I am like a cat on the couch rubbing
my face–nose, mouth, cheeks–across
the blue velvet. This couch is my father’s
money, a small forgotten-about portion
left to the three kids he had first
and left first. No, he didn’t forget us
but he didn’t remember us either, not the way
the phone company he’d worked for through all
its identity crises had remembered that once,
possibly with a blue pen, my father had signed
our names and his name on company insurance documents.
My father’s money, too, bought the giltwood, caneback
chairs dressed in golden yellow upholstery and a blue,
white, and gold bracelet. And some bottles of wine
and several ice cream cones and a pound of unground
coffee. It may even have bought something hanging
in my small closet though I don’t remember now
and even if I were to push the hangers one by
one down the painted rail, I couldn’t be sure
I’d recognize my father. I am not a cat and the coffee
is long spent and the chairs are only chairs and my father
was a little too surprised when I wore a pretty black dress
and red lipstick to see him in the hospital his last
Christmas. And even when I scroll through my bank statement
sometimes and look for the small portion of the small portion
I’ve stuck into savings I see a little grace, I see a little
security, I do not see my father.
*I wrote this draft on September 6 after writing my morning pages when I didn’t really think I’d been thinking about my father at all.
I am thinking this morning about how I privilege sound over meaning. For example, I don’t care so much what The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock means because I love the sound of it so much. And the sound of it carries the emotion of it, which is more interesting to me than articulating any sort of precise–or even imprecise–meaning. Many of my own poems start with rhyme, rhythm. I long ago accepted that I often don’t know what my poems mean till years after. Poems tend to excavate my secrets long before my conscious mind can decipher them. Which is not to say I believe in writing nonsensically, but while I will fiercely pursue the “right” sound, I am willing to trust that the poem means something even if I can only glimpse the edges of that meaning. I tend to trust my intuition that it has an internal logic and meaning. And that is why I love readers. They reveal the poem and thus myself to me.
* A word on how I’m thinking about this series and by extension the series on writing about my body. In this particular season of my life, it doesn’t seem possible to write every day or near every day for 30 days straight. But it is possible to accumulate over time 30 bits of writing about a particular subject whether “over time” means over days or months or years. Which may mean I launch a series of series, or it may mean I stick with the body and writing as my subjects for the time being. I am concerned more with creating several loci around which to write rather than concentrating on a mass of writing over a constricted period of time. To borrow from Miss Dickinson, I am working on creating an environment on which to “dwell in possibility.”
“I contain multitudes…” — Walt Whitman
I contain fat-free yogurt and strawberries and blueberries. I contain half a bad veggie burger and some steamed corn that used to be frozen. I contain hot fudge. I contain the Tuesday night I almost died. I contain those days before Christmas when I was hit by a car. I contain corneas with a tendency to develop cracks. I contain my father’s voice not saying “I love you” right up till the end. I contain Lisinopril and Spiriva and Advair and Singulair and Zyrtec and and Nasonex. I contain the nurse from the insurance company insisting I must have COPD. I contain the man who stopped his car last week to ask for my number. I contain the bag of clothes in my closet I used to fit into last summer. I contain ice cream. And pizza. And donuts. I contain guilt. And shame. And anger. I contain wonder. And joy. And laughter. I contain the small trenches where my teeth used to be. And eye tissue from someone dead at least 15 years now. And alveoli that are perpetually petulant. I contain a great singing voice that can no longer easily find its way out. I contain the lyrics to Patsy Cline’s Crazy and the opening lines of Glen Hansard’s “Once.” I don’t know you but I want you all the more for that. I contain longing for skin against skin, mouth against mouth, kindness against grief. I contain Walt Whitman and Frida Kahlo and poor sad Mrs. Woolf down by the riverbank again. And the wrinkling neck of every courtesan Colette ever mourned in her pages. I contain ink. I contain pencils and their pink and willing erasers. I contain the clack and clack of fingers against keys: typewriter, piano, house. I contain each night I sobbed into the piano alone in the house some lucky afternoons. I contain each day I sobbed into the cold arms of the radiator as I curled myself into the hollow between it and the pink wall. I contain too many glasses of booze and not enough glasses of water and a map drawn so that a very fat boy could find his way home to me. I contain windows and doors and hallways. I contain lockboxes and safes and secret slits cut into the sides of mattresses. I contain Athena, Aphrodite, and Atalanta. I contain slings and arrows and always a single bullet in a single gun. I contain sorrow and the time after sorrow and the beautiful strong phoenix self that knows no other way but to persist.
