What the Hell is This?

What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? — Muriel Rukeyser

Buon Appetito February 23, 2011

I only seem to get really sick once a year now, and it’s been about a year since the last bout. Some nasty bug gave me a fever and a painfully sore throat with a cough last Friday, which I have apparently (mostly) defeated by ingesting apple cider vinegar, Vitamin C, cayenne pepper, and raw garlic. (This last item I would only recommend in emergencies, as it scorches an already inflamed mouth and makes tears sting in the eyes. Sure clears out the sinuses, though.) I was determined not to have to go to the general hospital E/R, where they charge us uninsured a nice fee up front before they’ll even admit us.

It’s been a bit of a welcome break. I lost my voice again (!), which means I haven’t been able to work. (The metaphorical implications of this I’ll leave alone for now.) I haven’t had to step outside my little studio and deal with people, Ted included, for almost a week. Not that I was actually dealing with him in any way, shape, or form. But when you can barely swallow and you have a temperature of 101º F, other concerns recede for the moment.

**

On the dreaded Valentine’s Day holiday I went back and read my ‘Candy Candy Candy’ post from 2009. Once again, unfortunately, it was all too relevant. Once again I’m finding myself confronting the same shame and paralyzing fear (not to mention the same agonizing frustration) surrounding my overwhelming but rarely satisfied erotic longings.

And I’ve never even told you about Greg Schulz, the Star-Trek-geek bookseller who consumed my imagination for most of my twenties. I wasted six whole years, between twenty-three and twenty-nine, hopelessly obsessed with a guy who not only spurned me, but at one point almost reported me for sexual harassment.

To be a woman rejected by Greg was truly a badge of shame. The only way I could have lived through more humiliation would have been if I were a staunchly conservative politician caught soliciting homoerotic dalliances in a public restroom.

**

Why was I so attracted to Greg? He was nice-looking, to be sure (with the kind of large, expressive brown eyes that never fail to slay me behind round nerd glasses), but there was also something extremely sexual about him — he “oozed sex,” in the words of a thoroughly unimpressed coworker — which made most of the other young women find him somehow creepy. These, of course, were the women he pursued. Aggressively. To the point of actually being accused of sexual harassment himself. He already had an unflattering reputation when I arrived on the scene.

Perhaps we had a similar injury.

The craziest thing is that I felt tacitly encouraged by Greg, even after he explicitly turned me down. Repeatedly. Maybe he enjoyed the unexpected admiration, but placed little value on it (and on me) as it had cost him nothing. I was a hound, not a fox — no doubt a turnoff for another hound — and I came running, hard.

Too hard. Desperately so. I couldn’t bear to accept rejection. It wasn’t all about Greg…perhaps it was very little about Greg. (“When you chase someone this hard,” as Tony the surly music critic said, “it’s never about the other person.”) I’m sure I was desperate to prove I wasn’t unlovable and undesirable to those who “mattered” (i.e. those who aroused my own desire). He must have been driven by a similar demon, forever turning his unwelcome attentions on extraordinarily pretty, fashionable young women, one of whom was the lead singer in a local underground band.

Truthfully, I felt not only crazy much of the time, but also ashamed, as if my lust for him were monstrous, and the sexual feelings themselves were what turned me into some kind of repulsive monster. Sometimes when he sauntered by in his butt-hugging jeans and shot me a knee-withering glance, which seemed like nothing so much as an invitation, I thought I would explode. I fancied I felt my ovaries literally aching — and, in fact, after two years of this torture, I started to develop painful ovarian cysts that would require invasive emergency surgery and a lifetime of medication. (One reason why I’m a big believer in the mind-body connection.) This madness continued for six years, and only ended when he left the employ of the bookstore.

I don’t like revisiting this memory, which is why you haven’t heard about it until now. It’s one of the most humiliating episodes of my past, in a past that hasn’t been short of humiliating episodes, and one that casts me in the most unflattering light.

**

But I return to it now because I’m sure the whole ordeal only reinforced that feeling I had already, of being some kind of sexual pariah (even the sexual pariah rejected me!), as if the very act of desiring itself was what made me so undesirable.

Of course, I had long been taught that “good girls don’t.” Truly, a conservative fundamentalist church and youth group is no place for a curious, hot-blooded young woman to come of age. Particularly when one’s very protective and territorial older brother precedes one among said youth.

I believed, as a teen, that none of my attractive male peers would come near me because there was something inherently amiss with me, that I was in some intrinsic way deficient in beauty or charm. Now I am willing to allow that maybe all those heavy religious prohibitions against unchaste pursuits, along with the looming shadow of my wrathful protector, might have acted as kryptonite to any interested parties (other than parentally-approved Jerry Baines, who seemed about as exciting as my dad).

At any rate, my idolatrous obsessions with certain comely members of the opposite sex seemed more commensurate with the breathless infatuations of my more worldly, “secular” girlfriends than in any way analogous to the wholesome games of basketball my popular friend Katie was playing with the church boys who adored and dated her.

I had learned early on to hide my inordinate sexual curiosity and feelings. The tight lips, the stiffening that occured in the spines of my parents when certain subjects were broached, told me that such subjects were shameful and not to be spoken of  — regardless of what they might dutifully if uncomfortably call the Joys of Married Life. (Mind you, I never saw any evidence of such Joy.)

In my last year of elementary school, I endured the single most mortifying incident of my life when my very pious and equally nosy mother found an innocuous-looking ruled notebook in which my unsaved Catholic friend Adriana and I had scribbled a tale which could best be described as pornographic. (We were both almost morbidly fascinated with the male sexual organs at the time, objects largely foreign to us, and these figured prominently, if inaccurately.)

She confronted me when I came home for lunch. I can still taste the Kraft macaroni & cheese turning to orange sawdust in my mouth as she lectured me for what seemed like hours about God’s Sacred Gift To Married People and the Tragedy Of Cheapening His Wonderful Intention For Our Bodies and all that precious holy bullshit that bore absolutely no resemblance to the nonverbal messages I’d gotten from both my parents since forever.

Staring at the yellow and green happy faces painted on my milk glass by the Wyler’s Lemonade company, I found myself hoping that the Four Horses of the Apocalypse would crash through the back screen door and whisk me away from our kitchen table, interrupting what was surely a fate worse than death and hellfire. As I recall, I didn’t get spanked. I might have gotten grounded. But my mother’s speech was punishment enough.

I hid my dirty stories in my desk at school after that.

**

I’m revisiting my Hall of Shame because I believe these past things shaped my present beliefs about my own sexuality. I suspect that at heart I still fear I am monstrous, that my sexual longings are something to be ashamed of, and that any frank expression of desire on my part will be met with violent repulsion and humiliating censure.

It’s true that Sonny, surely the most godlike of mortals ever to grace my boudoir, seemed unfazed by the expression — a thing for which I am still grateful, God bless his chiseled Greek torso and priapic attributes, not that size is necessarily preferable — but he was also a self-professed sex addict, as I recall. I was only one of many. The same could be said of my friend-with-benefits Jim, man-whore of the book-store (but even then, he made the first move, not me). What am I to think of that? That only the warped and the complusive can successfully come together in their complementary illnesses? My initial feelings for Sam, as you know, were not primarily overwhelmingly sexual. Had I come at him from that angle, would he have responded as positively?

Granted, it’s difficult to untangle these desires from what are earlier, pre-sexual spurned desires involving family and peers. Every rejection is a painful reminder of every other rejection. I clung to Greg like a rabid dog rather than accept that I might be unwanted — unwanted like the uncoordinated toddler banished from the vacant lot by the neighborhood kids, or perhaps unwanted like the daughter who wrote dirty stories in her notebook.

But I also know that while it’s easy to write here about how I long to do this and that with Mister So-and-So, I blush and tremble to think of saying such a thing to the person in question. On paper I may talk like Erica Jong, but in real life I might as well be Christine fucking O’Donnell. I expect to be punished. Rejected, perhaps, for being the “unfeminine” bad girl, the one who doesn’t wait to be wanted first. (As the late, former anorexic Caroline Knapp wrote in her brilliant book Appetites, “To be sexy is to be found sexy, to be permitted to want, you must first be wanted.”)

If it’s “unfeminine” or bad, it’s also who I really am.

**

What an interesting time to have lost my voice: while I’m beating myself up about my inability to say a word to Ted. I have had a conversation with him many times in my head. More of a monologue, actually. It goes something like this.

“Ted…I want you to know that my actions — the shunning and all that — have been actions of desperation. I just didn’t know what else to do.

“You saw 127 Hours, didn’t you? That guy cut off his own arm to escape. He was stuck between a rock and a hard place, and he had to get free. He didn’t see any other options. So he did something extreme, something painful, something that meant he had to lose something.

“I didn’t know how else to get free. I’m stuck, too.

“Look, you’ve got your Good Thing. You’ve got your place in the sun, right? I want my own Good Thing. I want my own place in the sun. I deserve to be happy as much as anyone else. I’ve been dating, but guys keep passing me up because they can tell I’m stuck.

