The Reluctant Writer: Something Else to do When I Should Be Writing

September 27, 2009

TRUSTUS always tells the Most Fabulous Stories

Kristine Hartvigsen and I went out last night to have a little early celebration of her birthday, which is coming up this Tuesday.  I’ll be out-of-town on her official day, but I did NOT want to miss celebrating the birth of such a fine human being as Kristine.  So we made a night of it with dinner, drinks, a show and crashing the party at Jodi Barnes’ house afterward.  Of the three local productions going on now, we chose to see The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told at TRUSTUS.  It was, in a word, fabulous.

First of all — I absolutely love the fact that TRUSTUS exists.  For 25 years Jim and Kay Thigpen have been sticking it out in this town — giving us the kind of thought provoking productions that not only create discourse, but demonstrate a faith in their audiences that we will rise to their expectations and, essentially, evolve — socially, emotionally, and intellectually.  Sometimes they do it dramatically — I’m thinking Angels in America, The Laramie Project, and Gross Indecency here; and sometimes they do it with humor.  This is one of those times.

The Most Fabulous Story caught me at a good time — a period I am calling the agony of my agnosticism.  As a recovering Southern Baptist, I long ago rejected the easy-way-out of expecting a gridlocked organized religion to push me toward enlightenment (which I believe to be one of the three reasons we exist.)  However, as a human being, I can’t help but ponder the same questions we all (should) think about — an understanding of the sacred and the profane.  I’m not a nihilist — I believe there is a point to it all.  I think of myself as more of a noetics-curious Deist.  I believe there is a god who made all this happen, but then I think s/he probably figured the rest was up to us. In any case, my agony is generated from the sadness I feel at giving up the comfort of delusions and the inability to out-grow my superstitious angst that the boogeyman is going to get me in my sleep and punish me for the audacity of my ruminations.  We can find God, signs, and Satan wherever we want to see them — a reality that is both sad and beautiful.

Which brings me back to The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, directed by Dewey Scott Wiley, a play which tells the story of creation from a non-heteronormative perspective.  I love it when I find myself laughing so hard that I have trouble writing on my program the profound line I just heard from the stage.  This was the case Saturday night.  Silliness, sure, but interspersed with those brilliant stabs to ones psyche that widen the eyes and nudge us in our ribs.  And the execution?  Glorious.   Elena Martinez-Vidal pulls off the bemused God character with the ease of a woman who has seen idiocy in action before.  Robin Gottlieb is the idealistic, metaphysician Mabel in the bunch, proving once again that, at the core, the flower children of the sixties were right.  And Paul Kaufman?  Well, the boy can still flat out wear a thong.  (Which, by-the-way, the feminist in me loved the reversal of fortune that the guys were almost nude and the chicks were fully clothed.  Take that, male gaze.) 

So once again, TRUSTUS has delivered — unfortunately to a very small audience last night.  Lucky for you, the play continues through next weekend. So, go see USC’s dance performance on Friday or Saturday night, but on the other night or Wednesday, Thursday or Sunday afternoon, go out and support this fine cutting-edge arts organization.  Do not take for granted the gift to our community that is TRUSTUS Theatre.  We would have much to lose if they ever went away.

May 22, 2009

Rites of passage

It has been a while since I posted an entry on this blog, but personally, I’ve witnessed so much in the past few weeks — rites of passage, endings, beginnings — so much so that, if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to reflect a bit.  Maybe something will strike a common chord with you or yours.  Please share if it does.

Within the past two weeks I’ve said goodbye to the 90 some odd students to whom I swore my allegiance for the fourteen weeks of the spring semester.  I’ve often described myself as an evangelical sociologist and instructor of women’s studies and I sincerely mean that.  (God knows that, as an adjunct, I don’t teach for the money or job security.)  But I am an absolute junkie for watching the lights flash on in a student’s eyes when she comes to understand that humanity has constructed the society in which we live — that it didn’t grow up from the ground and it wasn’t set in stone from above — it is not located within our DNA; or when she learns that she can proudly declare herself a feminist without also also being a lesbian or a hairy, army booted ball-buster.  (Not that there’s anything wrong with being a lesbian OR a hairy, army-booted ball-buster.)  I love my job and am always as sad as I am happy when the end of the semester comes.