It’s hard to feel unbeautiful when Josh Groban has his mellifluous tongue (virtually) stuck in my ear. And also when I’m drinking a bottle of sauvignon blanc I bought at the corner store on my way home from work. Which may point to a certain type of single-woman-of-a-certain-age solitude but has nothing to do with if I am beautiful. But what does have to do with beauty? Why do I feel beautiful on one day and not another? Or in one hour of the day and none of the others? Or vice versa? Is it the clothes? Is it the makeup? Is it the way the sun feels on my shoulders? Is it remembering–as my sunglasses slide down my sweat-slicked nose one. more. time.–how giddy I was when I first tried on said sunglasses? Is it the precise torque of curls in my hair? Someone might answer–it’s confidence, but I’d counter that confidence is as fickle a beast as any, perhaps moreso, and there have been plenty of days I’ve felt gorgeous while still feeling insecure about something or the other. Is the question what makes me feel beautiful, or what makes me feel unbeautiful? Which set of answers is most useful? Do I then avoid at all costs the unbeautiful makers and surround myself as much as possible with the beautiful makers? Or can certain things fall in either camp depending on the phase of the moon, if the bus is late or not, how many times I hit the snooze button, if I’m listening to Jack White or Josh Groban on the way to work, if I’m reading a romance novel or staring into space, if the person sitting next to me is thin or fat and I feel comfortable or squished in the seat, if I’m late or on time, if I took a shower that morning or the night before, if I have five meetings that day or not even one, if my sister has made me laugh for the 1,000th time this year or the 1,000,000th, if I get light cheese on my pizza or none at all, if I watch Jeopardy or get so caught up on Facebook that I forget, if I want to write a blog that night or I don’t want to write a blog? If I can’t aspire to feeling beautiful every minute of every day because the conditions are mutable, unknowable, irreproducible, imprecise, what then do I aspire to that gets to the same place? Or is the question not whether or not I feel beautiful but rather how sensitive I am to that place in me where I feel beautiful most of the time and know enough to fake it the rest of the time? When I don’t feel beautiful, am I just making to much noise of all the wrong sorts? Is it not the appreciation of our peculiar and singular and wonderful beauties that changes, but our willingness to walk in those peculiar and singular and wonderful beauties? Is it a choice?
Nine Thoughts About my Body
1. Maybe I’m going about it all wrong. Maybe I should be trying to live fully in the curves and lumps, folds and flab of this body. What if I should stop trying to be less than? What if it is this fullness of flesh that makes the rest–intelligence, humor, compassion, kindness–possible?
2. Which part of me is the part you can’t possibly love? Or like? Or whisper your desire to? What part of me should I cut off to be the right shape and size for you to love?
3. No one loves a person’s thinness, do they?
4. They say the average size of the American woman is a size 14. I have always read that statistic as if I should be that woman. It’s impossible to believe that I’m not just any woman. This body right now is my average. The body I inevitably shape-shift back to. It is the thin me that is not average, that is abnormal.
5. No one doesn’t love a person because of their fatness, do they?
6. Yesterday I probably weighed 230 pounds. Yesterday I walked down the street and felt beautiful. You might say you don’t believe either is true. Which statement is it worse for you to not believe?
7. Fat and failure are assonant. Fat and failure are not synonymous. Fat and failure are relative. I need to claim my meaning not yours.
8. It is possible that I fear not what you think of my ownership of this body but what might happen if I truly owned this body? If I poked and prodded and probed it for what it could do. If I could no longer pretend this body means the same thing as impossible.