“I had a really great guy, the whole package — smart and hot and totally into me — just up and walk away from me. He said I was stuck, and he wasn’t willing to be patient. He didn’t want to hear that he was my ‘healthy, conscious choice,’ or an attempt to ‘be better to myself.’ He didn’t want to hear that my decision to spend time with him was a deliberate, rational act. He didn’t want to hear that I was waiting for my feelings to catch up with the rest of me.

“Then again, what guy really wants to hear those things?

No, he wanted to hear things like: I want to taste your sweat. I want to feel the weight of your body on me. I want your hot breath on my neck. I want to feel the hair on your chest brushing my bare skin. I want to inhale your scent and feel your big, warm fingers rove my thighs. But not only your fingers. And not only my thighs.

“I couldn’t honestly say these things, because I didn’t feel that way…about him. God knows I wanted to. All that energy is just stuck. It’s not moving.

“You’ve had me on a chain, and you could yank it every now and again by smelling my hair or whatever — but I don’t want to be any man’s bitch if he’s never going to give me a nice bone.

“I don’t want to be stuck. I want to be happy.”

**

I also want to know how the italicized words would fall on Ted’s ears. Because they’re hot words. Not the explicit words you’d find in erotica, which seem to have more in common with comic books than with how people actually talk in casual company, but words you’d seldom hear a woman speak beyond closed doors with someone other than a Sure Thing. Words that attempt to start a fire in public — in the break room or the hallway or out on the sidewalk. They communicate my powerful sexual feelings for Ted in an unexpected context, blindsiding him while talking about another man.

The bottom line, I suppose, is that it bothers me to no end that he doesn’t even know they exist. When I spoke with him last fall, I was still just Christine fucking O’Donnell, professing nothing more than a chaste affection. As if I were ashamed of how I really feel.

I have misrepresented myself. Not that it would necessarily make all the difference, but at the end of the day, perhaps it’s better to be rejected as Erica Jong, if I’m going to be.

Would Ted be offended by these words? Aroused? Are they beside the point, because he’s way more serious about Ms. Whomeverthehell now, or already too angered and alienated by my silent treatment? Could he even handle hearing them? Lordy, he is a big old nerd. I could just see him turning beet red and giggling like a schoolboy. It’s almost embarrassing that he’s done this to me.

Of course I wish he’d be aroused….and ready and willing to do something about it toute suite. Perhaps fueled by an impassioned combination of relief and anger. What’s more likely is that he’ll just get defensive, and sing me some version of the old song It’s Not My Fault, that one we all know so well and learn so young. I’ve heard it a hundred times from various men, including Greg Schulz.

But maybe I’d get my own voice back for good.

 

Chop Wood, Carry Water April 5, 2009

Filed under: lessons in voice,women's luggage — AlienBaby @ 1:35 am
Tags: , , , , , ,

Waking into dread again; bring back oblivion, please. No, don’t think, swing legs over the side of the bed, open curtains, put the water on. The flakes tumble into the bowl with a merry ring; they look appetizing with the raisins peeking from in between. Life is good with just cereal in the bowl. No yesterday, no tomorrow, just cereal in the bowl. Chop wood, carry water.

**

People go to great lengths not to be here — that place of having relinquished everything you dreamed of for years for the sake of a greater value, of walking through the worst fear and pain you can imagine because you know you have to speak your truth. Trudging home through whirling snow the other night, I considered that if we can’t be personally courageous, and brave this nauseous, chilling, near-catatonic I’d-rather-die-than-feel-this terror and grief in our private lives, what will we do if the Nazis or the Fascists come again? Really? How do we learn to stand up in the face of grave fear and loss? Especially when it’s safer to mind our own business?

Here in the United States we live in a time and a culture of a sort of extreme libertarianism, where individual rights are paramount and responsibilities to one another are almost nil. I talked to a charming elderly man from Surrey, England on a plane a few years ago who was horrified to hear that while there was no limit to the wealth an individual American CEO could acquire, there was also no safety net available to a destitute person with cancer. That would never happen in his commie pinko socialist country.

Looking after people is a “feminine” value; sensing that we are part of a web rather than a dog-eat-dog hierarchy is often part of the experience of owning a womb (on which someone else may, in fact, depend). We have to be able to anticipate and interpret the needs of tiny, helpless creatures who can’t talk to us or tell us what’s wrong, so our empathic and subtle emotional capacities are turned up to eleven. We read others; we feel them; we feel for them. In an socially isolationist culture, this can expose us to tremendous scorn — instead of the respect we may more accurately deserve — because we’re seen as weak, hysterical, irrational, even crazy.

This time, I trusted my craziness.

**

The introjected Critic starts flogging me immediately, with help from his buddy The Rationalist, for following such a dubious compass. Together they make me the queen of self-second-guessing. It was they who bound and gagged me all the way through college, leaving me mute in a forgotten corner. Shut up, you stupid bitch! Who do you think you are? What do you think you know? Unless you have all the airtight evidence in your briefing file and a lineup of impeccable witnesses, you should keep your goddamn mouth shut. No one could possibly take your unscientific ravings seriously! You’re likely to get slapped with a hefty fee, or sued for libel.

I wept yesterday, gratefully, hearing personal-development guru Michael Skye say in an online audio recording that the emotionality of women is our greatest gift, that the depth of our pain in relationships indicates the depth to which we can love, and that this “gift” of ours is the source of our true beauty and power.

It makes perfect sense, then — assuming Michael is correct — why Damien Rice’s emotionally rich music would restore me to such a strong sense of self, and why I would have such a bastard of a time explaining this to a male reader.

(A momentary aside here: where are all the women out there? I’d really like to hear from you. Not that I’m ungrateful for the few vociferous gentlemen who want to engage, but sometimes things feel a little unbalanced.)

I’m supposed to remain “reasonable”…and nice. A nice, reasonable female, who isn’t too convinced of what’s what (certainly not by anything “irrational”), and doesn’t assert anything too strongly. It’s already hard enough for me to be firm about anything, even when dealing with my friend Natalie’s defiant teenager, who is constantly sneaking out, getting in trouble, and breaking promises to her mother. I’m always asking myself: how is it my place to judge anyone else’s behavior, or tell him or her what to do?

Yet I’ve always admired those bitch-goddesses of tough love in movies and books, who lay it all out for the protagonist, three-quarters of the way through, telling him just how it is, boyyy, so you better straighten up that sorry ass before it’s grass. You’re runnin out of foolin, as the Queen of Soul sang, and I ain’t lyin.

They remind me of Ms. Cribb.

**

Ms. Cribb was my volleyball coach and modern dance teacher in high school. She was a petite African-American whippet of a woman, lean and powerful at nearly fifty, and leagues sexier than any of us fresh-faced teenagers on the dance floor. I had never encountered anyone who so perfectly embodied the prototypical coach-as-caring-hardass. She made sure we all knew we were valued, but she drove us relentlessly, and when we screwed up everybody had to drop and give her ten (pushups). We wanted to do our best for her, to push beyond our known limits, to make mamma proud. Her ironclad certainty was like our anchor; she didn’t have a tentative or wavering bone in her body. We felt her love, and that love was tough.

Sometimes in life, the Ms. Cribbs are absolutely necessary. In sports, in parenting teens like Natalie’s, and in dealing with anyone lapsing into unconscious or destructive behavior, the “whatever floats your boat” response just doesn’t cut it. Not, at least, if you give a shit. And bear in mind that this is coming from someone who wriggled her way out from under an authoritarian religious structure. I don’t ordinarily welcome the imposition of external judges, or the presumptuousness of intervention.

But Jessie Cribb saw diamonds in us; she wasn’t going to let us get away with slumping through practice like big lumps of coal. That’s the essence of a good coach or teacher: to see students’ potential, to believe in them, and to kick their asses out of their familiar, dead-end ruts.

Most of us want, whether we know it or not, to be the best possible version of ourselves; the hero, as John Barth said, of our own life story. But when we’re acting less than heroic, we may need a Ms. Cribb.

**

It was outrageous, really, from the standpoint of reason, of social protocols and the dictates of politeness, and what typically passes for common sense, to do what I did, to say what I said to someone without direct provocation. But I felt the emotional reality of a situation in my bowels, rather than connecting all the dots in my brain — although some of the indications were there too. I knew what was what, the way a wolf or a bat knows what’s what, the way my mother knows (whether I want her to or not) when I’ve been crying. My intuitive pointillism coalesced into a coherent whole, and the picture was not a pretty one. I shivered with the awareness of an old, intransigent, endlessly painful motif, wounded by my investment in the scene, tired of paying the unrewarding cost of admission. I deserved better. Everyone deserved better. All at once, I grasped with sharp-edged clarity that I could step outside the frame. I could opt out of the picture, and in that freedom, I could say what I saw.

So I spoke my truth. I took an outrageous, offensive, chance-murdering stand. I dived on a grenade, giving up on life as I’d known it (or hoped it could be) and consigning myself to an indefinite purgatory of grief (and possibly being hated), for the sake of something more important and possibly more real. I stood up for traditionally “feminine” values like empathy, and universal values like respect for self and others. I stood up for myself, painfully yet irrevocably realizing that sometimes you have to choose. I stood up for women, with our “unreasonable,” relational, emotional natures. And lastly, I stood up for the best possible version of a lapsed hero. Trusting myself…no questions, and no apologies.

