Many mornings I send a long text to my sister to let her know I’m thinking of her. I usually end those texts with #GNF (“Give No Fucks” for those of you who don’t speak acronym or hipster slang.)
At the venerable age of 46, you’d think I’d be a world champion #GNF-er. I mean, I’m an artist, for goodness’ sake. Aren’t we all rule-breaking free spirits who wouldn’t know a boundary or a stricture if it slapped us in the face? And isn’t part of being a woman of a certain age being so confident and wise that the little things like what others think of one’s appearance just don’t matter?
And it’s true that today I’ve been wandering around—outside of the apartment even!—wearing paint-covered shorts and a black tank top, which is not scandalous at all until I disclose that I’m also braless and my armpits haven’t seen a razor in at least a year. I mean I’m all about the #GNF today, at least sartorially. And mortified at the way I’m dressed the whole time.
I had a friend once who said she admired me greatly for my impulsiveness, my free spiritedness. We’re no longer close friends, probably cause she never knew me well enough to see how deeply structured and rule-bound my life actually is. That it’s taken me years to be able to accept a change of plans gracefully. That though I was excited to have two weeks vacation, I felt too unmoored to enjoy it for the first few days because I didn’t have the regularity of getting up every day to go to work. That it took me years to feel comfortable wearing bright red lipstick and to wear tank tops without a sweater over them—even on the hottest days—to cover up my arm flab because of that rule of people whose sizes run to the double digits not drawing attention to themselves.
Being a #GNF person requires a certain lack of insecurity, which I sometimes lack. I’m certainly more confident about the way I look and who I am now as I inch toward 50 than I was when I couldn’t imagine all the way to 50, but my #GNFness can be pretty hard to come by as I sit at a party with my younger cousins—who are all thinner, taller, and prettier than I am—trying not to feel like the fat frumpy spinster cousin who doesn’t actually need cats to be a crazy cat lady. My red lipstick and vintage yellow earrings and all-black ensemble looked #GNF af* but my inner monologue was something like, “Why are you so fat right now? No, you look fine. You look pretty. It’s not your fault you didn’t get the tall genes. OMG–you’re one of the old people now! Why don’t you have any cool shoes?” In other words I was racking up fucks like they were the only things between me and POTUS Trump.
A couple of weeks ago, I went to see Sonny my barber to get a trim. Somehow while I was sitting there waiting for him to get through the five other customers who were waiting for him (seriously, though, ladies first should be a thing in the barber shop!), I decided he should cut my ponytail off. Which he did. And I walked out of said barbershop happy to have a curly-ish mohawk-ish chop that didn’t require much combing of hair, always a win in my book.
I loved my new look! Until the euphoria wore off. And I looked in the mirror. And realized how butch I looked. How unfeminine. Which spiraled into a long litany of, “Oh, if only I could wear heels, I could make this work! If only I were thinner! If only I had perkier boobs! I can’t leave the house without eyeshadow and blush and lipstick until this grows out!” In other words, again, I was giving A LOT of fucks.
Which seems ridiculous to me now as I sit here in my favorite chair, with the fan sending the perfect breeze my way, and the sun shining, and enough money in my bank account to pay for a steak tonight, and the realization that I can probably afford to buy myself a pair of light pink Converse especially as I have a DSW coupon, and the deep contentment that comes from GNF-ing about the laundry you haven’t done and the poems you haven’t edited and the list of things you were supposed to do over vacation that you haven’t consulted once because you decided it was more important to just “be” and not worry about “do. ”
Practicing #GNF-ing is exactly why I’ve taken out the trash and handed in my pool pass application braless today. And why I made myself a martini at 2:30 instead of waiting for dinner. And why I’ve been writing ridiculous things on Facebook all day and reading romance novels. I’m practicing my #GNF-ness because I’ve figured out that it’s not something that magically shows up with age (though the wisdom that can come with age can show us how important it is). GNF-ness is a habit. GNF-ness is a choice. GNF-ness is something I need to do a lot more of.
* as fuck: another thing the kids say to mean—as we would have said in the 80s—“to the max!”
