Monday, November 29, 2010
This image of the Virgin Mary comes from my friend Kellie Meisl, whose extraordinary piece of art, "Shattered Cups," adorns the cover of my new novel, Seeing Red.
The interesting thing about these two images is their timing: the blog novel that I am writing, called Castenata, is at heart a story that features the "virgin-whore" dichotomy, a view of women that dominates our world. Think about it: women are viewed either as Madonnas, or mother figures, OR as sex objects, or whores. The Virgin Mary is just one representation of what is known as the Divine Feminine influence in the universe. Is it any wonder that millions and millions of us around the world revere the Virgin? Is it any wonder that in times of crisis -- my illness for example, and Sister Renata's imprisonment for murder -- that we turn to Mary and pray to her for help?
The dichotomy in which women appear dates back to antiquity, or so the authorities like Sarah B. Pomeroy, Sarah B. Pomeroy is Distinguished Professor of Classics at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York, says. In her book, Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves so long ago I don't think anybody knows where it originated. I know one thing: the virgin/whore binary is alive and well in my blog novel, Castenata. My character, Sister Renata, is both a nun, and in her cousin's fantasy tales, a seductive FLAMENCO DANCER wearing a red dress. In the novel Seeing Red, the main character, Ronda Cari, is both a mother, and a woman who wants to be a Spanish dancer. She is trying to find her peace between these two roles.
A famous anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss, a man who invented the field of structural anthropology as he studied thousands of myths in indigenous populations all across the globe, proposed in a famous set of writings ("The Story of Asdiwal" is one) that all narrative -- all stories and myths -- come down to a struggle to resolve "binaries," or oppositions: good vs. evil, life vs. death, high mountains vs. low valleys, men vs. women, spiritual vs. material, the rational vs. the irrational, heaven vs. hell, illness vs. health, the good guys vs. the bad guys. I think he had it right. And that is why I write, to find peace between struggling oppositions in my psyche. The narrative helps to resolve the struggle. I know that my first book, Dreaming Maples, was an attempt to resolve the struggle between my identity as a self-less devoted mother to my three children with my equally passionate desire to be a free-spirited artist. By the time I had finished the book (it took me seven or eight years to get it into publishing form) I feel the book did resolve that binary.
Now there is another binary, or set of binaries, operating in my new work: there is the sacred versus the profane; the mother vs, the "whore." And there are more binaries, which I will explore in future posts.
Meanwhile, thanks once again to my incredibly intuitive and very gifted artist/writer friend Kellie Meisl, of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, who does Dream Art. Lately I have begun to feel that Kellie and I are on some cosmically-directed journey, with our lives and our art doing a complex dance of inspiring each other.
Kellie sent me this image of the Virgin and then followed up with an email saying, "I can't open the image I sent you." At which point I offered to post it on one of my numerous blogs.
And when I posted it, voila, I realized the significance of the pair of images that Kellie has provided me in recent days. The highly erotic and seductive cover image of Seeing Red, and the ghostly blue and sparkling image of the Virgin.
Unknowingly, by sending me the Virgin image last night, Kellie made me see in a crystal clear way -- as clear as the sky surrounding the Virgin's halo -- that my new writing is informed by a number of binaries, some of which are major in proportion.
Artist Kellie Meisl holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Education from MCLA, formerly North Adams State College. An artist who relies on dreams as a springboard for her work, she uses paint, reclaimed wood, found objects and collage, and has created most of her pieces over the past decade for community causes. She is an annual contributor to the Think Pink Breast Cancer Awareness Art Exhibit in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and this year her intricate wire sculpture, a mermaid called "Awareness," was purchased by Pittisfield Mayor James Ruberto. Kellie has shown her work at her local municipal gallery, the Lichtenstein Center for the Arts, where she teaches DreamArt classes in her native Berkshires. In 2009, she published her first book, Dream Stories: Recovering the Inner Mystic. The cover features her first painting for Think Pink, entitled, “Hummingbird Medicine.” Kellie can be reached through her website, KellieMeislDreamArt.
Saturday, November 27, 2010
April 5, 1883
I will do now what my dear Teresa insists: write the story of my early years with Antonie.
To begin, I’m seeing my cousin through the grimy window of the stagecoach which brought me west to California so many years ago. I had been sleeping, mouth open, chin resting against the glass, but as soon as the driver shouted out to stop the horses, my eyes flew wide open. I couldn’t see much at all, so I rolled the window down, and a cloud of red dust billowed up. I began coughing, and had to wipe my eyes. When I stopped, I realized that through the dust and haze there was a tall, lean boy standing below me. He had the most earnest brown eyes I had ever seen, as if they had been toasted in the sun for an eternity. His wavy hair lay in black rivers on his shoulders, too, which amazed me only because his hair so closely resembled my own both in length and color. (Mine was a slight bit more curly.)
The boy, who looked to be about fifteen, gazed up at me and I returned the stare, and instantly something passed there, as if an ancient link was being rekindled. So many times I have contemplated this connection between me and Antonie, and I believe that there is only one satisfying explanation: that we knew each other in another time and place, under different names and circumstances and faces. Somewhere in the past, our souls were linked and we were kin of some sort to each other—long before our first meeting in 1872.
I wore a black veil that day I arrived on the stagecoach, because my mother had passed away just three months before. I let the veil down over my face, and stood up and grabbed my small traveling case. The driver opened the door, and still more dust rose up, so that I descended through a bluster of red powder. When it cleared, my cousin was standing beside his father, who was a big blocky fellow, with a thick handlebar mustache riding above his lip. Oddly, my uncle was not nearly as tall as his son.
