A breeze off the lake–petal shaped
Luna park effects avoid the teasing outline
Of where we would be if we were here.
Bombed out of our minds, I think
The way here is too close, too packed
With surges of feeling. It can’t be.
The wipeout occurs first at the center,
Now around the edges. A big ugly one
With braces kicking the shit out of a smaller one
Who reaches for a platinum axe stamped excalibur:
Just jungles really. The daytime bars are
Packed but night has more meaning
In the pockets and side vents. I feel as though
Somebody had just brought me an equation.
I say, “I can’t answer this–I know
That it’s true, please believe me,
I can see the proof, lofty, invisible
In the sky far above the striped awnings. I just see
That I want it to go on, without
Anybody’s getting hurt, and for the shuffling
To resume between me and my side of night.”
“Foreboding” by John Ashbery
For me writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn’t writing prayers, as I was often enough. You feel that you are with someone. I feel I am with you now, whatever that can mean … but how deeply I regret any sadness you have suffered and how grateful I am in anticipation of any good you have enjoyed. That is to say, I pray for you. And there’s intimacy in it. That’s the truth.
-from Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
inside my copy of Best American Short Stories 2010
I decided to read 50 Shades of Grey to see what all the fuss is about. As I write this post I am confronted with quite the first-world-blogging-about-inconsequential-opinions dilemma: I like to hold rare and special views, and so many people hate this book, and so many people love this book… how am I supposed to say anything different now??? Solution: I landed somewhere in-between. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it.
(a few disclaimers I didn’t actually finish it. I made it about halfway through. So whatever I say needs to be tempered by that fact. It’s possible some of these thoughts might have been changed if I’d finished. And, as tempting as it is for me to make Twilight comparisons, since the book was originally written as Twilight fanfiction, I’m still going to refrain from any sort of in-depth Twilight analysis since I’ve never read Twilight and only have a pretty basic understanding of it.)
Things I liked about it, or at least, didn’t dislike
-There are definitely objectively hot moments. Who wouldn’t like to be thrown against an elevator wall because your partner can’t contain his/her longing for you? I liked how Christian wanted Ana to make eye contact with him even when she was too shy (before those contract stipulations or whatever). I liked Christian’s willingness to articulate his sexuality–I think too often people want to see sex as something organic or natural and thus don’t ever put things into words, even with their partner, which seems so dumb to me.
-I am generally defensive of things that lots of women like that lots of men mock. Like the romance novel genre. I know a lot of people were saying this book is sexist, and I do think it was, which I’ll get to in a moment, but there are dominant/controlling/forceful men in so many stories by men too (especially mainstream pornography) so if you’re going to call this book out for that shit, you need to put it in a larger context.
-The writing was bad, but… it’s like when you go into a room with a bad smell, if you spend enough time in the room your senses get dulled and you don’t notice the smell any more.
Things I disliked:
-ughhh, in the 100 pages I read, Christian must have told Ana how hot it was that she bit her lip at least 6 times. And almost evey time in response she “gasped.”
-Ana’s character was boring, and flat. What did she want in life, besides to touch Christian’s unruly hair? And why was Christian even all that attracted to her in the first place? And did Ana have any flaws? Besides being a naive self-righteous brat (which I think was not intentional characterization)?
-This is an obnoxious English major nitpick, but Ana goes through her favorite literary heroine’s probable responses to Christian’s shocking sexual preferences, she thinks Jane Eyre would have been scared. JANE EYRE WOULD HAVE BEEN SCARED OF CHRISTIAN GREY. Are you kidding me?
-Another nitpick: Ana apparently has a really prude-ish and kind of mean “subconscious” who is always talking to her and saying negative things to stop her from doing things with Christian. That is not a subconscious! It’s, like, the opposite of the subconscious! Maybe the super-ego…
-In general I think whatever two consenting adults want to do in the bedroom is fine. Since Ana’s and Christian’s dynamics were not bedroom-only, but he wanted to control her whole life, the issue gets more complicated. I think just because something is “consented” to does not mean it exists in a vacuum where sexism can never play a part. These power dynamics between men and women are politically charged. I do think our society sends many messages to women that they should obey men. That said, I think it’s more appropriate to think about the messages, as opposed to criticizing women’s choices.