I’ve written several times about the “monster” that I thought lived somewhere deep inside me who made me unloveable. I was looking at a blog post from last year about that pesky monster, and as I read my writing about finally getting some therapy (and some lovely pills) when I was in my mid-30s, I was surprised to find myself feeling shame. Not shame about the depression itself, not shame about initially needing pharmaceutical help to deal with it, but shame about the fact that it took me so long to figure out just how fucked up I was.
No, that’s not quite accurate either. The shame is really about how long it took me to figure out that I needed help. That I wasn’t actually “high-maintenance.” That I didn’t react to the slightest change of plans like it was a betrayal because I was needlessly rigid. It turns out that a lot of what could be perceived as neediness, clinginess, coldness, meanness, flightiness and a whole hodgepodge of sometimes contradictory behaviors was the result of never being parented by my parents. Like most kids of narcissists (and other types of parents who abdicate the emotional part of their parenting duties) I parented myself by telling myself a whopper of a lie—that inner monster of mine—so I had a reason for why they hadn’t parented me.
It’s not surprising that given that that lie was my survival mechanism, one that had become enshrined in me, practically hardwired into my DNA before I even really had language or knew that language could both help you tell and untell stories, or understood that all stories we are told about ourselves aren’t true even if they’re told by the people we’re all supposed to agree are the most trustworthy. Given all of that, it’s somewhat surprising that I did eventually stumble on the truth that I was spending my life reacting to one hell of a whopper.
I mean, honestly, I thought it was completely normal to sit in the corner of my room, rest my head on the radiator, and sob till I felt sick. I thought it was completely normal to let myself ghost out of myself when I felt anything but numbness. And really, if you’re funny and smart and like to throw tea parties and can hold your drink fairly well (even though you do have an alarming tendency to ask men to sleep with you when you’re wasted but that’s another blog post) and you can find at least a few friends who will put up with your tendency to pee in parking lots on your way to the T or the El for the trip home, you can keep that lie safe for decades.
Until the summer you turn 31 and you work in a building in downtown DC with a beautiful flight of wooden stairs, and every time you walk down those stairs you have to fight the urge to throw yourself down those stairs cause you know you’ll feel so much better if you can just get the pain that’s on the inside to manifest itself on the outside. Until you make friends with writers who are in therapy and start talking about things like depression and anxiety disorder, writer friends who point out time and again how much longing is in your poems, how much grief. Until you are riding home on the Metro one day and you think, “Well, I could just kill myself,” which terrifies you because you’ve always prided yourself on not being one of those people who would commit suicide cause really things are never quite that bad. And that terror sends you to campus one day to the student mental health office and you talk with your first psychiatrist who is younger than you are and diagnoses you with “depressive disorder unspecified” and prescribes a baby daily dose of Zoloft. And you don’t know what to talk about so you tell her you procrastinate writing projects all the time because surely that signifies everything that’s wrong with you–your laziness, your lack of preparation, your general wrongness. And this baby psychiatrist asks one question: “Have you ever missed a deadline?” And when you answer, “No,” she wonders—then why are you worried about it?
Even though it will take another year or two for me to figure out that what I call “procrastination” is actually the way my brain works, processing all the information I need for the project, finding the story long before I actually scratch things out on a sheet of paper, that moment, when she asks that simple question, and I am forced to consider all the wrong words I have been using to describe myself for decades, is the first time I start to wonder what else I have told myself about myself and others have told me about myself is wrong, too.
So the moral of the story is that all of these things had to happen for me to finally catch a glimpse of the lie and that’s what matters, right? But shouldn’t I have somehow seen it sooner? I’m a smart woman. I read a lot of books. I write poetry for goodness’ sake. Doesn’t that give me some sort of insight into human existence and shouldn’t that insight of mine have detected the “Help Me!” sign that had been flashing above my head for decades?
But that’s the wrong story, too. That we are all-seeing when it comes to who we are. That there’s such a thing as “too long.” That self-awareness, self-knowledge is some kind of race with check boxes and status reports and ETAs. That when it happens trumps everything else.
Here’s what shame is: it’s believing the wrong story about yourself.
