August 7, 2006
A Small/Short Assignment:
My writing idol Anne Lamott, author of Bird By Bird among other great books such as Operating Instructions, suggests, short/small assignments for writers as a way to keep the juices flowing. These small assignments can take you to places inside your soul you didn’t know were there or that you never thought you could or would allow yourself to uncover/relive/witness.
I gave myself a small assignment recently because it was one that I had been giving to my young tutoring clients. “What quality do you admire in others? Who has this quality and do you have this quality?”
I chipped away at this assignment for a few days and it just kept going and going.
So…here’s my attempt at this. In the Raw and Naked form:
The quality I admire in my fellow human being is a non-apologetic tenacity to remain connected to ones own gut, ones own Truth. Truth as in a doing/action/expression that is truly in line with oneself, even if other people call that doing/action/expression wrong or bad. Obviously this is within reason. If murder is your Truth and you act on it, I don’t admire that. Simply put, I admire human beings who speak their mind and do what they want, despite societal constriction/pressure/norms. Speaking your mind even when faced with an audience that does not feel the same as you.
I admire the following people for the above ability: Howard Stern, Madonna, Rosie O’Donnell. Rosa Parks. Martin Luther King. Now, would I be friends with any of the people I just named? Rosa Parks–definitely. MLK–no doubt. Madonna–nope. HS–YEAS! Rosie O’Donnell–probably not.
I guess that also means I even admire someone like Archie Bunker. Of course he is a character. Don’t know if I would admire a real-life Archie Bunker. But I would admire the act, the “doing” of his expressing his own opinions even if they are not the opinion that society as a whole supports. So I guess that begs the questions….are there parameters on this quality I admire? Do I admire terrorists? Do I admire members of the KKK? Do I admire Hitler?
Here’s the parameters: This expression of truth has to be an expression of non violence. So I guess I even admire someone like Mel Gibson? No, here’s another parameter: the person cannot be inebriated by alcohol when this Truth is expressed. If he was a real man, he would admit his anti-Semitism while sober. That, I wouldn’t like, but I might admire.
So I guess this also means that my admiration of this quality is not black and white. Also, I don’t completely admire anyone who speaks their mind without censoring for an audience. I think now I get into what I find offensive and if that stuff is expressed I don’t admire that. If you are expressing something with the intention ah there it is I think I have to add something else to this quality: I admire a person who has a pure heart and intention when expressing their views and feelings about highly touchy subjects in front of audiences who do not agree. I admire a person who knowingly and willingly takes this risk. Ah so there is more to my admiration. It is truly admirable if you risk being booed and shunned and made fun of for expressing your beliefs. Because that means you are brave and very much connected to your Truth. So I guess I admire bravery. And bravery to me involves an emotional and psychological risk.
Here are a few examples:
So lets say you are Jewish and feel strongly about your Jewishness and are in a room filled with anti-Semites yet you still– I don’t know– eat matzo and rave about the wonders of Hanukkah. You wear a chai (sp) and have a Star of David medallion swinging off your neck. I admire that.
I don’t think I am that courageous about my own Jewishness. I have a lot of fears around that. Fears of being killed. Fears of death and dying and war. While I love being Jewish, I don’t want to die and wouldn’t die in the vain of my religion. If I were in a room of anti-Semites, I would remain quiet and tuck my chai into my shirt.
