I Miss(ed) Roger Ebert

31 Jul

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When I was coming of age as a poet in Chicago, Roger Ebert was just the chubby-faced guy whose photo sat at the top of his film review column. I couldn’t have cared less about any iteration of his dumb movie review show with . . . that other guy, the skinny one. My opinion: Ebert wrote about the work of other artists; he wasn’t one himself. To me, in my teens and 20s, that was cause for dismissal. But after watching Steve James’s documentary, “Life Itself,” based on Ebert’s 2012 autobiography of the same name, I now realize that his life was art, and that I miss(ed) Roger Ebert.

I watched the James documentary last weekend on Netflix. I truly wasn’t looking to get interested — I was looking for something to background a nap on the couch — but I got interested when I heard these words, uttered by Ebert at the beginning of the film:

“The purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And, for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.”

That was unexpected. And then a colleague read the beginning of his column for the Daily Illini newspaper, written in 1963 when he was 21 and co-editor of the paper, in the wake of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. He started out his article by quoting Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words to George Wallace: “The blood of these innocent children is on your hands.” Following that, Ebert’s own words were:

“That is not entirely the truth. The blood is on so many hands that history will weep in the telling. And it is not new blood. It is old, very old. And as Lady Macbeth discovered, it will not ever wash away.”

How prescient he was. And how young he was: 21 and already a co-editor of a newspaper (albeit the student newspaper of U of I at Champaign-Urbana, where he was attending college). And that was another thing: he had wanted to go to Harvard, and there’s no doubt he would’ve gotten in, but his father told him in no uncertain terms that he was not going to Harvard — where would they get the money? Mom was a bookkeeper, dad an electrician. U of I, his hometown school, was where he was headed. (His bitchy TV buddy, the skinny one, went to Yale.) After college, after going to work at the Sun-Times reviewing movies — not a gold-standard position back in the ‘60s — he became one of those tough, hard-drinking newspaper types that just don’t exist anymore. James uses quotes from the autobio in the film, and this is what Ebert wrote about the bar wherein he drank hard, O’Rourke’s:

“It was a shabby street-corner tavern on a dicey stretch of North Avenue, a block after Chicago’s Old Town stopped being a tourist haven. In its early days it was heated by a wood-burning pot-bellied stove, and ice formed on the insides of the windows . . . When a roomer who lived upstairs died, his body was discovered when maggots started to drop through the ceiling.”

Not that it matters, but my feeling is: if you weren’t born in the actual city o’ Chicago — Ebert was born in Urbana, Illinois — and you end up drinking in a place like that, you’re okay. A colleague of Ebert’s pointed out in the film that of all the well-known, hard-drinkin’ guy-writers associated with Chicago — radio personality Studs Terkel, Simone de Beauvoir’s other boyfriend Nelson Algren, and Nobel-winning Saul Bellow — only Ebert was born anywhere near Chicago. (I’m leaving out Mike Royko because you probably need to have lived in Chicago to know who he was, and that his Polish family owned a tavern on the northwest side.) So, there Ebert was, getting shit-faced in a dive every night and writing film reviews during the day. Interesting. I never woulda thought.

Then there was a montage of his columns from the ‘60s, clipped from the paper, and among them I saw “Early Godard.” I actually got up off the couch and hit pause, to see exactly when that paper came out: October 29, 1969. He wrote about “Le Petit Soldat” — made just after “Breathless” — and “Six in Paris.” So, he knew his stuff, and his stuff could be read in the pages of the Sun-Times, the working-class person’s paper. Oh — his 1979 “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” script credit. One of the funniest moments in the James documentary was Martin Scorcese saying, of the title: “Beyond the valley. It was beyond it!” (Get it? It was beyond!) I knew Ebert had written the script, but I guess I’d forgotten, because when it came up in the documentary I laughed out loud. Donna LaPietra, an executive producer of “Siskel & Ebert” in the 80’s, said, in the movie, “How on Earth did Roger Ebert write ‘Beyond the Valley of the Dolls’?” Well, he was offered the job by Russ Meyer himself. Apparently, Twentieth Century Fox had owned the rights to the title, and was willing give it to any director who could come up with a script. As Ebert tells it, “The movie [Meyer explained] . . . would simultaneously be a satire, a serious melodrama, a rock musical, a comedy, a violet exploitation picture, a skin flick, and a moralistic expose of the oft-times nightmarish world of show business.” Go, Roger.

Then there was his — fake, I had supposed — rivalry with the skinny guy, Gene Siskel, movie critic for the more effete Tribune. (Wait . . . how effete? Embedded in the Tribune Tower’s neo-Gothic façade are pieces of the Taj Mahal, the Parthenon, Hagia Sophia, the Great Pyramid, Notre Dame, the Great Wall of China, and Angkor Wat —to name a few.) Turns out the rivalry — the pure enmity — wasn’t fake. Here’s their banter, transcribed by me from the documentary, as they try to record a commercial for their TV show. After Siskel flubs a line, Ebert says, to someone off-camera:

“Did you know that for Gene speech is a second language?”

