Author Archives: Paulette Beete
This morning I Instagrammed a photo of what I was wearing to work with the caption, “Self portrait in black and white of a woman working on loving her body.” I was wearing black and white leggings printed in a sort of herringbone pattern, leggings I’d worn before. With a much longer top. I’m large enough that it’s hard to miss the shape of my body, but I don’t very often wear clothes that call attention to the fact that I carry a lot of my weight below the waist. I’m not that gorgeous fat woman you see in the catalogs showing off a great pair of gams in high heels and I never will be because genetics. Because I know a lot of lovely people, I received lovely responses, including one from my high school friend J who first knew me in all my skirt-wearing, hair always in a bun glory. She wrote, “I think of you at 13 as self confident and truly gorgeous. I see this always and still….”
My first thought was, “Oh, that’s so sweet, and I’m so glad I still know J.” My second thought was, “But that wasn’t self-confidence, that was just bravado.” And that’s how I always describe my younger self (and by younger, I mean my teens, my 20s, my 30s, my early 40s)—as an insecure mess covering it all with bravado.
I find myself wondering today, however, what would happen if I accepted that I was actually self-confident even back then? According to Merriam-Webster, self-confidence means “confidence in oneself and in one’s powers and abilities.” To parse it further, confidence means faith or belief in the rightness of one’s actions. It also means being conscious of one’s powers. All of which combined does describe me in high school. Of course, being a teenager, I didn’t actually know anything about myself, but I at least knew what I was good at, and what I was less good at. (Or, in the case of physics, terrible at.) I knew I was intelligent (over the course of my high school career I was ranked 5th, 4th, and 7th academically out of a class of roughly 700 despite routinely doing my homework on the bus or in the cafeteria before school each morning), I knew I could sing well, and I knew I was a good writer So, why am I routinely unwilling to accept that assessment of my younger self as self-confident?
I think in part, given how much fear I felt at home, and how much I hid from my friends about what my home life was like, I can only understand the dichotomy between me at home and me any place else but home if I call the any place but home self an impostor. Home was where I was trying to find a narrative that explained why my parents couldn’t nurture me in the way I needed, the way any child needs. Home was real life, and in that real life, the only story that made sense was that I was too monstrous for anyone to love. It simply never occurred to me that my real life was actually outside of home, when I was surrounded by people who were invested in nurturing me. That the me who pretended to be confident wasn’t actually pretending, but being who I was at my core.
And though I’m old enough now to see that at school I wasn’t actually pretending, but rather I was blossomed into myself—a little bit loud, a little bit outrageous, a lot boy crazy—I think it’s still hard to see myself as confident back then because of shame. If I was so confident, why did I let my parents bully me? If I was so confident, why didn’t I stand up for myself? And later, when I was away at college and later still starting my life as a working adult, if I was so confident, why was I always chasing men who didn’t want me and getting too drunk all the time and gaining weight and constantly being hounded by bill collectors cause I had zero financial management skills?
As I type this, I’m understanding that it doesn’t have to be either/or. That you can be confident and still be a hot mess. That I could’ve been a confident young woman and also still shaky from struggling to unwrite years of emotional damage for which I didn’t yet have language, or the ability to process it and begin to undo it. And accepting that, well, that’s a good start.
Today I am thinking of maps. How, to practice my watercoloring, I might draw a map. What of? Where to? I don’t know. A map of getting lost or a map for being found? I don’t know. A true map or a partially true map or an untrue map drawn with strict fidelity to all that is known and beloved and untrue? I don’t know.
I received the most beautiful book of tiny meditations in the mail some days ago. It is so beautiful that I haven’t yet read it. To hold beauty like that, in one’s hands, close to one’s face, in the way of one’s breath seems like asking for trouble. Seems like begging to be made raw. Seems like trolling for tears, and I seem to be out of the sobbing business after decades of sobbing alone in the corners.
