I love this poem and what Julian Peters is doing with it.
best way to begin an autobiography
I was born, obviously. —Alyssa C.
January 2, 2015, 3:33 a.m.
I like to think that the “new year” really doesn’t affect me. It’s arbitrary, after all: dividing up time as if it were loaves and fishes. I don’t like rituals or ceremonies, either; maybe I don’t like symbolism, which seems weak and helplessly hopeful in comparison to what is. (Krishnamurti: “Hope is a terrible thing.”) Hope, resolution, affirmation are all about “the future,” as if the next arbitrary span of time may contain and reveal something that does not exist in the present moment.
And yet… sitting at my desk in the middle of the night, after spending several hours editing a paper on the inactivation of HIV in certain cells by certain proteins, I feel strangely satisfied. It doesn’t feel like a “new day” or year, exactly, but like I’m where I’m supposed to be, as if there really is a plan, a “supposed to be.” I love being awake at this hour of the night. Brutus and Luther are raising hell in the background, diving onto tissue paper left over from Christmas as if it were a pile of leaves, batting around the balls that “Aunt Terry” gave them when she was visiting. I just drank a Frappuccino, fattening liquid of choice, though I should be trying to sleep so I can talk somewhat coherently to P on the phone in the morning.
My house is full of color—from my paintings and a couple of my friends’ paintings that I somehow bamboozled them out of, and from all the many gifts my niece, sisters, and friends have given me. I am running out of both wall space and surfaces on which to display them. In my “office,” which is just an arbitrary space carved out of my large upstairs loft-like room, I have a dollhouse exactly like the one I had as a kid—maybe even the same one, for all I know. My sisters found it at a garage sale and bought it for me. Because of my fascination with bucking trends and defying the conventional, I don’t fill it with miniature furniture. When I realized I could indeed use it for anything, it was as freeing as when I first discovered that I can paint anything, or I could buy a red phone, back in the olden day of those bulky, plugged-in, dial-dinosaurs. I must have a strong streak of conventionalism after all—I fight it so much while stubbornly holding on to the idea that I have to do what I should do, when it really doesn’t matter. My mother was practical down to her bones, to the point where decoration seemed frivolous and we kids bringing her flowers from the woods across the road were “bringing dirt and bugs into the house.” She had very strict ideas about what was acceptable and what wasn’t. I’ve written before about how she told me I was wrong when I wrapped a present for my aunt Doris by positioning a large flower—part of the pattern on the wrapping paper—in the center of the package: early artistic leanings not to be fulfilled for many years. For Christmas and birthdays she bought me lots of boxed craft kits, for sand painting or jewelry making, paint-by-number sets and coloring books, but I don’t think it ever occurred to her to encourage me to let loose with paper and pens or paint: Creativity was marketed, not really used to create.
I’ve always struggled against the constraints I possibly inherited or at least was conditioned to, so my life has been a series of amazing and mundane discoveries, such as, Why can’t I have a red phone?? It’s the same process I experience in painting. The battle is never really won, between wanting to do the “right” thing and eventually discovering again that true satisfaction is in the freedom of making it up as I go. I love painting fictitious animals and exaggerated, unrealistic human figures with tubes pumping rays of light and color outside the body, and internal organs and contorted limbs not known to science or medicine. The juxtaposition of my creative self (my true self, I like to think) and my expertise in logic and language seems like it should be contradictory, but somehow it isn’t. I can have both, I can be both, and more.
Among many other Christmas gifts this year, my sister Barb gave me some Yooper memorabilia: a full-size license plate (“YOOPER—You betcha!”), a key ring in the shape of MI, with the U.P. designated “Michigan’s better half” (might be some overcompensation going on there) and magnets: “It’s a YOOPER thing… EH!,” “Michigan YOOPER Great Lakes Splendor,” and “Yooper Girl.” Sure, this kind of thing is pretty hokey, and commercial to its core, but she also found, in Schloegels’ gift shop, a small elephant made out of recycled aluminum… from Kenya! UP here we are not completely out of the loop, or the Yoop. On the dollhouse I have an old bendy girl from a McDonald’s Happy Meal and a twisted series of plastic snap-on pieces coming out of the chimney. The other day, when I was trying to make a dent in the picking up and putting away of both the detritus and the gifts of Christmastime, I noticed some red yarn on a decorated gift bag, so I impulsively tied the big Yooper license plate to the chimney on the back side of the dollhouse. Noticing it tonight was part of what made me feel satisfied with this never-to-be-imagined reentry into my home life / homeland past that I am making into my own image.
I have also discovered several warm, intelligent, creative women here whom I have been gradually meeting in person after finding them on Facebook. Facebook (!): the medium intended for young people to hook up with each other and then text back and forth when they’re in the same room, but which has become, instead, a meeting ground and philosophical forum for us oldsters to ruminate, Laugh Out Loud, and reconnect with old friends. We boomers have taken over everything. This happened a few years ago with the Honda Element, a vehicle I still want, though I understand it isn’t being made anymore. All the profit-mongers are trying to appeal to the 18-35 age group and here we are, in our 50s, 60s, and beyond acting as if we still matter, we still have preferences and a little bit of discretionary retirement income and, in all the ways that count, are as young at heart as we were back in our formative years running from tear gas and cops at antiwar demonstrations. It was a great time to be young, the ‘60s, I tell you what (unless you were a draftee or a Republican).
I don’t know why that reminds me, but I have no outline or grand plan, so here goes:
I am addicted to Pinterest, which, long story, but I came across some images of the little drawings that medieval scribes added to the margins of manuscripts they were supposedly copying verbatim (while also adding their own stories and interpretations of myths or long-past real or imagined events, which, Holy Bible). So I was “pinning” some of them onto my Art & Illustration board, and I found one that showed a man (?) on stilts holding (breastfeeding?) a baby and carrying a vessel of some sort on his head… along with a young woman and a bird down on the ground doing I don’t know what. It’s a striking image, because the very idea of walking on stilts, let alone carrying a baby while doing so, is anathema to me. I posted the image on my grown godchild’s Facebook page, because she and her husband are “stilt-walkers” and can be seen far and wide doing their thing in parades, festivals, and (by the way) at their own wedding. I figured they’d like this ancient example of their art, but I was surprised when Kelly sent me a photo of her breastfeeding their darling, godly god-like child while on stilts. It was a wonderful case of synchronicity, and both my godchild and godson-in-law were amazed at seeing the medieval image. Someday I suppose Larkin will be accompanying them on their stilt-walking travels, hence keeping the hippie spirit alive for two generations past the time that we boomers mostly gave up on it.
A few days ago, I started writing this ‘zine with the predictable travel story about flying out to San Francisco for a painting intensive. But it felt canned, like I was just describing events and thoughts and encounters by rote. I have a lot to say about the trip, and about the painting itself, but I need it to come out naturally, or not at all. So that’s a peek into my process, in case you wanted to know.
Sometimes I think that Life is not New at all, but is mostly a rediscovery of things we’ve always known but have to keep relearning—as if we constitutionally consist of the New but go through this bodily process called Life in order to experience the New being remade from scratch, over and over again. Blissful stillness seems to be our natural state—how can Oneness be anything but Still?—because in truth that is all there Is, no differentiation, no duality. But our difficult, subjective, isolative charade of Life seems to be a reward for all that Oneness & Beingness, not a punishment as we sometimes think. There are things we can only experience in apparent separateness, such as the exquisite coming together in unlikely communion, and I’m not talking about religion here, or even “spirituality.” Just Truth, in its elusive but eternally yearned for and occasionally seen wonderment, blazing like ten thousand suns. One of my favorite fantasies is that “all will be revealed” after we die—like there will be an intimate workshop with a kindly old teacher in a seminar room with a voice that might call itself God, but not like “God” as we imperfectly imagine It. But it’s unlikely that this will happen, because we will, by definition, be returning / dissolving into the Oneness, and it is merely a childish desire to stand outside Time and Space and maintain both our precious individuality and our blissful surrender to “the time before we were born.” Without duality, you can’t really have it both ways, know what I mean?
I’ve been at this for almost 2 hours now, time for a break. You may talk amongst yourselves until Yooper Girl returns.
my all-time favorite explanation for what’s happening in the world; from 1992!—but it applies now more than ever
[From We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World’s Getting Worse, by James Hillman and Michael Ventura (HarperCollins, 1992)]
“Ventura: … My feeling is that this worldwide disintegration is going to play itself out no matter what, and it’s going to take a while, a century or two—a century or two of a kind of chaos, possibly a corporate nightmare, I don’t know, but call it a Dark Age. We had a technologically primitive Dark Age, now we’re going to have a technologically extraordinary Dark Age. But you remember what philosopher Miguel de Unamuno said: ‘We die of cold and not of darkness.’
