Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Can You Handle the Truth? (Part 1)

In my new novel, Aberrations, the characters uncover truths about themselves that are quite difficult to handle. The main character, Angel, must deal with issues that cut to the core of her identity. In my own life, I've also had to confront truths, some that were hidden from me, and some hidden by me. Now, I'm learning to accept, and even embrace, the reality of my unique life.

Sometimes the truth grabs you right where it hurts and strangles the life away. Maybe you were out looking for the truth, trying to sort through your life, or that of another, digging up the past, shoveling into the present, hoping to uncover and understand what you're really dealing with. Or perhaps the truth was thrown at you when you least expected it. Maybe it slapped you in the face and made you realize that the life, relationship, or goals you had just aren't working. Something has got to give, to change, but now you're standing alone, trapped in a whirlwind of emotion, making it difficult to move.

Don't lose heart. It's tough to know what to do when you realize your next steps could alter the life you know in ways you can't quite visualize. Knowing what to do next and then doing the right thing can be just as difficult as living in the midst of a lie, but having the courage to move forward will put you on the right path. It may be dark at first. It may be lonely. It may or may not be a path filled with flowers and light, but it's the right one.

In this two-part blog entry, I'll share my thoughts, ten points total, on accepting truth when it seems to smack you down. I don't have all the answers but I'll share the outcome of years of stewing over the truth issue. It's likely the stew I'm cooking will take a lifetime but I have to believe that my simmering pot can provide some good food for thought.

Dig in!

1. Sometimes the truth hurts and that's okay. Two key elements that make us more advanced than animals, particularly Ostriches, are intelligence and emotional complexity. Whether you were searching for the truth, or whether it hit you in the face like an unexpected baseball bat, it likely hurts to some degree. Did you think it would be all rosy, that somehow your heart would swell simply because you finally discovered the truth? Did you think the information wouldn't hurt you? If you asked for the truth, how can you complain now? If you didn't ask for it but got it anyway, the pain stinks but is a necessary evil. Regardless of the scenario, the truth hurts because it's real, an almost tangible element of the life you lead. The pain tells you you're still alive. If we had little emotional complexity, perhaps it wouldn't hurt. If we lacked intelligence, we might not realize the implications or mistakes associated with the new information. To be fully alive and awake in our own lives, it's essential to feel a wide range of emotion. When you emerge on the other side, you'll be different, better, and wiser. You'll have more to give.

2. You can't change the truth. By definition, the truth is the true or actual state of a matter. It is an indisputable fact or reality. It is accurate. If you change it, twist it, manipulate it, or ignore it, it will not retain its integrity and you'll be left, again, with a lie. You'll be back were you started. Sometimes people want to go back but once you know the truth, it's either impossible or unhealthy to go back, to pretend your life away. Is going back what you really want? Sometimes we want something so badly that we begin to believe it. We believe all kinds of lies. We pretend all kinds of things because it's fun and it feels better than facing reality. Some people can continue this charade for quite awhile, some do it until the day they die. But isn't that what childhood is all about? If we're lucky, we're granted those early years to play and pretend and try out all kinds of scenarios. As we mature, we realize that there are realities to life, some harsher than others. Accepting the truth will take you places that children can't often go.

3. You're better off knowing the truth. Sometimes we believe that if we simply don't know the truth, we'll be fine. If you don't know the spaceship you're riding in isn't real, you can keep enjoying it, right? Well, that could be true in some cases; however, do you really want to be the person who's sitting on the bed thinking they're in a spaceship when everyone else is standing by the bed thinking, why doesn't he realize that he's just sitting on a bed going nowhere? What does that really do for you in the long run? What is your life about anyway? Do you have goals? Do you have dreams? How can you accomplish your goals and dreams if you're too busy using up so much energy orchestrating a dream to live in? In this case, the truth can set you free and free you up to pursue real life.

4. Life is stranger than fiction, and so is the truth. One of the most satisfying elements of fiction is its ability to make sense of life. Life, and sometimes truth, is stranger than fiction. Fiction gives us nice, neat outcomes and explanations while life drags us along, wrapping chains around our hearts and minds. The frustrating reality is that truth doesn't always afford us the privilege of complete understanding; sometimes it just doesn't make sense, which makes it harder to accept. The challenge is then to resist being stuck in a time, place, or situation that is beyond your ability to navigate. It stinks and it's tough but the best way forward is to accept that there are situations in life that can't be understood, and that your time is best spent focused on your true circle of influence. This may be the most difficult long-term challenge when faced with the truth. It can lead to regret, obsession, and bitterness. The key is to focus on what you see ahead and on what is available to you now.