When I would listen to someone playing the blues live in Chicago, say a young man with a lionesque head and an icepick voice, I mean the kind of voice that pierces through the heart to find all the secrets you won’t even let your heart know about, the kind of voice that would sing and sing while I’d listen and yearn and pine for it to be over because the balls-out beauty of it was too unbearable and I knew how bereft I was going to feel when his song was over so I wanted him to just rip the band-aid off and quit singing before I got too attached to the idea that maybe his song and the way I was feeling about it was beauty talking to beauty. Before I got attached to the idea that there was something exquisite in me, and that song was a map for me to find it, that I could go to that exquisite corner of this unruly self, that I could live in that exquisite corner of this unruly self, and even invite people over to visit, and each poem I was writing, standing there, swaying, shaking, scribbling in my notebook was a map to that secret home.
And maybe that’s the map that’s lurking in those delicate pots of green and purple and red and yellow pigment, and I can diagram my way to that exquisite corner of me which insists on getting lost hourly as if turning each corner brings only a new fogbank, a new dimly lit alley, an exit that seems so far off I start to yearn instead for a bench and a nap where I will not dream of journeys and quests and poems that insist on mapping every breath down to its DNA, down to its roots, tracing how each inspiration snakes its way up from my toes through the diaphragm, even the elbows, a map only half glimpsed even by the sweat escaping the body now diligently curled over its work, crafting from water and paint, an escape route, a way out of, a map that insists.
Sometimes I congratulate myself on what I’ve managed to accomplish despite the shaky ground under my feet. I have a masters degree, and I have published literary work in respected journals. I have published two poetry chapbooks, and have been told by numerous people how my poems and other writing have moved them. I can pay my bills and feed myself. I have not ruined myself with alcohol or drugs, and despite the fact I weigh more than is socially acceptable, I’m mobile and active in the world. Instead of congratulate, I should say I marvel at myself. How can I be so broken and still accomplish so much?
That question originally read “feel so broken” instead of “be so broken.” I changed it because I don’t feel broken day after day. It’s more that I observe the way I react to situations—a certain look from a coworker, a father and daughter interaction between two strangers, my day dreams—and that tells me, yes, this wound or that wound is not quite yet healed. There are days I do feel broken—when I’m depressed or manic, when every interaction, even the kind ones, feels like a lash against raw skin. But brokenness for me is about more than my emotions; it’s about seeing the patterns of behavior that are reactive, that escape from me into the world unbidden. In some ways, brokenness is a habit that I haven’t yet been able to give up entirely though I know its no good for me.
The brokenness that comes from emotional abuse is not a clean break. It’s a series of fissures that seem to never completely heal. Some of the wounds become less painful; some even appear to scab over completely. But my wounds are like a lake that you might presume to be completely frozen over, given the look of it. Yet too much pressure in the wrong place and you are plunging down down into the icy water, which steals your breath and—if you cannot resurface in time—steals your life.
Or brokenness is like lava flowing under what appears to be solid, ancient rock, bubbling to the surface with such force and such heat that the rock melts instantly, and there is the wound you thought you’d so assiduously and carefully dressed, screaming red and splintering you into a puzzle of jagged pieces you’ve no map for putting back together.
In movies before the icy surface gives away or the lava breaks through the rock bridge you’re fleeing across, you always hear the splinters forming the moment you accidentally step on the weak spot. But it’s not like that in real life. It’s more like that time when after you sit in your therapist’s office, sobbinb, you head home, with perhaps a stop for ice cream or a bottle of wine, finding solace in the fact that you have dug into a particular wound without permanently injuring yourself. Until you find yourself at work the next day, an ordinary day filled with ordinary tasks, and there you are suddenly in an empty office around noon, shaking and wailing uncontrollably, repeating to your (panicked) co-worker over and over, “But my mother didn’t love me.” Brokenness likes nothing better than to flash a big smile and greet you with a big sucker punch.
I don’t know how to end this blog post. I’ve deleted this last paragraph several times and can’t quite get to the end of this particular story. And perhaps that’s the truest metaphor of all.
