Posts Tagged ‘women’

mary’zine #68: June 2014

May 29, 2014

41-burning-heart-in-flames--vector-illustration-1113tm-v1I 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.

img001 copy 3

 

mary’zine #61: April 2013

April 18, 2013

Let’s

Image

with a body part…

Image

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.”

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.

Mary McKenney

merry’zine #54: March 2012

March 10, 2012

You’ll notice something a little different this month. I’m coming in like a lion, who knows how I’ll go out. On a whim, yes, I’m a whimsical lion, I’m changing the name of this whatever-it-is to merry’zine, maybe forever, maybe not. Why must we be merry only at Christmastime? And who’s truly merry then anyway?


 
 

painting letters

On my 49th birthday, I wrote my first Painting Letter to my friends in the teacher training at the Painting Experience studio in San Francisco. After a few months I expanded the scope of the Letters to include any other painters who wanted to contribute. I’m only bringing this up because I wanted to show you the cool drawing that Terry made for the February 2001 issue. And I wanted to show it to you for two reasons: (1) So you can see what a cool drawer (and person) Terry is, and (2) So there’s visible proof that I have taken a good picture at least once in my life.

And that’s not the only walk down memory lane I’ve taken lately….

who paints?

I was doing the unthinkable the other day—sorting and filing the bills and other papers on my desk, the earliest of which were from November 2010—when I came across the manuscript for Who Paints?  I had written it in, oh, the ‘90s, I think, when I thought the world needed another book about process painting. I no longer had an electronic copy of the manuscript, except possibly on some no-longer-readable disk—maybe wait 1,000 years for the Dead Sea Floppy Disk Scrolls to be found and decoded—so, thanks to good old paper, I was able to reread my pearls of wisdom.

I had done quite a lot of editing for M. Cassou, and her publisher, Jeremy Tarcher, had praised my work. I asked MC how he knew what I had done, and she said she had sent him some of her writing that I hadn’t edited. Ah. So I took advantage of the slight name recognition and sent him my manuscript. He said he couldn’t publish it without a section at the end of each chapter with “how-to” tips, in other words, I should turn it into a self-help book instead of a paean to the process. I think I’m pretty good at writing paeans, especially paeans to the process, but I think “how to” in this process is completely pointless, maybe even pointzeroless. So I dropped the idea of getting the book published, and now, 15 or so years later, I’m going to self-aggrandize, I mean, self-publish it by including selected chapters in this merry/mary’zine.

When I reread the manuscript, I discovered that it’s not bad, not bad at all… but I found myself bored by the expository parts (“What is process painting?”). I perked up when I read some of the stories about actual painting, so I started putting those chapters aside. Below is the first one that grabbed me.

 

Daddy and me, 1949 (I was 3).

My cartoon of those early days.

painting my father (a Who Paints? excerpt)

Sometimes it seems like I’m doomed to paint the same thing over and over again: me, Death, my immediate family. This time, I’ve started a painting in which Death is holding me above his head while he wades waist deep in the Sea of Disappearance. When I want to paint lots of anonymous bodies floating in the sea, Barbara asks the simple question: “Do you know any of them?” and it’s like, Nooooo… I am so sick of painting my family!

But I know what I have to do: When creation tells you to jump, you ask “How high?” So I paint Mom, Dad, baby brother (who died), and a cross with the name McKenney on it. Instead of the romantic-sounding Sea of Disappearance, it’s a rather pedestrian version: the Green Bay of Disappearance or the Menominee River of Disappearance—a small cove off the big waters of Death, Upper Michigan division. There’s no escaping the family ties.

It goes well, but when I think I’m done, Barbara persists with her pesky questions. What more could I do? It comes to me that there are strings of matter unraveling from the bodies. I realize I’m willing to paint death as long as the bodies are peacefully mummified and whole, but the thought of their actual disintegration strikes me hard.

Painting the strings streaming out of my father’s body, I get increasingly irritated. At first, I locate the source of irritation outside me. A new painter, an art therapist, is humming. I find that distracting under the best of circumstances, but now the erratic, low hum is stretching my nerves as thin as the strings of matter I’m painting. I finish them and then paint little cuts and splits on the body itself, the beginnings of disintegration from within.