More on this next week ...

Monday, May 19, 2008

Blather, Drivel, Piffle, and Lies

Try saying that five times.

It all means crap--the nonsense kind. I don’t like it but I’m forced to live with it. We’re all forced to in some form or another. Sometimes the piffle and lies are shallow and just plain irritating, but sometimes the blather and drivel is so dark and deep that it blinds us. And the strange thing is--we often create the crap we’re floating in, while the inconvenient truth struggles to toss in a rope.

Many of the characters in my novel, Aberrations, live with lies that are eventually exposed. Why do we tend to burden ourselves with secrets that we know will one day be revealed? Perhaps we want to prolong the illusion that we‘re something more than what we are. Most lies and secrets revolve around something we’re ashamed of, whether it’s beyond our control or related to our own actions. Either way, keeping it hidden usually doesn't help in the long run. Don’t we all know that by now?

I’m as guilty as anyone of living a lie. When I was much younger, I lied, telling myself that someone stoic and cold loved me. I got myself into a blinding situation so dark and deep that it nearly took my life … one of those stranger than fiction stories. More recently, I lied about something that put a nasty wedge between me, myself, and I. I’m still climbing my way out of that one. Why do I do this?

Sometimes the blather, drivel, piffle and lies come because we just want everything to be alright. We don’t want to see anyone hurt, especially those we love, respect, or depend upon. But it's based on a much more selfish need, I suppose, when you examine it. On the surface, we don’t want to wound others but maybe, just maybe, there’s a deeper need at play--the need to avoid putting ourselves through it all. Am I so selfish that I can’t provide reality to those around me? Are you?

Sometimes the lies we tell ourselves cause the most misery. Once embalmed in the spongy comfortable rut, it molds our thoughts, motives, and decisions. I wish every person who ever lied to me, or held back the truth, could come forward now and lay it on the line. Maybe it’s bad news. You never loved me. You used me. You simply didn’t give a rat's ass about my career, my dreams, or my feelings. Or maybe you just didn't understand truth at the time. Maybe there was something you wanted to express but didn't, couldn’t, or chose not to. Maybe the guy I loved all those years ago actually loved me, too. Maybe he just couldn’t put a name to the emotion. Maybe we were too immature to handle ourselves, much less each other.

The main character of my novel, Angel Duet, says, “There has to be a common thread, a rope of truth runnin’ through all these worlds you’re always talkin’ about. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to hang on to?” Like Angel, I want an honest life, a realistic one to hang on to. I’ve found that the hardest part of that promise is the ability to be honest with myself. If I can’t achieve that, how can I be honest with you? Next time I love someone new, which may be never, I’ll just say it. I’ll make Jon Mayer proud; I’ll say what I need to say. I may find myself staring at someone’s back, but I’ll know I gave a gift that means something to the recipient no matter what they give or feel in return--truth. I don’t think you realize the full extent of giving and receiving truth until you’ve lived a little, especially without it.

Giving the truth, no matter how uncomfortable, painful, or intense it feels at the moment enables you to live with less regret. It’s something to work at. I've used up the first half of my life figuring that out. I know now that I only have one life and it’s getting shorter. Time that used to drag now drags me. It’s flying through my hair and although nice and breezy, it blows my life about, making it more difficult to focus on the details but somehow easier to feel the larger picture. My head is spinning. My kids are growing. My nose is already getting bigger. The complexity of life is expanding like an accordion I don’t know how to play. I just keep staring at it, mesmerized by its engineering. The music it creates and all those dancing monkeys have me spellbound.

