Tag Archives: Books

Why You Are Beautiful

Have you ever looked into a mirror and seen yourself as beautiful? Beautiful in a way that makes any real or perceived imperfections fade into the construct that they are?

I’d been invited to dinner with friends from out of town, followed by a reading at a bookstore. Dinner went well; I enjoyed the conversation very much and felt present. The voice running in my head, the one telling me I don’t belong in this group of talented people, was pretty silent. I dressed casually and didn’t use makeup. Okay, that part’s not lack of vanity; I just suck at putting on makeup.

After the dinner, we went to the San Francisco bookstore where the reading was being held. It was a reading by a mix of authors from the BDSM community, and a couple of my friends were going to be reading pieces there. I hadn’t been to an event like this in quite a while, and I felt both the pleasant and the bittersweet types of nostalgia.

Listening to the erotic fiction and nonfiction being read, I surreptitiously watched the small audience as I tend to do. People at a reading of erotic literature have a tendency to try to keep a neutral face. Perhaps they want to conceal reactions that feel too personal to share, or perhaps there’s an etiquette about concealing reactions that may distract other listeners.

However, not all can be concealed. The secret is to watch the eyes. In a still face, the eyes shine with fire when the listener is being affected. I can gauge the level of engagement this way, and I love it. Watching the people around me, I reveled in their beauty and their diversity. An enchanting mix of ages, genders and physical traits, they seemed to be broadcasting stories of their own.

My own thoughts about the pieces ranged freely, as well. I was reminded of how deep and psychically rich sexuality can be. How sex is only the beginning. The pieces evoked connection, shadow, love and deepest authenticity. My own feelings about all of these whirled inside me; not only the common longing and regret but an intense and living desire that pulsed with an unapologetic feeling of I want.

Between two of the pieces, I had to take a restroom break. Washing my hands, I glanced up at the mirror above the sink–and drew in my breath, shocked. The face in the mirror pierced me with its beauty.

Yes, the secret is in the eyes all right. Those eyes blazed into me, burning with the same fire I saw on other faces. They shone with mystery, and time, and a wholeness of complex thought. For a moment, I saw the woman in the mirror as a separate person. I saw her as if I were another guest, watching her from across the room and catching the first glimpse of those blazing eyes, and I thought: I want that woman.

I wonder about her story; I want to know what she’s thinking. I want to see what she looks like when she smiles, or growls with anger, or screams with lust or pain.

The other-ness of the moment faded quickly, but a ghost of it lingered. For the rest of the reading, I watched people with fascination–but with the awareness that I was one of them. A carrier of the story; a bearer of the hidden fire.

So you see, you are beautiful. You may not have had an experience like this yet, or you may have had many, but a gut-wrenchingly beautiful version of you exists behind the mirror and waits to come and be seen.

Meeting Cersei

If I lived in Westeros, I’d want to go back in time and meet Cersei Lannister as a young girl.

(General TV series spoilers; no book spoilers.)

I’d like to meet the girl who grew up with Jaime as a twin brother, only to find her life diverging from his the day he was given a sword and she wasn’t.

I’d like to meet the girl who began to be taught that her only value lay in her beauty, or who her father was, or who she would marry and the children she would have.

I’d like to meet her before she began to use sex with Jaime as a way to rebel and as a way to bind him to her; a way to get a vicarious taste of the power and glory he was able to experience as a warrior.

Before she became the woman who lives a life fueled by anger and fear; who walks the halls of a castle never her home and plays the game of thrones because it’s the only path to power she knows.

Cersei is like all of us as she arrays herself in her finery each morning. She’s more successful than most at hiding her fear; her beauty and ruthlessness aid her with the facade she cultivates. But her internal monologue is an unending, desperate stream of rationalization and self-justification. She tells herself she is powerful and in control, while living a life she can never, ever admit isn’t suited to her.