Please-won’t-you-like-me little AlienBaby went hardass bitch-goddess for once, and pulled a Ms. Cribb.

To be that tough, I had to summon all my resources, and I cried my way through it — breaking every personal rule I had ever held about maintaining bonds, like a sister finally kicking her crack-addicted brother out of the house. I thought about how at my old job I could have continued to ingratiate myself by telling the owner only what she wanted to hear, and being a good little girl, but it’s not always the best thing to tell people only what they want to hear. I had to tell myself things I didn’t want to hear, ultimately. What do you do when you see no self-respecting alternative? All of the above could describe, to a certain extent, the essence of what happened at the studio.

And the last thing I wanted to do was leave a place that was like home to me.

**

My life coach friend applauds these radical acts as progress, as the emergence of a more aware aspect of myself into the driver’s seat. He (like many others in the personal development field) has always insisted that life shows up for us differently when we show up for it differently. I do think I’ve done much to dislodge the massive boulder of undeserving that’s been sitting in the middle of my road…but I lack his confidence that it will make that huge of a difference, or that I have the wherewithal to live through my current, almost overwhelming fear and grief. Employers haven’t exactly been beating down my door in this nose-diving economy…and having surrendered my dearest, fiercest desires, living within the limbo of these solitary, bean-eating grey days, I have less of a sense of purpose now than I ever have. Where do I go now? What do I do? I can’t think forward; I can’t look back.

Chop wood, carry water.

**

No, I don’t want to go into what happened in more detail. You have the feeling of it, you have Ms. Cribb, let that be enough. I will say that if anyone starts quoting Stephen Stills at me right now, love the one you’re with and all that, I will have to virtually restrain myself from virtually punching said individual in the virtual nose. Now is not the time.

The only man-fantasy I’m willing to entertain at present (which is still far more likely to happen than anything else I’ve wanted lately) is of literally bumping into a certain Irish troubadour coming out of a downtown hotel. Oh my God, it’s you!

We start to chat — he is, as he appears in interviews, down-to-earth, warm, and unassuming — and it turns out he’s staying through tomorrow as a surprise solo act in one of our innumerable music festivals. So I bring him to that pub in Lower Downtown that has seventy-five beers on tap, even though I never touch the stuff, and I nurse a glass of wine as we talk for hours and hours about life and love and music and how much better Ireland is about taking care of people, and then we wind up going back to his hotel for a spontaneous, sensual evening of amicable international relations.

This scrappy, passionate leprechaun of a man makes love, not surprisingly, with the unsqueamish gusto of a horny lesbian, and is quite possibly the best I’ve ever had. We order room service in the morning and eat honeydew melon in bed, and I get to watch his gig in the afternoon from stageside…and on the plane later maybe he’ll pick up his guitar and start to write a song about a fading flower in a Western town, loved a man who was scattered all around. So at least for my troubles I gain a measure of immortality in the material world, like that sad-eyed lady of the lowlands, and I have an extraordinary memory and a singular story to tell my grand-nieces and nephews about a man who by then should be a legend, even if he’s not.

Like I’ve told you, I’ve got quite an imagination. But honestly, the only (other) guy I’d say yes to right now is a stormy little singer from County Kildare.

Well I could throw it out, and I could live without
And I could do it all for you
I could be true…

This has got to stop.

 

Mamma Mia March 14, 2009

“The telephone is ringing, is that my mother on the phone?” wails Andy Summers of The Police, like a man having a breakdown, on their calliope-from-hell Synchronicity track Mother. “Telephone is SCREAMING, won’t she LEAVE me alone?” His unmelodic howls are the sound of a child being consumed by Kali, or perhaps Medusa, mythical Devouring Mothers.

No doubt anyone with a distant, indifferent, or downright cruel mother will think that what I’m about to expound upon is a self-indulgent non-problem, and that I’m a horrible, ungrateful child. But those who grew up with mothers who behaved in an over-involved, invasive, controlling, or obsessive manner, all in the name of love, will know exactly what I’m talking about. And know exactly what Summers was yelling about. “Oh mother dear, please listen, and don’t DEVOUR me!”

Far on into life, the umbilical cord is still wrapped around our necks, and we’re suffocating.

**

Psychology that makes use of myths and archetypes, particularly Freudian and Jungian psychology, posits as one of its primary characters the dark counterpart of the loving, nurturing Good Mother: the devouring, engulfing annihilator of identity Jung called the “Terrible Mother.” Terrible not necessarily in the colloquial sense of “bad,” but powerful and demonic: a woman driven by fear, anger, and/or insatiable emotional hunger, seeking to overpower and bind her offspring to her forever.

How confusing for a child to be presented with both mothers at the same time. Love becomes confused with control and manipulation; independence and individuation become like a major insurrection. This is actually not too far afield of the characterization of God that Bible-believing Christians are required to worship. I am the personification of love, so it goes. If I love you, I must control you; if you separate from me, in your selfishness, I will pursue you and blot you out. The destruction is not literal in the case of the Mother (as it is with the Father-God), but more of a smothering of the separate self.

Boys are forced, in the process of becoming men, to separate more decisively from Mother than girls are, an initiation that can prove emotionally crippling and affect all of their later relationships…but girls often have what are called “merged attachments” with their mothers that aren’t exactly healthy, either. Mutual over-identification can result in a claustrophobic lack of boundaries and the snuffing of any conflicting differentiating thoughts or desires. (What gets snuffed, and stuffed, however, doesn’t go away — it just winds up in the pressure cooker of repression, slowly turning to rage that may one day blow the lid off.)

While sons may sacrifice relationship to become autonomous adults, daughters will sacrifice becoming autonomous adults to maintain relationship.

**

I’ve been experiencing bouts of rage, and falling into ancient feedback loops in my brain about the futility of trying to live my own life as an adult, ever since my mother joined Facebook and began hovering over my every move. Not only does it cramp my style and inhibit my self-expression, but I’ve been bombarded with messages inquiring about my cryptic status updates and making judgments about my subject matter. She writes on my wall and comments on my posted items. (My friends, in the meantime, fall silent, and the ones from whom I most want to hear say nothing for weeks.) She even downloaded a photo from my page, blew it up, and began obsessing about whether or not I was eating enough. (What doesn’t make sense is that it’s like pulling teeth to get the smallest financial assist from my parents, but she can waste hours and hours of a day fretting herself into a lather about my imaginary starvation.) She hasn’t said anything publicly humiliating, at least not yet. Most of her public comments sound like the quintessential supportive mother. And she does have those Good Mother qualities: when I was completely dependent and undifferentiated, she was completely loving and nurturing.

But she has become, in effect, my stalker.

There are several good reasons why I moved two thousand miles away from my family of origin. One was to stretch the apron strings to the breaking point, which worked, mostly, for a while, at least in terms of minimizing fresh incidents. But now, thanks to the miracle of the Internets, my mother can pick up where she left off twenty years ago, and virtually micromanage me to her heart’s content.

Could I have ignored her friend request?

**

When I was growing up, she would go through my notebooks. This is how she discovered a “dirty” story I had written in the fourth grade with my best friend Maria. That incident prompted the most humiliating lecture of my entire childhood, with my tight-lipped Puritan mother uttering innumerable uncomfortable euphemisms regarding the sacredness of holy matrimony. (Ever have one of those moments where you wished the ground would open up and swallow you whole?) Maria and Judy Blume were almost entirely responsible for my sexual education. If my mother had had her way, I probably would have believed babies grew from a seed in their mommy’s tummy until I was twenty-five and married to some poor God-fearing boy who would have to break the news to me in our post-nuptial motel room.

But I’ll come back to the subject of sex later. My mother’s snooping also enabled her to find the hidden bus ticket I’d bought during my senior year of high school to visit a prospective college a second time. She went into hysterics, as was her wont, thinking I was running away. (I had been planning on telling them at the last minute, with a friend waiting outside to take me to the station; it was the only way I thought I had a chance of pulling it off, in that household.) Ultimately my father decided to let me go, and in the end I wound up attending that college, but ever after I kept all my most personal notes and diaries with me at all times. I carted them to school with me every day, knowing that if I left them at home she would find them and read them.

**

She was always so full of fear, my mother. Maybe it comes naturally with the territory of parenthood, but in her case I believe it was excessive. It could only have been exacerbated by a terrifying belief system in which sinners have to fear falling into the hands of an angry God, and wayward children can wind up in the torturous pits of eternal fire. I took it in through my umbilical cord; I was nourished and weaned on the chemicals of perpetual anxiety. As a child, I was severely punished for going to the corner convenience store alone, and educated with Bible and religious stories about the unrepentant wickedness of the godless world. It’s a wonder I ever learned to go anywhere alone or try anything new. Peril, peril, peril was everywhere; Satan and his demons were hiding in the shrubbery. (Even today my mother is constantly forwarding those viral email alerts about home burglaries and identity thefts and people breaking into your car.)

Ironically, parental overprotectiveness couldn’t prevent me from being molested by a sixteen-year-old neighbor when I was eight. He didn’t do much of anything to me — he mainly wanted me to do something to him — but I never told my parents. For one thing, I didn’t even understand what had just happened, and for another, I didn’t have the language to describe it, thanks to their outstanding sex-ed program. (Parents take note: ignorance does not preserve innocence.)

