A Post-Shame Point of View

close to the boneI read this book, Close to the Bone, back when I was first beginning to write memoir. It is excellent. Here are a few quotes from the Introduction by editor Laurie Stone:

“The memoirists I find inspiring have mined self-knowledge and come clean with the goods…

“Most memoirs fail as literature because their authors mistake their experience for a story rather than search out the story in their experience…

“What matters in the memoir, as in fiction, is the degree of insight and drama…

“The challenge is to write about shame from a post-shame point of view, to enter an ego-free zone, cleared of mirror-worship and whining, to walk out naked and speak intimately… rather the teller sets up the self as a lab rat and mounts folly and error as exhibits that can be surrounded, poked. The project is to winnow romance and vanity from the way others see the self…

“With self-scrutiny the teller transforms blunders into the only shapely and reliably honorable offering that can be made of such materials: art.”

Isn’t that great? I thought so. I read this book almost 20 years ago and Stone’s Introduction has stayed with me. I especially love this line (about after you’ve written your story):

What’s left is a voice that may once have told its story as a weeper but now knows, ineluctably, it is threaded with comedy.

Yes! When I was in grad school (2001) and read a particular excerpt aloud to an audience, a passage that to me had been heart-wrenching, tragic even – they roared with laughter! I couldn’t believe it! Why were they laughing at my pain… Well, that was then and this is now… And only time could bring me to the point where, if I couldn’t laugh at myself, I could at least see why others thought it funny.

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Me and My Shadow (Self)

Self-Portrait and Photo, 1979, Nancy Wait

Self-Portrait and Photo, 1979, Nancy Wait

I call these pictures Me and My Shadow.

One is a photo and the other is a self-portrait.

We might call them inner self and outer self.

Each has its own truth.

In each duo the photo was taken around the same time the self-portrait was painted. They don’t even look like the same person. But they are.

⇐ The first one took place in 1978-79.

Outer Self and Inner Self, 1982, Nancy Wait

Outer Self and Inner Self, 1982, Nancy Wait

⇓ The second duo is from 1982-83. As you can see, outwardly I didn’t change much—both photos show a confident looking woman, smiling and happy, pleased to smile at the camera. And inwardly—(me looking in the mirror, trying to give an accurate portrayal of the face staring back at me) I didn’t change much either!

In the first one with beret and glasses I look shy and afraid. In the second one I look terrified. Startled, fearful, even angry, and totally intense. And all I was seeing was my own self. In the mirror.

At the time, when I showed these portraits to people, especially the second one, I felt the need to explain that painting is an extremely intense activity, and that’s why I came out looking the way that I did.

17th Century self-portrait

17th Century self-portrait

But these were early days, and if I had been more adept at my craft I might have been able to alter my expression for the canvas, perhaps coming across as cool and serene as this woman artist perhaps?

And now something else has come to mind.

Because on the one hand, I’ve been writing memoir for many years, getting to know myself in a much deeper way. Unraveling events and thoughts I had about myself and my relationships, delving into areas I was only semi-conscious of at the time, if at all.

That’s on the one hand. And on the other hand, I’ve been learning about the “subtle energy body” through this course in the Quantum Light Programme. So now, when I look at the dichotomy between the photos and the self-portraits, I’m thinking the paintings capture an image of my “emotional body.” The unresolved conflicts, the unacknowledged traumatic memories I’d shelved for convenience sake. And not only memories of this current life-time. For I had an as yet unknown appointment to keep with the memory of traumatic death in a past-life.

What astonishes me is how the terror showed in my face. The feelings were buried, unobtainable, forgotten, yet very much alive in the subtle body… in a not so subtle way…

self-portrait tinted blue, by Nancy Wait 1982

self-portrait tinted blue, by Nancy Wait 1982

It’s good to want to be happy, and it’s good to let go of the past.

And it’s even better to let go of the past when you understand what it is you’re releasing. Lest it stare back at you, uncomprehending, as my shadow did to me.

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Stopping the Judging

So many things I once thought I did “wrong” – turned out to “right” – in the end. Or right for me. It’s the judgments that got in the way. And they’ve been getting in the way again now I’m writing part 2 of my personal story. (Oh you can’t tell this – what will people think?) Of course “people” will think whatever they want and my job has always been to come up with good writing. But then I came to another stumbling block with an episode I’ve been struggling with for ages – a relationship that didn’t make sense.