The week before last was spent in a flurry of exercises and ceremonies as Annie and her Honors College classmates revocated and graduated.  During Revocation each Honors College student has the opportunity to address the audience with words sometimes witty, sometimes profound.  Annie did me proud by thanking me for raising her as a feminist and introducing her to women’s studies — she’d won the Arlie Childs award for Women’s Studies the week before.  Of course, I was the one who wanted to thank her — for embracing what matters so much to me rather than rejecting it, which she could easily have done in the name of stubbornness or autonomy.  Then she and all the other kids who, just four lightening fast years ago, had moved into and bonded in Maxcy — the same dorm her dad lived in during his time at Carolina, and the same dorm that Bonnie would move into a year later — walked across the stage at the Colonial Center, no longer kids, now graduates, now adults. 

No other image embodies optimism like that of a graduate in cap and gown. 

To see so many fresh young faces so pumped with pride and accomplishment — it was thrilling to me.  And to see my first born — a brilliant beauty — scooped up in the gowned arms of her beloved after the ceremony, was both thrilling and radicalizing.  I am now the mother of a grown woman.

Many of you were among the revelers at the Muddy Ford graduation celebration featuring  the musical stylings of the local Columbia band, American Gun.  It was such a joy to celebrate with the graduates and so many of their parents under the stars and in the glow of the tiki as the band played on our Gilligan’s Island stage.  Bob’s kolsch went down cool and sweet and delicious.   The boys in American Gun are not only talented but good and decent.  Sweet music for rowdy young turks and the awkward and discomfited parents they’ll grow into being.

The next afternoon we retreated to the primordial shores of South Carolina and spent the week licking the wounds of winter in the sand and under the partly cloudy skies of Hilton Head Island.  The sun finally came out on Saturday just in time for the momentous heart break of young love set asunder as Bonnie and her beau parted ways.  Tears washed us back to Muddy Ford on Sunday and have kept us under a steady but receding mist ever since.  Broken hearts heal but they do so far too slowly and the scars stay tender for life.  

All these experiences of the past few weeks — joy, pain, the bitter-sweet saying of goodbye, congratulations, you don’t need us anymore, you’re on your own, where did it go — these rites of passage have re-sensitized me to how precious our time is — and I mean this not in a syrupy, melodramatic way, but in a very literally precious — hold a bubble as it quivers in your hand — way.  Be still, hold it while you can because that very bubble will pop on your ass and then it is gone, just gone — and you’re done.

So tomorrow, Bob and I leave for 17 days in France as we celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary.  Thirty years ago we stupid and exceedingly lucky young lovers gambled it all — and it payed off in spades.  So much so that if it ended right now all we could say would be, “damn, what a run.”

I’ll try to write from the wine road, but in the meantime, here’s to the bitter and to the sweet.  Life — no regrets.  Au revoir.

April 4, 2009

Flash Fiction — Releasing Raylene

I was recently honored to be the inaugural winner for fiction in the South Carolina Writers’ Workshop Quill Contest.  I submitted a short, short piece — typically termed “flash fiction” and was awarded a small but thoughtful prize.  It was a fun little piece that, like Dobie, another flash fiction winner in a Women on Writing contest sponsored by WW Norton, seemed to flow fairly effortlessly — very much the way you might tell a story or share an anecdote.  The lightness of this piece is a bit of a departure for me and, since it’s short, I thought my astute readers my get a kick out of it.  Here is Releasing Raylene.

Releasing Raylene

By Cynthia Boiter


The idea that anything Lula said could be something other than a hoot had never crossed Raylene’s mind.  She loved going to the little mill village beauty shop for the banter and the foolishness as much as she did for the attention Lula gave to the top of her head.  She had tried to convince herself that the conceit of an occasional shampoo and set was something she did more for her husband than for herself.  But when Dewey got the call from the Lord to become the associate pastor of the Church of the Beloved Body of Christ the same week that a Saturday morning slot opened miraculously at Lula’s shop, Raylene was convinced it was the Lord’s will her hair be pretty.  So she booked herself in perpetuity.  In some ways she did it for Dewey; in others, she did it for the Lord.

            Lula had a knack for working people up.  She would read a story about a half baby – half alien in The National Enquirer, or see a segment on 60 Minutes about a campground full of bigamists, then relay a portion of the information she had learned to the women in her shop, embellishing the parts she could not recall.  Raylene would hear snippets of Lula’s latest broadcast in line at the A & P, or catch a familiar phrase before the chatter died down in Sunday school, and know what was on everyone’s mind.  Always on her best behavior, Raylene rarely took part in any discourse that teetered near the theatric.  Even as a grown woman, there was enough little lady in her to know when to best look at her feet and smile.   

