The fallen hero Lance Armstrong wrote a book years ago, It’s Not About the Bike, which I read with great satisfaction. The headline above is a take-off on that title and a lead-in to rectifying what appears to have been a misleading impression I may have left with some readers of my most recent post, Sex As Worship.
It seems some people took that post to mean I’d perhaps been having great sex recently as a single person in the wake of a marital separation. So I am here to say, “Oh no no no—it really was about the bike!”
Perhaps I should elaborate.
As I’d stated in the post, my Unitarian Universalist bloggers’ group had decided to take up the subject of sex in observance of Valentine’s Day, as a way of lifting up a topic that is usually verboten in mixed or any kind of company, whether strangers or friends. (Prurient and exploitative media a significant exception.)
Sex: so fundamental to life and love, so underground in polite society.
Having recently been separated and “tumbling through that black hole” as I had mentioned in the first paragraph of that post, I was quite certain I would have nothing to say about sex, at least this Valentine’s Day. But then I took that glorious Valentine’s Eve bike ride, fully inhabiting my breath and my body under sunny warm skies in a favorite activity, and the metaphorical associations got spinning, as it were, on what quickly became a well-oiled chain.
Biking, breathing, thinking, dreaming, all of it turning to rhapsodizing about the ultimate physicality and communicative exchange of sex, and its direct pathway to what I see and experience as the divine.
Idealized, remembered, dreamed about, speculated upon, poeticized and elaborated.
None of it meant to suggest, even a little bit: “What great sex I’ve been having!”
Yet now I have been informed by people I trust that it could easily have been interpreted as such, writing from the writer’s end always being subject to interpretation on the reader’s end. And that it may have been, well, a tad unseemly for me to be trumpeting wondrous sexual escapades within just a few months of a separation.
To which I would emphatically agree, if I had actually been having sex that I had then actually written about.
But neither of those were true—at least in my body and my mind. There had been no actual sex, and the writing I had done was not about it (in any literal sense).
It was actually about the bike, and my climbing on it, and rolling on from there. About sex as an ideal and a pathway to my understanding of, my rejection of—and my ultimate embrace of—God and divinity as I experience it.
Or so I thought.
What did you think? I’d be curious to know, if you’d care to risk (!) writing in the Comments section below, or privately in email if that’s more your cup of tea.
Writing is a risky enterprise. You type your words, you tidy them up, you release them to the world.
Guess what, writer? They no longer belong to you.
Sure, you can obtain your copyright to make sure no one steals them and profits from their use, pretending to have written them. But there’s a much deeper way in which your words don’t any longer belong to you. And yes, I’m talking to you, regular everyperson who doesn’t consider him- or herself a writer but writes things anyway in cards, emails, letters.
Your words don’t belong to you after you send them off because every reader of those words brings his or her own experiences, sensibilities, intelligence, aesthetic judgments and mood into play in the particular moments they’re reading your words. There is no part of them they can leave out when they are engaging with your words, and words being the frequently slippery, ambiguous or multi-dimensional things that they are, they very frequently mean one thing to person A and very different things again to persons B, C, and D.
Alas, you have no control over that as a writer—you have control only of what you yourself are intending to explore and convey, and even that is often-times very little control indeed, as you scratch and peck away at your paper or keyboard in search of the truth, its questions lurking about inside you in a jumbled, yet-to-be-formed mass.
And then you extract some words from that mass, intend them in a certain way, but perhaps you’ve been inarticulate or ambiguous this time, and the message you thought you were sending wasn’t the one that was received.
Does that mean you should never write anything for pubic consumption? Well, that would safely ensure your words are never misinterpreted.
Something tells me that’s not going to work for me, though. Guess I’m going to keep on taking my chances.
After some 45 years of writing for public consumption, I have yet to not be amazed at the varied interpretations and different focuses that readers can bring to bear on my words. It’s not just that I meant one thing and the reader thought another, but also that I mentioned 25 things, and 25 readers zeroed in on 25 different things as the most salient or even the only thing that spoke to them in the piece.
Ah yes—every reader is a universe of one, and all we have, in the end, is a text and a reader in a private encounter subject to infinite variations in analysis and understanding. This is the foundational truth of the post-structuralists—heady academics who have staffed various university humanities programs around the world the past half century. Post-structuralism is often used as a cudgel to hack away at the established literary canon, at sacred scriptures of the various world religions, at every received wisdom, and to hold up relativism and “no fixed meaning” to any text as a kind of ultimate reality.
I have various thoughts about all that, but they’re unformed at the moment. Maybe I’ll get on my bike and think them through for a while before writing them up.
Wait a minute.
Maybe I won’t.