“Just around when he was turning thirteen my kid came home one night, after dark, sat on the couch, and in a kind of fury suddenly burst out with, ‘It’s fucked, it’s so fucked, man, the whole thing is fucking fucked. What do you do in this world, man?’ What could I say to him, that things are gonna be all right, when they’re not? That it’ll be okay when he grows up and gets a job, when it won’t? I got a little crazy and impassioned and I said something like this:
“That we are living in a Dark Age. And we are not going to see the end of it, nor are our children, nor probably our children’s children. And our job, every single one of us, is to cherish whatever in the human heritage we love and to feed it and keep it going and pass it on, because this Dark Age isn’t going to go on forever, and when it stops those people are gonna need the pieces that we pass on. They’re not going to be able to build a new world without us passing on whatever we can—ideas, art, knowledge, skills, or just plain old fragile love, how we treat people, how we help people: that’s something to be passed on.
“And all of this passing things on, in all its forms, may not cure the world now—curing the world now may not be a human possibility—but it keeps the great things alive. And we have to do this because as Laing said, who are we to decide that it is hopeless? And I said to my son, if you wanted to volunteer for fascinating, dangerous, necessary work, this would be a great job to volunteer for—trying to be a wide-awake human during a Dark Age and keeping alive what you think is beautiful and important.”
The first thing I thought of when I read this was, of course, the painting I’ve been doing for 35 years. We are a small band of people who explore the self (for lack of a better word) through a process that uses our consciousness—that which Krishnamurti said is the same for everyone, not similar—to explore what the mind, useful as it is, cannot touch. It feels a little like going down to the bottom of the ocean and painting what you “see,” with no need for oxygen or protective devices. This is an ocean without a name, and it is completely worthy of our trust, despite the fears we have all been conditioned to. Indeed, it is the very apotheosis of the Unknown, which governs us each deep down. It can be frightening to face the Unknown, even in such a seemingly superficial way as applying paint to paper. But what results is wisdom, compassion, empathy, humility, humanity.
In a happy marriage of technology and this process that is so much more than an art form, I finally agreed to Barbara’s suggestion that I join a web conferencing site called Zoom so that I can paint at home while being in audio and visual connection with classes going on in San Francisco (ccesf.org). It’s a different experience than painting at the studio, because there is more human contact there, obviously, complete with conversations and hugs, but it makes it possible for me to paint more than once or twice a year. (I don’t have the self-discipline to paint completely on my own.) So here is a case where technology aids the passing on of what we love. It has given me a new lease on painting, without the expense and torture of travel. And just today I painted something I’ve never painted (or even thought of) before: eyeball bullets. Happy will be the future people who discover that.
I’ve been thinking about how childhood exists on two levels: the outer and the inner. If I tell the story of my childhood, what comes to mind are the events that happened around me or were visited upon me, the story. Of course, I had reactions to those events, and lots of thoughts, tears and fears around most of them. But what still has power for me now are a few things that were deeply personal and meaningful, not involving family, school, or indeed anyone else.
There was a time when I was very close to nature… not the thought of it or the appreciation of it as an idea, but the essence. One of the advantages of nature was that it got me out of the house. I could be alone and travel without fear through woods, picking a spot in the cedar grove way behind us on what used to be my grandfather’s land, and reading or just sitting, watching the birds and smelling the fragrances all around me. My favorite thing to do was find and pick flowers, especially buttercups (also called cowslips, I think). I also liked violets and the rarely seen jack-in-the-pulpit, but there was something almost mystical about buttercups. I crave them even now—the frisson I would get from just touching them again, seeking them out in a semi-swampy part of the woods. They are still out there, I hear, but not where I used to find them. “My” woods are gone, or the property has become privately owned and not to be trespassed upon. And yet I have not driven out on those county roads where local people say buttercups have been sighted for a brief time in the spring. Maybe the actual flowers are not as important anymore, but something in me considers them one of the hallmarks of my young life.
The other thing I think about a lot are the little books I used to make that I would fill with images cut out of magazines and seed catalogs. Those flowers—extravagantly lush pansies and roses—pasted into arrangements with people and furniture before I knew the word collage—were equally precious to me, for all their unreality. I would be tempted to sell my soul for just one look at those books again, though I might be disappointed. I would be expecting some mystical (that word again) intelligence, some disconnect and reconnect with a creative world unlike the world of craft, like when you find your teenage diary and think you’ll encounter wisdom you didn’t know you had, and then it turns out to be mundane and predictable. I didn’t keep a diary then, anyway, because I had to hide my inner self from my intrusive mother. She wouldn’t have valued the collage books, and clearly didn’t value the real flowers, so those were two things that were solely my own: art as privacy, as distance, as a marker of my true self. Naturally, she threw out the books, like she did everything else from my childhood except, inexplicably, a crayon drawing for which I won a blue ribbon in kindergarten. She did value competition and achievement. The drawing wasn’t a great example of creativity, it was quite rational and cold-blooded, in fact. It was a barnyard scene with the requisite chickens, barn, and a farmer with a pitchfork that was touching the ground although his feet were not. There was a fence that I reasoned would hide the horse I drew behind it, so you could only see the top half of the horse—but the fence was just posts and a few horizontal pieces of wood, not solid at all! At the age of four or five, I hadn’t yet developed the great logic skills with which I have made a career.
So every now and then I think about those collage books and I know that I could make them again, though they would be very different, of course. I haven’t done it. It’s the memory I want to keep close, not necessarily the actual craft or art. I do something that is similar in some respects but doesn’t involve paste or access to magazines (I subscribe to only one, the New Yorker, which isn’t big on colorful images). I mentioned above that I am quite addicted to Pinterest, which for the longest time I couldn’t imagine the point of. You create “boards” online, that you name and then fill with images from the Internet, many of them from followers or those you follow. It’s not the same as creating art, but there is a particular pleasure in gathering these images. My boards are not highly organized or comprehensive—which is fine because it doesn’t matter. I now know that there are an infinite number of art pieces in the world, from doodles and illustrations to abstract paintings, sculpture, and blown glass. I’m not much interested in realism, which would not come as a surprise to you if you’ve seen my paintings. I can almost breathe the rightness and richness of works by Joan Miró or Franz Kline, but my Art & Illustration board makes no distinction between great art and the simpler shapes and colors found in magazines. I enjoy color and form and value them more highly than words, ironically, considering I’m an editor.
I think my sister Barb deserves a blue ribbon for her response to my Facebook entry, “I used to think I was a prodigy, but now I think I’m a late bloomer.” Her response: “Does that make you a Baby Bloomer?” (W)it runs in the family, I guess.
San Francisco > home
2 Sertraline, 2 Excedrin, 1 Tagamet, 2 Dramamine, 2 Advil, 1 lorazepam. That’s what it took to get me home from the painting intensive in San Francisco in early December 2014. Each pill had a specific job to do. I am not one to turn my nose up at a pill. Lorazepam, in particular, is a life-changer. The side of my right foot had been throbbing for hours; I thought it was just from wearing shoes all week, but it was actually the dreaded restless legs syndrome, which, I wish they would think of a more impressive name for it because it is neurologically ruthless! Just this side of unbearable.
I had gotten up at 2 a.m., after about an hour and a half of sleep, so Terry and I could return our rental car to Alamo at SFO and get through all the check-in and security business in time for my 6 a.m. flight. I was exhausted and slept for almost 3 hours of the 4-hour flight, a mitzvah of the highest order. I’m pretty sure my mouth was hanging open the whole time, and I remember saying something out loud that I mercifully did not remember once I woke up. I had already known for a few days that there would be no blizzard in Chicago, which, once again, mitzvah.
This next observation is quintessentially “white” of me, but I am quintessentially white, with Northern blood flowing through all my ancestors and into my own veins, along with a Northern temperament, though I couldn’t tell you exactly what that is.
My seatmate in first class was a black man, professional-looking, somewhat younger than me. That’s right, I said black man right up front instead of holding this information back and later referring casually to his mocha-colored skin. I’ve read stories in which the white author used this gimmick (as I think of it) in order to appear to be color blind. I’m not color blind, I can see just fine, but I had no issue sitting next to this man, nor did I feel the need to be obsequious in the way of white liberals wanting approval for their open-mindedness. I have limited direct experience with black people. (If we say “African American,” we should call white people “European American,” but that isn’t going to happen. The majority is the default and gets to be called “people” or “men” whereas, say, women writers or black scholars are considered outliers, a social subspecies.) But I read, and from what I have read by black people about their daily experiences with clueless whites, I try not to repeat the same mistakes, mostly by keeping in mind the late poet Pat Parker’s admonition to “forget that I’m black; never forget that I’m black.” It is indeed possible to keep both things in mind. It’s a matter of respect.