“Finally, you are here my dear little girl.” My uncle came forward and reaching out to me, he took my shoulders and pulled me powerfully to his chest. We stood there and he held me, refused to let go, and I could smell his soap, and his cherry tobacco. I could also hear him sobbing. My uncle, Roberto Guillermo Quiero, or Rio for short, had reason to be heartbroken: in the space of one year, he had lost not only his own wife, Mariana, but his younger sister as well. His younger sister being Regina, my mother.
That afternoon, I met Señora Ramos for the first time. After Uncle Rio’s wife died, Senora’s influence in the household grew steadily more important. I remember her so well from our first meeting. I was sitting between Antonie and Uncle Rio in the wagon bumping along the hacienda road, for what felt like an eternity. All I could see was the very tops of trees. Road dust forced me to cover my mouth so that I wouldn’t keep choking.
And then, suddenly, the wagon turned, and tipped downward, and then the magnificent house came into view. There in the clearing between the two ancient live oak trees out front of the hacienda stood Senora. Ah but she was so much younger, and thinner, in those days. She helped me down from the wagon, and all the while, she wouldn’t stop smiling at me. “Tienes hambre m’ija?” were the first three words she spoke. And of course, I was famished after my journeying, I had spent weeks in travel, not having proper meals and often not eating at all. She led me into the kitchen and warmed some corn tortillas, and spread them with beans and rice. And I sat with her at the table in the kitchen, and she spoke to me in Spanish, and when I finished the meal, I was so happy because we were already friends.
In the weeks that followed –I had arrived in the middle of the summer—I wasn’t in school, and so I often found myself alone. Antonie studied me constantly. He would stare at me during meals until I started to squirm in my chair. And then there were those times he would appear in the doorway of my bedroom, and stand there until I looked up. His dark eyes were lively and fiery. But the eyes were brilliant gems caught in a dead and stony face. When I tried to speak to him, he just stared at me with his troubled expression, as if he might start to cry. Apparently, he had spoken to no one since his mother had died the year before.
Uncle Rio knew that I had musical talent (I had spent several years studying piano in Madrid). And so he gladly provided me my first guitar. I would sit in my room, pressing my small fingers to the strings, trying to make music out of the chords that he had sketched out on paper for me. It was a tedious endeavor, though. Weeks went by –most of July—and I didn’t think I would ever get the hang of the stringed instrument.
At dinner one night, Uncle Rio asked me how my guitar was coming.
“I’m afraid it’s not coming at all,” I said. “I am ready to give it up.” Secretly, I hoped to convince my wealthy uncle that he should buy me a piano. But I didn’t know how to ask for such an indulgence.
“Be patient my dear. Wait a while before you let go of the guitar.”
A few days later, I was in my bedroom, practicing my chords. Trying to switch between C and A minor. Back and forth I went, strumming each chord. And knowing how clumsy I was. How discordant I must sound. Suddenly I heard something. Or more correctly, I felt some warmth settle around me. When I looked up, Antonie was only inches away. He was so close that I could see the thick black brooms that were his sad eyelashes.
I blinked. He had his guitar. His eyes searched mine. Without a word, he sat down beside me on the bed. He bent over the guitar as if he was bowing before the priest at Sunday mass. As soon as his fingers hit the strings, they flew. Rivers of magical sound poured out of his perfectly curved hands. Streams of music more beautiful, more heart wrenching and soulful, than anything I had ever heard before rose up. He stopped playing, and I touched the strings. And then he smiled at me for the very first time. His smoldering eyes softened and I knew, it didn’t matter that I had no piano. I was already smitten, totally in love, with Antonie’s guitar.
April 5, 1883
In the afternoon, when I got back to the convent after shaving Antonie's face, Teresa and I escaped to the shade of the grape arbor where I let her read Antonie’s tale, "Roseblade." It made me ill to see what he had written.
When Teresa finished, those normally cheerful blue eyes of hers -- the color of a summer sky -- were muddied and solemn.
“Oh my poor Renata.” She took my hand. “He…your cousin will destroy you for sure.”
“Yes, I fear that he will. But what am I to do?”
She gazed out to the golden hillside, still holding onto my hand. And slowly she shook her head.
“I don’t know that there is anything that can possibly help. But one thing you must absolutely do.” The sky color sailed back into her eyes.
“Record everything that happens. Write it all down. Leave out nothing, not a single detail.”
I nodded. “God knows, I am writing in the diary every blessed day.”
“Yes, yes. You must continue.” She stood. “And one other thing you could do. Remember I told you to write the story of how things were when the two of you were growing up?”
“Yes. I remember. And I have considered it. But how is writing such a history going to help?”
“You will see for yourself, and show others too, how the past, your past with Antonie, has shaped things. You will see how things have come to be the way they are.”
I considered her. Usually such a jolly soul, Teresa was wholly serious today.
“Yes, I suppose it can’t hurt,” I said.
“And now Renata, I’ve got to head back. Mother Yolla instructed me at lunch to attend to the henhouse today and I dare not show my face at supper without having done it, or I will pay dearly.”
“Oh yes, of course, and I’ll come, I’ll help,” I said, standing. But she stopped me.
“NO.” She held up one hand in commandment. “You my dear sister, you are going to sit down and write.”
“But it might wait, I could…”
“NO.” Another hand up. “Go fetch the diary now. Go straight to a clean page. And begin. Write about your cousin and you. In the old days, when you first came. Maybe buried in your words you will see, if there were clues, already, back then.”
So I do. I take my diary and a blanket up the golden hillside and decide which live oak I will sit under. And then I close my eyes and try to remember everything. Soon I am writing down everything, all my early memories of my cousin.