Writing Your LIfe

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During the early 2000s, I taught a course called “Writing Your Life” at a few senior citizen centers in Riverside County, California. I was an English Composition instructor at the local community college when the call for a teacher came up through the community education division. I was happy to embark on something unknown–teaching folks much older than I how to write their life stories.

After a few rough starts, including a crabby ex-English teacher rolling her eyes at me, I got into the rhythm of helping my students tell their stories, rich in textures from worlds I imagined only through history texts, like hopping a train or tears for receiving a sandwich from a stranger during the Great Depression. There were some talented writers among the group, but most were there to listen and write to share their joys and sorrows–to be heard and seen. It was therapy.

Freud and those that came before him knew that talking about one’s life is therapeutic healing. Narrating the self gives the speaker the opportunity to frame her life with a beginning, middle and end for others to understand the point of the story, the meaning of one’s life in specific scenes or on the whole.

Writing has the same therapeutic qualities according to an article in The New York Times entitled Writing Your Way to Happiness. The article examines a study documenting the effects of students who wrote and re-wrote versions of themselves with respect to school performance and other aspects of their lives. The results were interesting, reflecting the importance of controlling perceptions–of others and of self. Students who re-framed their stories improved their performance in school.

“The idea here is getting people to come to terms with who they are, where they want to go,” said Dr. Pennebaker. “I think of expressive writing as a life course correction.”

I agree. The creative urge is the same in writing and living–insight and projection.

Sex Through the Ages

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This week I came upon two features that spanned the age spectrum of the sex timeline. One was by an older teenager complaining, My Boyfriend Broke up with me Because I Wanted to Have Sex in The Huffington Post and the other a podcast by Senior Sexpert (Don’t you just love that jargony term?) Joan Price on polyweekly.com.

The obvious draw to the first title is its immediate incongruence. Isn’t it usually the other way around–girl breaks up with boyfriend because HE wants sex? That is the stereotype of sexual lore in American culture anyhow. But the writer, Nadia, has this to say about stereotyping:

Let me start my rant by saying stereotypes suck. We all know it, but we still take part in it, even parents. Mine told me to be careful when I started dating and not to feel pressured by all the sex-crazy boys. Little did they know, the very things they told me to make me feel “not pressured” fueled the fire of inappropriate generalizations and damaged concepts in society.

She is referring here to the pressure her boyfriend felt from peers and his brother to “go for it”, which caused the break up; he felt he was not ready.

This passage in particular struck me not so much for the irony as much as my own position sandwiched between caretaker of two teenage daughters, one of whom is 18, and of aging parents, one of whom told me the same about pressure and boys from early on in my youth. If my daughters were amenable to a frank discussion about sex (they are not–“Mom, please, no”), I often think what I would tell them. And I yearn to tell them.

I have so much insight to offer them from my own experience as someone who explored sex in my teens despite hearing the age old warnings and typecasting that all boys want is to get in your pants. While that may be true for most teenage boys, saying so is merely a dismissive attempt at preventing pregnancy, a parent doing the minimum to safeguard her daughter.

Posturing boys and girls as enemies or boys as invading armies and girls as defenders of the fortress, sex is framed from a vacuum of reliable information that is only later legitimately informed through actual intimate experience, and therefore distorted. Sex in this opaque light then becomes more a vehicle for rebelliousness than to satiate curiosity and hormonal insistence. It is fraught with youthful daring, irresistible attraction and yet unrealized trepidation.

My mother’s intention was to protect me, shortcutted without giving me the entire picture of sex, through an acquired perspective that comes with time and growth in love and familiarity. Looking now at her frail remnants of a former warrior woman and wife, I realize she did not have the information herself, having married knocked up at 16 by the first or second boy she ever knew. What could she offer her four daughters about sex?

To add to my mother’s advice to fend off the boys and save it for marriage, I grew up in the heat of Second Wave Feminism when of necessity women were also framing sex and womanhood against men and their patriarchy. Capitulating to sex seemed to me like ceding the war. And at the same time, the 70s of my teen years were also a time of free love and sex, a hangover from the 60s revolution.

The cluster of contradictions did nothing for my sex life. I rebelled, had sex young, had lousy sex, felt lousy about sex, like I had unwittingly given up something valuable of myself to the undeserving, all of which led me to the conclusion Nadia came to:

Sex is just sex. It’s an act we perform. Whether this performance is considered sacred or fun, whether you wait until marriage or do it every night, whether you do it as a profession or some kind of proclamation to God doesn’t matter. If it’s your body, your mind, it’s your choice. No one else matters. So if you’re confused about this subject or worried about the choices you make, I’m on your side. Regardless of how you decide, if you make the best decision for you, I’m proud of that. You should be proud of that as well.