I don’t know why I like to start my travel sagas at the end and then go back in time. It might have something to do with my mother’s habit of reading the newspaper from back to front. That’s how I read The New Yorker now. It’s comforting somehow. It’s like hiding something from yourself and then being delighted when you come across it.
The day’s roster of pills gave me a strange mix of feelings by the time we landed in Green Bay. I had to wait around for a United employee to find my suitcase—clearly marked by a big orange PRIORITY tag. Do words not mean anything anymore? I had been planning to have lunch at El Sarape but was too tired to go out of my way and then attempt to drive after a heavy meal. I could hardly stay awake as it was, and it was a great relief to arrive home unscathed. After a brief flurry of interest from the cats, I once again slept, but it took me several days to feel rested again.
As always, I had dreaded the trip and all the various unknowns I would be faced with. But Terry didn’t want to go without me, and Barbara was quite insistent that I was needed there and needed to be there. And it was true. I had an amazing week, which I think I always say. But it’s always true, which is the real motivation to return.
It may have been day 2, maybe even day 1, when I shared in the group that “my molester” had contacted me a few days before and wanted me to do some minor favor for him. It had been 25 years since our last contact, and that only by phone, and 55 or more years since the events. A close friend I told about this urged me to “let it go”—it had happened a long time ago, and he surely didn’t know he had done anything wrong, had probably (a) forgotten all about it or (b) thought it was consensual. So, in the group, I was wondering if I was supposed to “let it go,” and if so, how, and I also acknowledged that I had “dined out” (as they say) on the story, as if it were a badge of honor, courage, or at least victimhood to have this in my past. And it wasn’t just the molestation. His driving me to school on the first day of eighth grade was, I believe, what triggered my year-long phobia about throwing up in class. I was anxious about possibly being late, for one thing, and resentful that my mother could not have cared less about such common teenage anxiety; after all, she’s the mother who turned around on a divided highway and went against oncoming traffic because she “had to get back” to a missed exit.
Part of what confused me about X, “my molester,” was that he had called his parents’ house the morning after my mother died, specifically to offer his condolences to me. I was in shock, half because of my mother’s death and half just hearing his voice (his mother, my aunt, had invited me next door for lunch). His older brother R was in the other room talking to my uncle about everyday things (one thing he contributed at lunch was his belief that a prostate exam was “proven” to be as painful as childbirth) and didn’t once speak to me about my mother. X and I had a perfectly pleasant conversation, in the way of girls or women speaking to boys or men who have done them harm: Somehow there’s a code, of fear or of inappropriateness, in accordance to which we don’t confront them, we keep it all inside, blame ourselves instead of them, and so on. But I was struck by X’s apparent sympathy and lack of self-consciousness as if, indeed, he felt there was nothing between us that warranted being nervous, or maybe even that he felt a bond with me because of those events in the cedar grove and in our basement that were humiliating for me but clearly pleasurable for him.
So I could see the wisdom of my friend’s saying I should let that past go, and I didn’t know if I was resisting that because it had become an integral part of my victim identity. Fortunately, in painting, there’s really no such thing as past or present, and the future, if it exists, is completely open. So I painted him and me, staying with the core feelings, and I did feel somewhat better just letting it be rather than trying to force a letting go. But Barbara came along and pointed out that I hadn’t painted any part of him touching me, which I’m sure was deliberate, though not conscious. So I extended the reach of his painted self, barely crossing the boundary of my painted body with black tendrils. Barbara urged me again and again to go as far as I could. I had to paint him getting into me somehow (lines going into my eyes and mouth), and even then she had to urge me (without saying in so many words) to see the part I was still avoiding, which was our lower halves. So I ended up with a painting I hated to look at, and I still don’t know the extent to which I have “let it go” or touched something deep inside that I had never allowed myself to feel.
It seems rather ironic that I had such pleasant encounters with men on this trip. It started on the smallish plane I take from Green Bay to Chicago. I was struggling to wedge myself into the single seat on one side, and the man across from me had two larger seats to himself. He generously offered to switch places with me, and then we kept up a conversation until we got in the air. Turns out he’s a pilot for Delta (we were flying United), and he told me several stories about awful flights he had flown. He was very solicitous about my comfort, I think partly because of the cane I take with me so I can make it through the airports more easily. (A cane is an obvious sign that something isn’t right.) I told him I was going to S.F. to paint, and described the process very generally. He said his 16-year-old daughter is creative, a writer. He said she’s very protective of her writing and her privacy. She’s careful about whom she shows it to, and only when she feels ready. I said, “Vulnerable. Being creative is on a par with being vulnerable.” He seemed dubious. I hope he remembers that, though. I felt a kinship with his daughter, and with him for caring about her. When we landed in Chicago, I said good-bye and we shook hands. He was surprised that, “unlike most women,” I have a strong grip. I like to think I shook up his world a little bit. I’m far from outgoing, but when I have a chance to make an intimate connection with someone, even briefly, I relish it. That’s how people change, I think (me and them).
All week (not just in the airports) I had a good feeling about various men I encountered. It’s a new world for me. In Chicago, my gate happened to be near Wolfgang Puck’s, which I love, so I hobbled over there and got myself a margarita pizza. As I looked around for somewhere to sit, two Indian men got up and effusively offered me a seat at their table, and I settled in to eat my lunch. More than one man helped by parting the crowds for me or letting me get in line. One guy responded to my thanks with “Absolutely! No problem!” Women were kind to me too, of course. I couldn’t help noticing that the women who helped me were not with men. And the men were not with women. Not sure what to make of that.
I think that will be all for now. There’s an omelet downstairs with my name on it, or will be once I break a few eggs. I hear you have to do that.
saga d’amour conclut
When you fall in love, it’s like you get on a moving train with your lover, and you glide across the fruited plains and want for nothing. Everything is beautiful, and you believe that it will never change. Suddenly, you find yourself in the foothills, then on the dangerous mountain roads. You’re no longer on a train, and there’s no one else around. You’re alone with your simple need, one that your lover can no longer fulfill. You don’t know when—let alone why—everything changed. Despite the rarefied mountain air, you discover that Love is Flat, like the earth once felt. And you fall off the edge, as millions have done before you.
Now that the relationship is over, I risk sounding merely delusional, a victim of my own fantastical tendencies… as if I made the whole thing up, as if she was the level-headed one all along, humoring me while keeping my intense feelings at bay. There really ought to be a fairytale—told by the Grimm Sisters, perhaps—in which a Lesbian falls in love with a beautiful Princess (who is, of course, heterosexual; did you ever hear of a dyke Princess?). It’s a classic story, but, like many other women’s stories, it was never written down, or passed down orally. Ahem. This fairytale, if it existed, would not have a happy ending. And to be a bona fide fairy tale, a happy ending is a must—as is the inclusion of a Man to rescue the damsel from whatever horror results from not being with a Man. We lesbians have to rescue ourselves, or die trying.
My story doesn’t include a Man, unless you consider the male character who stands to the side of the stage, unaware of what is going on emotionally between his Woman and the never-seen Lesbian. I’m surprised Shakespeare never wrote this story. Or maybe he did and I missed it, having gotten a D in Shakespeare in college. (I had a lost year but was redeemed after I dropped out and started smoking marijuana. True story.)
There were certainly moments when it seemed that I—as the bona fide lesbian in the situation—was doomed or assumed to be the One in Love. But I know that she felt the same for awhile, which is what distinguished the relationship from my past encounters with unobtainable women. Oh sure, she was unobtainable, but there was a beautiful (delusional) time when we were together in the same matrix of wish and desire.
requiem for a mad, mad, mad, mad love
When love is not madness it is not love.―Pedro Calderón de la Barca
Friendship is solid. That’s its nature. It can take many forms: years long, or situational. Situational friendship ends when the situation is over. Usually, this is understood by both parties. Situational friendship can reconstitute itself if the new situation allows it, or it can fade from lack of contact. Years-long friendship changes to love naturally, over time, but it is still solid.
Romantic love is volatile. Most such love is doomed to failure, unless both parties allow it to change its form.
