Wednesday, January 11, 2017

I loved a man once

I'm alone now, but I wasn't always. Once I woke when my husband did in the mornings and made him breakfast before work. He said he didn't really want pancakes with fruit in the batter before work - he said he wasn't really that hungry that early. So sometimes I stayed in bed. The problem with that was he'd kiss me before leaving, and his cologne which was nice when I was awake made me furious when it intruded into my sleep. So often I'd get up and try to cook breakfast anyway.
He liked big lunches. I'd pack them, or he'd pack them himself. He'd iron his clothes and shine his shoes and sometimes he'd cut his hair before work.
He was always on time.
He told me he loved me a lot. Sometimes he'd call home at lunch. While he was gone I'd do laundry and clean things and write letters and worry about money and the ATM fees from how many times he got $20 cash. I'd read cookbooks. I'd look for jobs in the classifieds.
After he got home he'd cook dinner, or I would, or we'd cook together. We'd watch Star Trek or PBS or read books or sometimes he'd garden on the balcony or maybe we'd write. We talked about his day, and things we'd read and heard and seen, and decide what was right and wrong in every instance. Sometimes we'd talk about what we'd tell our future kids about it.
We'd close up the apartment for the night and go to bed together. Sometimes we'd have sex, or maybe argue about whose turn it was to give the backrub. I tried to fall asleep first, because he snored horribly. Sometimes I'd get so angry listening to him snore because sleeping was hopeless. But I'd say I could sleep when he left for work.
In later years we worked together on newspaper routes, waking at 3 am to drive to a warehouse that smelled so strongly of rubber and plastic and ink he'd have to pull the car over so I could vomit. I tried not to get sucked into the Wall Street Journal articles because folding and wrapping faster meant more money for us in tips.
He always folded more papers than I did.
He also did all the driving.
And all of the talking to strangers.
For years he worked that job, and then would drop me home and work another full shift at another job.
And he loved me.
I'd ask:
"How much do you love me?"
And he'd answer:
"It's without measure."
We'd fight about money. Or sex. Or our families. We fought a lot about the future. I wanted a plan. He wavered. I wanted him to get a degree, then a career, and then I'd get a degree and a baby, maybe, or a career. He wanted things I didn't want, and was afraid to tell me, couldn't see how to get them and keep our life. 
He was afraid I wanted things he couldn't give me.
I did.
But I didn't want to let go of his hand to get them.
Because he loved me.
He brought home kittens. Jewelry. Lemon trees. Furniture. A computer with internet. Plans to get dozens of CDs for "not too much."
I worried, constantly, about money. About paying bills on time. About debts. About lonliness.
I would ask:
"How do I know you love me?"
He'd say:
"I come home to you every day."
I cried and confessed I couldn't be a pastor's wife, sobbing about how sorry I was that I'd ruined his plans, that I'd deceived him, I just couldn't, just couldn't stomach it, couldn't live begging people for money and being nice to people I didn't trust and being an example.
He cried and confessed he'd never be able to give me the life my sister had with vacations and a house and two cars and cable TV and new clothes. And I hated myself for wanting those things when I was loved.
And over years the decisions and compromises and things you do to get along and make things better, and we made more money and got degrees and a house and cell phones and two cars and new clothes. But we didn't read each other's writing as much, and we didn't see each other every night. We'd work separately on different floors and made friends that weren't shared. 
And I'd ask him:
"Why do I need to come home tonight?"
And he'd answer:
"Because you're my wife."

I loved a man once. He cried when I left him, and asked about my new boyfriend, and asked if he was a good man who took good care of me.

I was loved once. He came home every night and brought me gifts and called me his little German French girl. I saw him give a report to the police when he was mugged walking home from the bus. He got me swing dancing lessons and horseback riding lessons and taught me to drive stick.

I wasn't always alone. 

I'm alone now. It's ok. But I wasn't always.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Turning our heads to the wall

There are men you can fight.
Strangers. The ones that you are taught are dangerous, the only men who will hurt you. Probably dark skinned. You can fight them. You should. You must.
And there are men you are supposed to trust. The ones that live in your house. That work beside you. That sit next to you in class, or hold doors open for you, or say hello when you are at the grocery store. You aren't supposed to fight those men. You aren't supposed to see the way they look at you, or take them seriously when they are just joking, or feel threatened when they are drunk or when they raise their voice at you. Anything untoward you see, anything you hear, from a nice man, a white man, a man you know, is a mistake on your part. You misunderstood.
You learn.
You get better calming those men. You get better looking out from their eyes and seeing things the way they do. Your body. Sex. The room. The world. You know what will upset him, what he needs to hear and feel and see. You know how to say things that would make you cringe if you saw another woman saying them. Because if you were watching your sister or your mother or your friend say these things, do these things, you would recognize their shame, the shame you learned to stop seeing in yourself.
Appeasing a man.
Because you are afraid of what his anger will damage.
Because keeping the anger from happening is easier than fixing what might break.
When you don't have a grown woman nearby as your ally, you have to weigh the consequences.
What happens if I don't calm him?
Who might get hurt?
How will I get home?
What happens once I get home?
How many other people will know?