At Christmas, when I say I go home, I mean I go to New York, but not the house in Laurelton, Queens where I grew up, or the Cambria Heights one my mother and sister moved to when I was away at my freshman year of college. I go home for Christmas to my Aunt Francis’s house in Long Island, the house where I sleep on the couch so I can snuggle with the cat and where there’s always room for everyone no matter how many of us are crammed in there and where my childhood piano takes up half the living room cause we can’t figure out how to get rid of it now that my 20-something year old cousins no longer use it.
In my own 20s, I didn’t go home for Christmas for years. It was too painful. At my mother’s house, no matter how long I’d stayed away, I was always once again the girl made awkward and stupid by fear. I always lost my voice, I always lost my bearing the moment I walked in the front door. Whether I was in a fat phase or a thin one, I rarely managed to feel pretty at my mother’s house. I knew she disapproved of how I dressed, which was neither provocative nor frumpy, but was merely not the way she dressed. I felt like an outcast because I loved all the wrong things—going to the movies, literary novels, art museums—too much, and I didn’t like the right things—going to church as often as possible, long drawn-out Bible studies—enough. So I avoided going home, saying I couldn’t make the trip from Chicago because I couldn’t afford the plane ticket.
But then I moved back East and decided it was time to join the family again. If Maracas Valley is the heart of my mother’s side of my family in Trinidad, Uniondale and Baldwin have become the heart of our family in America. My mother’s never there with us for Christmas. She stays in Charlotte, sometimes with her husband, sometimes on her own. I am both angry and relieved that she never joins the rest of the family—her younger sisters, her nieces and nephews, her cousins—for our holiday revels. When I visit my mother, I know she is happy to see me, yet even as I hug and kiss her, I can feel her holding me somewhat at arm’s length. My aunts and cousins, on the other hand, burst into wide smiles when they see me. They draw me into close hugs. They text or call me several times before I arrive to find out when I’m coming, if I’m on my way, how soon I’ll get there. I know my mother loves me, but with the aunts and by the aunts, I feel beloved.
According to the 10th edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, one of the definitions of beloved is “dear to the heart.” And that’s how I feel with my aunts, that the entire time I am with them, they are pulling me close to their hearts. My mother loves me, I know, but that love is intricately wound with distance, a distance only occasionally bridged by tenderness, and never for very long. On the couch at my aunt’s house, someone is always sitting next to me, or throwing their legs across my lap, or trying to share my blanket. At my aunt’s house, I am always safe.
My aunts weren’t always “the aunts.” I didn’t always say or think that phrase with unbounded affection. The aunts—my mother’s two youngest sisters—lived with us when they both emigrated from Trinidad, first Fran and then Maria, the baby of the bunch. They were barely out of their teens. They’d been raised by a mother who compensated for all the ways she’d been emotionally broken with rage. This rage was often leavened with humor, and my grandmother could also be quite tender when she wanted. But she was also mercurial, and strong-willed, controlling and unaccepting of the idea that someone could have a life other than the one she dictated and planned for them. Her three sons all stayed in Trinidad, but she made sure all of her daughters made it to the United States, even if she had to bully them and wreck their romances to do it. I think my grandmother saw her daughters as problems to be managed, with terror if need be. And that’s how my aunts saw my sister and me, as targets for their own incipient rage. One particular favorite game of theirs was to feint that they were going to hit us, and then as we braced, to laugh and ask, “What are you breaksing for?” breaksing being Trinidadian vernacular for “fending off blows.”
But as they met other women who did not parent their children with slaps and sarcasm, they promised themselves to do differently. And they did. My sister and I delight in telling our cousins how awful their mothers used to be and how they’re so lucky to have the new and improved versions. This tattle-taling is done not with malice, but with great gratitude that they somehow escaped at least this aspect of their emotional DNA. And this parenting is not just for their own daughters, but extends to my sister and me as well. The same is true of my aunts’ first cousins, who always say the same thing when they see Debbie and me, “Oh, these are our first babies,” as they hug us close, show us we are beloved.
