with a body part…
Synecdoche: substitution of a part for the whole (pronounced kind of like Schenectady)
I resent the vagina. I resent being defined by it, reduced to it. I resent having no choice about its existence or its exploitation. I know that it makes a terrific baby chute and that lots of people throughout the world enjoy using it. Which wouldn’t bother me in the least if I could have a “get out of my vagina” card.
Having a vagina is like being forced to live in a house without locks. You can hide it from view, but you can’t hide the fact that you’ve got one. Appearing unstylish, unattractive, even fat and old, is no defense against the seekers of your holy grail-part.
Man-boys somehow think they’re more manly by acting out their anger at Mommy on an innocent victim. Sexual orientation also doesn’t help and may even be a turn-on. I’ve never gotten more attention from men than when I wore a gay liberation button in the ‘70s. It’s not like you can hang a “No solicitors” sign on the entrance, or wear a tag that reads “My sexual preference is: not you.” “Oh, sorry, I thought you were heterosexual” has never been uttered by a would-be rapist who then tips his hat and continues on his way to find a more appropriate target.
I resent the vagina monologues… and the dialogues, diaries, notebooks, first person fictions. There’s a new “biography” of the vagina and even a “timeline history” (74 b.c.–2007). A young man of my acquaintance has a bumper sticker on his car that reads, “I [heart] vagina.” The vagina is the holy grail for many, and I resent being the vessel, the culmination of the voyage, the be-all and vaj-all.
I resent being a synecdoche. The vagina has given me not a moment’s pleasure but instead many hours of pain. I have had no use for it except to carry away the blood on “red letter day” (“I got a letter from my aunt,” my mother would say). Its related parts have given me painful menses, endometriosis, and uterine fibroids. I was relieved of much of that by the removal of my uterus. The doctor asked if I wanted to keep as much of my “reproductive parts” as possible; I said I wanted to keep as much of myself as possible. Other body parts have gone the way of the uterus, namely, my tonsils, appendix, gall bladder. But there’s no way to remove the vagina, or shut it down for the season, or forever. It is never left to retire and disintegrate with grace, like an old barn with gray siding and a faded tobacco ad.
I don’t really resent the penis, strange as that may sound. It has one job—well, two; the clitoris is the only sex organ designed solely for pleasure. I can’t really blame the penis, but I do resent the owners of that inside-out clit, who seem to have an almost universal hatred of and attraction to that heavenly corridor, the vajheen. The clit is literally the root of all humanity, as we all start out as female. The fact that the primordial clit develops into an outer appendage on roughly half of humanity should be a mechanical issue only; instead, men have made their penises synecdoches of their own selves, and they vary in how happy they are with the result. But their synecdoches are self-defined; ours are defined by them.
something is happening here…
… what it is ain’t exactly clear. I’m getting vague intimations, seeing odd co-in-cidings, picking up faint signals, just as I did before I realized I had to move back to my hometown in Menominee, U.P., Michigan, USA. I’ve lived here now for 8½ years and have seemingly seen, remembered, relived all the associations: the woods and the wildflowers, the pastures and frozen creeks, the beaches, the abundant water on 3 sides that makes us a peninsula within a peninsula. The mise-en-scène is laid out before me; everything is either still here—the family houses, the boarded-up school, the old roads and sand hills, the memories attached to every building or patch of ground I see—or else there are placeholders for the things that used to be. I can see below the layers, like a personal archaeologist using my senses and my stock of memories to dig past the exterminated woods, the disappeared grove of cedar trees, the receding bay, the missing restaurants, the ghosts of churches replaced by fast food joints and dollar stores.
I never knew how attached I was to place. I thought I was living in my head so filled with fantasies and anxieties, but now I see that every fearful or wishful thought was embodied in a yard, a driveway, a basement, a garden, a crabapple tree, a homemade fort that held a predator and me, a tunnel dug beyond any adult’s knowing that could have killed us kids. An old man’s shack next door, a burnt-out abandoned house next to that, my grandfather’s long-gone farm and pretty rocks and milk truck. The birch trees, uniquely white-barked amidst the tedious green, the snow, the mud, the shortcuts through the fields, the long walks to school and back that I still walk in my dreams.
You’ll notice (I noticed) that I haven’t mentioned family, friends, or strangers whether benign or dangerous. The blessèd and the feared. Once when I was visiting back home, I took several pictures of old, mostly vacant buildings: a boarded-up gas station, an abandoned church, the exoskeleton of the factory where my father worked, a defunct paper mill, a street of taverns, an old dairy. Only the taverns are still in business. The theme seemed to be decay and neglect of the manmade world. My mother couldn’t understand why I didn’t take pictures of my relatives (her), why those forlorn, forgotten structures spoke to me. I didn’t understand it either.
