On John Donne and Fish Pedicures

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In an earlier post I mentioned worrying about landing a job. (I think I’ve written about worry in every blog post, but I won’t in this one!) I am grateful to say that the Fear of Unemployment ship has sailed for me. I landed a job as an adjunct, teaching one section for now, at the school where I did my BA, so the whole thing feels a little like coming home. With the remaining weeks of summer, I am sifting through the stacks and stacks of books heaped in the tiny room that will one day have shelves, and making long lists of poems and short stories and essays and maybe even a novel that I will teach to a classroom full of freshmen to spark their curiosity and make them fall in love with the written word. I hope.

I’m late (again) on my internal deadline of one blog post a week, but this time only by a few days. I have been working on an essay, which is finally finished and has been sent off to three literary magazines in the hopes that maybe one will pick me. I recently read this article about embracing rejection letters and I am going to try for a hundred, too.

Yesterday, S and I went to see a friend who is renting a beach house. An up-on-stilts, ocean-in-the-backyard, all-tile floors-to-easily-sweep-the-sand-away, beach house. They live in this town, so the rental is like a hybrid staycation/vacation. They can go home to feed their cats and don’t have to stop the mail, but they sleep with sliding glass doors open to the sounds of the waves crashing and hang soggy towels off the veranda to dry in the sun.

It was high tide when we got there and the view from this side of town is completely different, so we went for a swim. S and my friend’s niece joined us. It was late afternoon, when that pink beach light makes everyone’s skin look luminous.

We waded in waist-high and I was telling my friend about my new job while we watched the sun-baked kids with their primary-colored buckets and swimsuits try to catch the transparent little bodies of minnows swimming around us in schools.

The tiny darting fish reminded me of the fish pedicure trend that I read about a while back. A fish pedicure, or fish spa, is a treatment that involves submerging one’s feet into a tub of water filled with Garra rufa fish, also known as “doctor fish,” and then allowing the fish to eat away the dead skin.

The CDC website lists seven reasons why some states have banned this practice. The third reason is that the Chinese Chinchin, another species of fish, is often mislabeled as a Garra rufa and is then used in these fish spas. The problem with this mistake is that the Chinchin grows teeth and can draw blood, which is not only terrifying, but also increases the risk of infection.

With my mind on both flesh-gnawing fish and syllabi, I am reminded of John Donne’s “The Flea.”

 

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,

How little that which thou deniest me is;

It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,

And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;

Thou know’st that this cannot be said

A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead,

 Yet this enjoys before it woo,

    And pampered swells with one blood made of two,

    And this, alas, is more than we would do.

Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,

Where we almost, nay more than married are.

This flea is you and I, and this

Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is;

Though parents grudge, and you, w’are met,

And cloistered in these living walls of jet.

    Though use make you apt to kill me,

    Let not to that, self-murder added be,

    And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.

Cruel and sudden, hast thou since

Purpled thy nail, in blood of innocence?

Wherein could this flea guilty be,

Except in that drop which it sucked from thee?

Yet thou triumph’st, and say’st that thou

Find’st not thy self, nor me the weaker now;

    ’Tis true; then learn how false, fears be:

    Just so much honor, when thou yield’st to me,

    Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.

I wonder then, in the parts of the world where fish pedicures are practiced, are the Garra rufa like Donne’s flea, mingling the dead skin cells of strangers in their bellies in a way that some might say is like an act of love? Are the poor souls (my apologies for the pun) who accidentally dip their toes into tubs of Chinchin fish anything like Donne’s seventeenth-century young couple? There is no lover in these spas, I guess, only the starving fish pedicurers and the rough feet of the pedicurees, but the grotesque intimacy is there.

And as I edit this post and fidget with all of the open tabs on my computer, I receive an email from one of the journals I sent my essay to. A rejection. My words squashed between the fingers of an editor.

Only ninety-nine more to go.

The World is a Suckfest Right Now

horseshoe-crab-589914_1280I haven’t written a blog post in eighteen days, which is maybe no big deal, but when I started this project I intended to write a post a week.

I am not alone in my sea of wordlessness. So many other writers I am friends with or admire are floating alongside me. And other non-writers are bobbing along, too.

The world is suckfest right now and I am terrified and I have been hoping for some little ray of light to illuminate a wave of change and give me some sort of something to say that won’t be filled with lead.

