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..."

Friday, September 12, 2014

In A Moment

Did I think about it? Of course I did. Unless one lives under a rock and/or is brain dead, it's impossible not to. Since neither of those scenarios apply to me, yes, it was on  my mind. Like millions of others, I can tell you exactly where I was and what I was doing when it happened. I can do that with all of the more defining moments in my life.

Those kinds of memories don't have the grainy, aged film look that many other memorable moments do. They are high definition and they are larger than life. They are so big and so well defined that not only can I see the peach fuzz on a face, but each individual hair that makes up the peach fuzz.

I know each line on the back of my father's massive hands as the tremors of end stage lung cancer shook them. Shook them so much that he couldn't unzip and re-zip his pants when he had to use the bathroom. So he asked me, his then teenage daughter to help. I did so willingly, but with a tremendous, painful lump in my throat. I understood all at once what it must have taken for him to ask for my help. No man should ever have to ask his daughter for help zipping his pants. In the few short seconds it took me to help him, his hands trembled at his sides. And I remember every line on the back of his hands.

I remember the way the sunlight hit the dust on the monitor the day I clicked open an email from a friend only to read that a beloved mutual friend of ours had died very suddenly. Six words stole the air from the room, "I'm afraid our girl is gone." As the world spun away, the dust and the sunlight and the monitor remained, and only those three things. Jesse was gone, dust, sunlight, monitor, Jesse gone, sunlight, dust, monitor, how can that be, monitor, dust, sunlight. I watched as the first chuff of a sob broke free from me and made the dust dance in the sunlight.

I can see the reflection of my office building in his black truck. The building number above the door is backwards. I approach the driver side window with a smile. He's early. I'm happy to see him. Then I see his face, the streaks of gray in his mustache, the way his lower jaw is working - he always did that when something troubled him deeply. I stop short at the look on his face. "What." I say it not as a question but more as a definition of some great heavy beast standing between us. His look is one of mixed shame, fear, and almost anger. He knows he's going to break something in me as he answers with one word, "Cancer." I sigh, and then I can move forward to grasp his shoulder. "Oh, my love." It's all I can say. It's enough. I look down and notice that the backwards number is wavering. I don't want him to see my tears. Not yet. He has enough to deal with.

September 11, 2001. I was finishing an early morning workout on one of the treadmills in the small gym that was part of the apartment complex where my late mate and I lived. There was a woman on the other treadmill. I think she had blond hair. We had TV turned on to the news chatter of local weather, traffic, blahblahblah... "We interrupt your regular broadcast... breaking news..." We both watched as the first plane hit the tower. "Oh, my god..." the woman next to me said softly. "That didn't look accidental," was my response. I finished up and went home to shower and get ready for work. I walked in the door and told John to turn on the news. "A plane just ran into one of the World Trade Center towers," I said. I went into the kitchen and poured myself a cup of coffee. I heard the tell-tale click of the TV as John pushed the on button of the remote. The image of the tower, smoldering in the middle, filled the screen. "Holy shit!" he exclaimed. "I don't think it was an accident," I repeated. I couldn't shake the heavy feeling in my chest. I was taking a sip of coffee when the second plane hit. I quickly set down the cup and propped myself on the edge of the sofa. I remember thinking, "Smoke and ashes... oh the people... smokeandashesohthepeople..." as if I was about to write a poem. There was nothing poetic about it.

Yes. I thought about it yesterday, the same way I often think about those clear, hard-edged moments of my life. The moments that show me how easy it is to feel wounded and how tough I can be despite that. I thought about it and proceeded with my day in the only way I know how to honor those unthinkable times, those people who have suffered agony that I can't completely understand, the people I've loved and the people I'll never know who have been taken in death.

I thought about it. I thought about it and then and set about living deliberately. Bringing honor isn't so much in a totem or a memorial or a moment of silence. Honor is in living anyway. Honor is in living well and fully.

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