There is one idea that seems worth thinking more about. I read Dan Savage’s commentary where he says mass audiences can’t enjoy stories about non-normative sex unless that kind of sex is also being condemned–so the story is safer to us, contained. And that’s why he thinks 50 Shades of Grey took off.
I think there is some truth to that, and it’s one of the responses to the book that rings the most true to me. But I would say there is more going on… which is that when we read about, or experience, anything that is scary, repellent, or “wrong”–it’s part of the wrongness in itself that appeals to us.
You see this in both Ana’s and Christian’s desire for one another. Christian hates that Ana isn’t as naturally compliant as he wants, but whenever she stands up to him it just makes him want her more. And as much as Ana insists she’d rather Christian was just a “normal” guy, his mystery and fucked-up-ness and unusual preferences are hot to her, as much as they confuse and upset her.
I’m saying in this book, maybe (probably) accidentally, it isn’t desire in spite of challenges, it’s desire for challenges. We ride roller-coasters BECAUSE they terrify us; we don’t ride roller-coasters because we find heights pleasant and merely try our best to forget how terrified we are. A very smart friend of mine calls this the “attraction/repulsion” factor–we are drawn to some things because they repel us.
I’m not suggesting this is the reason every single person liked 50 Shades of Grey. I’ve heard different theories, such as the appeal of “changing” or healing someone you love, or that some people legitimately have never thought much before about different kinds of sex (or have) and find light bondage or whatever really sexy.
But there is something about the struggle to understand wanting something “bad” that strikes me as interesting, and human. And hey, might explain our national obsession with loving to hate 50 Shades of Grey… amiright
Finally, if you are looking for a more artfully crafted narrative about prescribed, gendered power dynamics in heterosexual sex and romantic relationships, I recommend the movie Secretary. It’s more honest, more nuanced, and the characters seem like real people. It’s less of a fantasy, though, and there is something very naked about it that is uncomfortable in a way 50 Shades is not.
a few random thoughts today:
1) fall and I have a complicated relationship. it is by far my favorite season, the one I find most beautiful, but I feel like whenever “something bad happens to me” it is almost always during the fall. in recent memory these things all happened in the fall: bed bugs, an epically long-lasting UTI, my two worst break-ups, finding out about my father’s illness. so during these times I have hunkered down, waiting for time to pass–and as a result I feel like I missed out on enjoying the season like I really wanted to. but this year, knock on wood, everything is fine, so I am trying to better look around, or notice, or whatever, what is going on around me/outside of me. this song by deb talan captures for me the beauty if autumn–how it is full of a kind of melancholy and sweetness. it’s like that japanese term, mono no aware, the pathos of things.
2) several years ago I got a book of poetry by andrea baker called like wind loves a window. I am not exactly sure why but in the last few weeks the title has been popping into my head almost intrusively, the way a catchy song does. like wind loves a window. I think this has captured what ideal love has felt like to me, for a very long time–crashing up against something, unable to get in. and I am usually pretty ambivalent about this trait in myself, my attraction to inaccessibility. but it occurred to me, thinking about this phrase, that to my credit it has been a longing not all bad: sometimes you want to throw yourself onto something and have it not break or crumble.
3) okay, less feel-y things (sort of). I have been wondering about this and wanting to ask other people. I do a lot of online dating, and there is a frequent debate: after 1-3 dates, if you aren’t really feeling it with the person, do you sort of drop off communication without an explanation, or do you tell them you don’t want to keep seeing them (which then requires an explanation?). my experience has been that I usually drop off without telling the other person why, because I felt like it would be patronizing and insulting to explain why. I have been on the receiving end too, and hearing “I’m not attracted to you” (or whatever kinder variation on this, such as, “there wasn’t that ‘spark’”) is annoying. so what do you think? I am aware that most of the people who read this blog of mine don’t do online dating as much as I do, so your reference point might be different than mine. I don’t really believe in the clause “honesty is the best policy,” because sometimes honesty is unnecessarily hurtful. again, I want to emphasize that it can hurt just as much to hear “I don’t like you that way” as it does to hear nothing at all. and, also, I do not feel much responsibility towards someone I go out on 1 date with. BUT, after meeting a few perfectly lovely strangers who I genuinely like/respect but do not want a long-term romantic relationship with, I am re-thinking my approach, because waiting around and not knowing something sucks too, I understand, and I have started to feel guilty about it.