It’s not happening.

Alton Sterling and Philando Castile have been added to the disgustingly long list of black lives lost at the hands of police. A sniper shoots at police in Dallas during what should have been a peaceful protest and five officers die. A terrorist drives through families celebrating Bastille Day in Nice and eighty-four people are dead, ten of them children. Turkey’s military forms a coup and over two hundred people die.

I don’t even know why the flag is at half-mast. Which tragedy are they honoring? Do we even bother to raise it anymore?

On Saturday, we went to the beach and on our way out of the waves we saw a horseshoe crab belly-up on the sand. It happens a lot, especially during their mating season. They get flipped and if they can’t get enough traction with their tails to turn right side up, they die.

We looked at it closely, sad. And then my husband noticed it move. Just a little leg flicker. He picked it up so so so gently and we three walked back into the water and let her go. Before she scurried out to sea she walked over each of our feet. I wanted to think it was some sort of animal-human connection. A thank you, maybe.

She was probably just confused from being upside down. I was certainly touched by the event, but too jaded for much hopeful introspection.

S spends Saturday nights with his dad, which makes me sad but also gives me time alone with my husband. We walked downtown and there was a man with an acoustic guitar playing in the courtyard of the little café on the corner. He was great. He sang everything from James Taylor to Soundgarden to the Indigo Girls.

I’m trying to tell you something about my life
Maybe give me insight between black and white
The best thing you’ve ever done for me
Is to help me take my life less seriously, it’s only life after all
Well darkness has a hunger that’s insatiable
And lightness has a call that’s hard to hear
I wrap my fear around me like a blanket
I sailed my ship of safety till I sank it, I’m crawling on your shore.

We had wine and laughed and enjoyed the weather and our beautiful town and each other.

On the way home we saw Walt, a homeless man who always greets us with a fistbump and has the clearest blue eyes. Over the winter, my huge-hearted husband picked up Walt and his best friend Thomas and put them up in a motel to get them through a particularly brutal cold snap.

We asked about Thomas and Walt told us that he had died. He died in the street after getting yelled at by the landlord of the large harbor condominiums with the secluded parking lot where these two often slept. He died with a skin infection that went untreated because homeless people don’t get medical insurance. He died without his family.

Our walk home was silent as we let our tears fall.

And then there is a shooting in Baton Rouge. Small anguishes and big ones have gutted me.

I wonder about PTSD and wonder if anyone has thought about how both of the police shooters were former military. I wonder if our increasingly militarized police force will ever become a peaceful force. There are dots to connect here, but I don’t have enough facts to connect them.

I wonder if marginalized people will ever feel unafraid. I wonder if we will ever stop calling people who aren’t straight, white Christians “marginalized.”

I am watching people divide about whether #blacklivesmatter is undermining other lives and I wonder why people don’t get it. There are essays and memes and comic strips delineating what the difference is, explaining how important this is, not because other lives matter less, but because Black lives don’t matter right now.

People only don’t see the difference. And the divide is getting wider.

(This article so beautifully explains the difference between #blacklivesmatter and #bluelivesmatter.)

And this:

“Because it (dehumanization) is a distortion of being more fully human, sooner or later being less human leads the oppressed to struggle against those who made them so. In order for this struggle to have meaning, the oppressed must not, in seeking to regain their humanity (which is a way to create it), become in turn oppressors of the oppressors, but rather restorers of the humanity of both”

The first sentence succinctly describes what is happening now. The second statement is what #blacklivesmatters is, a seeking, though not to regain, but to gain humanity, not by violence, not by oppressing the oppressors, but with peace and education. This excerpt, though, is from Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, written in Portugal in 1968.

When will it stop?

What world is this?

later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?

it answered
everywhere
everywhere
everywhere.
—Warsan Shire, “What They Did Yesterday Afternoon”

Photographic Memory

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My paternal grandparents on their wedding day, 1950.