I’m getting more and more agitated. I’m painting next to an open window, and a bee flies in and then can’t find its way back out. It just buzzes and buzzes and beats its little body against the upper part of the window. How stupid is nature sometimes!, I think, as I transfer my irritation to this innocent creature. Can’t you figure it out, go down, go down! The buzzing and the humming together are now like a discordant symphony in my brain as I keep painting the little cuts and fissures in my father’s flesh. I think of the famous story in which a patient of Jung’s is telling him her dream about a scarab (beetle). While she’s telling the dream, an actual scarab taps on the window—thus illustrating (or precipitating) Jung’s theory of synchronicity. So anyway, I try to see that the buzzing bee is my version of the scarab and that it and the humming art therapist are forces of nature teaming up to bring forth the expression of whatever is in me that is driving me crazy.

I finally go and find a paper cup and a book, with which I capture the bee and throw it out the window. Would that the buzz within me (or the art therapist without me) could be dispatched so easily. Returning to my painting, I feel physically weak, as if I’m in anaphylactic shock. There’s no physical explanation for this. Plus, the irritation is now more like rage. It’s a debilitating combination.

Finally, I add 2 + 2 and see where all this feeling is coming from. My father had multiple sclerosis (MS), and I had “known” for a long time that the disease made him feel weak and angry and out of control. But I had never put myself in his shoes, never considered what it might feel like—not only the symptoms of the disease, but to be deprived of his physicality, masculine control over the family, ability to earn a living, and freedom to go out drinking for 3 days at a time. I’ve painted my father hundreds of times but had never felt so attuned to him, on a psychocellular level, so to speak.

(I also wonder what might have happened to the family if he hadn’t gotten sick but had continued in his alcoholism: He had already put his fist through a window when my mother locked him out. But that’s another story.)

So I keep painting. As the body becomes covered with the little cuts and unravelings, I’m startled to see that it isn’t disintegrating, it’s coming alive! The body seems to be jumping off the page. I realize I’m painting (and feeling) the electrical nerve impulses that are another symptom of MS. Richard Pryor (who also had MS) once talked about the humiliation and physical discomfort of having no control over his body; his arm would just shoot up, and there was nothing he could do about it. My father had some control over his arms, but his leg (the one with the shrapnel in it from WWII) would start shaking and jumping until he had to beat it into stillness.

As I start the next painting, I know I have to paint my father big, in “flesh” color—not the black, somewhat abstract form I usually paint. I can’t remember ever feeling so resistant to painting an image. I plod between the paper and the paint table and back again. I paint the big strokes of yellowy-pink doggedly, unenthusiastically. I can only wonder what joys await me further down the line in this painting. Finally I have this massive, fleshy, almost life-size body in front of me, and I feel like I’ve painted a wall I can’t penetrate.

Barbara helps me see that I have to get inside the body, which is the last place I want to go. I was used to painting all kinds of things on the outside of bodies, but I’d never painted insides. I finally paint big flapping openings in the chest and head, through which I can see organs with tubes and veins and unnameable inner workings. I feel so intense painting them! A medical illustrator I’m not, but it feels so good to invent my heart, my brain (I mean, his heart, his brain) as I go. But my upper back hurts with all the tension and intensity, I’m barely breathing. And I wonder where all this is going, how much I’m going to have to feel, how I’m going to get safely back to the shores of stillness and my own separate identity. I feel like I want to beat these feelings back the way my father beat his jumpy leg. That self-hatred, hatred of the body and its betrayals. Fierce ambivalence about the family and its betrayals.

At the end of the workshop, I tell this story in the group, and someone suggests that I’ve been storing these feelings in my body for  years. While painting, I was afraid that I was somehow “getting” the feelings from my father, but if so, I “got” them a long time ago. I’ve spent most of my life being afraid that I would get MS too, or that I would become an alcoholic. Anything, I think, not to acknowledge my true legacy from him, an exquisite sensitivity to pain and circumstance.