I have to remind myself how afraid she is, when I get so angry with her…and when I find myself dominated by mostly imagined terrors myself. She seeks to control me when things feel out of control for her. I don’t want to continue that legacy.

**

But I promised we’d come back to the subject of sex, and here we are.

One morning at my grandmother’s house, having stayed overnight on the way to what would be my freshman orientation at my “secular” college (where I’d be on my own), my mother and I were seated at the kitchen table drinking instant coffee. During a lull in the conversation, my mother gazed at me with that solemn, prissy expression that took over the shape of her mouth on those rare occasions she felt compelled to speak about “private” matters, and said, apropos of nothing,“You know, no man will ever satisfy you.”

I just stared, then shrugged, quietly and utterly mortified. What she meant to imply, I’m sure, was that no mere human being could ever fulfill me the way Jesus — if I would just let him — could fulfill my petulant agnostic ass. But her pronouncement had the gravity of a malevolent old wives’ spell. (Later, I would mention this ominous utterance to my more sophisticated and thoroughly atheist best friend from high school, and she would burst out laughing and say, “That doesn’t speak very well of your dad, does it?!!”)

I had no idea then of the difficulties that awaited me. If I had, I would have concluded that I had definitely been cursed. What a damning statement for a mother to make to her sexually emerging daughter! I know it’s superstition to blame those words, and not genetics, for an appallingly (still) misunderstood condition I share with Alfred Kinsey’s wife (one which set him on the path of sex research almost ninety years ago), but a part of me still believes that she and her petty, jealous God were determined to ruin my secular, non-marital sex life. This was meddling of the highest order; even my meddling mother had outdone herself.

The question you probably have reading this is: if it’s genetics, did she suffer from the same painful condition? All I can answer is: it’s likely, although it’s unlikely I’ll ever ask her. (I’ll take a root canal over that conversation any day, thank you very much.) Childbirth could have forced a resolution, but I can’t imagine my mother discussing the problem with anyone, including her doctor (who wouldn’t have understood it anyway). The women in my family are martyrs, gritters of teeth, towel-biters. My ancestors, as the old joke goes, walked ten miles to school in knee-deep snow, and it was uphill both ways.

So her doomsaying may have been based in her own unhappy experience. (It was certainly clear growing up that my parents didn’t have an even remotely passionate relationship). All along, however, that same shred of me that maintains a shred of belief in her angry God felt as if this were some kind of punishment — or perhaps a not-quite-perfect answer to her overbearing prayers to preserve my premarital purity. Eventually I figured out what was wrong (one positive about the advent of the Internet) and how to overcome it without the help of the paleolithic medical establishment…but my pet myth will forever be Anderson’s fairy tale of the little mermaid who, in exchange for legs — and by extension everything between them, with which to love her human beloved — has to endure the sensation of walking on knives for the rest of her physical life. (I wonder if I will ever truly feel like a Real Live Girl, to steal from another children’s story, and not just a duct-taped broken doll cheating her way to legitimacy. A cruel joke on someone practically born chasing after boys — like the clubfooted girl who wants only to be a ballerina. Why would a man like Sonny want a broken doll when he could have his pick of Real Live Girls?) This irrational sense of divine persecution still adds to my self-destructive despair during my more suicidal moments.

I would come back for visits during college and find pamphlets like “The Hound of Heaven” on my nightstand, the message of which was that God would hunt you down, like a tireless bloodhound, no matter what you did. The narrow, exclusive, punitive God she believed in, that is. You could run, but you could never escape.

My invasive, fearful, controlling parent wanted nothing so much as for me to believe in her invasive, fearsome, controlling deity…with Whose help she would seem to have successfully sabotaged my budding sexuality. Is it any wonder my shaky twenty-three-year-old self had to get as far away from her as possible? I broke and ran. The Good Daughter sacrificed relationship for the sake of self-preservation.

Unfortunately, I had internalized them both.

**

“And every girl I go out with becomes my mother in the end,” Andy moans, his voice cracking with despair. My fear isn’t of dating my mother, it’s of becoming her. I have a horror of driving away the hapless objects of my affections with that same hungry, devouring, engulfing energy, that fearfulness that becomes controlling, the I-love-you that becomes I-annihilate-you. Psychologically speaking, coming from where I come from, I honestly don’t understand how any man could want to have sexual relations with a woman. How could she not remind him of the terrible Mother-Destroyer who could swallow him up forever in her ravenous maw? (Perhaps you gentlemen can enlighten me.)

I wonder sometimes, too, if my exercises in supernatural communication and “manifestation” aren’t as unwelcome, unfair, and controlling a psychic invasion as my mother’s fervent prayers and intentions for her Prodigal child’s return. Or as unnerving as when she tells me she had a sense that I was crying, shortly after one of my dark nights of the soul. I shudder; it’s like having her reading my notebooks again. Even on the spiritual plane, it seems I can’t escape her omnipresent tentacles.

I realize, in my more lucid moments, that she’s simply driven by a natural desire for love and connection, gone dysfunctional and somewhat mad with unaddressed need. And perhaps the unique position of mother as germinator and source instills a built-in sense of ownership and entitlement: I made you, therefore you are mine. Her God, after all, created us to alleviate his own boredom.

But I once joked with a friend that my romantic tendency is to respond to a snowball with an avalanche, overwhelming constitutionally wary males of the species with a glut of sudden emotion. I become fearful; I obsess; I’m jealous. Not unlike my mother and her humanly insecure God. I have my own stalker tendencies, and have been known to Google like a private investigator. I’m not proud of this. It’s constant work, unpacking my own fears, owning my own projections, asking myself why I need to live through someone else. As I said, I understand that we seek to control others when things feel frighteningly out of control for us, and I don’t want to continue that legacy.

But I have no road map for the alternative. I wonder these days if I err too much on the side of caution, reining myself in when I should act. Then again, perhaps action would be just another symptom of my twisted Mother pathology…pursuing at all costs, when the other just wants to be let be. I sincerely don’t know.

What I do know is that the person I most want to hear from doesn’t communicate with me on Facebook (or elsewhere) anymore, while my mother has practically hijacked my homepage. It’s like a virtual drama by a millennial Jean-Paul Sartre, a No Exit of social networking. Hell as your worst online nightmare.

Having written this post to exorcise intolerable feelings and restore my own sanity, I can see the humor in it. It’s actually quite hilarious. As is that insane Police song. A recent visitor to this blog was convinced I was writing a tragicomic novel…and maybe that’s what my life is. My very own Confederacy of Dunces. Or maybe a screenplay by Charlie Kaufman.

I open the floor to you, friends: what should I call it? Mamma Mia is taken.

 

They Might Not Be Giants March 5, 2009

Since my last post, I’ve scored a writing gig. Well, two. Possibly three. Only one of which will probably pay me anything…but a body’s got to start somewhere.

The first is a regular column with a nationally-based Web site that provides news, entertainment, and opinion articles specific to particular cities. It pays based on numbers of hits per page (which, in my city, isn’t much yet). The second is an informal contract job helping my Kundalini teacher rewrite the copy on his Web site — for pay. The last, which is only in the talking stages right now, is a blogging position with a popular local online magazine that probably won’t pay me a dime but would look great on a resume.

All of this transpired in less than a week.

**

Give me a sign, I had begged, just days before, of The Universe or The Gods or Whoever might be listening. Or as Tracy Chapman once put it, Give me one reason to stay here.

As you know, I recently lost my job. And with it, my spiritual home, my cherished community. I don’t own a house. I don’t have a family of my own. I’m not in a relationship. I love someone, but we’re not together, and may never be. Even my beloved little vintage Volkswagen has given up the ghost. I have friends here…but I have friends all over the United States.

I found myself wondering if all of this were itself an indication that I should take my ball and go home — wherever home is. Maybe I’d need to find a new one. Or fly to places unknown.

**

“You should come!” my beautiful Indian girlfriend Samira had said.

She and her bite-sized boyfriend Ken were preparing to embark upon a series of globetrotting travels of indefinite duration: first to India, then Indonesia and Thailand and Vietnam and Bangladesh and Sri Lanka and Nepal — not necessarily in that order. When she told me they were leaving, I cried. I love them both so much; I love being with them; traveling abroad with them would undoubtedly be a delight, even it meant being a bit of a third wheel.

After Samira made the suggestion, I found myself thinking about it in my most desperate moments — much like I entertain thoughts of suicide — as another way of leaving behind everything I’ve cared about for so long. Rushing headlong into the unknown, as it were.

Paying for such a splurge with next to no money would, after all, necessarily require maxing out credit cards I’d have no hope of ever paying off. Then I really would have to kill myself.

**

I’ve lived vicariously through Samira and Ken, through their obstacle-ridden but ultimately triumphant love story. It was only nine months ago that I was sharing a picnic with Samira in the park and listening to her fatalistic pronouncements about her feelings for Ken. “I don’t know why I even think about it,” she was sighing. “It’s never going to happen.”

