Sunday, August 31, 2008

Why I Started Chasing Bad Girls, #3 (Isabelle Eberhardt)

A Russian Jew who converted to Islam, Isabelle Eberhardt ran off to the Sahara Desert in 1899 when she was 22, served as a war correspondent for an Algerian newspaper, dressed as a man and called herself Si Mahmoud, slept with Arab boys, routinely smoked kif, and drank absinthe and chartreuse until she fell asleep on the dirt floor of whatever random café she happened to be passing through.

“I detest cultivated green country full of crops,” she wrote in a journal entry during her travels. “Why do I have this morbid craving for a barren land and desert wastes? Why do I prefer nomads to villagers, beggars to rich people? Aie yie yie! For me, unhappiness is a sort of spice.”

Isabelle is incomprehensibly foreign to me, which is why she’s my new bad girl as I start life over again in a strange place. I’m in London, reflecting on what has brought me to this point in my life and why I’m here. Sure, I could blame Jack for causing my life crisis, but that would be the easy way out. There’s a reason why I chose him, something in me that wanted his drama and our failure. Maybe I didn’t really want to be in a traditional marriage, and by marrying Jack I guaranteed that would never happen.

Maybe I’m a bad girl myself, which is why the Bad Girls Project resonates so strongly with me. Now I’m free to enjoy the travel experience with Isabelle Eberhardt, and I can spend hours daydreaming of a trip through the Sahara with her. We go on a desert fantasia, riding over the desert dunes on her horse Souf as we discuss love and happiness. She tells me how much she loves her husband, Slimène, a soldier who lets her come and go as she pleases with no expectations, no demands.
Isabelle loved many men in her life, and one of them, a highly spiritual man named Abdallah, attacked her viciously with a sword because he believed that God wanted him to kill her. During Isabelle’s six-week recuperation in a French military hospital, her injured head burned and her badly wounded arm felt uncomfortably heavy. And yet, she says, try as she might to feel hatred for her attacker, she could not find any in her heart.

“What I do feel for him is curious: whenever I stop to think about it, I have the feeling that I am in the presence of a mystery which may well hold the key to the entire meaning of my life. As long as I do not fathom that enigma—and will I ever! God alone can tell—I shall not know who I am, nor the reason for my curious life.”

As for me, I’m trying to be more spiritual and life-loving, but I’m not quite feeling the sheer happiness and gratitude that come from being free. I’ve started to get a sense of extending past my limitations, but I need constant reminding, so I buy a used paperback edition of Isabelle’s journal and carry it around with me. I want her with me all the time, and I scribble feverish, urgent notes to myself all along the margins: “…thoughts of a blissful future, double life, making a home, rootless—searching for direction—the artistic struggle, the passion of religious belief, I like Isabelle…”

Isabelle always put her hopes, wishes and fantasies first—to such an extreme that her nomadic life left her half-starved, penniless and alone. But her mad spirituality and desert wanderings brought her an intense joy that left her ready for death at the age of 27 in a flash flood in the Sahara.

During her desert sojourns, Isabelle made frequent trips to Aїn Sefra, an Algerian village on the edge of the Sahara, where she made a little money by reporting on tribal skirmishes for El Akhbar. On October 2, 1904, she checked herself into the hillside military hospital there for treatment of malaria and syphilis.

She was a wreck but as happy as she’d ever be, deep in the land where she belonged and looking forward to being together again with Slimène, who was coming to see her after an eight-month absence. A few weeks passed, and Isabelle checked herself out of the hospital, against doctor’s orders, and walked downhill to the poor part of town, where she had rented a little clay house on the bank of a dry riverbed for her reunion with Slimène.

The day was mild, Isabelle felt stronger, and soon she was in her soulmate’s arms. Slimène welcomed her home, they smoked kif to their heart’s content, and spent a happy night together. In the morning, under a strangely clear and sunny sky, an unexpected flashflood swept through the riverbed, and water poured into the lowland floodplain. The clay houses in the bottom half of the desert town melted in the flood, and Isabelle was among the dozens who were drowned or carried off. When the waters receded, Slimène was found alive though in shock and Isabelle’s lifeless body was discovered in their little love nest, crushed under a fallen beam beneath the staircase, with her waterlogged writings scattered about, some stored in an urn found in the wreckage.