I know relationships don’t have to make sense (they are what they are / it is what it is) – but I’m talking about real craziness here, the kind bordering on insanity. (I know, another judgment!) And then last week I happened to hear the definition of a twin flame, and suddenly I knew that’s what it was – so it was okay. Crazy was expected. Insanity par for the course.

Once I accepted that irrational went with the territory, I plunged in again – this time with enthusiasm. Yet now that I am almost at the end of the chapter (titled “Cruel Happiness”) a new judgment has popped in. Such melodrama!

I shuddered at all the drama. But I couldn’t change the facts because it was a true story. And living a drama  or being in a drama has come to have such negative connotations. It was true back in the 80s too, when this took place.

Still, I was glad to come up with this label of melodrama. If you’re writing a story, you want to tell people where it takes place. Are you at the seaside? Are you in the city? The park? A room somewhere? Being in a melodrama is a place too.

But now I wanted a quote about it. Something that would give the reader the idea that I knew where I was aside from geographic placement. And Google came up with this brilliant line from Lillian Hellman:

If you believe, as the Greeks did, that man is at the mercy of the gods, then you write tragedy. The end is inevitable from the beginning. But if you believe that man can solve his own problems and is at nobody’s mercy, then you will probably write melodrama.

I especially liked the part about being at nobody’s mercy… (not even the angels this time).

In the end it’s whatever gets you over the hump or on to the next chapter. And for me, instead of all this cringing going on, I’m feeling excited again. (Head up, shoulders back.) Living out a melodrama was hell to go through, and writing about it has been just as hellish. But hallelujah to taking a risk. And hallelujah to being young. And hallelujah to being older and remembering being young without cringing at the memory.

Or am I being too melodramatic…

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The Earrings

I took the subway and spent the day wandering around the city, having a slice of pizza here, a coffee there. Buying a new pair of shoes here, a new mascara and a bar of chocolate there. I rode on the bus and took in the buildings we passed, taking note of windows  and doorways, and watched the people passing by. I looked at the cars and the buses, the taxis and the trucks. I was aware of being in a great metropolis, and took it in, though in an impersonal way. A non-committal sort of way, as if I hadn’t spent most of my life in the city. If I had to say what I was feeling, I would call it a kind of detached amusement.

Pencil drawing by N.Wait

Pencil drawing by N.Wait

Late in the afternoon I found myself walking along Upper Broadway, passing a small shop window filled with Indian-type jewelry. I stopped for a moment to look. There was a large assortment of rings and bracelets and intricate silver necklaces, but I was only interested in the earrings. I saw a pair of dangly silver ones with a turquoise stone that I liked, so I went inside to ask the price. A bell tinkled when I opened the door. It was a tiny shop. There was no one there but a woman in a sari standing behind the glass counter. She smiled at me as I came in. Or rather, her face lit up, causing me to wonder if I had been the only customer that day. I smiled back. She wasn’t young, somewhere in her forties I would have thought. Her long sleek black hair fell in a thick braid down her back. I pointed to the earrings in the window and asked if she could bring them in for me to see.

Pencil drawing by N.Wait

Pencil drawing by N.Wait

“Yes, yes, of course,” she said, nodding. She lay the earrings down on the counter. “Please, why don’t you try them on?” she said. “I’m sure they will look very pretty on you.”

I picked them up and held them to my ears as I looked in the mirror and turned my face from side to side. She said, “If you don’t like these I’ve got plenty more for you to chose from!”

“Oh, no, that’s okay,” I said. They were only seven-fifty. A bargain. But did I really need a new pair of earrings? I put them back down on the glass counter. I was thinking of buying them, or at least I think I was thinking of buying them, because new earrings always gave me a lift, but she kept going on about their merits as if they were unusual, one of a kind. Which they were not. I had seen similar ones being sold on the street, those sidewalk displays you always seemed to run into. Yet on and on she went, extolling their merits, saying how they suited me, and what a good price. If only she would have stopped talking and left me alone with them for a moment. I think I would have bought them then. They were simple, just my style. But she wouldn’t stop talking. And suddenly I had to get away from her voice. I told myself it was her voice, her lilting accent, but it was really her neediness. I couldn’t stand her neediness.

“Perhaps some other time,” I said. “I’ll have to think about it.”

