Friday, February 25, 2011

I'm Learning How to Soak Up the Warmth of the Fire Rather Than Throw Myself In

I have never been a thrill seeker of the physical variety. I leave jumping out of airplanes, bungee jumping and regular exercise to superheroes and the otherwise better equipped. I was secretly relieved when the Ropes Course in the Outdoor Adventures Class I took at J-Sargeant Reynolds during high school was repeatedly cancelled due to bad weather. But pushing myself past my comfort zone has always held an attraction for me.

Just ask the various men who picked me up hitchhiking, chased me down when I ran out on bar tabs or helped me find the right country when I was lost on the train in Europe.

At 19, it was easy to embrace danger a dozen times before going to bed.

Now, at 35, I balk at the outrageous situations I used to put myself in. And I’ve toned it down, because, really white suburban moms in their mid-thirties having a mid-life crises aren’t all that attractive. But I’m still drawn to the idea of living on the edge.

Just ask my banker with whom I am now on a first name basis.

Or the temp agency that finally quit offering me full time jobs.

Or my husband who commandeered a magnet I was going to give to a friend last Christmas. “I chose the road less traveled. Now where the hell am I?” now sits on our fridge instead of hers.

The last boyfriend I had before getting married, seduced me with a copy of the book “The Razor’s Edge.” He left it on my front porch in the middle of the night with a detailed analysis of how he and I were like the main characters scribbled in the margins. It meant more to me than a five course meal, even if he did spell my name wrong. I am a sucker, not only for words, but for the idea of walking the razor’s edge.

The problem though, is that instead of walking that edge, I’ve had a tendency to fall over it and land on my face.

That same boyfriend didn’t slow down at yellow lights when I was following him in traffic. He took calls from other women whom I could hear saying, “Hi, it’s me” into the phone. And, the last time we talked, during a snowstorm when my power went out, he called to say he’d be going to Hooters rather than coming over to sit with me by the fire. Nevertheless, all of these years later, I still love him, not because he’s a literate football player who also happens to be successful and good looking, but because he helped me identify what I didn’t want.

It’s just that sometimes I forget. Sometimes I still want the spike of adrenaline, the pleasure of danger, the thrill of risk that comes, for me, most quickly around the fringe of safety.

So lately, I’ve been trying to funnel these desires into my writing rather than into my life. It takes work, though. Laboring over a row of sentences isn’t always instantly gratifying. There’s a lot more work. And creating something original borne of the truth sometimes feels more painful than living it in the first place. I have to look at it from more than one angle. I have to decide how I really feel in a deliberate manner that is more nuanced than fight or flight. In a strange way, it feels like there is even more at stake being laid out on the page than doing something obviously dangerous.

And so, I’m still trying to learn how to soak up the warmth of the fire rather than throw myself in.

And my husband? If I have to follow him, he drives like a granny. But half the time, I’m the one in the lead.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Reading for the Flippo Gallery

Last January I was invited to a vision board making party at the apartment of a good friend. I had just spent the morning having a past life regression in Mechanicsville. But after entering a state of deep relaxation instead of visiting a past life, I had visited an archetype. I was Guinevere in King Arthur’s Court and I was sobbing in front of a mirror. Beauty is dangerous, beauty is betrayal, beauty is a crime, Guinevere/Me moaned through her sobs. The words, and the thoughts behind them, were so powerful that I spoke them out loud.

This a belief worth examining, my past-life regression practitioner observed. And so I did. As a young woman in my early twenties traveling across America by bus, train and ship, my mother had felt compelled to write me a letter. “Valley, your body is not a thank you note,” she had said, because I was still in the habit of offering it as a substitute for everything else I felt I intrinsically lacked.

In my mind, being beautiful was the equivalent of being a slut. I wanted to be beautiful, but beauty was, I believed, a weapon women used against other people, particularly themselves. This belief left me confused, divided and shut down about my own body and physical nature for many years.