Following in the footsteps of Looks & Books, a simple but important blog prompt: my top ten favorite books (in no particular order)
1) The Terrible Girls by Rebecca Brown
2) To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
3) The Emerald City of Las Vegas by Diane Wakoski
4) Disappearing Ingenue: The Misadventures of Eleanor Stoddard by Melissa Pritchard
5) Every Day Gets Closer by Irvin Yalom
6) Sita by Kate Millet
7) Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg
8) Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
9) The Passion by Jeanette Winterson
10) (and a brand-new favorite) Wild by Cheryl Strayed
My chapbook, Hymnal for Dirty Girls, has published! You can order a copy at http://books.bigrodent.com. Only $7.50! We’re in the process of working on getting a version for Kindle, as well. I’ll keep you updated, Internet.
I’ve been writing stories since I was in first grade. (Did you ever make those books in elementary school where you used wallpaper scraps and rubber cement to make the covers? Speaking of which, remember how good rubber cement smelled? And you could make little booger-looking things out it when it dried? Good times.) It has always been a dream of me to get a book published, so this is pretty surreal for me, and the perfect, comforting achievement before I turn 30 in a few months.
A few notes:
1) Big Rodent is the small press that made the book. I really can’t believe how brilliant they’ve been–the cover design and the title were largely their doing, as well as the editing which made the stories so much better. One thing that helped me that they advised me on, that I will continue to notice as I write, is taking out really obvious feeling statements (“I feel happy” etc) and letting more concrete/physical descriptions do the talking, and leaving a kind of ambiguity.
2) On the title: It is somewhat of a play on Dirty Girls Ministries, which I read about a year or so ago. It’s supposed to help women with sex addiction. I have mixed feelings about the organization–I’m not sure sex addiction really exists, and this is a religious/conservative organization that has some really negative ideas about sexuality; but in some ways I was surprised by its existence, raising awareness that women deal with certain kind of thoughts/feelings/desires that have previously been dismissed or considered repellent. Anyway, I think (hope) these stories are in, in a way, a celebration of parts of women that some people might fear, or don’t believe exist, or are considered somehow abject.
3) Here’s a description of the book, written by my lovely editor Jill:
Rebekah Matthews’ debut collection snaps with poignant and sharp-edged stories, charged with disquiet and desire between women. Her characters evolve before our eyes, learning how to relate to each other in the strange confines of normalcy. In these six wonderful melancholies, we travel from a suburban Red Lobster to a Baltimore sex stakeout, from brief earthly heavens and to a very literal Hell.The characters grapple with loss, survival, and faith as they try to navigate the complicated ins and outs of the everyday world. In “Reasonably In-Shape Women,” a young woman attends a fashion blogger’s backyard barbecue where she witnesses an affecting act of love, in “Worse Than,” a high school student learns the power of storytelling, and in “Heaven for Everyone” a cancer patient faces her own mortality. On every page, Matthews exposes our fears and illustrates our reactions to them as something very beautiful.
4) 2 out of 4 pets recommend Hymnal for Dirty Girls. The other two are too stupid to recognize art when they see it because they are too busy being confused by paper bags.
a book, and some vanity
I feel like you could play a drinking game for this blog: drink every time
-Rebekah talks about her adolescence
-Rebekah talks about how hard it is to be gay
=druuuuunk by page 1
So even though this post is sort of about both of these issues I am making a concentrated attempt not to mention either one directly, to respect your sobriety
When I was 15 I asked for the Norton Anthology of Women’s Literature for Christmas… and I got it! Ever since it has been a Bible equivalent for me. Even the pages are so thin, it’s like Bible paper! I actually named my first cat by leafing through, trying to find an author/story that struck me as appropriate for her. That’s how she ended up with the name Carson, after Carson McCullers.
