Friday, June 5, 2015

Kill the Competition


I am weary of the Who’s the Bravest in the Land Competition that‘s been at the forefront this past week or so.

The truth is, it takes a great deal of bravery for any and all of us to be exactly who we need to be. In a society that holds us to task via its own set of expectations, as well as in our individual family microcosms, standing tall and declaring, “this is me” is often something that takes courage beyond what we can fathom even as we are doing it.

I know. I know, because I've been there and I've done that. Did I expect laurels and medals and accolades? No. Did I compare, much less expect that anyone else would compare, what I did to acts of courage shown by the men and women fighting for this country’s freedom? I did not. Did I ever once allude to the notion that what I did was as difficult as battling cancer? Never. Did I declare that I was going to change and then follow through with changing my gender, thus going through countless painful surgeries, procedures, and emotional torment? No. Did I expect that people I knew and loved would make a show of moral outrage simply because what I did went against what they believed? That I did, and that much I got. Did I expect that some of the people I loved would understand and say, “good for you, Barb… good for you”? I did, and I also got that.

But I didn't go into it thinking, “Gosh. I’m feeling so brave. I think I’ll flip my life on its ass and do something radically different just for shits and giggles.” The fact is, I didn't feel brave at the time. I didn't have a vast reserve of courage (much less self-esteem or some buried taciturn resilience even). Some people, the people who championed me changing my life, cheered me on, telling me I was brave. For me, the choice was, make a move or die. Some people saw what I did and told me I was their hero; others made it known that I was communing with the devil. All I saw was that I was trying to live my life and be the best me that I could possibly be.

What did I do? Nothing plenty of other people haven’t done. I walked out on a “perfectly good” marriage. I moved across the country with 4 suitcases and $300 dollars to my name. That’s it. I was, depending on who was doing the talking, crazy, brave, ridiculous, uncaring, courageous, ballsy, morally bankrupt, intrepid, or… the adjectives were endless. I got tired of saying, “Gosh, thanks…” Or just, “But…”

It wasn't until over a decade later that I saw what I did as bravery, that I acknowledged it took a certain amount of courage even if I didn't feel it at the time. Somebody once told me, “Courage is turning and facing the dragon even if you’re trembling in your boots.”

Courage is the 16 year old kid who stands up to his father and says, “You’re destroying this family with your drinking, Dad.” Bravery is the 3 year old being wheeled off to another round of chemo, saying, “Don’t worry, Mommy.” Courage is the 22 year old woman who does her first skydive jump in training to be a paratrooper. Bravery is the 38 year old man doing his part to keep peace in a foreign city. Courage is the shaking addict standing up in front of a group of strangers, saying, “I can’t live like this any more.” Bravery is a 65 year old man weighing the balance between fear and dreams and deciding, “This is not who I am. I am going to be a woman.”

Courage was a 36 year old woman, walking against the tide of every so-called truth she’d ever been taught, saying, “I can’t be this person. I am leaving and I am going 3000 miles away.” I may not have been part of some major battle that changed the face of the earth, or a personal battle won or lost on the whim of cells reacting to chemicals, or crawled from the wreckage of a natural disaster and helped a displaced neighbor look for their lost dog. But, who are you to compare? Who are you to judge what it took for me to do what I did? Who are you, and what is so very wrong with you that you can’t simply love a fellow human and say, “I might not agree with you, but I love that you were brave enough to be you.”

When you judge a person based upon their personal bravery and when you compare their courage to that of others, you are judging us all. Every one of us.

Because, the thing is, we are all brave. We are courageous every time we step into a slippery tub to take a shower, or crank the ignition in the car and pull out of the driveway, or strap on a pair of skis and fly down a mountainside, or put on a pair of combat boots and march into a war zone, or put ourselves under the knife for any kind of surgery, or propose to the love of our life, or face cancer, diabetes, alcoholism, heart failure, etc. We are human and for all our frailties, we gird ourselves with our hopes and dreams and desires and we move forward.