My paternal grandmother was in a car accident before I was born, or shortly after, which is why she had braces on her legs and walked with a crutch. Her maroon Buick was outfitted with a device that allowed her to drive using only her hands. She had been married two or three times, so her last name was different from ours, and every August she would take us, one at a time, back-to-school shoe shopping at a local shoe store called The Little Red School House. It was a squat building and dark inside, and although it was little, it was neither red nor a schoolhouse. Inside, a man with thick, nicotine-stained fingers that looked like my dad’s would press my socked foot into a cold metal cradle lined with black hatch marks to determine my shoe size. He always gave me a piece of hard Bazooka gum after ringing us up and then I would climb into the back seat of her modified car, sucking on the gum and then scraping the left-behind sugar from the Bazooka Joe comic strips with my teeth. We would go to Duchess for lunch, eat plain hot dogs and salty crinkle fries dipped in room temperature ketchup and my grandmother would ash her long Newports into the silver foil ashtray on the table.

I remember very little about the concrete facts of her life. I know she was from Rhode Island but I don’t know how she came to live in Connecticut. I don’t know how she met my grandfather or when they divorced. I do know she had three children and that my father was the youngest. I can’t recall where she worked or what her favorite food was. I can conjure up the image of the brick apartment building she lived in when we were small, that her couch was covered with a plastic slipcover, and that she collected bells and kept parakeets as pets.

I have a photograph of her and my grandfather, taken on their wedding day. It is one of those retouched old pictures, lightly painted, so it becomes something in-between a black-and-white photo and a color one. The hues are all pastel. Their teeth are very white. Nothing about it seems real, because the paint covers any natural lines and creases on their faces. When I look at it I see two young people I only knew as old people, people with traits that are familiar because they are mine, and foreign because they aren’t. As I stare at it longer I notice my grandmother’s left hand is curled, her fingers are pressing into her thigh. Why is she doing this? Was she nervous? What was she thinking about? This small pose makes me see the whole picture in a different way.

“A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).” Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography

My grandmother slept over our house every Christmas Eve and would read us The Night Before Christmas before bed. She bought us red fleece one-piece “feetie-pajamas” and we would zipper ourselves in and line up neatly on the sofa. From far away, we probably looked like a holiday card. On Christmas morning my grandmother would watch us open gifts and then she would join us for Christmas dinner at my maternal grandparents’ house. She would follow us up their front stairs, one arm’s tricep cradled in the upper part of her crutch, her gait balanced by the weight of the overstuffed handbag slung over her other shoulder, where inside a dozen other cousins also called her Grandma Peggy, even though they weren’t related.

“The dominant ideology of the family, in whatever shapes it takes within a specific social context, superposes itself as an overlay over our more located, mutual, and vulnerable individual looks, looks which always exist in relation to [the]“familial gaze”—the powerful gaze of familiarity which imposes and perpetuates certain conventional images of the familial and which “frames” the family in both senses of the term.” –Marianne Hirsch, Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory

As time wore on and we grew up, I saw her less and less. I went several years or maybe a decade without visiting her at all. I don’t remember her at my father’s funeral, although I am sure she was there. I can’t recall whether we mailed each other holiday cards or if she ever called me on the phone. I do know that she developed emphysema but still smoked. That she had a stroke. That she had dementia. I also remember that she loved “Danny Boy” and I can still recall the sound of her laugh.

My mother is the one who called to let me know when my grandmother was in a nursing home not far from where I lived and that she was dying. I visited her on a chilly autumn evening. She was lying in a hospital bed with a corded remote. Her hands were in splints to prevent atrophy and she had tubes in her nose to help her breathe. Her skin was oddly smooth. She looked small and far away. I stood next to her bed and leaned over to kiss her forehead and say hello, my chubby infant resting on my hip, balancing my tilted frame. She looked up at me and smiled and called me by her daughter’s name and told me I had a pretty baby. He grabbed at her fingers and laughed.

 “Thus the life of someone whose existence has somewhat preceded our own encloses in its particularity the very tension of History.” –Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography

 

 

 

 

Returning

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Last Friday was a gorgeous day in a string of gorgeous days. Warm and sunny, with an almost imperceptible breeze rustling the leaves. The petals on the dogwoods are starting to fall, which oddly look like snow and make me realize how wonderful New England weather is.

I picked S up at camp at 3:30. He is already tan, freckled, and blond. His little boy beauty nearly knocks me over. I am trying to enjoy these summer days, to relish in the tiny moments of  peace, to stop fretting about the job search. To relax and just be.