Here’s what I need to remember: The right story about me is that I don’t know why it took the time it did to realize I was wrong about the monster and so many other things about myself. The right story about me is that it doesn’t matter how long it took to get there. The right story about me is that penalizing or feeling bad about myself cause it took a certain amount of time is just a silly attempt to give myself another monster and really, who needs that? The right story about me is that I will sometimes forget that. The right story about me is that there will be so many other times when I’ll feel that shame and instead of letting it send me down into a spiral of self-doubt, I’ll remind myself that it doesn’t matter how long it took for me to get to that place of un-telling. The right story about me is that—despite the safety and comfort of that old story—I did, in fact, get there.
I read this blog post by my friend Jonno and I started to respond by writing this:
“We are told to let it go, whatever it is. Childhood abuse, a broken marriage, a friend’s betrayal. We are never told to go at our own pace. Or that letting go is a process. Or that letting go is a convoluted kind of thing that happens only in pieces. That it’s a dance where you never quite learn the steps.”
Jonno had found himself still enraged by abuse that happened decades ago, and was struggling with the idea that that rage was still roiling inside of him though he thought he had worked through all of it. I was angry on his behalf at that idea that our processing of trauma had some kind of time limit on it. At least I thought that’s what I was angry about.
My blog post petered out after 16 sentences. I told myself it was because I’d been doing so much writing and editing—as I was on the verge of being out of the office for two weeks—that I just didn’t have any mojo left. I was out of words. I was out of space to think. And maybe, to be kind to myself, I should say that that was partly true.
But what was more true was that I recognized in Jonno’s post a similar anger in myself. He wrote:
“I see it all the time in my work. I teach actors I try to prompt them, try to get them to lose their fear of that rage I see in so many of them. I tell them it’s okay to give in to it, that the fire they are so afraid of will not, cannot, shall not consume them.
“But I’m lying. My own chest contains a bomb. I am terrified of its power.”
I am terrified of my own bomb ticking, my possible detonation. I am terrified that the engine of these poems about my father is not a need to understand nor a need to forgive but sheer rage. I know that without the poems, I would ignite and each time I run out of words, the ticking asserts itself, its volume undiminished by the years, by the poems. My rage is rarely heard by the outside world, yet it never decrescendos.
I do not want anyone to see my anger. If they do, I might learn that the story it took me so long to untell myself—that I carried deep inside a monster, a feral creature of black and pitch that made it impossible for anyone, particularly my parents, to emotionally care for me—may be true after all.
I tell myself it’s better that I stay alone. Sure I can exist in civilization for short bursts. Sure I can have friends and I can love and be loved. But I’m not sure I can let anyone close enough to hear the ticking. I am not sure I want to let anyone close enough to hear the ticking. I do not want to indelibly bruise anyone with my anger because I’ve been indelibly bruised. Sure, I’ll show you my bruises, but I’m not sure I can let you close enough that you might accidentally graze them. I cannot let you touch me with your accidental trigger finger.
One last thought from Jonno:
“I have finally had to admit that I contain so much anger, so much atomic fury, that I fear if I let it out I’ll never come back to myself.”
Without that rage-built metronome, what will I write about? If I run out of that anger, how will I know that I’ve survived and I’ve not been broken entirely? When that trip wire finally snaps, who will I be? What if I can’t find the words to put myself back together? What if even all of the hands of every single person in this whole world who loves me even a little just isn’t enough to heal me? And if the detonator is pushed and nothing at all happens, who am I then?
I need to stop apologizing for my enthusiasms; I need to stop seeing myself as “over the top” when I fall down a rabbit hole of person, place, or thing; I need to stop apologizing for my crushes—t0 myself, to friends, to the crush in question; I need to stop feeling guilty that I enjoy the trip down each particular rabbit hole; I need to stop judging myself by the standards of people who rejected me a lifetime ago; I need to stop making their rejection my fault; I need to stop believing the chorus of “too much too much too much” that rises up every time I don’t hold myself back; I need to stop holding myself back; I need to stop apologizing to myself for being myself; I need to stop thinking I need to put myself in context for other people; I need to stop thinking that if I don’t hold myself back, I will lose people; I need to stop letting that chorus of “too much too much too much” that rises up every time I don’t hold myself back make me feel ashamed; I need to stop believing that if someone doesn’t understand the depth of what I’m feeling that I am wrong for having that feeling; I need to stop seeing everyone else’s reactions to me through the lens of my own idiosyncratic issues; I need to stop believing idiosyncrasy is a bad thing; I need to stop being scared by the power of my imagination; I need to stop seeing hunger as a burden I place on other people; I need to stop apologizing for my many hungers; I need to stop believing I am safe for other people only at a distance; I need to stop believing I am an IED of need; I need to stop automatically reading censure in other people’s eyes; I need to stop being terrified when I care too much too soon; I need to stop believing my admiration has no value; I need to stop hearing every silence as a rejection; I need to forgive the silences when people just don’t know what to say; I need to stop measuring myself with words like surfeit or excessive or zealous;I need to stop wanting to be less; I need to stop being afraid of myself.
