wet earth

What in the world is this emotion?

Upon reading King Lear, Rebecca West remarked, “What in the world is this emotion? What is the bearing of supremely great works of art on my life which makes me feel so glad?” I have been asking myself this question following the stunningly good season finale of the FX drama The Americans, which concluded its six-season run at the end of last month. Why should a conclusion so utterly heartbreaking make me, to echo West, feel so glad?

It may be that when a work of art beautifully and intelligently succeeds there is a piercing feeling of kinship that confers upon the reader or viewer a sense of belonging, a kind of invisible embrace that satisfies our secret longings for connection and meaning. Too often, it must be said, we are let down, even by truly excellent books and movies and TV shows and plays. Nothing is perfect, after all, except when it is, except when, on those exceedingly rare occasions, everything simply works. (And as The Americans brilliantly illustrates, that does not mean that everything is resolved. I find the open questions and loose ends in the show’s finale among its highest achievements.) The buoyant gladness felt in the infrequent presence of such perfection is more than an experience of pleasure. I believe it represents that precious instance when it is the art that sees us. We are seen, somehow understood, and, in that moment, loved.

In one of the many online articles I voraciously consumed after the season finale, I read that the creators of The Americans were highly perfectionistic, and no more so than for the show’s final episode. Of course, many writers labor at length over their revisions—the countless drafts, the agonies of the elusive perfect sentence. A scripted television series is unique in that its story and characters may unfold over the course of several years, opening up fresh opportunities for revision long after the drama has already been launched. Arcs of tension may bend and torque in unexpected directions. The collaborative nature of television, and the simple fact of time, allowed The Americans’ creators the flexibility and the creative space to craft a beautifully-wrought finale that now puts this show on a short list of the best TV series ever.

The art of revision is much on my mind, as I prepare to embark on (yet) another draft of my novel. An inspiring example of storytelling thoroughly imbued with the process of revision was the new production of My Mother’s Keeper, a strikingly original play by Carmel Valley theatre artist Jane Press. I had the pleasure of seeing My Mother’s Keeper at the Carl Cherry Center last month, six years after Press mounted an earlier version of the play in Carmel, with a subsequent run in Venice, California. (At the Cherry Center, both the original and the revised version of the play were directed by Robin McKee. I wrote about Press and the 2012 production here and here.) Press has now substantially rewritten My Mother’s Keeper, an autobiographical memory play that explores, through dramatic episodes, the unbreakable thread of love and pain binding mothers and daughters across several generations. (Sample line: “She looked at me with that tone in her voice.”) While the new version is now more tightly focused on its principal characters, perhaps the most notable change is that Press, who played herself in the earlier version, now plays the role of Della, mother of sensitive Jane, daughter of imperious Ida (expertly performed by Teresa Del Piero), and a volatile force of nature that Press conveys in a staggering, electrifying performance that dares to expose the wounded vulnerability behind a damaged parent’s self-absorption. This new iteration of My Mother’s Keeper highlights the essential necessity—in theater, in fiction—of deeply complicated characters, an artistic truth I must keep in mind as I continue to revise my novel.

In the revised Mother’s Keeper, Della’s and Ida’s characters are vividly written and performed. But the crucial role of Jane seems to function mainly as an access point for the viewer to marvel at the majestic energies of her mother and grandmother. Jane’s character feels underwritten and, as performed as a young girl by Ryan Finfer, and as an adult by Janice Blaze Rocke, is simply overpowered by the twin presences of Della and Ida, a pair of monuments to maternal complexity. Yet relationships, too, whether someone is living or not, are works in progress, forever subject to change; the passage of time is its own revision process.  One hopes for a future version of My Mother’s Keeper in which Jane—holder of memory, speaker of truth—owns the stage as fully as those formidable family matriarchs whose stories demand to be told.

I Like My Food

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There are similarities between eating and masturbating. To eat is an act I take with my body. I use my hands. Eating may be a source of pleasure, and also of shame. I may do it by myself, or in a circle with others. It may be slow and sensual, something to savor, or it may be rote, a rush to the finish line. The clean plate, the empty bowl. Wipe myself with a napkin and voilà, done.