So. Can we please stop with the Who’s the Bravest in the Land Competition? It’s bullshit. We can be so much better than that.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Set it on Fire

Something has been bugging me for a couple of weeks. Usually two weeks is my limit before I know I have to write it out or implode.

I was watching the American Pickers TV show. I like it because there's a profound lack of wankiness found on so many other "reality" TV shows, plus, I like the cool stuff that they find. Anyway, Mike and Frank were picking some guy's place when Mike asked the guy, "So, what do you do?" The guy shrugged and replied, "Well. I don't really do anything, so I guess I'm just an artist."

That's when I started swearing at my TV screen. I don't remember exactly what I said, but it included "...shittastic attitude and profound lack of fucking passion... artist my ass!"

I took huge exception to his statement. According to Mister Junk-Hoarding Turd, my father housed, clothed and fed a family of seven by not "really doing anything". Mister J-H Turd couldn't be more wrong. My father may have had his issues, but he also worked his ass off. Work ethic was something I learned from both of my parents - from my "not really doing anything" father and from my "just a housewife" mother.

Yeah. Because saying an artist isn't really doing anything is right up there with calling a 24/7 hard-working woman "just a housewife". (Oh, step off. I'm well aware that the job a wife and mother does is far more essential than art work. That's not the point.) When I was a nanny, I was often given the raised eyebrow and the, "Oh, you're just a nanny... do you ever think about getting a real job?" treatment. Had there not been children present, I might've become a bit stabby.

And now, here I am, an artist. A paid artist even. I typically work seven days a week. It's rare that an entire day goes by without me doing something in my studio. When I'm really into a project it takes over the day and then some. I'm still thinking about it when I fall asleep. I dream about it. I jump out of bed in the morning, look at what I've done, and think about it some more as I scrub the sleep out of my eyes. When I'm out in public, I look at everything around me for clues into some new project, for inspiration and color and, oh, how can I capture that tiny moment of wonder. When I watch movies I ignore the characters and look at stuff in the background - what's hanging on their walls, catching the light on their dresser, and look how the sun dapples the leaves in that scene.

I'm an artist and I'm never not working. And I love it. I'm passionate about it even when you see me sitting quietly and reading a book. When someone asks me what I do, I proudly state, "I am an artist." Because people seem to find artists fascinating (even those of us who are slightly less than eccentric), they always ask, "Oh, what kind of art do you do?" That's when they get the full force of my passion. I'm passionate about what I do because I love to do it - every day of the week, of the month, of the year of the decade, world without end, Amen.

The thing is, Mister Junk-Hoarding Turd wasn't without talent. He had some cool stuff sitting around that he'd done. But he sure was without the necessary passion to carry it.

Right around the same time, I had posted a quote by Pablo Picasso. A friend made a self-deprecating comment that basically said she wasn't intelligent enough to appreciate Picasso's work. I got riled.

I don't appreciate Picasso's work either, but it's not because I lack the intelligence to appreciate it. I get what he was shooting for. I just... don't like it. The same way that I'm sure that while liver and onions are delicious to the right person, they just aren't for me. There are lots of artists whose work I love, but I couldn't really tell you why. There are works by certain artists that I love and yet other works of theirs leave me wanting.

None of it is about intelligence. None of it is about an artist's abundance or lack of talent. It's preference. Some folks like wine, some like beer. Some won't drink anything but white wine; others give you the evil eye for even suggesting anything but red. It's personal. So is art. Art is about making people feel something, so even if you feel revulsion, the artist has, on some level at least, succeeded.

But. Passion. It has to be there. Without passion it's just talent. Talent is nice and it helps pass the time (as, no doubt, Mister Junk-Hoarding Turd will attest), but it won't set your mind on fire. Me, I prefer a nice warm blaze.

Monday, May 4, 2015

To Be Alive

Eight years ago this week my life was very different from what it is now. I was sad, so very sad - a sorrow so impossible, so inconceivable, so bottomless that there is no word for it. I was saying a long, slow good bye to the love of my life as he lay, surrounded by family and his best friend, decimated on the battlefield of cancer.