Here is a section from an epistolary short story I’m not writing:*
I haven’t been able to stop crying. No, let me be accurate about this. I have only been able to stop crying for short periods of time. I cry when I make my morning coffee. I cry while I unpack another box of books. I even cry when I’m sitting on the toilet and of course I pee so much these days.
Everything here is green. Which is beautiful and too much all at the same time. Sometimes I look at M, at those eyes I trust with my everything and think yes, his eyes are also too green.
I didn’t think that at home. I mean at my home.
I look like no one and nothing here, but I knew that going in. I said yes anyway. Loudly. Publicly. Enthusiastically.
I feel I need to be as accurate as possible now. So I don’t misname things. So I don’t get confused. So I don’t think “grief” when this is probably only homesickness.
You remember those poems about a lover being a home? Everyone liked them, including me. Do you think I was wrong? And who was I lying to? And why?
Who cries at the beginning of things? Who cries at wonderful and perfect for me? Who cries when it’s taken so long to happen? Why can’t I stop crying?
(Oh, about the pee-ing thing. I’m not pregnant, just middle-aged. Remember that time we talked about everything that disappears after a woman turns 40—why didn’t we include bladder control?)
I hate the phrase “ugly cry.” I told my sister about the weeping—not how often just that I was doing it—and she said,” I hope you’re not ugly crying. You and M haven’t been together that long.” (I also hate that she said “together” not married. I mean I know it was just a clerk’s office but she was there, wasn’t she?)
I should go now. I’m about to start up again. I can feel the waterworks rumbling just underneath my skin. I’ll write more tomorrow.
I’ll write about how beautifully green it is here. I’ll write about my plans. I’ll figure out how to tell you how damned happy I am.
*Reasons not to write this story: I have an adversarial relationship with commas, sentences and I don’t get along, James Franco, I am much lazier than I appear in the mirror, I don’t know where it starts, having a short story roaming around in me is more painful than the usual giants, the poems will get jealous and lustful for revenge, if the story refuses to have a happy ending, oh, how that will break my heart.
I will never know if I am fertile. I will never know what kind of mother I am. I will never know how long it took me to get pregnant and if I was able to successfully breastfeed. I will never know how many miscarriages I had and what my mother told me after the first one. I will never know what I named my daughter. I will never know what I named my son. I will never know what my favorite present at the baby shower was. Or if we played those silly baby shower games after all. I will never know what day of the week it was when I first felt the baby kick. Or what time it was and what the weather was like outside when I felt the quickening. I will never know if I knew immediately that I was pregnant or if it took me far too long to catch on. I will never know if my oldest has her father’s eyes or mine, and if she smiles like me or somehow manages to smile like my sister. I will never know how old my son was when we decided to make his crib into a “big boy’s bed.” Or what year we took our youngest to their first baseball game. Or how we explained Grandpa Alban’s death. I will never forget to put money under a pillow for the tooth fairy. I will never decide if and when to spill the beans about Santa Claus. Or worry that my youngest thinks Jesus is Santa Claus. I will never have to remind myself that we decided never to spank the children. I will never have to feel bad the one time I forget and slap a little hand after the 52nd time I’ve said, “Please don’t touch that” or “Please put that down.” I will never wonder who thinks I’m a bad mother. I will never wonder which mistakes are inevitable and if my daughter really will need therapy because of me. I will never run out of ideas for birthday parties. Or worry that we’re not saving enough for college. Or hope she didn’t hear me when I said “Fuck!” out loud that one time I burned my hand while making dinner. I will never have to fit myself around a small body who insists on climbing into my bed—and sleeping sideways. I will never think of the dear weight of him in my lap when I am at work and he is at nursery school. I will never understand what loss, what ache my mother felt when she caught a glimpse of me sleeping and thought, “Oh, she’ll never be my little girl again” and then burst into tears. I will mourn or I will not. I will press these losses to my chest or I will not. I will let myself be haunted by what I didn’t catch hold of, or I will press my lips to what it is that has come instead to fill these hands, this body, this life.