Yes, Cersei, come to me when you are young. Let me be the witch in the woods, and instead of telling you your future I’ll tell you that your choices play a role in it. Slip away from your lessons again and again; be part of the life of the forest as you make your way to my hut.

There I’ll put a quill in your hand, Cersei, or a brush, or a sword, until you start creating things that say your name without all the modifiers you’ve learned to attach to it. Slowly, you’ll develop a secret world no father or husband or rival could ever touch.

Then, when the time comes, you’ll make choices. They won’t be easy ones. Perhaps you’ll decide, in many cases, that obedience is your best option. But you won’t be a victim, because you won’t feel like one. And you won’t have to act out like one.

How much will you change your world now, Cersei?

How much could we change ours?

The Lorites

The idea for this piece comes from Anathem by Neal Stephenson. If you want a book that’s a bit of a dense read but well worth it–if you want a book that will draw you into a different and compelling world–if you want a book that will fuck your mind slowly and exquisitely–read it. There aren’t any spoilers here.

All you need to know about the Lorites is that they’re mentioned here and there in the book as an philosophical order. The guiding principle of their philosophy is simple: that there is no such thing as a new idea. Every idea that anyone in this present can conceive has been thought of before.

The Lorites are a minor sect and not given much thought by most. They have some practical use, since they have been around a long time and collected huge repositories of knowledge. If you are developing a “new” idea and want to know how badly you’re reinventing the wheel, consult the Lorites.

I am susceptible to Lorite philosophy, and not only because Lori is my first name. Having the human desire to be special, one of my negative voices is the one telling me that whatever I’m doing, writing, thinking is nothing new. Not only is it not new, but whoever’s done it before has doubtless done it better.

Writing a poem? Surely one of the thousands of past poets has captured the same essence of thought and feeling, and even though they didn’t repeat my exact sequence of words the difference isn’t big enough to make mine worth anything. Writing a speech? Someone’s done it more persuasively. Writing personal essays? I’m just reiterating basic human experiences, after all.

Dreaming of workshops, groups, work that helps others? There are so many out there more qualified and more functional–and since what I have to offer can’t be new, there’s no way my work can ever compensate for my limitations.

I imagine that the era I live in is more conducive to Lorite thought with the Internet linking the ideas of more people, present and past, than ever before. How easy it is to believe that our gifts are duplicated or surpassed by the billions out there!

Embraced in a balanced way, the Lorites can give me perspective and a healthful dose of humility. After all, to believe we’ve come up with something totally new would be to believe ourselves prophets–and a world full of nothing but prophets would be chaotic indeed.

But, of course, I don’t stop there. It becomes one of the weapons used by my addiction, or by my depression, or by my self-destructive impulses in general. It gets used to paralyze me, sap my creative energy and promote procrastination and apathy.

I’m not alone, nor does someone need to share my issues to be with me in this. For humans in general, it targets one of the deepest questions in our hearts:
“Is there really any fucking point to all this? ”
And since there are countless ways to answer this question, or to admit that we don’t know how to answer it, it’s easy to get stuck.

I certainly don’t know how. And I don’t know how to reconcile it with my growing need to create. As I sit here, right at this moment, I’m aware of stories I’m making up to comfort myself.

I tell myself that apples aren’t new–yet people enjoy the different taste of all the ways they can be prepared. It gives them pleasure, and comfort, and lets them have variety in the way they get needed nourishment.

I tell myself that quilts aren’t new–yet people enjoy the myriad ways of assembling them. It gives them pleasure, and comfort, and lets them have variety in the way they get needed warmth.

I tell myself that spiritual principles aren’t new, yet people enjoy different ways of framing and presenting them. I tell myself that emotions aren’t new, yet each of us responds more or less to the way they are expressed by artists of all kinds.

Love isn’t new.
Beauty isn’t new.
Death isn’t new.
Sex isn’t new.

I’m not new. And yet I am.