In the aftermath I felt broken. No, not broken. Shattered. Shards everywhere. Little pieces of me scattered about, glinting like tears. Daylight was too bright, nighttime too dark. Everything felt out of step. An eighth of a measure behind.

Then the moment came. I remember sitting up and saying aloud to an empty room, "I did not die with him. I'm still alive, damn it!" Those words changed something. They became a paradigm.

It wasn't so much that I woke up. I was lucid enough before that. I became aware. I paid attention to what alive felt like. I noted the moments that made me feel most alive. I don't know how else to say this but that I began to be alive in my life.

I took measures to change the way I lived my life, which had always been answering to everyone but myself. I stopped worrying that the world would end if I didn't live up to some other person's expectations. I only worried that I wouldn't live up to my own. Because alive felt fantastic, and I wanted to live alive.

That makes it sound easy. It wasn't. It isn't. But it's as vital as drinking water and breathing air.

There are other people (I recognize kindred spirits) who've come to this place without losing the love of their life. Maybe they lost some other loved one, maybe divorced, maybe had a scare, maybe hit rock-bottom on a boozy trail, maybe just woke up from an epiphany of a dream and thought, "Enough of this shit. I want alive." It doesn't always take something completely catastrophic.

What it does take is willingness. Willingness to feel everything. Because to be alive is to feel, to have awareness of each moment. It takes allowing the bad moments, even when there's nothing more to learn than, "Ouch. That hurt."

I'm not one of those that believe that there is a lesson in everything, or a reason for everything. It's just what is. It's the reality of the moment, good or bad. My days of ecclesiastical excuses for what happens in life are long gone. If I thought that way, then I'd be obliged to think that John had to die so I could meet Steve - that's not reason, that's insanity and stupid and cruel and entirely unfair to all three of us.

I digress.

Alive. To live alive. To be aware and love every moment of that awareness. It is what this life is for. Some might argue that it's selfish, but it isn't at all. If we are truly alive and aware, we are exactly who we need to be and where we need to be and what we need to be.

I wouldn't change a moment. I wouldn't smother that shattered feeling any more than I would smother the moment of pure joy I felt the first time I realized that I'd finally unleashed my artistic side. It's not the sum of the parts, baby... it's being whole. Alive is absolutely whole.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Gel

Write it out; shake it off.

That's what I tend to do with a feeling that won't quite gel. That won't give me something tangible to fling at the wall (or canvas or blank page).

Here's the thing.

Himself is having a birthday today. A so-called Big One. I never thought I'd be madly in love with a 60 year old guy. Not because I'm so much younger and the notion is rather dodgy (yes, I wrote that with a British accent) - I'm only 6 1/2 years his junior after all, and at this age, 6 1/2 years is nothing.

At this age.

I think it's because of that very fact. That he's turning 60 today and nobody would look at the two of us, nod their heads and whisper, "Sugar Daddy..." or "Cradle Robber". We don't even qualify as a handsome middle-aged couple (because, really, I don't see 120 and 113 down the road). No. What we are is tip-toeing on the cusp of "what a nice older couple they are."

It isn't the old part I mind so much. At least, I don't think it is.

It's the speed with which we seem to be getting there. Yes. This feeling is only compounded by the fact that the eldest of the two boys for whom I was a nanny turns 35 today. (I always find it somewhat portentous when two people on my A-list share a birthday.) Thirty five. He wasn't quite 7 when I met him. Where the hell did those decades go?! I blinked and *poof*...

And I still can't pinpoint the feeling. There's no gel to this yet.

Keep writing. Keep shaking.

I don't care that I'm older and aging still. Given the alternative, I'm pretty damned happy with that.

I mind everyone else getting older.

I am not at all daunted by my own mortality.

I just don't want mortality sneaking up on people I love.

That's it. There's the gel. Nothing I can do about it. That oozy stuff will get us all soon enough.

Writing done. Shaking off commencing.