Here’s what I should be writing about: how a friend’s insistence that I could not take care of a baby was an unexpected wound upon wound, quick as a papercut, deep as being gut-shot, hidden as an aneurysm. I also should write about how sometimes I allow my mother to seduce me, and how other times I cannot bear to let her “I love yous” and her insinuation that there is something deep and fertile between us touch me even at a distance. I should write too about how lonely I was last night because it was Friday and I imagined every one was out and in love though if it had been a regular Friday night and not one when I was home sick, and I had come in late from work, I would have been so grateful to be home, to be alone, to keep company with no one but the blue couch and the television. Then too for writing there’s how scared I was on Thursday morning as I felt the most intense dizziness I’d ever felt and the horror at having to be taken care of and at making everyone worry. I could write about how I’m scared there won’t be enough poems to make the new book I see in my head, and that if I do write enough poems to make the new book I see in my head, if I read them out loud, there are some secrets that will become told forever. I could write that a cost of keeping myself levered open is that the foul-mouthed editor who lives in my head grows more insistent that I’m doing it wrong, “it” being living and being a friend and being myself. Or I could write about those people I support with my likes or my comments who never read my blog posts or even my status updates in return or send an encouraging word and how petty it makes me feel that I notice that and how petty it makes me feel to think of not supporting them because of that. I could tell you about the woman who made me miserable in grad school because I wasn’t the type of black woman she wanted me to be and she even questioned one day in class to our professor, in front of the whole workshop of poets, why what I wrote was even poetry and still I continued to give encouraging feedback on her work because it was beautiful. I could also confess that there have been people I haven’t wanted to be friends with because I didn’t think the quality of their work was very high and I didn’t know how to lie very well, or rather I should say I didn’t know how to be kind very well. And when I remember myself as I was 25 years ago, I remember myself unkindly and I remember myself being unkind even though someone who knew me then insists that wasn’t how it was at all. I could write about how I see myself as never pushing through the hard things even though the evidence that I do at least try is all around me but yet I think I don’t try enough because I worry I’m too much like my father. And I worry I’m too much like my mother and not the parts of her that are good at flirting with men (which I don’t have at all) or charming people into doing her favors (I always use bribes not any charm I might possibly have) but the part where you only matter to me if you are useful, or our world views can buttonhook into each other without any snagging or pulling. And I should confess too that when I go to the library I get too many books even though there are books I own that I haven’t read yet and I will go to the used books store in my neighborhood and buy more books because I feel responsible for keeping it alive, and then I’ll go to the library and again get too many books and of course there’s the thing where I like dangerous men, though I don’t actually know any dangerous men, and anyway, by now you’ve figured out that I think all men are dangerous.
I was seven or eight when I discovered my father’s stash of Playboys. When I think back, I see them sitting next to the green recliner in the den, but I can’t believe they would’ve been so easy to find. They were probably, instead, in the forbidden cupboard where my mother kept all of her romance novels, the cupboard I raided regularly after I ran out of library books because my voracious brain needed something, anything, to read, and this explains both why I see all great love as involving tragedy and why I knew too much about sex before I was in double digits. I would sneak the magazines up to my room, look at them with a flashlight under the covers. It’s hard to believe I could be sexually excited by them at seven and even as I type this it feels like I am holding my breath and panting at the same time at the memory.
I was caught, of course. Many times. But still I went back to the big-breasted women and their chauffeur uniforms and twosomes and their slow stripteases over a series of pages. After the first time I was caught, at my grandfather Sugrim’s house, me unseen near where my father sat around the table with his brothers, my father told his brothers they’d caught me with the Playboys. My father joked, “It was only for the articles, of course,” and as they laughed, me not understanding the joke, I bloomed into the shame that should have been his.