My mother has changed in some ways too, but there are so many ways she hasn’t that I find it hard to accept the affection she tries to give me now. I have added my own distance to hers and I’m not sure if what is between us is actually love, or not quite love, or almost love. Or if our love is like the moon on the night before it’s full, when at first glance, it looks whole, but if you peer closely, you can see the slightest sliver still missing.
When I speak to my mother on the phone, I have to anchor myself firmly in the present, remind myself to receive and revel in the affection she’s offering in the here and now. If I let even a wisp of the past creep in, her affection rings hollow. The coldness and constant criticism and lack of praise I remember from my childhood, chills the warmth of whatever loving words she’s trying to offer.
I do not know if there was a time I was ever beloved to my mother. I’m fairly certain that she knew even as I grew in her womb, that just as soon as she could—which turned out to be when I was three months old—she’d leave to start our new lives in the States, though I wouldn’t be part of that life till I was nearly three years old. I have always wanted to ask my mother how she could stand to leave me. What part of her did she have to bury? What did she have to excise? When she tourniquetted her love for me so she could survive the wound of leaving me, did she know she was risking a permanent amputation?
This wasn’t just a mother going back to work after maternity leave. This was a mother allowing an ocean to come between her and her child. Perhaps it’s that ocean that I sense in the shade of difference between being beloved by my aunts and being loved my mother. To be honest, I don’t know if I want to figure out how to cross that ocean completely. We seem to do well muddling around somewhere in the middle of that ocean, even though it’s not all that satisfying, and neither one of us ever feels safe enough to remove our life jackets. I don’t know if it’s giving up or accepting what I cannot change to never call my mother home. And if I do have a place where I am beloved, and people by whom I’m beloved, maybe it’s a question I don’t have to answer.
“…I had work to do to make my body bigger and bigger and bigger and safer.” — Roxane Gay, Hunger
I am 18 chapters into Roxane Gay’s Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body. A recurring theme is the idea of safety, and how, for her, gaining weight has been a way to keep herself safe. I am realizing more and more with each line of hers I read that much of my life is centered around keeping myself safe. It’s why I can never keep the weight off. It’s why I don’t have a romantic life. It’s why I don’t own property. All my energy goes toward creating that safety I never experienced as a child. I have no reference point as to what it feels like to be safe. I see in the relationships and families of others what it might look like, but any attempt at feeling safe is always performative on my part.
Having a bigger body like mine is like having a cloak of invisibility. Despite the fact that I take up a lot of space, if I walk into a bar or a party or cultural gathering, other than the people I already know, people look right past me. If you are fat, people think you’re unintelligent because you obviously can’t handle the mind over body control thing. (In the most backhanded compliment ever, my father once said to me, “You are too smart to be that fat.”) They don’t stop to actually look at you and assess whether they find you attractive—beauty truly being in the eye of the beholder—but they check the box for “too fat,” which lets them off the hook for even trying. Which is fine with me. I keep even my oldest friends a little bit at arm’s length because if they truly saw me at my worst—my saddest, my angriest, my most depressed, my most manic—then I know they’d leave me.
Relationships are the most fragile thing of all in my mind; they’re not built to withstand utter honesty and vulnerability. That kind of thing just places a burden on other people, well, at least my vulnerability and need does. So better to stay in the safe place, where you only reveal part of yourself. It’s better not to trust that anyone could actually stand the real you lest you undo the precious bits of safety you’ve found in your relationships.
(I just reread that paragraph, and noticed that toward the middle, I stopped saying “me” and moved into the general “you.” Even that distancing is a trick for keeping myself safe. It’s true that writing about the personal can lead to the universal, but modulating to the universal can also protect the personal.)
