"Lotus Opening" by L. Folk

Monday, December 26, 2011

My Compassionate Christ

Christmas morning I read a page from Incandescence, Readings with Women Mystics, and familiarized myself with one Marguerite d'Oingt, a French nun and celebrated mystic, who lived in the thirteenth century and is recorded as one of the earliest of French women writers. In her recorded meditation, Marguerite d'Oingt meditates on carrying the child Christ and then the crucified Christ in her arms. She reflects on how the latter was just as light as the former. Christ had come into the world virtually weightless and left the world virtually weightless. I thought of how compassionate acts create lightness, and Christ's act of coming into the world, Christmas, is a manifestation of His first great act of compassion; His last, being the crucifixion. I meditated on this and then my father burst through. His spiritual geyser had reached me and I burst myself- into tears. My father must live there, in Christ's compassion, as a massless being, as energy, light, pure love. My father, as I have witnessed, has the power to do (this is the Physic's definition of energy, to do, to make change) and that is exactly what compassion is, love in action. He's behind the scenes, working at our lives, enriching them. I have no direct evidence of this; it is only what I know viscerally.
Compassion is always the answer. This is something I tell myself. For me, compassion is the intersection of Christianity and Buddhism. (Thich Nhat Han said once that “Buddha and Jesus are brothers” or maybe that is the name of one of his books?). The Christ of compassion and not dogma, is the one I seek. His compassionate acts can be divided into two types, those we can understand: consolation and teachings with parables, and those we cannot understand: miracles. I believe Christ's capacity for compassion was so intense, it had reached a mystical level and this gave him a certain lightness, to walk on water, to turn 5 fishes and loaves into 5 thousand, to resurrect the dead.
I have not been so compassionate as of late due to my discomfort with this pregnancy. I am always ready to rip someone's head off. A few weeks ago I went to my sister's house and there was a car blocking her driveway. The house next to hers was having an estate sale and the short, narrow street was crowded with cars everywhere. I was annoyed, furious someone could be so inconsiderate. A man came out of the house and I curtly asked if the car blocking the driveway was his. He said, calmly, that it was, and that he was very sorry if he had caused me any inconvenience. He would be out of my way in a minute. The compassion in his voice effectively diffused my fury. I noted this, was ashamed afterward.
I want this pregnancy to be an act of compassion, but I struggle with it being so. I have always been so free to do whatever I want and now I feel so restricted, so heavy. It's been 41 years of selfishness. I am also terrified. If I feel this uncomfortable now, what is going to happen to me in four months? How heavy-footed will I be then? Fear pummels me and my mind flashes up all sorts of ugly scenes of bed rest and preeclampsia and bursting hearts. What have I done? I ask myself at night, when I can't sleep, can't rest, and my mind spins.
And then in the morning, it is different. I want so much to see their faces, feel their warm bodies, love them, be with them. But I am already with them. Through the Christ in me, my compassionate Christ, I can meditate on this.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Tell-tale Heart Beating in My Ear and Other Pregnancy Oddities

I feel as if I am wearing someone else's body. The large belly is a tortoise shell, or a watermelon. The ear, a permanent metronome, a constant beat I can synchronize with exercise repetitions or steps when walking. The boobs, eggplants come high summer. The feet, strange unravellings there, at the heel. But the body does not discern which ligaments to loosen and I am unravelling everywhere, as if I am a ball of yarn at a kitten's whim. The lower back, well, same ol' familiar pathways of pain; that is the old body chiming in, the familiar. The hair seems to have benefitted; it grows long, has luster and volume like those heads you see in a Pantene commercial. The stomach is forever a misanthrope, grumbling with whatever I give it. The lungs, slightly restricted. They want to rise up, but someone has tied them to a tree.
I do what I can with this new body. I get it moving in the morning; I stretch it, try to fill it with air, let it leak out slow, bathe the bulk and limbs. Adorn it with clothing and jewelry. But inertia is steadfast; I give in and the beating of my own heart begins to irritate me. Perhaps my sinuses are clogged, or maybe I have an ear infection. Take care of that says the brain, now fully awake at 3 am, but I don't. Relaxation is fleeing. At night I wrestle with myself, kick off my right heel to turn myself on my left side, then, a few moments later, kick off my left heel to turn myself on my right side. I've been warned about sleeping on my back because I've been told the babies could crush an artery to the heart. I told my doctor I always sleep on my back; does this mean I am going to wake up dead? My doctor is a soft talker, has model cheek bones and blue moons for eyes. No you will not wake up dead, he said.
This tell-tale heart ticks away the moments of this pregnancy; I confess, I can't wait until it's over. I look at magazines, of lithe women in gracious yoga poses; I see them running on the street or dancing on stage. I dream of myself dancing, weightless, rising up into the ether. I feel like I should be dreaming of babies (think of the children! Adele said to Edna in The Awakening). Shouldn't the anxiety dreams about leaving them somewhere be kicking in? I feel the quickening inside me- life, theirs. Not mine. There, there, my mind says and then I forget all about it. My love for them is buried, as the quickening is buried under flesh, under all of this immediate discomfort. When I read about unfortunate happenings to other mothers, spina bifida in the first trimester, a heart-wrenching choice, I well up with tears. My love for them throbs.
Not them, I say to myself. Please God, not them.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Cold, Hard Truth: Men Get Published More Than Women (Revisiting the Issue from a Personal Perspective)