My point is that I inhabited that life more than I knew. I thought I was thinking myself past it, past the dead-ends I saw all around me and into an Unknown that had to be better, a world I had read about in books, those life-savers. Begrudging the physical time that had to pass before I could get out.
The pleasures were many but mostly small. They dotted the landscape but never infused it. But they are as vivid and precious as the hurtful sad and madnesses, the betrayals and secrets, the intrusiveness of family and obligation. There were odd transcendences, like typing a paper due in English that day, out on the back porch at 6 in the morning, feeling like I was already gone to a world of literature and art, of experience I had only read about. Or in the basement making a cardboard switchboard for the school play. Living my hidden life while outwardly following all the rules, right down to the letter but rarely the spirit. Longing for someone to make me special.
It occurs to me, so many years later, that the world inside my head did not reflect the truth, that I created that bulwark of a world to defend against forces that may well have been imaginary. Can you believe, dear reader, that that thought has never before occurred to me in the 4½ decades of seemingly intelligent, accomplished adulthood, during which I struggled with relationships, both personal and societal—the deceitful lover, the harridan bosses, the nuts and bolts of car ownership, of furnaces and landlords and neighbors and always, always the question, “What does life mean?” For me it was not a rhetorical question, the answer was the only thing that could propel me past the adult equivalent of my anxious childhood. There were pleasures to be had in this wilderness, too, of course: the books and friends and attempts to write about… something, to make… art?, the summer pool parties and a male friend who wanted desperately to get in my pants. Mostly, I felt like an imposter, back before I knew that many people feel the same way. Discovering the common flaws and fortunes of humanity in myself and others has been a saving grace, along with love that I thought I was too damaged to give or receive, and the indefinable depths of painting without a need to produce either a beautiful object or a semblance of sense, which has led and spread to an acceptance of living for its own sake that I never, ever, knew was possible and that has permeated every molecule of my life experience.
The mystery has something to do with my youth, specifically high school, more specifically how I thought about myself then and how wrong I could have been, I mean, really wrong. It has never before occurred to me to question my overall world view and view of self, though I can quote you chapter and verse on specific misunderstandings and awkwardnesses. I thought I had it all figured out, what happened to me, what happened because of me, what added up and what went down.
I know this is crazily nonspecific, but that’s the thing: I haven’t put it all together yet. But it has something to do with Facebook, of all things—a football player from my class friending me; a couple other classmates remembering me though I have no memory of them; a gradual softening toward the very idea of high school and my experience there, which may have been 90% projection. If I dealt with high school by starting to see my classmates as real people, settled adults—and me as a real person, a settled adult… it would be like forgiving my hometown in general, which made it possible to come back and live here in peace and quiet. It’s an intriguing thought. But the biggest remaining challenge I face has to do with a classmate and childhood friend whom I think of as “my beggar.”
I’ve had many memorable encounters with “beggars.” These encounters, far from being all the same, have brought up a whole range of feelings—on both sides, no doubt. I have ignored them, then felt guilty or afraid; I have said a quick “sorry” as I scurried on by, then felt guilty or afraid; or I have responded with my whole heart, most often with a $20 bill, and the counter-response has been about way more than the money. And it wasn’t just up to me whether I became scared or generous; I responded—to what, I wasn’t always sure.
We don’t have beggars where I live now: too fucking cold, for one thing. There are places to go for food and shelter, but beyond that I have no idea. I give my money to organizations instead of individuals, mostly in the form of bags of food from Angeli’s. Being a “nonencounter,” it’s more comfortable for me and probably does as much good, or more, as handing out dollars on street corners.