Gene: “Roger’s first language is, ‘Yes, I’ll have an apple pie with my order.’ He asks the McDonald’s girls if he can have apple pie with his order before they ask him!”

Roger: “And you know what Gene says when he goes into McDonalds? ‘Can I haf a athel eye wif my orther?’”

Another take ends with Siskel calling Ebert an asshole. It seems, however, that as the years went by, they came to agree on some things:

GS: “You know, they don’t get enough shit, basically, the WASPS.”

RE: “They don’t, they don’t.”

GS: “They run the goddamn country, and all of us . . . all of us . . . and I‘m speaking to anyone who’s eavesdropping right now: Come on, band together people, let’s overthrow the country!”

RE: “Protestants: people who sort of want a religion. The goddamn Catholics and the fucking Jews: we go back a few years together!”

GS: “Come on! We’re real! We’re real! We get down and dirty!”

RE: “We were banding together when Martin Luther was only a gleam in his mother’s eye!”

Then, there’s his relationship with his wife Chaz, who says in the film, “Roger weighed three hundred pounds when we first started dating. He didn’t care that he was fat. He thought he was just great. And that was so sexy!”

Chaz is black and Roger, of course, was white. “Selma” director Ava DuVernay, interviewed in the film, makes note of this in relation to her own connection with Roger:

“It’s dangerous, as a black woman, to give something that you’ve made, from your point of view . . . to a white man, whose gaze is usually the exact opposite, and say ‘You are the carrier of this film to the publc. You’re the one who’s going to dictate whether it has value.’ And I had a lot less fears around that with Roger. ‘Cause you knew here was someone who was going to take it seriously, and come with some historical context, some cultural nuance. I mean, everybody knows Roger had a black wife. You know what I mean? It’s like an honorary brother. I mean: he lived with a sister? That’s a whole different understanding of black women!”

If you want to have yourself a good, cathartic cry (like I did), look at this, from Roger’s blog in 2011. Yes, that is DuVernay, as a little girl, in the photo, also posted at the top of this entry:

http://www.rogerebert.com/balder-and-dash/a-photo-of-a-little-girl-and-memories-of-two-beloved-aunts

His relationships with two other filmmakers, Errol Morris and Ramin Bahrani are also explored in the film (Bahrani visits him shortly before his death) but the DuVernay friendship is especially touching.

Then there was his diagnosis, and the progress of his cancer. And that was where, for me, he became an artist, and where everything he did before became part of, and redefined, that art: he lived out his death in public, in front of Steve James’s camera — filming began five months before Roger’s death — and chronicled it himself, on his blog. We learn that in 2002 he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. In 2003, he had surgery for cancer in his salivary gland. In 2006 he was diagnosed with cancer in his jaw, and had another surgery. A week after that surgery his carotid artery burst near the surgery site. In 2007 he lost his voice and began “talking” via a computerized voice system. He had surgery in early 2008 to restore his voice and reverse complications from previous surgeries, but the procedure was not successful. In the spring of 2008 he fell and fractured his hip, and in 2012 he had another surgery, to repair the hip. He went through rehab seven times. All of this, including various hospital procedures, is included in the film and is painful to watch. Through all of this, he writes on his blog, not only of his death but about his many interests. His blog is fascinating. I certainly don’t agree with everything he wrote there (and of course, I didn’t read it before this weekend), but reading it now I see a living spirit, a working class guy, a smart-ass, a too-big-for-his-britches (literally) jerk, a lover of art, a husband, a white stepfather and step-uncle to black children and adults, and supporter of up-and-coming filmmakers. Perhaps most importantly, an educator in the lessons of death. His last blog post, written — unbelievably — two days before his death is cogent and full of life:

“It really stinks that the cancer has returned and that I have spent too many days in the hospital. So on bad days I may write about the vulnerability that accompanies illness. On good days, I may wax ecstatic about a movie so good it transports me beyond illness.” (Roger Ebert’s Journal)

Pondering all this, I can’t help but wonder if, back then, I wasted my time on avant-garde poetry when I could’ve been learning some truly interesting stuff about life itself — through the prism of film — from this chubby-ass guy who was really living it.