I am... rather... I get to be head-over-heels, crazy in love with a 60 year old, 6'2" strappin' sexy beast of a guy. One who doesn't give a flying monkey's ass about wrinkles or flab. One who brings me joy and laughter every day. One who loves me and supports the things I love doing. Ain't nothin' wrong with lovin' that man. Nothin' at all.

Happy Birthday, Steve!

I am proud of the 35 year old man who was once the 6 year old kid who held my hand to cross the street. That I've been privileged to watch him grow and evolve and become this magnificent human being - friend, husband, father - that he is today? What a gift. What an absolute treasure.

Happy Birthday, Jonathan!

I know it won't be long at all before I'll blink again. Decades will have disappeared and an entire generation will be gone with a new one dotting the horizon. I will be much grayer, more wrinkled... as I sit and dig through the amazing richness of the human connections I've made in my life.

Ah, yes. There it is. The tear of amazement that I'm allowed this wealth of love. That I'm allowed it at all.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Good in Goodbye

Yesterday I quietly celebrated what would have been my 25th wedding anniversary. Would have been, but wasn't. Yes, celebrated. You'll see.

It would have been my 25th wedding anniversary had I not chosen to end my marriage after 8 years. There you have it - I was the one who did the leaving. It wasn't a decision I came to or made lightly. Five years into the marriage I realized that it wasn't working. At first I worked hard to ignore that sad little fact. Then I worked hard to fix it. Then I worked hard at being angry that nothing was working. Then I started working on myself and came to the realization that it just couldn't exist.

That's all there was to it, really. There was no affair, no deception, no violent fight, no real nastiness of any kind between us. Together we were going nowhere. Separately, perhaps, we could. I kissed him on the cheek and wished him all the very best the day I moved out. I had no idea what was in front of me; my only scope was what lay behind.

I read something a couple of months back that has been rattling around in my brain. The idea is that there are three basic ways that people deal with being lost. One is to immediately try to find a way out -- to find a way back to the safe, known zone. Another is to make a place -- to turn the lost place into something known, thereby rendering oneself no longer lost. The third is to venture deeper into the unknown -- to turn it into adventure and discovery.

If I had been as honest with myself back then as I am now, I would have known that what I was feeling through most of my marriage was lost. I was wandering in a not entirely uncomfortable fog. So, for a time, I made it a place that was known. When I thought about getting out, my first thought was of going back to Michigan where I grew up. But if there is anything I've consistently adhered to it's to not go backward. That left me with venturing deeper, discovering what else was in the fog and what might be beyond the fog.

I'm so glad I did, and that's why I was quietly celebrating. I'm not one of those who ever says, "I just should never have married him." It's sad and painful that it didn't work, but it also brought something to both of  us that we needed at the time. I needed that fog. For a while. I needed a safe, quiet place to land. And let's be honest here, even the best, most pristine moment is tinged with regret of some sort. It's what makes those moments so sweet.

Sometimes the thing we're trying so hard to fix isn't what's broken. Sometimes there's not even anything broken. You can't teach a goldfish to ride a bicycle. You can have fun watching the fish swim around. You can have fun riding the bicycle. But to try to amalgamate the two into something beautiful and productive... it doesn't work. Even so, it doesn't mean you stop appreciating either one.

Twenty-five years does a lot for a person. Forget what they tell you; you never stop growing up. You never stop learning about the world you live in, about yourself, about other people, about love, about forgiveness, about joy. Have I exited the fog? I'd like to think so. Has the adventure stopped? Nope. If you're awake and paying attention, every moment is a surprise. Every moment deserves its own celebration. Even if it's a quiet celebration.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Muses Never Sleep

Funny where inspiration will rear its head (and nethers, as is often the case). I was sitting in a coffee shop, minding my own business, reading a wonderful book (Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan... go get y'self a copy). Amid the comforting din of coffee making sounds and background chatter, I heard strains of a country song. Sorry, I have no idea which one or who sings it. As I listened, the first words that came through to me were, "Who's at me..." In the context of the rest of the song, it was clear that I'd mis-heard. Even so, "who's at me" stuck. And struck a chord. Whenever I create, I feel like someone is  "at" me, picking through my stuff, staring over my shoulder, nodding approval or clucking disappointment -- in the vernacular of the present day, gettin' all up in my business. That'd be my muses -- they've got the energy of a toddler on nine hours of sleep and four espressos. And they're always "at" me.