Isabelle Eberhardt struggled to find the reason for her curious life, and I think that by the end she found it in the Sahara Desert. Can she help me find the reason for mine? What would Isabelle do if she were me? I ask myself on my daily walks through Holland Park. “Isabelle, are you out there?” I say out loud, scaring myself, one day as I look down from the window into the enclosed garden square at Elgin Crescent. It’s a quiet day, unusually sunny, and I hear a whisper in my ear: Seek your spirituality…

Oh, boy. What am I going to do with that advice? Ever since my Protestant parents started sending me to happy-clappy churches in the suburbs, I’ve never been very good at being religious. Church is the last place I would look for God. But on Good Friday, shortly after my arrival in London, I put on a dark skirt and attend St. John’s Notting Hill, a church at the top of a high knoll on Lansdowne Crescent. It feels exotic to me; something like what an Algiers mosque would have felt to Isabelle.

Sitting on a hard wooden pew among the Anglicans, a pilgrim alone in a foreign city, I weep and I weep during the readings from the Passion of St. John, and the readers’ formal diction only increases the beauty of the solemn prayers.

My God my God, why have you forsaken me: Why are you so far from helping me and from the words of my groaning? My God I cry to you by day but you do not answer: and by night also—I take no rest…All those that see me laugh me to scorn: they shoot out their lips at me and wag their heads…

I sit in the pew and begin praying to the spirit of Isabelle, seeking consolation from her as we continue our desert fantasia together and talk about motherhood, childlessness, solitude, getting old and love. Being here now in this strange place, with so much distance between me and Tearful Valley, I feel safer than I did in my own home.

And I am so grateful that I have the strength and freedom to look after myself, alone, without a husband to get in my way. I can feel myself getting to the core of something essential: I have the rest of my life now to explore the meaning of love, creativity and everything else that’s good, and never again will I fall in line with somebody else’s idea of happiness. Yet again, Isabelle and all the other bad girls out there are beckoning me.

I’m still thinking of Isabelle as I leave the church and walk home, contemplating the poetry of her death. She saw glamour in suicidal thinking, but she didn’t really want to die. Her tragedy was that she ran out of time. As for me, I’m hungry for more time, because I’m only just beginning the long struggle to reinvent myself.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Why I Started Chasing Bad Girls, #2 (Lola Montez)

What is a bad girl? How does she become one? Are there any personality traits that all bad girls share? Who were the most outrageous bad girls of all time?

Everyone I tell about the Bad Girls Project throws out names I should look into.

Marilyn Monroe (too much of a victim, I decide). Lucrezia Borgia (too violent). George Sand (too neurotic). Calamity Jane (too un-sexy).

And then one day in a bookstore, I come across a name and a story that intrigue me: Lola Montez, whip-cracking virago of the 19th century.

“She has the evil eye and will bring bad luck to whoever links his destiny with hers,” the French novelist Alexandre Dumas Sr. wrote of Lola, and that feels right to me.

Here was a wanton harlot with a penchant for self-invention, a frivolous bit of fluff who was deadly serious about her limited talents and over-reaching ambition. After mad affairs with virtuoso pianist Franz Liszt and King Ludwig I of Bavaria as well as several ugly marriages and a mediocre dancing career on four continents, she died of syphilis in a New York poorhouse at age forty-three and was buried in a pauper’s grave in Green Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn.

Like me, Lola married the wrong man and ended up running away from him, a decision that proved to be the defining moment that put her on the path toward becoming a bad girl. “Runaway matches, like runaway horses, are almost sure to end in a smash-up,” Lola wrote. “My advice to all young girls who contemplate taking such a step is that they had better hang or drown themselves just one hour before they start.”