9. Is my body smarter than I am? Is it impossible for me to be thin outside because I’m not thin inside? I mean because I’m fecund. Because I’m always in bloom. Is this fat the only way my body knows to show me who I truly am?
These days it’s hard to beat back the shame. After working really hard to lose weight–again–I’ve gained back not all, but pretty darn close to all the weight. Again.
This time I was pretty sure I’d figured it out: I’m a person of worth. I matter. I’m beautiful. I’m beloved by many. I’m not that defenseless kid who didn’t have any way to comfort herself except for with food. I can self talk my way out of overeating. I can self talk my way into exercising. What I feel on the inside is powerful and positive enough to inform and affect how I look on the outside. Cake really doesn’t solve anything.
Which is all true. Sometimes. Just not enough days in a row to make a lasting difference.
Many people in my life have seen me go up and down numerous times since I first walked into a Weight Watchers meeting somewhere in Downtown Crossing, Boston circa 1990. I’m fairly certain that for most of them, the number on the scale is the least of the things they consider important about me. Still, I can’t help but wonder–how many times can a person fail at weight loss without having that sheen of failure glint from everything she touches?
I know I’m possibly being melodramatic. But I’m not sure what other words to put around the enormity of this latest failure. How to accurately reflect that part of the reason I’m struggling in my long-awaited voice lessons is because I have to stare at myself in the mirror while I sing.
It’s not exactly that I don’t like what I see in the mirror. It feels more complicated than that. I like my long (currently blonde) hair. I like that my fingers and toes are always manicured. I love that I pluck my brows myself now and I’ve learned (finally) how to wear blush. I love that I spend way too much money in Ulta because I truly enjoy playing with makeup each day, how it is sort of a costume, not for hiding my face, but for saying something about who I want to be that day. Who I want to be in this life.
Still, the mirror reflects my shame. I think it’s not even shame about being a certain number on the scale. It’s shame about being that certain number AGAIN. It’s shame about not being able to stick the landing though this last time I lost weight was almost entirely about figuring out ways to maintain as I know that’s where I always stumble.
What I have learned about myself over the past 18 months is that I can do the hard things. Perhaps that’s something I should have already known or that you’ve known all along but… So maintaining isn’t a hard thing. It’s a ____________________ thing.
I’m the woman with the answers. The idea generator. The woman with a plan. The problem solver. The fixer.
I’m the woman who doesn’t know how to fill in the blank.
And I don’t know how to just let go of that desire to lose weight either even though I imagine part of the issue is exactly that holding on.
What I do know is that I walked away from this project for so many days because I didn’t want to write about shame. I didn’t want to write about being fat again. I didn’t want your sympathy or advice. I don’t want your sympathy or your advice. I don’t want you to tell me I’m beautiful. I don’t want you to tell me about your friend or sister or cousin who had a really hard time keeping weight off and then tried X. I don’t want you to ask me if I’ve considered surgery or not eating after a certain hour or Jenny Craig? I think maybe I just want you to tell me it’s okay to be average. To be the same as the thousands of people who’ve walked this road as many times or even more than I have only to end up at the same place again. Maybe I want you to tell me it’s okay to feel ashamed. We all feel it about something or the other. Maybe I want you to tell me I don’t always have to try and find the silver lining or the happy ending. Maybe I just want you to give me a nice piece of cake.