Acquaintance Rape

28 Jul

In the last two days I’ve heard discussions of this subject on two different radio programs. Earlier today the discussion was with the editor of New York Magazine about the Bill Cosby cover story (on Brian Lehrer’s WNYC show), and yesterday it was an interview with comedians Barry Crimmins and Bobcat Goldthwait (on Terry Gross’s “Fresh Air”). Crimmins’s rape at age 4 or 5 by a man who knew his babysitter has been documented by Goldthwait in his new film about Crimmins, “Call Me Lucky”; I’m pretty sure we’re all familiar with Cosby’s history. One thing that connects these rapes is how predators identify exploitable opportunities, either by just showing up (in the case of Crimmins’s abuser) or actively setting up (as Cosby did). What really strikes me is the creating/narrating of these opportunities: even if the rapists are not writers or story-tellers, or even literate, they fully understand, as a writer would, the nuances of opportunity — how one plot point will dovetail successfully with another to produce the desired outcome — especially the dead-end issue (for victims) of believability. The end-game can be a dark and unnavigable landscape, yet how well rapists know the terrain, and how their victims’ feelings of guilt/personal responsibility can be exploited to obscure the path out of darkness, make the going impossible. I once sat at a bar in Greenwich Village and listened as a lawyer who defended a pedophile priest actually said to me, “No one can tell me that those kids don’t, in some way, want the attention. They have a role. If I were a twelve year old, and someone paid that kind of attention to me . . . you know what I’m talking about.” In Cosby’s case, some women did come forward over the years, while others did not, having been assured it would be futile (or career-damaging) to do so. And after 30+ years of being able to freely exploit the “nuances of opportunity,” why did it come down to a 1 minute, 42 second call-out by a man, Hannibal Buress, during his October 2014 stand-up routine, to finally bring Cosby to account? There have been incidents in the literary community over the past few years that exist alongside the ones I’m talking about here, and my own willingness to believe/disbelieve was tested in the most recent one. Oddly, I never felt equipped to comment on those incidents, even though I harbor my own story (which I wrote about, a little obliquely, in a poem for Delirious Hem last year). I don’t know what steps to take, really. I don’t know if there’s a map. I do know the path is not well-marked, and wherever you walk you’re in alien territory, surrounded by the alien’s friends, neighbors, and fellow aliens. And you don’t speak Alien.

I also don’t know why, but seeing the face of Beverly Johnson among those on that New York Magazine cover, and re-reading what she wrote for Vanity Fair in December 2014, made me want to say something about those perceived and managed “nuances of opportunity.” When I was younger, and wanted to be a model, I greatly admired Johnson, and followed her career. Now it feels like she’s communicating that even strong, smart, successful women don’t know sometimes. That’s comforting, and horrifying.

The story I harbor is this. All names have been changed.

Tony and I been introduced at a pleasant, backyard party in the summer of 1982. I was 21 (and wanting to be a model — maybe this is the Johnson connection), and he was 36. Our mutual friends, Marion and James McAlden, told me Tony was a talented illustrator who’d risen from poverty and a tough biker gang past to become a highly-paid Gold Coast architect in James’ firm. A well-known Chicago radio personality had even done a show about Tony. The McAldens wanted us to meet because both Tony and I had recently been through traumatic break-ups: his heart had been broken when his long-time girlfriend dumped him a few months earlier; around the same time I’d called off my engagement to an abusive fiancé. The McAldens weren’t looking to match-make, just friend-make.

Tony and I talked for a long time that night, in lawn chairs after the party was over, about our heartbreaks, our working class roots, our love of music and art. He showed me a well-worn wallet photo of his ex-girlfriend, Lilly: small and delicate and shy-looking, with long, straight brown hair, arms around the two daughters she’d had with her ex-husband. Not a girl you’d normally see on the back of a Harley. I had no photos of my former fiancé, having burned anything I still had of his in a ritualistic fire in my yard. Tony and I made vague plans to meet at some point for lunch, a movie, whatever.

We did whatever a few times. Very casual outings to see a movie and have dinner. At that point, I was sort of obsessed with my own break-up and really needed to get out of the house and not think about it (though I still thought about it all the time). One thing I did to refocus my disordered life was resume college that summer, after having taken the spring semester off to plan the wedding and work a full-time job. Tony would sometimes pick me up after class and we’d catch a “foreign film” at the Fine Arts Theater, down the street from my school. It was fun to ride down Michigan Avenue with him on his Harley. Like Lilly, I was also not the kind of girl one often saw on the back of a Harley, unless one saw a lot of punk girls with white, spiked hair and Patti Smith t-shirts on the backs of Harleys in the Midwest. That was more of a New York thing. And I was excited to be doing it precisely because it was a New York thing, and I hated backward, beef-tongued Chicago. Even when riding on the back of some guy’s Harley, idiots would still yell things at me like “Hey, punk rock sucks!” But it was easier to give those idiots the finger when riding on the back of some guy’s Harley than it was when they were walking right behind me, or taking a seat behind me on the bus. On the Harley I could just tear off laughing while they yelled, “Hey, fuck, you too, bitch!” at a cloud of noise.

A couple of years before meeting Tony I’d gone out with a guy who was a film major at my school.  We’d broken up but were still good friends, and when he had a big party that summer he invited me, and I invited Tony. At the party, people were showing their old Super 8 family movies on a big sheet strung up in the backyard, accompanied by random music playing on a boombox — first it was the Supremes, then it was the Buzzcocks, then it was Andy Williams singing “Ave Maria.” It was all about the juxtapositions. I thought Tony would find this amusing. He may have, but what he didn’t find amusing was the way some of the guys at the party were dressed. This was 1982 and New Wave was a big thing, and some people, guys included, dressed in Sixties and Fifties fashions (if they were into Rockabilly, say) — the suits, the shoes, the ties, the haircuts. No one was being ironic; they just liked the music.