But on the rare morning when business at the shop was slow, or if Lula wasn’t feeling hoarse from a hard week’s work, she would occasionally engage Raylene as her private audience.  No stranger to the shortfalls of humanity, Lula could be counted on to apply pristine judgment to the workings of the world.  It was with this prudence that she introduced Raylene to the concept of the women’s libber.

            “Right there in the road with both Bert Parks and God looking on,” Lula rasped, her voice hardly a whisper but the certainty of scandal in her eyes.  “Hairspray, curlers, make-up, what have you, right into a fifty-five gallon drum.  Some even threw in their bras and girdles, if you can believe that!  Stripped ‘em right off their bodies, tossed ‘em in, and – whoosh!  Up in flames!”

            It wasn’t that Raylene was insensitive to Lula’s distress at the destruction of articles of beauty.  In fact, the very idea of throwing away a perfectly good lipstick made her gasp.  But the thought of summarily dispensing with a bra struck a tender nerve somewhere near her breastbone and she felt herself squirm beneath the elastic, lace and wire.  The kind of woman who wore her brassier like a second layer of skin, the concept of not wearing it was as foreign to Raylene as going barefoot in the rain or dancing in the street.  She wore her bra like she wore her own smell.  The only thing she took off her body less than her bra was her wedding band – because it needn’t be laundered or changed.  Raylene wore her bra to shop in, to clean in, and to sleep in.  It was the last thing she took off before bathing and the first thing she put back on.  It wasn’t that she wanted to wear it, or that she even liked wearing it.  She had made no conscious decision in the matter.  She wore her bra because that was what women did, which was all she thought she needed to know.

            Raylene left Lula’s shop that Saturday morning with an uneasy feeling swimming about her head.  Try as she might she couldn’t shake Lula’s story and, throughout her walk home, she revisited the idea with a guilty sense of confusion.  Never one to notice her own body, much less that of another woman, Raylene began to let her eyes slide down the faces of  the women she encountered to the area below their chins and, finally, to their breasts.  Aware that God could read her every thought she quickly reassured both Him, and herself, that she had no untoward interests in the women; their brassieres were where her interests lie.

But once the day’s duties were done and she found herself alone in the little tile bathroom where she freshened and changed her clothes, her own image in the mirror caught her eye.  Raylene couldn’t remember the last time she had looked at her body; it was as much a stranger to her as it was to Dewey, who sought only specific parts and then in the quiet ambiguity of the dark.  The woman in the mirror wore white cotton panties below a sturdy brassiere that crossed her heart neatly, leaving a narrow ribbon of flesh in between.  Eyes closed, Raylene slid the fingers of one hand down her neck, across her shoulder and under the strap. The cool touch of her hand gave way to a deep and glowing warmth.  She took a breath and let her palm move further down, across skin that felt sumptuous – like peach fuzz.  There was a roundness below she could sense as much as feel – a whole, satisfying, centering roundness that took Raylene’s thoughts out of the bathroom and into her summer garden where she cupped her palm around the imperfect sphere of a ripe tomato, full and warmed by morning sun.  It took her into the sweet smells of her morning kitchen, where a raised mound of dough was firm, living, ready to reinvent itself as hot buttered biscuits.  It took her to the furry belly of a childhood pup – round and wonderful and sated with absolute trust.

The grind of gravel in the driveway told her that Dewey was home from the church.  Out the window she could see the splat of fresh spring rain dot the windshield of his car.  His keys jingled in the back door then, slam, and all the air in the house pushed through the doorways and walls.

“I’m home,” he called as he sifted the mail in his hands.  He could hear the pat of Raylene’s feet down the hallway and through the kitchen, then away toward the back porch and door.  He looked up into the emptiness of the kitchen and realized she was gone. 

The rain, no longer a drizzle, ran in sleek rivulets down the window panes that looked out Raylene’s kitchen onto the street and the houses and shops and churches beyond.

“Raylene?” Dewey called, wiping the fog from the window.  “Good God, Raylene, where are you?”

And in the middle of the tar and gravel road that took the woman everywhere she went in the world in which she lived, Raylene stood, feet bare, face raised to heaven, arms extended like a wind mill in the steady rain that streamed and puddled in a tender valley between her breasts, separated from the world by nothing more than a thin layer of cotton and the unmistakable veil of joy.  


