine. Thankfully, that's all I can do, but I do understand wanting it to stop, just once and for all... fucking stop.

This isn't a post about addictions and mental illnesses and suicide prevention. This is, simply, about change. Some of us have the ability to change, some of us don't. Some things we can change about ourselves very easily, some things, oh boy... no so much. Sometimes we fight hard to make changes within ourselves and sometimes that change even takes hold... until some inner truth or some old wound or some ancient desire trips us up and sends us headlong into the pavement. And sometimes some stuff just stays stuck no matter what we try. Sometimes that fight for change becomes exhausting.

So. Change. Or don't change. You are human, and in that humanity you are allowed to be all the you that there is.

That brings me to my favorite Robin Williams movie. Sure, I like a lot of them. Scratch that, pretty much all of them. Who can deny the power of Dead Poet's Society, or Good Morning Vietnam, or (this one always gives me goosebumps), The Fisher King? But the one that really struck me is a little known movie called House of D. I stumbled upon it a few years back in video form (yes, video... remember those?) and my interest was piqued not so much because of Williams, but because it was written and directed by David Duchovny. My curiosity drove me to see just what kind of chops Mr. X-Files possessed. Turns out his chops are pretty damned tasty.

I was more than pleasantly surprised by a lovely film about a teenage boy, Tom Warshaw (played to perfection by a young Anton Yelchin) who comes of age surrounded by a rather peculiar group of dysfunctional friends. One of those friends is a woman who yells dating advice to him from the window of the Women's House of Detention. Another friend is sweet, loving, mentally challenged Pappass, played with beautiful understatement by Robin Williams.

This is where I leave you with the quote that, for me, sums up not just this post, but how we approach change... and how I'll approach the change of a world bereft of my on-stage friend, Mr. Williams.

Pappass: I'm not retarded anymore.
Tom Warshaw: Oh really?
Pappass: Really.
Tom Warshaw: When did that happen?
Pappass: 1984. Sometime in the spring. I went from retard to mentally handicapped. And then in 1987-88, I went from handicapped to challenged. I changed again. I'm probably changing right now. Who knows what I'll be next?

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Your Good Went Bad

Ever have one of those moments when your first thought is, "Yeah, right on!" And then that thought is immediately followed by, "Oh, hell no!" Kind of like cheering for the guy on your team who just knocked the bejeebers out of the baseball, only to realize that the guy on the other team, at the far edge of the outfield, has magic in his jump and a glove that seems to stretch an extra foot into the air, and by golly, he's gonna catch that fly for the out, damn it!

It's like that. Only worse. Because this has effects that reach much further than the outcome of a baseball game. I was just cruising around on Facebook when I saw the meme below and had that very reaction. I know, it's just a meme - one of several gazillion - and I could have ignored it and gone on my merry, internet-surfing way. But the damned thing pushed my buttons.


My first reaction was that Dr.Gail Dines had a profound point. (I still think that.) But then I took a good look at the picture. Hence my "Oh, hell no!" reaction. Following Dines' sentence, which basically encourages women to like their bodies, is a naked woman. A flawless, naked woman. A thin, flawless, naked woman with perfect hair, perfectly lit perfect skin, well manicured fingernails and toenails, perched in a position that suggests that when she's not on a photo shoot, she's on a yoga mat.

I've got nothing against flawless. I'm an artist, aesthetics are never lost on me.

I've got nothing against thin people. They're just people, and I tend to like people.

I've got nothing against nudity. In my mind, clothing should always be a function-first, optional thing.

I've got nothing against perfect hair. Hair is pretty. I love looking at hair.

I've got nothing against perfect skin. Some people are just blessed with good DNA.

I've got nothing against photography, photographers, or the photographing of beautiful people.

I've got nothing against yoga. Not my first choice of an exercise regime, but I know a lot of people who benefit from it and enjoy it.

What I am against and my big problem with this is that whoever created this meme didn't think it through enough to realize that they are, in essence, contributing to the very problem they were trying to solve. Unless I'm seeing the whole thing all wrong, the issue at hand is that women need to accept their bodies as they are, and not just accept, but celebrate and love. And that is wonderful. I long for that day for myself and for others.

However, you can't tell women to feel good about their bodies and then hold up a picture of what every woman thinks their body should look like. Especially when... what... maybe only the top 2% (and I'm guessing high, I think) do look like that. And even then, only in really good lighting and perhaps with Photoshop skills thrown in.

What the above meme says to me is, "Feel good about your body! As long as it looks like this. However, don't feel good about your body if your hair is a little frizzy; if you have blemishes; if you're fat; if your thighs or ankles aren't shaped like those of a 15 year old supermodel; if your breasts are too small, too large, asymmetrical; if you're in any way disproportionately shaped." That's what that meme says, and that is a shame because Dr. Dines's message is spectacularly good and so needed in today's society.

So, in a world of feel-good, inspirational memes, I've created my own. Here's hoping the sucker goes viral.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Elephant Has Left the Building

Yesterday left me gasping for air.