Two hours into the party, Tony was standing by the liquor bottles on the kitchen table, scowling. When I asked him what was up he said something like, “I wore those clothes when I was a kid, and now these artsy-fartsy jagoffs are wearing them?” I could see why he was pissed: guys younger than him were co-opting an unlived experience — his lived experience — via fashion, that most vacuous of art forms. He wanted to leave, and that meant I had to leave, too, and this is where things got complicated.  At the time I lived on the south side of Chicago, and this party was on the north side. Tony was my ride, and if he left and I stayed I would have to shell out about $20 that I didn’t have for a cab home. Half the time when I tried to cab it home from the north side the drivers would refuse to take me there, unless they were black, because my family lived on the “Black South Side.” And I couldn’t really ask someone at the party for a ride because it was a really long way back to the south side — a two-hour trip to get there and back involving (if I remember this correctly) taking Lake Shore Drive to either 55 or the Dan Ryan, and then some additional local driving. If you’re a New Yorker, imagine traveling from the Lower East Side of Manhattan to Astoria, Queens and back (or asking someone, after a party, to drive you). An added complication was my recent estrangement from my best friend; I couldn’t call her up to ask if I could stay with her, which is what I often did when we were on speaking terms. Yes, I could’ve just crashed at the party, but then I would’ve had to contend with calling my parents — with whom I was living again after breaking off the engagement — to tell them I wasn’t coming home. My mother, may she rest in peace, was a bit of an hysteric. (In 1986, when I was 25, I called her from Heathrow Airport to let her know I’d gotten back from India, and she said, “Heathrow Airport? Isn’t that in England? You get your ass back here immediately, Sharon Marie!”)

So, I had to leave with Tony.

He drove the van (he’d picked me up in his van, rather than on his bike, because he was scared of my neighborhood) in petulant, pissed-off silence. After a while, I noticed we were on the Kennedy Expressway traveling away from the city. I asked him where we were going, but he didn’t answer. I understood he was pissed — but still? I thought about jumping out of the van and trying to hitch-hike in the other direction, but how could I get to the city-bound lanes without getting run over? And what if I got myself into a weirder situation? When we exited the expressway into some suburb I thought again about jumping out when we stopped at a light, but there was no one around and I was dressed in punk clothes and makeup, and pretty much all men in the Midwest, except the ones on the north side, seemed to equate punk rock girls with hookers. At least Tony knew the difference, being an architect and all.

Our destination turned out to be his aunt’s house, located somewhere in the Land Beyond O’Hare. I’d figured he had his own Near North apartment, being an architect and all, but he actually lived in her basement because he was caring for her. We never made it into the house; he said she was old and he didn’t want to wake her up (it was after 1 a.m., maybe close to 2). Turned out he had two twin mattresses in the back of the van, for when he and Lilly went on vacations with her kids (whose pictures were still dangling from the rear-view mirror).  Instead of getting into his own bed, though, he crawled into mine and started kissing me. I told him I didn’t feel like it, but by then he already had his hand under my shirt and was saying something like “I think we both need this.” Looking out the small window at a glaring streetlight, I thought again about jumping out and trying to get help, and get home, but if Tony could turn from a relatively okay guy to . . . whatever this was, he could turn from whatever this was into . . . something else. He might punch me, and what kind of a feminist punk would I be if I’d gotten hit by a second guy? Tony might even knock me unconscious so at least this way, I figured, I’d remain aware and just never speak to him again if he called.  And, of course, I would write about him. That would be my statement. By the time I reached that conclusion, the whole thing was over, and he was saying, “I’m sorry I lost my cool at the party. It wasn’t directed at you. Good night, Pumpkin.”

“Pumpkin” had been his nickname for Lilly, I later found out. Had he been fantasizing he was having sex with her while he was having sex with me? Was the whole “fashion-anger” thing a way to get out of the party? Why does Beverly Johnson’s story make me think of this incident of thirty-three years ago? I wasn’t drugged, I wasn’t abused . . . why didn’t I put a stop to it? Was it because I’d just left a physically and emotionally abusive relationship, and I just couldn’t fight anymore? A few years earlier, before I got engaged, I’d kicked an undercover Chicago law enforcement officer in the balls because he called me a cunt in front of my boyfriend. Where was that bad-ass girl that night in the van with Tony? I have no answers, and I still feel stupid.

I haven’t written about this in any real way until today.

AWESOMENESS!