The warm open smile vanished and the light went out of her eyes. She looked crestfallen. Her skin became taught as her face seemed to close in on itself. Her naked disappointment was almost too much to bear. I felt ashamed. I almost said, never mind—I’ll take the earrings. But it was too late. She was resigned to her failure and I had to get out of there. I picked up my shopping bag and mumbled a thank you. The tinkle of the bell sounded when I opened the door and hurried out to the street.

I tried to talk myself out of feeling guilty as I walked to the subway, telling myself it was ridiculous for me to think I had to buy the earrings just to make the shop owner happy. But of course she wasn’t just a shop owner. She was somebody’s mother, somebody’s wife. No, that wasn’t it. Well it was, in the sense she was a person. But she wasn’t just any person. She was someone whose face lit up when I came into the shop. As if my presence made a difference. Who else had been happy to see me that day? No one. If only she hadn’t been so desperate. I could easily have bought the earrings for seven-fifty and made her happy. If only she hadn’t been so eager for me to buy! Been so obvious about it!

I was still justifying myself and trying to put her face out of my mind when I went down into the subway. I was dying to get home. Home was where I could close the door and get out my paints. I would do a watercolor when I got home. But by the time I got home I was still feeling guilty, saying to myself, for what? A pair of earrings I didn’t buy? I couldn’t stop seeing the change in her expression. How her face literally seemed to fall because of me. She shouldn’t have given me so much power. I shouldn’t have gone in there in the first place. The whole thing had been a mistake. But since I had gone in, did I have to buy something? Yet it would have made her happy.

It wasn’t until much later that I realized it wasn’t just her neediness, it was mine too. The look I saw on her face, so blatant with no effort to hide it, reminded me how I felt when I wanted someone to buy my work or give me a commission. And before that, when I was an actress and I wanted them to give me the part. To say yes, you’re the one we want. You. The desperate need to be wanted. Hating my own neediness. Despising my dependency. So I had learned to hide it. I had developed an air of detachment. I pretended to find the whole thing amusing. Comme ci, comme ça. Take it or leave it. Either way was fine with me. Why couldn’t that woman do it too? She should. She really should. Someone should tell her.

January 1986

(Excerpt from my new memoir-in-progress)

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The Visitation

When I was in my early thirties I had one of the strangest experiences of my life. I’ve never known what to call it, and I’ve hardly ever spoken about it, the woman who suddenly appeared in my room out of nowhere. It was just her face, her head really. Nothing else.

drawing by N.Wait

drawing by N.Wait

I was alone, sitting on the small couch in my bedroom, and I was in a terrible state, grieving uncontrollably over a relationship that had just ended, feeling that my world had come to an end. I should add that it was so serious, the “the void” of blackness had opened to my inner eye. I had reason to fear I would be sucked into it. It was that bad.

oil on canvas by N.Wait

oil on canvas by N.Wait

And suddenly she appeared, a vision of other-worldliness. A face of indescribable beauty! Her eyes were green. They were glowing with light! Her head was wrapped in an elaborate white turban. She was only there for a moment, just long enough to say, It was never meant to be. Maybe she didn’t even move her lips, I don’t remember. But those were the words I heard. And then she vanished.

I was immediately calmed. Comforted, would be a better word. The state I was in I don’t think anything else would have calmed me but this vision, or a visitation from another world, telling me it was never meant to be with this man anyway.

Nothing remotely like it has ever occurred before or since. I picked up the pieces and went on with my life as you do, and I rarely thought about her until five or six years ago when I thought I might try to paint that face. The picture was such a disappointment. The colors needed to be pearly and iridescent. They needed to glow, and they were just my regular Windsor Newton oil colors, opaque and dull looking. (The editing app on my iphone has enabled me to enhance the original picture somewhat, giving it a little more of the sense I had of her that night.) But she was not of this world. And there does not exist any physical material with which to duplicate something that does not exist in this dimension.

Not only that, but no matter how hard I tried, she would not look at me in the painting! I happen to be an experienced portrait artist. I know how to paint eyes that not only look at the viewer, but seem to follow you around the room. Not this time. She refused to cooperate. Perhaps she didn’t wish to be painted. Yet if it was to be so, she directed her gaze away from me and there was nothing I could do to correct it.