Lola didn’t follow her own advice, of course. Far from killing herself, she eloped for the hell of it, and when that didn’t work out she reinvented herself as a Spanish dancer. She hired a dancing-master in London, who over the course of four months taught her some steps while she perfected a phony Spanish accent. Then she spent six months in Spain, where she acquired a haughty and unsmiling “atmosphere” and invented a new name for herself. Goodbye, Eliza Gilbert. Hello, Lola Montez. Finally ready for her debut, she returned to London and booked her first theater engagement, which eventually led to other theaters in other cities and many lovers and husbands along the way, punctuated by the occasional bull-whipping or stiletto-stabbing when Lola’s mood turned foul.

As a woman who made a glorious mess of her life, Lola appeals to me enormously. From time to time, everything would fall apart and she would have to start over again in a new place with new people. I know what that’s like, things falling apart. Images of life with Jack flash through my mind: the desperate phone calls pleading with him to come home, his panic attacks late at night, the flooded basement where our wedding china sat in unopened boxes, my final decision to walk out on him one night when he was drunk and ranting.

Out of sympathy with Lola I start to ask myself, “What would Lola do?” For example, she sold her jewels once when she desperately needed the money, so I do the same and sell a diamond bracelet that Jack gave me.

She died at an early age, though, and all I want to do now is live.

By the late 1850s, Lola Montez was exhausted, ill and dispirited, and she knew her life had gone terribly wrong. She had strength for just one more adventure, and it would be a spiritual one. After spending a lifetime mocking religion and the church, Lola’s last great love was Jesus Christ. “How many, many years of my life have been sacrificed to Satan, and my own love of sin!” she wrote in a spiritual diary she kept in 1859.

On the last day of Lola’s life, January 17, 1861, an Episcopal minister sat by her side and told her again and again of Christ’s love and forgiveness. When Lola could no longer speak, he asked her to let him know by a sign whether her soul was at peace, and whether she still felt that Jesus would save her. “She fixed her eyes on mine and nodded her head affirmatively,” he wrote in a pamphlet titled The Story of a Penitent.

So finally, I have to ask myself: Was Lola Montez a bad girl? I haven’t yet defined to my satisfaction what a bad girl is, but yes, I can see it in her. I stare at the photos and try my best to love Lola, but it isn't easy. If I put my arms around her to give her a hug, I’m pretty sure she would flinch and push me away, glaring in anger and itching for a fight.

I’ve spent all this time with her, but I still don’t understand her. I don’t think Lola understood herself, either, though I do think she was the perfect bad girl for her time, and she was a champion of all women, whether they knew it or not. She had thrown aside the bonds of oppression all across Europe, worn a public face, participated in history and loved fully if not well.

After a week of obsessing over Lola, I go to sleep one night on the guest bed in my sister’s cold, cold basement and wake up suddenly, filled with a sense of dread. It’s the same feeling I had as a kid when I would have a bad dream and wake up in the middle of the night convinced there was a monster under the bed. I open my eyes, and it’s very dark, but I think I can spy a shadowy figure seated in the corner at the other end of the room.

A dark angel. She wears a voluminous skirt, I think, the sort of tight-bodiced, full-skirted crinoline gown that women of the 19th century wore. I can’t close my eyes. I lie there, my mind racing with Lola’s life, the photos of her that scare me, her anger, her passion. I’m afraid she’s going to enter my mind. A phrase from the spiritual diary Lola kept before she died turns around in my head. How did it go? I want to look it up but I’m too afraid to move.

Maybe Lola has come for me because she has recognized me as her familiar. Willful, self-pitying, grandiose me. I have no right to blame anyone but myself for my unhappiness when it was I who chose each turning of the path that brought me to the negative emptiness of my life.

Terrible and fearful…terrible and fearful…Oh, how did that phrase go? My mind is jumbled up, I know I’m not thinking right, this dark and lonely hour is not a time for positive reflection.

…What would I not give to have my terrible and fearful experiences given as an awful warning to such natures as my own! I drift…blackness.

In the morning I wake up, laughing. I have my whole life ahead of me. Lola Montez was my first bad girl, but she won’t be my last.

I send an email to Kent.

“Of course I’ll come to London,” I say. “This is an opportunity I can’t pass up.”

