Friday, 26 July 2013

Kill the Good Witch

A friend recently expressed the hope that a recalcitrant adult child would one day see the error of her way, return as a welcomed prodigal.  The friend in question is a good woman.  I, on the other hand, am a mental health professional.  Nary the two shall live inside the same skin.

As I explained why neurologically and psychologically, this was impossible, the woman’s expression moved close to horrified.  I’m not sure if it’s because I seemed to lack compassion or that I’d said if the parental bond didn’t produce the requisite hardwiring in the child’s brain during the first six weeks of life, then everyone was shit out of luck.  Fairy tale ending denied.  It does seem rather harsh of me.

Social etiquette aside, what is our responsibility as story tellers, when it comes to conflict resolution?  The dramatic arc demands we deal with the protagonist’s conflict in a way that includes internal change.  A quiet pressure exists that the change be for the better.  If you’ve read Wicked, then seen the musical, you know what I mean.  It’s as if some part of our brain can’t stand to bond with a character and then let this fictitious being fail.  Our monsters are relegated to genre fiction, and even those monsters have become guises for feel good stories.  It’s as if everything has been touched by Glenda’s magic wand.

Glenda the Good
In support of the Glenda Effect, life has tragedy built in, so perhaps we need a little good cheer, even if it’s manufactured.  Happy endings give us hope.  Stories about people changing from bad to good, help us to see the path to our own change.  There is a place for happy endings in adult stories and I’m not going to elaborate on it, because to be honest, we do happy endings so well that we risk losing our creative lives in a big Blue Fairy haze.

To refute the Glenda Effect, ask yourself – how unprepared do we become by nurturing our psychological selves on this fantastically positive world view?  If our perspective is sanitised, then we can’t begin to gain the skills needed to cope with the ever present evil out there.  

Okay, Madam Grumpy Pants, you say, if evil is ever present, how ARE we ignoring it?

Well, I see a lot of victim blaming.  To me, victim blaming is a way of saying, that’s not evil.  That’s stupidity.  If you hadn’t worn that skirt, if you were more firm with your ex-wife, if you didn’t offer to help, if you walked away, plugged your ears and chanted la-la-la-la-la as loud as you could, then yes, there would be no evil in your life. 

I see a lot of excuse making.  The rapist is immature, foolish, has a great future ahead of him.  The nuisance litigator was adopted, feels insecure.  The person accused of assault was/is unemployed, drunk, has six toes and a poor self image.  For some reason, the hard luck stories of people who do bad things are given more consideration than their victim’s suffering is. 

I see a lot of depression.  People raised on the 50 minute solution to life’s most difficult problems, live in a world where every solution, if it ever comes, is a long term process.  People who think hard work and talent bring success, don’t know how to cope with the good ole boy network.  People who are told there is good in everyone, keep thinking if they themselves do something even more altruistic than they’ve done during the last ten years, then the selfish, hurtful people in their lives will respond to this great love and transform into decent human beings.  When none of this happens, when a person’s entire world view collapses, it’s tantamount to soul crushing grief.  Some of those people don’t survive that grief.

I see a lot of anger.  Because when you’re harassed at work, taken to court again and again in nuisance suits, when your views are not listened to because you’re female, queer, Muslim, African, you pointing it out makes people think you’re a malcontent.  If you aren’t overcome by depression, there’s sure as hell a likelihood you’re going to get mad.  Anger in a world that doesn’t acknowledge evil will blossom into evil itself.

And your little dog, Toto, too.
Humans are creatures of light and shadow.  In visual art, without shadow, there’s no perspective, the image is confined within two dimensions.  Writing is no different.  You need to have a moral landscape that rises and falls, or your story is flat.

Consider what the Glenda Effect does to you as a writer if you never step outside her Blue Fairy bubble.  Regardless of the ending you give to your publisher, explore the possibility that it isn’t stupidity.  That in fact, it is evil.

Friday, 19 July 2013

To Honour My Son

Outside Congregation
My son graduated from university this week.  With his ear, lip and tongue piercings, sleeve tattoo, pink hair and purple shirt, he collected his First Class Honours Degree in Creative Writing, bagged the Best Creative Writing Project and the Creating Futures Studentship Prize.  They gave him a full scholarship for his MA degree.

My son, aka El Punko, is one of the bravest people I know, even though it sometimes requires a little bitty pill to get him through a prose reading.  He transitioned in his teens with the same focus that he now edits the online magazine, Alliterati.  If you cannot imagine how much guts that took, he once intervened when a man hit a woman.  The man beat him up and no one tried to help.  I feel safe saying El Punko is braver than most. 

El Punko is compassionate.  When he decided to transition, he researched the psychology behind Gender Identity because he knew the second sentence out of my mouth would be, What did I do to cause this?  On his graduation trip across Europe, he collected a day pack full of books to bring home to his info junkie step-father.  As we take his step-ma around the north of England this week and I see them together, he with his creative mind and she with her mathematical brain, El Punko carrying her bag of gifts for the people back home, he walks to meet her speed, his affection and attachment to her very real.  I admire him more for his compassion, than for his bravery or academic excellence.