March 28, 2009

Towelhead – this is not about race & ethnicity

Filed under: feminism,films,not writing,social constructionism,writing — cynthiaboiter @ 20:09
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I watched Alan Ball’s Towelhead last night and I’ve been wondering why I can’t get it out of my mind. 

If you haven’t seen it, Towelhead is the coming of age story of an adolescent girl (Jasira) who, though she is incidental to the lives of the people she is supposed to be important to, in the ways in which she is supposed to be important to them, is also their central focus as she embodies the female sexual power they all want to possess.  These people — her mother, father, mother’s boyfriend, her next door neighbor/pedophile/ letch, and her boyfriend — all attempt to expropriate her budding sexual agency.  They all represent the various ways in which women’s agency is stolen from them by patriarchal society — paternalism, forbidden fruit, the social construction of virginity, dirty sex, inter-gender sexual power threats, etc.   But ultimately, Jasira reappropriates her sexual vitality by recognizing that others have been naming her life for her and, in so doing, taking from her what is rightfully her own. 

The film was originally called Nothing is Private, even though it is based on the book Towelhead by Alicia Erian, and there was a good deal of controversy in the Middle Eastern community about the name of both the book and the film.  I haven’t read the book so can’t speak to it’s title, but for the film, I can’t help but think a title dealing with privacy issues might be more apropos.  The fact that there has been controversy about the naming of the film, rather than the content of the film, is ironic.  Race and ethnicity?  Touchy, touchy.  Patriarchal saturation and sexual subordination?  Whatever do you mean?  Funny, we can talk about racial inequality, but can’t even see the gender inequality when it hits us in the face, as it does in this film. 

And I can’t help but wonder how many people saw this film and immediately condemned Jasira for her normal, natural (and I mean natural in the correct use of the term, not a socially constructed use) sexual explorations.  How many people thought it was normal for the young boy to look at porn — actually just stare at porn, not old enough yet to know what to make of it — but abnormal (icky word) for Jasira to be intrigued and stimulated by it?  How many people blamed Jasira (you were right again, William Ryan) for just being sexual?  And how many of those people, including women — no, especially women — had the same feelings themselves when they were 13 years old?  Or had they been successfully indoctrinated enough into the good girl vs bad girl mentality to completely suppress those feelings and commit a little sexual agency hara-kiri on their own?  Do they resent Jasira for her lack of complacency and compliancy?

This is a film that I’d like to show in my women’s & gender studies classes, but I hesitate — it may be too graphic.  Is it?  Jasira is certainly an everyday she-ro.  What would her impact be on young women who are both thrilled and terrorized by their own emergent sexual energy?  I can only imagine empowerment. Maybe like Jasira they, too, could reclaim the blood they shed as their own.

See this film!  Do it for your daughters.  Do it for the girl you used to be.

Now, back to writing about beer …

March 24, 2009

Women and the Audacity to Age?

Bob and I arrived at the Nick Oscar party last month just in time to claim two seats together on the second row near the entrance to our tiny but ambitious and much loved theater.  We happily saw several new faces around us and were pleased that so many folks had left their cozy couches to come out and support a worthy and fun fund-raising event on a Sunday night that cried out, stay home and snuggle up.

It didn’t take us, or anyone, long to realize that one of the folks in the front row was already heavily celebrating the Oscar wins before the first statue had been awarded.  (Ironically, I mis-typed the word “wins” as “winos” in the first draft of the previous sentence — read on to see the irony!)   Don’t get me wrong — the wine was fundraiser cheap and I did my share of indulging as well.  I just like to think that I paced myself a little more efficiently.

In any case, our inebriated fellow viewer served as the source of almost as much humor as Patti O’Furniture, our emcee and queen of the night, and I enjoyed her silliness (Drunk Girl’s) just fine until a certain point.  Luckily, that point arrived only moments before she nodded off in her seat and slept for most of the remainder of the performance.

An attractive woman, no spring chicken but, at 50 I certainly have a few years on her, this woman seemed to have some kind of pet peeve with once young and beautiful actresses for whom the blossom had faded.  When the still-working-it Goldie Hawn was shown in all her cleavage and glory, Drunk Lady let out an audible “ugh!”  She reacted similarly when the camera panned to other older actresses like Meryl Streep, Sophia Loren and Eva Marie Saint.  Several times she patronizingly exclaimed to the sober amongst us, “What happened to fill-in-the-blank-of-the-aging-actress-of-your-choice?”  She showed no mercy in her disdain for the tragically mature!