“Great,” Kent answers. “Let’s go. Check into plane tickets. Probably open ended, but I think you’ll need a return portion to get through immigration. Tell them you’re here to travel the country and they’ll give you a six-month tourist visa. As for the research, I think you should be historical but with a focus on fun and excitement. Welcome on board. Got to go. Love K.”

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Why I Started Chasing Bad Girls, #1

I've been blogging about bad girls for about two years now, so I thought I'd go back to the beginning and remember why the wildest women in history (and modern times) became my lifeline.

It starts like this:

One fine summer day in 1852, a chronic alcoholic and morphine abuser named Canning Woodhull visited the Mount Gilead, Ohio, home of Victoria Claflin. A fourteen-year-old girl with a calm and thoughtful demeanor, Vickie had taken to her bed so she could speak at leisure to the unseen powers of the air who regularly visited her.

Though weak, Victoria radiated loveliness, and the 28-year-old doctor prescribed a cure of fresh air and marriage. Vickie accepted, happy to leave the house where her father regularly beat and starved her when she resisted appearing as a clairvoyant in his traveling medicine show. “My marriage was an escape,” she later said. It was also a foolish indiscretion that permanently changed the direction of Victoria Woodhull’s life. Only a few days after the couple wed, Dr. Woodhull went on an all-night bender at a whorehouse, the first of many.

A few years and a couple of children later, Victoria finally came to her senses, asked herself “why should I any longer live with this man?” and answered the question with a trip to divorce court. The same powers of the air who had visited Vickie in her youth remained by her side throughout her life, telling her she was destined to become the ruler of the world. And indeed, after leaving her husband, Victoria Woodhull became the first woman to open a Wall Street stock brokerage, the first woman to publish an American newspaper and, in 1871, the first woman to run for US President. She was also an outrageous proponent of free love who shocked America with her libertine views.

Wow, I thought the first time I read about Vickie, this woman’s marriage sounds a lot like mine. I, too, had gone off and gotten married in an attempt to start a new chapter in my life, but my husband, I'll call him Jack, had turned out to be a rageaholic drunk and our marriage was not only no fun, it was a disaster. A disaster that took me a couple of years to get into, a year to recognize for what it was, and yet another year to escape.

Although my marriage to Jack was the biggest mistake of my life, exiting it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’d always been too nice for my own good and too afraid of hurting people.

I’d met Jack on a business trip to small-town Pennsylvania, and moved to a place I now call “Tearful Valley,” but my marriage, my hoped-for bucolic ideal, slowly turned into a series of broken promises, silent anger and empty bottles of beer and vodka. I thought I was staying in the marriage to make an effort to fix it, but the truth was that feelings of guilt, pity and failure prevented me from leaving.

Looking back now, this is the part I hate to think about: Jack’s constant verbal abuse chipped away at my self-esteem and kept me down in the emotional muck right alongside him. I had no strength to resist because I was unfamiliar with the person I’d become, and it took the strength of my friends, family, marriage counselor and Al Anon (my equivalent of the powers of the air) to give me the courage to save money, secretly store my belongings and meet with a divorce lawyer. In short, I was preparing for the awful moment when, like Vickie, I could ask “why should I any longer live with this man?” and answer the question by leaving him.

It was no accident that I read up on Victoria Woodhull shortly after leaving Jack. I was, in fact, on a quest to find women like her, a quest that began when I received a phone call from my rich and somewhat eccentric cousin Kent in London. I had only recently loaded my belongings in my car, driven away from Pennsylvania, and gone home to family in Chicago. But I was unsure about my next move.

Cocooning with the people I loved best, pleasantly numb and returned to a childlike state, I was doing little more than spending hours on the phone with friends, watching television, sitting in coffee shops reading, and looking for a job with such apathy that I might not have known what to do if one was offered. In other words, I’d stopped crying and was, in a strange way, beginning to enjoy myself, but to a rational observer I was still a confused mess.

Naturally, I assumed that Kent was making a sympathy call when he began our conversation by telling me about a notorious woman from the Byzantine era. I didn’t know why Kent mentioned her, but I played along—our conversations have always covered a lot of territory.