Or, lets get deeper; you are a Jew who loves being a Jew and are in a room filled with anti-Semites….well, maybe that’s not admirable if you willingly did that, right? I mean that could be dangerous and, therefore, stupid, right? I always think that if I had been around during the holocaust, I would have dyed my hair blond and pretended to be a gentile, as that would save my life, and honestly, I believe that at the same time speaking your truth is truly admirable, I also believe in saving your ass so you CAN live to speak your truth. But then again, I look at how many holocaust victims and survivors did go into hiding, did conceal themselves and their identity and sometimes did both and yet still were caught and killed or just caught and tortured. I look at their hiding and concealing as trying to survive, though. Not as hiding who they were. I admire anyone who clings and clutches to life even if it seems like the events of their lives will knock them down and kill them. I admire that tenacity and clinging and clutching to living to life. Survival, trying to survive no matter the fears, that is admirable. So I guess what I am saying here is that it is stupid to knowingly and willingly put yourself in a dangerous situation even if it is in line with speaking/expressing/doing your Truth. So what about reporters who go in to get stories in middle east and get killed? Danny Pearl. Was he stupid? No. He was brave. So there’s another little linchpin. If your risking of your life is for the betterment of humanity, man, that that is truly brave and not stupid.
I struggle as I write. I find myself slipping back to how I used to feel earlier this year when I was using my writing in the same way I used to use food and exercise years ago–to try and control the uncontrollable which are my own feelings, other people’s feelings, and the actions of others. It seems like I am trying to come to some neat and tidy conclusion so that I can control how I feel about this particular homework assignment and what writing about it has brought up for me. So I am going to step back and make space for this internal struggle I feel in this moment.
Struggle. This one is not big or scary really. But it is a tug-of-war in my mind. SO here I go….ah…I have just released the rope. Okay. SO I am standing without the struggle any more. What do I notice? Pain and sadness. In thinking about who I admire and what quality I admire I feel uncomfortable….ahhhh haaaa…..with my own imperfections about my own ability to speak my mind and truth.
More examples…Self-Published Author
Or maybe you are a self-published author at a conference with mainstream authors or other writers who want to published and believe that self-publishing is sub-par and maybe even wrong. Maybe they believe that self-publishing is a big f.u. to the publishing industry. Maybe they find you offensive or egotistical or obnoxious for “paying to publish” because “good literature” must come from the long and grueling process and the wait and see game of submitting to mainstream publishers. Or this: if you were so talented and so good, you wouldn’t have to pay to get your work published. Maybe they have so many internal rules about writing and hell LIFE in general that they find your going ahead and publishing without the permission and backing and financing of a mainstream publisher to be bawdy and bold and WRONG. As if you were at a formal tea party swilling a beer and scratching your belly and then letting a big burp out. In this case, I do not fear death or violence. A fear that drives me in this scenario is the fear that I will allow my own self-consciousness and my own fears about not having people like me dictate my behavior and actions. Simply put, I fear that I will let fear control me. Like it did on the playground in fourth grade when Brandy whatshername called me kike and pummeled my chest and I just stood there saying nothing except someone go get a teacher. F- I regret not kicking the sh-t out of her. Of screaming back, yes I am a kike, you stupid white trash b-tch! I’m a kike and I’m PROUD.
Allowing other people’s biases and opinions and prejudice to make me curl into a ball and become shameful because I don’t have their approval. That’s the thing I fear with this. So I will stand up and shout and wear my self-published badge of courage proudly. After all, look what it is they are accusing me of, look at the ignorance with which they judge, and look at the self-hatred they must feel to be judging me so harshly so morally about something that is not a moral issue. Come on. Pay to publish…who cares?
Ooops. I’ve picked up my rope again. I went and reread the above section, and the word self-hatred made me grab that rope, and think f-you I will fight you all your demons. You demons inside that make me struggle to love and like and forgive myself. So what if I don’t respond perfectly to every time someone puts me down. So what if I don’t always stick up for myself forcibly. So what if I fumble and lose my great come backs. So what if I shouted for help and couldn’t swing back. So what if my thoughts as I write aren’t perfect.