So. From that, this...

Muses Never Sleep
who’s at me
peering into a
languid Sunday noon
sniffing wood smoke on
my lover’s hands
riding on a wave of murmurs

who’s at me
leaning into canvas
checking still wet paint
and crawling words
dancing to the beat of silence

who’s at me
wandering the foggy cedars
and refolding dreams
flitting through origami

who’s at me
prying at the edges
of grainy dreams
pushing, always pushing
the cart full of if
reaching for a handful
of trembling air

who’s at me
you constant
you ceaseless
you ever
you daring
bold, ethereal enigma
you, who’s at me

©Barb Black

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Can We At Least

I always find myself sadly amused when people claim they are not prejudiced. I find myself doing the wry, one corner of the mouth smirk, eyes rolled up at the ceiling thing when people are shocked to see acts of prejudice.

I don't care who you are, what road you've gone down on the walk of life, how compassionate and loving you are. Somewhere in your life prejudice holds sway. Even if you despise it and do everything you can to counter it, it's there.

We're humans. That's why. We're humans and we are full of all kinds of fears. Some fears have a certain rationale, some are completely irrational. Most of what we fear is born of ignorance and becomes the bedrock where hate, intolerance and that insidious little bastard prejudice make a stand.

Even when we educate ourselves and get past the ignorance, we still fear. Think about it like this... you've lived in the same house for ten years. Your furniture is in the same position it was this morning, and probably where it's been for the past few months, at least. Nothing has changed. Same old place you come to and get cozy in every evening. Suddenly, the lights go out. It's not so cozy now. Every noise seems amplified. What if someone is sneaking in? What if you trip? Yet, they're the same noises you've been not-hearing with the lights on. Someone could sneak in with all the lights on. You could just as easily trip with daylight streaming through the windows.

For a few minutes, you were taken out of what is normal. And you felt fear. Being human... oy... it's the way of it.

It hit me last week... the idea that we don't always get past our fears. I gave up mulling over all the current anger and hatred in the world and decided to watch Mockingjay, the third in The Hunger Games series. Katniss and her comrades were hiding out in a bunker as bombs were going off outside. The room was shaking and plaster was crumbling and sifting down onto their heads. People were screaming and crying and cowering. Then the power went out and people screamed and cried louder. But. As soon as a few of them turned on flashlights and they could see again, they seemed to decide that the noise and crumbling plaster wasn't so bad, at least as long as they could see it happening. One fear outweighed the other.

One fear outweighed the other and I think that's how we get past our own crap. I fear that I won't have loved enough, or loved right at the moment someone needed it most. I fear that I won't be showing compassion at the exact second somebody requires it. I'm human. I'm not always right on point, y'know? I get self-absorbed and crabby just like everyone else. However, by and large, the fear of not having my arms wrapped around the right person at the right time? That makes me push past any fears and prejudices I may feel.

I also try hard to rise above it, because I've been on the receiving end. And it's not nice, so I don't want to perpetuate it. As a woman, as a serially overweight person, even as someone of above-average intelligence, I've been the target of some real nastiness. I've even confronted it on occasion with a, "Look. You don't even know me. What makes you hate me so much?" That's when the conversation starts. That's when the understanding kicks in. That's when the fear and prejudice gets put to rest.

We don't have to love everybody - hell, we don't even love everything about the people we really love! We're probably not ever going to be completely without fear. We're always going to be ignorant about something.

We are human. All of us. So...

Can we at least agree to approach each other with a deep breath and an eye toward what we can learn from each other? If we're going to prejudge (and we are), might we at least begin with, "Now, there's a human being..."