I say we don’t have beggars here, but I do have a personal beggar of sorts. She’s a childhood friend I thought I’d left behind when I entered high school and became an intellectual along with two boys with similar pretensions. She didn’t go to college, and I saw her only once in the ensuing years, at my mother’s wake, more than 20 years ago. But for some reason she has been holding on to the dream, ecstatic when she found out I was moving back home, obviously hoping to rekindle the childhood flame. After 8½ years she has not taken the hint that our girl scout girl hood died long ago. She seems dim—just this side of developmentally underdeveloped, slow, raw, unafraid of asking for alms (begging). This is way more personal than any of the encounters I’ve had with strangers on the street, obviously, but the same questions come up: What do I owe her? Do I have to feel guilty about not giving, or not giving enough? She’s like a stalker who doesn’t actually stalk: She waits for me to cross her path, like a spider that knows something good is going to get caught in her web if she’s patient enough. When I do run into her (web), as I did the other day, she’s all sticky and clingy and I can’t get loose no matter how much I flail. I become paralyzed by her spider venom and can barely answer her rapid-fire questions, “Do you ever hear from L__?” “Do you ever hear from G__?” “Are you coming to the reunion?” with my curt answers (“No” x3), and, as I make my narrow escape she wistfully calls out with a small “heh heh,” “I never get to see you anymore!” And I wonder, what does it mean that she can’t let it go? When I get the smallest hint that someone is trying to get away from me, I don’t pursue. Is my beggar’s persistence and lack of dignity in the face of outright rejection a sign of delusion? Mental fog extending inland nights and mornings? She comes from a family even poorer than mine; had a brother who was developmentally disabled; never went to college, never left the area, doesn’t drive…. I don’t know all that she’s never done.
So when I’ve made it to my car, feeling both guilty and resentful—it’s the street beggar scenario but 10 times worse—I ask myself why I think about her so much. I even dream about her, two kinds of dreams: either we’ve become friends, or she’s crowding me, pushing at me, pulling, begging, always begging for more. She must be standing in for something or someone else, right?
My friends and my sisters think I could choose to “be nice,” put up with a two-minute conversation every few months, and not think about her in-between times. In fact, I tried that the first time I ran into her, in Stephenson’s Bakery, after I moved back. I sat and talked with her about “old times,” though I couldn’t remember even one of the things she harked back to. I even gave her a ride home, I felt I was doing the right thing, giving the beggar a few dollars, so to speak, so I couldn’t be accused of being completely heartless—but in my mind, that “nice” response set up her expectations to become that girlhood friend again. But what amazes me is that she has not given up those expectations even after so many years of my obvious dodging of her and reluctant, even rude brush-offs. What she said to me the other day was, “Here I am, in the way, like always.” It was eerie, even creepy. It’s like she knows the truth but will not let go of that limp lifeline with no one on the other end.
If I could just feel as cold as I act toward her, it would be a lot easier. But it’s that guilt, that feeling that I’m handling it the wrong way, that it’s my fault she’s too dim-witted to take me at face value now, 57 years later, and see me as a jerk or a snob or an asshole, versus the happy friend I was as a kid. Why doesn’t she get mad at me? Or does her delusion depend on believing that I will someday greet her with a big smile and a “Hi!” and an invitation to go out for a malt at the (now-defunct) soda fountain? Is this like a failed love connection? Does she lust after me? Am I the best thing that’s ever happened to her? Oh god, every possibility is worse than the last.
The weird thing, and the thing that makes me wonder if I’m somehow causing this reaction in her, is that it has happened to me several times. Someone—always a woman, oddly enough (defying my demonization of men)—gets it in her head that she must have me, in one way or another. My therapist said, about one of those women, that I had “let her in.” Yeah, I’ve let a lot of people in, but most people know not to move in, not to keep demanding more and more of my time and attention. I could tell you stories! And sure, I too have loved and lost, more times than I can count, and it hurts—whether it’s a love interest or someone I just want to be closer to, as a friend, and I see that it’s not going to happen. I used to consider it proof of my unlikability, but now I see that it’s just a fact: not everyone likes everyone, or likes them in the same way.
The bright side: that I can accept my less than lovely character traits and not feel that I have to change them, overcome them, become better than, reach the goal of being a perfect person. Beating up on yourself is not the same as bravely looking at what is true in yourself and accepting it, and even accepting that you are still probably half-deluded, but you will be willing to look, take in, own whatever comes up. In fact, beating up on yourself is one of the ways of narcissism. It’s trying to eat the whole enchilada of self-hatred, claiming way more than what is even true, just to avoid doing a real accounting of dollars and sense. The best defense is no defense at all. When a friend points out a flaw, I find myself more willing to listen, to agree when it’s true, even to feel the pain of being exposed but letting it be. It’s like magic, this allowing the feeling in the moment to be fully experienced, instead of trying to push it down or turn it around. If you’re really willing to feel that feeling and let it take you to the core of whatever the truth is, there’s nothing more you have to do.
And maybe that’s where I’m failing not only my beggar but myself: I don’t want to feel the true extent of the feeling, whatever it is, for fear that she/it represents some deep part of me—so I put it off on her, on the inconvenience of her implicit challenge to me, on the inadequacy of her sensitivities, on her refusal to just get out of the goddamn way and let me live my new, self-accepting, happy life.