2 Apr

Daniel Nester’s College of St. Rose students reading from my book, Annoying Diabetic Bitch:

http://nestersteachingblog.com/2014/04/02/english-218-sharon-mesmer-performances-from-annoying-diabetic-bitch/

My Name In Hebrew

26 Feb

My Name In Hebrew

My Hebrew-speaking friends
tell me that my name in Hebrew
means “poet or lyricist.”
Also “poet or lyricist with insomnia,”
sometimes “psalmist with insomnia,”
and at other times “one who feeds her cats insomnia today
and tomorrow pills made from dead babies
and insomnia.”
One particular Hebrew-speaking friend
(whose own name means “eat Al Gore and you’ll get anorexia”)
tells me that my name in Hebrew might also mean
“your portly psychiatrist is unnerved by your project involving
all the baldness of Hollywood’s insomnia.”
In fact, in a recent episode of
“My Revenant Mama Eats Your Mama’s Insomnia,”
starring three of my Hebrew-speaking friends,
all with Hollywood insomnia,
both the donkey cart and the donkey
are related to the King of Trainee Retinas
and afflicted with insomnia.
And in order to lull him into
Breathing New Life Into The Zombie Apocalypse
they use the Jewish revenge fantasy aspect of
“Inglourious Basterds” — thousands of Tel Aviv children singing
a doo-wop version of “The Binding of Isaac” from Genesis 22,
in which God falls ill in February 1603
and commands Isaac’s father in Pig Latin to
“ab-stay your un-say and then am-scray.”
But “God’s insomnia” can also be Hebrew code for
“full of rage in one of NYU’s mole tunnels
with a goatee full of toxic angora.”
So what am I supposed to believe?
Especially when scientists at Purdue’s Hebrew University in Mahwah, Jerusalem
are breathing new life into the menacing running zombie
that is not merely a revenant but a rageful, rabid
cab-driving mime hobbit with eczema,
drunk on sixteen Insomnia-bin-Ladens
every day before lunch.
I have no choice but believe that,
like the New Zealand volcano in “Lord of the Rings,”
I should be taking the marijuana pills
supplied by my greengrocer
to beat insomnia.
And then maybe my Hebrew name will be
“your orgy gooks are ruining my community musical about
Fall Out Boy’s archival Daewoo with their kebab acne
(and insomnia).”

Haji, nee Barbarella Catton, January 24, 1946 – August 9, 2013

19 Aug

Image

 

Assemblage, Moiety, Propinquity

9 Aug

A note about this poem: I was recently accused of writing “ugly” poetry.  This poem contains a selection of the “fifty most beautiful words in the English language” (according to, you know … someone).

 

A boy and a girl, both violet-eyed, insouciant, with incipient wings, sitting by a chimney.

 

 

The girl with violet eyes and incipient wings, in love with a beleaguered, brooding boy with carved-rock cheekbones.

 

 

The brooding boy with carved-rock cheekbones — lissome, sweet, summery — in love with a girl penumbral in color, mellow and super happy in a bungalow.

 

 

The mellow girl penumbral in color, in love with a bucolic boy who lithely jumped off a bus after a young gazelle and got hit with a tranq bullet.

 

 

The bucolic boy who, after recovering from getting hit with the tranq bullet, fell in love with a fetching ingenue — umbrella haircut, eyes chatoyant — who strode unhindered in opulence toward a perfect good.

 

 

The fetching ingenue who strode in opulence toward a perfect good because she was in reality moving in unison with a furtive, comely boy twerking it to the future between two moonlit lagoons.

 

 

The comely boy who, while twerking it to the future between the two lagoons, became inured to an imbroglio involving alien cyborgs in the offing and his life-long nemesis: a boy sporting a gossamer ‘fro of mysterious abilities and cheeks efflorescent with joy  — his secret cynosure.

 

 

The boy whose cheeks are efflorescent with joy because he is beside his beloved girl-cousin Dalliance as she chooses, with forbearance, from a plethora of magical tools and talismans, one of which — The Shield of Desuetude — she must use to dissemble an evil, ineffable destiny.

 

 

The girl named Dalliance who experiences an epiphany and chooses correctly The Shield of Desuetude and so produces a boon for humanity, and then, as part of the panacea, asks a demure boy named Halcyon (his burlap-y dreadlocks wafting an evocative petrichor and swinging like rope around his shoulders), “What is the felicity of this harbinger Earth, this redolent green seraglio moored in the stars, and of the Moon which lilts the air like a sussurous evanescence, so soon to unravel, and with what stars has God imbued this night, and why?”

 

 

The demure boy with dreadlocks who trails a length of diaphanous petunias tucked into his underpants, at the end of which sits his pet fungal onion Susquehanna, in love with a tiny pony with a vestigial head hanging languorously from its neck, a head that is, in reality the woebegone ghost of some erstwhile Surrealist.

 

 

And the woebegone ghost of this erstwhile Surrealist, in a previous life one ingredient in a bitter elixir but in this one nothing more than a fugacious mote, the least scintilla of a long-lost palimpsest, but whose mote-love is the emollient ripple in the ether that suspires a wish in the heart of all things to bring the violet-eyed boy and a girl, insouciant, with incipient wings, to configure in miraculous imbrication by a chimney.