While the obvious is true–sex is just sex–the obvious is also not true. Sex is an act, but it is also so much more. It is a reflection of self, an identity, a connection, an oasis, a weapon, a tool, a livelihood, a happiness, an expression, a biological urge, and much, much more. To say that no one else matters in your choice is to deny that we all grow up with voices in our head that become us, parentally and culturally derived. Our attitudes about sex–a force so powerfully destructive or healing–are derived from a variety of sources and so are complex and not wholly our own until fermented experience kicks in to weed out the garbage.

And it changes in time. Sex at 18 is far different from sex at 68. Take it from Joan Price, who enjoys sex in her 70s and is comfortable with herself–her body, her ability to love and her age. The benefit of good physical and mental health cannot be undervalued. Sexual enjoyment is holistically entwined with physical and mental health. I know that once I felt at ease with and knowledgeable about my body correspondingly with accepting others as theirs, I enjoyed sex a whole lot more than in the confusion of unsorted out slogans and untested values of others.

If I could give my teens advice they would listen to, I would tell them to learn their own bodies so well that they do not have to rely on anyone else to figure out how to pleasure them. In that way, they could be both informed and empowered as well as compassionate by helping their partners. Bodies do come with instruction manuals–owners’. Sex, at its best, is sharing in the heights of intimate pleasure.

I would also teach them to consider their own boundaries, where they end and the next person begins, so as not to lose themselves within the borders of someone else’s need and expectation. Sex is a meeting of minds and bodies in mutual satisfaction. Though sometimes, it is a purely giving act even as it is sometimes a pure taking, both fine in the trust between people performing loving acts, or, at minimum, in mutual understanding of those acts.

Sometimes sex is just sex. For me, whose history is largely long-term monogamy, it is release. If I want to use it to cry or scream or slap, I express and decompress upon the foundation of commitment and mutual caring–for that time, that day, that decade or lifetime, whomever the case may be. Even the same person shows up to the act differently day to day.

Cultural expectations particularly of marriage and monogamy, stress the painted picture of procured bliss through intensely connected oneness and love, a romantic notion that puts a lot of pressure on the act, specifically for youth. And sometimes it is that bliss while at other times it is sacrifice and uneventful working out the strategy of keeping things going, in peace. Sex is part and parcel of being, multifarious as hell. All I know is, it is not what I was told it was.

The Formula to Falling in Love?

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A lovely essay, Mandy Len Catron writes with reverie in The New York Times about how she fell in love with someone by testing out somewhat cynically and curiously Dr. Arthur Aron’s laboratory formulated prescription for falling love.

Arthur took two strangers who answered 36 questions (which can be found through Catron’s link in the last pages of Aron’s long study narrative) and then stared into each others’ eyes for four minutes. After that, they fell in love.

Arthur’s questions range from philosophical and reflective to revealing. Catron describes them as probing:

They began innocuously: “Would you like to be famous? In what way?” And “When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?”

But they quickly became probing.

In response to the prompt, “Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common,” he looked at me and said, “I think we’re both interested in each other.”

Now if you want to know the formula to falling out of love, then read Susanna Wolff’s amusing, snarky rebuttal in The New Yorker.

“Women Orgasm While Reading…For the Sake of Art, Of Course (NSFW)”

The Huffington Post exposé of this “art” exhibit is all in the title. The installation is called “Hysterical Literature,” by artist Clayton Cubitt who will show this piece next month in Mass MoCA’s “Bibliotecaphilia.” The article features videos of five women who read while, unbeknownst to the audience, being stimulated to orgasm. Interesting results that bring a new meaning to bibliophilia. What more could I add?  See for yourself.

 

A Woman’s Soul is in Her Vagina

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A woman’s soul is in her vagina. That’s what Naomi Wolf intimates in her book Vagina, a New Biography, according to Maria Popova’s review in Brain Pickings’ “The Science of Stress, Orgasm and Creativity: How the Brain and the Vagina Conspire in Consciousness.” The article is a pastiche of excerpts underscoring the salient points: the vagina and brain are interconnected in complex and delicate ways in women, which connection can lead to healthy, happy, sexual experience and overall contentment or, under bad stress, can lead to lasting biological and psycho-emotional changes that debilitate a woman’s ability to experience joy.

To understand the vagina properly is to realize that it is not only coextensive with the female brain, but is also, essentially, part of the female soul.