At the vision board party, while flipping through old magazines I thought about what it was I truly wanted for the year ahead. Yes, money, fame and fortune. But as I cut out a stunning photograph of a nude statue and then pasted the words “WE LOVE YOU” over her breasts, I looked up at Susan Singer. I remembered the first time I’d seen her paintings and the electric current they’d sent through me. She had managed to render the rolls and folds of the female body in a bold, exquisite way that was completely unapologetic. Her paintings had woken something in me that now sat up at attention.

Across the coffee table scattered with glue sticks and magazines, I asked Susan if she would be willing to collaborate with me for the Artists and Writers show at the Flippo Gallery the following year. In other words, I asked if she would allow me to be her model, first photographing and then painting me naked. This was a scary prospect for me, but one that I instinctively knew I needed to try. She, it turns out, had just pasted the words/images “Gallery Show” on her vision board. She said yes.

We have spent the last year making this happen.

The experience of being naked is not unlike the first time you show someone a raw and vulnerable first draft of a novel. As a writer I have a tendency to edit myself down until there is almost nothing left. I whittle and cut and delete and fret over my words like a woman first making up her face and then changing 18 times before leaving the house. I worry that what comes out on its own- without being heavily clothed, made-up or edited, is unacceptable. The plastic surgery I have committed on my own writing has left some of it more mangled than those sad brides competing for the opportunity to be disfigured on the reality TV show, Bridalplasty.

However, being painted naked has made whittling myself down to nothing more difficult. My body carries the blue print of the life I have lived. In the last decade I have had six surgeries between my neck and my thighs. I have had six miscarriages and one beautiful child. I have probably lost and gained 300 pounds. Six months after getting married, I developed Cushings Disease, an adrenal disorder which gave me moon face and a buffalo hump. My body is short a uterus, a gall bladder, one rib and an adrenal gland. I have been sliced open and stitched back together, but some of my deepest scars are invisible. Allowing myself to be seen, to be studied, to be photographed and painted by Susan has been the catalyst for healing many of them.

Obviously this exhibition was heavily edited. There are not 389 nude pictures of me on the wall. But it does represent a year long process within which I’ve struggled to uncover both my body and my writing, finding what lies beneath the surface of not only my clothes, but the words I use to represent myself in the world. In the beginning I felt fragile, exposed and like I might die. But when I didn’t die, and in fact felt accepted, celebrated and nourished in Susan’s presence, something powerful happened.

I believe that what Susan Singer is doing with her art is a gift not just to the women she paints, but to the world. I feel like her work is revolutionary- not because she is inventing something new but because she is showing us in a new way what is already there.

And beauty, I’m learning, isn’t about having flawless skin, thighs that don’t touch, perfectly aligned features or the right person next to you in bed.

For me, it’s about allowing my imperfections, insecurities and battle scars to co-exist with the parts of myself that I already liked in a way that is vulnerable, authentic and open.

And now in a completely different way, my body is a thank you note. One that I am giving to myself.

To close, I would like to thank Katie Shaw for having the vision to bring all of this together, and my husband for his unflagging patience the last ten years as I’ve struggled to learn the things he has always known intuitively.

Friday, February 18, 2011

My letter to the students who asked why, if I’m a writer, I’m wasting my time teaching them:

First, I probably learn more from you than you will ever learn from me. You have not yet had the joy of words beaten out of you and this is a gift to everyone you encounter. When I hear your poems about libraries and drumbeats and cheese and Chilè and stalkers and the sea, I am glad.

Second, I get to do the exercises with you which is great practice for any writer.

Third, most writers, no matter how well-published or successful, also have jobs. I’d much rather be here helping you guys write a play about two lovers who stop by Red Lobster after jumping through a painting of the White House in a Walmart onto a rooftop in the Valley of the End than waiting tables (which I’ve done) or writing ad copy (which I do).