When I got home that night I was exhausted. I lay down on the bed, and when I woke up half an hour later, my whole body was pulsing, even the soles of my feet. I felt like I had rappelled my way down inside a deep cavern, in a journey to the center of my father, myself.
 

‘Nam like me

As I’ve mentioned before, my brother-in-law has finally gotten some attention from the VA. He’s now receiving a disability check for his injuries sustained in Vietnam, both physical and mental, and has gotten counseling, surgery, and other perks. He had a follow-up appointment for his recent foot surgery, and he told us about feeling uneasy as the tiny waiting room filled up with other patients, how he’s always looking over his shoulder, needs to sit with his back against the wall in any establishment, etc. The verdict, I gather, is that he’s had some form of PTSD ever since he got out of the Marines some 40 years ago. That could explain a lot, actually.

But as he was talking, I kept thinking, “Fear of closeness, check”; “Fear of being followed or attacked, check”; “Thinking I see something out of the corner of my eye that isn’t there, check.” And I blurted out, “That sounds like my childhood!” I suppose it’s the ultimate sacrilege to compare an American woman’s experiences on the ordinary streets and byways of this country to a combat veteran’s heightened sensitivity and fear acquired in the jungles and deserts of war… but still. I may be an exception, but I have had a low- to medium- to high level of fear (of men specifically) since I was a very young child. I know some of it is based in reality—I was attacked or threatened or coerced sexually several times before I reached adulthood—and some of it comes from that gray area of psychological attunement, which spawns fear in an otherwise benign situation. The psychological parts may have stemmed from my mother’s mistrust of men, as when one of my father’s drunk Army buddies came into my room in the middle of the night and asked if I wanted a drink. I was 4 or 5, and according to my mom, she rushed in there and dragged him out, probably roaring like a mother bear protecting her cub. And I, cub, though I don’t remember the incident, might have learned the lesson, Don’t trust them, in that precise moment. But I didn’t make up the many encounters with lone men in cars slowing down as I trudged home from school down a country road and asking me if I wanted a ride. I don’t know how I knew that their intent was not that of a Good Samaritan, but I was very sensitive to nuances even then. Likewise, one of my sisters still dislikes a certain make of car because when she was out trick-or-treating one Halloween, a man beckoned to her to come up to the car—she expected to be given candy—a “treat”—and he asked her if he could fuck her. Who can downplay the devastating effect of this very common experience on young girls and women?

So why don’t most women experience the symptoms of PTSD that many male war veterans do? I think it’s because we have lived with this reality all our lives. It’s part of the culture, taught in our homes by our own parents, taught in the streets by predators. We understand that we cannot stroll freely through a dark night or a bad neighborhood without paying the price.

Always, this topic makes me defensive, because many or even most women have either not had these experiences or have weighed the negative and the positive and come down on the side of the “few good men” they have married or birthed or know in some other way. So I always have to add that I have known and liked and respected several heterosexual men who are good people, some even great people. And I have known or known of several women who are not good or great people. Those are my disclaimers, and, frankly, I think it’s awfully mature of me to be willing and able to discern the goodness of the good men. In fact, I almost appreciate them overly much because of my generally low expectations—just as many straight women melt when seeing a man pushing a stroller. The bar is that low. I’m sure that the good men greatly outnumber the bad ones. But that doesn’t help me in certain situations: like, in college, walking from Lansing to East Lansing alone, late one Saturday night, because I was afraid of the guys (strangers) I had gotten a ride from. That may have been the most terrifying night of my life, because I felt utterly and completely at the mercy of the men in passing cars. As I trudged along, praying to a nonexistent god, trying to stay in the shadows, trying to walk fast and look inconspicuous, one lone man drove around the block several times, coming up to me repeatedly and asking if I wanted a ride. A bunch of young guys in a car yelled out the windows at me and called me a whore. I just kept pressing on. I was absolutely vulnerable. Since “nothing happened,” I could look back and say, “Oh, they were harmless,” or “I should have just yelled back or firmly and confidently refused the ride,” or never have gone with (or left) the first guys in the first place, or never gone out after dark, everything coming down to what I did wrong. There’s no question I was naive and did do stupid things, like go to a motel with my roommate and two guys we had just met, and as the guys were strategizing in the bathroom, Kathy and I realized what we had gotten ourselves into and made an excuse and got the hell out of there. So I was lucky. And I’m not saying any of those guys were actual rapists. But it was difficult at the time (pre-women’s movement) to negotiate the line between party time and danger. And maybe it still is.