 

To My Bully: Thank You

18 Jul

July 18, 2013

Dear Lori,

For some reason I only just saw the message you sent me through Facebook, so please excuse this tardy response.  I’m writing now to thank you for your brief note of apology for bullying me in grammar school . . . and to thank you for bullying me in grammar school.  Yes: I am thanking you for bullying me!  You may think this is heading toward some sort of veiled diatribe or condemnation, but I’m actually writing this from a most sincere place, to tell you that being bullied turned out to be a great gift — a powerful engine for achievement that serves me even now, almost forty years later.  I’ll explain . . .

Bullying pretty much defined my childhood between the ages of 10 and 13 — basically fifth through eighth grade.  After leaving St. John of God grammar school my high school experience was altogether different.   But during those last three years at SJG, the daily stream of insults — “palsy,” “nigger lips,” “poor,” “crazy legs,” “crazy red hair” and “greaser” (and the ones directed at my mother, like “turban head”) — were exceedingly hurtful.  By seventh grade I was spending all my non-school time at home, alone — not the optimal situation for a 12 year-old.  However, all that time alone forced me to turn to something that was already there for solace: rock and roll.  As I read the biographies of my favorite musicians, I was amazed to learn that many of those attractive, fabulous and confident-seeming people had gotten bullied as teenagers: Janis Joplin’s high school classmates had scrawled “pig” on her locker, Michael Jackson’s grammar school classmates had jeered, “You’re never gonna get anywhere,” and Patti Smith had been made fun of at work for being skinny and flat-chested — something I could really relate to (as you well know, having called me “flatsy”).  In an interview I read back in 1976 (and still remember clearly), Patti had remarked, “Being from a lower middle class background, it was real desirable to have big tits and a big ass.”  Reading that was a revelation: being different from everyone else wasn’t my problem; it was everybody else’s problem!  And it wasn’t a fault, either; it was actually, as I was discovering, a gift.  Kids who are different are gifted, not shrifted, by their imposed loneliness, because loneliness allows them the time to read, listen, ponder, create, find role models, figure things out.  It’s a difficult path, but it’s the only path to knowlege of who we really are.   St. John of the Cross, a medieval Spanish Carmelite monk and poet, wrote of the “via negativa” — the negative way:

 

To come to the pleasure you have not

you must go by a way which you enjoy not.

To come to the knowledge you have not

you must go by a way which you know not.

 

I had no notion back then that I was striving for that kind of illumination; I just wanted to feel like not killing myself.  As my reading ranged further, I discovered the innumerable writers, poets, painters and composers who were considered different . . . it seemed like almost everyone that the world recognized as talented and brilliant, as possessing genius even, had been criticized at one time for being different.  Once I learned that, I gained the freedom to become myself . . . to let the freak flag fly!  Suddenly, I was proud of being different!  Who wanted to be normal?  Normal people were boring!  Since my epiphany occurred in the mid-‘70’s, during the naissance and early popularity of punk music, I embraced punk style and attitude whole-heartedly, and while I sure didn’t fit in on the south side of Chicago (because I was totally ahead of my time, of course!), I fit right in later at Columbia College, among artists and other creative, innovative people, and on the music, literary and fashion scenes of the north side (I modeled for a bit, before I got fed up with all the stupid people in that world, which didn’t take long), and on most every scene I moved in after, including the New York literary scene.   The things I’d discovered and explored during those three horrible years at St. John of God had laid a great groundwork for all the things I achieved later.  As I got older and continued my explorations, learning about the lives and ideas of well-known people in fields other than the arts, I discovered, happily, that my “weirdness” was only weird alongside boring, normal people, and that great achievement was possible through being weird: Einstein, Tesla, Turing and Edison are the most famous weirdoes that come to mind.  There are many, many others.  In fact, there seemed to be a direct connection between having been thought of as a weirdo, and achieving great things.  Even the Buddha himself was considered weird 2,500 years ago!  And he taught, “You are your own refuge.”  By the time I’d read that, however, I’d already known it, as I’d had only myself and the information I’d gleaned in loneliness to rely on for so many years.  Time and time again, that information still proves to be absolutely correct.  By the time I entered college I’d come to treasure those years, feel gratitude for their lessons, and hold them in my heart with great affection.