It's ironic that it felt that way, because seven years ago yesterday had me feeling that there was no air to breathe.

You see, yesterday, I completely forgot about seven years ago yesterday. The significance of the day didn't even occur to me until late in the afternoon, at which point I took in a deep breath and thought, "Well, I'll be damned!" I did that with a smile on my face.

Now you're giving me that look like I forgot to wear my pants again. I'm sorry. I didn't realize this was a nice restaurant.

Okay, really. Yesterday, I got up, had copious cups of coffee, did a little online shopping, joked around with friends on Facebook, laughed a bunch, checked my email, did some writing, did some chores, put on some chili to simmer for dinner, and worked on a project. During all those things, over the course of about 8 hours, not once did it occur to me that the day was significant. And it was. It is.

It was seven years ago that my much loved mate, John, passed away after a very short battle with cancer. In each year since, when May 7th rolls around, I'm always acutely aware of the day and the resounding clang of sorrow that always tolls. Except for yesterday. I was aware that it was May 7th, but the number didn't trigger anything. I didn't at all stop to consider.

When it did finally dawn on me, I had a moment of, "Geez, woman... how could you forget? Have you gone cold?" No. No, I haven't. Not in the least. What's happened is that I've undergone some tremendous healing in the past few months. I attribute that healing to writing.

Funny thing is, I haven't been writing about John, or my experience with him, or my experience after him. I've been writing fiction (you know I'm writing a book, yeah?). However, I've been writing fiction that comes from a well that is deeper than I initially suspected. Way deeper. So deep. Fathoms. In doing all that writing, in giving my characters voice, I've been able to give voice to so many things that I'd kept hidden. Hidden is probably the wrong word, because are you really hiding something if you're not aware of its existence? Or, at least, the level on which it exists?

Writing, even writing about unrelated stuff, has freed me - not from memories, but from my own unwillingness and fear to confront those memories, as well as from the need to repress them. These fictitious people that I'm getting to know have taught me a lot about forgiveness, letting go, facing the mirror, loving. Sure, they're all things I've been learning anyway, but somehow creating them in a different scope of existence (in fiction) gives them clarity and credence.

I haven't forgotten about John. I couldn't ever love him any less. But the pain is a soft pain... a dull, barely perceptible ache somewhere in the vicinity of my left rib cage. I've come to a point where I would much rather celebrate and write the 46 years of his life into something tangible than to be grieving for the day he died.

I think he understands that.

I think he's pleased.

"Live and love," he always said. "Just live and love."

Thursday, April 24, 2014

At the Beginning

First things first and then we'll get to the meaty stuff. Yes, I ditched doing the A to Z challenge early on. I found that it was too much of a distraction from doing what I really needed to be doing, part of which was working on my novel.

So, as a sort of apology for leaving you stranded and as an enticement to come back for more, (and, let's face it, because I like to tease) I'm offering you the opening couple of pages from my novel. The working title of my book is I've Seen Rain.

And now....
**************************
“I’m Luke. Luke Horvath.” I held out my hand to her and at the same time I realized that it still had blood all over it. I withdrew it, giving her a sheepish shrug. “Sorry, I…”

She gave me an understanding smile and a slight wave in return. “It’s okay. My name is Annie. Masters.”

We were standing by the back of my truck. I picked an old rag from the bed of it and tried unsuccessfully to wipe the blood from my hand. I breathed a heavy sigh. “Well, Annie Masters. All things considered, it is nice to meet you. I really appreciate you stopping to help.” I paused. I knew what I was about to ask, so I had to steel myself for rejection. “Annie Masters, would you consider having dinner with me tonight?”

She laughed, and I can tell you, it was everything I’d hoped her laughter would be. It was clear, and loud, and it sang through the air like angels doing opera. “Is this how you pick up all your women?” she asked. “You find somebody’s poor, wounded dog by the side of the road, wait for a fair damsel to come along and offer help, and then whisk her off her feet with your strong, sensitive male…” She waved her hand up and down at me, searching for the right word. “Uh… thing?”

That got me laughing. “My male thing? We just saved Ol’ Pooch from certain death, returned him to his grateful human companion, and you want to discuss my…“ I cleared my throat. “My male thing? Oh, this is off to such an auspicious start. You could at least agree to have dinner with me before we go there.”

I loved her smile already, the way it lit up her eyes, the way one corner of her mouth curled up slightly more than the other. If she wasn't careful, I was going to be thoroughly in love with her in the space of ten minutes. “Well,” Annie said. “How can I say no to a flannel wearing, blood-soaked guy with a strong, sensitive male thing. My dreams have been answered!” She feigned swooning, raising the back of her right hand to her forehead.

I looked down at my boots as though they were the center of the universe and muttered, “A smart ass. She would have to be a smart ass, wouldn't she. She’s probably more trouble than she’s worth.” The boots said nothing. Annie, however, coughed politely and whispered, “I can hear you, you know.” I looked back up at her, grinning. “How ‘bout I pick you up at 7? Play it casual, nothing fancy. That gives me plenty of time to clean up and stow the gear I was hauling back before I came upon Ol’ Pooch.”