A woman’s “confidence, creativity, and sense of transcendence” is contained in this continuum that is the vagina to the brain, Wolf claims.

Popova explains the essential science behind that brain-vagina connection: the pelvic nerve governs sexual response as it connects the brain to the cervix not in a direct linear way but in a mazy labyrinth. Its construction is unique to each woman so that arousal sources vary from woman to woman. The structure of the male is far more focused and concentric from the central point of direct stimulation points around the penis. As such, sexual intercourse that focuses on male arousal without locating the specific arousal source(s) of the woman will greatly affect her pleasure and her ability to achieve orgasm.

According to Wolf, the autonomic nervous system which controls and contains the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems, is key to arousal. Women have the mind-body connection that feed one off the other: women need to be relaxed and in a good mental state to physically experience orgasm and orgasm affects that state, to be relaxed and released.

For women, sexual response involves entering an altered state of consciousness. … In women, the biology of arousal is more delicate than most of us understand, and it depends significantly on this sensitive, magical, slowly calmed, and easily inhibited system.

Emotional security, Popova summarizes, is directly linked to arousal. Stressors such as safety threats whether physical violence or emotional abuse, inhibit the autonomic nervous system, and if prolonged, may cause physiological changes in the vagina, thereby eliminating the ability to experience orgasm or pleasure. It may even lead to symptoms unrelated to sexual pleasure such as vertigo, excessive startle response, diabetes and heart disease, to name a few.

If you sexually stress a woman enough, over time, other parts of her life are likely to go awry; she will have difficulty relaxing in bed eventually, as well as in the classroom or in the office. This in turn will inhibit the dopamine boost she might otherwise receive, which would in turn prevent the release of the chemicals in her brain that otherwise would make her confident, creative, hopeful, focused — and effective, especially relevant if she is competing academically or professionally with you. With this dynamic in mind, the phrase “fuck her up” takes on new meaning.

Wolf describes how a woman can still have a stimulus response during rape but not the blissful response that occurs in the concordance of physical stimulation and mental safety relaxation. In fact, if the threat of violence or other insecurity persists, physiological changes will be permanent, in some cases.

The vagina responds to the sense of female safety, in that circulation expands, including to the vagina, when a woman feels she is safe; but the blood vessels to the vagina constrict when she feels threatened. This may happen before the woman consciously interprets her setting as threatening. So if you continually verbally threaten or demean the vagina in the university or in the workplace, you continually signal to the woman’s brain and body that she is not safe. “Bad” stress is daily raising her heart rate, pumping adrenaline through her system, circulating catecholamines, and so on. This verbal abuse actually makes it more difficult for her to attend to the professional or academic tasks before her.

The concluding remark underscores the conclusion from Wolf’s biography: the respect afforded to woman’s happiness, her way of achieving it, is integrally tied to her biological and emotional health, which is dependent upon not being threatened or treated disrespectfully, that her body, her vagina is not targeted, exploited or mistreated but treasured and valued.

The way in which any given culture treats the vagina — whether with respect or disrespect, caringly or disparagingly — is a metaphor for how women in general in that place and time are treated.

Doubting Women’s Sexuality

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And in a world where women’s narratives about their sexual experiences are routinely called into question, the debate over female ejaculation serves as a reminder that, when it comes to sex, we still don’t believe women. Even when they’re literally wetting the bedsheets with proof.

Lux Aulptraum, a self-proclaimed squirter, questions in The question isn’t if female ejaculation is real. It’s why you don’t trust women to tell you the attitudes toward women’s perceived sexual experience and women sexuality overall. She claims women’s sexual pleasure is suspect because it is hidden, imperceptible to her partner and herself.

What miffed me a tad was learning that Australia has a ban on female ejaculation in pornography on the chance that the ejaculatory substance might be urine and so obscene. Meanwhile, there is no scientific confirmation, according to this article, that female ejaculation is merely urination. Just goes to show you how much there is still a need for feminism.

Flash of Stillness: Playing Patience at the DMV

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Some virtues are beyond me. Patience, for instance, ever the teacher, lover and nemesis, eludes me today. As I sit in the hard plastic chair in the DMV, watching the screen to confirm the number announced courteously by the subtly enthusiastic electronic female voice, “Now serving number G095 at Window 13”, I sigh in exasperation. My number is G0172. It’s the second time in a month and a half that I have lost my driver’s license, and apparently the punishment is laid before me.

