Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Choose Yourself

One of the first questions I’m asked at “Free Fall” readings: How is Eli doing?

People want to know that Eli, my former significant other, is OK. I’m grateful that I can answer in the affirmative.

After what Eli has been through, it’s easy to believe that his recovery and re-emergence after a year of hospitalizations is close to miraculous.

“Free Fall” describes how Eli was diagnosed with a mass that had spread throughout his digestive tract. On top of all that, the doctors withdrew the lithium he took for his bipolar condition because of kidney problems. No medications seemed to work and he spent a year seriously depressed, in and out of hospitals. I wrote about Eli’s hard year in my book.

Yes, Eli is doing well. He lives in a small, government-subsidized apartment with a very sweet dog. He’s made a few new friends and has some contact with his family. Both Eli and I have established new lives. It’s been slow going, with lots of small steps. When I take the time to pull back for a broad look, I see that each of us has greater independence and more peace. This couldn’t have happened if I continued to assume that Eli could not exist without me at his side, even if I did have good reasons for my assumptions.

Eli is now going about his business with far fewer of the mental health crises that challenged him before. Eventually some of the medications the doctors tried, along with electro-convulsive therapy, began to make a difference. Now Jim, Eli and I spend time together whenever we can. Eli comes to New York and we travel to New England.

While I stay in touch and find ways to stay in Eli’s life, Eli told me he would be fine if that were to change or if something were to happen to me. This information is a gift. He gave Jim and I his blessing when he learned we were together. Recently he told Jim he’s happier than he’s ever been. Eli’s generosity is the highest level of compassion.

I could never have guessed that the three of us would find ways to make all this work. It wasn’t easy and it took a couple of years. One lesson I take from my experience is that we must be responsible to ourselves first. This isn’t just lip service or New Age jabber. It’s just as the Buddhists teach: We must take care of ourselves before we can help others.

In another blog posting, I would be happy to cite examples of how this worked for Eli and me. For now, I suggest that we slow down and contemplate what we are doing with our lives. Spinning wheels? Working all the time? Sacrificing everything for ideas of what it means to help others? First, we must consider what’s most important to us. Writing? Sculpting? Peace? Health? Look for ways to get there. Ask others for help. Persist.

As Jim says, we must choose ourselves. If we let assumptions about others get in our way, we may waste precious time and possibly, hurt the people we are trying to help.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

How Sex Found its Way into 'Free Fall'

Part I of an occasional series on writing about sex

I didn’t set out to write about sex. I wanted to write about a cathartic love affair in the context of a life swamped by mounting complexities. I had a story to tell and themes I wanted to explore and comment on. Because I’m a journalist and have a journalist’s desire to share important information, no sooner had I grasped the significance of the affair than I began to draft essays about it.

The “context” I mention — the details — included a combative relationship with a hair-trigger boss, a significant other who wound up in ICU — the first of seven hospitalizations in 2007, a creative and fulfilling career in an art museum, euphoric runs along the ocean near my home in Rockport, writing projects, reviewing books, frequent travel, good friends, aging, mental illness, music, joy. The fact that sex ended up in the book doesn’t surprise me since sex was a big part of the love affair. And sex was the model for letting go, for having a free fall and, ultimately, for making change. It seemed essential to the story.

One journalist who read the book and wrote an article afterward said, “It’s a unique book. I’ve never read anything like it.” As a book reviewer and the writer of the book proposal that included a “survey of literature,” I came to see why she made that statement. “Free Fall” is 100 percent me, in my free-falling voice, written in the most honest way I could find. I wanted to paint 2007 for readers as sensually and as impressionistically as I had experienced it. This took work and numerous rewrites.

I recently looked at a blog titled “Bespoke Erotica” that Harpers.org linked to in May. The writer, Joshua David Stein, barters with readers who would like their own personal erotica. They provide him with three words and he writes an erotic story for them.

From his April 25 story on Tumblr, he begins:
Rhys felt the warm Caribbean breeze against alabaster ass cheeks, exposed westerly as Abel knelt also westerly with Rhys’ knob betwixt his lips. Things were going well for the lovebirds. Rhys moaned contentedly; Abel hummed and drooled. To read more: http://bespokeerotica.tumblr.com/

In “Free Fall,” there’s no cum or alabaster ass cheeks or fantasy islands, though breasts and a penis are referenced a number of times. But I had to be careful because I didn’t want jargon and the mechanics of sex to get in the way of what was going on emotionally or psychologically. On the other hand, the act of sex was how I found my way to some of the deeper issues I’d begun to reconsider, such as my penchant for control, dependence vs. independence, the experience of joy. Not to mention, the mechanics of sex, presented with less grit and more authenticity, can be erotic but challenging for most writers to pull off.

With regard to Joshua David Stein, I would not barter for one of his personalized stories. Why did Harper’s link to his erotica? Do men like different erotica than women? Why are some people offended by writing about sex while not about watching sex in movies and on television? These are questions for other essays in this occasional series of writing about sex.

I couldn’t have guessed that sex would trigger major life changes. I didn’t pay attention when reading Freud in my sociology classes and I hated it when my mother espoused Freud. I was na├»ve. I thought I was going to have a fling. Think again. Sex causes big things to happen, like babies and marriage and the end of marriage … and everything I wrote about in “Free Fall.”