it remembers better

This post is a response to the following writing prompt given to me by my good friend and writing buddy Hypotaxis:

In Anne Sexton’s poem, “Music Swims Back to Me,” Sexton writes, “And in a strange way/music sees more than me/I mean, it remembers better.” Think of a song, or an object, or a single word, that “recalls a moment” for you. Is the song or the object or the word more than a memory trigger for the recalled moment? Is it also, perhaps, an objective correlative of the moment itself? 


Inside a wooden cabinet full of archaeological layers of CDs I can’t part with because each  represents $18 I didn’t have but spent anyway when I was young and into Melissa Ferrick or rave mixes or – for some un-recallable reason – Irish dance, there sits a jewelry box of things I never wear. In that box is a small ring given to me by a woman I loved, seven months before she left me for the last time.

The ring box is black with small white polka dots and a vague floral pattern underneath; very 1950s. The underside says “C. Howard Daley & Co. JEWELERS Danbury, Conn.”

I googled it just now. It exists only in memory and old newspaper ads.

The ring itself is white gold; a slender band that bends into a square at the top. At the center is a moonstone, flanked on four sides by tiny sapphires.

She gave me the ring on a January morning; a month after we collided at a feminist-bookstore reading. I heard a faint beeping noise far off, telling me to care that she was married, but it was faint and thready like my pulse and after a little while I couldn’t hear it at all.

I wanted any scrap of her I could get. This was a time in my life defined by a compelling need to see what would happen if I didn’t ameliorate desire with any common sense.

I’d been the other woman before, and, like Henry VIII said about murder, “after a few times, it doesn’t seem so difficult.” Being the other woman isn’t hard. There’s a bravado to it; a fuck-you-ness. You find other things to do when she’s busy. You feel the longing. You yearn like a Disney dog and it’s oddly satisfying – longing as a weird source of fulfillment – and then hey, here she is at your apartment. Hey. Hi. I was just making dinner; come in. You shop at the same Trader Joe’s at the same time every Saturday, and when you run into her in the soup and rice aisle, you both go, Well, of all the gin joints.

“It’s just costume jewelry,” she said as we sat in her car, looking out onto a vast expanse of Sonoran desert; its friendly waving Saguaros hiding venomous mini-dinosaurs and herds of feral pigs. Everything here is beautiful and wants to kill you – Western Diamondback rattlesnakes; black widow spiders; the unrelenting melted yolk of the sun. I was born here. She was a New Yorker. Her accent went straight to my clit.

“This ring was always on my mother’s hand,” she said. “Throughout my whole childhood, it was a part of my everyday life. No matter what happens, I want you to have it.”

“No matter what happens,” rarely means anything good. What happened was a blur of fig perfume and long drives; blankets and thunderstorms; a fortune-teller at an Indian restaurant telling us we were “meant to be in this life and all the lives to come;” my blood on her fingers;  the shape of her back as she left to go home, again and again and again. I forgot how easy it was to be the other woman. I forgot all about Henry VIII.

I was thirty-five; too old for crying when I threw away the fancy pink Himalayan salt because the only person who liked it was never coming back. Too old to rhyme “landlocked” with “heartshocked’ in handwritten poetry. I was a character in a story that was over, and I was sure it was the only one I’d ever be able to tell.

This is how I learned that if someone is able to walk away from you, you should let her; that love is irrelevant in the face of circumstance; and that if someone just…can’t do it, the Indian fortune-teller is WRONG. If someone says, “Let’s have a baby together” on Sunday but won’t return your calls on Monday, you need to get back on the old Curve personals horse and ride it into the sunset.

These things are obvious and simple. Just not to me.

Looking at this ring now, I remember all the things she loved. Like thrift stores. She’d pick up things that spoke to her – old glass jars; a hand-embroidered Mexican housedress made of clean yellow linen; an antique candy dish with pink French script. I used to say it was like watching a smart, fey little animal snag items to bring back to its den so it could curl up with them and feel safe. Once she brought me a blue-and-cream striped vintage sweater. For awhile I couldn’t bear the sight of it, but it’s still in my closet. I wear it every so often, with jeans. It only itches a little.

She loved for me to brush her hair. It was impossible hair – too thick; too wiry. It resisted my $300 flat iron as she closed her eyes and melted into me like a cat.

