Friday, January 24, 2014

It's Always the Quiet Ones

The other day a friend asked me to take a look at a writing project she's been working on. She said those five words that always put dread into my soul, "I want your honest opinion." It was with double dread that I agreed, because she really is a dear friend and I love her bigger than the universe. So, I was already making up my mind as to how I was going to say in a very diplomatic way, "It's nice, but...." or even worse, "I love you. Don't quit your day job."

Fifteen minutes into reading her work I completely forgot that I was reading her work. In a good way. I thought, "Wow. This author really has her shit together!" Then I remembered that it was my beautiful friend whose words I was reading. I dropped the pages, grabbed my phone, and texted her, "You have no idea how great you are, do you?" I also let her know that it was a serious question. I wasn't just looking for her to say, "Aw, you liked it? You're so sweet." Because that kind of shit makes me gag - you know, when someone asks for your opinion, good or bad, and dismisses it - that pat on the head for catering to someone's need for external validation.

She didn't do that. Her reply was kind, mentioning that I had inspired her, but it was obvious that her real answer was, "No. I have no real idea how brilliant I am." Then I jumped on Facebook and three other friends had almost apologetically posted their writing or artwork. They presented their precious - yes, precious, because I know first-hand that it feels like handing your infant baby over to a complete stranger - they presented their precious crafted bits with words like, "Here's what I was messing with... LOL..." The nervous "laugh" at the end made it clear that they felt like they were presenting a dirty diaper rather than a beloved child for everyone to look at.

It pissed me off.

It pissed me off so much that my next move was to post the following as my status update:
I am absolutely flabbergasted by the number of very talented people I know who are afraid of their own talent. Yes, I'm also looking in the mirror when I say that. What kind of horrible shit have we all been listening to that tells us that what we love doing, that what we're really good at, what makes us feel alive is a pathetic waste of time? Well, friends n' neighbors, it's time to listen to that other voice - the one that says, "This is you loving and alive."

Comments that followed seemed like somewhat nervous applause. You know the kind. It says, "I like what you put out there, but please don't look too closely in my direction." There was also a lot of talk from people about the negative voices they've heard, and are still hearing, that keep them from running wild with their own power. Trust me, I know those voices. I've got a freakin' stadium full of them. But I've learned, almost mostly, to listen to the smaller voice. It's the voice of a young girl with a slightly wobbly smile saying, "We are meant for this. This is our gift."

We've been taught by society and our families that fully embracing our gifts is arrogant, that it's conceited to say, "I'm good at this and I want to take it further." That's just so many flavors of bullshit! There is absolutely no hubris in acknowledging your gifts! Let me say that again, there is absolutely no hubris in acknowledging your gifts! They're gifts, after all, given to you by God, The Universe, The Flying Spaghetti Monster... wherever you want to believe they come from. The real crime is when you don't acknowledge them. The real evil is when they are disused, misused, and worst of all, unused.

So, what's the big deal about your little gift, your teeny tiny talent in a vast universe of talented people? Why take note of it, much less put effort into it? Because, guess what really happens when you completely embrace, love, hug, kiss, have raw, naked jungle sex with your gifts? You become selfless, quite the opposite of the arrogance everyone warned you about. You inspire others to use their gifts and you champion them using their gifts.

Things I've written inspired my friend to write, and that she writes so beautifully, that whatever I did made her let loose with her glorious voice... well, I'm humbled. That's a tremendous responsibility to shoulder. I meant what I told her in response, "If the things I've written inspired you to write, to let that beautiful light shine. If that and nothing else comes of my writing, then it's all worth it. I don't need anything else."

That is why I do anything and that why it is worth doing.

So, this year I'm writing a book. Because there are amazing people in my life who inspire me. Because it needs to be written. Because the voice of that young girl with the slightly wobbly smile rings with truth and I've decided to listen to her.

Do you see how this works? Good. Do something about it.

Class dismissed.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Who Am I?

A while back I wrote a tiny piece of fiction titled Have You Ever Seen The Rain? It remains one of my favorite pieces because of the way I wrote it. I've since confessed to others that I didn't so much write it, but that I took dictation from the main character, Luke. Luke was deep in my head and has remained there. I often think about him, knowing that there is far more to his story than what I allowed at the time. Sometimes I go back and look at Have You Ever Seen The Rain? and say to my internal Luke, "Who are you?"

This week I received a prompt from Ariana at The Blogging Lounge. The prompt is, "Who am I?" From the moment I saw the prompt, I heard Luke responding to my question. So, I'm going to see what else he has to say. Join me...