Oh, Professor Snape

I write to you of struggles with demons; of image and word and symbol used as weapons in our existential battles. I write of reasons to go on. But I also write the human, mundane component of this story; the part about my personal foibles and the silly things I do to deal with, or escape from, my reality.

Meditation and Frog Breeding is an example of a time I revealed something that makes feel sheepish. Today I’ve decided I am due for another, and more embarrassing, revelation about what I do to pass the time when I just can’t think any more. Here goes: I read fanfiction.

When I first encountered sites such as fanfiction.net, I was astounded at the sheer volume of this kind of thing available. The Harry Potter universe is, by a large margin, the most popular template–on one site alone, there are more than 600,000 stories in this genre. Some incorporate erotic interaction among characters; some do not. Some are short and amateurishly written; some are novel-length and quite interesting. These fans explore a variety of plot-related questions and alternative ideas. Some of the most popular ones include:

–hello, why did no one ever check on Harry after he was dumped on a doorstep? And how could Dumbledore blithely send him back each summer to be abused and starved, blood wards or not. It must be part of a plot to keep Harry ignorant, desperate for affection and easily led. What if Harry grew a pair and got angry enough to seek help from somebody besides the man who, it turns out, was raising him to be a sacrifice?
–the epilogue does not exist. it never existed.
–Ron and Hermione? Seriously? Ron’s a fool, they have nothing in common, and it’s not going to end well.
–thousands of WAY more interesting ways the war with Voldemort could have gone, or what would happen if he’d won.

Don’t even get me started on the romantic/sexual plots. Every conceivable pairing has been done…the most popular ones being Harry and Draco (thin line between love and hate, I guess) Snape and Hermione (he’s the only one near her IQ) Lucius or Draco/Hermione (because it’s hot and dangerous, I suppose). Some authors just push the pair of their choice together with a magic spell or an arranged-marriage law.

But, by far, the character the most often, the most deeply, and the most variably explored is Severus Snape. Embittered outcast, double agent, brilliant potions master, seeker of redemption and ultimate martyr. There are a thousand versions of him out there, each far more explored than the one in the books.

Why do people love him so? Because they do. The fan universe, most of the time, flatly rejects the death of this character. They craft detailed romances between him and another character, lovingly building a story in which he gets the love and happiness they feel he deserves. They delve into just what horrific tortures he suffered during his times as a double agent. They have him misunderstood, persecuted or enslaved after the war, to be rescued by the aforementioned future mate. Or he’s exonerated and admired, building his career and taking on Hermione Granger as his apprentice. He’s usually far hotter than the book version, or even Alan Rickman.

Why am I telling you all this? Firstly, I’m doing it in the spirit of confession; to show that I haven’t just scanned a few of these things but read enough to know a bit about the genre. Secondly, I’m about to do one of my metaphor things.

I think the Harry Potter universe is the most popular one for fanfiction writers because it carries the largest number of opportunities for what-ifs. What some people, rightly or wrongly, consider to be holes or weaknesses in the author’s crafting are each transformed into tiny windows into an alternative reality. It parallels quantum theory; the idea that every choice and every variable give rise to another one of a vast sheath of other universes.

When I studied just a bit of quantum theory, this the aspect I found most exciting–and its implication that no aspect of reality is cast in stone. Our assumptions, our allegiance to the story of our reality, may not be as valid as we think they are. If we’re confronted by a scary gun-wielding person in an alley, there’s a universe in which the attacker is our cousin, or just asks us to name the capital of Wisconsin, or drops the gun and starts crying.

These writers–often young with dreams of doing other writing, or older and seeking diversion from their daily works–are reveling in the opportunity to riffle through an infinite sheath of possibilities and choose the ones that please them. This can feel easier, more fun, and more relaxing than creating one from scratch.

This, then, is my take on why I find it relaxing and diverting…it’s not a defense, only some thoughts. My daughter is mortified by my little habit; she’s a purist at heart. She’d be even more stern with me if she knew what happened during my last bipolar episode–what I did in the throes of my racing, desperate search for soothing occupation. If she knew that, last week, I actually wrote a little story. Oh, the shame.