A shame that has never left me, I should probably admit though I never dare even whisper it out loud. Mine is a body betrayed by its body-ness, by its needs, its wants, the way desire still flares at the sight of a woman’s beautiful breasts or heart-shaped ass, not because I’m a lesbian (I’ve considered it and when I can picture a life not lived alone, it is never with a woman) but because it was a woman’s body that first taught me that ache.
My mother was frightened of desire, too. She told me that some man had said something to her in Mexico when she was sunbathing with a boyfriend and that was the reason I had to keep myself covered up. That was the reason my over-generous ass, my flaring hips were a terror to her. Though now, I am disloyal and I wonder was she protecting me or was she protecting herself from me? Did she think I could only be seen at her expense?
I am looking too for my mother in those women, wanting her to show herself to me not the way those women spread and draped themselves across the pages, but the way mothers spread and drape themselves across their daughters so their daughters know what it is to be loved, to be desired, to be longed for in a way that shows how grief-stricken the mother was to expel the baby from her womb, knowing she could never hold that child as close again. But most mothers would try, wouldn’t they?
That hunger of the body, kindled when I was 7 or the 8, was that other hunger—for mother, for father—made flesh or made bearable or made into something I thought I’d found the glossy answer for. It was shame and guilt made flesh too, a reason to hold onto for why I wasn’t enough, for why I wasn’t seen, for how easy a daughter could become a punchline, for how a father could decide not to throw away his dirty magazines, but to instead throw away the daughter who’d discovered them, for how a mother could punish a daughter for wanting other women and yet stay stubbornly out of reach.
Tonight I am thinking about what it means to have a muse—someone who breaks you open or holds you open at the broken places. The muse doesn’t mean to be a muse, doesn’t know he is a muse (it’s always a man for me), but still, there he is willing the pen into the flesh, coaxing the flesh onto the page, showing you that the soul is merely puddle and puddle and puddle of ink to be harvested.
With the current muse, there is no sex in it. He is handsome and I know he is handsome but I feel about his beauty the way I feel about the clouds in the sky. No, I feel about his beauty less than I feel about the clouds in the sky because I’m always trying to capture the clouds in the sky. I mean I don’t want his beauty. I want only the sound of his brain coming through his mouth and landing on the fuse of the nearest poem like a lit match. I want to be with him all the time (except when I don’t) but I don’t want to hold him.
I have been inspired to poetry by two men before and there was sex in it, or to be more accurate, there was the unrequited longing for sex. And writing the poems was the only way I could have them though that wasn’t something I would have said out loud then. I would barely have whispered it to myself. The poems were the only place I could feel safe with the way they made my body feel.
“You sound good baby” one said after he let me sit in with his band and that transmuted to “You taste good baby…” my desire spilling onto the page. Lust transmuted to literature.
With the other I wrote poem after poem after poem until I left him behind in another city and finally understood that what he did to me was “pray up that rag doll feeling/that giving over feeling,” that to me he was “the Holy Ghost coming…as breath sweet and sweaty.”
This new muse has already left me, as I knew he would, and I don’t begrudge him returning to his beloveds and I want him to return to his beloveds because he has suffered and this time, this place where he’s arrived after his suffering is precious and fills him with joy.
But I need to know he thinks I’m funny and smart even from so far away. True or not, it’s been seared into my brain pan that his regard is what cracked me open and brought the poems back. Which is ridiculous and ignorant of my history—the poems always return one way or the other—and true.
This feels dangerous, to admit this need. I have no working calibrator to judge what one should say out loud and what should stay silenced. And I admit I want to say the dangerous things because they are my litmus test. I need to know who can bear, who can survive my hunger.
I have no pithy ending, nothing that ties this all together. I have only hunger and I have a muse. I have only the terror I will feel when I put this out into the world. I have only the fear that in writing this I may have broken something and that I may, in fact, be too much. I have only the poems I’m working on now, and the ones I will work on when the time of this muse has passed. I have only my embarrassment over how important I’ve made him and my gratitude for his friendship. I have only me trying to put words around some understanding of myself. May that be enough.