But eating is also like sex with a partner. When I eat, with each bite I choose to put something into my body that wasn’t there before. I insert, I receive. I swallow.

This month I celebrate eleven years of food sobriety. To be sober of something generally suggests abstinence, but sobriety can also mean behavior that is moderate, temperate. As a younger man, I prided myself on being someone who could eat absolutely anything that was put in front of me, and drink as much as I liked (and perhaps more). Around the age of forty, however, I started suffering from crushing headaches. These headaches, called cluster headaches, also nicknamed “suicide headaches,” were so debilitating I often spent days in bed honestly wanting to die. My headaches resisted most medication; nevertheless, I swallowed all manner of pills and waited for the pain to pass. The pills had their own unpleasant side effects. The truth was, I was miserable most of the time.

One day, in the exhausted wake of one of these periods of headache, I pulled from the bookshelf A Spoonful of Ginger, a cookbook I’d bought at a tasting event and reading in Washington DC several years before. This book, by Nina Simonds, was my first introduction to the principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine, a field of knowledge and practice that would eventually lead me to pursue acupuncture and to study Tai Chi and Qigong. But first there was the question of my diet. As an experiment, I decided to eliminate some types of food and focus more on other ingredients and dishes.

Four months later, I hadn’t had a single headache. (Also, I lost thirty pounds.)

I won’t dwell on what I did or did not eat; food choices are deeply personal, as well as cultural, the details, as with masturbation, best left, perhaps, to the realm of privacy. What worked for me might, or might not, work for anyone else. I have zero desire to convince anyone of anything concerning their diet. But here’s the thing: over the past few years, as more and more people experiment with eating wheat-free, or dairy-free, or paleo or vegan or what have you, there has also been a backlash of people commenting on how absurd these “fads” are, and mocking anyone who chooses to buy a gluten-free bagel, or whatever. Does this sound familiar? Someone is making a choice about what to do with her body, and someone else is pointing a finger. Oh, how good we are at judgment. “I know what’s best for your body!”

As a person whose sexuality has been the subject of scrutiny, criticism and attack all my life, I have this to say: my body choices are my own. I understand there are many of us with strong, valid opinions about meat and factory farming and the environment, for example. I think it makes sense to educate people about major ethical issues, but for me, the bottom line is that if you don’t like the idea of human beings eating meat, then don’t eat meat. If you think gluten-free food is stupid, then don’t eat gluten-free food. If you think gay sex is disgusting, then don’t have gay sex. I’ll enjoy my body my way, and how about you do the same? I am done with the New Yorker cartoons, the Internet mockery, the Facebook posts castigating people’s dietary decisions. What these remarkably put-out people seem compelled to declare is that someone else’s woo-woo self-indulgent dietary ridiculousness has gone too far! Have a cheeseburger and shut up, already!

Well. There are days I truly wish I could have what you’re having, but if I do, I am likely to pay the price in several days of feeling really shitty. Sometimes, it works out to have a bite of this, a nibble of that, but for the most part, I find that sticking to what I learned about my body eleven years ago serves me well, most of the time. So consider this a request to please remember that someone experimenting with a new diet may be seeking relief from some terrible pain I hope you never experience.

It would have been nice to celebrate my ten years of food sobriety a year ago, but in November 2016 I was in no mood for celebration of any kind. The day after Trump was elected President, a painful sore emerged on my back. It eventually grew into what my dermatologist diagnosed as “a large and angry cyst,” so large I was unable to lie on my back for over a week. Three days after the election, I had to leave a solidarity gathering at a friend’s house because I suddenly felt ill; I spent the night vomiting. The horror of Trump had made me literally sick to my stomach. My body is an exquisitely faithful barometer of my feelings.

The food we eat, the air we breathe, the thoughts we have, the company we keep, all become integrated, for better or for worse, into our bodies, and thus become part of who we are. I’m writing about my experience here because I want to speak out against the food shaming and snark around alternative diets. It’s just too reminiscent for me of sexual shame and judgment, of people feeling entitled to comment on the body choices of others, and it’s time for it to stop.