His backpack and his knees were filthy from kickball and hiking. He tumbled into the car, buckled his seatbelt while chugging warm water out of his purple plastic bottle and then asked, like he does so often, “What are we going to do when we get home?”

I can’t remember now whether I answered him or whether it was his idea, but before we got home it was decided that we would ride our bikes downtown to get ice cream. He got a new bike this spring, a seven-speeder, and we haven’t had a chance to ride it much. And we haven’t let him ride it downtown yet, because the traffic is often heavy and the roads are a little narrow. And I worry too much.

After pulling our bikes out of the basement, I grabbed the helmets, stuck my key into my wallet, pocketed my phone, took several deep breaths, and we were off.

He rode in front of me, a little wobbly, but with increasing confidence. He even stood up a few times. We walked our bikes through the big intersection, and when we got to the ice cream place we parked them outside by the window before going in.

We ate our sundaes at a little round bistro table on the sidewalk. I didn’t make him wash off his chocolate mustache before we headed back home. We went a different way, still choosing to walk our bikes through the busy spots, but taking a shortcut through a parking lot.

***

The parking lot is next to a municipal building and an auditorium, and as we pedaled through, scores of young girls in bright costumes were filing into their recital. The scene reminded me of my niece’s recital last week, and then I remembered my post from that weekend. I wrote an essay that came out of me in a rush as I tried to understand the catastrophic shooting in Orlando. I wrote it as a way to work through what I couldn’t understand. I still don’t understand, but a few people have reached out to me after reading it and said they felt that I had written a message about hope. I hadn’t intended it to be hopeful, but it felt good to give that to a few readers who were also feeling uncertain.

I know I used the word “hope” in the essay, but I wasn’t really feeling it when I wrote it. Hopeless is how I felt. Kind of empty and defeated. Angry. I used the word “angry” far more times than I used “hope.” No one remarked about that. I would like to think that means more people are drawn to hope than to anger.

***

Once we bobbed and weaved through the dancers and their families we stopped. We had one more major road to cross before we were home free. I patted down my pockets to find my phone and check the time, to get my key out of my wallet. I had my phone. But not my wallet.

My fingers went a little numb. My ears burned from more than just the sun. My heart pounded so loudly I couldn’t think for a moment.

“What’s wrong mom?”

“I lost my wallet. It’s not in my pocket.”

I knew I had to be calm, so I whispered the words “fuck” and “shit” instead of yelling them. We couldn’t just go home and make a few calls because I had stuck my key in my wallet. I couldn’t buy us water and time at a restaurant or café because I had no money.

I had to stay calm and make a plan. I didn’t want to upset my son, but I also needed him to know that this was important and I needed his help.

“Ok bubs. Here’s the plan. We’ll bring the bikes home and then we’ll walk back and retrace our steps. I need your help. Keep your eyes peeled and remember where we were.”

We followed our path all the way back to the ice cream shop. Nothing. We stopped into stores. Nothing. I could tell S was starting to worry; he was muttering about this being “the worst day ever.”

At the crosswalk I held his hand and thanked him. I explained that although this certainly wasn’t the best way to wrap up our day, it was really no big deal. I would cancel the credit cards, get a new license, and we would change the lock on the backdoor. What truly matters is that we are happy. We are healthy. We have bellies full of hot fudge. We are very lucky people.

“Let’s go to the train station and wait for Matt.”

My husband had left work early and it was almost time for his train to get in. Once he arrived we could get into the house. S’s dad was taking him for the night. Then my husband and I could deal with the credit cards and locks together.

I sent Matt a text to let him know what had happened.

He reminded me that he didn’t have a key, either. He had left them with me.

I called my mother-in-law to meet us with her spare key. I told S we had to walk back home and wait for her to unlock the door, and then we could go inside and have huge glasses of water and relax on the couch. He hadn’t complained about the heat or being thirsty. He nodded and slipped his hand in mine. I repeated to him that this really isn’t a major catastrophe. I reminded him that in the big picture, this is only a drop in the bucket. He stayed quiet. I stopped talking. We walked the nine minutes home hand in hand.

***

Maybe I was surprised by people’s reactions to my Pulse post because the word “hope” sometimes connects me, uncomfortably, to religion. When I hear that word, I see stiff felt banners with white doves and dark stained glass windows of saints proclaiming miracles for those who have hope and faith.

