Catching Creativity

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(Editor’s Note: This appeared initially as a blog for SKIRT Magazine)

I was never much good at catching fireflies.

In my youth, fireflies would twinkle in the soft light, creating magic on the back lawn.

My cousins would burst out into the twilight, armed with glass baby food jars, their legs streaked with the blood of the last swatted mosquito like some kind of warpaint. The evening would be filled with the fwop-fwop sound of their palms slapping to seal the fireflies inside the jars. They compared who would have the brightest firefly nightlight at their bedside.

I would wander much more slowly through the dew-slick grass, an ambler where my cousins were marching warriors. The fairy lights attracted me but once I captured a firefly, it looked puny in its glass prison, its magic diminished with captivity.

Eventually, I let the fireflies be.

As an adult and a writer, I found that the bright sparkle of creativity too would diminish the harder I tried to tame it. Grabbing onto a muse was like trying to pick up a raw egg yolk with your fingers – it slipped and slid just out of your grasp.

Creativity is supposed to be a spark, implying that you can just strike two blunt things together repeatedly until it happens.

It doesn’t work that way for me. I can’t force creativity directly. I can’t even sneak up on it. If I stare at it directly, it wisps away. I can only catch it out of the corner of my eye and let it sneak up on me.

Creativity sparks when I shamelessly eavesdrop on other people’s dramas, the tears of an overwrought stranger watering my creativity. It sparks when two disparate things suddenly seem related, like butterflies and physics. And it sparks when it is most inconvenient – nudging me awake at 3 am to get up and capture a scene or a dream.

But, the times I sit alone before dawn at my keyboard, hammering out the words that seem to come at the speed of light?

Creativity hovers like a bright cloud of fireflies.

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Rape

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This is a blog about rape. One that is in the news. And mine.

Two different rapes.

If you are following the story of Nate Parker, the African American man directing the movie “The Birth of a Nation,” you will know two things: there is a buzz about the black-themed movie making a mark in overly-white Hollywood; and there is a hum about the details of a rape case in his past for which he was acquitted.

This is not about the movie, which I plan to see, by the way, and which I hope is wildly successful. This is about the rape – or maybe the alleged rape.

The details are that Parker was accused in 2001 of raping a young woman when they were students together at Penn State. Parker was acquitted. The woman killed herself in 2012.

To this day, Parker maintains his innocence, but in a statement, he says he should have had more empathy for the young woman as he tried to clear his name. Empathy is always in short supply when women, alcohol, and rape mix. Even in the recent Stanford rape, which had witnesses pulling the rapist off the victim, the judge somehow was more worried about the damage to the rapist’s reputation than to the victim.

But rape does damage. Lasting damage.

The accuser in Parker’s case killed herself. Her sister, Sharon Loeffler, issued a statement, printed in Variety Magazine, saying, “I know what she would’ve said, and that would be, ‘I fought long and hard, it overcame me. All I can ask is any other victims to come forward, and not let this kind of tolerance to go on anymore…These guys sucked the soul and life out of her.”

Blaming the victim is not new. When I was in college, most rapists never saw themselves that way.

Best-selling author Laura Lippman discussed the issue on her Facebook page today, saying, Last year, among a close group of friends, we were discussing with some bafflement why men we knew, guys we considered to be very evolved, were so vociferous in their defense of Bill Cosby. One participant in this conversation…said he had belonged to a fraternity at a large state university in the early 1980s and, by the standards of today, a large number of his fraternity brothers had committed rape, having sex with incapacitated women who could not provide consent. I was in college at the same time and, yes, I’m afraid that’s true. Pass out at a frat party? Unless you were a virgin wearing a chastity belt, whatever happened next was considered a presumptive risk on your part.”

I remember those days. I was raped in those days.

I worked in a music venue during college and it was common to befriend the members of the bands. One happened to live in my neighborhood and, after the post-concert party with coworkers, he offered to drive me home. Sounded good to me. And, giggly with alcohol, I helped him unload his instruments at his apartment before he was going to bring me to my place. And, sure, a goodnight kiss wasn’t out of the question.

Was the rape that followed my fault? I thought it was. I know I said no with force – I was on a break from the Pill and pregnancy was the worst consequence I could imagine – but how forceful was I, with alcohol making my limbs noodle-loose? Couldn’t he have mistaken my panic for being coy?

No. In hindsight, no.

But, then? I just didn’t know, and I knew my mother had raised me to never give ambiguous signals because boys would be boys: beasts who couldn’t control their libidos. As a female, I was supposed to be in charge of the morality. So, no rape report.