Even my identity as a writer is predicated on this idea of staying safe. I started writing because I learned that it was dangerous to express emotions in my particular household. It was dangerous to be angry or sad. It was even dangerous to be happy because you could be reprimanded for being too happy, incurring the cut of my mother’s “Don’t get carried away” or my father’s sheer indifference to what most would have considered happy news. So I squashed what I could down inside me, and if they insisted on leaking out, I put those feelings on paper. I wrote mostly stories when I first started, before I hit high school and threw my lot in with poetry, and they were all about murder or suicide. A young woman shoves a butcher knife in the old boyfriend who ended up wanting to marry someone else (while wearing a tattered lace wedding dress, of course). Another young woman commits suicide to punish her mother for not accepting the girl’s accidental pregnancy, her final message spray painted on a wall, “Please forgive me.” (My ideas around suicide were clearly not very developed when I was in my early teens.)
Poetry was an even better hiding place as I could obscure the roiling inside me in opaque images, coming after each other so quickly that there was no space to interpret them, or appreciate their depth. In my 20s, I wrote about music and musicians, unconsciously believing—wrongly it turned out—that if I wrote about other people, if I focused on deconstructing the blues that shook me to my core, I could keep the turmoil inside me invisible.
I’d always had a technically good singing voice so I took voice lessons in Chicago with a flamboyant woman—Jackie? Judy?—who would say to me, “You’re cooking up something good but you’re not dishing it out.” The same was true of my foray into acting. I had a small talent that could, perhaps, have been nurtured into something more, but it was unsafe for me to reveal myself that way, it was unsafe for me to metaphorically bare myself on the stage.
Staying safe means I don’t really dream for myself. Or, to be more accurate, I dream big, I write down plans with the intention of really exploring them, and then I let those dreams expire on the pages of my journal. I find something else to be enthusiastic about until the urge to even dip a toe into unsafe waters subsides. I don’t set goals, because reaching goals means stepping outside of my comfort zone.
As I’ve written before, I do grab opportunities, because I have learned the trick of bravado, which can be surprisingly useful when you need to apply to grad school or a prestigious fellowship or even send a batch of poems out into the world. I’ve learned to perform safety in ways which allow me to have a fairly decent life. But there’s always a backup plan: Oh, if X doesn’t work out, I’ll be fine where I am. And if X does work out, then the bravado kicks in mostly because I’m too scared to disappoint anyone, people-pleasing another form of seeking safety.
I wonder sometimes if I’ll only ever have a mediocre life. because I haven’t been able to consistently build that bedrock of safety beneath my feet. I use the term “mediocre” in a relative sense. I know that I get to do extraordinary things in this life: interview deeply imaginative artists who are sometimes even celebrities; engage with thought-provoking and inspiring visual art; explore my ideas in interior design in a light-filled apartment that makes my heart sing and makes me feel the way you feel when you get to home base during a game of tag. But I also think that the extraordinary things I do are merely glimpses of what I’m capable of. What more could I do, who else could I connect with, how could I change the world in a larger way if I could figure out how to feel safe in my own skin?
I try to find safety with God (and I thank him every day for his infinite patience and grace with me cause I promise you I’m a trial), but even that relationship feels unsafe sometimes not because of who God is, but because much of the cruelty in my childhood was the result of my mother’s privileging of religion and ministry over anything and anyone in her life, including her children. And there is safety, too, in not always trying very hard with God. A successful relationship with God requires action. It requires letting go of whatever it is we have come to think of as giving us safety. It requires trust.
I know there are others who have had emotionally abusive childhoods who manage to somehow build a platform of safety in spite of their histories. I know there are role models out there—like Roxane Gay—who have something to teach me. But right now that story of learning to feel consistently safe when you never had that overwhelmingly important early road map, that’s not my story. That’s not my story yet. That’s not my story yet?
For the last couple of days I’ve been fighting a cold, which seems to be trying its darnedest to turn into bronchitis. (Editor’s Note: Not today, Satan, not today!) From my preferred end of the blue couch, I have a near perfect view of the skyscape. Some days it’s relentlessly the same, but today I’ve watched it change from a pale blue lightly marbled with clouds to a vibrant blue with a sea of clouds and their calves to the sunset sky which has gathered dark wisps of clouds at the horizon line.
