Thursday, March 20, 2008
Spine Intact, Some Creases excerpt by Victor J Banis
The following is a brief excerpt from Spine Intact, Some Creases, the memoir of Victor J. Banis. Part personal history, part gay history, some writing tips,
some comments on philosophy and religion and a few recipes for good measure by a legendary name and pioneer of gay fiction.
Spine Intact, Some Creases
Wildside Press (March 18, 2008)
Just this very day I was riding on one of San Francisco’s trolleys next to an elderly black man and in the course of conversation he mentioned that he had in the same day managed to break both pairs of his glasses.
“Gosh, this has been your unlucky day,” I said.
“Unlucky?” He gave me an astonished look. “I’d say it was pretty lucky. I woke up, didn’t I?”
Good point. Every day is a gift, isn’t it? Sometimes we demand too much of ourselves and of life. Daphne du Maurier, when she had finished her 1938 classic novel of suspense, Rebecca (now there is a great opening paragraph), gave the manuscript to her good friend, the literary lion, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (who wrote as “Q”). He read it and when he gave it back to her, told her that if she went ahead with it, the book would make her rich and famous—and the literary world would never forgive her for it. As it turned out he was right on all counts.
I am aware that there are those who look down upon what I have written. That is their problem. If mine was not the sort of career that led to great fame and fortune it was nonetheless successful in my own terms, on nearly every count. I have no regrets.
Indeed, I view regret as just another, more subtle way of flagellating oneself. Every moment of your life, every person and event, every mistake and triumph, has contributed to bringing you to where you are, to making you who and what you are. If you like yourself what is there to regret?
Don’t like yourself? Work on it. People take their cues from you. I can tell you for certain, in your entire life no one will ever like you any more than you like yourself. Looking for love? If you are not looking first at your self you really are looking in all the wrong places.
The legendary soprano, Luisa Tetrazzini, was interviewed late in her life. By this time she was living in a retirement home (they called them “poor houses” in those days) her operatic triumphs and scandalous romances far behind her. When the interviewer asked her about her voice, she went to the piano and sang a few measures from Lucia’s notoriously difficult mad scene, in what the interviewer described as an astonishingly young, fresh voice. She gave a cackle of glee and cried, “By God, I may be old, I may be poor, I may be toothless, but I’m still Tetrazzini!”
You’re still you, aren’t you? Whatever else may have gone from you with time or the sometimes puzzling machinations of fate there is one thing that you can never lose—no one ever has occupied, or ever will occupy, your unique place in the universe. Cherish it.
Take a look around yourself—better yet, take a look inside yourself. This is your life. Right now. Right here. Take responsibility for it. Are you happy? If not, why not? Unhappiness is mostly wanting things to be something other than what they really are. Wanting your next door neighbor to fall in love with you doesn’t make it so, it only makes you unhappy.
The conditions you put on being happy are the exact measure of the distance between yourself and happiness. Happiness cannot be deferred. We tend to choose to be unhappy until we can have our way with things. Like the child holding his breath until his parent gives in, we tell God, or life, that we are willing to be happy—when we get that new job, when so-and-so falls in love with us, when we have lost twenty pounds. This is not happiness, this is contract negotiation. Unfortunately, the other side across the negotiating table from you is just you again. We have met the enemy, as Pogo used to say, and he is us.
Pretend that you’re happy. The people who look into these things now say that when you smile the brain responds with a dose of the chemicals that it normally provides when you really are happy. It is sort of as if the brain says to itself, “Gosh, he’s smiling, we must be happy and I missed it,” and adapts to the program. If you pretend for a while that you are happy, you may trick yourself into feeling happy.
Find some time to be still. A woman once complained to me that she prayed and prayed incessantly but God never seemed to call her back. “Perhaps,” I suggested, “when he tries he gets a busy signal.”
Get rid of the busy signal: Meditate. Now, meditation is not the same as prayer, though ideally both will get you to the same place. We tend to associate meditation with Buddhism and indeed meditation is an essential element of Buddhism, but Buddhism is not essential to meditation, which is not the exclusive province of any religion. I have known Protestants and Catholics, Jews and atheists who meditate in one way or another and with no conflict with their religious beliefs or lack thereof.
If you look into a pool of clear water and splash it all about with your hand you will find it difficult to see the bottom with any clarity, but if you let the water go still you will find that you see right through it. Meditation is nothing more than getting the pool of your mind still.
Try chanting Ohm. The metaphysical people say that this puts you in tune with the universe but there are very practical and down to earth benefits as well. You will discover at once when you try that it stimulates your sinus cavities; if you have sinus problems, ten minutes a day of chanting will prove wonderfully therapeutic. At the same time you are stimulating the various glands, like the thyroid, that control your metabolism, which is to say, whether or not you believe that you are tuning into the universe, it’s certain to make you feel better.
There’s nothing mysterious about how to do it either—just take a deep breath and say Ohm on the exhalation. If you want to do it the really best way, make almost, but not quite, three separate syllables of it, which sounds far more difficult than it is. Begin the O sound in your throat as you would, say, singing. Then push the sound or the vibration up into you nasal cavity—you will find it easy to move the vibration around. Finally move to the front of your mouth for the Mmmm finale.
