When I was a sophomore in high school, I watched Gone with the Wind three times in a row, and cried myself stupid. The first time I heard The Cure’s Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me, the summer after 7th grade, it was all I listened to. Back in the days when you had to rewind over and over to hear a song on repeat. I read Calvin and Hobbes obsessively, forgave him for his maudlin lapses. Art was the way I understood my feelings.
Music allowed me to reset. I still use it that way. I play guitar when I’m freaking out, and trouble falls away. That’s the thing about art, you get carried away with it; your experience becomes reflective and objective and human. You share. And you hurt.
I stall at the end of books. Run my hands over the binding. Remind myself to breathe. I’m stricken. No matter how many times I read The Little Prince, or watch High Noon, or think about Graveyard of the Fireflies. I’m reminded that I’m alive — tenuously, thrillingly alive. We’re elemental. Our bodies, our stories, our seeking. That we stumble after beauty is how we are saved.Read More
One of the funniest questions I have ever been asked, dressed in a tiny hospital gown as the nurses induced me for labor, having just had a stranger’s fingers in my vagina for the second time that hour, went something like this, “Where would you say you fall on the modesty scale?”
I have been thinking this week about shame, about a story I am ashamed to tell. And I’ve decided to tell it precisely because I’m uncomfortable. Because shame is one of those heavy, sharp rocks I’m just not interested in hauling uphill any longer. So, I’m going to tell you about my surgery. It involves many of my least favorite words. Polyps. Mass. Rectum. Reconstruction. OK, actually I’m a fan of reconstruction, but the rest of those words blow.
I am 28, and have been sick for three years. I’ve had a number of procedures, and each has discovered bleeding and ulcerations and unhappy organs. I’m vegan, scrawny, and have not had a drink of alcohol in more than a year. They discover the mass during a colonoscopy. Three weeks later, I wake, still groggy from the anesthesia, and call out when I hear motion beside me. “I know I’ve asked before,” I say, my voice breaking, “but I can’t remember what you answered. Did they have to go in from the front, or did they go in from the back?” This is important if your rectum is being reconstructed, because a frontal surgery means a visible scar, and a higher chance of infection, and a much longer recovery.
A nurse leans over me, so that I can see her, and rests her hand on my shoulder, and says, kindly, “It’s OK. They went in from the back. And it went well. And you’re OK.”
I’m not, of course. I won’t be for a long time. Although the doctors promised a 6-week recovery, I am not strong enough to sit longer than an hour for nearly two months. It will be longer still before I can take the dogs for short walks. Alone, so no one will see me crying. I think my body is a traitor. The mass was pre-cancerous, and I was lucky that they found it, but my body is a traitor. And I hate all of you for your health. For your strength. For the prodigal way you lounge, and drink wine, and travel. What if this is my life? I miss yogurt. I miss bike rides. I miss European bakeries. I miss vigor. My youth. What the fuck happened to my youth?
I feel poisoned. I wish I believed in god so that I could curse him. I am so angry.
I bleed from places no one should ever bleed. And every other week, for months, I will return to my doctor’s office, and be placed in a machine that inverts me, and have my elasticity checked. My elasticity.
I don’t fall on the modesty scale. I don’t. Our bodies are frail and imperfect and miraculous. My broken one would have a child 11 months after the darkest, most frightening time I have ever known. My child. The one I carried despite every prognosis. The one who clung to me, nursed, and slept, and nurtured. The antidote. The blessing.Read More
My husband outed me to my parents when I was thirty. I’d been dating girls since I was fifteen, but it was always discreet. So, I’m thirty, with an infant, and suddenly, free from my last secret. (Sort of. I have two more secrets, but I’ll probably tell you at some point, so don’t fret.) My family losing their shit with me, and my marriage ending (the two are related) kind of crush the last vestige of dutiful girl out of me, and for the next several years, I don’t behave well. There’s the worst version of myself that I can imagine, and then there’s the awful fucker I was during that period of time. I cheated and schemed. I had hissy fits. I dated crazypants girls. Several truly crazypants girls. And it was high costume drama. For years.
And I argued against monogamy. And I talked about the bravery of following your every impulse. And I was painfully artistic and intense. And I hurt everyone. Probably my son most of all. It’s difficult to look at that period, and see the necessity of it. The second adolescence of coming out. The world new and bright with girls in every direction. All the shiny possibility. Discovery requires mess and error. I had to fail, spectacularly. I had to. Like any child, I had to push and crash and injure to know my limitations. To learn and respect those limitations for myself and others. I wish I’d been more thoughtful, but I was doing the best that I could — which is a truth of limited comfort — and I am not that girl any longer. But I have her scars, and her lessons, and her same awkward stories. And I am learning not to blame her. For her weakness. For her selfishness. For her shocking pyrotechnics.
Coming out is like virginity. Time and time again, you are vulnerable, and expectant, and at the mercy of something unknown, and unpredictable. And it may mark you, or be utterly forgettable. But you won’t know that at first. You can’t possibly know that until it’s over.Read More
We were alone in the hostel dorm room when the Egyptian boy put his hand down my pants. “No,” I said. And he slapped me. The fury I unleashed was fucking seismic. He stepped backwards with his hands raised, palms up. Appomattox. Oh, look, a boundary. I was 22. In Scotland. I’d spent the morning in a church graveyard feeling spiritual. Three weeks later, in Venice, I deliberately got lost. Wending my way deeper into the alleys, dreaming of the girl and her vivisections, and I found myself at a dead end with two large men and a commercial truck. As I spun a retreat, I saw a white sheet spread into the afternoon from a window. And the black ringlets of a woman in the tenement above me. The white sheet, the black hair, some Italian lullaby. It felt like grace. I was lifted.
I’d been back home for a week when I ended up with the survivalist. He’d taught me to kill and eat red ants as though they were lemon drops. He’d taken me across a beaver dam and nearly got me eviscerated. We’d spent months together not fucking. And now, from the other side of the room, he stands and says, “I’m sexually attracted to you. How do you feel about fucking me?”
After I stop laughing, I say, “Subtle.”
“Forthright works for me.”
Yes. For me also, and I adopted it, his methodology, and it has served me well too. The survivalist was the first boy who always asked first, who heard No as No and never pushed. The one who taught me power could be exchanged. Handed back and forth like a baton. Neither of us controlling the other. Our positions interchangeable.
I’d forget these lessons. Or lapse into dangerous habits. Or test my limitations. I’d court injury because it was years before I understood it was the vulnerability I craved and not the pain. And I have worried about my power, the way I have worried about my intelligence. I have worried that I’ll victimize others.
Conscious. Keep conscious.Read More
I used to feel that I spent an inordinate amount of time writing about grief. Particularly during the writing of Field Guide, I resisted giving the proper weight to the aunt’s death, because I didn’t want to. I kept thinking about my mother’s comment, “Why do the mother figures in your stories always die?”
But, the truth is, I also spend a lot of time writing about joy. About love. About desire.
Yesterday was hard. It was hard enough that I called my father, and poured my grief into him. And he talked with me, and told me a poem, and said, “The simple things always before the complex. A walk outside. A psalm.” And then he asked if he could do anything for me. And minutes later he arrived to take us for dinner and a walk and ice cream and the park and basketball and he was right. The simple things before the complex. Family. This is all I have ever wanted, and what I struggle with most. Family. A partnership without abandonment.
You see how the grief sneaks in. Abandonment.
And so I will tell you about my love. About the fidelity of it. Last night, Gavin and I were shooting baskets. “You have H,” I told him, when he missed a shot.
“No, we’re playing animal basketball.”
“What kind is that?” I asked.
“It’s like this,” he said. “When you miss a shot, you get an animal. I have iguana.”Read More
My Saturn Return was a serious flaying. Birth of first child, quit job, get another job, affair, separation, date crazy girl, divorce, family bothered by divorce and by girl, etc. It was a really long journey. And most of what I learned was that everything is transient. Eventually even pain ends. That’s kind of a crucial concept, really. Kind of a hopeful one.
I think Saturn is about the strip down. The paring away of all those things you have clung to. Your concepts of yourself, and money, and comfort, and the things you take for granted like friendship and family and love. Well, anyway, that was my journey. Your journey will be yours.
But the part I love is the aftermath. When you, naked, look at the garden you have left, and realize that you weren’t so much thrown out — not really, not thrown. It’s not the disobedience that ruined you, but knowledge. Knowledge is what made where you were a place you could no longer stay. Knowledge is what allowed a new journey to find you.Read More
The last year we lived in Missouri, I was a fourth grader, and my father had taken over the division chapel where the basic trainees came every Sunday by the hundreds (if they went to a church service, they didn’t have to participate in drills). What I remember most from that year, was a family that moved in down the street from us, and discovered, in a heavy trunk in their garage, the body of their four-year-old son, who had climbed into the trunk with three newborn kittens and suffocated. My father performed the funeral. He cried when he told us.
It was called a family tragedy, as though it could be contained by that single group of people.
In January of the following year, the space shuttle Challenger exploded. Someone came to the door of our classroom, and Ms. Moos, our teacher, announced the news in a trembling voice. We watched the shuttle explode again and again that afternoon. The teachers consoling one another, while we sat at our desks, awestruck. Alive and then not. Momentum and then pieces. I had just turned eleven and was startled to discover that it could all be over so quickly. Blinked out. That’s what could happen.
It was connected, the boy in the trunk and the astronauts in the shuttle. The horror of it. The senselessness. And I was too young to know there is never sense in it. Never reason, though later someone might offer explanations. That is how tragedy binds us, how we are drawn together by the weight of what we cannot set down.Read More
I got sick when I was twenty-five. Actually, the story must begin differently. I want to tell about the time I went to Pipeline, my first summer in Hawaii, with my family and some of our friends. I’d swum out maybe twenty feet when a wave rolled me, and held me under. I came up in time to be nailed and pinned by another. Over and over. I’d fight up in time to be taken down again. How long this went on, I’m no judge. Finally, I realized I’d have to go down rather than up. I swam down, against every instinct, felt the sand, dug in, and dragged myself out. I might have been six feet from the beach. No one had noticed I’d been gone. No one had noticed anything.
So, I’m twenty-five, explaining symptoms to doctors, who tell me that it’s probably just stress, but they’ll run some tests. Then I’m sent to specialists for more conversation, more tests, different drugs. The dialogue always begins with, “It’s probably just stress.” I hear them, of course, saying that it’s my head that’s sick and not my body. But even as they’re saying this, the tests and procedures keep finding blood where it shouldn’t be. Ulcerations. Spasms. Faulty mechanisms. This kind of thing.
I see an acupuncturist. Practice yoga. Meditation. Search for my calm. I read an article in the New Yorker about hypochondriacs. Worry I am one of these. Vegan, I have given up alcohol, and for a time, gluten. I have kept food diaries.
When I am twenty-eight, my anger is volcanic. My mutinous body. This thing must have a name. This thing must be named. And I go to a specialist on my own. He listens very quietly, and then, as he begins his examination, he talks to me about Kurt Vonnegut. I am instantly calm. We are discussing literature. Everything is new.
A month later I have had a surgery that is painful beyond expression. A recovery that will require months. I will lose weight I cannot spare. It will be weeks before I can sit without trembling, sweating. By January, three months after the surgery, I can walk the dogs for forty minutes, only pausing once to catch my breath.
In February, I return to my regular doctor. Tell her that I am sleeping twelve hours a day, have dropped back to part-time at work. I ask for a blood test. She has my file in her hands, knows all they have found, and what has happened to me medically. An intern is in the room with her: tall, blond, too young. My doctor looks up from my file, to smile at me, and say, “Tiredness is the number one complaint among young women.”
And it is clear to me, as instantly as that day at Pipeline when I knew to swim down. The doctor orders a blood test, though the test misses what I know. What I am certain of. On the way home, I stop at the grocers. Buy a test.
My mutinous body. Oh, my marvelous mutinous body. My son was born in October of that year.Read More
One mind: I’m the middle child of modern feminism. My older sisters broke ground, are radical, and kind of stiff, and like to give lectures. My younger sisters are dressing like Johnny Rotten and can take their girlfriends to prom with the wholehearted approval of their parents, teachers, and peers. And me, I keep my head down and work jobs alongside guys for the same wage and vote and play competitive sports. The assumption has always been that I can do whatever I have a mind to.
The other mind: Sure, it’s exactly like that. Good work with the historical detail. And now we have nothing to strive toward, is that your argument? We’re all good with equality in marriage, and adoption, and foster parenting. Women pay the same as men for comparable health insurance. No one ever harasses you about having a girlfriend.
One mind: Of course there’s work to be done. I’m just trying to figure out how I fit in. LGBTQI sounds like the artist formerly known as prince to me.
The other mind: It’s an effort to be inclusive.
One mind: Right, this box is bigger than that one.
The other mind: So find another way to think about it.
One mind: But this is my problem. I don’t even have a language for my struggle. I’ve always identified as bisexual, and taken criticism from everybody.
The other mind: Can you blame them? Pick a side already. You want to have your cock, and eat cunt too.
One mind: Don’t make me laugh. I’m upset.
The other mind: I get that. You’re upset because your language is failing you.
One mind: The old stories don’t apply to me. They aren’t about my experience.
The other mind: Write new stories. Ignore your lizard brain tendencies of dark=monster and cold=starve and write new stories.
One mind: Ignore context?
The other mind: Much as you are already.
One mind: And then?
The other mind: Start here, right? And walk until you’re there. Once you’re there, walk a little further.
One mind: Baby steps? This is your strategy?
The other mind: Ground gained is gained ground.
One mind: A bigger box.
The other mind: Think of it as a garden. Another few inches for the zucchini.Read More
I like my heroes dirty. Just imagine how insufferable Christ would have been if he hadn’t hung out with hookers and tax agents. Prometheus chained to a rock for sneaking fire to mortals. Lyra abandoning her daemon Pan at the riverbank in the underworld. Stephen Maturin doping himself with laudanum and cocaine. Sacrifice means less if it costs nothing. I am a sucker for imperfect salvation.
I get my definition of lesbianism from Jesus at the Last Supper: This body broken for you. Take, eat you all of it.
Hey man, whatever you say.
I keep thinking of Eve and the snake, and that first delicious bite of apple, tart and dark with knowledge.Read More