I am agnostic. I haven’t attended or believed in church in twenty years, and somewhere along the way I even started to avoid the vocabulary. But I haven’t let go of some of the traditions. There are little stones of my Catholic upbringing rolling around in my shoes and I can feel them when I’m worried. When I realized my wallet had dropped out of my pocket, after I whispered four-letter words, I  prayed to St. Anthony. A vestigial reflex from my childhood.

***

When we got home, S and I clamored up the two steps of our front porch, sweaty, frustrated, and defeated. And there it was. Looking a little limp, the gray zipper closed, the patterned fabric dirty and frayed. My wallet, tossed up on our doorstep by some honest stranger.

We were both wide-eyed. I picked it up. It was hot from being in the sun. My credit cards were in there. My license. Three wet, wrinkly dollar bills. Wadded up receipts. Our house key.

***

Some people say “lucky” and others say “blessed.” Some look for hope and faith, others for charms and signs. One person’s “Do unto others” is another person’s Karma.

What matters is kindness.

 

 

 

 

 

Pulse

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Last night we went to my niece’s dance recital. It was three hours long. I learned that she is a very talented gymnast and I envy both her flexibility and her confidence. The theme of the night was “Dancin’ Around the World,” and we were supposed to imagine that we were following three women vacationing on a cruise ship. At each “port” a dance class performed to a song, which was or was not specific to the “country” the dancers were in, while wearing costumes that were mostly also supposed to reflect the region. They danced to songs like “Walk Like an Egyptian” and the Can-Can. At the end, the longest set was focused on the ship’s return to America, and six classes now joyfully danced to songs like “Yankee Doodle” and “Cotton-Eyed Joe.” There was a huge flag unraveled at the end. As I watched, I thought about how I was going to write about how uncomfortable I was. How the songs and costumes seemed to be based solely on stereotypes, essentializing cultures and people and customs, and how the culmination of exaggerated fanfare about the “homecoming” to America and the patriotic songs that tout peace knocked me off-kilter, because I feel so much turmoil right now. That the unwavering patriotism at the end seemed fluorescent, neon, and too bright and too false, even for a dance recital in for a dark grammar school in the valley of Connecticut.

But when I woke up this morning, like everyone else, I checked my phone, and, like everyone else, I was rocked. I read NPR first. It said up to twenty people had been shot and killed in a bar in Orlando, and maybe it was a hate crime because it happened in a gay bar, or maybe it was terrorism. Maybe more people were dead. Maybe the shooter was a member of ISIS. Lots of maybes. Lots of speculation. I stopped, my body frozen in disbelief. I kept reading. Pulse, they reported, was the name of the club.

I didn’t cry. I wanted to cry. I couldn’t. I floated above it, unsure, afraid. I had coffee with my husband. We talked about it briefly. We left the house to run errands. To have a Sunday. But it stayed there, in my head, in my heart, shaking my day, as I stopped to check my phone, read the headlines, watch the number of fatalities increase, read comments that disgusted me. Read political tweets that terrified me.

This Slate article reveals that five of the most recent mass shootings used the same type of assault rifle, and all were purchased legally. The One Thing that Five Recent Mass Shootings Have in Common.

Stop there for a minute. Think about that headline and let that sink in. That there have been five recent mass shootings to make this connection.

All day I felt…heavy. As I checked the news, standing in line at Ikea, trying to wrap my head around this tragedy, this devastating slaughter, I thought about the families that are waiting, hanging, suspended in a grief we can only be so lucky to escape, while I hold flower pots and my husband’s hand. The death toll climbed. I tell my husband that the reports now state fifty people are dead.

Then I see an article about Donald Trump’s statements in the aftermath of this tragedy. My stomach lurches. Yankee Doodle, keep it up. He is using the actions of a hate-filled man to build up a case against an entire population of people. He tweets; “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism.” I am furious.

There are news reports about the shooter beating his now ex-wife. His 911 call pledging allegiance to ISIS. Articles are focusing on his past. On his guns. And also on the victims and their families. People are dividing.

Fifty people died because one man believed a group of men and women were doing something he believed was wrong.

One man is using this tragedy to underpin his argument that an entire group of people is wrong. Mind the music and the step.