Bookstore Sans Filter

Today I got to spend a couple hours in my local big-chain bookstore, perusing the newest science fiction books, writers’ magazines and anything else catching my eye. As has happened so many times before, I found myself looking at the self-help, addiction & recovery, and parenting sections with profound ambivalence. It’s really easy for me to get overwhelmed in any public place with much stimuli, but these sections get to me.

The self-help section–well, I have read some lovely books by self-help writers in my time, but when I look at a huge spread of currently popular books they seem to be giving off several basic messages.

1) You are not good enough, but if you do everything just like me you might be someday.
2) Whatever you’ve been doing is wrong, even if I recommended it last year.
3) Whatever difficulty you are experiencing in your life is 100% due to your bad attitude. Often, in the guise of encouraging higher self-esteem, the message is that what is wrong with you is that you haven’t worked hard enough on your self-esteem, inner healing, etc.

Then I move on to the parenting section; or, as I once described it to a friend, the “You’re a Bad Parent” section. There I can see why every parenting decision I have ever made, apart from a few no-brainers (don’t hit, don’t drop on head, don’t molest) is wrong. Any area of any controversy has books representing both or all sides of the argument, so no matter what I did someone was always screaming at me in print about it.

Again, I don’t mean to say there isn’t a wealth of wonderful, important information out there. It’s just that I need a thick skin to wade through it all to what helps me. There seem to be some basic messages calling from the shelf, especially about parenting a child with any kind of special needs:

1) Your child’s diagnosis or treatment is wrong, and if you don’t do what I say (which is the opposite of the book next to me) they will die, fail, end up on the street, etc. and it will be ALL YOUR FAULT.
2) Oh, you say there’s nothing wrong with your child? Oh, you’re just not attentive enough.
3) This world is a scary, dysfunctional place, and it’s up to you to protect your child from it…and if you let your child near any media, nonorganic food or item of clothing that costs less than an imported alpaca you are a horrible person.
4) You are solely responsible for helping your child succeed in this world…at age eighteen, your finished product will pop into this world with a destiny formed and determined by you, never to develop or grow again.

Then, as I tend to do, I drift over to the addiction and recovery section to see if there’s anything new and interesting. I like the fact that the topic gets its own bookstore section now; that there is such a wealth of material being written. What tends to make me tense is the adversarial attitude of many writers or editors. I’m too tired and lazy to go into this deeply, with specific names, titles and critiques, but my fellow addicts who like reading probably know what I am talking about. It’s a back-and-forth between two extremist camps:

1) We follow or promote a certain popular path to recovery, and that path is THE path. Anyone who doesn’t want to do it, or has tried it and is choosing something else, must be in denial or just not be ready.
2) We do not follow or promote this path, and those who do are idiots and sheep. This path doesn’t work, and there’s a giant conspiracy going on to make people think it does. Buy our book and find out the REAL way to recover.

It makes me tired. Isn’t black-and-white thinking one of our common problems?

So, I flee to the poetry section and the writers’ magazines (trying to drown out the voice interpreting their content as warnings about how many writers are out there, how little my work matters, etc.) and when I am done, when my brain cannot hold one more iota of thought or resist one more onslaught of insecurity, I come home to my last resting place: the science fiction aisle.

I don’t need extra reasons to love something I have loved since I was old enough to get books from the library, but today reminds me of one: this section asks nothing of me. It doesn’t tell me how to help my kid, or manage my weight, or improve my marriage. It doesn’t suggest I submit my writing to eight thousand magazines for only $25 each, or bombard me with writing tips that make my head spin.

It only wants to tell me stories.