The magic begins.
When I first became his mother, he asked me to be a better person than I’d planned to be.  As an infant, he asked this of me.  Babies do that.  It felt like a burden, in some sense, that there would always be this other person who could call for me in the night, expect me to vanquish whatever lurked under the bed, be it trans-phobia or the loss of his father.

But as we waited to go into the ceremony, I felt that shift in him, like some subterranean plate.  He wouldn’t be calling for me in the night anymore.  He didn’t need to.  And I felt overwhelming joy for him, because I’ve known all along, he can do it on his own.

Congratulations, El Punko.  The world is waiting for you.

Friday, 12 July 2013

Taking on Snakes

Will all Freudians please refrain from laughing?  Thank you.  Last night I dreamt about a snake.  (Titter titter *scowl* silence)

There was a woman who had a snake.  She had a snake and she loved her husband very, very much.  Her husband loved me.  The woman who loved her husband and had a snake, she died.  The snake slithered into an orange crate at the back of an out building and hid.  I went to the snake, called its name.  It slithered up my offer, draped itself over my shoulders.  

As I walked through my dream, every person I saw had a snake on their shoulders.  Some snakes were unacknowledged by their person but they were still there.  Sometimes my adopted snake would slither down and consult with another snake.  I would chat with the other snake’s person, like you do when Big Nose has to sniff the unmentionables of another dog. 

The snake and I met a man sitting on a bench who had no snake.  My snake got down and went to him.  They consulted.  A woman sitting on another bench told the man, who was a doctor, that the sadness of it all was I had to tend the snake, fine snake though it was, who had killed my friend.  Which wasn’t true.  I don’t know if the snake killed her, but she hadn’t been my friend.  Yet to tell the truth would make the dead woman a figure of pity in everyone’s eyes.  As an act of kindness, I didn’t tell the truth.  It felt like part of the debt.

I woke up from my snake dream with this sentence in my head:  The debts we owe each other are the bonds we make.  Emotional bonds as debts?  Relationships are based on emotional credit?  What bullshit.  I went to take my shower.

And there between the facial scrub and the shampoo, the snake of debt applied itself to my relationships.  Parent and child.  Siblings.  Spouse.  Friends.  Big Nose Dog.  I didn’t feel that I owed any of them anything.  What I gave to these people (and dog), I gave voluntarily.  Because I care for them.  Because I want them in my life.  Because I want their lives to be good.

Those are the easy bonds.  The light weight snakes, if you will.  What about the wives of the men who love us?  What about the opinionated woman on the bench?  What about the man of healing who has no bonds at all?  If we don’t already love someone, what do we owe them?  What snake are we willing to take on our shoulders?

Anyone who has lived into adulthood knows that some snakes are constrictors.  Some snakes will coil around your life and press the air out of it so they can consume it.  We shouldn’t take any old snake onto our shoulders.  But many people at a certain time in their lives, they don’t take on any new snakes at all.  They’ve reached their snake quota, so to speak, which leaves many a discarded snake curled up in a dusty old orange crate somewhere.  A snake that could lead us to meet new people.  A snake that could help us understand and give dignity to the life of a woman who loved her husband and had a snake. 

Perhaps the snake calls us to take on something for no other reason than that the debt exists.  Or the task.  Or the duty.  Or the act of kindness, if you will.  Oh, altruism, you say.  Yes, yes, we know all about that.  Good works.  Yes, yes, soft hearted people with not much else on their plates, they take care of those things.  Not people like us whose lives are filled with children and grandchildren, friends and church and cosying up to the local peer.  We give to charity and that’s enough.

And maybe it is.  Understanding the dignity of the woman who loved her husband and had a snake, that comes without reciprocity.  She’s dead and her snake is your problem now.  There’s no love to sweeten the deal.  Just truth without bias or self interest.  It’s easy to see that taking on snakes isn’t for everyone.

Friday, 5 July 2013

A Cock of My Own

In the first chapter of A Room of Ones Own, Virginia Woolf walks around Oxbridge to formulate ideas for a talk on Women and Fiction.  She absently wanders off the gravel path and excites a black robed beadle to fly at her.  Grass is for men to walk on, as if women secrete acid from the soles of their feet.  Later she muses about Charles Lamb and Tennyson, goes to the library to check the manuscripts and is refused entry lest her female eyes burn the manly words from the page.  She has an opulent lunch in the men’s college, a miserly dinner in the women’s and concludes that the mothers and grandmothers and great grandmothers of all women have squandered their resources so that their daughters and granddaughters and great granddaughters have dry biscuits after tea.

You have to love Virginia Woolf.
Virginia, not on the grass.