You might be thinking, and rightly so, that you weren’t the only one who bullied me.  That’s absolutely true.  But you’re the only one with enough balls to bring it into the light.  I admire you for that.  But I had ceased holding you accountable many years ago, Lori.  Why?  For four reasons.  The first: if I hope to be forgiven for all the nasty shit I’ve visited upon people, then I have to be willing to forgive people who visited nasty shit upon me.  Accepting this has helped me to develop compassion, and I’m hoping that you have developed compassion, too.  I’m wondering if you apologized because your son was bullied?  Or maybe because kids like Tyler Clementi touched your heart?  Or maybe because you’d heard about Angel Greene, the eighth grade girl from Indiana who hung herself this past March at a bus stop because she’d been bullied?  (She left a suicide note that read, in part, “Why did I deserve this pain?”) The many tragic incidents of suicides among children because of bullying in the first three months of 2013 alone are staggering, absolutely heartbreaking.  I wish I could gather all these kids up in my arms, hold them close to my heart, and tell them what you (and, yes, the other girls from the Class of ‘74) taught me: that being different is a blessing in disguise and not a curse, and that their biggest bullies can be their greatest teachers, if they seek role models among the many creative and successful people who endured bullying simply because they were different and came through — confident and successful — on the other side.  Which brings me to the second reason I’m grateful to you.

I still collect stories of talented and successful people who were bullied to share with my New York University and New School students who’ve been bullied.  I tell them — and I wish I could tell all kids who have been hurt and humiliated for being different — about Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps who was teased mercilessly for his big ears and ADHD.  Nowadays his trainer calls him a “motivation machine” because he channels everything, even negative experiences (especially negative experiences), into gain.  I tell them that Chris Rock said that he “ . . . got beat up just about every day. I got called ‘nigger’ every single day.”  But he used his experiences  to create his successful TV show, “Everybody Hates Chris.”  I tell them that Kate Winslet, who was bullied for being fat (her classmates called her “Blubber”; her comeback: “I can lose weight but you’ll always be ugly”), went on to become the youngest person to receive six Oscar nominations, and later an Oscar for Best Actress.  She was also appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire.  Plus she’s totally hot!  A totally hot Commander of the Order of the British Empire who once got called “Blubber”!  (And where are the kids who called her that today?  Certainly not winning Oscars or appearing on the covers of American, British, French and Italian Vogue.) I tell them that Lady Gaga said, “It took a long time for me to be okay with myself . . . Sometimes in life you don’t always feel like a winner, but that doesn’t mean you’re not a winner.”  And I tell them my three favorite quotes:

“Everything that you get picked on for, or you feel makes you weird, is essentially what’s going to make you sexy as an adult” — Justin Timberlake

 

 “Living well is the best revenge” — George Herbert, 17th century British poet

 

 “If I hadn’t come home from school miserable every day, maybe I wouldn’t have been so motivated to write songs” — Taylor Swift

And here’s something sweet from Yahoo Answers:

If you really think about it bullies help to build great minds and creative talents . . . What bullies don’t know is that sometimes the people they pick on all the time have great ability and their cruelty simply pushes their victims to brilliant achievement later on in life . . . If you don’t dance to the beat of the Mass Mind, you are going to be picked on and made to feel miserable, and it will be a tough road to travel down. We can learn a lot from famous people who did travel down that tough road and used their hard times as a springboard to future achievements.

Amen!  I’m so glad this isn’t just information for the few!

The third reason I’m thanking you is that, like you, I witnessed the destruction of our beautiful and beloved St. John of God Church on Facebook, and reconnected with many of our fellow classmates during that emotionally wrenching process.  In your note to me you mentioned “that special time and place.”  You’re right: there was no place on the planet like Back of the Yards when we lived there . . . the stench from the stockyards alone put it in a category by itself!)  Despite the treatment I endured there, I have always considered that place (and our time there) very, very special, and hold it in my heart.  How can I not?  Back of the Yards is where my great-grandparents settled after coming over from Poland, where my grandparents met and my parents grew up (and met: they lived next door to each other on Racine Avenue), and where my sister and I — and her son, too — grew up.  Plus, it’s where I became a writer.  In a way, I AM that place.  And I share so many wonderful, quirky memories with you and everyone else who grew up there — the conversations on Facebook proved that — it’s almost like we share parts of our brains and hearts, even the invisible atoms of our thoughts.   One of my favorite lines of poetry is by T. S. Eliot, from “The Four Quartets”:

The end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

 

The destruction of St. John of God allowed all of us who’d been scattered by Fate to come together again; it allowed something important to be re-created.  I’m sure you know that St. John of God is being rebuilt as St. Raphael the Archangel Church, in a beautiful small town near the Wisconsin border, but did you know that the actual St. John of God, who lived in Granada, Spain, and cared for the poor, sick, and dying, attributed his healings gifts to his patron . . . St. Raphael?  Isn’t that an interesting coincidence?  In the dome of our church was a painting of St. John of God giving last rites to a dying man, with St. Raphael assisting at the foot of the man’s bed.  There certainly is a theme of healing in all this, isn’t there?  And a special lesson about how rebirth is ever-present, even in destruction.