“It’s Jewish hair,” she said once. “It’s imbued with suspicious genetic memory. It’s seen much worse than your little iron, and it’s not taking any shit.”

She loved to cook. One night she made a red sauce that smelled so much like everything I’d ever wanted since the day I was born, I had to excuse myself to sniffle in her bathroom for a few minutes. In there, looking at her collection of thrift-store cotton-ball jars, I remembered something Nora Ephron wrote: “Show me a woman who cries when the trees lose their leaves in the autumn, and I’ll show you a real asshole.”

She loved the life she’d built – her small, wood-floored bungalow with its cabinets full of obscure spices from markets in New York; her group of friends who loved her as half of a longstanding couple. Compared to what she’d been born into, it was a safe and comfortable life.

She loved me too, I think. But in the end, when I came home and all her things were gone, I wasn’t surprised. She left the ring, though, sitting on my dresser in its polka-dot box. She wanted me to have it, no matter what happened.

I am my own wreckage; I am my own black box

Last week, I became someone who never had children.

Before then, I was someone who simply didn’t have them.  In March, though, I joined the waiting list for sperm from a bank that gives its donors names like “Woody” (or “Kim,” if they’re Asian). I read 17 pages of my guy’s family history and listened to his 10-minute interview.

“What advice would you like to pass on to your future child?” the interviewer asked.

“Life is hard,” he replied. “But if you can stay interested in things, it’s also a great adventure.”

“Staying interested in things,” simple as it sounds, is a full-spectrum anti-depression light box for the soul. Put me down for four vials! (It was a twofer deal). I loved this guy!

I even loved that he was only five foot eight. His family was full of short men married to tall women, so I figured they must really have it going on in terms of personality. Short men have to build character if they want to pass on their genes, my dad says. My dad is five foot six. He told me to “stop messing around and just pick the tallest donor in the catalog.”

But before I made the decision; before I shelled out $1200 for the first insemination cycle, I got my hormones and egg reserve checked. I’d been peeing on ovulation test sticks for three months but never saw the digital “O” in the window; the little open mouth of anticipation.

I felt like the urine was too close to the angels gathering here

I felt like the urine was too close to the angels gathering here.

After the doctor took my blood, she wrote me a prescription for Clomid “to get going on all fronts.” But that blister pack of pills might as well have contained Skittles, because when my lab work came back we saw that Nature had made her position clear in hard, unassailable numbers. Looking at them I felt neither pain nor surprise, which, I am told, is the case when a bullet strikes the heart.

I was too late.

The world’s most facile metaphor rose out of a rogue memory circa 1994: my friend Eddie’s alarm clock when we were sophomores in college. Eddie was not a morning person, and he had hit the snooze button so many times – and so hard – that there was a fingerprint-sized dent in it.

There was never a right time. That’s a thing people say:  “There’s never a right time to have kids! So just be brave and have them!”

Would the right time have been when I was 18 and sleeping with a dumb guy who eagerly awaited his issue of Guns & Ammo every month? When I was 22 with no work experience and struggling in a shaky marriage? When I was 27 and obsessed with a drummer who ghosted after a couple of months because I wasn’t an orthodox Jew? When I was 28 and coming out as a lesbian? When I was 32, living illegally in Canada with a transsexual who hated kids? When I was alone again, a broke graduate student at 35? Or when I was 37 and fell in in love with a woman who already had two teenagers and lived 400 miles away?

I mean, really. When?

Women do have children in these circumstances (and much worse) with no regrets, but it felt wrong to me. Irresponsible. I bought books about single motherhood (“Knock Yourself Up”) but they were geared toward women with money or a support system, neither of which I had. There was no big, warm, multigenerational family who’d say, “Congratulations, P! What’s one more kid! Come into the kitchen and help cook a big hot dish!”

Of course, I did make choices: I pursued several different partners who weren’t interested in children, and passed up several who were. I chose not to select a partner who was just OK, in the interests of having a family. When I was working as a nanny, I saw this breed of partnership close up – the woman was 30something and running out of eggs and time and fucks to give in terms of whether or not the man (or woman) she married was anything but…OK. Solid. Workable.

No shade: that’s a satisfying choice for many women. Just not for me.