"Who am I?" asked the woman in the tie-dyed peasant blouse. She was just inches from my face and smelled like Juicy Fruit gum.
"That's right! Star! And what's your name?"
"Woog?!" Star laughed. "Now what kind of a silly name is that?" I doubt that Star knew that my name was Luke. It's my understanding that the whole kidnapping was a spur of the moment type of thing. "No, Honey. Your name is James. You're my Sweet Baby James."
"Zaimz! Sea beebeep Zaimz!"
Star swept me into a hug and kissed the top of my head.

I remember that. A psychologist once told me that there was no way I could remember it, that two and a half years old is too young for such a defined memory. Here's where I give you a diatribe about shrinks being bullshit factories and panaceas for the masses. I'm sure there are good and worthy shrinks out there, but by and large? In the humble opinion of yours truly, they just like to have someone pay them to spout their own feeble theories. In my book, "Here's a good coping skill to learn" really means, "You're doing it wrong. Try it my way."  Sure, it's under the guise of helpfulness, but asking someone how they feel and then telling them how not to feel it? That just turns me into a whole different color of stubborn donkey.

All that is to say, I remember that conversation with Star. I'm certain of it. I don't remember them taking me and I don't remember the drive down to California, and a lot of those years of my childhood are just a blur of books that I read. But I remember that. Maybe something in my young brain blew a whistle and said, "Hey. Remember this. Someone is telling you you're not who you think you are. Someone is telling you who to be." Sure, those are thoughts too big for a toddler, but you want to know what I think? I think, no matter how old, when your innocence is robbed, or in this case kidnapped, it leaves a marker. It leaves some sort of Here's-Where-It-Happened Notice.

She never asked me to call her Mommy or Mom. She insisted I call her Star. I think it was her way of skirting the kidnapping issue, her way of ignoring the illegality of it all. She wasn't trying to be my mother, she was just taking care of me for a while. For a nine-fucking-years while. Let's face it, she didn't keep me in that basement for any other reason than to protect herself and Dwight.

Dwight was Star's husband. He's the one who pulled me from the playground when my mother looked away for a moment. He did it for no other reason than one would buy a bouquet of flowers. I was a gift for the lady - such pity that she wasn't simply hungry for an ice cream cone that day. I can almost hear the conversation between them. "Dwight? Dwight, Honey? I want a baby. I'd love to have a baby boy to hold and sing to and read to. Oh, Dwight. Wouldn't a baby just be sweet to have?" Dwight, never big on discussions or long answers, and a firm believer in the misogynistic Keep-Her-Happy-and-She'll-Shut-Up Theory, would have answered, "I'll gitchya one."

For a long time, I thought maybe Dwight was the one who insisted I never leave the basement, but I've since come to terms with the fact that it was just as much Star's idea. I was her secret treasure. She wanted me to herself, didn't want anyone else giving me time and attention. It was probably a boon that I didn't know any better. I had no real memory of any world beyond those walls. My world was made of books. It is to Star's credit that she taught me to read. I was a voracious reader. I didn't question that there were people out there in the world writing them, much less that there were people living those experiences. Star made it clear that they were all fiction, which meant pretend. "They're just for fun, James. They're like your dreams. You can imagine all you want, but they're not real."

When I was 11 years old and was found and brought back to my parents, I had a difficult time thinking of it as real. It felt like one of those pretend stories. It felt so pretend that I couldn't talk for about a week. I mean, who talks out loud to books? It took a little while before I felt safe enough, no, connected enough to my surroundings before I would speak. I'd like to tell you that it was my parents and their love and attention that pulled me into this particular reality. I'd like to tell you that, but I can't. What connected me was the thumping rhythm of my Dad's rock n' roll songs and the first time I felt the rain. That low bass thump spread up through my toes and tied around my ankles and tethered me to the ground in such a comforting way. The rain? That was nature's way of baptizing me, of claiming me as her own. That was when I began to realize that I was no longer James. I was Luke. I had returned to the land where Luke existed.

Not long ago I started dating this terrific woman. We met on the side of the road, both of us trying to rescue a stray dog before it came to harm. At the time I was wearing an old shabby flannel shirt over a threadbare t-shirt, and a pair of jeans that had seen better days. So when I showed up at her place a couple of days later, clean shaven, wearing a sport coat and carrying flowers, her eyes lit up with amusement and she sort of laughed as she asked, "Who are you?!" "Who am I? Why, purdy lady, folks in these here parts call me Luke. But once upon a time I was Sea Beebeep Zaimz. Come to dinner with me and I'll tell you all about it."