Madness is volatile. If one person emerges from the madness and wants to transform the relationship into something safer, easier—into “friendship”—it won’t work if the other one is still in a state of madness.
It’s a loop. Fantasy is volatile. Romantic love is fantasy. Fantasy is madness. Romantic love is madness, and madness is highly addictive, given the right circumstances.
With our friends, partners, relatives, we say we “love” them. When we’re mad, we say we’re “in love.”
Mad in love feels crazy, beautiful, even miraculous. It can cross boundaries with ease: marriage, sexual orientation, age, distance all become incidental… not because they are no longer true, or important, but because they have been swept away by the madness.
This old love has me bound. But the new love cuts deep.—Joan Armatrading
Mad in love is a revelation that two people could have such strong feelings for each other, even after a brief acquaintance. The spark flies, the flame is lit. But it rarely lasts. Someone comes to her senses, someone is threatened, has something to lose, is in danger of destroying another relationship that is no longer as exciting, as romantic, as mad… but is still important, a foundation that has momentarily been shaken.
She who emerges from the fantasy, the madness, is rationality personified. Friendship makes more sense (it is solid). It doesn’t threaten anything, it can coexist with the other elements. It is freer, less draining. Less hard on the heart. No longer volatile. Like taking the best parts of the attraction and eliminating the angst, the high emotion, as lovely as that was while it lasted. It’s hard to argue against friendship.
She who is still mad understands the reasonableness, is even in favor of it. Anything to stay close to the flame. She means well. But she is mad, after all. She misses the excitement, the intensity. She keeps looking for it even after it has been pronounced dead, or transformed. There is no transformation for the mad, regardless of the promises she makes, the reasonableness she thinks she can learn to live with.
Conflict becomes inevitable. One side wants reassurance, a return to the madness (even as she realizes it’s impossible), some proof that the flame is still flickering. The other side wants the madness to end—for her, the madness has ended—but doesn’t want to lose the connection.
Accusations fly, defenses are breached. Eventually, someone has to do something, because the reasonable and the mad do not mix. Someone must surrender to reality, declare a mistrial, give up the fantasy, give up the mad.
A happy ending is by no means assured. She who is still mad believes that she can’t “turn it on and off.” She who has already turned it off regards the other as immature, manipulative; she feels duped, sad, even indignant, as if she had nothing to do with any of it: the fantasy or the inevitable division and separation.
But there is no recourse. The worst must be faced. The madness will flame on for a bit longer, but she who has been clinging to the fantasy must see that it has been supplanted by the entirely reasonable-sounding “friendship.” Even then, the relationship has been built on a lie. The center cannot hold.
Both wish that the terms could be renegotiated, the past reconstructed, as if nothing had happened. But something has happened, and there’s no going back.
It hurts, but there is also relief (surprisingly).
Farewell to the madness. Rest in Pieces.
I think I fall in love a little bit with anyone who shows me their soul. This world is so guarded and fearful. I appreciate rawness so much. —Emery Allen
Do you think the universe fights for souls to be together? Some things are too strange and strong to be coincidences. —Emery Allen
We were all wounded in some domestic war. —Melissa Etheridge
I could fill this whole issue with quotations on the order of: “The course of true love never did run smooth.” Wouldn’t that be fun? No? OK, I’ll have to find my own words.
I went down a giant slide once, years ago, and I remember it vividly. The slide was so slick and so long, and the ride so fast, that halfway down I felt like I was going to hurtle into space, overcoming gravity by the greater force of centrifugation. It was as helpless a feeling as I have ever known.
Oh, fickle gravity, which hurts so bad when you fall out of a tree but keeps you more or less moored to the earth or to a slippery metal slide.
My new love, which I recounted in great excitement in mary’zine #68, was about to transcend gravity in its own way…. I was going to travel to visit her, we talked about things we would do while I was there… when something happened…. Isn’t it always the way? Something happens, you’re not sure what, even after extensive back-and-forths where you alternately praise, accuse, justify, plead, and despair of getting back to the used to be…. It’s what you both want, but somehow you’re going in different directions, you can’t seem to make it work, so many tears. One or both of you announce your imminent departure, then you come back, please, let’s work this out. The ambivalence is palpable, on both sides. The two of you have promised to be honest and open, not to disappear without a word. But you’re both caught in a morass of misunderstanding, seeing facts and implications with completely different eyes. What had begun as an uncanny simpatico, a field of blue flowers open to all outcomes, is suddenly charged with doubt. It’s a wonder true love ever succeeds: How do two people navigate that swampy land of differences that were such a delight in the beginning?
One night, in an e-mail that seemed to come out of nowhere, she decided we had to “redefine the relationship.” Apparently I had been taking too much, expecting too much. I read on with disbelief and increasing dread. I didn’t know how we had gotten to this place. I wanted to tell her, I am not Hitler and you are not Czechoslovakia, but the time for jocularity seemed long past. I had believed that I could say anything to her and she would understand. (From which naïve forehead of a Greek god had I sprung?) We had both said we were in it for the long term. But I didn’t know what to do with this new development.
Can a lesbian and a heterosexual woman ever be completely in sync? … maintain a close friendship, let alone a mutually declared sense of being “in love”? It seems crazy now. But I am still in it for the long love, the love that cares more for the well-being of the other than for one’s own selfish desires.
I had been in love before, and I had grown into love, but I had thought that, for the first time, I had met my match and found my equal, that we were in the same place at the same time. I felt infinitely adaptable, willing to make room for her primary relationships, feeling I was at once on the outside and on the inside, in her heart. Her daily life could not include me, and I knew that. We were not young, we had histories, and we felt we could create a relationship that was out of the bounds of normality, personally crafted to connect on the levels that mattered and careful not to trample on what had come before.
Women can do this. Lesbians especially can do this, because we were born into a lawless land already. I never wanted to have a socially respectable relationship, one that followed the rules of courtship and betrothal, china patterns and dinner parties. When I fell in love with my roommate in college, it didn’t faze me. Oh, I’m this horrible thing called a homosexual? Fine. In my late twenties, I found myself in a menage à trois with my then-partner and a young woman with two kids. How crazy, you think. Yes. But that’s what I mean. When you’re making your own rules, anything seems possible, and you believe you can overcome all manner of unlikelihoods. Of course, the threesome didn’t last or, rather, it never really got off the ground. The strangest thing about it was that my mother—my mother—after taking to her bed a few years earlier when I told her I was gay, accepted this new relationship and even sent Christmas presents to the kids from their “other grandmother.”
So that’s where I’m coming from—and now, in my sixties, when I should be done with all that nonsense—I mean, exploring—I fall in love with a married woman and honestly believe, once again, that anything is possible and love will conquer all.
I think that American gay people have, in a sense, put one over on society by seeming to be “just like them,” with all the raising of children and family values and respectable clothes and modest romance (chaste kisses for the cameras at the marriage ceremony). The thrill of acceptance—old hatreds transmuted into new laws that seemingly free us from the prejudices of the unimaginative—may or may not be transformed into the platitudinous tedium of real life. Lesbians, like heterosexuals, can cheat on each other, leave each other, do all sorts of terrible things in the name of love. One thing that seems to be different is that lesbians tend to rearrange relationships in a group so that eventually everyone at the table has slept with the hostess. This can be awkward but is, in the end, rather endearing. We are loyal, and we are not just about sex. One of my best friends was my partner for 12 years (and one of the threesome), and she has been with her current partner for longer than that. She is now as much my family as my sisters are.
Although I accepted that lovemaking with my new love would never happen in reality, I kept the fantasy going in my head, loving each endearment she spoke, responding to her hints and innuendos. She was enjoying the flirtatiousness, too, but apparently didn’t know how close to the fire she was playing. I wanted to believe in the endless unfurling of a miracle. Is this not the essence of romantic love? The relationship itself had felt like a miracle. But now it was as if Cupid had pricked us both with his sly arrow and then pulled it out again, leaving us gasping for air like fish flopping on dry land.
Anyone in her right mind would have seen that it couldn’t last. Three- or four-hour phone calls, long chats online, checking for messages in the middle of the night…. But neither of us was in her right mind. Love—the booming fireworks that often begin the opening and sharing of the heart—is not a logical, clinical process. Nor is it a regular friendship, which proceeds in cautious steps, building trust and camaraderie as you go. No, this was sheer craziness, a ride not unlike the long slide of my youth that threatened to catapult me into the atmosphere.
In the stream of humanity, we are but a collection of molecules, held together by friction and desire, trying in vain to individuate ourselves from the masses. It’s an odd desire, this wanting to believe we are separate, that we are not what we, in fact, are: members of a species who will float downstream until we reach the end of our run and disappear into the froth and spray of an undifferentiated ocean.