So the years went by. And every time I came back to the question, I imagined all the awesome – the way babies laugh incredulously at random stuff; how they rub the hair off the backs of their heads and get bald spots like little old men; the sudden shift in consciousness when they turn three years old and become more of a real person and less of a dog or a cat who can talk. I imagined watching my seven-year-old develop near-Jesuitical argumentative skills and star in the school play as a radish. I imagined a wry, funny middle schooler; a houseful of my bright teenager’s wacky friends.

I forced myself to imagine these things, too:

  • Sitting alone with a feverish baby in a crowded clinic, afraid it’s a staph infection from day care and knowing I’ve run out of paid time off work.
  • Watching a child take her first steps, without anyone for me to turn to and say, “LOOK LOOK SHE’S WALKING!”
  • Hearing screaming in the night and being so bone-deep exhausted that I’m physically unable to get out of bed for a full 10 minutes.
  • A partner whose heart just isn’t in it. A child who sees that.
  • Getting up for work at 6 a.m. over and over and over again, after being awake all night – that unreal, hovering-above-my-own-head feeling of sleep deprivation; those grains of sand underneath the eyelids.
  • Living in a crappy school district because $$$. Knowing exactly what that means for my child.
  • A pediatrician saying, “Yes, there’s definitely cause for concern. I’m going to refer you to a specialist, but your insurance won’t cover it.”

And in the end, what I wanted was a family. That seemed like the fun part; the co-creative adventure. A family, not just me-and-a-kid. And that didn’t happen. It just didn’t.

I think of who my daughter might have been. Compact; husky-voiced. Good at math like my mother; a seismologist of the mood and motivations in any given room, like my father. An obsessive athlete; a poet; a too-fast driver with a laugh like a handful of coins tossed in the air.

I had a name for her.

Nature, though, is smart and may be offering an ineluctable mercy. Much as I’d like to be the kind of person who could handle a child with Down syndrome or the kind of severe autism that makes kids wail inconsolably and bite their own hands, I’m not. When I see middle-aged developmentally-disabled adults walking the aisles of Safeway with their tired, elderly mothers – who, when they die, will leave these grown children to the mercies of institutions or the streets – I know I couldn’t handle it. Or, fine, I could “handle” it, but I’d have a hell of a time prising the joys out of the pain, disappointment and worry. I always thought that “Dear Abby” fable about Italy vs. Holland was oversimplified; more disingenuous and twee than inspiring.

And even if adoption was easy – even if I could get a healthy baby tomorrow morning – I find much to dissuade me in this blog. I’m troubled by a system that tells women, Sorry, but you’re too poor/too young/too single to be a mother and tells the child, The woman who gave birth to you loved you so much, she gave you away. But then we chose you, so be grateful!

I wanted a part of life I won’t get, but the other parts aren’t exactly consolation prizes: Travel, friendship, books, sleep, a rock-hard set of abs, and the company of good and gentle animals. I won’t see my eyes in someone else’s face, but I’ll see a Tuscan sunset at the end of a two-week cycling trip through Europe. I’ll see Galapagos. I’ll see…whatever the version of me with a child wouldn’t get to see.

My life will have a different meaning, that’s all.

I’m not bothered by people who say I’ve missed out on the Most Important and Profound Thing a Woman Can Ever Do, because deep down I don’t think that’s true. The idea is unimaginative and misogynist across the board. Important and profound, for sure. The be-all and end-all of female existence? No.

It’s true, the only people who’d visit me in old-person assisted-living will be there by choice and can stop coming by anytime, but (a) I’ll be able to afford assisted living with the money I’m not spending on children; (b) It’s an excellent motivation to seek out, retain, and invest in friends-as-family; (c) I could die of a surprise heart defect or in the Global Water Wars long before then; and (d) People with kids die alone all the time.

Perk #1 of middle age:  Realizing just how much I’m not in control of.

Perk #2: Knowing I’m not special, and neither are my genes, and not passing them on isn’t a tragedy.

Perk #3: Understanding I can’t transfuse the meaning of, or the answers to, my own life into someone else’s, whether I’d had kids or not. I can’t recuse myself from the task of meaning- and answer-making. No one else can be the black box in the middle of my wreckage.

