Sunday, February 27, 2011

This old guitar

Maybe it’s gauche to admit it, but I’m still a huge Indigo Girls fan. They’re maybe the first band I fell in love with, even back in the Philippines, and I don’t think they’ve received the critical acclaim they deserved. Not because of homophobia and sexism in the media and the recording industry or anything like that. Not because of anything like that.

So this Indigo Girls song came to me today, driving up from Chattanooga to Chicago, my old stomping grounds.

I don't know if it was real or in a dream
lately waking up i'm not sure where i've been
there was a table set for six and five were there
i stood outside and kept my eyes upon that empty chair

and there was steam on the windows from the kitchen
laughter like a language i once spoke with ease
but i'm made mute by the virtue of decision
i choose most of your life goes on without me

oh the fear i've known
that i might reap the praise of strangers
and end up on my own
all i've sown was a song but maybe i was wrong

i said to you the one gift which i'd adore
unwrap a package of the next 10 years unfolding
but you told me if i had my way i'd be bored
right then i knew i loved you best born of your scolding

when we last talked we were lying on our backs
looking up at the sky through the ceiling
i used to lie like that alone out on the driveway
trying to read the greek upon the stars the alphabet of feeling

oh i knew back then
it was a calling that said if joy then pain
the sound of the voice these years later
is still the same

i am alone in a hotel room tonight
i squeeze the sky out but there's not a star appears
begin my studies with this paper and this pencil
and i'm working through the grammar of my fears

mercy, what i won't give to have the things that mean the most
not to mean the things i miss unforgiving
the choice still is the language or the kiss

Maybe the only reason I’m brave enough to post that is because it’s 12:43 eastern time and I spent all day driving trying to convince my father that I’m a Christian even though he believes I’m not. Trying to convince him that the work I’m doing is important. Trying to convince him, and through him all of my family, all of my friends, all of the people who have ever doubted, who have ever said no, all of those who think that walking away from a paycheck, from a sure thing even if it’s not the thing I believe in: I am doing the right thing.

It’s always reassuring, watching the Oscars, watching all of those dorky people get up on stage in their fancy outfits and think about all of the people who must have beat them down in their lives. “You’ll never make it as a set designer. Who in their right mind would pay you to do that? What kind of job is that anyway? Why don’t you go ahead and go to accounting school, like Cousin Jeb.” But they said no, and tonight’s moment is their vindication.

I’m writing tonight because maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I am doing absolutely the wrong thing, risking everything on a bad hand. But I’ll never know if I don’t try.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Finally he just stopped

Dylan’s words keep rolling around in my head, as I prepare to become a rolling stone again. It’s a feeling that both of us know, because both of us are artists. So many of his songs end up being about the journey of the artist, forever disassociated from any kind of community, any kind of culture. The only way to critique a culture is from the outside. The artist, of necessity, must disassociate herself from a community in order to have the distance to create.

In college my favorite professor gave a lecture about Alfred, Lord Tennyson, that most maligned of Victorian poets. Maligned by me, perhaps only because Anne of Green Gables was such a big fan. But Tennyson did coin the phrase “nature, red in tooth and claw,” a much more accurate response to the world than the gooey romanticism of Wordsworth and Coleridge. The lecture centered around “The Lady of Shalott,” the cursed weaver, doomed forever to create an imitation of the world without ever participating in it. She watches the river and road that pass by her window, only able to observe through the screen of a mirror, weaving her web.

Eventually, seduced by a knight's beauty, she looks out her window, directly engaging with the world. Immediately:
“Out flew the web and floated wide--
The mirror crack'd from side to side;
'The curse is come upon me,' cried
The Lady of Shalott.”

Her art, and her life, destroyed.

The first time I heard the argument, I warred against it. No, I said. An artist’s job is to experience life fully, and then channel that life into her work.

As I’ve aged, my doubt has grown. The more I directly engage with the world, the less time I have to devote to craft. Writers from the past, even those acclaimed as great adventurers, spent far more time hiding away from the world, hermits alone with their desks. As I step away from my life here, I think to myself that perhaps that’s what I'm doing now. Retreating to my snow tower and observing the world through a mirror. As life without internet access can only be understood in this day and age.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Like a rolling stone

A not-so-sheltered childhood

My iTunes on shuffle played me that song today. I was a latecomer to American popular music, and each wave of the musical revolution swept me away as I encountered it throughout my adolescence. Elvis, the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Dylan—each hit me with that same shock of discovery that the country felt during the twentieth century. One of the joys of a sheltered childhood overseas.

No less so than with “Like a Rolling Stone.” I didn’t grow up hearing it, so when I encountered it for the first time, on a best-of CD, it struck with the same intensity as it must have in the sixties. The organ, the hate-filled raspy voice, “how does it feee-eee-eeel…” Each element seemed profoundly true, profoundly sacred. It’s no wonder that Rolling Stone magazine (natch) named it greatest song of all time.

I knew exactly what he was singing about. I knew exactly how it felt to be without a home, like a rolling stone. I knew that Dylan did, too. I knew what he was singing about.

Over the years, as I listened to the lyrics more closely, I found them more and more disturbing. He’s not singing about himself. He’s singing about some rich chick who’s lost everything by being phony. He’s gloating at someone else’s downfall, about human ugliness and nothing else. The song becomes a diatribe against a person who created a fake, idealized version of reality, a person who loses everything.

The song stopped seeming universal to me and started feeling artificial. I stopped understanding why it was so celebrated, such a big deal. It seemed a cynical song about unhappiness, with nothing redemptive inside of it. Nothing holy.