But even as we try to individuate, we are looking to meld hearts with another. It’s one of the most fulfilling things in life. It is like a miracle, finding another person who sees you for who you are, who loves you despite all the practical difficulties, the fallen limbs that often lie across the path to true union. When a new friend declares she loves you, that she is in love with you, there is no headier feeling.
I am the delinquent who will never steal again.
“Scared Straight” was a 1970s documentary that evolved into a TV series that has now turned into a program called “Beyond Scared Straight” (“because scaring teens is no longer as easy of a task”) that introduced young offenders to the reality of prison life. The idea was that the kids would be scared out of their incipient lives of crime, which must seem so glamorous and freeing when they are first attracted to it. The toughest-looking and -acting prisoners put on a convincing show for these kids, who tried to seem above it all but were mostly terrified at the thought of being passed along from rapist to rapist. I don’t know if this program worked, or if “Beyond…” scares them more efficiently, but I’m only using it as a metaphor, so let’s get on with it.
My love(r) was questioning the relationship because it was too intense and draining (as friendships between women tend to be) (you rarely hear about drama kings), and I was forced to see that I could lose everything if I didn’t stop wishing for what I couldn’t have. I had wrongly thought that wishing could remain an exciting part of this homemade, crafted-on-the-fly relationship, a personal quirk that she could accept because she would know it would never come to fruition.
But it was not to be. I was scared straight, all right, and I do not shrink from the double meaning in that term. As far as she’s concerned, I’m as good as heterosexual now. When faced with the possibility that I would lose her, I discovered that all fantasies had fled for higher ground. It was a sobering realization, and I’m still not sure how things will ultimately change between us. But it’s probably the best thing that could have happened, if we are truly destined to be close friends who enjoy and love each other for a lifetime.
Am I capable of writing about this experience honestly? I wonder. I’m not writing from the point of view of the future, after a relationship is lost and I can extract hard-earned lessons from it, free to describe and analyze what happened in the spirit of a past love well fought for but not to be. I’m still fighting for it, and for a myriad of reasons I can’t offer up all the details, all the things that would identify her, all the theories of, not only what I did wrong, but what she misunderstood or projected onto me from her own past.
She will read this, of course, as she read the “love letter” that was mary’zine #68. In the throes of blooming romance, there is nothing to tell that isn’t flattering, seductive (she says I “seduce with words”), and in the service of continuing the experience.
But is seduction even possible? It sounds so manipulative, intended to dominate, to force the issue. But isn’t it more a matter of the seducer happening upon a willingness to be seduced? Cupid shoots his arrow, but the receiver must be ripe—primed—hopeful even, looking for it—to receive it.
I don’t want to consume her, or merge with the hearth fire of her everyday life. I want to be a small, bright flame that burns in her heart of hearts, like a pilot light that is contained and respectful, that honors and supports life rather than destroys.
How can I be truly honest about what happens between a lesbian and a heterosexual woman when the lesbian can dream all the possibilities and the straight woman cannot?
Be the person you needed when you were younger. —Ayesha A. Siddiqi
When I opened up Facebook one morning, that quotation was the first thing I saw. I had just posted my mary’zine #69 called “Daddy’s girl,” and I thought, sure, I could have used the person I am to help me through my difficult childhood, but who’s going to help me now? Where is the person I might be when I’m 85 and can look back on this period of my life and send good thoughts down through the ether of time? It’s as if a lifetime of hard-won lessons has been flushed down the drain and I stand before you, as defenseless as a lamb.
After reading my lover’s e-mail about redefining the relationship, I sat there for I don’t know how long, paralyzed, with a feeling of utter hopelessness. Blood really does run cold at such times. Cold-blooded. Check it and see. I had a fever of a hundred and three but I’d been plunged into the icy depths of a love gone cold—or so it seemed to me at the time. To make it worse, she was not going to be available for several days, so no amount of frenzied typing would even reach her, let alone get a response for a long weekend’s eternity. So recently hot blooded, I was unable to respirate let alone think lucidly.
Love is never smooth, but it’s never so rough as when you’re trying to explain a position you held days ago but did not express well and that has now been through the wringer of her perceptions and your own fears and reactions. Love starts with excitement and surprise and ends with a surfeit of words, often at cross purposes. And when you’ve been hurt by love—as who hasn’t?—you may suddenly see manipulation and plotting where once you saw only innocent attention.
I knew I had to sift down through the layers of desire and confusion and be as honest as I’ve ever been in my life. I had to answer her accusations—that all I wanted was to make a sexual conquest, that I have issues with straight women and create scenarios in which I will be rejected or abandoned because “that’s all I know.” This is Psychology 101 and not a bad guess, but I am a different person now. I have been there and I have done that.
She is not a mother figure to me. She is my equal. We are well matched in intelligence, humor, and creativity. Like all lovers, we had tried to remember exactly how this thing had happened. It’s love’s favorite game:
- When did you first notice me?
- When did you start to feel like you were falling in love?
- I knew you loved me, but when you said you wanted to make love to me, that’s when it really hit me.
I have lifelong friends, proven friends. I do not want for love: true love, not the sexy, new kind I was enjoying with her. But sexy and new, when going up against the old and true, has the advantage of youthfulness and a flowering in the blood that can’t be denied.
When I say, “I love you,” it’s not because I want you or because I can’t have you. It has nothing to do with me. I love what you are, what you do, how you try. I’ve seen your kindness and your strength. I’ve seen the best and the worst of you. And I understand with perfect clarity exactly what you are. You’re a hell of a woman.
I came upon this quotation when I was googling something else, and I recognized how I was feeling. But then I was embarrassed to see that it’s from a TV show: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. So: —Joss Whedon.
My lover’s theory about my self-sabotage via the next attractive straight woman I came upon bothered me like the pearl grinding itself into beauty inside the oyster. Only I suspected there was no goddamn pearl in there, just more pain and self-recrimination.
I imagined myself going down, down, down into the inky void of my own soul. I wanted to face the truth rather than make up stories and offer excuses or apologies.
Being honest with another person can be difficult, but it’s nothing compared to being honest with yourself. I wanted to reach the rock bottom of my deluded self, push the illusions aside like so much clinging brush, and see myself with true eyes. We only half-understand ourselves under the best of circumstances. But it seemed crucial to face the hard truth or truths that would tell me which way to go—to attempt to rescue the relationship, or let it go. But going down to the rock bottom of your self is a fitful process, and you can’t help but look for footholds or a ledge upon which to rest, or reasons why this person who is angry at or disappointed in you cannot possibly be right. I kept letting go, and letting go, trying to forget the specifics and focus on the elusive truth. It was more important for me to find it than to convince her of it. I was only half of this equation, and x was still a complete mystery.
I could hardly move, could hardly breathe. I had days in front of me with no resolution, and, worse, no hope of resolution even when the time was up.
I had thought we were committing ourselves to working through the inevitable issues. We were embarked on a “friendship for life”… a friendship that she described early on as “an affair of the mind and of the heart.” We had had a wonderful time learning about each other for several months. There had been a hiccup or two, but we had got through them, which seemed to assure us that with honesty and perseverance we could get through anything.
But my desire for her—even in fantasy—had reared its ugly head enough times that she had had enough. She had thought it would “fade with time”—I’d “get over it”—an attitude with which I was very familiar. But we were each being true to our respective nature. To me, our relationship was new and exciting and had an unmistakable air of the sexual or at least the romantic. To her, it was the beginning of a long friendship—still new and exciting, but with a different result.
Finally, it was not about convincing her (or myself) of anything. Each of us had our own history that led us to this promising, intense relationship, our own feelings and the actions that could or could not follow. Consequences.
In time, she softened enough to say that she didn’t know what to do, that she wanted this “friendship for life” but didn’t know how it could work. The best scenario for her was to go back to before our used to be. We would see each other online and interact briefly. And that’s what we have done.
But I missed her so much; the feeling was palpable, visceral. There was a real connection there, and it looked like it was going to be cut off out of fear—a fear that we seemed to engender in each other, the panic of the lover wanting to rescue the drowning love but ultimately unable to save it.
I hope it works out. I love that woman.