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Cave: An Obvious Allegory

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, there was a woman who lived in a cave. She loved her cave. It was dark and nobody came near. No one could see her ugliness. Of the ugliness she was certain. She knew that her appearance was hideous and that the scars she bore would surely frighten even the most stalwart soul. So, she hid in the cave, emerging only in the deepest night just to feel the breeze on her skin.

One day an old man happened upon the cave. She heard him stumbling around in the dark and pressed herself into the cold stone, praying that he wouldn't notice her, but of course he did. Campfires don't start themselves. "Is someone there?" he asked quietly in the dark. "Please, don't be afraid. I'm only seeking shelter from the cold wind that's blowing." She said nothing in return, hoping that he would leave. But he persisted, "Please. I'm sorry to disturb you. All I ask is a warm spot to rest. I am getting along in years and the chill outside is so painful to these old bones." Finally she replied in a voice so soft that it was nearly a whisper, "You may stay and rest; come get warm by the fire. Only please don't look at me." "You've no fear of that. I am nearly blind. I can only see lights and large images with these ancient eyes." The woman relaxed at that confession, "Please. Come sit by the fire. We can share a cup of tea."

For a long while they said nothing to each other but for a few pleasantries. They sat on opposite sides of the fire, both sipping tea and listening to the song of the wind as it whistled across the mouth of the cave. Finally the old man broke the silence, "May I ask your name?" "Of course," she replied, "It's Anika." "Hmmm. Anika, what an unusual name." He said. "Ann was my grandmother's name," Anika explained. "When I was named after her, everyone wanted to differentiate between the two of us in some way, so I was called Anika - meaning Little Ann. And now I ask for your name." The old man smiled, "You may call me Tucson. Not my real name o'course, but it's been so long since anyone called me Jeremiah that I'm not sure I'd answer to it if you did." "Tucson it is then," Anika said.

Anika took a good long look at Tucson. He was very old indeed, his face so furrowed with lines and wrinkles that his features had all but disappeared into them. If she had to guess, she would put him at close to 100 years old. Surely he wasn't that old though. Nobody that old would be hiking around in this weather, she thought, in any weather, really. She was lost in thought when again Tucson broke the silence. "May I ask another question?" Then he continued before she could answer one way or another. "What are you doing way out here, hiding in a cave?" "It's kind of a long story," Anika replied. Tucson grinned widely and spread his hands in an all-encompassing gesture, "It appears we have some spare time here. Tell on!"

Anika was surprised at her lack of reserve. Perhaps it was because Tucson couldn't see her. Perhaps it was because he was a stranger, or that he seemed so kind. She began, "I... I ran away from home when I was a girl. My parents couldn't bear to look at me. You see, I have scars, deep, ugly scars. My mother always told me that my scars were horrible and she couldn't stand to see something so unpleasant. My father said that my scars made him sad and he didn't want a daughter who could never experience life - who could never be of use to anyone, that's what he said. So, not wanting to cause them any pain or concern, I ran. For a long time I wandered the woods, but every now and then someone would come along and see me. I didn't want anyone to have to look at me, so after some searching I found this cave. This is where I've lived ever since."

Tucson didn't say anything for a time, although he nodded a few times as if he was having a discussion inside his head. He took a big swallow of his tea and rubbed at the rough, gray stubble on his cheek. "These scars," he began. "The scars. Uh. Are they your own doing?" "No! Of course not!" replied Anika, feeling a bit put out that he would ask such a thing. "These scars were the doing of... others. O-o-others who claimed they loved me and said they needed to prepare me for the cruelty of the real world. Others who said I was weak and didn't know what was good for me, and that it was their mission to show me." At this last part, Anika's voice broke and she wiped a tear from her cheek. Tucson looked as if the tea he had swallowed must have been terribly bitter. "So," he said, "You are not responsible for your scars. They are the fault of these... others. If that's so, why are you the one hiding? It is they who should be ashamed and hiding! Those others, along with your oblivious parents, not you." "Even so," Anika said. "I must shield everyone from having to look at me. I don't want to make people feel uncomfortable or frightened." Tucson said nothing to this. Setting his cup aside, he only said, "Well, it has been a long day and I am weary. If you don't mind, I'd like to rest now." Anika agreed and, on opposite sides of the fire, they both fell into sleep.

The next morning Anika woke to find that the old man was gone. Then she heard his voice coming from outside the cave. He was singing a song, his voice gentle and low and sweet. She crept toward the entrance to the cave to listen better. She saw that his arms were outstretched as if he was gathering the whole world into an embrace. When his song ended, he turned toward her, "Anika, Good Morning to you. You should come out here! The cold wind has left us and this blessedly warm sunshine has taken its place." "I can't," she told him. "I never go out in daylight." "Never? Ah, but to feel this light on your skin! Like being brushed by all the feathers of all the angels that ever flew. You must try it!" "I... I can't." "You can! Who's to see? Please, come out of hiding, even if but for a moment of this bliss."