I had a strong family. I had friends. The bruises and tears healed. I had the resilience to eventually trust again, to get over the shame.

It was rape. I marvel now that I ever questioned that.

And my daughter? I raised her to be strong, to be unafraid to ask for what gives her pleasure, and to be equally unafraid to fight like hell to put the brakes on what does not give her pleasure.

As for Nate Parker, he says, “All of this said, I also know there are wounds that neither time nor words can heal. I have never run from this period in my life and I never ever will.”

I believe him, and I will see the movie. But I hope he goes beyond regret to teaching other young men about the lifelong implications of “boys being boys.”

rape

5 WAYS TO KNOW IT’S TIME TO FIRE A FRIEND

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Sometimes, you just have to let a person go. It happens all the time in the corporate world and the metrics are fairly clear: the person didn’t make the sales goals, never showed up on time, stole money.

But it’s much harder to know when to let a friend or lover go. We want to hold on and make it work, against all odds.

When is it time to move on?

  1. You spend a lot of time making excuses for their behavior

Maybe they’re just always like that when they’re drunk. Maybe they’re mean to waiters. If you spend a lot of time explaining that he or she has a good side, too, it’s time to move on.

  1. You can’t get them to see you for who you are now, instead of the tubby/goofy screwup you used to be.

You’ve spent a long time improving yourself, and your new friends know you as a fairly competent person. That’s why it’s so hard when an old friend downplays your every achievement by reminding you that you’re still that same fat, clumsy screwup you always were. There’s having friends who ground you, and having friends who bury you. Move on from the latter.

  1. You know every detail of their dramas but they know nothing of yours.

Every friend goes through hard times and needs support. But when the whole friendship is an endless loop of her troubles and she never asks about your life, there’s an imbalance. When you’re tempted to put the phone down while they ramble on and on about their sad little lives without stopping for breath, it’s time to move on.

  1. You need a drink or a nap to recover from time spent with them.

Some friends are exhausting, and not in a good way. They’re like emotional vampires and you need recuperation after every visit. Let them go.

  1. You hate yourself, just a little, for the person you are with them.

Some friends or lovers are just a whole lot of fun. But maybe they’re catty bitches, inviting you to snark along. Or maybe they’re always filling your glass a little too much. Whatever the reason, you leave them and feel like you’ve failed yourself somehow. Time to move on.

It’s understandable that we feel loyal, or we want to fix someone. But sometimes, you just have to tell a loved one that it’s just not working. And, unless there’s a divorce in the mix, there will be no severance package because, don’t worry, this is no wrongful termination.

Firing a Friend

A Sliding Door Life

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Did you see the movie, “Sliding Doors?” It starred Gwyneth Paltrow and it came out in 1998, the same year as her Oscar-winning performance in “Shakespeare in Love.” I remember the movie not just because she played a character named, “Helen,” but because the movie depicted two parallel lives she could live, depending on the quirk of fate of whether she caught a particular train. I remember that slight off-balance feeling of seeing two lives played out simultaneously.

I get that same feeling these days.

I am old enough that I have lived many lives, in many places. I have been a different person in each, with the cast of characters to suit that particular life.

There is the slowed-down Charleston lifestyle I live now, with new friends and my husband. There was the competitive D.C. lifestyle I lived, chatting over Starbucks with fellow Beltway commuter warriors. There is the New Orleans family lifestyle where we eat, drink and laugh to excess and at high volume.

I become those people when I am in those places.

But sometimes, worlds collide.

Like the other night, when I was at my office holiday party. We were at a D.C. club listening to New Orleans music because my boss happens to love the music from my native city. I was enjoying being back in D.C. with my colleagues. And then I looked up and my ex-husband was there with his wife. Quick, which Helen should I be? The professional Helen, the New Orleans Helen who dances to Kermit Ruffins with abandon, or the friendly ex-wife?

Or, like the time I was at a professional development workshop and found out that the presenter went to college with my husband, and one of the fellow attendees was someone I hadn’t seen since high school. That may not sound like much for those of you who stayed in your hometown, but this was in D.C. And my husband had gone to college in L.A. And I had gone to high school in suburban Illinois.

Worlds colliding.

I find that I need transition time as I get older, time to wrap my head around the different layers of Helen dancing in the same time zone.

Maybe you’re different. Maybe you’re the same you, no matter what. Old friends, new friends, you’ve never changed who you are or how you act. Bravo to you if so.

As for me? I just find I need to adjust my shuffle so I don’t get caught in those sliding doors.

Sliding Doors