Lest you think that story was just the result of being a vulnerable college girl, I encountered a group of 5 or 6 young men in Golden Gate Park when I was out jogging in broad daylight—in my 30s—who called me a dyke and other threatening endearments, and I held my breath until I was past them and they had given up their little game. Because this is what we learn: to pretend to ignore what’s going on. To endure. One of my sisters had to deal with a car mechanic whose erect penis was sticking out of his jumpsuit as he worked on something under the dashboard of her car, and all she felt she could do was pretend she hadn’t seen it—even questioning her own perception that he was doing it on purpose.

By the way, I don’t think my experiences “made me gay.” From a very early age I was not interested in dolls, hated wearing a dress, loved “boy” games (basketball, football, baseball, building roads in the dirt for little cars; in the fifth grade I loved drawing Ford cars with their spiffy fins and whitewalls). Although I appreciated some of the female characters of the American West, such as Annie Oakley, I was much more taken with the Cisco Kid, Hopalong Cassidy, and the Lone Ranger. I read a lot of Westerns (on both sides of the mythological fence: cowboys/Indians) and other adventure books, especially ones about deep-sea treasure hunts, all with boy heroes. Coincidentally, my mother’s favorite author as a young girl was Zane Grey, a classic writer of Westerns. But when she grew up she put her tomboy past behind her, and I never did. Until I knew there was a “lesbian option,” I longed for a boyfriend, mostly as a form of status, but when I fell in love with a woman it was absolutely amazing, the “real deal”… though in 1965 it was still the love that dared not speak its name. So despite everything else I’ve told you, I did not so much reject men as I realized that my true emotional and spiritual connection is with women. And that has been the greatest blessing of my life.

to hell and back, computer-style

I feel like I’m 100 years old in computer years. I was there in 1970, when I had to keypunch data into a mainline computer as big as a big room. I was there a decade or so later, when I had to learn UNIX on a Sun workstation. My boss wanted to “drag me kicking and screaming into the 20th century,” but I feared he also wanted to replace me with a rudimentary grammar and spell checker; he was easily impressed by technology and just as easily unimpressed by my superior human editing skills. I finally embraced the dying century when I got my first personal Mac and was rewarded by not having to type and retype my writing, then obliterate the words with circles and arrows and X’s and retype again. In the day of The Typewriter, I had fantasized about some form of magic that would allow me to revise and move paragraphs at will, having no idea that it would ever come to pass. The downside of this miracle was having to learn the inner workings of the thing and spend hours or days trying to diagnose problems and wangle solutions out of tech support—unlike, say, when you bought a car or a vacuum cleaner, which were presumed to be used by ordinary people.

Things have gotten much better over the years: Software basically installs itself; warnings and instructions often tell you what to do in almost humanoid language; and there’s no more inserting of foreign bodies containing viruses, as if you were having disk-sex with every computer into which they had been previously inserted.

Still, nothing makes me feel more helpless than trying to fix a computer that has gone awry. In January I had to buy a new MacBook Pro because my old one went black and no amount of coaxing and trying different things could get it to work. All the king’s horses, etc. At 9:30 in the evening I called my sister Barb to see if I could use her computer, because I needed to notify an author and a couple of friends who might need to get hold of me. I had also decided to order a new computer, because I can’t work without it. I had already researched them and knew what I wanted. It wasn’t just the fact that I couldn’t get my old one going—after 3 years the operating system was teetering on the brink of not supporting any new software… so if the machine doesn’t fall apart, they make it so you can’t use it anyway because 10.5.whatever “is no longer supported.” (I like the passive voice there. “Gosh, something must have happened and left 10.5.whatever completely useless”—like the kitty hanging from the ‘hang in there’ branch on a popular poster.)