Every week I look forward to our time together. I don’t necessarily relish re-entering the halls of a middle school, but I do love the time I get to spend with a group of people who are original, brave, creative and as of yet not boxed in or squashed up by what they think writing should be.

I hope that one day, you are each lucky enough to get to do this too.



Tuesday, February 1, 2011

389 Nude Photos of Me

"Valley's Folds" by Susan Singer

Between February and July of 2010, artist Susan Singer took 389 nude photographs of me. Our first shoot was, in many ways, like a first date. I shaved my legs, preened in front of the mirror and, after putting my clothes back on, wondered what the hell had just happened. In other ways, however, our photo shoot couldn’t have been more different. Susan, who helps women work through body image issues by painting them exactly as they are, helped me process my tumultuous mix of feelings as they came up, coaxing me through my most self-conscious moments and awkward poses. She offered only praise and encouragement as I stood in front of her red backdrop and arranged myself in her wingchair. But despite desperately trying to edit the narrative unfolding behind my glasses, the photographs we looked at later told the whole story. There I was— folds and curves, breasts and thighs, cellulite and scars. I went home and ate an entire bag of potato chips.

Like every other woman I know, I have a complicated relationship with my body. As a writer, I spend most of my time in my head, conveniently ignoring everything it’s attached to. Over the years I have attempted to remedy this. I have gone on women’s retreats where we vowed never to insult our bodies again. I have had my body traced on butcher paper to get a realistic sense of its shape. And when someone complains about gaining five pounds, I laugh, because I never gain five without gaining fifty. But how much I do or don’t weigh is only one portion of the getting painted naked pie. I know intellectually that I have survived a lot more than a mere undressing: 35 years of sporadic hedonism, irregular exercise, multiple surgeries, pregnancies and birth, to name a few. Still, I’m not sure I won’t die if someone other than my husband sees hard evidence of this. What’s the line between pushing myself to the edge of my comfort zone and shameless exhibitionism? Susan’s pastels and oil paintings are clearly a joyful celebration of the human body in all of its perfect imperfection, but that’s easier for me to say when I’m looking at someone else.

In 2009, when Curator to the Flippo Gallery and Adjunct Professor of Art at Randolph Macon College, Katie Shaw asked me to participate in the Artists and Writers Show in February 2011, I agreed instantly. I had no idea what I was going to do, but when I ran into Susan Singer a few months later, a light went off. I’d seen her paintings of women of every age, shape and size before- and they’d struck me as glorious- and groundbreaking. Was it really OK to be that fat or that skinny and that exposed? Since the very thought of being naked in front of other people terrified me, I knew it was perfect. Why not take advantage of a gallery exhibition to work through one of my biggest fears?

Despite the initial shock of seeing myself in full color below the neck, something happened between Valentine’s Day and our second photo shoot in July. I had just gotten back from the beach, but it wasn’t the tan that made me feel at home in my skin. The physical act of being naked in front of Susan for a few hours had actually done more for my body image issues than a lifetime of talking about them. I hadn’t died! And no one else had either. In fact, I’d felt more alive- more me- than I had since being a toddler running bare-bottomed around my own backyard. I pranced around Susan’s studio like it was not just my second nature, but my true nature. Instead of hiding behind props, I strutted my stuff. And the results were…gorgeous. I looked like a person who knew- and was happy- that her head connected to her body.

Am I now the body image poster child? Not exactly. Will I be wearing a bikini to the pool next summer? Doubtful. But standing beside Susan’s paintings and photographs documenting my journey in a well-lit room full of other people will be a testament to how far I’ve come. My body didn’t undergo a drastic transformation when Susan painted it, but the way I feel- and think- about it did.

The Artists and Writers Show, featuring Valley Haggard and Susan Singer amongst other collaborative pairs, will be held in the Flippo Gallery of Randolph Macon College in Ashland from February 18- April 1 with an opening reception on February 20 from 3-5 pm.

Belle, February 2011