Anika took a step and then hesitated. I can't, she thought. This is wrong. This is against everything I've been told. She looked at Tucson, standing in the sun, embracing the wind, seemingly oblivious of his age and the aches and pains that must come with having lived so long. Anika took another step. Tucson heard her moving, but stood with is back to her and said nothing. He knew that all the cajoling in the world would be for naught if she didn't decide to take the steps on her own, and if his years had taught him nothing else, they had taught him patience. It wasn't long before Anika was standing beside him. He could tell that she was trembling. "What is it?" he asked. Her voice choked with tears she replied, "It's just. I didn't know that... I... I've never seen anything so beautiful as this day! I should have snuck out here years ago." Tucson only nodded. He put a hand on her shoulder, making it seem as though he was simply and old man in need of a little support. She allowed it and they stood that way in the sun for some time, neither one making a sound.

Tucson knew it was a make or break question, but it needed to be asked. "Anika... may I touch your face? Please, let an old man share your pain and sorrow." Anika was startled, but surprised herself by saying, "Yes. Yes, you may." She turned toward him and he raised a big, gnarled, weathered hand toward her cheek. With more gentleness than she thought possible, he touched her jaw. As he worked his way up her face toward her brow, she was certain that any second he would draw back, repulsed. He didn't. Instead he leaned forward and planted a soft kiss on her forehead. "Child. You've been lied to. I feel no scars. Your face is as smooth as a June rose petal." "That can't be!" Anika exclaimed. "I was always told that my scars were ugly and that I should keep them hidden from people!" "Anika, if you are scarred, it is on the inside only. It is the wounds inflicted upon your spirit that have made you feel ugly and unlovable. But I assure you, neither of those is true. You are beautiful, you are lovable. You deserve to be seen. What's more, you're depriving other people of the great pleasure of knowing you, of seeing the light in you, and hearing the sweet clear voice of you."

Anika was floored. The sky spun overhead as she tried to soak up Tucson's words. It couldn't be true, but the old man had no reason to lie to her. It could be a trick, but what would he gain with such cruel trickery. No, it was no trick. She saw the sincerity in his clouded eyes, heard the truth in his rumbling voice. Still, she said, "It just can't be. I belong in the cave." Tucson's only response was, "I'd like to show you something. May I?" He held out his hand. Although afraid to leave the security of the cave that was just a few steps behind them, Anika put her shaking hand in his. They began to walk.

The further they were from the cave, the less insecure Anika felt. Finally they came to a small pond in the woods. Tucson said, "I need to rest a bit. This seems like a pleasant spot." Anika agreed that it was very pretty. She knelt by the pond and doing so, caught her own reflection. She saw a woman with long dark hair, green eyes, flushed cheeks, and rose-colored lips. The image blurred as her tears fell and hit the water. She turned to Tucson, "You were right. I didn't belong in that cave. I never did. How can I ever thank you for making me leave?" Tucson smiled, "You don't need to thank me. I didn't make you leave, Anika. You left on your own accord. No, you didn't belong there, but you had to want something more than that cave. You had to know that there was something greater for you to be a part of. Only you could hear the call of the Universe and respond to it. Only you could step away from your hiding place. You have so much to share with the world."

Anika looked at her reflection in the water again. She reached to touch the face looking back at her and felt the cool, velvety water on her fingers. "But what of the scars? What of the horrible things that happened to me? What of all the pain I've felt over the years?" she asked. Tucson took a moment before answering. "Let me ask you this," he said. "Do you consider me ugly? With all my wrinkles and my gray hair and my milky, nearly blind eyes?" "No!" Anika exclaimed. "You're... you're lovely. Handsome even. You have such gentleness and kindness and love... that's all I see when I look at you." "Ahhhh..." Tucson smiled. "But I gained those qualities from my own scars, from my own pain, from my own horrible experiences, just as much as I did from the beauty I've seen and the love I've felt. Your scars... all of your experiences... everything in your life, even that cave. All of that makes you beautiful. All of it. So, walk in light with your head held high. No more cave."

Anika smiled again. "No more cave," she murmured. "No more hiding." This time it was she who held out her hand. Tucson took it and stood. "Where are we going?" he asked. Anika lifted her face to the shaft of light coming through the leaves. "My friend," she said. "We are going as far from that cave as we can. I intend to show the world who I am."