The older we get, the further our possibilities narrow. We begin with an infinite number of possible lives, and every day, that number decreases. One day in third grade, you have the potential to be an Olympic gymnast; the next day, you break your arm or lose interest in the vault…and then you don’t. In high school, you get a ‘C’ in physics and Yale is no longer a possibility. Day after day, you don’t leave your sad marriage, and one day you hit a tipping point and know that no one else will ever touch you again.

You choose a city, a home, a partner, a career, an addiction, and soon the only way to experience anything else is through fiction and/or lies. Avenue after avenue closes down, and all of a sudden, you’re in one specific neighborhood with a cul-de-sac. You sit there reading the last page of a Choose Your Own Adventure book you loved as a kid, and then someone comes along and takes the book away.

That’s one reason we have babies: behind their blinking, muttering faces are impossibly intricate networks of possible lives, and we’re comforted by this. We’re inspired. As we should be. As is right.

I don’t have an ending for this post that wraps around neatly to reference the beginning.

I don’t know how it ends.

My family threw a bomb, so I threw one back. Here’s the email.

Dear family,

I’d like to explain why I won’t be joining you for any of the lovely weekend events planned for Grandpa’s birthday: It has been gently, kindly explained to me (via text message) that my beloved partner’s presence makes one of you uncomfortable;  therefore, I am not welcome to bring her along.

I would like you, dear family, to imagine being told by someone you adore and admire that the sweetest, best person in your life – the person you have waited and hoped and worked for until the cusp of middle age – is a source of discomfort. Imagine that the smartest, wisest, most full-of-integrity person you have ever known; the one with whom you are finally your best self, is not welcome among the people you have loved since the day you were born.

Imagine being expected to understand this and just sort of be cool with it.

Now imagine being un-invited to the Sunday brunch you bought a new outfit for; all the while excitedly telling your partner: I can’t wait for you to spend some time with my family! You’ve never even met my grandfather; my uncle John or cousin Mike!

Imagine the person you love. Go ahead. Really bring that person to the forefront of your mind. Let him or her wash over you in all his or her inimitable verve. Think about the way he or she forgives your mistakes; encourages your dreams; gives your life form and color and meaning.

Now imagine, if you can, that your family requires you to treat that person like he or she doesn’t matter; doesn’t even exist. You are only welcome if you come alone. You are only welcome if you STAY alone. Like, for the rest of your life.

You are only welcome if you lie.

Never. That’s a thing that will never happen. If you’re surprised by this in the slightest, then you don’t know me at all.

Because that is a denial of my full humanity, dear family, however kindly it is put to me. Every gay and lesbian person knows that this denial will come, and often, but we hope it is delivered by strangers or cable television personalities with bad hair. Better the rock; the brick; the can of spray paint; the loud, ugly scream of “FUCKIN’ DYKE” from a stranger, than the gentlest denial of our humanity from our own families.

I hope you have a beautiful weekend together.  I love you all very much.

But also? I love myself.

 

— Your daughter, granddaughter, niece, and cousin,

Phonaesthetica

 

 

collecting the betters

Last week, a 16-year old named Maddy Yates posted a video to YouTube moments before she killed herself. Here is a partial transcript of that video:

“I know it’s not OK for me to be doing this, but I just can’t do this anymore. It feels like I’m being swallowed whole into myself. It physically hurts. Sometimes it hurts so bad that I throw up, and sometimes I just get panic attacks. I know this is selfish. You know, the doctor prescribed Prozac for depression and anxiety, but those are just fancy words for “selfish.” I know that I’m going to hurt everyone who loves me, and I really do love them too. But I’ve been like this for so long, and there’s still a chance that the worst day might still be coming. And I just don’t see how this is a bad idea because it’s like someone’s on the 12th floor, and the room behind them is on fire. And they’re standing on the window ledge and they have a choice whether or not to jump and get away from the fire or just stay and die a slow, excruciating death. It feels like that.”

Compare the stills of Maddy from this video to photos of her taken weeks and months before. She doesn’t look like the same person. Even without the transcript, you can see she is desperately ill.