I put the canvas away, and thoughts of her out of my head. Then a few weeks ago I listened to Paranormal Matters on Blog Talk Radio, the show called, “Portals – Shadow and Light” (LINK) with Jennifer Warters interviewing Sandra Lamb, both of Rainbow Light Foundation. Sandra spoke about the experiences she’s had since early childhood seeing ghosts and beings from other dimensions and how they have affected her. Though my own experience was only a single one and quite different, I thought it would be worthwhile to share.

Obviously, she was some kind of guide. At the time I thought she must be a goddess, and sometimes I still do. And I don’t say this out of any kind of false humility, but I couldn’t help wondering at the time why she had come to me. Who was I? No one. And she seemed important – like a queen, really. Sometimes, when I remembered those eyes like glowing emeralds, I thought of Superman and his kryptonite, and wondered if she was from his planet… We always wish to know more than we’re given. And believe me when I say, her comforting words were enough! Yet still, I wonder…

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The Wall People

pen & ink by N.Wait

pen & ink by N.Wait

Do the fearsome imaginings of childhood ever really leave us?

When we were little my sister told me about the people who lived in the walls. I asked how could they fit inside the walls? She said they were very thin. And they watched us through the walls. They saw everything we did. At night when we were asleep they would come out from the walls and roam freely around our apartment. Aside from being spooky, there was something vaguely ominous about these mysterious beings inside the walls.

I thought of the “wall people” again only last week. Our wiring is being upgraded (finally) and the construction workers knocked a huge hole in the wall where the new circuit breaker would go.

exposed wallThe rectangular hole, three-feet high and two-feet wide, is right by the front door and I see it all the time. Yet the first day or two when the interior of the wall was suddenly exposed, I didn’t really see it. Or rather, what I saw was “electrical wiring being upgraded.” I paid scant attention to the exposed bricks, old wooden beams, big rusty nails, jagged plaster, smudged paint, etc, though all these things were plainly visible.

My observer’s eye didn’t open until I thought of taking a picture to send to my son. Somehow training the eye of my camera (okay, my iphone) on the hole had the effect of opening my own eyes too. For now I found myself taking a closer look at what was actually there. wall interiorThe thickness of the plaster and the grainy sand inside the part that made up the actual wall that was painted, was nothing compared to what was behind it. The bricks and beams and nails that held the building together and made the different floors possible. And among all the different colorations of bricks, and the battered old splintered-looking beams, and the long rusty nails jutting out, I saw all the empty space too. Lots of space with a cool, musty breeze wafting through, smelling of age and damp.

Now I was feeling excited about this unexpected view into the interior. This window behind the facade, and I took a few more pictures just for myself. I knew I had to share them, share my excitement. But then I started to wonder what exactly was giving me such a thrill? Was it because as an artist of renderings I am used to drawing the exterior of buildings? And this window to what was actually inside the walls was a novelty? Or was it because as someone who draws things, I focus on the outer shape, the outer form…all the while knowing that the feeling of the thing— whether a face or a flower or a fruit or a chair—will come through. And here, now, was the actual inner thing, the inner place, the mysterious unknown…

pen & ink by N Wait

pen & ink by N Wait

A few more days passed by and the novelty wore off, but not my interest either in the wall or my mysterious attraction to the innards of this dwelling place. And then, finally, I remembered the skinny “wall people” who lived inside the walls of my childhood. The subconscious, that deep inner sea filled with memories, went swish-swish-swish, and up to the surface rose the story of the wall people, as thin and as real as the exposed wooden beams.

The magic of childhood is never forgotten.

Punch a hole in the wall and there it is—alive and well—smelling of age and damp…

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My Country Estate Across the Street

Upper Pool, Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY; photo by Nancy Wait

Upper Pool, Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY; photo by Nancy Wait

So I went for a walk in the park shortly before dusk yesterday when everyone else was leaving to go home for supper. And it smelled like the country. And then, once I got past the people leaving, it began to look like the country… and then a strange feeling came over me, and I felt like I was taking a walk on my very own country estate!

This had never happened before. I have lived across the street from Prospect Park for 23 years and quite frankly, I’ve become bored with it. The same walks, the same turns, the same views. Now the algae is covering the lake, now the algae is gone. Now that patch of fenced-off ground is being seeded, now it’s covered in new sweet-smelling grass. Now the leaves are covering the trees, now the leaves are gone.

by Nancy Wait 2015

by Nancy Wait 2015

Winter, spring, summer, fall.