Oh and now I may have dropped the rope again but that just left room for more uncomfortableness and foggyness in my brain and something just swam to the front of my mind and please forgive me…..but my older sister¬– words from the past. I see my older sister shaking her finger at me, barking sharply and her mouth opening and closing quickly. Her brow is furrowed. Her words are so logical. Her argument so smooth I find myself– inside– my stomach tightens and my throat closes and I am six or maybe eleven or eight. She is screaming and I don’t know what about I can’t make out the individual words because I am so scared I can’t hear and yet all I can do is hear her and see her wagging that finger. I grow tinier and smaller and I shrink back and feel like she has hit me twenty times in the stomach and fifteen times in the face and she is going on and on and shaking that finger and her mouth is opening and closing and–
I reach for the rope again but just pause before I pick it up because the vision in my head stops. It is all silence inside my brain. But I know that feeling. Wrong. You are wrong. You have done something bad. You have hurt me, insulted me. I will never forgive you ever…I hate you.
I disappear. I am nothing without her love. Visions of laying in her bed when she went to Israel for six weeks. Looking up at the ceiling and thinking about how close I felt to her. How clean and organized her room was. How I wanted to be her. How I wished I could slip inside her skin…how I would pull her clothes over my own and pretend I was her. Put my hair the way she wore hers. Talk on the phone like she did to her friends. In her room, I was close to her, no, I was her and she seemed to be so much better at life than me, so much more controlled and in control. Smarter and wittier.
In my sister’s room I was at peace for those six weeks. I never slept in my parents room, like I had my whole life. I never felt afraid to be alone. I never felt anxious. I had sleepovers and felt interesting and fun with my friends. I was more of who I wanted to be.
But I was still eight years old, messy, talkative, loud, silly Hannah and I didn’t clean up her room properly or put things back exactly where I found them and when she came home she got in my face and said those words with her wagging finger: I hate you. You are so obnoxious and horrible. You are a pig. I HATE you. I will never ever forgive you or be nice to you again. Then she turned and slammed me out of her room forever.
Funny, I just got off the phone with her. She had left me a message, and in it wanted to know if I was okay, that I seemed on edge this weekend while we were at the beach. She wished me a happy anniversary.
I love when she does this. Sometime she calls to see if I am okay or just to check in. I love her concern. It is sweet. It’s sisterly. Sometimes she calls to tell ask me if we need things, like porch furniture or a bureau. She’s always redoing and rearranging her house and her stuff is always great. She always asks me if we need anything. I love that too.
We don’t live in that old sister sibling rivalry place any more and we get along very well, rarely a fight between us. Our kids love each other and play nicely.
So somehow, asking myself what quality I admire in a person led me to my sister. No more to the feeling I captured, like a snapshot that is posted inside my brain for me to always look at, not consciously look at, but more as part of the setting and scene of my mind, when I was small. Of all the scaring things that happened to me, this is the one I hold on to and replay the most so much so that it is on auto play and I don’t even know I have not hit the stop button. What if I did?
Does this mean I admire my sister? Does she have this quality? You know what, I don’t even want to examine that. My answer to that question……if I answer that, in a way, I am speaking for her. I don’t think at this point in my life and where I am at that I have any desire to answer that because in so doing I judge her. I don’t value that, judging others. It is not a behavior I value with respect to my family and friends. SO I will not answer that. But I can stand back and look at how there’s a connection between speaking ones mind and my sister. There’s a connection there.
And I realize it is this: I have been frightened to do that. Speak my mind to her. Afraid of her opinion about what I do with my life. Because I replay that moment from our childhood, because that snapshot of her return from Israel is still in my mind. I think if I took down the photo in my mind and then hit the stop button I might have a different experience in front of her. It might bring me closer to her.
This “small assignment” led me to topics that are tender to my spirit. Topics that touch all kinds of nerves, feelings, emotions. As a writer, if a topic hits a sore spot, the job is to continue writing, not so much to make the sore spot go away, but to co-exist with the sore spot, this ends the struggle with the sore spot so that it can just be sore and not sore plus struggle. Like it’s a scab and instead of picking it, I just live with it and continue on my life.
FYI: The best writing comes from acknowledging and exploring the sore spots.