What I can control about the appearance of my body: how full my fat cells are, what clothes I put on my body, what products I put on my body in terms of keeping my skin moisturized, protecting my skin from the sun, highlighting certain features or covering others (like pimples), if my hair looks curly or straight, where hair is visible on my body
What I can’t control about the appearance of my body: the shape of my buttocks, the length of my limbs, the prominence of my knees, where my calf muscles are attached to my ankles, the shape of my right eye, the keratoconus in my corneas, the diameter of my wrists, the predisposition of fat to gather first on certain areas of my body, the length of my torso, the average ratio of my waist to my hips, the nerve damage that changed the shape of my smile circa 1998, the archless planes of my feet, the length of my fingers
What I might change about my body surgically if I had the money and the procedure was medically feasible: the shape and vertical position of my breasts, where my calf muscles are attached to my ankles
When I like my body best: When I am naked, when I am wearing a black bra and black panties and smiling at myself in the mirror, when I like the lipstick I have on, when I have just finished plucking my eyebrows, when I am hugging someone I love, when I keep going on a long walk even though my feet hurt, when I take on a physical challenge even though I know I’ll look ridiculous doing whatever it is
When I like my body least: When I am PMSing or on my cycle and I have to go through 4 or 5 outfits to find something to wear because nothing fits and I hate everything in my closet, when it betrays me with asthmatic wheezing or an attack of vertigo or a cluster of fibroids, when I don’t take on a physical challenge because I’m too scared to look like “the fat girl,” when there’s not enough room in a restaurant for me to squeeze between chairs and I have to ask people to get up so I can get by, when I can’t get up on a bar stool cause it’s too tall and I’m too short
Who I blame for how I feel about my body: That’s a dumb question.
Whose body I want: Mine. It’s been through a lot. Almost died from pneumonia. Been hit by a car. Had a corneal transplant. Been slit open from just above the pubis to just above the belly button because of tumors. This body isn’t perfect but it’s a survivor. I could learn from it if let myself.
A few words on beauty…
1. If you say I am beautiful and I can’t hear you over the pre-recorded narrative in my head and…
2. If you say I am beautiful but only mean it when you are dazzled by the unexpected gleam of my teeth and…
3. If you say I am beautiful and your voice ends on an ellipsis not a full stop and…
4. If I always hear a question mark when the conversation turns to my beauty and…
5. If I forget what I look like sometimes not because there is no mirror but because there is too much to feel and…
6. If I know how to say beautiful and hear beautiful but I don’t know where beauty rests in my body the way anger nests in the tensing of my shoulders and grace blooms in the opening of my palms and…
7. If by feel I mean buzz or bloom or fizz or fruit and…
8. If by beauty I don’t mean grace or gift or heart or kindness and…
9. If when I say beauty I want to talk only about what’s outside unmodified and unmediated and unqualified by what’s inside then,,,
10. When we talk about my beauty, where shall we start, what shall we say, how will we prosper the words that hold what we mean and what we don’t?
“Some tissue, such as bone, is especially dynamic. Each body structure has its own rate of reformation: the lining of the stomach renews itself in a week; the skin is entirely replaced in a month; the liver is regenerated in six weeks… after five years one can presume that the entire body is renewed, even to the very last atom.” — Larry Dossey, Space, Time, and Medicine*
This is the body that splayed itself o a cold thin table, offered up its soft belly to the surgeon’s finicky blade. This is not the same body that cowered in the kitchen, drowning in my mother’s rage: “I don’t care if it hurts your feelings to hear that you are ugly.” How many cells are left of the body that cuddled with mouther on the couch, her eyes wild with delight as she watched The Bachelor. This is almost the same body that woke up to an empty bed this morning. This will almost be the same body who wakes up tomorrow and stitches herself into a garment of grief. And the body five years from now, when there is nothing left of the hand that is writing this or the giddy mouth that kissed the famous author or the arms that held my father’s shrunken body which was not the same body he’d had the day before, the body now turned to ash and loss, my body of tomorrows, how will I recognize its electric arrival, how will I mourn its sweet shed skin?
* I borrowed this epigraph from Maureen Seaton’s “A Constant Dissolution of Molecules” for which this quote is also the epigraph.
10 Reasons to Be Fat
1. So your hands can’t reach all the way around when you try to hug me. So I can’t be trapped.
2. Cause nothing feels as good as cake tastes.
3. Everybody’s doing it.
4. Who doesn’t want invisibility as a superpower?
5. Who doesn’t want a permanent excuse from gym class (life)?
6. Sometimes despite your best intentions you grow up to be just like your mother in all the wrong ways.
7. Because I have neither the faintest idea what to do with a man (love) or to learn what to do with a man (love.)
8. Two words: portable fortress.
9. Four words: Scared not to be.
10. If you don’t love me like this, how will I know you really love me?