Wednesday, January 28, 2015

A Humbling Experience

I’ve known for a while that I’m arrogant. I’ve known this largely because I hang out with other literature/art/theater students who will proudly admit that they are arrogant, and I got in the habit of admitting it, too. It’s not that we haven’t earned our right to arrogance: we all work very hard in our chosen field, a few of us (myself included) sometimes relying entirely upon our scholarly performance as a measurement of our self-worth. We are arrogant, but we are incredibly hard on ourselves. If we are not one of the top-performing students in the class, we might as well give up on life—as far as we as concerned, anyway.

I also know I am arrogant because of the way people react to me when I talk about literature. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve used phrases like “authorial intent” or “language instability” and had to explain what exactly that means and why it’s relevant to whatever lit-crit. jibber-jabber I’m spewing at any given moment. It was much longer ago that I lost track of the number of times I have mercilessly berated books like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey only to have my conversational partner sheepishly say, “I really liked that book.” (Aside: I always feel like shit because I know that it can feel like someone is insinuating you’re stupid if you like a thing when they take that big of a dump on the thing that you happen to enjoy. I stand by my assessment, however. Just know that I don’t think you’re stupid if you like those books. I love Ghost Adventures. I have no right to judge you.)

So now that we have established that I am arrogant, I would like to admit that I have I was previously unaware of the extent of my arrogant-ness. What opened my eyes was walking into my “Barn- och ungdom litteratur” class—children’s and youth literature. Taught in Swedish.

Oh god what have I done?
Today I had my second lecture and I spent a significant portion of time at the beginning of the class berating myself, asking myself why I would have signed up for a class taught in motherfucking Swedish, asking myself what the fuck I had been thinking. I even spent some time trying to give myself a pep talk: “It’s not worth giving a fuck about what these people think of you. If they think you’re stupid because you can barely communicate and you never talk, so fucking what? You’re never going to see them again after this class.” It did not work.

Before I even went to class I had a minor battle with some anxiety that made getting out the door rather more stressful than it had any right to be. I knew that today we were going to be split into groups and our groups would be receiving the topic we were to be presenting on, along with our schedule. Though rationally I knew that I would be able to understand enough to know which group I was in, what topic we were assigned, and when we would be presenting, the totally irrational part of myself was telling me I would not ever, not in a million years, understand. Scientists had a better chance of cloning an Einstein-Darwin hybrid clone than I had of understanding this pretty basic fucking Swedish. This part of me was significantly louder than the rational side, and it made me want to crawl back in bed.

What does this have to do with being arrogant? Well, I am very used to walking into a classroom and knowing I am going to be a top-performing student in that room. I am so used to it that I took it for granted—I wasn’t even aware I was so comfortable in the security of that knowledge and hadn’t had cause to realize that I was comfortable with it since coming to the University of Oregon.

The closest I got to being forced to realize this weird sort of privilege I had so effectively built around myself was in a class that did not meet with my expectations, in which I simply did not jive with the way the teacher was teaching and couldn’t understand how the class could be considered a literature class rather than, say, a sociology class. But even then I could dismiss it by pointing out that so much of what we were reading had nothing to do with literature, or in fact that we only read two novels in the entire course, or that I (a grown damn woman) was not permitted to write on my chosen topic (one of the two damn novels). I was perfectly capable of constructing an argument that it wasn’t me, it was the class itself. And I still got an A anyway, so all my bitching and moaning meant nothing in the end anyway.

I can make no such argument here. For the first time in three years I have walked into a classroom knowing I won’t be a top-performing student and it is impossible for me to deflect this. It isn’t the fault of the teacher, nor the class design, nor the class literature. It is because I am not fluent in the language in which the class is taught, and this lies entirely with me. For the first time since being admitted to the University of Oregon I am incapable of adequately expressing my thoughts and opinions about a given text, and even though I may have complex thoughts and opinions to express I feel stupid for my inability to express them.

Could I express them in English? Sure. But then what would I learn? Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Unfortunately my nervousness about not being able to communicate rendered me literally speechless today. Divided into small discussion groups I just sat by and listened, not contributing a single thought. The first words I spoke to my group weren’t until the end of the discussion and they had nothing to do with the texts: “Förlåt för att jag prata inte. Jag kommer från USA och det är svårt att förstår ännu. Jag blir bättre, men jag är jätte nervös. Förlåt.” I’m sorry I’m not talking. I’m from the United States and it’s still a little hard to understand. I’m getting better, but I am really nervous. I’m sorry.