I wrote most of this issue a few weeks ago, when things between me and my love were still up in the air. They have come down to earth now, I am happy to say. Again, it was a mysterious process, what she went through, what I went through, to get to the point where we can say honestly that we don’t want to lose each other. As friends. Because we are both emotional, intense people, that will still be a factor in the relationship, but I think we are over a major hump. I couldn’t put her in a sexual fantasy now if I wanted to. And I don’t want to, because I want her loving friendship more than a dream. That is so mature of me, I know, and it was getting scared straight that finally made the difference. As my father used to say, “Wake up to the fact that you’re alive!” I had to wake up to the frightening possibility of losing this new friend, this woman I admire and cherish so much.
Maybe we will always be not far from that edge, that big, deep feeling that can turn on a dime and become scared, whether straight or not. I told her once that I felt, with her, that I was riding a bucking bronco and just wanted to stay on long enough to… what?… well, just to stay on. You don’t always know with a metaphor like that if you’re truly staying on or if you’ve landed back in the stands and can only watch the rest of the rodeo go by. I have never used a rodeo as a metaphor before, and I hope I will never have to use it again. If she’s the bucking bronco and I’m the hapless rider, I think I’ll be better off standing a little bit apart and convincing the bronco that there’s no reason to buck, I’m off her back and she is free to live her life. Hopefully with me in it.
This is the iconic photo from my childhood. I was a Daddy’s girl, to say the least. I loved that little lunchbox I’m carrying, and clearly I loved imitating him. He worked nights, and when I would get up in the morning I’d go running to see if he had left me a treat in his lunchbox. I was barely 3 years old in this picture. Within a year, I would have a new baby brother, whom I loved. True, there might have been more complicated feelings as well, but I don’t remember those.
My mother’s shadow over my lower half turned out to be quite fitting, but that’s a story for another day. (Or, see mary’zine #3, “the autobiography of my mother.”)
My friend Nikki and I were exchanging childhood memories recently. I have the story down pat, the whole time line: my grandmother died, my brother Mike died, Daddy collapsed at work with MS… all by 7 years of age. I thought that this was what Life was going to be: catastrophe everywhere, all the time… sometimes as highly determined as a dream… barely a decent waiting period before the next catastrophe came along.
I’ve had psychosomatic symptoms and ailments my whole life, beginning with carsickness on the way to Iron Mountain to see my dad in the VA hospital. I had been on long car trips before without any trouble. My precise memory of the bitter taste of the red carsickness gum I chewed during the drive is much more vivid to me than the feelings I must have had about my dad’s being sick or, indeed, about spending the hour or so with him in a cold room, barren of decoration, with formica tables and vending machines.
Mike had died less than a year earlier; my feelings about his death had been locked away but could still be glimpsed in unexpected moments.
- My only memory of his funeral is of the other people in the church laughing at me because I was crying. No, of course they weren’t really laughing. That was my projection. I painted this once, and it was very powerful.
- The night of the funeral, my mother answered a prank phone call and cried into the phone, “I buried my son today!”
- I lay awake nights trying to imagine the eternity in which Mike would still be dead, still underground. I could imagine one year… maybe even two… but the years never stopped coming, and my imagination would give out long before the end.
- I don’t think God ever came into it. My only thought about God was that He turned on the street lights at night—a practical God, useful for some things but not exactly a comfort. He was a distant father, more distant than my own and thus barely visible and wholly unknowable.
- Maybe I just don’t remember the comprehensive grief counseling I received… oh, wait, that never happened. I don’t remember hearing any explanations or comforting words from anyone, though there must have been people who cared. My parents were too caught up in their own grief to consider how I might feel about it. In those days, children were, epigrammatically, “seen but not heard.” And often not even seen.
- My father’s cry, “Why did it have to be my son?” would not be made known to me for another 30 years or so, but I must have intuited how he felt.
- Loss seemed like the only sure thing. I felt like I was standing on the edge of life, observing but not quite believing that this was my world.
Memory is not much help to me now. I was living as in a strobe-lit room—sights and sounds highlighted for seconds and then gone. Images standing in for feelings that were too complicated to be felt directly. Feelings annotated or supplanted with pictures from the outside. My inner life went underground… where my brother now dwelled and where, as far as I knew, my father might soon join him. And my mother, of course, surely sooner rather than later. I vaguely realized that I would join him, too, not in the sense of hearts in reunion, but in the sense of being put down into the earth, an incomprehensible reality.
My dad was at the Iron Mountain VA hospital for about 6 months. He was then transferred to the Milwaukee VA, and we had to drive down there and stay overnight with some relatives in their trailer. We had been plunged into poverty and despair overnight. It was a new world of harshly lit rooms and awkward visits with people—family in name only—who were worse off than we were. We had to sell our nice house on North Shore Drive and move into a crummy half-duplex on 22nd St. while our uncle Sonny built us a utilitarian box of a house next to his. I got to pick out the linoleum for my room, a sweet moment of independence in an otherwise powerless situation.
When my father came home from the hospital, I couldn’t believe it: This man was not my Daddy! I didn’t believe that someone had actually replaced him, like a pod from outer space, but I knew my father was gone, and I never forgave him, at least not during his lifetime. My anger was a complicated substitute for the depth of feeling I had to surrender, as if the feelings for my brother and for my dad were buried together in Riverside Cemetery. Daddy wasn’t dead yet, but his abrupt change in physical condition and personality was like a death. I was beginning to think I knew death all too well: It wasn’t just inevitable, it was everywhere.
My dad—perfectly reasonably—was also angry about his new status. How could he be a cripple in a wheelchair, he was an Irish drunk who raised hell with army buddies and his six brothers. He tried to make up for losing all power in the household by yelling at me and my sisters, complete with empty threats and clichés. “I’ll knock you for a row of Sundays!” “I’ll give you something to cry about!” I thought I wasn’t affected by it, because I knew who really wore the pants in the family. My mother had had to transform herself from a shy country girl to the caretaker of a man she no longer loved and responsibilities she had never dreamed of. She was 31 years old.
I still feel the poignancy of two scenes, neither of which I was there to witness. One day my father was upset and yelling, and my mother—at the end of her rope—wheeled him out to the road, where he had to sit, staring across at the woods, until she brought him back in. The second scene, which hurts me to this day, was when she couldn’t cope anymore and took him to a nursing home to live out his life. His plea (again, not witnessed by me, but just as starkly hurtful as if I had been there), “Don’t you love me anymore?” cuts through me, disarms and tortures me, even 40+ years later. He died 2 weeks later.
I was about 10 or so, he and I spent a lot of time together, but I’m not sure if it was my idea or if I had been assigned to keep him company and watch over him. When the VA gave him a set of woodworking machinery, there was a chance he would fall and hurt himself, so I spent time in the basement with him. I mostly operated the jigsaw. We made picnic tables and lawn ornaments. I jigsawed Mickey Mouse and the Boy Scout emblem, donkey heads, anything that needed to be cut in outline. We tried to sell this stuff in the front yard to the few people who drove by. We also went around to the homes of family friends with boxes of greeting cards to sell. One year we ran the concession stand at Henes Park. My dad was irritable and frustrated a lot of the time, and I was depressed and anxious. I lived for school, because it was orderly and mostly friendly, and my teachers felt like my salvation. Daddy had become a tyrant, my jailer, and I treated him as such: no sharing, no openness, no love or trust.
But when I was telling Nikki this old story that I’ve told so often, I felt a shift in my perception. I always thought of my dad as being an anomaly in the family, just as I thought we were middle class but for lack of money. I was convinced we were a normal family who’d had something abnormal happen to us. And he was the abnormal one. It all seemed like a tragic mistake, like it shouldn’t count. I responded only to the outer, saw him only as the other. Except for the disturbances he caused, I categorized him as irrelevant. His illness was unfortunate, but if the MS hadn’t gotten him, the alcoholism could very well have. We were a family of women and girls… and this lone annoying, inconvenient man. He made no decisions, except whether to watch wrestling or cartoons on TV. He and I stayed up late and watched Jack Paar together. I don’t have a sense of how we interacted, or even if we did. All that time together and not one conversation to recount.
Around 11 years old, I was molested in my cousins’ home next door. There was no question of telling either of my parents.
Playing with a broken pop bottle in the back yard one day, I pushed down on the edge and cut my finger. I still have the scar. I rushed inside… right past my dad in his recliner… and washed off the blood, applied a band-aid. He was not someone I went to for help or sympathy.
I was constantly afraid that my mother would be the next one to die or become disabled. If she was on her way home from work when WAGN reported that there had been an auto accident in town, both my dad and I would freak out—him outwardly, me all to myself, feelings tamped down. He yelled at my mother when she got home, probably from relief and embarrassment. She didn’t have much empathy for him, she was doing her duty. He had to know that.