I want to pluck my eyeballs right out of my head at the thought of this wait in the stupefyingly catatonic government issue slate blues and grays of this Kafka-esque muffled, stifling prison. Too many dull civil servants shuffling paper among chair slumpers and leg shifters, all emitting muted boredom, disgust and defeat. No one appears to be content–merely a large aggregation of bodies connected only by will to the call of the numbers.

My daily practice of late has been precisely about this: finding contentment wherever I am. But not just the ordinary contentment of gratitude for a life lived in relative comfort and safety. For example, this may not be the best experience a late Friday afternoon has to offer, but at least I am not being held hostage in a bank. I will eventually leave this drone of hushed activity, having completed the exercise in obedient compliance with temporary license in hand.

And it is not mere at-oneness, presence within the space I am led to by attention to breath. That place is familiar to me as I have beckoned that presence to practice yoga on particularly distractible days, to preserve my sanity in extreme adversity, situations beyond my control such as waiting in a hospital room for test results, and to create–writing within the clasp of close observational sensation and thought.

No, the kind of contentment found in voluntary partial confinement among these resigned soldiers of complicity is not mere surrender; it is much more focused, pinpoint. It is the kind of contentment that comes in very small packages, minute actually, perhaps down to the cellular level. This cellular ease is squeezed out of a stillness and silence within that can hear the seduction of the computerized voice tapping into specific sensors in my brain, sliding across synapses that fire the corresponding response: chill. I hear the voice, calm, soothing, and yet infused with the transparency of its purpose. It’s experiencing and knowing all at once, an ultra alert moment of bathing light.

These moments of hyper awareness, like visualizing sound vibrations traveling across cilia in my ear canal to produce tones, reactions and information, store savory bits of future antidote to the haze of an overslept day just like today. They entertain and calm me when bored or anxious.

There are seemingly insignificant moments I can remember as mere hair’s breath of time and movement recorded so finely to capillary’s considered caress. I close my eyes in the echo of “Now serving…G108…” and summon one such scene of long ago to the black screen of my eyelids and I am there:

Walking out the door in a hurry, late for work, I don’t even notice as I rush past him. Evan near misses but manages to clasp my elbow on the fly. “Hey,” he says huskily. He has just awakened and struggles slightly with sleep-shorn disarray, a waver in his stance. Stopped, the momentum of my intention and determined pace is still rushing on ahead of me as my body is stilled before his eyes. “Hey,” he says again still clasping my elbow, my attention now filling my eyes that have been locked into his by the soft insistence of his gaze. He raises his free hand to my face and rests his four fingers, thumb-less, palm down, under my chin lightly. I feel the warmth of his morning hand and his embracing time. “Have a fine day.” The sound of his touch lingers. My racing pulse of wheeling stepped-to thought slowed in the honeyed silk of stilled breath and moment, somehow I sense I will.

I open my eyes, once again to the dimmed fluorescent daylight of the room. The 90s throw-back television screen flicks to G112 as I recover the speed of my breath, regulate it to the pace of the room’s still life painting of humans in suspended animation. Leaving behind the image on a slo-mo memory reel, I feel the filmy residue coating my mood–a clear outlook reset. The furrows in my brow have smoothed out, not merely caved into my face. The tension lines around my mouth are slightly faded.

Returning to the room, I imagine the civil space of 10 inches between my loudly sighing, glum neighbor and me, hitched to the same row of five chairs connected respectably, tolerably separated to allow both detached misery and connected commiseration in accordance with the building’s function. I will myself to blanket that distance with warmth like the heat of Evan’s hand emanating an atomic wave of empathic static connection.

Can he feel it? I have tuned out all voices, human or electronic, and squinch my sight with open eyes, twisting the last drop of intention from the tube of my will to touch him with an invisible hand. I turn to look at him, retreating from my straight-ahead-vision of the shaved head and neck of the body in front of me, but I only catch his departing blurred frame. His number, G118, is up.

Fortunate for him. Fifty-four more numbers to go. Twenty-five numbers in 90 minutes. Lots of time to practice patience and play at staking the heart of the energy vampire in this room. Luckily, I have a full flash drive of micro memory moments to fuel my efforts. Heck, I have time enough to remember where I lost my driver’s license in the first place.

Windowed Away

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Credit: i2.wp.com

Some people alight upon my life and walk apace awhile.
Others come and plant seeds that root belong-with-me,
even if merely for that moment, those days, those years.
I met just such a woman who came upon me suddenly,
though it was obvious I was asking her, “Come find me?”
And she did set foot upon the soil of my soddened lands.