They were understanding—one girl told me that if I ever don’t understand something it’s okay if I need to have them repeat in English and another girl seemed impressed that I had decided to take a course in Swedish, noting that it must be very hard.

Yes, it is, but it will be good for me. I will be a lot better at Swedish by the time this class is out, in addition to learning a lot of really interesting things about children’s and youth literature (the interplay between the books and the society and such—my jam). I can never remember this in the moment in the classroom, though. In the moment I can’t help but wonder why I ever thought I could do something like this—how could I be so arrogant?

Well, because I am arrogant. I am still arrogant, but this (even just the first two classes) has been an incredibly humbling experience. I no longer sit upon the scholastic throne I had unknowingly placed myself upon, and that’s probably a good thing—you know, in terms of developing good character or something. And even though it was a lesson I wasn’t expecting to learn, it’s just as important as all the Swedish and lit learning I’ll be doing. Maybe even more so.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

I worry about the things I write, sometimes.

 Today I wrote a story about a Holocaust denier. It’s still in its first draft, obviously, having only been completed maybe five hours ago. Even in its rough draft form I feel quite good about it – at this early stage I feel like all of the basic elements are there, all of the rough material I need to work with. I’m excited about it. But at the same time, I’m worried about it.

I’m worried because I often worry about the type of messages my stories will perpetuate. This one in particular I worry about because of what one of the pivotal characters in the stories says near the end: in accusing the main and POV character, a Holocaust denier, he accuses pretty much every one ever of not caring about the other populations harmed and systematically eradicated by the Nazis, specifically the Romani, the mentally and physically disabled, and homosexuals.

What I’m worried about here is that someone might read this story and take away from it that the story is saying that the genocide committed against the Jews is somehow a less important genocide than the others, that we should stop paying as much attention to it or something along those lines.

Clearly I do not feel this way, nor do I want to communicate any such a thing, nor would I read such a thing into this story if it had been written by someone else and I was reading it for class or in my spare time. I can be a dick sometimes, but not that much of a dick. Nonetheless, I know people can read really bizarre things into stories, art, shows, whathaveyou – things that don’t always correlate to what the evidence of the text points to. And I am a firm believer in the idea that once my stories are published and in the hands of the reader, they are no longer my stories – they are the reader’s, to do with what they will. Authorial intent? It serves no purpose and is just plain silly to discuss when discussing the meaning of a work of literature – and as John Green says, it’s boring to boot.

But to point out exactly what it is that I’m worried about, let’s look at Sia’s new music video for “Elastic Heart.” If you don’t know by now (and if you don’t that means you haven’t watched it – you probably should. In fact, go do that now!!) the video features Shia LaBeouf (28) and Maddie Ziegler (12) performing an interpretive and highly emotional dance in a giant bird cage, Shia wearing skin-tone briefs and Maddie wearing the skin-tone leotard she wore in “Chandelier” (if you haven’t seen that one either, FIX YOURSELF). The video is emotionally fraught, with the actors swinging between angry and aggressive interactions to tender ones and back again in the blink of an eye. And there’s a whole lot of people crying “PEDOPHILIA” over this video.

Once a piece of art is in the public’s hands, it belongs to the public. What its creator intended doesn’t really matter anymore – it’s the interpretations of the public that matter and that give the video meaning. However, some interpretations are less valid than others.

Remember when I said people can read really bizarre things into a text? Interpretations which have no correlation with what’s actually happening in the text? Well, that’s what’s happening with this video: there is nothing inherently sexual about what’s happening in the video, and yet a lot of people are projecting that onto the interactions between Shia and Maddie. Why? Well, as I am not one of the people in the interpretive camp screaming “pedophilia” I can’t be positive but I can make some educated guesses, my guesses lay primary with the fact that there is 1) emotionally charged physical contact between 2) a male and a female who are 3) mostly naked/with nakedness alluded to 4) who also have a huge age gap between them. These are the facts of the video, but none of those things are inherently sexual nor are they, by extension, pedophilic. Some of these things (emotionally charged physical contact and nakedness or the allusion to nakedness, particularly with regard to a male and a female because heteronormativity) are closely tied to sexuality in our culture.