Pastel Sketch by Nancy Wait

Pastel Sketch by Nancy Wait

I know all the variations of its seasonal wardrobe. All equally wondrous and beautiful, but still just the park across the street. I know those mothers with their strollers and toddlers; they used to be me. My little boy may have grown up and moved away, but the little boys playing baseball on the field never seem to grow up as year after year they are replaced with a fresh batch of eager young players.

Hello! said the tree, raising its arms with delight.

Hello! said the tree, raising its arms with delight.

This does not mean I wasn’t inspired to go on sketching

Sketching tree bark, by Nancy Wait

Sketching tree bark, by Nancy Wait

expeditions from time to time. Last year I bought a camp stool and plunked myself down before a tree to study its bark. A park is a park, but each tree is different and this time, instead of following the shape and swing and scope of the branches, marveling at their outline against the sky, I followed the pattern of bark. The vertical flow of ridges and declivities wending their way upwards

Imagining the flow of energy in a tree by Nancy Wait

Imagining the flow of energy in a tree by Nancy Wait

and downwards like a stream frozen solid, in different shades of bark.  I’ve known the park in the early morning dew when it’s fresh, and at night when it’s mysterious and full of shadows. I’ve sat on the grass and listened to the opera under the stars. I’ve walked by the barbeque parties, the birthday parties with balloons, and scurried out of the way of the maintenance trucks lumbering up the walks. And sometimes I’ve felt a tad nervous in the wooded areas when no one else was around. I’ve always known Prospect Park was a public park, and while I’ve been grateful to live so close by, I have felt its limitations as well as my own limitations in not being able to walk somewhere different for a change. Just for a change… Then this strange thing happened last night…and I was the one who changed…

Playing field, Long Meadow, Prospect Park

Playing field, Long Meadow, Prospect Park

So, as I was walking in the park yesterday evening, and got past the hordes leaving to go home for supper, I came up over the low ridge across the drive still filled with walkers and runners and a few skaters and bicycle riders whizzing by. And as I looked at the wide vista that suddenly opened up, the long meadow on the left, the baseball field on the right, the lake at the bottom of the hill and the forest of trees bordering meadow and field, I thought, what if this wasn’t really the park—but my country estate? Mine, and the rest of the publics. Ours. Our country estate.

Yoga in Prospect Park

Yoga in Prospect Park

I played with the thought for a while to see how it felt—and it felt wonderful. For one thing I was looking at the trees more lovingly. My trees. My land. My lake. And also those lovers on the grass—theirs too—though they seemed much too involved with one another to be thinking about the trees. But how was I to know what they were thinking about… And that group doing yoga on the grass, their estate too. I stopped to take a picture of the yoga group. Then I took a picture of the lake (aka the Upper Pool). By now it was beginning to get dark and I turned my steps homeward, taking with me this new thought of owning the park.

We can get into all sorts of things here regarding who “owns” what. The park belongs to the city; the city belongs to the people. The Parks Department is in charge of maintenance for the benefit of the public. (Tax dollars, etc., etc.) Some volunteer to garden or clear grounds or pick up trash, and that’s a way of owning. But who can “own” a tree? (Or the air or the water.) “The trees come from Nature.” “The trees were created by God.” “Man is just the caretaker.” The admirer, the beneficiary.

photo treeBut I’m not going into all that. Because what I felt yesterday evening was on a different level. Perhaps it had to do with owning my own presence on earth more than anything else. I could congratulate myself on not being a direct despoiler, but like most in First World countries, I benefit directly from the despoiling. I’m not getting into that either. Because I’m coming to you as a visual artist who knows in the depths of her being that all she is doing is consuming visual images with her eyes, taking in light and processing the light with some of the millions of photoreceptors in each of her eyes, and turning the light into electrical signals.* Those very same signals and currents that give me a charge as they surge from eye to brain to heart—then stream down through my arm and out through my hand—onto the white page of my sketchbook.

Prospect Park

Prospect Park

I am doing nothing different from anyone else when I take in the light. It’s what I do with it afterwards that matters. Yesterday, when the light was beginning to fade and night was coming on, I took in the light as I took in a breath. And I owned the light as I own “my breath.” The breath of my life, the light of my being, as I strolled through my country estate.

*Quantum Light Programme: Anatomy of the Human Energy Field.

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