This week, the Butler and I finally got to see a play we’ve been hearing about for months, although it’s been around for a few years, both in the West End and on Broadway.  We had trouble booking two seats together but managed a place in the belfry.  I won’t mention the title, because it’s a bit of a Holy Grail and I didn’t like it.  Rather than a script, it was a collection of diatribes interspersed with the repetitive artifice of an educated person not understanding the English of a working class person.  The dramatic arc had the pitch of the fens before they were drained; the burden of sentimentality nearly made me turn down the offer of chocolate ice cream at interval.  Nearly, but not fully.

And I thought to myself in my luscious-biscuit deprived female brain, I am so tired of the reverence for the two-dimensionality of male writers.  It’s not a room of my own that I need as a female writer, but a cock of my own.

After the curtain call, one of the actors gave an appeal for another actor who'd played his role previously.  The man in question had suffered a stroke, couldn’t walk or speak, his pittance of allotted medical treatment expired and the only way he could have more was by the cast begging us to contribute to his care.  This, in the week where Cameron said he could do nothing about the proposed £7500 pay increase for MPs.  I thought I might vomit, had it not been the chocolate ice cream that would be sacrificed for the sake of outrage.  How do we consider ourselves civilised?  We should not.

The upside of all this – and there will be an upside because it’s me writing, rather than Virginia Woolf who believed that truth always wins out in fiction, while I tend to like a bit of self delusion.  So the upside of this is that the juxtaposition of my misandry with the neglect of the stroke victim made me, in good Catholic fashion, examine my sin; I’d forgotten that we’re in this together.

The Butler teaching Calypso to cook in his absence.
Down the Appalachian boreen to the room of my own now.  I write at home in front of a bay window, a display for the villagers who pass on their way to buy a paper.  The Butler calls me for lunch on the days he’s not working, does odd jobs, takes Big Nose for a walk and is greatly unappreciated, for the most part.  Once when he pointed this out to me, I, who am the repository of impeccable logic said to him, if the room of my own were outside the house, he wouldn’t feel his arguments had merit.  A few days later, the Butler found me emptying the dryer during the day and said if I worked outside the home, I couldn’t empty the dryer, so get back to work.  It’s amazing that living with a cock of his calibre, I can manage even a quiver of misandry.  I’m gifted, I suppose.

The point being, when we don’t get what we need, we sometimes fall into the trap of saying it’s because someone else has better biscuits.  And that’s what keeps the imbalance of it all going.  You hear the story of the stroke victim and say, isn’t it great that immigrants are going to be charged £1000 so they’re no longer drains to the NHS!  You don’t think that immigrants can only be in this country to work or study.  The workers pay taxes.  The students pay tuition fees.  You just think, the actor can’t get what he needs because someone else has taken it.

The Butler butling.
I’m not saying inequity doesn’t exist.  It’s all around us in everything we do.  Women may be able to walk on the grass in Oxbridge now, menstruating at will; I hardly know.  But you have to be totally deaf, dumb and blind, perhaps on some very lovely drugs if you think women writers are treated equally to men.  Or Black writers to White.  Or Muslim writers to Christian.  Or gay writers to straight.  What I’m saying is that it doesn’t solve the problem if women take from men, Blacks from Chinese, Muslim from Jews, Gays from straights. 

There was an article making the Twitter rounds this week, written about cuts to the arts.  The writer figured that cuts should reflect the ‘fact’ that the primary audiences for theatre were in London.  Up here in the north, people didn’t take that attitude lying down and rightly so.  In the comments to the article, someone wrote that he wasn’t going to cry because the government wouldn’t fund people to have fun.  The arts are frivolous, I reckon, and that person obviously never benefited from a book or a TV program or movie.

Both the writer of the article, however, and the person who commented on it, made value judgements which said, I am better than you are.  I am in London, so I deserve more money than Northerners.  I have a serious job that contributes in a quantifiable manner to society, so I deserve more money than the arts.

Neither said, these are our tax pounds.  Stop building duck houses on someone’s private property at the cost of a four digit figure.  Stop waging war.  Educate.  Provide medical treatment.  Create wonder.  Take care of all of us, not just the group I belong to.

You and I, we are both human, which means we’re prone to human frailty.  But we are also people of the arts.  Even if you don’t write or act or dance or sing, you are creative.  And that’s what’s needed.  Not self advocacy.  Not more interest groups.  Not a cock of my own, but creativity.  Creative solutions to the problems our frailties have caused.  Let’s no longer silence voices, be it through lack of funding or lack of medical care after a stroke.  Let’s see our commonalities rather than our differences.

The Butler creating wonder.
A long time ago in a Catholic Church far away, a priest said that hell was a banquet where guests sat at a long table covered with the finest foods and drinks, but they couldn’t bend their elbows to reach their mouths.  Heaven was also a banquet where guests sat at a long table covered with the finest foods and drinks, and couldn’t bend their elbows.  The difference was that in heaven, people reached across the table and fed the person in front of them.  Let’s try making a little bit of heaven, if just for today.  Reach across the table to the person in front of you, whomever it might be, and feed them what’s on your plate.  If we each do that, the solution for all of us begins.