She had met Ken in a teacher training, while attempting to struggle her way through an unhappy arranged marriage. Their friendship, and her growing attraction to her new friend, only increased her internal conflict. Now, a year later, she was going through a bitter divorce. Ken still had no inkling of her true feelings. Knowing Ken the way I did, I strongly suspected that he’d be over the moon to discover that this gorgeous creature was even thinking about him. But Samira wouldn’t believe it for a minute. Her “sensible” voice, the voice of self-preservation (informed by damaged self-esteem), kept arguing that he couldn’t possibly be interested in her. Ever the incorrigible romantic, I kept urging her to spend more time with him.

When they finally kissed, one night after sharing some wine, and Samira told me about it the next day, I literally jumped up and down.

Their love has only grown since. They’ve traveled and taught classes together and visited each others’ families in other states. Their happiness has been my happiness. And yet Samira almost talked herself out of the whole thing with her voice of so-called “reason.” So I have to take some credit, for always being such a damned fool.

**

The fantasy of taking off with these two felt to me like the second-choice Make-A-Wish of a terminally ill woman. People grieving major losses in life have been known to make similarly impetuous and haphazard leaps. It’s how I wound up out here in the first place. (And found myself depressed, lonely, and bored for a long time after, so I don’t believe a change of scenery is necessarily the magic cure.)

But the question persisted: should I leave? Move back East? Move further West? Is there anything left for me here? Whether I stayed or went, it seemed I risked missing something. Whether I stayed or went, I would still be dying little by little every day.

So I asked for some indication that I was in the right place. Here, now.

**

I look at my page on the Web site, and the feeling is indescribable. There’s my face, there’s my title, those are my words. Suddenly I have a public media presence. Suddenly, to the world outside, I’m somebody. I may not be Arianna Huffington, or the late Molly Ivins — not yet, anyway! — but I’m out there. And now two other people right here in the area are interested in making use of my gifts.

My high school obsession Damien Moreau wrote for Slate magazine years ago, and co-authored an award-winning screenplay. I always envied that ability to successfully make an impact, and a name for oneself, in the world; much of my overwhelming desire for Damien may have actually been envy. Seeing him acting on the stage in high school, and in independent films years later, I felt an ineffable yearning, like that of a groupie with pretensions to playing lead guitar. For centuries women denied professions did have to live through their men, so this confusion of desire and envy is probably nothing unique.

My own mother never particularly modeled or encouraged feminine achievement, and from my earliest years I felt instinctively that my accomplishments were less important to everyone than my brother’s. Men were the true masters of the world; I could only be elevated by association.

Jung was one of the first to point out how we seek out in others the missing or disowned parts of ourselves…when what we need to do, for the sake of wholeness, is to own our own capacities  — our own inner masters of the world.

**

An odd thing is happening. For the first time in a long time, I can look at the world without the dark filter of unworthiness and insecurity that has been coloring my every perception. My unspoken mantra for the past few months has been I’m not good enough, and much of how I’ve interpreted what has or hasn’t happened to me has supported that hypothesis. Naturally.

That mantra places you in a space of fear, a space of extreme neediness, where your very right to be alive can be challenged by how others react to you. I‘ve become extremely sensitive to what I perceive as my status as a community pariah; people who were once a large part of my life seem to have backed away, as if I suddenly contracted the Ebola virus by leaving the studio. Lord only knows what they’re thinking. (I will say that I used to believe that everyone who left there the way I did must have done something absolutely awful; the pure-intentioned, divinely inspired owner could do no wrong. Now I realize that those conclusions were most likely unjust…as unjust as the accusations that I was “negative” or “toxic.”)

A beautiful young man I dearly loved confessed to me once that he was close to suicide over the conviction that his ex-girlfriend’s circle of friends was gossiping cruelly about him. He was confused at the time about his sexual orientation, and for him, their damning judgments (or what he perceived to be their damning judgments) seemed an accurate assessment of his fitness to live. My emphatic insistence that he was a worthy and wonderful being fell on deaf ears. Obviously I didn’t know what I was talking about. He was fatally flawed, not good enough.

That mantra, that assumption, has also informed my reactions regarding a certain gentleman’s doings (and not-doings). In that space of unworthiness, everything is personal, and rife with evidence of my unworthiness (and inferiority, compared to other women). In that space of unworthiness, I’m desperate for him to validate me. Pretty soon, that’s all I know, and all I can feel. And that kind of dreadful anxiety leads in the exact opposite direction from any kind of love.

Without that dark filter, I can see myself as deserving…talented…even amazing. Without that dark filter, suddenly I feel like he’s missing out. How much better would Sonny’s life be with me in it? How is he, anyway? Is he okay? Maybe he’s having a hard time himself. Maybe he’s listening to the Smiths because he’s feeling as bad as I do when I listen to the Smiths.

When he’s not master of the world — or of me — he becomes human-sized again. He becomes my warm-eyed, affable friend in scuffed cowboy boots who has no more of a clue than any of the rest of us. (He’d be the first to tell you he has no more of a clue than any of the rest of us.) It’s not his job to validate me. It’s not my job to validate him. But I do remember why I love him.

**

Everything looks different when the proportions change. It’s as if we’ve been little children, looking up at others as the giants grownups seem to be when we’re knee-high. As toddlers, we really do live at the mercy and the whims of the giants. As adults, perhaps the most important thing we can remind ourselves is that there are no giants anymore.

Coming off the preschool autopilot, all of a sudden you’ve got to be a grownup and take some responsibility for yourself. I’ve said before, in not so many words, that I’m frequently a chickenshit when confronted with an honest-to-goodness opportunity. Hopefully writing this regular column will be the beginning of the end of some of that, career-wise…but as far as my gentleman friend goes — if he is, in fact, nervous, I’m petrified. Let’s not forget who couldn’t answer the damn phone.

If we did somehow manage to meet, it’s quite possible, based on past experience, that we could wind up at my place, or his, and if we wound up at my place, or his, it’s quite possible, based on past experience, that we’d be having more than tea (knock wood, no pun intended)…but what then? Honestly, we’re both like a couple of wild animals skittish about nets. I can’t project all of my historic ambivalence onto him, however convenient that may be. I should know by now that it’s not his job to carry everything I won’t own.

Way back when, I turned him onto Hesse’s classic about a wandering artist who makes love to every woman he meets and never settles down, and he loved it. I knew he would; I did. There’s something expansive and exhilirating about that total freedom, access to the endless variety of beauty, rapturous intimacy without routine or risk. (Don’t think that such scenarios appeal only to men, even if they’re more likely to act them out.) At the end of the day, Sonny and I are both just a couple of gregarious, warmhearted, lovable, imaginative, curious, restless, moody, passionate, sensual, ambivalent commitment-phobes. I told you he was my soul brother!!!

Dear God, I do love that man. Regardless of how fucked up either of us may be, at least in this lifetime. So sue me. Maybe we’ll get it right in 2095.

**

“Keep writing,” my coach friend advises when I ask him what I should do. I share with Samira and Ken what’s been happening, and Samira says that it sounds like things are starting to “come into alignment” for me.

I still wake up in the morning nervous that I have no real income (people keep asking me “Did you find a job yet???”), still feeling the wordless longing I’ve had for as long as I can remember. It’s hard not to reach for the usual strategies — poring over not-even-vaguely-intriguing listings of hateful-but-necessary jobs, and attaching to palliative fantasies about rolling around deliriously happily ever after in bed with my yummy but MIA kindred spirit. Having nothing but time, without the usual distractions of a job and a social hive, really does force you to confront yourself, much like a silent retreat at a monastery does. You realize how much you project into the future, hoping for something exciting or gratifying, or dwell on the past, remembering something exciting or gratifying. Anything not to feel your present discomfort! Linda, my coworker at the studio, used to say she would go crazy if she weren’t busy all the time. I think most of us prefer to be occupied like that.

Unease aside, perhaps this is a time to trust and relax, despite my skeptic’s inclination to think I have to earn every possible desired gain by the sweat of my brow (and even then, often not). Because, frankly, I haven’t a clue. All I know is that I’m doing what I love, what I do best, and finally getting some recognition for it. I’ve read literally hundreds of testimonies from people for whom things began to turn around once they started moving in the direction of their true talents. Why not for me? Stranger things have happened.

As for that other matter…who knows. Would either of us carrot-chasers ever want to belong to a club that would have us as a member?

What do you say, Sonny? We could book ourselves in at the Y…WCA…

I like it here, can I stay…and do you have a vacancy for a back-scrubber?

 

Sing, Goddess December 16, 2008

While I was battling a nameless but tenacious virus, my throat was sore on and off for a month. Bronchitis caused me a partial loss of voice. These maladies, as well as some interactions that occurred in the midst of them, got me thinking again about the meaning of “voice,” about the significance of the throat, about the words I’ve had stuck back there for a while. I found myself returning to Carol Gilligan’s book The Birth of Pleasure, a favorite of mine that I talked about briefly in this post.

The Birth of Pleasure brings to light the experience of young boys and adolescent girls who, in adapting to the rigid and rationalistic framework of patriarchy, are effectively silenced about what they “see, feel and know” through those supposedly more “feminine” capacities of intuition, empathy, and emotional attunement. When I first read the book, I wept; it was like reading the history of my struggle with my father, many, many men, and in some ways the whole world.