I will go for a year or so forgetting I have the book, then re-discover it and it’s like falling in love with someone again. This weekend after some homemade sangria I decided to read my favorite parts to a friend, and stumbled upon this short story by Djuna Barnes, “Cassation,” originally published under the title “A Little Girl Tells a Story to a Lady in a Night Amoung Horses.” I loved it so much all over again and wanted to post this excerpt:
But I went back to her house just once. I went in quite easily by the door, for all the doors and windows were open–perhaps they were sweeping that day. I came to the bedroom door and knocked, but there was no answer. I pushed, and there she was, sitting up in the bed with the child, and she and the child were making that buzzing cry, and no human sound between them, and as usual everything was in disorder. I came up to her, but she did not seem to know me. I said, “I am going away, I am going to Paris. There is a longing in me to be in Paris. So I have come to say farewell.”
She got down off the bed and came to the door with me. She said, “Forgive me–I trusted you–I was mistaken. I did not know that I could do it myself, but you see, I can do it myself.” Then she got back into the bed and said, “Go away” and I went.
Things are like that, when one travels, nicht wahr, Madame?
I finally read The Hunger Games. I watch the trailer and start to cry whenever I see Rue. Seriously, at this point it’s like this stupid Pavlovian response. RUE’S LITTLE FACE: TEARS. Does anyone think they would be good at the Hunger Games? I’m genuinely curious. I think one of my roommates, Megan, would do okay, because she’s very resourceful. My other roommate, Jessie, counters Megan wouldn’t be able to kill people. Hot debates within the walls of one Somerville apartment. I’ve always thought I’d be able to make it in prison (I don’t know why I’ve thought about this before, BUT I DEFINITELY HAVE), because I know how to align myself with powerful people; however, in the Hunger Games, since there can only be one winner, this would not be a very good strategy! And I do not tolerate discomfort well. And I like to take naps. Maybe if I had a smart phone with me–if I could Google things in the forest… I might be able to make it. Also, I love this:
At the end of 2011, after about five years of work, I finished a short story collection called Hero Worship, and I’m trying to get it published. I can write query emails in my sleep now. I don’t know if I’ll have any luck–it’s the most Rebekah-esque thing in the world that I spent so much time working on it, then AFTER I WAS FINISHED, learned people don’t want to publish short story collections any more. Uh, whoops. Still… I think it’s important that I finished, because now I’m ready for something new. And I panicked pretty hardcore, wondering, WHAT AM I GOING TO DO NOW? And! I am writing a novel. Which also makes me panic, but I am hoping it’s a motivating sort of panic. I hope it doesn’t take me five years! Very generally, it’s about Stockholm Syndrome. I have been reading way too many Wikipedia entries about kidnapping. I have a ridiculous-looking storyboard on my bedroom wall.
I’m really excited. I guess the only thing that scares me more than writing a really shitty novel is being a person who says they want to write a novel and then never does.
Sometimes, it’s like the impulse to pick a scab–I go searching around the Internet for the latest articles/essays/books on homosexuality from a conservative Christian viewpoint. As in, “It’s wrong to be gay and here’s why.” I don’t know why I do this to myself–if it’s a form of masochism, if I just enjoy feeling oppressed and then self-righteousness, if I believe that by reading up on this stuff I can respond to imaginary accusers by saying “Look, I really have tried to understand! ” Like, what, if God meets me at the pearly gates and condemns me I can be like, “But! Hey! What about all those Internet articles I read?” Or maybe I’m testing myself, to see if there’s anything I feel, any pull. I grew up as a conservative Christian and held these same views on homosexuality until I was about 18 years old, so there’s something in my brain and probably in my heart that can still get grabbed that way; even when I’m not convinced I’m still drawn in. It was a part of my past way of thinking, so it’s still a part of me. It’s a lot about remembering, I guess.
I recently read Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality by Wesley Hill. It’s a little book. Wesley Hill identifies as gay and he also identifies as a Christian, and he believes that the right response to both of these things is to live celibate. In other words, he doesn’t think he consciously chose to be gay, he doesn’t believe “converting” to heterosexuality is an option for him, but he also believes that it is a sin to act on homosexuality feelings/to have gay sex. He is honest about his struggles and his process, and he even details the parts of him that resist the idea that God condemns homosexuality. He writes that he gets lonely. One solution he explores is that the Church can possibly be an (imperfect) answer to his longing for human connection–that by nurturing relationships with other Christian believers he can find closeness. His struggle is not unlike that of an unmarried person, or even people who are married but still feel fundamentally relationally unfulfilled. Misery and loneliness are part of the human condition.