I wish we could agree to stop using the “suicide is selfish” trope. A person suffering from the sort of clinical depression or other mental illness that drives a suicide attempt already has a tape running in her head, on a continuous loop, that says “YOU ARE SELFISH WORTHLESS BAD AND UGLY. YOU HURT EVERYONE WHO LOVES YOU AND DISAPPOINT EVERYONE WHO TRIES TO HELP YOU. DO THEM A FAVOR AND TAKE YOURSELF OUT.”

While we’re at it, let’s also strike the word “cowardly” from discussions of suicide. It’s used with naïve suicide-prevention intent – to somehow goad people into staying alive to prove they’re not chickenshit. There are many words to describe the suicide’s state of mind, but “cowardly” isn’t one I’d choose for someone brave enough to put a pistol in their mouth and shoot.

Let’s be real about the “It Gets Better” trope in terms of depression. The whole truth is this: If you are prone to this kind of depression, it does get better, but then it’s probably going to get worse again. Then better. Then it might get really fucking bad. Then maybe better; even much better.

But you likely won’t get better and STAY better. This particular illness isn’t linear. You have to ride the circle. You have to go up and down like a skateboarder in the pit. It is a skill you can develop.

Sadly, the only thing that allows most people to understand this is life experience. The weight and the story of years allows you to…collect the betters. The times when you are OK or even great. The more betters you rack up, the more chances you have to see a bit of the world; to get engaged enough in things so that when the really fucking bads come along, you have more to draw on. You have a little extra air in your tank from the betters.  You might wake up and think, “Today is the day I am done,” but somewhere inside you is a memory of the joy of a long hike or a great book or something else you experienced when you were OK; something to stand in for the meaning of life – and it buys you a breath or two to reconsider. It might even give you enough hope to call for help; enough time to get your medication adjusted.

Granted, while this is a lot like trying to remember feeling not-nauseous when you’re on a boat pitching back and forth and you’re lying in a pool of your own vomit, it can be done.

Not always. But sometimes.

Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Retreat: I thought it was a joke from The Onion

I never thought of a plantation as a place to party, not even when I lived in South Carolina. Never took a plantation tour or attended a plantation wedding (people really do this!) because it just seemed weird. I had to drive past the Confederate flag twice a day on the way to work and back as it waved merrily above the State House in Columbia, and that freaked me out enough. I’m, like, from Arizona. I didn’t understand a lot of things out there, like cheese grits or wearing pantyhose to work or “Sugar Pig” as a term of endearment.

I was just there for a job. And, no matter how long you live in the South, if you weren’t born there? You’re a visitor.

Southerners avoid discussing the region’s racial history with outsiders, but I did manage to meet a few pro-Confederate Flaggers who had a one-sided romance with “history” and “tradition.” Their position was, the flag didn’t necessarily support the institution of slavery but merely recalled a gracious bygone era and states’ rights. (My position was, this position was disingenuous).

And I met liberal Southerners of all races who thought nothing of attending events held at plantations (they’re listed in historic registers all over the South, where the word “plantation” isn’t loaded in the same way as everywhere else) but who HATED the flag.

Sometimes there’d be protests outside the State House, and at one of them I saw a Black woman holding a sign that said, “Your Heritage Is My Slavery.” This, I thought, was sufficient reason to take the flag down. Common sense! As George Costanza said, We’re living in a society here. We’re trying to rub along together in 21st century America with all its attendant unrest and trouble; why give unnecessary insult? Why be weird? That flag is weird! Plantations are weird! I still think this.

So. I’m not the Ani fan I was 10 or 15 years ago – her last few albums were music to wear hemp sweaters to – but I connected with her work so deeply, and for so long, that the Nottoway Plantation retreat shitstorm is a big sad ugh. I recall with unalloyed pleasure my first girl-kisses with Up Up Up Up Up Up on repeat during a foggy September night; the scent of patchouli lingering on my mouth-friend (a girl who’d marked Ani’s 30th birthday on her wall calendar) and I still play “Living in Clip” real loud when I clean the house, but the magic is mostly memory for me.

If you knew that magic, you remember: Ani was singing about you, for you. She was plucking out, with duct-taped press-on nails, the rhythms of your life. You knew the B-sides; you hung the posters; you cried on your ex-girlfriend during “Both Hands” (yeah, ex-gf came to the show with you) and took fuzzy photographs from the second row. You wished you were her guitar-changer.