Lying takes so many complex forms. I don’t believe in, nor do I choose to live in, a purely black and white world. Life is labyrinthine; that’s the beauty of it. Happiness is multi-faceted, and I’m old enough to know that I may not have every corner covered on any given day, week, or year. Angel admits that she sees the truth, but more times than not, fails to grasp it. She fails to appreciate the unique before it passes away, or beauty in blossom, or gifts that are actually free. I’ll try not to fail at that anymore. I desperately want all that free stuff since what I have to pay for is so damn expensive.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Home Sweet Hollywood South

This week’s edition of Entertainment Weekly tells us, “This month, in Shreveport, La., Oliver Stone begins filming a dark, comic, and already controversial movie about George W. Bush’s unlikely rise to power.” Stone’s movie ‘W’ is one of 22 separate projects, with a combined budget of 190 million dollars, slated for production in Shreveport this year alone. My brother and I used to call it Shreve-pit, the armpit of America. Our relationship with our barren hometown was akin to siblings yelling at each other while actually sharing a deep, unspoken love. Shreveport’s come a long way since then. On the West Coast, it’s now known as Hollywood South. Examples of movies made in Shreveport in the last few years are: Mr. Brooks, Premonition, Factory Girl, Mad Money, and Harold and Kumar: Escape from Guantanamo Bay.

When I was a kid, there was nothing to do in Shreveport except ride your bike, try to keep cool, eat fried chicken, and collect sunburns that peeled. In high school, we drove our cars around for fun. Many a night, we congregated on a fairly secluded, narrow, poorly paved downtown road by the Red River. It now hosts casinos, parking garages, and what seems like a hundred restaurants. You just can’t go home again, right?

The Shreveport I grew up in was extremely hot and fairly oppressive. Perhaps you grew up in a similar place. It doesn’t mean that positive things weren’t happening; that slow change wasn’t underway. Just like anywhere, Shreveport was filled with many wonderful people with good intentions. There was, literally, a church on every corner -- preaching love and acceptance-- yet the racial divide was so pronounced even in the 1980s that my 70% Caucasian high school elected a Caucasian set and an African-American set of class favorites. Two sets for each grade. Also, girls like me were insidiously discouraged from playing high school sports. That was what the tough African-American girls did. They made up the softball and basketball team with a token Caucasian mixed in. Those token girls were considered unladylike. They were immediately labeled. In fact, all the types of people one could be were rigidly defined. And they labeled you; you were rarely granted the option of labeling yourself.

One time in 5th grade, I played with three African-American boys at recess. Afterwards, my blond teacher pulled me aside to ask if there was a problem. “Did they hurt you?” she asked, her concerned eyes probing over me. I stared at her, wide eyed, ponytails baking, thinking, why is she asking me this? As I matured, there were many times when I questioned the logic and fairness of it all. Like the time, in 1985, when I experienced my first college rush week. As a member of the sorority, I was expected to help decide which new hopefuls would be invited to join our sisterhood. Slides of each girl were projected onto the wall as we discussed whether she was a good fit or not. When a picture of the one African-American girl brave enough to try made the wall, I was shocked at the comments. It was decided that, even though she was one of the nicest, smartest applicants, we couldn’t possibly allow her to join. We would become the black sorority. That’s how it starts and there would be no turning back.

I dropped out of the sorority the following week. The sisters were furious; you just don’t drop out, they said. It was unthinkable, down-right rude, a slap in the face to my sisters. So then I had one more label to put with all the rest I’d collected. Looking back, I think leaving that particular sisterhood was one of the most honorable things I did as a young person. I wish now that I’d done more.

Now, from Philadelphia, I see my hometown in movies, splashed across the big screen in my basement. I see the pine trees, the old high school on Line Avenue, Barksdale Air Force Base, and the Texas Street Bridge filled with movie stars and drama. Now, I drive my eight-year-old daughter to soccer and basketball practice, and wait for her to attend a high school that doesn't have class favorites. Where teenagers, like my oldest daughter, now in college, open their mouths in disbelief at the prejudice of having two sets of anything based on race; at the insidious ways in which adults, even teachers, taught prejudice; and how, not so long ago, nice people got the quick boot simply because their skin was just too dark.

I ask myself if I really want to go home at all, and the answer is always yes, yes, yes. Take me back, if only for a day, to see what made me who I am, that stifling heat and insidious injustice that formed my strong heart, that ripped it open so many times, knocked me down, and resisted as I pulled myself up. That gave me an appreciation of pain and hardship, oppression, and mercy. I wish I could go back and right the wrongs that surrounded me, and appreciate the many positives. I wish I could go back and right the wrongs I created. But I can’t go back there; I can’t get home. Now I can only write about it, and hope that what I have to say has value.