So much of what I perceive filters in through these unofficial channels, unsupported by fact, “indefensible.” Confronted with my Harvard-educated, emotionally disconnected father’s capital-K Knowing, I frequently came off as weak, foolish, or hopelessly fanciful; my information was illegitimate, received through a faulty and “irrational” navigational system that often contradicted the Official Story. To compensate, I strove to become a master of the rational, strove to become legitimate, even going so far as to get a degree in philosophy at a school populated and run by more atheistic versions of my father. I tried very hard to belong there, but it always felt as if I were…well, an alien, forced to communicate in a dry, poetry-free language that didn’t even admit concepts central to my experience.

Something in me always resisted, however, always felt there was a baby in the scornfully discarded bathwater.

**

Carol Gilligan weaves her stories of couples in therapy and children in the classroom together with the ancient myth of Psyche and Cupid. It’s a tale that comes very close to tragedy, with a heroine who has to make her way through confusion, fear, the fear-based stories of others, abandonment, suicidal impulses, and seemingly insurmountable obstacles. She is beaten by Venus’s handmaidens, Sadness, Habit, and Trouble, until she is unable to speak. All because she refuses to adhere to a role others have chosen for her, and because she insists on seeing Cupid in the light. (I don’t think it’s such a stretch to say that this is what can happen to women within patriarchal culture who violate the rules by trusting themselves and saying what they see, feel, and know.) Seeing Cupid is what is not allowed; he leaves her crying in the dust when she violates his rule and lights the lamp to look at him.

The author introduces us to Eileen, a client in her private practice who feels crazy for picking up on an intensity of feeling between herself and the husband who is thinking of separating from her. Initially she says “He’s no more right than I am about it…it’s his reality, and then my reality.” Gilligan, asking further questions that aim to access Eileen’s non-rational knowing regarding the situation, concludes “If he is saying that your relationship lacks intensity and intimacy and you are picking up the vibes of fire and chemistry between you, then it’s not his reality and your reality, but reality and not-reality.” Eileen sits up and becomes animated; she proceeds to voice her feeling that the opposite of what her husband is saying is true. The intensity is precisely why he is withdrawing from her.

“I don’t know how to talk about this kind of knowing,” says Gilligan, “since it so readily seems suspect. It is the way animals know. Through vibrations. Something that passes between people. We pore over novels and poems because this is what writers put into words. Truths that have until recently escaped the nets put out by science.” A recent article in Salon by Laura Miller (about C.S. Lewis’s Narnia, of all things) actually touched upon this same phenomenon by comparing the world of pre-verbal infants and toddlers with that of our animal friends.

**

It’s frankly heartbreaking to read Gilligan’s accounts of four-year-old boys — who have not yet been initiated into the stoic silences of traditional masculinity — and their vociferous intimacy with their preschool friends and their parents. They say things to their mothers like “Mommy, you have a happy voice, but I also hear a little worried voice.” They are tremendously tuned in emotionally, contrary to the popular belief about boys’ obtuseness. They like to talk about their “buddies” with their daddies, and the fathers, in a particularly poignant passage in the book, worry about what will happen to their sons’ “spunk” and their “sensitive side.” They seem to be at a loss as to what to do; their sons bring up in them the uncomfortable memory of their own dissociation, their own tragic narrative.

Adolescent girls, at least, have the advantage of having acquired greater language skills; they are better able to speak about and remember having to choose between being in relationship (being their authentic selves) and having relationships (fitting an image of womanhood that won’t challenge the status quo). “If I were to say what I was feeling and thinking,” says seventeen-year-old Iris, “no one would want to be with me, my voice would be too loud. But you have to have relationships.” And as thirteen-year-old Tracy puts it, “When we were nine, we were stupid…we were honest.”

This developmental difference is perhaps why the greater burden of speaking about these unspeakable things, of restoring love, authentic connection, and the lost pieces of our humanness, falls upon women — much as Rilke predicted it would in his Letters to a Young Poet:

This humanity of woman, carried in her womb through all her suffering and humiliation, will come to light when she has stripped off the conventions of mere femaleness in the transformations of her outward status, and those men who do not yet feel it approaching will be astonished by it…This advance…will transform the love experience, which is now filled with error, will change it from the ground up, and reshape it into a relationship that is meant to be between one human being and another, no longer one that flows from man to woman.

Over and over again Gilligan hears from women how insane and out of touch they feel when they are abruptly dropped like a hot potato, following what they felt as shared joy, connection, and chemistry with a man. “While she may have seemed crazy or pathetic,” Gilligan says of one client, “like Psyche holding on to Cupid, in danger of losing herself, she was holding onto a core sense of self, her ability to register her experience.” Equally distressing as the loss of love itself is the self-doubt it engenders, the fear that one’s inner compass is hopelessly broken. “It’s a fight,” says Eileen, “at the foundation, in the arenas that are most important to me, my relationships with other people…how I read people and how I read where we are in terms of intimacy. I value that more than anything…to fight there, I mean, it’s fighting for your life.”

For the men’s part, as Gilligan writes in a section about the Michael Ondaatje novel The English Patient — whose protagonist is quite literally a man burned beyond recognition — “The pattern of men turning away from love, leaving without saying a word, suggests that they have already been burned. It is a history that bears the hallmarks of trauma: a heightened vigilance, a loss of voice, the inability to tell one’s story.”

**

Sitting at the dinner table adjacent to my father, I often felt a profound and nameless frustration that ended in despair. I know now that it was precisely my own loss of voice, my inability to tell my own story, that sank me into many hopeless and resentful silences. I would probably have never have worked so hard on my writing if I had felt in any way understood and honored by this all-important man. Later I would feel crazy, shamed, and devastated when, time and again, men would either cut me off completely or tell me my reading of their feelings was flat-out wrong. That is not what I meant at all, as the T.S. Eliot poem goes, that is not it, at all…

This is probably why Max Vujevic’s undeniably thunderous heartbeat (mentioned in my last post) was so validating. The body, at least, doesn’t lie. Although I’ve actually been told an erection was nothing personal. No, the violence with which Max pushed me away matched the violence with which he embraced me. There was definitely more going on there than I’ll ever fully know. But something was clearly going on.

In recent weeks I’ve found myself lapsing into crestfallen silence at the table of a surrogate father figure, and struggling once more to translate my experience into the foreign language of my Dead White Men’s college with a former classmate. Like Psyche allowed a visit with her sisters, I’ve listened to another woman’s fearful story about reality that challenged my self-trust, and I’ve wondered about my own sanity, reviewing my experiences of being left crying in the dust. The feelings aroused are the same frustration and despair the young girl sitting beside her father experienced thirty years ago, that mute hopeless surrender to a louder and more powerful voice.

**

How does the story end? You may ask. What happens to Psyche? After completing several seemingly impossible labors with the intervention of a helpful natural world, she is required by Venus (the goddess of love) to travel to Hades, and to ask a favor of Persephone, queen of the underworld. Like the heroes of patriarchal civilization, Odysseus and Aeneas, she has to find the courage to make her way through the land of the dead while alive. Existential psychotherapist and Renaissance man Rollo May once wrote in The Cry for Myth that one has to go through hell to get to heaven, and this is no less true for Psyche. It’s only after she has completed this tricky journey (and nearly been killed by her own curiosity) that Cupid returns to her. Granted immortality by Jupiter, Psyche gives birth to a daughter named Pleasure.

I have to admit, it’s kind of nice to read about a Hero’s Journey for chicks.

What I suppose I take from all that is this: Keep walking through fear. Do the thing, as Eleanor Roosevelt said, that you think you cannot do. If you refuse to be silenced and defeated, the forces of nature will find gentle ways to support you.

**

Gilligan begins her book with the image of water, likening it to love. It is the softest thing in the world, but it can wear through stone. Vulnerability, in a world built on power politics and competition, is viewed as a fatal weakness; emotional sensitivity is a liability. Yet we can see every day where the paradigm of power politics, the values of a patriarchal culture, have left us. It may be that the transformation of the world begins with women — and men — who dare to recover their lost voices, the voices of those tuned-in girls and boys who knew instinctively how to read the vibrations of interrelatedness, how to be authentic in relationship, how to love.

 

Asexual Healing October 28, 2008

“The soul would rather fail at its own life than succeed at someone else’s.” — David Whyte

The first time I ever read that line it made me choke back tears.

I came across it again the other day, and it hit even harder, thanks to the seed of self-doubt a friend of a friend had sown in me with an offhand but devastating comment.
**

In hindsight, what he said was probably as insulting a thing as you can say to a member of the opposite sex, short of ridiculing their physical characteristics.

Some background: François is an artist and hairstylist who blows into town occasionally; he used to be involved with my friend Natalie, and they’re still friends. He will typically stay with her and do her friends’ hair for a small fee. François is unusual, to put it mildly. He has a fondness for black vinyl, hair extensions, and makeup reminiscent of ancient Egypt. His father was Moroccan and his mother was a French model. He has traveled and lived like a gypsy, and seems to revel in looking and being exotic.

So there I am at Natalie’s with François, and they’re talking about the ongoing dramas of Natalie’s love life. Then François turns his keen gaze on me. “So what about you?” he presses. “Anything going on?” François has done my hair before, but I’ve always managed to steer him clear and afar of such topics.