Before giving in and calling Barb, I had attempted to use my dumb (i.e., not “smart”) cell phone to get online. Considering that it has no trouble pocket-dialing the Internet without my knowledge, it was curiously uncooperative when I actually wanted to get there. That 1 or 2 minutes of (failed) “data usage” ended up costing me $30.

Unfortunately, Barb is not a Mac, whereas I am a McKMac (paddy whack), so it was beyond frustrating to get anything going on her PC. I’ve also been using a trackpad for several years now, and it was an annoyance to have to get used to a mouse again. Worse yet, I had forgotten to bring my close-up glasses. But I managed to get to “iris,” where I checked my e-mail and shot off a few clarion calls to announce my absence on the e-lines… felt like I was announcing my own impending death… and then went to MacConnection to order a new laptop… not that I can afford that expense right now, but when has that ever stopped something expensive from giving up the ghost.

The 17-in. laptop I wanted was not in stock; I e-mailed the company to find out when it would be available, and they replied that it would be 10 days, give-or-take. I couldn’t fathom being without my lif-e-line for that long. Barb generously offered to let me “come and go as I pleased” to use her PC, but it was still a dismal prospect. When I got home that night, it felt so weird. I kept going toward my desk and then remembering. It wasn’t as if I really needed to check Twitter or Stumble Upon anything, but I still felt bereft.

The next night, Barb and I went to dinner at Schussler’s and, oh, as long as I was right there, dropping her off, I might as well go in and check my e-mail. Not much was going on except a notice from something called Keek that had a 36-second video of Adam Carolla doing something or other. It’s odd how the media forms are getting shorter and shorter, I suppose to match our attention spans. If I want to watch a clip of “The Daily Show” or a video of a kitten romping with a crow, and it lasts 7:35 minutes with a 30-second commercial at the beginning, I will usually skip it. It’s a wonder I can still read whole books.

I had ordered the computer and settled in to wait the interminable give-or-take for it to arrive, and so I was amazed to find it sitting on my front porch 2 days later! I was in heaven! I spent 11 straight hours setting it up and reconfiguring my configurations. Found out I also had to buy a new printer, because mine was 10 years old and “no longer supported” (of course). Planned obsolescence has never been so… planned… and yet, strangely, you never hear that term anymore. Also had to buy new Quicken software for the same reason and somehow lost all my financial data up to November 2011. The new OS has many gratuitous changes and fancy names for things I still don’t know what they’re for… Launchpad… Mission Control… FaceTime… Terminal. Also, I can never remember which exotic animal it is: Leopard? Jaguar? Wildebeest? (If you had a wildebeest, you’d have to call it Oscar.) But at least I had e-mail and Internet and a half-formed idea of how to use the new Quicken. So all was good…

…until the next day. I had hooked the wilde thing up with the power adaptor, but the manual said that you could extend the reach by plugging the power cord into the adaptor, then into the wall, etc. etc. Which I did. Everything seemed copacetic, but I didn’t notice until hours later that it was going to shut down in 2 minutes because it had been on battery power all day! The connector’s light wasn’t lit, even though I had plugged all the right things into the right things. So then I was frantically trying to check the manual and get to Apple Support to find out what to do before the battery gave out. I tried everything. I should trademark that phrase: “I tried everything(TM)”. I kept plugging and unplugging the adaptor, then exchanging it for the power cord again, and nothing worked. I even tried to reset the SMC! which I have no idea what it is, but it didn’t work anyway. The beast went black.

In the midst of all this, my cat Brutus, who is fascinated with cords and wires, kept getting in my way and I was getting increasingly frustrated and yelling at him to the point where I ran out of curse words. I had all my desk stuff plugged into a surge protector, which appeared to be working fine, because my desk lamp was plugged into it and it was still on, but as a last resort (or a penultimate resort: the last resort would be calling Apple, which I hope never to do again in this lifetime) I went and got the surge protector that was protecting my bedside lamp and radio. Had to untangle the cords in the dark because of course had to unplug the lamp… and Brutus was trying to get in the middle of everything, swatting at the cords that were dangling that I couldn’t see. It’s very hard for me to get down on my knees, but I rigged up a pillow and a footstool so I could get under my desk and exchange power strips. Brutus “helped.” I could barely reach the wall outlet and kept fumbling with the plug. Finally got it in, then had to move all the plugs to the new power strip and then claw my way back up and plug in the connector to the laptop, and VOILA!, the charge light came on and the power came back on, and I was limp with relief.