The naked body is not inherently sexual, yet the western world treats as such and attaches sexualized shame to it. In western culture it’s damn near inconceivable that a man and a woman could occupy the same space in a nude or semi-nude state without the situation being sexual – once again, because heteronormativity. The same goes for emotionally charged physical contact: in our society if such contact is occurring between a man and a woman there is almost always an assumption that it is romantic and/or sexual in nature. As though it is totally impossible for a man and a woman to have a plutonic but deeply emotional relationship. (Can I get a cheer for the continuation of puritanical dogma in the modern era? No?)

It is not Sia’s fault that so many people in western culture are incapable of separating a nude or near nude human body from sexuality. Nor is it her fault that people are incapable of separating strong emotions between a male and a female from sexuality. It is not her fault that such a large part of her audience has been so inundated with previous heteronormative ideas about sexuality, the sexualization of the naked body, or the sexualization of powerful emotions – especially the tender, loving ones. It is not her fault that her audience had already fully bought into those innately flawed ideals before coming into contact with her new video, so that they shout "pedophilia!" just because a grown man an a girl in minimal clothing have an emotionally charged, physical interaction. And yet she is being shamed for her art because of that.

It happens often. People see an artsy performance piece or a new piece of literature and they bring their own baggage into it. They can and should make their own interpretations of said artsy thing, but as I've said some interpretations are less valid than others, and it is inevitable that people’s previous baggage will, on occasion, cause them to have a reading of a text which doesn’t actually, in reality, have anything to do with what is factually occurring in the text.

So am I saying there are wrong interpretations? Hell yes I am. As a writer I am terrified of wrong interpretations going as badly as they have for Sia. But…I still believe people are entitled to their interpretations of a text, right? Well, yeah, but if their interpretation isn’t based on what is factually present in the text and they are wildly off course, other people are just as entitled to point out where they have mis-stepped in their interpretative process.

At least…I would hope. I don’t like the idea of the author or creator of a work of art being forced to explain themselves, as people demanded that Sia explain herself and as she ultimately did. It puts the author back in the place of focus when what should be in focus is the art itself: how we read it and why we read it that way. The discussion about why we are interpreting Sia's video in any given way is interesting. Badgering her into explaining herself is boring but more importantly douchey. (Yeah yeah yeah, she's a public figure and should expect some degree of this behavior/treatment, blah blah blah....No. There is one rule: be chill, don't be an asshole. It doesn't matter if a person is a public figure or not)

But I also just don’t like the idea of me as myself being put in that position because maybe I wrote something that made a bunch of noisy people feel uncomfortable. I am very proud of my story, but I can easily imagine someone reading it and coming to the conclusion that the story and by extension I am saying that the genocide of the Jews in WWII is less important than the other genocides, even though if we were to look factually at the story I wrote there is no basis for that. This “Elastic Heart” event has proved that it doesn’t necessarily matter what factually exists in the text – there are plenty of people who will read into a text exactly what they want to read into it, whether what they want to read into is actually there or not.

And that makes me worry about the things I write, sometimes. Because that could have very bad consequences for what people perceive the message of the story to be. Does that mean I’ll withhold this story for my fear that people will take away a radically warped message from it? Hell no. I’m far too proud of this story. But it’s still worrying.

I’ll try to stop worrying.

Monday, January 12, 2015

To Take a Pilgrimage Part 2

I planned on writing this when I got back from my trip, but I’ve been putting it off because I honestly don’t know what to say. I’m not a professional blogger or anything, so I don’t really have any responsibility to write it, but…you know…I title something “part 1” and I expect myself to eventually write “part 2.” So I guess here we go?

It was weird. The entire trip leading up to my train stop at Seascale, I kind of forgot I had started off on a pilgrimage. I was just going for it, and quite honestly I was having to go on a day-to-day basis, not thinking too much about what was going to happen next, because I just had to be where I had to be and I had to be there on time and in between being in those places I had to make my time in these foreign countries count.

So while I was in Copenhagen, I thought about Copenhagen. All I saw was Copenhagen and how beautiful and sprawling and old it was. When I was in Berlin all I thought about was Berlin – noticed that so much of the architecture was so much newer than in Uppsala or Copenhagen, thought “I’m not a fan,” then realized that so much was new because so much had been destroyed in World War II. When I was in Berlin, I only saw those museums – the chunks of the wall scattered around the city, the still-standing Checkpoint Charlie. When I was in Amsterdam I was half asleep because I’d been sleeping on trains and in train stations for the past two nights, so I only saw Amsterdam but in a way I saw through it, too, like one might see through a ghost. I saw the unbelievably long line to the Anne Frank House and thought I could handle it but after an hour realized I was only in the city for a day so I hopped on a boat and traveled to the van Gogh museum – and I saw van Gogh’s letters to his family. I saw his beautiful paintings and drawings and I stood there in the room with them – with these beautiful pieces of history turned out by van Gogh’s own hand. I stood in the room with his palette, smeared with oils that dried over a hundred years ago.

Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin

In the morning I walked refreshed from the hostel to the train station and I saw the red lights illuminating the early morning windows in the red light district – a couple of men stopping to watch a near-naked woman apply lipstick inside a brothel’s store-front window. When I was in London I saw only the gardens that used to be cemeteries, the graves so degraded that the names on the stones were utterly illegible, if they even remained. I saw only the inside of the café where I sat to recharge my phone, rest my feet, drink some coco and write a short story. I saw only the British Library with its exhibition of “Treasures of the Library” that included ancient manuscripts from Hindu, Buddhist, Muslin, Jewish and Christian traditions and more – medieval texts and maps and an old globe meticulously painted with the constellations, to name just a few.

St. George's Garden was one of the first cemeteries in London
which existed on a property separate from the church.

When I was on the train from London to Seascale, I finally remembered that I was on a pilgrimage. But I was still too tired to feel much emotionally or spiritually. What I felt was tired and achy. Between London and Seascale I was back to sleeping on trains and in train stations and, just in case you were unaware, that is hardly the best way to get a good rest. It is true that your body adapts after a fashion: even for someone like me, who has been riddled with sleeping difficulties for as long as I can remember, I got to a point where I fell asleep much faster than I do under normal circumstances. Under normal circumstances and on a good night it takes me around thirty minutes to fall asleep – more often it takes in the area of an hour, and often enough upwards of that. I got to a point on the trains that I was falling asleep within five minutes, my backpack tucked under my legs and my purse tucked under my arm between me and the window, but I could never sleep deeply. I was wary of missing my stop, or of having my things stolen – though most of the trains I was on I shared with only a few other people, as I was traveling at odd hours.

In addition to being truly exhausted, pretty much everything hurt. If I but specifically my feet were more used to walking many multiple miles a day it would have been okay – hell, me being me, if I had been able to go barefoot I would have been better off. (In case you’re new to the life of Tahni: I hate wearing shoes.) By the time my train rolled into Seascale my feet were covered with blisters, especially my little toes which seem to like to hide just under the toe next to them. They were swollen and white with blisters, and my feet generally ached from being trapped in my shoes for so long. At the hostel in Amsterdam I had bandaged my feet and since then I had taken to removing my shoes while I slept on the trains, but it still wasn’t enough for them to heal.

Of course all of this I absolutely did to myself. I made decisions. I knew it was going to be rough. But I was trying to go cheaply and I was trying to see as much as I could in a very limited time span. And for some reason it makes sense to my mind that a pilgrimage should be…well…rough.

Until very recently in human history, if you were going on a pilgrimage anywhere, you were likely going on foot. If you were very well off, perhaps you were going by horse. So I guess there was a bit of me that didn’t want to lose all of the harshness of the pilgrimage experience to the comforts of modern technology (as though the harshness might make reaching the destination all the more worthy, all the more powerful) though my experience was still far easier than most pilgrims throughout history.

If all of that sounds like madness to you, it’s because it is. To explain it further, I will tell you this: a friend I made here in Uppsala recently looked at me and quite straight-faced said, “You are a glutton for punishment.” All I could say in response was “Well…yeah.” And that’s as much of an explanation as I am capable of providing you for why I chose to go about this adventure in the harshest way possible. That said, if I were to do it again, I would absolutely book a bed in a hostel every night, still taking the very late and very early trains but at least getting some real sleep in between. That was an awful thing I did to my body, and so I would like to formally apologize: Body, I am sorry. I am so sorry for what I have done. Now…can you please stop threatening me with a cold? K thanks.

As the train pulled into Seascale I perked up quite a bit. I’d gotten a couple hours of napping in so I had some energy and besides, the train was rolling along the seaside, and it was gorgeous – in that grey, tumultuous way you would expect the sea to be when you’re nearing Scotland.

 The view from the Seascale train stop. The town wasn't even
large enough to warrant a station.