“N-Nothing at the moment,” I stammer, caught off guard.

He then observes that I usually have nothing to say regarding these matters, which is true, and concludes, “I think you must be asexual or something.” He goes on about how he and Natalie are the kind of people who have to have it all the time, et cetera, blah blah blah, only I’m not really listening now because I’m reeling like someone who has just had her injured foot stomped upon repeatedly. After the kind of ordeals a gal like me has gone through just to reach home plate (see my migraine post), this is not what I want to have said about me by anyone, including a guy who deliberately looks like he just fell off the circus caravan.

Only later do I realize not only just how rude his comment was (French bluntness?), but perhaps how effective my powers of deflection have become after twenty-five years of careful practice.

By deflection, I mean that I put up, consciously, a sort of energetic wall as soon as I met François. Not an interpersonal wall (I’ve been exceedingly friendly and forthcoming otherwise) but a specifically sexual one. I may have projected those boundaries so convincingly that he concluded there was “no there there.” I suspect that women reading this will know what I’m talking about.

**
You see, those of us who live in even an semi-urban environment discover by the age of fifteen or so that once we go out on the street, we become objects for public commentary and assessment. And I don’t mean just leers and catcalls, but also evaluations of our weight, age, and other perceived shortcomings. (The book Passing By catalogued this phenomenon very well; I’m sure there are others.) Every city-dweller with a va-jay-jay has experienced this to some extent. So far, most of the attention I’ve received in my lifetime has been “positive” — if by “positive” you mean I-hope-I-don’t-get-followed-by-this-guy-and-raped-in-an-alley. Because that’s what we women all fear, when some strange character starts shit-talking us on the sidewalk. It’s the flip side of trying to make ourselves as attractive as possible to you guys; every unhinged and unwashed lurker out there takes it as a personal invitation. One of the gifts of age may be the ebbing of these kinds of attentions. (Sadly, I fear the wanted ones will be among its losses.)

I’ve lived alone in urban areas for half my life, and I learned early on that if I wanted to go anywhere and do anything at all, unescorted, I would have to develop and project a very strong shield. So I did. I learned to navigate that thin line dividing personable (friendly, giving directions and spare change) and available (open, engaging in further conversation). It also turned out to be a valuable skill when deflecting any kind of unwelcome attention, at clubs or coffeehouses or in dealing with customers at work — as well as when confronted by over-the-top characters like François, who look like they want to bowl women over, visually or otherwise. Unsure whether or not he might be some vaguely devious or manipulative “sorcerer of seduction” like the infamous (and equally eyelinered) Mystery, I wasn’t about to let that highly cultivated guard of mine down. I still chattered away in his chair like a chickadee, and we had a pretty good time covering a variety of subjects, but my invisible boundary held firm. (I now know that he means no harm and is essentially trustworthy, but I still have no desire to go there.)

His pronouncement, I guess, could be taken as a confirmation of my mastery at this skill. Still, it made me wonder for a minute if that’s truly how others see me, and how it is that I could be perceived in a way so contrary to my core being. Such a bind to be in, as a female! Self-protection means self-misrepresentation. (I know this is no less true for males, of course, in a wholly different way; you guys learn by the third grade to guard against coming off as a “pussy” and to adhere to confusing unwritten and arbitrary rules about what it means to “man up” in a brutally hierarchical world. But that’s fodder for a whole other post.)

I do let the wall completely down in some contexts, even with strangers, like when getting a massage. In contrast to the aforementioned experience, one male massage therapist who gave me a hot stone massage threw all protocol and professionalism to the wind and asked me to dinner afterwards. (I went, but insisted on going dutch.) At least this experience seems to provide objective evidence that I’m not somehow energetically frigid! Perhaps the opposite. (I could tell that this guy was really getting into it while I was on the table, but I thought he just loved his work.) So there, François.

But he was completely right that I don’t talk much. I’m as tight-lipped as David Fisher before he came out of the closet. I protect what’s in my heart, because there are always too many people who want me to succeed at a life other than my own. Always. Much like concerned parents might want their child to be an affluent lawyer in an established practice rather than a precariously funded artist with no health insurance.

Nevertheless I really would rather fail at my own life than succeed at someone else’s.

**

Sitting on a picnic table in my city’s “gay” park the other day, where the cruisers cruise the loop with house music blasting, I watched male couples walking their small barky dogs through drifts of orange leaves. This comforted me indescribably. I’ve always felt a sort of soul-affinity for gays and lesbians, perennially forced to endure, as they have been, a massive collective misunderstanding of who they are and how they love. My childhood friend Garth was told by his gentle Christian parents that they would pay for him to go to one of those special “conversion” counselors who could “fix” him. He politely declined. The choice to listen to yourself rather than the chorus of opinions around you is not an easy one, especially when they’re telling you that there’s something wrong with you, that you can’t be trusted — so trust them! Live the way they want, do as they do, and everything will work out just fine. (Only, maybe, when you actually look at what they’re doing, at their own lives…you start to see that they may not be the best judges after all.)

No doubt many other women would chide me for the ostensibly “golden opportunities” I’ve let pass, if I were to talk about them. It’s not like they don’t happen. Just last week I was chatted up pointedly and at length by an occasional visitor to our studio who prompts female staff and students alike to whisper to me “Who’s that???” I realized mid-conversation that there was not even a spark of amorous interest in me toward this very pleasant and conventionally good-looking young man five to ten years my junior. That’s the gospel truth. And I’m not of the school that says you can readily manufacture such things out of sheer willpower or wishful thinking (although at times I’ve tried). The quality of beauty that moves me to the root of my being isn’t found in the proportional alignment of features or even in the geometrics of a perfectly developed torso. It’s that lamp that burns inside some men, like Kerouac’s famed roman candles, and imbues their entire presence with a subtle lambency. You can literally see that the harsh process of socialization and domestication hasn’t succeeded in snuffing the spirited, curious, radiant beings they were as children.

But this is a right-brained observation, and most of our Western dialogue about matters of the heart comes from the left. (Forgive me, I’ve been reading Jill Bolte Taylor’s new book about her stroke; maybe I’ll write more on it next week.) This may be the only area of my life where I come from the other hemisphere. Popular gurus like John Gray are big on lists, steps, evaluations, and strategies to help you protect your vulnerability and winnow out the chaff in order to get your needs met; the lesser known John Welwood, whom I prefer, says things like

As earthly creatures continually subject to relative disappointment, pain, and loss, we cannot avoid feeling vulnerable. Yet as an open channel through which great love enters this world, the human heart remains invincible. Being wholly and genuinely human means standing firmly planted in both dimensions, celebrating that we are both vulnerable and indestructible at the same time. Here at this crossroads where yes and no, limitless love and human limitation, intersect, we discover the essential human calling: progressively unveiling the sun in our heart, that it may embrace the whole of ourselves and the whole of creation within the sphere of its radiant warmth.

I remember having an “aha” moment with my Buddhist counselor years ago, observing “Everyone equates relationship with love. But relationship isn’t necessarily love, and love isn’t necessarily relationship.”

I thought I was here on the planet for relationship, from the time I chased my cousin Nate around the coffee table at two years old through all the times I heard the erroneous prediction from men “You’ll find someone else,” but lately I’m more inclined to think I came here to grow in my capacity for unconditional love.

**

When responding to others from the expansive (or right brain) side of ourselves results in disappointment or difficulty or pain, our usual solution is to let the left brain take over and do damage control, criticizing us all the way for being a moron and brainstorming ways to avoid this in the future. But what if we trusted the legitimacy of our initial spontaneous overflow and kept ourselves open? What if we refused to talk ourselves out of that place of generosity and openness when things didn’t go the way we wanted?

Oftentimes what I’ve wound up colliding with are my own oldest wounds and other obstacles that have caused me to view others through the prism of unfinished business and unmet needs. (Byron Katie’s Four Questions are a great tool for unpacking such unconscious projections.) Sometimes all I’m left with in the end is that radiant warmth, that deep, breathless, astonished appreciation, that fierce ache in the ribs for the greatest possible good — of the other. Completely independently of me and my own preferences. Unconditional. (And thus far, each and every one has continued on independently of me and my own preferences. But then again, we all do that eventually, don’t we?)

Since I left the born-agains, I’ve found no other spiritual practice (including yoga) that likewise orients me in the world — but perhaps this is my spiritual practice.

In light of all of this, my soul may not be a failure at its own life, after all. It may look like it, by left-brained standards, in lacking a safe haven of publicly acknowledged reciprocity blessed by regular sexual contact and a recognizable definition. And as a limited and destructible human being, I do miss that comfort. I miss having certain needs met (by someone other than myself). I get lonely. I get tired. I yearn for communion, as we all do, as Rumi and Hafiz have expressed so beautifully in their poetry. I feel like a freak, and then I’m susceptible to being hurt by comments like the one made by François.

But ever since walking out on church, I made a commitment to my own soul. I go where it leads me, and not where other people think I should go. One thing it’s shown me is that love isn’t “out there,” it’s in here. When I transcend my injuries, my fears, and my incessantly scheming left brain, it can, on occasion, fill me up from the inside out.