But I couldn't get away from that feeling. When Dylan croons, “how does it feel?” I knew that he knew how it felt. I knew he was singing about himself, and about me, no matter what the lyrics said. He knew how it felt to stare into the the mystery tramp’s eyes, to be forced to compromise against his own will. I did, too. We all do. We all know how it feels to stare into the heart of darkness.

Biographers and documentarians (including Martin Scorsese) consistently named their books and films “No Direction Home” tacitly stating that Dylan was talking about himself. As did Dylan. After his motorcycle accident in 1966, he realized that "when I used words like 'he' and 'it' and 'they,' and talking about other people, I was really talking about nobody but me."

So many of Dylan’s song perform this same balancing act—an attempt to point the finger out that ends up circling back around to himself. His songs seem to have an inner self-referential circle, a rotation around a repeated truth. My favorite example is “Shelter from the Storm.” The narrator loses the archetypal woman filled with grace who provides him shelter, but despite that loss, he returns to the hope of renewal, again and again, in the chorus. He’s lost her, at the same moment that she continues to accept him unconditionally.

It’s a paradox, an assertion and yet a belief in its contradiction, anekantavada.

So many of Dylan’s songs end up being contemporary zen koans, in the truest sense. “How many roads must a man walk down?” is a question that has no answer. “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” “How does it feel to be on your own, with no direction home?” Questions that can’t be answered by rational thinking but only by intuition.

I also circle back around. The song ends up again being about me and about him. What Dylan sings about is loss. The anger and fear and darkness and loneliness we get from losing something, from losing everything, from becoming detached from community and from culture, from becoming wanderers. I am the rolling stone. I am the one without a home.

And how does it feel? Not always so good.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Go and follow your heart

On December 2, I wrote about an endless quest among cultures. I wrote: “I look at people who manage to be stationary, attached to one place, with envy.” I wrote: “traveling is when my heart beats fastest.” I finished hiking more than a month ago, and I’ve been silent ever since. Processing my experience, maybe. Digesting. Or more likely, just busy. I immediately stepped back into my full-fledged life here—two jobs, writing group, teaching yoga, taking yoga, land hunting. Enjoying the joys of a stationary life, of having a fully equipped kitchen and an office and heat and friends.

I’m only finding my voice now, as I prepare for another journey. In two weeks, I’m heading back up to Maine, maybe forever. Probably not for ever, ever, but you never know. I’ve found a beautiful piece of land here in Georgia, one that I first looked at more than a year ago. It’s land that has continued to wiggle around in my consciousness, reminding myself of its presence every so often. It has significant challenges, namely: an impassable road. I’ve only ever walked to the home-site, as I don’t have a vehicle that can make it up the mountain. Having a house I must walk to may be a romantic ideal, but I’m sure the eighth time I bring groceries home the charm will wear off.

Still, I’m keeping the piece as an option in my back pocket. It has gorgeous views of Lookout Mountain, feels like it’s in the middle of nowhere, but is close enough to Chattanooga to commute. If I can make it down the road. The questions is: are the challenges what make me hesitate, or is it the reality of digging down roots into one particular stretch of dirt? I’m having dreams about dirt, dark dirt roads stretching out in front of me, mud dissolving beneath me. As the reality of buying that piece began to settle in, I began to search farther afield—investigating areas close to Carolina’s outer banks, or along the outer edges of Asheville, the southeast’s hipster Brooklyn.

Am I afraid of being attached to a single place? Have I not found the right land yet? Or am I just not ready? I don’t know. In my ideal life, I’d be as close as possible to the ocean (hence the boat). North Georgia is utterly landlocked. I could buy a piece twenty minutes from Pamlico Sound for the same price. Does that mean it’s the wrong place for me, or am I merely procrastinating?

New England still draws me northward. As impossible as I find winter there, it has a hold as few places do—why else would I be writing a book about it? Waterfront land in coastal Maine goes for bargain-basement prices. Is it worth looking there, or am I motivated solely out of bullet-biting fear?

In any case, I’ve made a choice to keep my options open, at least for the next two months, with the Georgia land as my back-up plan. In the meantime, I’m traveling up to Chicago to meet my new niece, to Michigan to see my grandmother for the last time, and thence to Maine. I’m thinking of it as a mini-sabbatical, a chance to be still and make a final choice about the things I really want.

The last few weeks have been brutal, as I’ve shared my decision with my friends here. I never realize how thoroughly entrenched I am inside of a community until I decide to leave, and it’s been that way since I was a little girl. I have a pattern where I reluctantly build a connection with a community, slowly over time, and then, as soon as I’m thoroughly tied to it and happy, I tear myself away. It’s perverse masochism, like wiggling a sore tooth. I distance myself from my friends as I get ready to leave, preparing myself for departure, slowly cutting those clinging ties, in order to keep myself from feeling that excruciating pain of losing friends.

Sometimes I believe it’s an addiction. I’m addicted to the art of losing friends. It’s the thing I was taught best to do as a missionary kid. Growing up, every year I had a new set of friends. Every year I was torn away from people I loved. Now it’s just a habit.

It’s a whole set of issues that we crazy gypsies have to deal with. A lack of consistency in our past means that we crave inconsistency in our present. I can’t actually believe that it’s dysfunctional, though. That would be like denying a part of myself. Journeying is an art in its own right. Moving through space and time calls to me, again. Though I’m giving up some things, I’m gaining some things, too. The life I’ve chosen for myself comes at a high price. It’s a price I choose to pay.