Monday, January 01, 2007

Goodbye To The Monkey House

What seems like a long, long time ago, when I was a young woman blazing a trail through a life she made no attempts to control, I somehow came across "Welcome to the Monkey House" by Kurt Vonnegut and related in one way or another to almost every story. His ascerbic wit and magical thinking expressed for me the wildness of what I saw all around me, in which I was so anxious to participate.

"Welcome to the Monkey House" was not my first experience with this kind of relating to the written word and its authors. I still remember a very strange short story I read in the Saturday Evening Post when I was eight. By the time I was fourteen, I was writing very strange short stories myself. And at eighteen, I was reading the short stories in Playboy (who could afford the well-respected writers I wanted to read and anyway, I didn't know about The New Yorker at that point).

The first book I devoured was J.D. Salinger's "Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters, and Seymour, an Introduction," which I used like a Bible for the early years of my adulthood, which might explain why I hardly came up for air, burning the candle in the middle (rather than both ends the way ordinary wild ones do).

Don't get me wrong; I'm not blaming Salinger for anything. I just mean that his words lured me out of the mundane middle class sleepnotic state in which I was raised into a grander internal adventure. He woke up all my dogs, as it were. And some of them were given to rooting in garbage.

"All we do our whole lives is go from one little piece of holy ground to the next," he wrote. "He was kind of a paranoic in reverse; he suspected the universe of conspiring to make him happy," he wrote. The message I got: that words can reach out and talk to strangers. That you can blow them up like balloons and release them to float away endlessly. And that, once released, you can hurry to the next fire, the next adventure, the next idea, the next opportunity, the next balloon. Oh my God! I was so alive!

It was no accident to me that Vonnegut named his title story "Welcome to the Monkey House." It was decades later before I discovered sociology, but I still refer even yet to "the monkey house" of society, belligerantly refusing to explain to the hapless listener. Are we not, after all, just primates in cages of our own construction in a building we call home, having long since lost any ability to imagine or implement a freer, healthier, more joyful existance? Beating each other with thigh bones over food we don't enjoy and going in and out of heat, we manifest a reality I long to label--in spite of everything--a "little piece of holy ground." So I followed Salinger's pipe like the child of Hamelin I was and eventually found my voice, thanks to a man named Richard who had found his voice in a dark hole in a federal prison.

When I go back and read the revolutionary rhetoric being published under my name in 1972, my voice, amazingly, is the same. It is my voice, still. The same voice I use in the classroom or in front of any group. The same voice I use when I'm interviewed. The same voice I use with my friends, family, and students. On this blog. Even in emails and letters. I am sometimes quieter, less intense, but slip down the rabbit hole at a moment's notice, have learned to accept the floor giving way, have learned to accept the raised temperature, the amused expressions, the fact that some people follow me around for this. The fact that I sometimes feel as if I'm channeling some larger manifestation. The fact that I sometimes know I am. The fact that it doesn't matter. I'm not in control.

Would I choose this voice? There are those who suggest we do choose our adventures, and in any case, I wouldn't have it any other way. But I haven't always felt like this. There was a lot of pain at one point or another. A lot of it. And some confusion, too. And a good dollop of self-loathing, I think, at least for some years. Being in overdrive. Following the breadcrumbs with no idea whatsoever of where they were leading, but taking them as reassurance in a forest frightening, if not primely evil.

And now? It is 2007. I consider the surprises that came in the last twelve months, mostly pleasant and all pleasantly resolved. I consider the small triumphs, indicators, I have decided, that I am on the right track and moving in a direction that will likely bring new and greater triumphs. And I consider the guidance I have received from supporters that did not even exist twelve months ago when I started this blog.

This year there is every possibility that I will move far away from where I am now to a vastly different type of geographical location. I have been where I am now for nearly six years, which is average for me. I am hungry for a higher energy level or perhaps an even lower one--some change that will focus me more strongly on the task at hand--the reduction of institutionalized oppression in the name of racism against people of color in general and African-Americans in particular.

This year there is every possibility that I will move at least one and possibly two or even three of my books. I don't know how to explain the sense I have of this. I am entering my book on race to a creative non-fiction competition, but I'm sure there will be many others. I have already joined a writer's organization, paid the registration fee for their conference in February, reserved my room and even booked my flight, but that's certainly no guarantee of anything. I originally set as a goal to have 200 Word document pages of this blog in a year (toward eventual publication, I hope, as a follow-up to my other book on race) and I will reach that goal in a post or two, with much feedback that what I write is sound and valuable and maybe even startling (yay!), but that doesn't seal anything down. Still, there is a knowing in my gut that it is all coming to fruition.

In 2005, when I finished "Reduced to Equality," I had no idea that even excellent books can take years--and multiple submissions--to get published. Like a fresh recruit to the army of official wordsmithery, I was ready to go on the road, alert in my desire to show off my newly acquired commitment. I purchased clothing that would travel. I even bought a passport. And then I sat.

I was befuddled. This wasn't the way it was supposed to go, I mumbled in a disgruntled voice. I was supposed to be standing on a stage somewhere fighting the good fight against racial oppression. Forget that I was already fighting it. Forget that I had been fighting it for more than forty years already. Forget that I'm not a General, let alone a Commander-in-Chief, but rather more of a petty officer, as it were, just "waiting for orders." Forget that I have even yet personal issues that get in my way psychically. I was ready to move, dammit! But still I sat.

I went into something of a funk. Even refused to write anything but this blog for a while--months and months actually. Quit sending out my query letters. Played a lot of computer games. Threw myself into teaching in a way that screamed "avoidance tactic." But the shift has come anyway. I can feel it, though it's hard to explain rationally. What's going to happen? I'm not sure. But it's gonna be an interesting year, that much I know. And now that I've stopped chafing at the bit, I can eye the track a bit more evenly, shaking out my muscles, finally ready to run the way I've been prepared to do, not frantically, but with joy. It's going to be a very good year. Goodbye, monkey house; hello, yellow brick road.


Professor Zero said...


Professor Zero said...

I am back studying this. It is a brilliant post.

Changeseeker said...

Can you hear the fado?

Professor Zero said...

I posted one!

Writer on Board said...

Yes. Honest. Smart. Sincere. As usual. Happy New Year, CS!

Changeseeker said...

Thanks, Writer. And happy new year to you and yours, as well.