The MS had affected not only his motor skills but also his brain. He would laugh inappropriately, in church and even when the minister came to the house to give him communion. I was so embarrassed by this. It was a helpless kind of laughter, nothing funny about it, impossible for him to control, so that it was more like seeing him piss his pants than have a genuine chuckle.
What I realized—like a punch to the gut—when I was telling Nikki all this was that I had placed him entirely outside my immediate, circumscribed self, as if we were nothing more than inmates in the same institution. We shared outward experiences but no emotional intimacy. My lack of affect with him was rehearsal for the several years of alienation I would soon feel from my mother. We were different species swimming in the same stream. Parallel play, parallel work, parallel life. I held him at arm’s length. Cried for him at his funeral and took his Johnny Cash record back to college with me… finally safe to idealize him a little bit. Took me 40-some years to even get a hint that we were inextricably entwined, reflecting each other’s pathology and self-consciousness. There was no question of love. Too close for love, maybe, too disappointed, too far off the track of what had started out to be a tight bond. Betrayal. He felt betrayed by his body (he would pound his jerky leg into submission), I felt betrayed by him. Ruptured, disrupted, an interrupted journey, deep trust summarily severed with no warning and not enough understanding to even begin to reconnect. As a child I observed and repudiated the outer events but retreated to and fashioned my own inner world There seemed no connection, no lifeline to climb up out of the pit, only straws to grab on to, as if I were perpetually drowning in one of those dropoffs in the bay that claimed my friend Francis when I was 10. In my world, Life handed you lemons, but all you had after a while was rotten lemons. Lemonade hadn’t been invented yet, in my mind. You didn’t so much fight to survive life’s lemons-as-lessons, you simply regarded them as immutable events, come down from on high, that had little to do with your tender self, as if you existed outside the skin and fabric of the others who habited your tiny world.
But we were father and daughter under the skin. He was not so alien, we were not so different. We projected our fears, feared some of the same things, felt inadequate and unloved, fought the unfightable with hopeless attention. Mirrored each other in a way I could never acknowledge. I removed myself as far as I could, put all attention onto Mama, she who held my life in her hands. Gave up on him, clung to her. He was dead to me long since.
I had put my money on black, cuz red hadn’t paid off in so long. Made an unconscious choice, intuited that loyalty to the intrusive mother was more expedient. She treated him like a nuisance, dodged his grabby hands as she walked past him. When she wheeled him down the hall to bed, he always gazed into my room as he passed. I felt violated, but I was unclear as to who was doing the violating, and why. I don’t know what he wanted from me, if anything. I disrespected his lost manhood. Disparaged his failure to best me in any sphere of knowledge—parroted my mother’s lack of interest in his country music or in his experiences in the war. He was history, but the body remained.
My mother was active, he was passive, I was passive. He and I were in the muck together, though I tried to deny it. We liked Johnny Cash, she liked Johnny Mathis. We listened to a lot of Johnny Mathis…. and on Saturday nights, Lawrence Welk. I would be taking my weekly bath, despairing at the sound of the awful musical bubbles coming from the TV. Once I caught my molester, John, watching me from the window. It was another moment I still feel acutely. I lived in a fish bowl, with alien fish. Unwanted advances: his fingers on my thighs, creeping toward the prize whenever he could maneuver me into position. I was, again, a passive participant. There seemed no way out. So I willingly went with him to the cedar grove, where I did his bidding: climbed a tree naked, lay down with him on top of me. In the basement, holding a burbling hose up to my privates while he watched. I don’t know why no one else ever seemed to be at home. These events took place in their own bubble. They bisected my real life, of school and family time, but I kept them separate as much as I could. The final straw came when we were at a drive-in movie, Mom and Dad in the front seat, me and John in the back, his fingers traveling up my thighs. I was ashamed that I allowed it to feel good. But I got out of the car and asked if I could sit up front. No one else ever knew what was going on.
I don’t know if my changing perception will make any difference in my life today. It all happened so long ago, but—as I’ve come to believe—the past is still here, it is wrongly considered to no longer exist. The past is embedded in the heart and in the brain that has never forgotten, though the mind long ago forced the knowledge out of consciousness.
I include the following poem for Nikki, who, through her compassionate questioning, helped me become more deeply aware of one of the great mysteries of my life:
Finding What You Didn’t Lose
When someone deeply listens to you
it is like holding out a dented cup
you’ve had since childhood
and watching it fill up with
cold, fresh water.
When it balances on top of the brim,
you are understood.
When it overflows and touches your skin,
you are loved.
When someone deeply listens to you,
the room where you stay
starts a new life
and the place where you wrote
your first poem
begins to glow in your mind’s eye.
It is as if gold has been discovered!
When someone deeply listens to you,
your bare feet are on the earth
and a beloved land that seemed distant
is now at home within you.
And here is another poem by John Fox. This one is for Everyone…..
Everything Is a Surprise
Death might be a moment
where being everything you are
is met by a welcome Surprise
and by a discovery you make
that it was, or actually
is perfectly fine
to be who you are,
is more than all right,
and it is only this Surprise
and your discovery of it
that went missing for awhile
in your life, or was so long
but not entirely forgotten.
But when Surprise meets you,
you discover that it is Everything
who will open arms wide to you,
pause for just a moment, even
step back slightly to await
your arrival (to give you a moment
to see) and yes, you will run forward,
full tilt, aware you might as well
keep running hard like that
because what else is there to do now,
aware, and even more, feeling assured
you could never knock Everything over
and are, at the same moment,
about to discover Everything
will never let you fall.
(A note about two of the illustrations: I drew the cartoon on page 1—with a mouse. I bought the image on page 2 from dreamstime.com.)
I am sick. Lovesick. I got a fever of a hundred and three. Hot blooded. Hot blooded. I wish I could tell you everything about her. But I can’t. I can only write about my own feelings. I’ll just say this one thing: She’s not “gay.” But she’s “a little bit gay for me.” It’s confusing for her, but not for me. I’m a seasoned lesbian. (Everything but cilantro.) I haven’t felt this way in a very long time.
Who knew this could happen at my advanced age? My baby sister Barb turned 60 recently, and now she signs herself, “Barbie 60.0.” That would make me Mary 67.5. Unimaginable. I first felt this way about a woman when I was a mere slip of an 18.0. “Our song”—unbeknownst to her—was “Woman” by Peter and Gordon. It was 1965, and it was the love that dared not speak its name. It was the first unconventional love I would experience, but not the last.
I wrote those first two paragraphs a few weeks ago. My fever has gone down slightly, but my love for (and trust of) this amazing woman has sky-rocketed. I can’t believe it.
I’ll call her “she.”
If only life were as simple as Facebook. I could just write, Relationship: Complicated.
My apologies to former lovers reading this. That was then, this is now. No comparisons. Life evolves, and sometimes we do, too. She and I feel that we were meant to get together on the playground (and workshop) of our minds and hearts. We have different—as well as similar—challenges, and we’ve already learned from each other. The banter and light verbal love play are intoxicating, but the drunkenness is fleeting. I’m learning that limitations and uncrossable boundaries can actually provide a freedom to soar above. She says she would like me to find a “complete” relationship, which she can’t give me for various reasons. I’m not interested in that. I’m much more interested in the inner life than the outer, and we are able to meet on that level. Though the screen is our palette, I am in love with the message, not the medium. She is a flesh and blood woman, proficient in the use of language, as I am. It’s amazing how much can be conveyed within that simple, seemingly colorless frame: some tears, some hearty LOLs, a few evocative icons, and the heart and intelligence to meet each other as equals and give and receive forgiveness for our failings. She believes in getting things out in the open. I’m more of a lurker. But I’m learning to love the challenge. One day there’s a misunderstanding—to be expected, since we are often typing at the same time, referring to earlier conversations or a parallel thread. She asks, “Are you playing games with me?” “No!” I stand my ground, assert my meaning. Suddenly “we can see clearly now”: Our first “fight” ends with mutual respect. I remind her what comes after a fight (make-up sex), but alas that’s not what we’re about. It’s a turning point, though, a moment of truth…. We both have trust issues, and we seem to be equally matched in guts and glory.
This thing started innocently enough. We were drawn to each other’s writing, and she to my paintings. I gave her a painting when I barely knew her. I could see that she was passionate about it, and the one she wanted was one I had thought no one would love but me.
Past middle age already, the body starts to fall apart. But the sexual flame can burn as hot as ever. The pounding heart when I see that she has left me a message: Priceless. It starts in the loins and progresses to the heart. On the one hand, my heart is sick with longing for what can never be. But on the other hand, I feel the simple joy of being alive and loving, not just her (in that heart-pounding way), but all my friends, and even some strangers, and humanity in general. I’m painting with my feverish heart. The images come fast and furious, and I paint them all, feel them all in my blood.