Names and Namers

Shortly after my daughter learned to talk, she began to name things. If we went to a restaurant, the salt and pepper shakers had names, genders, a back story and a relationship drama by the time we got our salads. Our household got into the habit of naming, and it stuck. Our cell phones, cars, musical instruments and appliances still have names today, and I would not be surprised to see us surrounded by named objects decades from now.

Some cultures believe that we humans have several names. One might be our commonly known name, another for friends and family, another a secret name used only in spiritual ceremonies. Some cultures change or alter a person’s name as they complete rites of passage. In Norman Spinrad’s Child of Fortune, a person chooses his or her adult name only when grown, often in homage to a present or past role model or an abstract concept that speaks to who they want to be.

Why am I thinking about names today? In Fear Not? I wrote about needing to huddle around the fire of the Self when fearing annihilation. Needing to feed that fire. I’m thinking about names because the spiritual act of naming is one way of feeding that anti-nothingness.

If you have a specific way of worshipping, there may be names involved that are important to you. Whether or not you see other names as valid too, your names matter to you. You wouldn’t be as fulfilled by conducting rituals addressed to Hey, you! or To Whom it May Concern.

Some of you may know Meg from the classic A Wrinkle in Time, an iconic story blending science fiction, philosophy and spirituality. The lesser-known sequel, A Wind in the Door, is well worth reading and explores the concepts further. During the book, Meg finds herself working with a strange being whose most recent assignment was to memorize the names of all the stars. Her new partner tells her she must be a Namer, too, if only a primitive one. He describes a Namer as someone who makes another more of who they are; more of themselves. Sees them. Meg is later called upon to use her Naming quality in defense of her own and others’ existence in a battle against annihilating entities. Naming proves to be the only defense against nothingness.

Names mean something because we make them mean something. We infuse them with psychic energy and give them soul. When building that fire of the Self, we fuel it with Names. Names of deities, if that’s our thing. Names of ideas and passions. Names of beloved or inspirational characters. A whole story, or myth, or dream can be a Name, and we can be Namers when we tell it.

I Remember the Shire

Ash swirls through the air. Rocks rain down around him, and lava creeps toward the jutting rock that is to be his final resting place. Blood seeps from the open wound where his finger used to be, and the sound of his best friend’s weeping drifts faintly through the noise of the mountain ripping itself apart beneath them.

Frodo is blissfully happy. Lying back against the unforgiving stone, he exhales a sigh of contentment, and a little smile plays across his lips as he breathes:
“I remember the Shire.” 

He tells Sam he can see it now, as he could not see it when the now-destroyed Ring was possessing his mind. Once more, he is capable of imagining the color green and the taste of fruit. Minutes from death, he basks in the reunion with this capacity: the reunion with his inner self. He is free, and the fear of death is but a pale abstraction next to this overwhelming truth.

Tell me I’m not the only one who always has tears in my eyes at this moment.

I can’t help it. It’s too sweet; and too true. That feeling of reunion with oneself; that feeling of inner authenticity so strong that the external world drops away. I’ve had flashes of it, and those brief flashes keep me going because I want more.

If you’re anything like me, you spend much of your life either acting on or battling fear, insecurity, shame, envy, or a thousand other things that make it harder to accept and love yourself completely. Whatever the external circumstances that cause you difficulty in your life, their effects are often outgunned by the pain created in that more complex kingdom within your psyche.

By the same token, a change in that inner kingdom can remove a lot of power from the external one. We’ve all known people who were improbably serene in the face of a situation we think is worse than our own: how can this be? I think these people are in closer contact with their inner selves: they “remember the Shire” and it means so much to them that fear and regret fade away.

They say that a spiritual void lies at the core of addiction and many other troubles common to the human condition. I’ve attempted to fill the hole in my spirit with many things, and after years of seeking I have met something that fits the hole like a key fits the lock. Only for moments, still, but what moments. I have felt what Frodo felt on that rock: a sense of wholeness, of consummation, of recognition so powerful that it casts out all fear and uncertainly.

I remember. Oh, God, I remember.

Do you?