And there again, as in so many times in my life before, I saw feminist theory in action.

Rather than admire and revere our aging women – rather than deem them distinguished and sophisticated, as we do our men – we, as a society, tend to punish them for having the audacity to age.  Why is this?

Naomi Wolf gave us some good ideas as to why almost two decades ago when she wrote The Beauty Myth, and her theories have stood the test of time.  For one thing, Wolf told us that we don’t like the look of wisdom on our women — unfortunately, we tend to equate aging with wisdom which works out fine for men, to whom we look for wisdom, but makes women, as we age, basically shit out of luck.

Conversely, the look of youth is the look of inexperience — no worries about the youthful being smarter than the person in power, so yay for young women and their lack of threat to the status quo.  As for young men looking youthful and inexperienced, well, that’s okay because they’ll be gray about the temples soon enough.  But how do we feel about our women showing their gray?  Well, they’ve just let themselves go then, haven’t they?

Perhaps the most disturbing observation that Wolf made when it comes to women and aging, and the one that hit home so closely on Oscar night, is the way that the idea of aging affects all women — no matter their age.  Two words:  fear and resentment.  According to Wolf, older women may resent younger women because the beauty they possess represents the social power the older women can no longer claim.  Whereas younger women, (not as vacuous as society may perceive them to be), may fear older women because by their very visual existence the older women are reminders that beauty is just as fleeting as the slight allocation of power that accompanies it. 

Maybe this was why Drunk Lady was so disturbed by the grandmotherly Goldie?

February 24, 2009

Oscar’s Prisons

(Spoiler alert — if you haven’t seen Revolutionary Road or — god forbid — don’t know the important place of Harvey Milk in our culture’s history)

The Oscars were held last weekend which, for a lot of us, meant a scrambling race to the finish line to try to view all the major contenders before the ceremony Sunday night.  Something else to do when I should have been writing. I did pretty well though, missing only two of the upper tiered films, Happy Go Lucky and Frozen River.  This year’s batch of films was particularly stimulating, and I couldn’t help but wonder if anyone else noticed an understated theme amongst many of the cinematic messages.  Prisons.

Whether the prison walls were made of flesh and failings, as were those for the characters played by Kate Winslett, Mickey Rourke and Brad Pitt in The Reader, The Wrestler and the Curious Case of Benjamen Button, respectively; or those built out of years of guilt, grief and blame, as were those that imprisoned the subjects of Anne Hathaway, Richard Jenkins and Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s performances in Rachel Getting Married, The Visitor and Doubt — the intensity of  the lack of freedom that all these characters suffered was staggering.

But probably the most difficult states of confinement to witness were those created solely by the  constructed standards of intolerant societies in the films Milk and Revolutionary Road.  In both these films, the leading characters battled defiantly against the essentialist gender roles their frighteningly patriarchal and heteronormative societies had assigned them.  Kate Winslett’s character in Revolutionary Road, and Sean Penn’s portrayal of the real crusader Harvey Milk, both bucked some of the most strident of those arbitrary norms that typically arise as antidotes for humanity’s fear of the uncategorizable.  Women who don’t know their place.  Men who are just a little too soft.  People who think and analyze and question and therefore, must be crazy.

Sadly, a happy ending is as rare for this type of character in fiction, and in real life, as it was for the writer Virginia Woolf who, in 1941 in the throes of depression and an ongoing frustration with a world in which she felt she didn’t neatly fit, finally filled her pockets with stones and walked slowly into the River Ouse.   Be it a botched home abortion or bullets fired by the hand of a homophobic man, the real cause of all these deaths, Woolf’s included, was a world too tiny for more than one type of woman or man — a world that forced those with the audacity to think outside the cells in which they were given to live to ultimately sacrifice their lives for their prison walls to fall.

Ironically, the big winner of Oscar night was Slumdog Millionaire, a film that celebrates a young man’s escape from the prison of poverty in India — a country far enough away from the western world for American viewers to safely criticize its culture.  Unfortunately, it is less ironic, and actually pretty typical, that the socially approved means of escape for this valiant and spirited young man was money.  A happy ending courtesy of both Holly- and Bollywood.

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