When we got home, we went out back to do yard work. My husband planted some climbing hydrangeas along the split rail fence. I weeded out the two rectangular patches where the vegetable garden should go. We planted a garden here last year too, but nothing grew. It was either too shady or the soil was depleted from a large Hosta that had been growing there for years. I transplanted the Hosta last spring. In the fall we had the walnut tree trimmed back to allow for more sunlight. We have almost two years worth of compost in the bin at the edge of yard. This year, our second year in this house, I hope we can grow our own veggies.

I pulled and pulled at weeds that were nearly as tall as I am. Some of them resisted, clung to the earth. Others slid right out, root balls covered in dirt, huge clumps of mud stuck to the white clawing roots. I pulled and pulled, angry at the world. Angry at the hate, at the ignorance. Angry because people call this terrorism because it was committed by a man who claimed to be a Muslim, but when white men commit these crimes they are described as lone gunmen, as mentally ill, as products of failed parents, failed systems. I live twenty minutes from a town where a young white man shot and killed twenty six and seven-year olds and six educators. My nephews live in that town. I pulled, angry that we don’t have stricter gun laws, furious that the ignorant and vicious comments of one man are backed by millions, that this man could be our president, my country tis of thee, sweet land of liberty. I have family members that like him. I pulled harder. I shook earthworms back into the soil. Watched them burrow their shiny bodies deep into the ground, hoped they would help this part of my yard to yield broccoli and tomatoes and beans. Hoped they would live even though I had disrupted their lives.

I threw weeds into piles, watched as they wilted. Fuming. Again. Swarming with feelings. Sadness. Thinking about the gravity of that many lives, the ripples through families and communities. Seething. Devastated. My hands filthy, my knees and feet caked with mud.

I heard tapping and looked up. My neighbor was standing there, watching me, softly drumming her fingers on the fence rail and smiling. I don’t know how long she was there. She had also been doing yard work and had stopped to talk. I stepped out of my fog, away from the weeds, stomped over the pile of curling leaves and exposed roots, pulled off my gloves to say hi. To talk about our kids, our summers, when we would get together for a glass of wine, what we wanted to plant this year. She saw my pile of weeds and told me she had the same type.

“Didn’t you notice the little purple flowers at the top?” she asked. “I thought they were too pretty to pull just yet. So I left them.”

She invited us over for a BBQ next weekend, Father’s Day, because her son is graduating from high school on Tuesday. I went back to work, hoed the two plots flat. Went to the compost bin to shovel two years worth of eggshells, teabags, apple cores, and coffee grounds into this barren space, hoping it to make it fruitful.

I finally understand, I think, Homi Bhabha and his idea of the third space. I’m here, but not, existing somewhere between my physical world and a remote place in Florida where life has changed.

I shoveled and raked. My back ached. My jaw hurt because my anger was settling in my bones. Hard work is a distraction and a release within this weird space of normalcy where things are anything but normal.

I spread mounds of dark wet scraps into the garden. Each time I returned to the bin I had to push away at a patch of scratchy leaves towering over me. They made me jump. I felt like bugs were crawling on my face and body.

Rake. Dig. Pull. Shovel. Dirt and kitchen scraps. Death and decay into growth. Hope.

The scratching leaves, I noticed, as the sun started to set, as dusk settled in, as the last moments of Sunday slipped away, were more of the towering weeds I’d spent my afternoon pulling out. Their small flowers with delicate purple petals and fuzzy yellow centers were growing with wild abandon on the small hill, proud, stretching, swaying. I stopped. They were beautiful. Alive.

I left them there.

 

“Humanism is the only – I would go so far as saying the final- resistance we have against the inhuman practices and injustices that disfigure human history.” –Edward Said

Everything is Governed by the Rule that One Thing Leads to Another

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My friend Rachel recently posted a short essay I wrote over the winter on her blog. The essay is one I wrote when I was grappling with my little boy being not so little any more, yet Rachel writes in parenthesis, “For some reason I am thinking of Ani Defranco out of nowhere.”

Rachel and I met at grad school orientation and instantly became friends. We are both moms; our boys birthdays are only two weeks apart. We bonded first because we were different from the rest. And we became friends because we are very much alike.