As I’m writing this thank you note to you, I’m sitting on the deck of my second home in rural Pennsylvania, looking out on 3,000 acres of state game land.  A purple finch has just landed on the bird feeder, a doe and fawn pause in the lush ferns to check me out, three hawk fledglings in a nest high in a tree in our yard are trying their wings, and a bear or two may even stroll by later today (we once had four on our deck in the middle of the night).  I’ve enjoyed 21 fabulous years with my soul mate and husband, David Borchart, a cartoonist for The New Yorker magazine and a graphic designer for Deutsche Bank on Wall Street.  Four of my poems appear in the just-published (and controversial!) Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry, an assigned textbook in American university literature classes.  In 2011 I went to Russia to teach on a Fulbright; the year before I was in Iceland to read my work and give a talk at an international literary conference (and that same year I also had a poem published in The Wall Street Journal — yes, The Wall Street Journal!); the year before I was a guest of the Romanian Writers Union at a resort on the Black Sea for another international conference, and a month before that I received an “Alumna of the Year” award from my alma mater, Columbia College.  In 2005 Hachette published a collection of my short fiction in French translation, and in 1997 I traveled to five cities in Japan, all expenses paid, to read my work alongside a Japanese poet.  These are just some of the many experiences that have been a source of delight for me.  But I must admit to you that every time something wonderful happened I felt deliciously vindicated: I always knew I wasn’t whoever you thought I was, whoever it was you saw in those classrooms, in that church at 8:00 Mass, on the sidewalks of Back of the Yards.  The person was just a projection of your own adolescent fears and insecurities (and we are all prey to adolescent fears and insecurities … some of us to this day).  But beneath that feeling of vindication is another feeling: true gratitude.  Had I not been bullied, had I grown up “normal,” I would never have left the neighborhood, the city, the country, never have seen the sun rise over the Himalayas, or walked through a cloud at 12,000 feet, or witnessed a rainbow arcing out of the Nepalese hills below me; I would have never have lived in Paris, London and Berlin, never been awarded residencies at castles in Scotland and villas in Spain.  I probably would never have gravitated toward literature, as so many sensitive (and angry!) people before me, and I would probably never have studied with the great poet Allen Ginsberg at Brooklyn College, and received the prestigious MacArthur Scholarship, given by the college at his nomination.   Most importantly, I would have never received the precious gifts of his encouragement, wisdom and humor.  A major theme of Allen’s life and work was the eradication of shame about who we are, the bringing of all that we are, even the things we are most ashamed of, into the light of acceptance and transmutation.  The last lines of the “Footnote” to his great poem, “Howl” are:

Holy forgiveness! mercy! charity! faith! Holy! Ours! bodies! suffering! magnanimity!

 

Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul!

 

And his friend and fellow Beat writer Jack Kerouac wrote, in his “Belief and Technique for Modern Prose” (a list of suggestions for writers):

No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge.

The list Kerouac compiled is as much a guideline for writers as it is for anyone who wants to live fully alive.  You should check it out.  The feeling of having, finally, no fear or shame is incredibly powerful.  Intoxicating, even.

Finally, there’s the fourth reason, and the most important thing that I want to share with you, because I truly do share it with you.  In 2011 I had a nervous breakdown, precipitated by my sister’s death and a shitload of other things that I apparently had not yet processed.  The breakdown coincided with the destruction of our church, and I felt like I, too, was being taken apart piece by piece.  As I went through it, I re-read many of the poems and stories that had guided me out of the darkness of adolescence, and I vowed that once I was back in the light I would try to help others through their own darkness by using literature.  When I was able to manage my thinking again I proposed a workshop to the director of the Poetry Project here in New York, a workshop called “Cathexis/Catharsis: Writing To/Through Illness and Suffering.”  As we all know, suffering is usually thought of as an obstacle to be feared, avoided, rejected at all costs.  But my thinking was: what if these difficult experiences could be re-imagined and understood, with the help of poetry, as talismans, thresholds, gateways to illumination?  What if suffering could be a language like any other, learned, manipulated and sent back out into the world in a powerful new way?  What if I could convey what I had first learned back at St. John of God: that the darkest shadows exist alongside the brightest light?  You might think a workshop like that would be horribly depressing, but it wasn’t.  We actually laughed a lot!  And cried a couple of times, too.  The students were working with issues like anxiety and clinical depression, but they were able to kind of stand outside themselves and “witness” their experiences by writing about them, by putting them inside the frame of poetry.  And the work they produced was amazing.  This past June, two months after the workshop was over, everyone who had participated in all the Project’s workshops (there were three other workshops aside from mine) gave a group reading of their work.  One of my students began her reading by saying, “I want to thank Sharon for helping me to not be ashamed of having an illness.”  At that moment I knew that my ability to help even that one young girl (whose name, by the way, is Luz — Spanish for “light”) to overcome shame was a direct result of having processed successfully the experience of being bullied.  I don’t think there’s any more important work in this world than to help people overcome the things that keep them from manifesting the divine light of who they truly are.

You were my partner in that, Lori.  You’ve been my invisible partner in all that I’ve managed to accomplish, and all that I will accomplish in the future.  I hold you in my heart.  Thank you.

Sincerely,

Sharon

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