Before my battles with the plague started—or more accurately, before I realized the reason I kept falling dead asleep around 5 each evening was because I was battling the plague—I’d spent most of the last two weeks giving my apartment a design refresh. I set up a desk area using the desk that was previously holding up my TV, and moved a long bench into the desk’s former spot, freeing up enough wall space to start creating an art wall. I bought a couple of packs of gold bulldog clips to hang some of the art, and a couple frames and a sale lamp from Urban Outfitters for my desk, but for the most part, I executed the new living room and “office” design using furniture and art I already owned.
So what do these two things have to do with each other? In the case of the clouds, it’s occurring to me that the various skyscapes I see from my window are basically made of the same stuff—sky and clouds, or if you want to be more exact, water and the various gases that comprise our atmosphere. Yet, using pretty much the same tools every time, the sky constantly changes its face several times a day, often to jaw-dropping effect. In the same way, the various things that are physically in my apartment, the objects that make up the landscape of my apartment, haven’t changed all that much. I’ve just made small tweaks to their placement in order to effect a fairly significant change that has reinvigorated my home.
Which has me thinking about reinvigorating my life, and that I most likely already have everything I need in terms of skills and talent and network. I just have to figure out a new configuration for all the assets I already have, starting with the way I think about them and how I fit them all together. To be continued…
I’ve been thinking a lot about risk-taking. How I make few risks that are uncomfortable. Despite the fact that I’m a confessional writer and making myself vulnerable that way can be considered risky, making myself vulnerable on paper is very comfortable. It’s what I do. On paper, I can bare my soul, so to speak, and still hold something back. I don’t think I take any risks, however, where I don’t hold anything back.
I am not conscious of being fearful of risk-taking. I think, however, that is only because that fear is habitual, reflexive. It was sown into me as a child so I don’t really recognize it as something apart from me, something foreign.
When I was a kid, for a couple of summers, my mom sent my sister and me—accompanied by our Granny Eutrice—to stay with friends of hers who lived in Orlando. We did the usual things: watched all of the soaps on CBS as well as pro wrestling, “bathed” by playing in the lawn sprinkler (my grandmother’s idea so we didn’t waste water), and went to (the now-defunct) Circus World, which at the time was a theme park that doubled as the winter home of the (now also defunct) Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. I remember one particular demonstration by the trapeze artists during which they asked for kid volunteers to try the trapeze. I went to raise my hand, and my grandmother slapped it down. She didn’t explain why—Trinidadian grandmothers are not known for being great explainers of their motives—but somehow I intuited that the risk was too great. I also absorbed—rightly or not—that it wasn’t the physical risk that was problematic, but rather there was something unseemly and unsafe about being in the spotlight like that. What if I couldn’t get it right? What if instead of soaring magnificently, my pre-adolescent body just dangled there, leaden and incapable of flight? Why would I want to fail so publicly? Better to keep one’s hand down, and not even try to be the chosen one.
Even earlier than that, my mother had inculcated in me that public failure was unacceptable. Each night, she would check my homework. Even if all my answers were correct, if there was even a hint of an eraser mark, I had to rewrite the whole thing. I can’t even imagine the number of looseleaf sheets I went through, striving to hide the evidence that in the process of learning I had made mistakes. What mattered was neither the learning process nor the correct answer; evidence of having made a mistake was the paramount shame.
It is not possible, of course, to get through life without taking risks. Every job interview is a risk; you’re taking a risk every time you pursue a new friendship or a new romance. And you can’t be a poet who has endured dozens of workshops, not to mention hundreds of rejection letters, without being comfortable with the idea of failure. But therein lies the problem—I’m okay with the comfortable failures, the ones I’ve experienced time and time again, the ones that many people I know can relate to. These failures hurt my pride, but other than that, I stay mostly intact.
But what about risks that might end in extraordinary failure? The kind of failure that can turn your entire world upside down. The kind of failure that can undo who you think you are. The kind of discomfort that doesn’t dissipate in an hour or a day or a month. The kind of failure that can near-drown you as you fight your way through it. What do those risks look like for me? What do I give up by not searching them out? What level of discomfort am I willing to bear if taking those possibly soul-wrenching risks are the only way to activate my gifts at a deeper level?