My brother and I are both struggling writers. I write primarily literary fiction and he writes commercial fiction. I have been writing for about 10 years longer than he has. I needed a master's degree for teaching and was highly devoted to my writing so I chose to get my MFA from Vermont College. I also read an article written by an agent (whose name escapes me now) advising all unpublished writers to get an MFA because it would up their chances. My brother does not have an MFA. My fiction and poetry have been published in various literary magazines, not of “Ploughshares” caliber mind you, but noteworthy nonetheless. My brother has never been published in a literary magazine. Despite my credentials, my brother gets more attention from agents than I do. This has always left me a tad bit flummoxed and somewhat peeved.
Let me say here that I do believe my brother has talent in writing. I wouldn't pick up his book off the shelf, but I do see the quality. His stories are comparable to those of Dan Brown, with secret books, scrolls, rings, etc. (He did write a World War II biopic which departs from this, but that was non-fiction). My literary fiction has prominent female characters and protagonists. I do have round male characters, but they have not made it to the forefront as of yet. My fiction is about women's lives. I have tried to sell and have queried some 500 agents regarding my two novels: a coming-of-age story about a woman who becomes an artist, and a woman caught in the snares of polygamy. Both queries generated requests for full manuscripts; I would say about three for the coming-of-age and 13 for the polygamy story. I heard nothing from the agents who requested the full manuscripts for the coming-of-age, and several non-committal emails about how the polygamy story should be rewritten. Once I rewrote the polygamy story, I was dropped. I have been told I am a good writer...but “I don't feel I am right for this book” so many times, I could cry.
My brother is on his second agent. He had one for the non-fiction book, which was almost sold, and just recently another agent had voiced interest. She had reviewed his manuscript while she was a junior agent at a reputable agency and went looking for him on facebook when she decided to go off on her own. My brother talks to agents on the phone, has been compassionately guided through rewrites, has been encouraged by agents and publishers alike. The only time I had actually talked to an agent on the phone was the day she called me up to tell me to stop emailing her; she had rejected my work but her email wasn't getting through.
I had hypothesized that my brother's attention from agents stems from the fact that he writes mostly commercial fiction. As much as agents say they are interested in character-based novels, they are really very much attached to plot, to story, to, dare I say, gimmicks and hooks. The success of stories like The DaVinci Code and The Time Traveler's Wife are evidence of this. This is not to say these books are necessarily “bad”, but they are written to entertain. I regard literature as art through the written word. I believe in poetry in the prose. There are no gimmicks in Kate Chopin's The Awakening or Margaret Atwood's Surfacing or Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. These are the writers I try to emulate. They are now beacons in their own right, now, but where does that leave me? I wracked my brain over my lack of success with agents. I thought it was due to the fact I focused primarily on literature, and society's need for entertainment over art. And then tinkers won the Pulitzer Prize and threw a wrench in my theory.
(Note: tinkers is a wonderfully poetic novel and deserves its praise and popularity, but there are many novels like this one written by MFA graduates and faculty that go unread by the general public every year. Also, Dan Brown deserves praise for elevating women in religion and Niffenegger for being an artist, professor and a respected author, but I digress...)
The good news is, last week I was informed by Rebecca Olson, the senior editor at Calyx Press, that my book, the coming-of-age-as-artist novel (or kunstelrroman), was accepted for publication. It was total validation for me and I could not be happier. This, however, has prompted me to act because the hunch that I had and have, that I am a good writer, that I am worthy of being published despite my failure to get an agent, is valid. I pulled up VIDA's numbers and read the articles on the imbalance of male and female book reviewers and books reviewed and I was astonished. I had ignored the issue before because, as said, I was convinced by the commerciality versus literary theory. But “the numbers don't lie”.
(Note: VIDA's newest numbers reflect the Best American series in poetry, fiction, and essays and yield the same imbalance between men and women writers).
The New Republic's Ruth Franklin, in response to VIDA's numbers, tallied men/women authors published by 13 publishing houses in 2010 including Norton, Little Brown, Harper and came up with that same overwhelming imbalance of men authors to women authors. Independents like Graywolf and Melville House were no better. Franklin looked at lit mags next and Tin House, Granta, and The Paris Review all published approximately one third of women writers. She explains how “for many fiction writers and poets, publishing in these journals is a first step to getting a book contract” and the editors of these magazines are “gatekeepers”. Franklin quotes Robin Romm from Double X: “The gatekeepers of literary culture- at least at magazines- are still primarily male.”
Editors at lit mags aren't the only gatekeepers though. Agents also fall into that category. I personally know five male writers with first novels/short story collections and all of them have agents (some of them are on their second ones). I know five female writers (myself included) with novels/short story collections and none of them have agents. Two of these women have books published by or forthcoming from small, independent presses. I know of one woman in the next town over, Brunonia Barry, who self-published her book The Lace Reader which did so well it was eventually bought by William Morrow.
Here's the real kicker: all of the agents representing my male friends are women. So much for the male-gatekeeper theory.
Okay, so my evidence is anecdotal, but it does represent the trend.
So what's the reason for this inequity? Do men submit more? Are they more aggressive? Maybe. My brother is very aggressive with his submissions, but he has been encouraged. If I had that kind of encouragement (“You're almost there!” “I admire your writing but can't represent you, here's the name of an agent who might...” “I'll pass this manuscript around the agency” and on and on) I would be as equally aggressive.
Do women write primarily about women and are therefore shooting themselves in the foot for being attractive to only half of society? (My husband will barely hold my purse for me while I go to use the ladies room). But wait, female readers comprise the majority. And Jane Austen's stories are beloved, as is Sex in the City, for that matter.
In the words of Herman Cain, I....don't.....know.
What I do know is this, when a door is locked to you, you stop knocking on it.
Mary Ann Evans changed her name to George Eliot for a reason.
The harsh reception of Kate Chopin's The Awakening in 1904 ultimately caused her to stop writing and she died without the recognition she deserved.
I've looked at short story collections from the 1960's (my brother-in-law was an English major) and have found only one women writer in all of them: Katherine Mansfield. What, no Woolf? No O'Connor? No Cather? Nope. Contrary to what Meghan O'Rourke writes in Slate, writing has been historically dominated by men.
And I know damn well history repeats itself.
This is why institutions like Calyx Press, A Room of Her Own, and She Writes are so important. With these organizations giving women a voice and turning out quality writers, women have a chance at leveling the scale. Maybe then the rest of the industry will wake up.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Starfish and Snowflakes

