Wednesday, June 15, 2016
read it and weep
Summer is underway here in Maine, at long last. I am getting my self and my stuff organized for my annual island painting time, and will be away for a few weeks (or rather, going away and then coming back and then going away again) and wanted to wish everyone well for the time being. And also have a say, before I go. Since it's been another dark week in this country, with another terrible mass shooting, and I don't know about you but my heart is in my throat much of the time. However, fear and anger and anxiety and outrage are not places or states I can live in for long. I can visit them, and take some necessary action (such as voicing my concerns to the nearest elected officials, which I have done), then I need to gather myself and my courage and return to where I usually live - places of peace, quietude, respect, empathy, compassion, and love. When I act from those places, I am effective and functioning at the highest levels I am capable of. When I act from the other places, only more of the same is generated, and that is not what I wish to add to the world, in any way or form. I speak only for myself - I know that anger and even rage can and does propel necessary change in the world, like rocket fuel. I recognize the darkness that all of us carry within us, and the brokenness, it is part of being human and being whole. It shows up in my paintings and in other ways, from time to time, and I will never deny its existence, or shun it. But it is a shadow self compared to the one standing in full sunlight. During this summer solstice week, when the light is at its longest, I'll be out working to add to the good in the world.
Speaking of empathy, I'd like to relate a tale from the bookshop. This happened many years ago. A regular customer of mine asked if I had read a particular book that he found in the literature section. He showed it to me. It was My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok (Knopf 1972). Yes, I told him, I'd read it and loved it and thought it was one of the best books ever about what the inner call to be an artist really feels like. And the difficulty and beauty involved in answering that call, when circumstances seem to be against you, if not insurmountable. Fantastic book. He liked the recommendation, I guess, and bought the book. Then returned some days later, after reading it. He said to me, I paraphrase but you will get the idea, "How could you possibly have liked this book? How could you get anything out of it, since you're not Jewish, you're not a Hasidic Jew?" (Asher Lev is a young Hasidic Jew, and the novel is set in 1950s New York, and deals with Jewish history and themes, as well as art. And, full disclosure, the customer in question was himself Jewish.) I distinctly remember being at a loss for words, being in near-disbelief, actually. I think I just looked at him, across the desk from me, there in the bookshop. It sounds extreme, but I wondered for a moment if I was looking into the eyes of a sociopath. Someone with zero or little empathy. It was a long time ago but I think I said something along the lines of, "I don't need to belong to a particular culture or race to empathize with that culture or race, or want to learn about them. We are all human beings. And I'm interested in the world, in all kinds of people. The book fascinated me." I either said all or some of that, or later, in my head, it was what I wished I had said. I don't remember what he replied, but I do remember a look of something like scorn on his face. It felt like being told I shouldn't read James Baldwin or Maya Angelou, since I happen to be Caucasian. Seriously. It may have been a simple case of what is now (horribly) termed mansplaining but I was still shocked. Isn't this life - and this reading life - all about empathy? Reading takes us places that we may never go "in real life," but gives us something even more precious, the soul of the author, the world of the author. Which becomes then our shared world.
This episode came to mind this week because I took a break from the James Lees-Milne diaries to re-read an old favorite - a short novel called Franny, the Queen of Provincetown by John Preston. It was originally published in 1983, and I have a great reprint from Arsenal Pulp Press. Which is still in print, and contains extra material about Preston and his life and work, as well as Preston's unfinished sequel. This novel is a little gem. Built up slowly in small paragraphs of first-person accounts, starting in the 1950s and ending in the 1980s, it follows the lives and fortunes of a gay man named Franny and his circle of friends, in Boston, Chicago, and then Provincetown. There is one scene early on in the novel which centers around a gay bar in Chicago, and every time I read it I have tears in my eyes. I couldn't help but think of it again this week. It has been a long time since I myself went dancing in (what we called in the late 1980s and early 1990s) a gay bar, but during a particularly difficult year in my life I spent significant time with a dear friend, dancing the night away, in a nightclub that everyone who went there simply called "the bar." LGBTQ people and some heterosexual people were there together - sometimes not many of us - dancing and generally feeling blissed out, usually without alcohol - we just wanted to dance and be together, and besides, drinks were too expensive for my minimum-wage bookstore clerk salary. Those nights were fantastic. I remember acceptance, euphoria, joy - people being themselves, ourselves. And, the music was so great, and we all looked so good! Or thought we did, which also counts! I remember everyone smiling, relaxed, happy. It was a good place made great by the people and I feel so lucky to have had that experience. And yet "the bar" was located a brief walk away from the site of a terrible hate crime - the murder of a young gay man, Charlie Howard. He was killed the year after the first edition of Franny, the Queen of Provincetown was published.
And here we are today. Obviously I am not a gay man, but oh how I love Franny, the Queen of Provincetown. I wholeheartedly recommend it. Preston is quoted in the introduction - he wept over his typewriter as he wrote the pages - tears streamed - because it was his own life, his history, and his future life, that he was writing about, and the lives of people he loved, and their fates, and their terrible struggles, and the evolution of love. Acceptance. Empathy. Read it and weep, alongside him, there at the typewriter. There at the bar. One street away from hate. That's right where my bookshop was too, come to think of it. And now? The nightclub in Florida... all the tears and pain, I can't even imagine. But I've read the news, and seen pictures, and have feelings, so I can come pretty close.
I keep thinking I will stop writing, but I keep finding words in my way. Here are a few more. We live next door to a school. One morning some years ago, when we weren't home (we were out of state), there was a man with a gun at this school, in a classroom full of kids. Holding them hostage. No one died and I think that's one of the many good things that can be said about that day. I tried to write about it, here, when it happened, and then again after the Sandy Hook school shooting, and I couldn't do it. I still can't, I find. But the gist of it is, here we are, all of us, right next door to violence, all the time. Hoping and working for peaceful change. Choosing empathy, choosing love. Much love! Back in a few weeks.