While reading, I thought a lot about the ways the author and I are alike. We’re about the same age, we come from similar backgrounds–healthy and loving Christian families. He attended Wheaton College–I had a friend in high school who went there, probably around the same time he did, and I also seriously considered attending similar colleges to Wheaton (Calvin and Taylor–like Wheaton, Christian colleges that were on the more ~intellectual side). I struggled in the exact same ways as he did as a Christian, when I figured out I had homosexual feelings–afraid to tell anyone for a while, trying like a starved person to find books or just any information at all that would help me in any way, refusing to seriously consider any kind of alternative that would say it was okay to be gay because I really did believe it was wrong/against God’s will. Like, the exact same process and frustration–down to listening to radio broadcasts from Focus on the Family. Then finally deciding, out of desperation, to share your struggle with another Christian, then a few other Christians… and they counsel you, pray for you… And then that’s where the author’s and my paths split–he decided to keep going–I decided to stop. I didn’t want to be lonely. I didn’t want to be celibate. I couldn’t live like that. So I found a way, somehow, to believe that it wouldn’t be a sin to be actively gay. At that point in my life it was more like an excuse than anything I actually believed, but I guess all I really needed was an excuse, however flimsy. And then I started telling people who weren’t Christians, and I started dating women. And then a lot of the other Christian stuff–beliefs, systems of morality–just slowly began to fade away from me, lose their power. So while reading Washed and Waiting I kept wondering why… what made him continue like that, and what made me go this way instead? I can’t really answer that, except that maybe my longing felt stronger than God’s presence and/or my own conviction.
This was what primarily struck me about Wesley’s Hill’s account. I was moved by other things about his writing–his honestly, his vulnerability, his willingness to face both the light and the dark parts of life–but most of all I felt, viscerally, both pained by and impressed by his commitment to his God, his system of belief, the people in his Church–so much so that he would sacrifice a lot of his happiness. I really am not at all interested in listening to a straight person tell a gay person they should be celibate, but a gay person who has chosen this for themselves–in this instance, I don’t think it’s stupid or repressed or anything like that. I mean, if you really do believe the Bible, it calls people to give up their happiness for God. Even for the very earliest Christians it was a sign of faithfulness–like, they were actual martyrs, they literally got tortured and then killed for their beliefs. I do think it’s possible for a person to believe in something unseen that strongly. I am curious about it–maybe a little jealous, too. I have never had that kind of faith and I don’t think I ever will.
And it wouldn’t be true at all for me to say that the way I have lived, as opposed to the way he has lived, has meant I’m so much happier, so much more well-adjusted, so much less lonely. I don’t think I am. And it struck a sad chord in me to read about his longing for a partner, because I remember that longing in myself, and I thought the only thing that separated me from that kind of fulfillment was my Christianity. I thought if that as soon as my Christianity wasn’t inhibiting me, I would be able to find the kind of love I dreamed about–the kind of love I imagined that broke through my whole life, my family, my religion, my friends, my own self. But that’s not actually the way it goes, not always, as it turned out. There are a million other things that inhibit happiness and love.
Still, though, Washed and Waiting didn’t sit totally well with me. And I think this conclusion is going to get really huge and abstract, so I apologize in advance. What frustrated me was the proposed solution to loneliness for a celibate gay person–find companionship and love in people in the Church. The thing is, I don’t think it’s real love. I don’t think it’s possible for the Church to love anyone fully while also condemning them (or condemning what they do–honestly, it really is about the same thing). You can’t even KNOW someone if your priority is that they’re living by some book of rules before they’re just a whole human being to you. And yes, I guess that means I have a problem with the entire concept of sin. I just don’t think people are made up of these discrete entities where parts of them are good/are from God, and other parts of them are bad/are from something evil. Especially not sexual orientation, which may be culturally constructed to be so important to us, I don’t know. But honestly, I think, if I was ever so convicted–I can imagine going without sex, I can imagine going without romantic partners–but I can NOT imagine going through life surrounded by people–looking for love in people–who don’t know me and accept me. Like, as much as the Church advocates understanding and accepting for GLBT people, their bottom line will always be, “I love you, but what you want is wrong.” And I don’t want to go without those moments where someone looks at me and says to me with the kind of authority I could try to believe, “There is nothing wrong with you for the way you feel.”