December 4, 2011

I think I've been suffering from writer's block. I spend the day fighting the urge to pull the blanket over myself and curl up on the couch. I have ideas about doing things, writing things, but I only think about doing them. With all this thinking about and not thinking in I have become immobile; this is writer's block at its best. Or is it the pregnancy that is making immobile, still sick...this leads to thinking about doing and not doing because I can't do. This is when those little thought needles poke at me: what are you going to do if your babies are sick? What about the publisher that's deciding on your book? Cerebral palsy, MS, down syndrome. My brain grapples with protection; how do I protect myself from tragedy and disappointment? What can I do? How do I condition myself? I can't.

I have read that the Buddha said enlightenment always accompanies you, no matter how stuck you are. I sit on the mat and call God's name like a baby bird calling to its mother for food. Is God the sheer radiance of the sun that parts the leaves of the trees and hits my third eye? My third eye conjures up a starfish, or is it a snowflake? Five pronged, delicate, with ornate design. Intricate. Unique. And I sit here wondering why this image has popped into my head. In the winter when it is cold and dark, it is easy to see the hardship. And yet, if you look closely at the snowflake that has fallen on your glove you can see the beauty and design behind winter. It may appear to be only barren and cold, like an artist's drought, but it isn't. You just need to observe more closely. This is enlightenment.  

Pregnancy has brought its own kind of winter and hardship, but one could argue my body is being artistic by creating these unique, fragile forms inside me. I have tapped into another side of my creativity. Body creativity.

The starfish, on the other hand, is something I am not entirely familiar with. I have never found one walking these north shore New England beaches. I can only surmise it lives at the bottom of the sea, just offshore. It clings to things.  But it is hidden. So starfish are abstract to me, and the babies are too. I know they exist, but they are hidden under water, clinging to me. I see them in ultrasound pixels, but these pixels are separate from me. I try to connect with the babies, ring my Tibetan bowl, meditate by holding my belly. My desire is to put these little abstractions at ease. Josie falls into a deeper sleep when I ring the bowl; her doggie eyelids droop and her tail gives a sudden wave. I have to believe this sound is universally soothing, even to abstract forms.

Tomorrow we do the fetal survey. I'm nervous.