I wonder what happened to the rejected sorority hopeful. I wonder if she lives in the new and improved Hollywood South.

Related Blogs:
Hilary, Obama, and the Little Seedling (Jan 2008)
Sleeping with Deuce Bigalow (Nov 2007)

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Alone in a Crowd

Some aberrations are hidden in the heart. Are these any less important, damaging, or sharp as those in plain view? Their unique set of coping mechanisms run insidiously deep, and sometimes get tangled in surprisingly diverse aspects of our lives. There are a million different scenarios that generate this brand of aberration, many more severe than mine, others less. But is it so wrong to stand in a crowd and feel alone, pierced by my own affliction, wanting to be rid of it? The dichotomy of knowing we all have aberrations, that we live in this aberration nation, and owning one can pose a humdinger sized internal conflict.

Sometimes we laugh to keep from crying. We forge on, knowing that we have so much to be grateful for, and to look forward to. But that dark spot hangs in the heart, tangling, groping for a place of comfort. And so we still long for a caring smile, for understanding and acknowledgement that what we bear is sacred. It played a huge role in making us who we are. Like the edges of a puzzle, it somehow holds us together although we long to break away. If others can embrace it kindly, our plight to do so becomes a bit easier.

I’m a huge supporter of laughter. In fact, I could be a poster child for the incredible healing attributes of laughing at oneself; however, laughing too hard for too long can wear you down. I suspect that those who laugh, like me, sometimes wish they didn’t have to. Sometimes we laugh because everyone else is laughing. It’s the best way to keep decorum and normalcy alive. On the flip side, society seems to go overboard at times with our new mantra of political correctness; we can’t expect everyone to tiptoe around us and our personal demons. So where does this leave us and our heart gripping aberrations that just won’t go away? To laugh or not to laugh, that is the question.

In the long, winding road to now, I’ve come to accept that my mother suffers from a brand of mental illness, that her aberration grew into mine. My pain now mostly stems from the lack of understanding in others, and my heritage as a parentified child. Although my mother is currently on multiple medications, and doing well, she remains different. Her view of the world is not average. It’s one that is fascinating but at times tough to swallow. If she were in a wheelchair, the inconvenience imposed on others would be forgiven. But instead, she travels in an unseen chair, one that I have pushed and pulled and tugged, washed, and desperately tried to hide. Am I the only one who can see it? In 1971, didn’t anyone see the child pushing the wheelchair at 1109 Crestmoor Street in Shreveport, Louisiana?

In her book, My Parent’s Keeper: Adult Children of the Emotionally Disturbed, Eva Marian Brown writes that the task of repairing a parent’s psyche is impossible for the child whose main goal in life is to make mommy happy. We were all fated to fail in that task. Our childhoods were stolen by that overwhelming, impossible goal. We were adults at five, six, or seven. Now, as true adults, we are sometimes wise beyond our years, and yet we are too young, never having had the opportunity to mature at a steady pace. We are 200-year-old souls in middle aged bodies. We are giggling children commuting to work. This unusual, divergent mix provides tremendous treasures if we look for them.

The amazing truth is that my mother gave me an unending gift, the insatiable desire to move forward, to create something out of the thick and hollow, but cracked and overflowing, shell her illness gave me. When my oldest daughter was born in 1988, I began to understand more clearly how my own mother loved me. Her love is unconventional and unwavering. It is a love easily misunderstood, lost among the crazy decisions, angry outbursts, and paranoid moments. But through my journey, I’ve learned to forgive the invisible chair that has strapped her down. I just wish the world could, for one moment, see her through the rose-colored glasses I have learned to wear. I wish they could see her tender heart, and good intentions. The love she has for so many surrounds her in a pink, purple haze that clouds her perception, and fools theirs.

If the world can embrace the contributions of Vincent van Gogh, Abraham Lincoln, Isaac Newton, Winston Churchill, Jackson Pollock, Sylvia Plath, and more recently, Adam Duritz, surely it can find value in the aberrations my mother and I have shared. Surely it can forgive us our unconventional love and rose-colored glasses. Surely you can take what I have to offer. After all, it’s a gift.