Someday I may be so evolved that it won’t be just specific individuals who inspire it.

I’m not there yet, however.

 

Migraine in the Membrane October 7, 2008

I almost don’t know how to react when things start to improve. I’ve gotten a promotion of sorts (in status, if not in income), with a concrete opportunity to demonstrate my abilities. I’ll have more occasion to interact with people I really like and enjoy, like the wonderful woman who coordinates the teacher training program at our studio. A boss with whom I had butted heads is no longer directly supervising me.

While I’ve always known that the only constant is change, I’m frankly astonished when the changes seem to happen in my favor.

**

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. Only a week ago I was lying flat on my back moaning. These days about the only time you’ll find me flat on my back moaning is when I’m not feeling well. In this case, I was completely incapacitated by a blinding, excruciating, cannot-formulate-a-coherent-thought-any-better-than-Sarah-Palin migraine. The lethal trio of dehydration, hormonal fluctuations, and stress ganged up on me and thrashed my unarmed brain until I lost consciousness.

For several hours beforehand, however, I couldn’t slow or quiet my racing mind no matter what I did (breathing, visualization, counting backward), as if volition itself had been impaired by the pressure inside my skull. Maybe it was my right brain that had become impaired, and my unfettered left took off like an obsessive-compulsive with ADD. It was very strange, and not very pleasant. As I finally surrended and let it have its way with me, I wondered if I would actually experience the kind of a moment I’d been secretly longing for, a Byron Katie/Eckhart Tolle moment, when the egoic mind supposedly exhausts itself like a frantic hamster on a wheel and just collapses. I was actually hoping for that.

Alas, no such luck. Instead, I wound up contemplating how the yearning for transcendence of embodiment has been born of a sometime despair of it.

**

A friend of mine recently shared that a deceased family member’s spirit, who occasionally seems to communicate things to her, had told her “Enjoy having a body while you have one” — which, I must say, gave me a pang. I tried not to think about why, but she had unwittingly touched a sensitive spot.

Because in all honesty, dear reader, my Karamazovian attempts to pursue hedonistic pleasures haven’t been wildly successful, while all along I’ve been dogged by chronic pain of one form or another. This outcome reversal has always reminded me of something out of the book of Proverbs — “For them that seeketh to gratify the flesh, their flesh shall fester forthwith,” or some such beetle-browed Biblical damnation. Oh, I know it’s not like I was born with spina bifida (I can walk, thank god, even if my legs hurt), and I won’t try your patience with the full whine list or a grandma-style history of complaints. I’ve already shared with you some of the less comfortable physical manifestations of my emotional states, like the crushing chest pain I’ve got today after a “heart-opening” Kundalini class left me as vulnerable as a baby to the usual triggers.

Maybe none of this is anything unusual. Maybe I’ve been fooled by cultural propaganda featuring strong, hale Ayn-Randian celebrities who never betray so much as a head cold, when the truth is that the average person walking around has some undisclosed but chronic issue(s) of his or her own. Nevertheless having a screaming migraine which was promptly followed by a (brief, mercifully) UTI really felt like getting it at both ends.

In general my sixth chakra troubles me more frequently than the first two do anymore. I will disclose that in early childhood I had a string of horrible UTIs that led to a painful and (what was at my tender age) traumatic surgery; later, I struggled with a misunderstood and misdiagnosed form of dyspareunia as a young, desperate-to-be-sexually-active adult. (Imagine, for a moment, having a linebacker’s appetite thwarted by acute tonsillitis.) It’s stunning to me how little Western medicine understands the female anatomy even now. Hell, it’s criminal. Our “advanced” science has allowed us to invent more and better ways to decimate entire continents, while the typical gynecologist can only stare blankly when confronted with atypical indications. (The pleasure of women, after all, is a pretty low priority when there’s wars to be fought and Cialis to be manufactured.)

Too Much Information? Well, as with the suicidal thoughts, nobody wants to talk about this stuff in public, but maybe they ought to. How many people suffer in silence from some impolitic affliction, afraid they’ll be pathologized, overmedicated, pitied, or stigmatized? Comments, anyone? (For my part, I have a tag line to live up to, and besides, I gave up my pride to put on the clown suit in my last post.)

I suppose I should follow up on the cliffhanger, though, by saying that sometimes a girl has to take matters into her own hands. No one else is going to help you, if doctors don’t have a clue and men (so I found) prefer their toys with all parts functional (and, I should add, you don’t relish the prospect of lesbianism). As long as we’re fixing our own toilets and building our own furniture…it’s just one more DIY, ladies. If we possess the right tools, we can remedy a lot of things ourselves.

**

So my friend’s words got me ruminating on a lifetime of physical “challenges” even before the migraine hit. And once it did, my racing brain went around and around with the question of whether I should give more weight to those words or to the competing, compelling, ascetic teachings within Buddhism (i.e., wouldn’t it be better to shave my head, join a monastery, and learn how to “die while alive?”). But how much of my attraction to the latter is sour grapes? In other words, to put my thinking about this simplistically: Should I relinquish any aspirations to feeling good in my body, because suffering and death are the only sure thing? When you have a migraine, this seems like a no-brainer. No pun intended. I would have actually liked to leave my body right then if I could have.

Some unspeakable losses have made my aforementioned friend a circumspect Buddhist who professes nonattachment. At the same time, however, she’s generally strong and healthy and has that rarest of phenomena, a truly happy, passionate twenty-year marriage. If I were she, I’d probably be enjoying my body as much and as frequently as possible.

Asceticism, on the other hand, reasons: You’re going to lose whatever you have, anyway, so you might as well give it up now! (Of course this approach doesn’t address whether, as the old blues song goes, you can lose what you ain’t never had.) Most people don’t believe I’m forty; I may not look it, but I sure as hell feel it, and they might believe it too if they saw me naked. I know I can’t hang onto youthful cuteness indefinitely. I often think that the best days of my physical existence are behind me — a brief window of time in my thirties when all the sensual abundance I’d never even been close enough to smell was dumped unceremoniously in my lap. My soul got gluttonously fat with all the obscene beauty I was taking in from every direction — jasmine-drenched green mountains overlooking glassy blue lakes, wrought-iron balconies with riotous cascades of flowers tumbling over them, vaulted stained-glass basilicas swarming with cherubs, aromatic concoctions of pungent cheeses and aubergine, smooth almond-toned stretches of skin like warm velvet to the touch. (Is there anything in the world so beautiful as a beautiful man?)

On second thought, maybe I what I’m lacking is gratitude.

**

I could, after all, have been born blind and bedridden, without the capacity to enjoy any of these things. I could have died in childhood. I could have grown up in a region where my physical lot as a female would have been to have my troublesome orgasmic parts decisively excised before puberty, to carry backbreaking jugs of water mile after scorching mile every day, to be raped repeatedly by marauding soldiers, and to die at twenty-three of AIDS. I could also have been swathed in a burka and pledged at the age of fourteen to a brutish zealot with poor hygiene and three other wives. I could have been sold by my desperate family into child prostitution or offshore sweatshop slavery. There are women all over the world who can’t even afford the luxury of dreams, whose experience of embodiment is largely a kind of hell on earth. They may never get to taste heavenly ambrosia even once.

And I’m bitching because I didn’t get seconds.

Blame the measurement mind again, that function of the ego that makes comparisons and creates hierarchies, that focuses on Joneses who may or may not really exist, those shiny happy American Dreamers.

Maybe, after all, that svelte nymph in my yoga class who can cross her legs in headstand lost her fiancé in a freak car accident, and every morning she awakens to howling bottomless grief. Maybe that leggy Aspen-ite in the Lexus spends days doubled over from ulcerative colitis. Maybe that adorable young couple at the grocery store has an acrimonious or nonexistent sex life, or maybe they just found out they’re infertile. “Envy is ignorance,” said Emerson, and the late great David Foster Wallace encouraged projection of a more compassionate sort:

I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do…if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness.

The truth is, most of the time we just don’t know.

I started “What The Hell is This?” with the notion in mind that much of what is assumed to be the universal norm or “reality” is in fact not so. That all the world’s a stage, and most of us are probably just playing dress-up. Don Miguel Ruiz asserts that all of us are lying all of the time. This may be an overgeneralization, but I suspect it’s not far off. We want to look like we’ve got it all together, know what we’re doing, and have the answers. I’ve been acquainted with more than a few people who project this to the world who unfailingly call me when they’re totally losing their shit. Because they know I know that I don’t know.

Screw the Joneses and the imaginary yardstick. I still have all my teeth, and this cafe serves a delicious pumpkin cake. I’ll breathe in the scent of dry leaves as I glide along the sunny autumn streets on my red bicycle going home. This is what embodiment means to me at this moment in time, and in a corner of the planet where I’m free to move about as I please, I’m rich. I’ll deal with the losses as they occur; why go all Bush Doctrine and try to pre-empt them?

I think this is what my friend knows: that the world is really like a big daycare, and at the end of the day we have to put the toys away and say bye-bye to our playmates. None of this is really ours, but we’re invited to enjoy the loaners in whatever way we’re able.

And to be grateful for any changes in our favor.

 

 
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