We left the bar sometime after Virginia and Colorado were called. In front of me as I walked home alone, an agitated woman in her 20s was talking on the phone and asking if she could spend the night at the apartment of the person on the other end. Her boyfriend was upset over the election, and had decided to stay out and get trashed, and she had not been able to explain to him how the election upset her as well, but how she didn't want to take care of him when he stumbled home, or be around him. He had gotten angry with her for being a drama queen.
What belongs to you, once you have told a man you love him? What do you get to keep for yourself, and not have to surrender?
Is it worth wearing things he doesn't like, or "making a scene" that embarrasses him, or showing your intelligence or success, unless he can prove himself better and smarter and more successful than you? How does he react when he feels intimidated? Insecure? Emasculated?
Will he just belittle you, or will he yell? Will he keep it private, or will it become a spectacle? Will he take out his anger on passerby? How many people are you responsible for protecting in this instance?
How much is a man responsible for the consequences of his emotions, once he has a woman to "take care of him"?
I heard myself a few nights ago, soothing and shushing and changing the subject and not rising to the bait slapped down in front of me, over, over, over.  I knew, he is feeling insecure. He is stressed. He is proud. He is hurting. He needs care.
This man isn't my lover. Because I have learned, to a pathological degree, to run from this sensation in a lover.
But how much can we really escape our female programming, no matter how strong we think we are?
I heard myself saying the words, and told myself it didn't matter, because I would get to leave him and lock my door, because I wasn't his wife and could pay my own tab and get home on my own feet and I told myself it didn't matter that I was letting him scream in the street and have a temper tantrum and sneer at me and pontificate about how he, too, was going to run for President.
Run for President.
I laughed when he grabbed me, because we've known each other a decade and he's been there for me, you know? He wouldn't...he just wouldn't.
Run for President.
I cried this morning and my boyfriend listened to me talk about being sexually harassed by a man I was standing next to while wearing a suit, with two powerful women next to us that didn't even hear it. Because you stop hearing it at some point. There's too much. And my boyfriend said, "I believe you," and I cried harder, because I don't believe myself anymore.
What does it mean to love a man when you can't draw the line any more between his feelings and yours, his perceptions and yours, because the ability to see the world through his eyes is what keeps you safe? When you can't distinguish the parts of your sexuality that are you and the parts that are him? When you allow your friend to tell you you aren't as smart as he is, but you run from your lover because you can't predict his next move, and not being able to predict a man's next move is just too fucking terrifying?
I cried this morning, thinking about all of the white men who will feel stronger and more powerful because a pussy grabber is President. Will it make me safer, because they are more confident and not as threatened and emasculated? Or will it put me in more jeopardy, because they will know they can do anything, anything, and because the number of possible victims just exploded, because no matter how hard white women work to appease, they will not be able to protect anyone. Maybe even themselves. I wonder about women voting for that bastard, and I think about me, sitting at that table, trying to calm him down. We can't have them angry. We can't have the world set up in a way that makes them insecure. We need them to feel calm. Shh. Shh.
White women's power comes from her relation to white men. It is a power he has to be in the mood to bequeath. She is his property, she is his reason for destroying other men, a tool, an object. A balm. She cannot stand alone. It is an abomination.
Michael tells me we will all have to toughen up. Hard days are coming.
My first step is not to answer the phone right now, as my white male friend calls to gloat about the election and tell me about his plans to reach the Senate in five years, wrapped up in a "Happy Birthday, let me buy you a drink."
I know there is a good man inside there someplace.  I have seen him, I have been his friend for years. But I cannot, cannot appease any longer. Appeasing the upset white man and making excuses for him, and tiptoeing around my stepfather/my friend/the man we should be able to trust.
And this world you are building of humiliation and hierarchies will have to soothe you, and comfort you, and build you up when you feel threatened. The "subjective" values you despise are the ones that could have saved you.
My care is a gift I do not owe you. And I do not know how to fight anymore. The models for fighting are based on the idea that your enemy is a stranger.
But he isn't. He says he is your friend. He says he cares about you. He seems to care, sometimes. But only as long as he feels he is better than you.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Responding to death