We didn’t have an Internet to tell us we weren’t alone.

But I’m not 23 anymore, and Ani is worth 10 million dollars. She’s an empire who no longer personally watches over every aspect of her business; otherwise RBR wouldn’t have participated in an event at a place that whitewashes slavery (an institution known for sexual violence against women; something history books gloss over) and funnels money to right-wingers. Her fan base is liberal  and progressive; sensitive to hypocrisy of any kind, and they’re quoting her own lyrics back at her (They were digging a foundation in Manhattan/and they found a slave cemetery there…)

Her no-caps response to the escalating pile-on – much of it misogynistic, abusive and demonizing in ways unique to anonymous social media – reads badly. Whether her PR people were simply unprepared for this kind of disaster and gave her bad advice, or if they gave her good advice (apologize quickly, clearly, unequivocally, and briefly) to many it reads like an oblivious elitist didn’t hear a word they said – and for them, that negates 25 years of activism.

I don’t know if it’s my place to say they’re wrong, or to opine how a plantation site should be “reclaimed,” because I’m not Black. (It was former inmates who decided Auschwitz should be a made into a museum, you know?)

Reading non-Black opinions re: Nottoway plantation (excepting Tim Wise’s piece) reminds me of my feelings when non-teachers share vehement opinions re: education politics and classroom management strategies, or when my great-uncle says, dismissively,”No one really discriminates against the gays anymore.”

I hate that. So presumptuous! I think: This is not your pain, your struggle,  your history or your reality, so you wouldn’t know. You can’t. I’m not mad at you for not knowing, just for not listening, so hush for a minute – 30 seconds, even! – and listen. Then you can ask questions.

Nobody ever went wrong that way.

Percy: June 10, 1996-Sept. 3, 2012

Faithful companion, cuddly bedmate, windowsill lounger. Thunderous purrer, back-door-escapee, Fatty McFatpants. Comforter of heartbreak, lover of ham, patient passenger of airplane and automobile trips, resident of 13 addresses. Arizonan, Californian, South Carolinian, Torontonian. Kitten in a basket; octogenarian in a sunbeam. Alert, gentle little witness to every day of my life since I was 21. My oldest friend and most successful relationship. He died in my arms.

Percy, King of Cats, is dead. Long live Percy.

Take This Waltz

I knew this movie was going to fillet me and it did. First, it’s set in Toronto’s Little Portugal/Annex neighbo(u)rhoods where I lived/worked/shopped/wandered aimlessly between 2006-2009; and also it’s about what happens to a young woman who doesn’t know how to take responsibility for her own happiness. No spoilers — go see it if you can — but at the end, you realize: The problem was her. IT WAS HER THE WHOLE TIME.

 I wish I’d understood this in my 20s and the first half of my 30s: No matter how big and true a love is, it cannot serve as a whole life. You can’t spend all day at a job you hate and then come home expecting your partner to make up for it between 5 p.m. and bedtime via the healing light of her embrace. You can’t neglect personal interests and passions and still greet the day with joy; you can’t hand responsibility for your own happiness over to another person and say, “Here, take care of this,” no matter how happy she makes you. No one gets away with failure to develop and invest in a whole life, no matter how much you love/are loved, because it will catch up with you and you will experience the panicked emptiness that comes from phoning yourself in to the world.

Not one of us gets a pass.

I think this is scary for  women, conditioned as we are to think of a partner (and children) as the destination; to look to family for ultimate fulfillment. To be other-centered; to be part of something bigger than ourselves even if (especially if) it requires big sacrifices. This narrative is encouraged from Day 1 and continually reinforced in ways both subtle and obvious, from Disney to the ersatz “opt-out revolution.” Because  it’s scary to admit that nothing can serve as a whole life except a whole life, because what if we can’t manage it? What if we fuck it up? Sometimes we try to get around it by making ourselves into amazing partners; devoted mothers; attentive adult children — we hope these roles mean a whole life.  We want to have paid our rent for living; to have been authentic citizens of humanity — and we try to do it through relationships.  Men don’t (though they prefer women do) which is partly why men own most of the wealth but aren’t as emotionally fraught. They know that a whole life is an inside job, but we, in tipping-point terms, are just beginning to understand.