But she had no idea how much of an Ani fan I was (am). I had never told her that Ani’s music was the soundtrack to my college years; how her lyrics coursed through me in the late nineties as I waded my way through relationship troubles and my first tastes of feminist criticism.

Today I dug out an old CD to play while I alternated between cleaning and writing. Living in Clip, which is a two-disk set but I can only find disk two.

The fifth song is “Firedoor” and I sing loudly. Halfway through the song, the music softens and she switches into “Amazing Grace” for a bit before going back to singing about catching her lover with someone else.

Someone played a recording of “Amazing Grace” at my father’s funeral. About halfway through the song my sister leaned over and whispered to me, “They should be playing Guns N Roses.” My dad liked loud rock.

Two years later, my sister had a daughter and she named her Patience. Today, she turns ten.

 

Rewinding, Rereading, Repeating

“My writing is riddled with such tics of uncertainty. I have no excuse or solution, save to allow myself the tremblings, then go back later and slash them out. In this way I edit myself into a boldness that is neither native nor foreign to me” –Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts p.98

 

I just finished reading Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and now I’m doing that thing where I try to get my hands on everything she’s ever written. My Amazon cart is pretty full. I won’t take them out of the library because I know I will want to write all over the insides. And, I owe the library money for an overdue copy of My Dog Smells Like Dirty Socks. (Full disclosure: I still have it. It got packed in a box when we moved and I am too embarrassed to go there and confess. It’s been two years.)

I finished reading The Argonauts on the train. I closed it and put it in my bag. And then I took it back out and read all the praise on the back. And then her bio and acknowledgements. And then all the praise in the first pages of the book. And then the publishing information and that end page that tells you about cover design and font and whether it is printed on recycled paper. (It is thirty percent post consumer wastepaper. Yes.)

I wasn’t ready to put it away.

So I started to read it again, without waiting to fully digest what had happened. I wanted to wholly absorb it. Study it, like notes for an exam. Make them a part of my brain so I could recollect them easily. Remember the paragraphs like I would remember the chambers of the heart. I needed to repeat each passage immediately.

When we were kids, my sister and I loved to watch Bambi—the Disney cartoon with the baby deer whose mother gets shot by a hunter, and whose standoffish father, “The Great Prince,” can silence the entire forest with his presence.

In the beginning of the movie, a wobbly-legged Bambi meanders through the forest with his friend Thumper, and at one point the fawn-protagonist bends his head into a patch of flowers and takes a whiff, and his nose touches the nose of a tiny skunk. Bambi, who is just learning to talk, calls him a “pretty flower,” and Thumper rolls on the ground, laughing at Bambi’s faux pas and naiveté. “That’s not a…” he trails off, before the demure skunk replies, with his head pointed down, “He can call me a Flower, if he wants to.” There is giggling and much eyelash blinking, before Flower finally looks over his shoulder and sighs, “Oh, gosh.”

(Here’s a YouTube clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=54sZ8TFFAmY)

It is a minor scene, probably intended to introduce a new character, make a little joke, and perhaps nudge in a Shakespearean allusion to roses by any other name. But this scene was our favorite. We would obsess over it, watching it and then rewinding it over and over again, saying Flower’s lines along with him each time.

Maybe it was the sweet voice we wanted to hear again. Or it might have been the aesthetic, the soft colors of the forest and the big, overdrawn eyes of the characters. But I think it was probably the innocence of the scene that drew us in. Bambi had not yet lost his mother. The forest hadn’t burned down, and Bambi had no need to fear Man. He was just a small, shaky deer looking to make a new friend. He didn’t care about reputations. He didn’t know that skunks are reviled, avoided, the butt of jokes. Over and over, we watched this tiny moment. “He can call me Flower. If he wants to.”

In The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson delves deeply into complicated philosophies and psychology and literature theories to examine and tell the story of her life—her love affair with Harry, her role as a stepmother, their struggle to get pregnant—parenthood and motherhood both understood and misunderstood. Gender and queer theory marry feminism and child psychology. Judith Butler dances with Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Julia Kristeva with and Leo Bersani. And they all sing the songs that make up Nelson’s life. It is glorious.