If I sound foolish, so be it. I am glad to feel this foolish, to have such a strong attraction to a woman with whom I can only relate via words on surrogate paper. I’m being here, now. Feeling what I feel as I go along. Dancing the pas de deux with a beautiful soul.
I had a new t-shirt made with the saying, “as is.” It was her idea, actually, that I would have to take her “as is.” And that’s exactly how I take her, and how she takes me. I have gained new confidence since my recent sexual escapade with an old friend… not just realizing that I’m capable of having sex, but that I want to. It’s been a long time since I even considered it. Self-confidence suffuses my being, makes me both lighter and stronger. This is true even though physical sex is not an option for us. But as I wrote in ‘zine #67, I am burning bright in myself. She is catching some of the passionate run-off, but I stake no claim on her. She’s only “a little bit gay.” Not enough to start a fire. I keep feeling like I’m borrowing Melissa Etheridge lyrics. Or Bruce Springsteen’s. Music is making me feel so full lately, so light on my feet. I dance inwardly and outwardly. We share songs that have touched us deeply. Music is the expression of sex, when sex is not on the table (so to speak). Sex is the heart’s blood. You don’t have to do it, but you can feel it, dammit… even we who live in the land where Puritans came to die.
I’m gushing. I know that. And instead of obeying the writer’s rule to “show, not tell,” I am just saying and saying and saying. And feeling and feeling. It feels good, it feels like almost too much but never quite. I am containing it, and it is pulsing within me. I am having an attack of the heart—but it’s a benign and joyous attack, like Death by Chocolate.
Besides: How can you not love someone who thinks your writing is “sublime”?
I love being gay, and it has almost nothing to do with sex (despite what I just said). Someday we will be completely absorbed into the larger society and it will seem odd that we were ever singled out for scorn and harassment. Society’s targets constantly change, while the methods and rationale remain the same. The Irish were the first “niggers” (A Different Mirror; Ronald Takaki). I worked with a woman direct from England who was scoffing at the idea of St. Patrick’s Day, and then she noticed that I was in the room and remembered the first 2 letters of my surname. She quickly backpedaled, but I caught the innuendo. And yet Irish Americans are, as far as I can tell, perfectly respectable now. And so will gay people be, one day.
Being gay, in the early 1970s when I came out, was difficult and awkward in many ways, but I loved living an “alternative lifestyle,” below the radar. By the way, I faced more surly looks and comments in the San Francisco Bay Area than I do here in the U.P. That probably just means that we’re still underground here, not at the top of anyone’s list of people to hate. But I’ve faced down a few men who thought they could stare and smirk and make me slink away with my vagina between my legs. One guy was sitting at the counter at the former Pat and Rayleen’s. I was paying my bill, the smirker smirked, and I stared back at him with fierce dyke eyes. Of course he backed down and looked away, what was he going to do? I happen to look more intimidating than I feel (or so I’ve been told: The enormous husband of a friend of mine thought I was going to kick his ass), so that can work for me in selected situations (daylight, public space, people around).
Back in those semi-dark ages, being gay seemed like a platinum credit card with no spending limit. We could move about, make changes, live our lives with no one being the wiser. P and I bought a house in Marin (suburb of San Francisco) when we couldn’t stand living in the cold and fog in S.F. anymore. The neighborhood was nice, the house and yard were quintessential suburbia, and the kitchen sported a counter with bar stools on one side, which perfectly matched our sense of ourselves as upwardly mobile semi-professionals. I said to P one day, “I feel like we fell through the cracks! How do they let us do this?” San Francisco was used to its “gays,” but Marin was a bedroom community that hadn’t quite registered our presence in its midst. It was like playing dress-up, or “store” or “house” in the basement when we were kids. It seemed like the ultimate payback for the discrimination we faced in other areas: “We will live like you!—not to mock you but because we watched Leave It to Beaver growing up, too, and we want nice things.” This could be the exact strategy of the baby-making gay men and lesbians who get to prove, finally, that we all have the equipment for reproduction regardless of who is paired with whom. Who knew that it would be “Adam and Steve” living in the garden? (“Ann and Eve”? I’ve never heard a female version of this meme.)
Lesbians were second-class gay citizens until we were (for some reason) included in the movement’s acronyms, LGBT and its more complicated successors; and not just included, but first! (For a handy definition of terms, see http://internationalspectrum.umich.edu/life/definitions). Now it’s de rigueur to say “lesbians and gay men,” although we’re still made to feel less than our male counterparts, because their public image is one of “slender, beautiful, and talented,” whereas ours is “fat and flannel wearing.” (Sex guy Dan Savage looks down on us for letting ourselves go. Dig a little deeper, Dan; there are reasons for that.) Men have agency. Women who don’t desire men and are not desired by them are either irrelevant or threatening to the world as men see it.
I love not being on a conventional track. I was “as good as married” for 12 years, and our break-up, though painful as any other, involved piling my VW Bug with whatever it would carry and driving 10 miles south to my new apartment. A good friend who got married when it was made legal in Massachusetts went through hell and a lot of money to get out of that contract.
When you’re in love, no one really wants to hear about it. Good friends will listen as they listen to any other story about your life, but there’s a limit to what you feel you can tell them. You don’t just want to give the barest details, the who, the why, the how-you-met—you want to repeat and chuckle over the endearments, the in-jokes, the “you won’t believe what she said last night”s. For some reason, it isn’t enough to laugh about this with your new love, you want to share. And we all know what sharing that sort of thing eventually turns into: too much information.
Lovers are inherently selfish. You’re delighted with yourselves, proud that someone chose you. You get giddy, adopt pet names, stay online, on the phone, or in bed (if you’re lucky) for hours. The rest of the world recedes, at least for the duration. It’s wonderful, but sometimes you feel it’s only a matter of time before the whole thing will come crashing down. The wrong person will find out, or, worse, one lover’s definition of the relationship (an unstoppable force) will meet the other lover’s quite different idea of what’s going on (an immovable object).
There is a certain amount of hubris involved in a new love relationship. You think you can change her life, just as she expects to make a few adjustments to yours. Neither plan may live up to the expectations of the other. Geography, marital status, sexual orientation, and other factors that seem like certainties may temporarily be finessed or passed over, as if the grand belief that “anything is possible” is really a solid basis for reconciling your two hearts. Yes, people can move, marriages can end, and sexual orientation can be redefined, but often these fixes are not possible or even desired.
I feel like I’ve gained a new lease on life and all the other clichés that say the same thing. My blood is pounding at more frequent intervals, my organs are sprucing themselves up and getting a new wardrobe, and I feel more alive and engaged than I have felt in years. I haven’t been unhappy here in the U.P.—quite the opposite. But a few years ago I felt complete, felt I had accomplished all I’d wanted to in life, and was perfectly happy to let it all go if that’s what was meant to happen. Now… I want to stick around. It was the farthest thing from my mind that I would ever fall in love again, let alone feel physically attracted to someone who returned the emotional attachment if not the full complement of sexual feelings.
But even that sexual asymmetry can work in one’s favor. It’s lovely to be loved, even if it can’t be embodied. Sex is there when we love the same song. We have been known to break out in lyrics when we’re typing onscreen. Music is in our blood. Our hot blood. My hot blood, maybe “a little bit” in hers. I’m not responsible for her blood, nor she for mine. Whatever’s happening with her is fine with me.
There are, of course, many patterns that lovers tend to play out. And maybe everyone thinks they will be different. But I truly feel that I have found someone who is able and willing to transcend the burden and complications of a physical love and living situation. When faced with limitations, you can turn them around to become advantages. We are both oriented toward the inner rather than the outer. We enjoy and are learning from each other in all the ways that matter: becoming stronger, more secure in our own beings. Working through the baggage we all carry, in whatever degree and kind. You could say it’s just cerebral, but it’s a lot more than that. She’s the only person I’ve found who is both emotionally and intellectually stimulating. Both familiar and exciting. Neither of us was looking for anything or anyone. We met under the most unlikely circumstances. And I will be forever grateful to her, regardless of what happens next.
Is that all you can talk about, Mare? Yeah, pretty much… for now. My heart is full, and so is my mind…. wondering at life’s sudden changes of direction. But what seems to be coming out of thin air actually has long-growing roots. A long-awaited bloom. A spring that took forever to get here but is now bursting with life.
Bring it on.