“Joycie, have you ever heard about Empress Theodora of Constantinople?” Kent asked me. “I learned about her at a dinner party. She started out as a prostitute in the circus and ended up marrying an emperor. She would go onstage and they would sprinkle birdseed on her privates, and a flock of geese would peck at them until she climaxed.”
I laughed. “No, I didn’t know about Theodora. But Mae West—now there was a sex goddess for the ages. She’s kind of weird but very luscious in her movies.”

“And what about Catherine the Great,” Kent said. “She was outrageous.”

“Do you really believe that story about how she died underneath a horse when she was having sex with it?” I said. “I wonder if that’s really true.”

“Joycie,” Kent said, and from his tone of voice I sensed that our conversation was shifting into new territory. I realized that it wasn’t just because he felt sorry for me that Kent was calling, and he was leading me there. “Joycie, how are you anyway? What’s going on with you right now?”

“Oh, you know, the usual. No man, no baby, no job, no home, no life. I’m screwed.”

“Are you really getting a divorce? Where are you going to live? Do you have any plans?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m trying to figure it out. I’m probably going to stay in Chicago so I can be near family.”

The other end of the line went quiet, and I could tell that Kent was not best pleased with this idea. He thought staying in Chicago would be a bore.

“Joycie, why don’t you come to London instead? Why don’t you come here and study bad girls for awhile? Bad girls like Theodora. I’m working on a project about them, and I need someone to do the research,” he said. “I want it to be you. Seriously, I want you to think about it.”

This is where the logic broke down and my life got interesting. Kent wanted to know about bad girls, for some complicated reason that involved him getting his heart broken and wanting to sublimate it into an art project, but he didn’t have time to spend digging through dusty old tomes in the British Library. That would be my job. He knew I was a writer and would have the patience to read tons of books. Plus, he thought it would be good for me to get away from America and think about life for awhile. And bad girls. Think about life and bad girls and go out drinking together.

Kent had a flat in Notting Hill, where I could live as I studied Empress Theodora, Catherine the Great, Mae West and anyone else who interested me. He would pay my expenses, and I could hang out with him when he wasn’t busy and tell him about all the bad girls I was discovering. In the summer, he added, I could go to France and stay at his villa in the Cévennes Mountains, where he wanted to create something like an art colony or a commune with posh overtones.

I would have been a fool to refuse, so of course I said yes to Kent’s crazy proposal, and this is how our Bad Girls Project began. Why not? It sounded like fun. People have gone off on all sorts of weird expeditions for even less reason. And I had nothing to lose at that point in my life. But I was less certain about how much time I wanted to spend on the project, imagining that at some point my real life, whatever that was, would have to begin again.

Before I left the States, I decided to do a little research so I could better understand what I was getting myself into, and this led me to my first bad girl, a dark angel who cajoled me to follow my destiny as surely as the powers of the air had cajoled Vickie to follow hers. She was soon followed by others.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Vegas Girls! Girls! Girls!

I have been to Las Vegas.
Las Vegas! Woot! They've got a crazy fake Eiffel Tower there.
And a crazy fake New York City.
But most of all, after gambling, they're crazy about girls there.
There's a Pussycat Dolls casino with Pussycat Dolls slot machines. Grrr!
At the cheesiest, most fabulously over-the-top casino of all, Caesar's Palace, they luuuuurrrve the ladies, from old-school naked chicks
to modern-day girls like Cher, Bette Midler and Elton John

Even the Venus de Milo gets a shout-out:

And in the streets, too, the girls cum straight 2 U:
Blonde girls
Bride girls
Babe girls

drinkin' booze out of plastic refillable cocktail bongs

Like I said, they love them some girls in Vegas.

Dancing girls

burlesque girls

It was fabulous. So why did it all seem so exhausting after awhile? Why did I get depressed by the third day? Why was I so happy to go home? Is there something wrong with me that I can't just enjoy the total fabulousness of it all? Gambling, booze and girls girls girls. Somebody's idea of what girls are.

Sex sells! Woot!

The Buddha says that even in the midst of happiness, there is loss and decay. "Nothing in time and space, nothing in the world lasts or can be acquired, however great our desire for things to be other than what they are."
All is impermanence in Las Vegas. Still, I got my picture taken with a showgirl.