We had nothing and everything in common: music, play,
hopes, dreams, fears, and all the unspoken known things.
She liked all the teams I couldn’t and ate what I wouldn’t,
like meat-burgers and fries for lunch on every other day.
From the south was she and I the north; she was waves,
I lines, but neither size nor shape moved us, not our taste.

We mattered to one another in most ways, assured ones.
She had the same window in her house, though we lived
in two different worlds facing polar ends of the same earth.
Our windows opened to onlookers peering in on mimicry
as if an ex ray technician looked down the bony guts of us.
We let the air open space flow alike in each our breaths.

But I have never visited her house, so have not looked in,
only glimpsed shots, yet she has walked under my window.
She has eyed me pacing the kitchen floor and mumbling;
she knows how I fold my clothes in too hurried an un-care
so that corners are not crisp and the shirts are not square.
She has spied the crackled walls of sun bleached golden.

Too, eyes witnessed my children laugh and fall to the floor,
her sight-following the line of their dance or pitched glares.
And I memorized photos of her children, callows and cars.
Though I have never stood, and may never glance there
not in front nor from any angle un-before her open window
where others tread her sandy yard on tippy toe’d high view.

She keeps the keys and I the lock but only in third space
where bespoken desire kept in cranial play, hands sleight,
strong caressing visions malleable as clay in divine heat
baking dust forming bodies from sleeping nudes raw lie.
Or not she but the neighbors circumscribe ruled borders
that walk the metes and bounds writ in maps and books.

In a dream, I am a-wing to her window open wide waiting
and through it I can see soft cornered shirts un-squared
and foot traces of trails paced fretting the kitchen tile floor.
Where acne’d stares beam dull, disillusioned indifference
among feline’d fallows, howling chuckled comforted glee,
and rosemary floating breezes clung to seamless walls.

“What’s Wrong with ‘All Lives Matter?'”

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George Yancy, Professor of Philosophy at Duquesne University, interviews Judith Butler, Professor of Comparative Literature at U.C. Berkeley, and asks “What’s Wrong with ‘All Lives Matter?'”, also the title of the article. He opens the discussion of race in light of recent demonstrations in the wake of black deaths and police brutality where slogans of ‘Black Lives Matter’ were extended by non-Blacks to “All Lives Matter.”

The article is a keen exposé of Butler’s views about how bodies–black, white, gendered, or monied, all kinds of bodies–matter, though some bodies do not matter. Specifically, black bodies do not matter by reason of the continued exposure to behaviors and preconceptions about their bodies– the black body as threat, and not only to police. She says we make assumptions about people, and those assumptions affect how we act toward others, whether we avoid interaction or find them a threat.

Sometimes a mode of address is quite simply a way of speaking to or about someone. But a mode of address may also describe a general way of approaching another such that one presumes who the other is, even the meaning and value of their existence. We address each other with gesture, signs and movement, but also through media and technology. We make such assumptions all the time about who that other is when we hail someone on the street (or we do not hail them). That is someone I greet; the other is someone I avoid. That other may well be someone whose very existence makes me cross to the other side of the road.

And not only is the black body as threat assumption institutionalized and reiterated through the disproportionate incarceration numbers of blacks to whites, arrests, relegation to poverty, etc., but concomitantly, whiteness, which is not a color so much as a predisposition of privilege, is normalized.

Whiteness is not an abstraction; its claim to dominance is fortified through daily acts which may not seem racist at all precisely because they are considered “normal.” But just as certain kinds of violence and inequality get established as “normal” through the proceedings that exonerate police of the lethal use of force against unarmed black people, so whiteness, or rather its claim to privilege, can be disestablished over time. This is why there must be a collective reflection on, and opposition to, the way whiteness takes hold of our ideas about whose lives matter. The norm of whiteness that supports both violence and inequality insinuates itself into the normal and the obvious. Understood as the sometimes tacit and sometimes explicit power to define the boundaries of kinship, community and nation, whiteness inflects all those frameworks within which certain lives are made to matter less than others.

The challenge to whiteness normativity is to saturate the culture (and thus reformulate preconceptions about race) with other conceptions of what is normal: Black Lives Matter. By insisting on that concept through persistent public demonstrations and exploitation of media, black lives can be seen first in the very insistence–that they have not mattered. To say that all lives matter, though true, is to ignore this first recognition–that certain lives do not.

She is right. We cannot just sweep up the protests in good feeling and treat everyone the same–because that is not how all people are in fact treated. The article is well worth reading for mapping the deliberate process of her thinking, how she moves through her thoughts to conclusion.