It took me another day to discover that my landline phones didn’t work. I will spare you the boring details of what I went through before giving in and calling TimeWarner, and also the paces that the tech support person put me through before she figured out that I had failed to plug in one of the phone cords between the modem, the computer, the wall, and at least one body orifice. (I’m kidding about one of those.)

news from social media

  • gazelle.com on Facebook: “People don’t say tissue anymore, they say Kleenex. Apple wants that for its iPad. It worked for its iPod.” (I don’t know, I’ve heard “tissue.”)
  • Kotex is on Twitter. I just can’t think of anything to tweet to it about. Maybe: “Suggest u change name 2 iKotex. Cross-ref. from iPad.”
  • I tweet: “How it feels to get old. Receptionist at dr’s office: ‘Oh you brought a book [to read while you wait]. It’s a BIG book!’ ” (Well-meaning condescension: better than the other kind?)
  • I tweet: “(1/2) In my hometown, growing up, you’d say ‘go to the store,’ ‘go to the show’ or ‘go to the drive-in’ and no one had to ask ‘which one?’ ”
  • I tweet: “(2/2) Now you still don’t have to ask which store, which show, but you have to specify McDs, BurgerK, TacoB, Arbys, ad nauseum (literally).”
  • Best title ever: “OMG: Stories of the Sacred” @TheMoth
  • Michael Moore tweets: “Every Michigander counts – even those who live an hour behind us on the WI border and root for the Packers.” (I reply: “Hey, don’t rub it in.”)
  • Albert Brooks tweets: “If I were president I would allow poor people to drink 1% milk.”
  • My only Twitter follower is my friend V. Well, I have 3 others, but they’re strangers and I can’t figure out why they would follow me. One day I checked out V’s Twitter page and was puzzled to find maybe 200 short tweets that didn’t seem to make sense. Found out later that she and her son were working companionably on 2 computers in the same room. She habitually utters her thoughts, random musings, and observations out loud, so, unbeknownst to her, her son opened a Twitter account in her name and tweeted everything she said while browsing on eBay and CNN. The tweets are hilarious when you know what was really going on. Here is a small sample:

—Wait a minute here…what happened?Wait a minute…Wait a minute..Uh oh.Oh-it’s there.False alarm.Never mind.[singing]Never mind,never mind.

—Oh yes, it is, oh, yes, I’ll say so, yes, indeed, uh-huh. I would say so. I would. I would say so.

—Utah has named an official state firearm.

—Let’s put this here. Let’s put that there. Let’s put that there.

—Ahhh-HA. Ahhh-Ha. Ahhhhhhh-Ha.

—That is very sweet… very cute. Forty dollars? I don’t think so.

—Uh-buh-buh-ba-ba-ba-ba-buhm.

—BART train falls off track. What?

—Oh, I’m going to have to get off my butt – I hate that!

—I did it! I got off my butt! I decided it was the right thing to do. It wasn’t so hard!

—Well, look at that. They’re getting a new library card. Oh, Okay. Ahh, the plot to bring down the British Empire, okay.

—Oh! Bingo! Zingo! Dango!

—Every day I’m still amazed I can move.

—[singing] Miiiinistrone. Miiiinistrone. Miiiinistrone. Miiiinistrone. Miiiinistrone. Miii-iiin-istro-ne.

—Goodness, gracious, I’ve GOT to get something accomplished today!

—All right, that’s it. I should do this. And I did this. I did this. And I need to do this. And what was i doing here? Was I reading this?

—I think if all Americans sat down & watched Donald Duck on Christmas eve it would unite us and wipe out all the animosity in our society.

  • By the way, you can follow Twitter on Twitter. You can also follow Facebook on Twitter. But can you “like” Twitter on Facebook? Yes, you can!! It’s a brave new world after all.

                                                                       

                            …follow me, I’m tweeting!

Mary McKenney

 


<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: