Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Through the puddle

Just now a cloud has pulled up
while I was talking to the Emptiness

of the Universe and my voice plugged into the waves

at the bottom of the ocean.

–Jason Shinder

It was March and the sidewalks were full of rain, when the man I was newly seeing stopped our ungainly umbrella-walk to look at some children. There was a large puddle on the cement in front of us, and these kids were playing in it—taking advantage of another crappy Ithaca day and finding in it cause for lightheartedness. X., beside me, sighed deeply and said, “I guess I’m just going to have to go through the puddle.” He was referring to the fact that officially, he was still someone else’s, and he was going to have to go through all the fallout of ending a long-term love.

He is a man I still sometimes wonder about. If I hadn’t, six months later, moved to New Mexico for grad school (where he sent cakes and other whimsical gifts to me through the mail), would we have stayed together, married? He’s long since wed someone else, and after following suit into (and in my case, out of) matrimony, I have put the question to bed. But the puddle is still there, so to speak, and I’m beginning to realize—as New Orleans evinces its painfully abundant fall beauty—that this time I really do have to go through it.

In the puddle are heartache, loss, my own ambivalence about intimacy. It holds the things those of us who can’t fall asleep do to avoid getting into bed (and also the peace that might eventually find us, given a chance)—which, for me, is mostly aimlessly surfing the web, scrolling through photos on Facebook that represent all my far-flung friends, as if the images could become less flat and distant, could accompany me in this haunted interior murk that rises up when the noise and the lights die down, when my child is asleep in her pink plastic bed and I go in to turn the AC up and look at her closed and flowering face.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Eye or I?

I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me... –Emerson

When I was 14 and spent the summer at camp in Blairstown, New Jersey, I had a couple of firsts: I finally bled (the last among my peers to do so) and had my first huge crush on a man. His name was Richard and he was 19, from London, fond of soccer and chess. I don’t know what created such combustion within me—a yearning that lasted for years. At first, he was just a cute guy my cabin-mates in our so-called “Algonquin Village” gushed about. Then, as I turned my own focus on him—because these other girls had, they must be on to something—I found him to be an excellent blank screen for projecting almost anything. He was tall, spiky-blond hair (this was 1989...), blue eyes and that accent that made wonderful things happen, as if he had melting ice cubes in his mouth so that everything he said was cool and without edges. And, God bless him, he was mostly quiet. So I had no real idea about his personality, opinions, etc. and could imagine all the best, imagine he secretly noticed me, too despite the fact that he was dating a girl his age who worked in the dining hall (my friends and I, envious, called her the “Kitch Bitch”). There was also the strong taboo element: others in whom I confided about my crush told me he would be arrested if he even laid a finger on me—which, duh, wasn’t exactly off-putting. When I left camp at the end of the summer, dragged away in my parents’ Volvo, I missed him—whose longest sentence to me had been, “You don’t have to pick those chips up, they’re biodegradable” (in that accent)—for months, for years.

That was the time, the moment, when my focus definitively changed from me looking out at the world, to me seeing everything through the Other as I imagined this Other looking at me, through me. (I am reminded of philosopher Simone Weil’s idea that God, who is referred to as male, can only love her as the space in Creation that she takes up; the more fully she submits or removes herself, the more God can fill and possess the space she leaves behind.)

…I was wearing a long tie-dyed t-shirt over my bathing suit, floating on an inner tube down the Delaware along with Richard, another counselor called Sarge, and a handful of kids, all of whom were somewhere in my line of sight but not nearby; when in a moment that seemed to magnify into a revelation, a shift, a bolt of knowledge or love, I saw everything around me—the swirling water, my bare legs and feet, trees rising up on the shore, the vivid Pennsylvania summer sky—imbued with significance and specialness as if I was not alone, as if Richard were inside my gaze, like I was imagining being him, almost, or feeling him finding my perspective fascinating and larger-than-life. This is how falling in love made me feel (and has): it replaced my “I” with the eye of the beloved in an ecstatic act of subjection, a hyper-aware openness.

How can I relish life with just my own eyes (and “I”), my own days, “reality” that feels like a ribbon ironed flat?

This is larger than a self-esteem issue, although that is involved. It’s why I write—as an act of reflection, to give the world to myself as if from outside, so I can feel the space that I, too, take up.

Thursday, September 16, 2010


The last time I saw my recent ex was on a hot August night when I visited his workplace. Nursing several glasses of wine, I had a long conversation with a woman a few years younger than me who bartends there. She had intentionally taken a significant amount of time away from romantic relationships to focus on herself. In that time she had done a cleanse, yoga, and a lot of reflecting, and is also training to become an alternative healer. Glowing with health and beauty, she concluded her description of her ongoing “single” experience by saying, in a tone of evident satisfaction: “My head is so quiet now.” My response was jealousy, for my head was not quiet. My head was like a 4 AM party that needs to be broken up by police or concerned neighbors. Even as I registered my response to this woman’s words—and her state of secure wellbeing—I could feel the howling wolves and broken glass of my inner hysteria…which, a couple of hours later, prompted me to initiate the end of that romantic relationship.

Now, about a month post- this latest breakup, I realize that I have either been in love with or dating someone since I was 18; almost half my life. What would it be like if the psychic energy I have been channeling toward men were poured back into me and my life? I also realize that to be a 35-year-old unemployed single mother is a horrible cliché. Around me, everyone I know has paired up. They have built or bought enduring structures. They appear able to, in the lingo of my Counseling studies, “form and maintain satisfying relationships,” both intimate and communal. Since about 18, non-sexual relationships have interested me very little: something that becomes clear whenever there is a holiday and I have no plans; that was apparent last month on my birthday when I did not receive a gift. How can I advise other people on how to succeed in relationships—of all kinds—until I can define what such success means to me?

I do not want to be judgmental here about my (or anyone’s) strong drive for love and sex. Trying to scrub these parts of me away or condescend to them would mean harming myself…which is exactly what I want to stop doing. I just want to press pause and see how I arrived at this state of things.

I am reminded of the end of the Jane Kenyon poem “Eating the Cookies,” which is about cleaning out the house after a close relative has died: the speaker pauses in her packing/folding and, for a moment, presses the last cookie from the tin against her forehead, “because / it seemed like the next thing to do.”

Saturday, September 4, 2010

A Transparent Life

When asked if I plan to have a second child, my answer is an immediate NO! as if I have been asked, instead, to debone a whole fish. (As Sara nears school-age, I have been delighted to get sleep, poetry, and other kinds of freedom back.) But there is another urge that has been growing in me for years: to join so many Americans in the strange act of writing a memoir.

Memoirs, in my understanding, used to be something you wrote when you were older or had experienced something catastrophic. Now, the field has been opened up and it seems that anyone, no matter how young or inexperienced, can write a memoir about anything. My creative inspiration has always been experience, and the only experiences I feel confident about recording are my own. Anais Nin wrote, “We write to taste life twice,” and I think there are some of us who have that taste—for whom living once isn’t enough. To have an experience, good or even awful, is one pleasure; to recreate past worlds of sensation and feeling is another that suggests a further pleasure of opening the vault of private experience to a wider world (why I blog): making private life into public record. Clearly, some people would rather be shot in the face than do this, but I have had an exhibitionist streak since the times when, during naptime in kindergarten, I would cross to the boys’ side of the room and flash them (who suggested this—them or me—is unclear).

I have read many memoirs this year as I’ve turned this wish over in my mind. Some were beautifully written—like Mary Karr’s Lit—some were about some combination of food, romance, and France; or, extending this further, butchery and infidelity (I really like, and was slightly embarrassed by, Julie Powell’s second book). Some also served as a self-help manual for the reader, teaching by example; maybe all, since another person’s story can always be internalized. Some I’ve read and thought, I can definitely write a better book than this person. But when it comes to it, I can never commit to a topic (depression? motherhood? marriage/divorce?) and get started. Maybe underneath, there is some conviction that I don’t dare speak about my little experiences; that I have nothing valuable to say to people.

During my senior year of college, I worked as an artist’s model. Once a week, myself and several forty-somethings met at a beautiful little house out in the country—lots of warm wood and glass doors, a transparent kind of house—and ate avocado salad and plates of rotini, sometimes proceeding to the outdoor hottub with our wineglasses and sharing a joint. Then, off would come my robe and I stood (or sat, knelt, or lay) among some white pillows in the center of the basement room under a spotlight. I did this, for something like $20 a session, because I thought it was a cool thing to do and because it scared the hell out of me. As a result, I did not create the best or most graceful poses. I think I looked rather stiff and awkward and, as one (male) artist remarked, I appeared skinnier when wearing my clothes. My nipples, as another person despaired, kept changing size due to uneven heating of the room (this was winter in upstate NY). In other words, I was completely under scrutiny: more than physically, it felt like. Because I believed the body—my own not-so-skinny 21-year-old body—to be the gateway to love, to being known as a person by another person. This was something I could barely conceive of at the time, since I’d had very few lovers and was about 10 years away from discovering the clitoris and any sense of ease during physical intimacy. But to reveal oneself, I learned, is an opportunity, opening one up to criticism, joy, and the complexity of things.

Self-disclosure, whose different forms I’ve pursued ever since, has never brought happiness—for long. But it has occasioned knowledge and, as my friend recently wrote in an email reflecting on my (transparently) messy life, knowledge is the most faithful of lovers.