Annie was still smiling. She tilted her head to the left, making no attempt to hide the fact that she was studying me. That kind of boldness in a woman gives me goose bumps. The right kind of goose bumps. Finally she nodded, as if answering some question to which I hadn't been privy. “Seven works for me. You know the old red caboose up on Mountain Loop?” When I nodded, she continued. “That’s my place.”

“Are you kidding? I drive by there all the time. I've always been intrigued by it, wondering who lives there, what it looks like on the inside, how they managed to tote a caboose onto that land. Wow. You live there.”

“That I do,” she answered. “Play your cards right and not only will I tell you all about it, but I’ll give you the $1.67 tour.”

“A buck 67? Boy, that’s pretty steep.” I gave her my best aw-shucks-I’m-just-a-poor-boy face.

“Yep.” She winked. “A girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do, what with the scarcity of eligible guys waiting by the side of the road.” With the flat of her hand, she smacked the side of my truck twice, then walked back toward her own truck. “See you at 7, Luke.”

“See you then, Annie.” That smile.

© Barb Black

Friday, April 4, 2014

D is for Dowsing



Dowsing

I want to live
      deep
where the sweet water flows
     and taste
         the clear,
             running dream.

I want to burrow into, and
dig down through the layers,
dig through all the layers

until

a whisper
    and a trickle
      begins the flood

Oh, quench my dowsing soul.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

C is for Cages



The small man
Builds cages for everyone
He
Knows.
While the sage,
Who has to duck his head
When the moon is low,
Keeps dropping keys all night long
For the
Beautiful
Rowdy
Prisoners.
~Hafiz

A few years back I wrote a post based on this, my favorite of all things Hafiz. I love its whimsical gravitas.

In my post back then I admonished everyone to become a key dropper. I offer humble apology here, as I was wrong.

A couple of weeks ago, while searching for something other unrelated thing, I once again stumbled across this poem in a book of quote-y stuff that I've written down. I read it. Then I read it again. And once more. That was when I heard the ice floe begin to crack and the real stream of What Is at first trickled, and then tripped and burbled through. Okay. Okay. It was an epiphany. But I swear I heard ice cracking.

We can't all be key droppers all the time and it was silly of me to expect people to be so. It was silly of me to expect myself to be so. Because, guess what? That's not what Hafiz's poem is about. Not at all.

Hafiz was referring to us, as ourselves. As our complete selves. We are all of those characters, all the time. What's more is that we need to be. It is part of our process, part of our psychological make up. It is how we recognize and define where we are on our journey and what needs to happen next.

We are The Small Man. We build cages for others and for ourselves. We want everything boxed and organized in tidy lines. We might say we don't, but we do. Gone are our wild instincts; gone is the feral need to be awake and alive in every single moment. We fool ourselves into thinking that if we have order, we are safe. We think, "If I stay in this job, with this income, everything is fine." We think, "If he would just pick his socks up off the floor, I'd be happy." We think, "If I wear this style, they will accept me." We cage everything. We cage everyone. We don't just build the cage; we are the cage.

It's good for a while. We have structure, and safety, and there aren't a lot of startling surprises. But that gets really old after a while, doesn't it? We realize that our shoulders are cramped from trying to fit into a confined space. We find that the air is a stale and stifling. We aren't seeing the things and places we want to see, because they are Out There; we aren't interacting with the people we want to be with because they are Over There. We're here, stuck in a cage of our own making, and it dawns on us that we hate it.

So, we get rebellious. We see the moon through the slats in the cage and our ancient instincts stir. We chuff, and pace, and our agitation with being stuck builds to the howling point. We let it out, softly at first. It comes as a low moan. But we hear ourselves and the noise we make, and in it we recall who we were when the Universe was new. It is our true voice. It incites us until finally, we let loose with a long, loud, unrestrained keening. We don't let up. Because this is who we are. And we have had e-fucking-nough.

We become The Beautiful, Rowdy Prisoner. We don't care what the Small Man is up to. We're gonna make some noise. We're gonna party like it's year one. We're gonna get visceral, and real, and be authentic, and to hell with the cage. And we even say that every single time we bump into the walls of the cage. We say, "I'm gonna be visceral and real and authentic and to hell with the cage!"

In stoops The Sage, roused and amused by our boisterous behavior. He can't wait to see us run free in the moonlight. He thrills at the thought of us gulping the fresh night air. I imagine him humming a quiet, tuneless melody, a slight smile on his lips, as he begins to drop keys - magic keys that fall right into the locks and unhinge the doors.

Finally, finally, finally... we are free. Free to run wild in all the ecstatic, unfettered, fierce grace that was ours for the claiming since the beginning of time.

We are these things. We need to accept that we are The Small Man, that we are The Cage, that we are The Beautiful, Rowdy Prisoners just as much as we are The Sage.

We are those things. Yes. And... We are so much more.