Which is not to say I’m advocating for recklessness. Or impulsivity. What I’m trying to work out is how to think (and pray) myself into a state of preparation for transformative risk. I need to get to the place where I can not only see the questions I need to ask myself, but I’m willing to ask those questions. I have to get to a place where the fear of making a spectacle of myself—by changing careers or writing the book no one including myself would expect me to write or whatever my risk is—is not more important, more valuable than my unwillingness to live a nice but mediocre (compared to what it could be) life.
Whenever I become unsatisfied with my life, the first thing I think is, “Oh, I need to lose weight.” Though intellectually I know that losing weight changes very little on the inside (I was still grappling with abandonment and trust and al my usual issues even when I dieted to my thinnest), starting Weight Watchers breeds great optimism in me. My motto becomes, “If this hard thing is possible, then surely all the other hard things are possible. I’m realizing that I’ve allowed losing weight to become shorthand for—or a shortcut to—fixing whatever ails my life. The problem with this is, of course, that I don’t really stop to ask myself the hard questions that I need to ask in order to move in a different direction. I’m so full of optimism that life just feels better. Optimism trumps dissatisfaction every single time.
Not to mention that I become so consumed in the action of doing one thing—losing weight—that I don’t spend much time thinking about other things: my job, my writing career, my love life. Sure, there may be progress in those areas, but it’s not from any active striving on my part. I just let myself keep drifting along, albeit with the gift I’ve mentioned before of being able to spot an opportunity when it drifts by me. Weight loss becomes not a means to an end; it becomes instead a giant distraction. In the same way that being consumed with managing the size and shape of my body shrunk who I was down to only my body, I also allowed my life-related troubleshooting to shrink down to one tool: weight loss.
I am feeling lost right now, as I find myself in middle-age returning to the same crossroads again and again—should I change jobs? do I want a partner or am I an out and proud spinster? how do I grow the audience for my writing?—because I’ve taken away from myself the one tool that I’d so carefully honed over the last few decades. I quit Weight Watchers forever. I threw the scale down the garbage chute. I have the number of a nutritionist, but I refuse to call her. Weight loss is not a bad thing for someone who’s clinically obese, as I am. But it’s dawning on me—slowly and painfully—that this time around, if I want to lose weight, I will actually have to do the much harder work first. I’ll have to think my way deeply into the questions I usually use a weight loss program to avoid. I’ll have to feel the feelings that make me want to avoid those questions in the first place: shame, guilt, disappointment, anger. I’ll have to wrestle with impostor syndrome. And define success for myself in a way that has nothing to do with the size of my pants.
I would like to end this with some really upbeat message about how I’m feeling empowered blah blah blah. The real ending, however, is this: I’m going to go throw on some clothes and head to the theater to see Wonder Woman and eat popcorn with butter and drink a Coke. And not think about this anymore today. But tomorrow? Well, that could be the start of something, couldn’t it?
In my nuclear family, the body was not something to be celebrated. It was not a marvel or a wonder. It was not a beloved house or a blessed one. I learned that bodies were to be hidden. Or punished—by you or yourself or by others. Bodies were always in want of improvement and chastisement. They were rarely enough as they were. And they were not just an aspect of who you were, they were everything about you. They told the story of your laziness, your unintelligence. They whispered the secret that you were the kind of girl to let a boy get you into trouble. They were too loud, too big, too much.
Bodies were the landscape on which you endured your punishment: a slap in the face for forgetting to come home from a sleepover in time for your piano lessons. Welts left by a belt across your behind for some infraction it turned out later that you hadn’t committed at all. My body was at times marked by the tines of a swizzle stick, the curved bowl of a pot spoon. My sister and I would spend long minutes pre-punishment, hidden in our shared closet, hitting each other to test out which belt hurt the least. (I didn’t understand geometry then; that it was better to be hit by a broad belt than a thin one.)