Diana Krall lends some of her trademark vocal depth to this Joni Mitchell classic…
For periodic and brief posts of inspiring words from the world’s great thinkers and artists, accompanied by the usual lovely photography as exemplified here, see my public Facebook page at: http://www.facebook.com/TraversingBlog
Deep appreciation again to the photographers:
Rotating banner photos (except the books) at top of page courtesy of Elizabeth Haslam, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
Library books by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: email@example.com
Photo of bike near top of page by Andrew Hidas, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/93289242@N07/
Photo of woodwork by Chris Darling, Portland, Oregon, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/kikisdad/
Photo of hay bales by Rachel Sian, York/Peterborough, United Kingdom, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/rachelsian/
Well, my dear, I personally, myself, in my own opinion (etc.), retain the take-away disclaimer that You Don’t Believe In God, Not That God, Anyway. (I think you said that 26 times, but who’s counting?)
So you talked about sex in there too? Hmmm, I’ll have to go back and check.
Do your words “belong” to you? If you’ve made stern, edificial pronouncements, they could belong to you in all their stony glory, with fancy turrets and flying buttresses and all. But since you’ve written with ambiguity and probing and expansiveness, those lacunas will be filled in by the experiences of the readers.
I hope you’re not apologizing because it was the latter …
Love it … what did I think? I am again struck by the relative/subjective universes we all inhabit and how amazing it is we can communicate/understand/”grok” one another at all… (especially challenging when relying on print only, adding the face to face/body language/paraphrasing to ensure I am following the train of thought etc makes a significant difference here) – I, for one, did not draw the conclusions some apparently did, maybe because of our relationship, or my frame of reference, who knows… but it is not what I gleaned from the post ( I saw is as Drew riffing on a Valentines day challenge from his UU comrades re: the relationship between sex/love/divinity/and other impossibly, but delightfully complex matters)… this last clarification/inquiry leaves me looking forward to you weighing in on the so called “Post Structuralists” , Post – Modernists or Grand Theorists (e.g. Foucault, Derrida, et al) – I remember first encountering these “dudes” in grad school with a prof who insisted this was the most important intellectual movement of the era (late 1970s) – I never was able of fully apprehend what the hell they were talking about but oh man did they produce prodigious amounts of words (I guess philosophers are kind of required to do that), some of it did arouse my interest; semiotics (sign/symbol systems), grand narratives, meta-theory and so forth… notions such as meaning being “negotiated” not innate/fixed (as your recent post verifies) ring true… so I am waiting for a blog length post to help me grasp what these Post Modernists, Post- whateverists are actually saying!! Blog on my friend!
Ellen, there was probably a slight apology in there, so noted and thank you, but more a feeling of mortification, I think, that one particular interpretation of the original piece was so far from my intent. But as you remind me, writing with “ambiguity, probing and expansiveness” (I need to paste that phrase on top of my computer screen!), entails the risk that readers will read and interpret what they will, which is half the fun and half the danger on both ends of the writer-reader relationship.
Kevin, you point up the critical difference in writing to someone vis a vis talking with them, the first so private within the reader, with no other cues from their physical presence to help further frame the intent of the communication. It’s such a different experience, me moving into your words, picturing and feeling into what you’re trying to convey and then feeling into my response, sans any clues but what these ink marks on the printed page (or blobs on the screen) beget inside me. (Kind of miraculous, isn’t it? I think so!) It’s intensely private and wonderful—and risky, subject to all manner of interpretation and misinterpretation. Again, half the fun, and half the danger. (Witness email wars, with words gone awry begetting volcanic exchanges and body bruises among all participants, none of whom have left their computer screens while they man their respective psychic barricades…)
And oh man—Foucault, Derrida, et al? I dunno—I haven’t even read War & Peace or Ulysses yet, and the clock is ticking! :-)
Missed that post; guess I was on my whirlwind trip to Santa Rosa. But as an English teacher I’m all too aware of that of which you speak. I was constantly amazed by how students could manage to interpret, or misinterpret, poems we covered in class.
I’d wait to read Ulysses until you’re long over the effects of your divorce unless you’re really into masochism. It was painful even 17 years after my divorce.
Loren, I will consider myself forewarned and thus delay for some suitable period the “I Gotta Read Ulysses Before I Die” project!
I think poetry is even more subject to varying interpretations and responses than prose, though when it works, it is so power-packed in what is usually so few words that it leaves the emotionally engaged reader feeling in a peculiarly altered state. I’m still finding the mere act of reading and the feeling states it can engender to be as remarkable as anything else in human life. What more evidence do we need that this consciousness thing is a mystery that will never be solved, and a wonder that can be enjoyed till our very last day?
An American Love Story
Life without her is empty.
My touch is intended to arouse her.
I don’t love her anymore.
Sex and love can be a profoundly difficult thing.