The experts say it’s not worth the effort if you aren’t going to do this a minimum of ten minutes a day but I say, pish, even a minute or two of peaceful focusing will do you good. Of course ten minutes a day is better. If you can manage that for a while and then try going to twenty, you will see that twenty is not just twice as good but many times better. Let’s be honest, though, one can’t always squeeze in that extra time. Do ten and if you are truly in a rush, do whatever you can and let yourself feel good about it.
Incidentally, if you are into affirming or visualization, the ideal time to do it is before chanting—stilling your mind allows time for your desires to sink into your subconscious before your negative energies go to work on them.
If chanting seems too esoteric for you, just sit and quietly observe your breathing, the flow of air in and out of your nostrils, the rise and fall of your diaphragm. Let your thoughts arise as they will, observe them and let them go without attaching yourself to them.
There are plenty of ways to meditate, however, and lots of good books to tell you how. It doesn’t matter, really, whether you chant or gaze into the flame of a candle or contemplate your navel, the whole point is to focus your mind, to help it shut up in other words.
Stand naked in front of your mirror. Yes, I know. But if you can’t love the warts you can’t love the dimples, you don’t get to pick and choose. Love doesn’t work that way, not with someone else and not with yourself.
If you are going to make perfection the price that must be paid for your love you are going to find yourself with very few shoppers. Practice forgiveness. Start with forgiving yourself. Stephen Levine writes of how very painful it can be to shut yourself out of your own heart. Forgiveness is the key to open the door.
We have all stepped on someone’s toes at one time or another. Silently ask those whom you have offended to forgive you. Go on to forgive those who have offended you. It can be difficult to grasp when you are angry but really, whatever it was that they did had nothing to do with you and everything to do with themselves. Don’t take it personally. The only personal part is the damage you are doing to yourself harboring those unhappy memories. Thoughts are things. Forgiving thoughts are healing things. Forgiveness is love and love is the answer. It doesn’t matter, Alex, what the question is. Love is always the answer.
Incidentally, don’t be surprised if that person you have been at odds with for ten years suddenly calls you on the phone and asks you to lunch. If he doesn’t, don’t worry about that either. This isn’t about him it’s about you.
Give. As ye sow, so shall ye reap. Whatever you give comes back to you in like kind. But consider that a warning as well. Things return in the spirit in which they were given. Whatever you give lovingly, freely—and best of all unannounced—will find it’s way back to you in just such terms. If you find your life all tied up in knots, however, it may be the strings you attached to your gifts.
And don’t think you can use lack of money as an excuse, either. Considering how little it costs the giver it is astonishing what value a smile may have for the one who receives it. An honest compliment may be enough to get your waiter, the sales clerk, the bus driver, through a really hard day. Don’t sneer. We all have them, after all.
Practice a little tenderness. We live in such a crowded world it is inevitable that from time to time we are going to bump into one another. If we keep our edges a little soft, it won’t hurt so much. Courtesy, manners, respect for others—these are not “extras” in life, they are a major part of what separates us from the kids with the tails. Miss Manners jokes about saving civilization but her claim is not as exaggerated as it sounds. Throughout our long history, in every civilization that has come and gone, the first signal of decay, of the unraveling of the fabric, has always been the decline in everyday manners, the failure of the common courtesies people visit upon one another.
Of course, you cannot single-handedly save our society nor can I. But I truly believe that no one has ever set a strong example—for good or for ill—that someone else hasn’t followed it. Make your example a good one. Trust me, someone will emulate it.
It was Yogi Berra who pointed out that you should make a point of going to the funerals of others because if you did not they might not come to yours either.
His point was a valid one. We all need a little consideration from others from time to time. Sooner or later someone is going to need your kindness, seriously need it. You will miss out on that hot date because a friend needs to cry on your shoulder. Someone will say something stupid or spiteful and while disdaining to apologize will nonetheless hope for your forgiveness. Aunt Dilda will talk your ear off because she is lonely and you will have to take a pass on that lovely frock your heart was set on because a friend is in desperate need of a cash infusion.
These are the dues that we each of us have to pay from time to time for the privilege of being part of the family and though you may see yourself as the black sheep of the family, pay them anyway and be glad that you can. As sure as God made little green apples the sling pump will be on the other foot one day. Think of it as insurance and keep your policy paid up.
We are all, after all, a part of Mankind. Just now as I breathed out someone else breathed in from the same atmosphere and out again. The island word, aloha, translates literally as “joyful sharing of breath.” Joyful or not, however, we partake daily of one another’s breath in some infinitesimal degree. And not just those of us now alive, either. The scientists say that the supply of oxygen on our planet remains fixed, it merely recycles and remixes, which is another way to say that you are even now inhaling the breath of our predecessors.
Consider the plants, too, breathing in and out with us, exchanging nutrients. We sweat, we lose minute bits of hair and skin and they fall to the earth and become a part of its makeup. We die and in time our bodies return to dust. We eat food grown in the soil and in it are traces of everyone and everything that has ever lived on our planet.
So it turns out that it is really not my life and your life but Life, and we are all a part of this same vast organism, infinite and endless.
Damn, I just put my foot through my soapbox.
I guess what I am suggesting is, try living your life in such a way that if the curtain goes up sooner than you expected you’ll be ready anyway for the tableau.