About halfway through the book, Nelson makes a point about labels and identities, a point I’ve thought about before, a point I might even be guilty of myself. She is writing about Judith Butler, and when I read it my brain started tingling, remembering the first time I read Butler’s words as an undergrad after my adviser wrote, “Sex and gender are social constructs” in the margin of a paper I wrote. I remember reading Gender Trouble and thinking, “God, she is so fucking SMART.”

Nelson, who is also so fucking smart, writes about Butler’s observation about her own identity, how she wrote a book questioning identity politics and then became a token of lesbian identity, a victim of commodification. Nelson writes,

“[T]he simple fact that she’s a lesbian is so blinding for some, that whatever words come out of her mouth—whatever words come out of the lesbian’s mouth—certain listener’s hear only one thing: lesbian, lesbian, lesbian. It’s a quick step from there to discounting the lesbian—or, for that matter, anyone who refuses to slip quietly into a “postracial” future that resembles all too closely the racist past and present—as identitarian, when it’s actually the listener who cannot get beyond the identity that he has imputed on the speaker…”

When Bambi calls his new friend Flower, Thumper roars with laughter, proclaiming, “That’s not a flower.” He laughs because he sees this name as a mistake, for he simply sees him as a skunk, a creature known for a dreadful smell, an animal to be avoided, not befriended. Bambi, in his innocence, is unaware of these social constructs, understanding only that he has discovered a beautiful friend in a patch of flowers. Bambi calls him as he sees him. And don’t all children do that? So then, why not Flower?

But Thumper watches this exchange and sees only what he has learned. He sees skunk, skunk, skunk, and laughs at Bambi’s mistake.

“And then we scamper off to yet another conference …and shame the unsophisticated identitarians, all at the feet of yet another great white man pontificating from the podium, just as we’ve done for centuries” (54)

Flower is aware of his position in the hierarchy of the forest. And his response to Bambi shows it. He is pleased at this unexpected baptism, at this assertion of his beauty, so much so that his response is apologetic, submissive, bashful. That pregnant pause before he looks Bambi in the eye and says, “If he wants to” is stuffed with the hesitation and disbelief of someone who has been bullied, misunderstood, and shamed. What Flower seems to be saying is, “He can call me whatever he wants, if he’s going to be nice.”

Which brings me back to Nelson, when she examines language and gender and apologies and privilege. As we get closer to the end of her story, as she bares it all and uses all that she knows to understand her world, she writes, “Afraid of assertion. Always trying to get out of ‘totalizing’ language, i.e., language that rides roughshod over specificity; realizing this is another form of paranoia” (98).

Is that what is happening here? Flower is afraid of asserting himself, so used to being denied friendship because of how he is perceived. He is afraid to step out of the totalizing language, for he lives in a world where names denote characteristics: Bambi the baby deer, Thumper, the large-footed rabbit, Friend Owl, the wise (male) overseer to all the woodland creatures, and the countless times mothers are referred to only as “Mrs. (insert animal here).” Names are not specific; they are broad character generalizations.

Nelson goes on to explain women’s tendencies, her own tendency, to over-apologize. She describes the “gendered baggage” of writing with uncertainty. So accustomed to apologizing, so adapted to criticism, so familiar with character generalizations that we gaze up at the laughing men above us and are bashful when someone sees us as more than a stereotype. It’s brilliant.

So then we can understand Flower not as the punch line to a joke, but as a relatable character, so familiar to ridicule that he stumbles over himself when noticed. Who, for better or for worse, falls over with modesty when someone is kind, when someone sees him for who he is, not what he is. Flower apologizes not because of “gendered baggage,” but because of “species baggage.”

My sister and I were too young to see Flower as a male version of our stigmatized girl-selves. We were too young to understand the cruelty of essentializing. We could not comprehend the complexity of this scene, but we were drawn to it, insistent upon replaying it. We knew this scene by heart. It became a part of our routine.

I think repeatedly experiencing a piece of art in order to commit it to memory becomes an identity marker. Unknowingly relating to a cartoon skunk is, in hindsight, a testament to the internalization of gender (or species) roles. Instantly needing to reread The Argonauts made me realize how deeply I needed to read the life of someone who understands and lives with such markers. Who writes brilliantly about gender and literature, who is a mother, like me, and a spouse, like me, and struggles, like me. I’m sure I will read it again and again, in order to bask in the remarkable beauty of language and in order to see parts of me within it.

Seriously, she is so fucking SMART.