You can't say that you love someone because of how he handles death. You can't say, "When I need to remember why I love him, I remember how he treated me at the funeral." It is morbid. Mocking pain by making it romantic, like you wear black tulle and listen to songs about legendary suicides. But I think it a lot, even though I try to avoid saying it. I don't have the words to articulate it yet, but how someone handles death, how they react to death, process grief, respond to the grief of others...it is important. There is a trueness and a deepness to those moments, cognizant of mortality, that is so foreign to how we live and talk and act in "real life". Like the difference in how we talk and act in our sexual lives - us, and yet very not us at the same time. Wholly apart from the self we present to others on the street. And the self we present in the presence of death - it is again, wholly apart. 
In my significant relationships in the past, the intrusion of death was always an incredibly awkward and terrible bit, not only for the loss itself, but for the change in my partner. For the strangeness and discomfort of watching my partner struggle and stumble and be foreign, a stranger to me. Not a person who "did it wrong," merely a person who was a newcomer to the realms of death, or a newcomer to grieving with another. A tourist: fumbling, stiff, detached. Maybe it wasn't a change in them at all - maybe it was a change in me, an unwillingness to continue being intimate once life became too real. But I know, even if I can't explain it, that there are people you want around you when you are grieving, and people you would rather avoid. And I think it has something to do with sensing who is real in those moments, in touch with their own mortality and weakness, and who is, for whatever reason, false.
One of the irrefutable truths about my love for this man is that his familiarity with death puts me at ease. Death is not something he treats as a secret, or an ill-fitted shoe, or a bus tour. It is for him a matter of course. Painful, yet inescapable, and transformative - like growth, or birth. Like waking up slowly, to allow the stiff muscles and joints to stretch. Like coming home to an apartment filled with water, from a window broken by the storm. He knows what needs to happen. 
Death is a thing that happens. He doesn't turn into a different person, and I'm not afraid to look at him. I'm not ashamed of him, because he doesn't seem like he is cutting out grief's tongue, or surprised to discover grief can touch him, or acting out a part he expects he should play. He isn't fearless, he isn't always collected, and sometimes he is uncomfortable with his feelings, or with mine. But even if he runs away for a bit, he comes back. And there is a stillness deep inside of him, not of grief shut into a locked box, or barricaded outside of himself, but of grief that has been accepted, that will be acknowledged. A stillness more of a tree than a rock, yet more of a cat than a tree. Seeing, knowing, and considering.

The ability to allow someone beside you to fall apart, and to pick up the role of polite humor to the crowd not from discomfort, but to deflect attention so that person can grieve, undisturbed. The ability to be close, not through what is said but through what is unsaid. The evidence of a life lived in connection with others, relationships spanning decades, skimming along surfaces with charm and kindness because loving others means forgiveness and acceptance. No less rooted than a love that demands exhaustive honesty and constant inspection, but one in which the work of love is done alone, instead of in discussion.

In our responses to death we can see truth about ourselves and our loved ones. We can see the depth of character that is, or is not yet, present in people whom at other times we would judge and classify by traits which at these times fall into insignificance. 

Do you know what it means to mourn? Does your desire to connect with a person who is in pain overpower your fear? Jim talked about us all having a boat on the River Styx, and how we may freak out when it seems like someone is dumping water from her boat into our own. I see myself there, in all of the moments I know someone is asking for intimacy I cannot sincerely give to him, and I see men I have known, avoiding connection that they fear might overwhelm them. But even in the moments we choose to connect, we can choose to be sincerely present and vulnerable, or we can choose a level of falseness. And I think one of the lessons age is teaching me, is that being insincerely present is rarely better, for anyone, than being absent.  

There is something beautiful about being with a person who knows grief. The kind of beauty in taking a deep breath, feeling the air fill you in forgotten corners, feeling your heart slow and your muscles relax. Perhaps being able to sit next to a person while you grieve is not, by itself, enough to hold a relationship or a friendship together. There are certainly people who were very close to my heart at certain dark times who have drifted out of my life, with whom I'm not certain I could maintain a friendship. There is too little in common between us. But out of anything else I've learned, the ability to find connection in sorrow is the closest I have found in our winding emotions and life paths to solid, true ground.


Thursday, August 25, 2016

"It'll be ok"

How many times has someone said these words to me? How many times have I felt desperate to hear them, and angry and bitter that I was alone, and didn't hear them from a companion? Quieting my mind sometimes seems like such an insurmountable task...the worries about my bank account, how my life compares to what I imagine others have, my loneliness, my feelings of not being good enough or not doing enough to warrant love.  And yet if I added up all of the times someone has told me, "It will be ok", would the sum of that care outweigh the pain I put myself through pretending that no one had ever loved me enough to stand by me, pretending that I've never been loved, that I am really alone?
"It will be ok" - the magic words that say something so completely opposite of what they seem to say. These words don't mean that your pain is irrelevant, though they may encourage you to consider a larger context, to take a moment for perspective. They don't mean that you will be the same, or that anything will be like it was before. They don't mean that you will be good, even. They just mean you will survive, and sometimes that is the most comforting thing anyone can say.
"It will be ok" doesn't mean the speaker can fix anything, or even that the speaker will be with you when the clouds clear. I've still found the words to be powerful, a belief of someone outside myself in myself when I feel utterly incompetent, a belief in goodness and hope when I can't see anything worth saving.
"It will be ok" has preceded a lot of adventure and joy in my life, and has been itself the source of a lot of intimacy and tenderness. I can never get enough reassurance, though, and almost as soon as I hear the words, I'm missing them, and building fear and voids and needs and worry. If I had a magic power, I'd want to be able to open a photo album that would display all of the "it will be ok" moments of forty years, fanning them out in colors and emotions and connections of a life lived among people who have loved me and supported me and believed I was valuable, people who haven't done what I may have tried to puppet them into, but who have shown up in unexpected ways to tell me that it would be ok.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Hospitality of wishes

What if I treated wishes with kindness? Listened graciously to the desires of others without hearing obligations? Was patiently attentive to my own hopes instead of snarling, "It doesn't matter what you want." What if?
What if I heard wishes not as needs, and not as insulting fancies arising from privilege...what if I could recognize wishes as something gentler, something more significant...respectful preferences of a guest, or trusting confessions from one heart to another, or from my own soul?
Would I be less likely to fall apart later, hysterical about my lover, family, friends not meeting my needs - my ignored wishes returned to me in disguise? Would I be a better friend, less resentful, more present?
Would I sometimes give joyfully to panhandlers without discomfort, and sometimes politely decline without guilt, without needing to pontificate about my decision? 
Would I be less afraid of drama, secure in my own boundaries?
Would I be better equipped to listen to intense pain from those I love? Would I be less defensive and hurt when their pain is about me, and less likely to assume it is about me at all times?
Would I?
Would those I love feel more heard, seen...would strangers in my world feel more included? Would all of us feel less needy? If our wishes were treated more politely, if we ignored wishes less, and rolled our eyes less at disillusioned disappointment, and were less likely to tell each other that wishes matter less than needs, would those hopes be less likely to mutate into demands? What if it was ok to wish, without waiting for all needs to be met first? Is there a way to honor wishes, so as to be more discerning about needs, to limit what cannot be declined, to get better at honestly requesting care, to worship our fellow humans by giving them more sincere choices? 
What if my gift to you is to give you the freedom to decline my requests, without punishment? To promise that I will take care of myself if you say no?
What might it be like, if there were more choices than obligations?
I can see Terence's smile at Olive Garden in 1993, "Hospitaliano." Can I learn hospitaliano, towards my own wishes, towards the wishes of others, moving beyond "niceness" - a land of repressed desires and cyclical explosions of resentful needs - into a place of attentive kindness and self-sufficiency and earnest free will?
What if I had fewer needs and more whims? What if I said no more often AND more kindly? What if I granted more wishes and refused more burdens? What if I was more of a dad and less of a mom? What if we all were?

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Two middle-aged Asian men with a selfie stick

A beautiful, laughing black woman in scrubs taking a walk with her boyfriend. A wispy white hipster girl with pixie hair & Risky Business sunglasses. I'm holding my coffee mug and a book, waiting for the signal at Fletcher & Huron at 10:22 am on a Saturday in June. I walk through the silent festival venue, passing a bewhiskered, muscley young man walking what appears to be a small red bear with a fox's tail. He's wearing the same glasses as the pixie girl, but without the sun protection. 

The fountain creates a calming backdrop to the maddening chirp of the chipmunk, who increases his volume & frequency as he notices me watching him. His voice echoes, after a moment's delay, in the vibration of the metal streetlamp post behind me. There are sirens, far away, like the sun, muted by the morning cloud duvets.

Tiny gold florets in flowers that look like pieces of cauliflower - if only Sandra were here to tell me what they are. 

The echo isn't an echo after all; it's a second chipmunk.

Just outside my apartment building is a cement trunk, dumping its load through a chute angled into my neighbor's backyard. It is probably what woke me, along with the 7 am sunshine happy to find no serious resistance in my almost transparent window-shade. Michael loses his mind over that window-shade. It doesn't block light, doesn't darken the bedroom, doesn't provide privacy. I don't want it to. It does its job perfectly, which is to suggest privacy, and to soften edges, without denying me my window to the world. I certainly sleep sounder, more deadlike, in spaces with blackout curtains. But I am not convinced I sleep better. The disorientation of waking in a space that has no connection to anything larger, to opening curtains and finding a world that went on moving without me and seems not to give a damn...I find the process of reintegrating on those mornings very unsettling, the work to rejoin the stream of life seems to undo whatever benefit I gained from uninterrupted sleep. I don't want my waking and sleeping to be so divorced from one another.

Tami mentioned last night enjoying seeing me re-emerge on Facebook, into my summer self. Slower, more thoughtful. I may have too much divorce between my winter and summer selves, between my work and leisure selves, to accommodate a fierce break in conscious states.

A butterfly landed on my bare toes and ran away when I turned to look at what was tickling me. Unless it was a lizard, or frog. It's in the cauliflower-flower stalks, small brown foot-tickler. Chipmunk Primo ran by the other foot to join his companion. My coffee cup is empty & I can't focus on Marie-Louise Von Franz. Bell towers and giggling teens on campus tours and the birds are so damn happy they don't have to wear a bra or be punctual or make good choices.

I gave up and laid down fully on the cool cement wall of the raised bed. I saw a woman who looked like Adrienne laying down on a bench the other night waiting for the bus, thoughts of "Rock on" warring with "Be considerate of others and how much space you are taking up." The former won, along with a bit of jealousy at her fearlessness, thinking I could never do that. I've sat up even now. People judge. People expect you to anticipate their needs. They shouldn't need to ask you to behave yourself. 

I lay down again. The cement is so cool. Welcome back, Jolie.

The ribbon on the Mylar balloon scuffs the donation pillar. The sun makes a break from the duvet.

I wondered as I walked here about the work/summer divorce, and whether I should be more integrated. Does holding your breath for ten months so you can roll in daisies (or have your nose tickled by cauliflower-flowers) create more or less wholeness and goodness in my life? Would it not be wiser to be more moderate? 

Education isn't a profession of moderation, though, for educators. No one expects a teacher to do a moderate job. They want a miracle. Miracles don't need to use the restroom at regular intervals and they don't accept "good enough."

I don't have a classroom of shining child faces any longer. Perhaps this is the time to explore moderation? Even though nothing about me is moderate, even though I work best fluctuating from extremes, unable to leave the library stacks until the entire collection has been shelf-read, unable to open my work email or follow a schedule of any kind in July. Is my window-shade moderate? Or is it just a way to get away with another extreme?

Michigan itself is extreme. This planter was the epitome of frozen desolation a few months ago. David commented last night on the copper dedication plaque for the fountain, how the plows had not been kind to it. How can his brain even connect the neurons required to look at sun-warmed metal & concrete and imagine snow plows?

The air is soft now. The sun is reminding me I haven't applied any SPF. Chipmunk Primo ran back to his start point, and then went off searching for the foot-tickler in the flowers.

I notice my bladder. Marie-Louise wrote an entire couple of pages about the significance of human urination, the unstoppable force, its significance as a symbol of human instincts & nature. I smiled reading it, thinking she had never talked to a teacher. Everything she said about urination was entirely false for anyone who's ever worked a job where they were "on the floor": factory, retail. I suppose most of her clients and friends were of a certain social class.

I don't know if breathing more shallowly all year through would be better, worse, more authentic, more stable than the sprint/collapse I live now. I know last week's training during my first week off filled me with unreasonable rage & comical distress. I am not supposed to be working. I have ten weeks off and this three days is an unacceptable encroachment of my privilege. Not sure if it would have been so inconceivable if it had happened a bit later, after I'd had a week to start breathing again.

The sun is hot enough now. I will join the crush of youthful drunk strangers at the river. I will separate my floatation device and wander down the river alone, with their voices in the distance. Slowly, thoughtfully, breathing.


Thursday, December 17, 2015

It is time

It is time. To put away email, to text your entire phone list. It's time to announce your presence, to lean in, to let go. It is time to wonder, risk, explore. Time to try. Time to say yes. Time to breathe deeper, laugh with your eyes closed, and let tomorrow worry about itself. When it is time, all barriers will melt before you...except for those which stand, which will seem righteous rather than sinister, and petty rather than overwhelming. All puzzle pieces will fit, all tones are in tune, all emotions are true. When it is time, it is both easier than ever to attract a mate, and harder than ever to find simpatico with one. For when it is time, you are whole, as a child is whole onto herself, observing her world. And without the conditioning which tells us to pair bond, what girl-child would submit to the shame we serve up for our woman-selves each day?