Once off the train at Seascale it became very obvious to me that I was quite out of my element. For the most part in the cities I had been able to pass unnoticed, considering the huge populations. That was simply not the case in Seascale, which was clearly a tiny fraction of the population of the cities I’d been to.

Gosforth was even smaller. I do not kid and I do not exaggerate when I say I walked into the little convenience store (there was but one) which resided underneath the café (there was but one) and everyone clearly knew I wasn’t from around there. Every time someone new came through the door the others in the store greeted them with questions that weren’t quite as classic as “How’s the wife?” but was bordering on it. Gosforth was quite literally a little rural village on the border of Scotland, green and overcast and surrounded by wide expanses of rolling hills peppered with white-faced black sheep.

The walk to Gosforth: a stone barn among the fields.

I must have walked two miles from Seascale to Gosforth (there was a bus – I could not find it and was impatient), meandered into the convenience store to buy some beef pasties and a postcard for my nieces (and one for my self – one of only two souvenirs I got myself on the entire trip) and I asked where St. Mary’s was. The (really very sweet) young man behind the counter pointed me in the right direction and, hot pasties in hand, I headed off.

When I saw the church peeking up through the trees I wasn’t sure how to react. My reaction mostly consisted of a strangely hesitant “There it is.” I shoved my pasty in my mouth and continued forward.

Walking into the churchyard, I could see the Gosforth Cross standing to one side of the beautiful, old brick church but I didn’t want to approach it directly. I was almost afraid to approach it, actually – to come to the goal, to the point of the trip, to fulfill the spirit of the journey and not have it in front of me anymore. It felt so strange, and so much like the journey wasn’t over, that I walked the opposite way around the church. I wandered the churchyard that was crowded with old and new headstones, giving a very wide berth to the elderly couple in the middle of the yard placing flowers on a grave.

Finally I circled around and I approached the stone. Slowly. Pausing often to take a picture – of a strange tree, of an overgrown tomb. Until, finally, I was at its base – dropping my bag onto the damp grass and circling the tall, stone cross, squinting at the faded, lichen-colored carvings, seeking out Sigyn and Her Loki.

When I found Her I did something I imagine would have looked very strange had the elderly couple rounded the corner to see it: I climbed up on the square stone base, standing on tip toe and hugging the pillar with one arm, I reached up and pressed my hand against the carving. Nothing special or spectacular happened. I just touched the stone, and I was calm.
It's difficult to see, but this is the image of Sigyn
holding the bowl above Loki, to catch the venom from
the snake suspended above His head. 

I explained it in a letter to my nieces in this way: it’s not that I thought this stone or this site was particularly sacred. I believe every patch of earth is divine. It’s not that I thought this stone was any more special to Sigyn than my room in Uppsala. If everything is divine, then the divine is everywhere to behold. I can speak to Sigyn just as easily in Uppsala as I could in Gosforth, as I have in the United States. But this stone is the only image I know of that was carved at a time that the old gods were still being worshipped – a time, actually, of great change as people began to convert to Christianity while still holding on to their old deities and traditions. This image was meticulously carved into this stone by hands whose owner very likely believed in the figures he carved. Hands a thousand years removed from mine, hands who believed in this goddess and this god, wrought their image in a stone pillar which represents that transition from the old religion to the new – from the pagan to Christian.

And that is why I wanted to go there, to see this stone. And that is why I was grateful for the chance to lay my hand on the worn grooves that form that image. If that doesn’t make sense, if that doesn’t resonate with anyone else, that’s quite alright – everyone else can be quite content in the knowledge that I had the most amazing journey on the way, and that once I arrived at the stone, once I’d laid my hand on the image of Sigyn and Loki, I was able to sit down, stretch my legs out in front of me, lean back against the stone, close my eyes and just listen.

I sat there in the crowded churchyard, just listening, just being calm, just feeling the peace and quiet that I’ve only ever found deep, deep in the forest – or among the dead. I sat there and I appreciated it – I felt filled with appreciation, in fact. Filled with gratitude for everything that I’d seen thus far but also for the peace and the quiet and the solitude of this place. And for the sturdy stone at my back – the stone stretching toward the sky, burrowing into the earth. Firm. Solid. Resolute. Standing for a thousand years.

I sat there and was grateful, and filled with the subtle, quiet kind of love I’ve come to associate with my quiet goddess. I sat there until it started to rain. Then I pulled up my hood, stood, gathered my things, left a small offering, and went to find a bus stop.