Wet Earth

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I was at the high cliffs overlooking La Selva Beach. It was a Saturday afternoon in September, after Tai Chi training. Not far from the shore, pods of migrating whales were on the move. They breached, they spouted, they breathed in and out of their extravagant whale bodies. Great plumes of spray rose into the air, drawing attention to the swimming shadows just under the surface. Warm, wanton sunlight fell all around.

I was on the move, too. I felt unsettled and confused. Unlike the whales, I did not have a clear destination. I paced back and forth beside the eucalyptus trees, then decided to call a friend.

The friend on the other end of the phone was in Iowa City, where I recently spent three years in the embrace of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a literary community of a richness and depth perhaps unparalleled anywhere else. In Iowa City, I studied with wise and supportive mentors, learned from gifted and generous peers, taught classes of committed and fabulously creative students, and made lasting friendships rooted as much in a shared passion for writing as in the everyday pleasures of company and conversation. I had discovered how valuable such a community can be for a writer who likes to work alone. I had made a better acquaintance with my writing self. So the sun could shine and the whales could spout all they liked: my return from Iowa to California was proving to be far more disorienting than I had prepared myself for. I found myself wondering if I still belonged here. As my husband and I worked through the changes that accompanied my return, I noticed myself looking at California’s natural beauty slightly askance, with an uncertain, almost mystified gaze. Where am I?

The air was malty, sun-warmed, slightly spicy: mellow earth, dried eucalyptus leaves, a touch of brine. There were the dried blossoms of sage plants, their aroma tangy-sweet, as if the earth were a body giving off the seductively musky odor of sweat. Pungent beach sand spread below the soft cliffs, miles of pulverized rock, smoothed by seawater and time, whitened by sunlight.

They all slipped under my skin, each one. I was powerless. The earth and sand, the leaves, the water, the air, each with its scent. Despite myself, my resistance to the present moment began to give way. But give way to what? In her beautiful and immensely helpful book Step into Nature, Patrice Vecchione asks, “Is part of the job of our senses to help us identify what’s ours, to whom and what we belong?”

If I root myself once more in California, must I cease to be the person I became in Iowa?

As a boy living at the end of a curving road in Topanga Canyon, I loved to walk up the little sloping street immediately after a heavy rain. Named for the black walnut trees—las nueces—which grew wild there, one towering above a fence in our backyard, Nuez Way overlooked the long canyon as well as Topanga Creek, which flowed to the Pacific. After the rain, the creek would be muddy and swollen and swift and you could hear its tumbling roar from the road. The abundant grasses and trees were drenched with clear clean water. The air touched your skin with damp coolness and it smelled of wet earth. The scent, for me, of memory.

This post marks my return to blogging after three years away in Iowa. The blog’s former name, Arts Alive, was inspired by a determination to encourage and participate in a wider conversation about the arts on the Monterey Peninsula at a time when the local daily newspaper was slashing its arts coverage. Although I’ve renamed the blog, you can still read those old posts, about string quartets and Harold Pinter, about Pina Bausch in 3-D and writing music about the death of a child. You can also read my open letter to the man who wanted to propose a bill outlawing the presence of gay men in the National Football League.

The blog’s new title reflects my need to write from the inner world I came to know and trust more intimately in Iowa. It is a world penetrated by scent and sensation, a place that is dense with memory and imagination and ambition and desire and an innocent childlike curiosity I guard with my life.

I said goodbye to my friend in Iowa City, grateful for the call, slipped my phone in my pocket, then stared out at the whales. I thought of the long distances they travel, the ones that survive, year after year. I stopped my pacing and gave myself permission to experience the weight of my feet on the ground. Yes, as I inhaled the familiar coastal flavors I felt the quality of belonging that had eluded me. Bonded by molecules of scent, it crossed over my resistance and became part of my body. It was my belonging to California, to its coast, to the blessed life and the love I have here. As I felt myself letting go there was relief, as well as some regret.

And I wonder if there is a deeper belonging that I carry with me wherever I may travel, one that is not dependent on my history or my hunger. Perhaps it is possible to stand in an unknown place, a place of not knowing, and not be a stranger to myself. In wet earth, there is promise and potential, dark, unbound, alive. It is always a new time.