Later, when I’d grown too old for spankings, my body became merely a disappointment. My father, I think, wanted most of all a pretty daughter. No one with an outcropping of an ass like mine, whose genetics gave me thickened ankles and fat thighs as pre-existing conditions could, of course, be seen as anything as fat, despite my narrow waist, my small breasts, my small, sloping shoulders.
My mother wanted a daughter who didn’t remind her of sex. She made me drape my body in long skirts—at church, during high school—shaming me into sobs when I came home from college one summer audaciously wearing shorts that showed my curves. They didn’t cling; they skimmed, but still my body was a sin I didn’t know I was committing.
I was very smart. I had a beautiful singing voice and was becoming a talented writer. But I was short. But I was fat.
A friend told me once, years later, after I’d gained weight and dieted and gained weight and dieted and gained weight and dieted, and gained weight again, that I moved gracefully. We were at a writing retreat, and were doing some sort of movement exercise that would, the theory went, eventually yield poems. I had never thought of myself as graceful, not someone as big as I was, who stayed “big as I was” even when I wasn’t. In grade school, a classmate had told me I walked like a duck, and that’s who I was, the girl with the awkward body, what Trinidadians call obzuky—out of place, awkwardly wrong. How could there be grace in this body with its legs once likened to tree trunks by a boy who presumably liked me? I mean, can there be grace in a body like mine no understanding of how to be—or to stay—just enough?
A Latina physical therapist told me once, as we were working on fixing the knees I had somehow mysteriously wrecked, that she liked my culo and wished she had one like mine. Mine? My very fat ass?!? I walked out of therapy that afternoon knowing something of what it must be like to feel beautiful. Not because of an outfit or a hairstyle or even a sparkling personality, but that kind of beautiful that comes from sitting squarely in your body, inhabiting every square inch of it, joyfully, unabashedly, unashamed.
I don’t remember what that feels like now. Though that’s the story I’d rather tell, how that one conversation changed me forever. I want to write my body a happy ending, and I want to stop writing about my body. I want my body to become a neutral space.
I threw my scale down the trash chute last fall and vowed not to do Weight Watchers ever again! I felt so bold. So empowered! So free!
Now, I feel disappointed. I feel shame when I look in the mirror sometimes that here we are again, and I’m confused that that shame is no longer enough to get me to diet again. I question whether I obsess about my fatness because it’s comfortable to do so, and it’s what I’m used to. Is “why can’t you lose weight?” what hangs in the closet where we used to keep the belts?
I can make peace with my body for hours at a time, like yesterday when I was wearing leggings so soft and so pretty that I didn’t really care that you could see my multiple levels of tummy. And, to tell the truth, when I’m naked, peering at myself in the mirror like a voyeur, my body doesn’t read like an unsexy blob, but rather like a beautiful and mysterious landscape, maybe somewhere in the British Isles, where there are rolling hills and verdant valleys, and people purposefully set out to go striding through those undulations because who knows what joy will be found there?
I have just finished reading Ruth Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise. In it she writes about the many characters she took on—wig and dress and makeup and voice included—in order to eat at the restaurants she needed to review for the New York Times without the establishments figuring out who she really was. It’s a fascinating study in how you get treated one way if people know you wield power and another way when you look like you do anything but. (This isn’t news now nor was it news when Reichl wrote the book in 2005, but it’s still interesting to see how it plays out in the life of someone who is quite different from me.)
What really struck me was how Reichl felt as she slipped in and out of her different personas, how they brought out the best in her and the worst in her. How she so clearly understood what made a woman invisible (which made a great disguise but an emotionally wearing experience), and how one disguise as a red finger-tipped, long-haired blonde named Chloe taught her—as she put it—“that I did know how to take advantage of a man after all. When had I learned this? And what was I going to do about it?”
In the end, Reich wearies of rarely eating dinner with her son—who’s still in single digits—and of dipping in and out of personas. So she finds a new job, and there is—at least for a decade or so—a happy ending.
As I think of how different hair and clothes made Reichl feel, I’m thinking about how my hair has changed radically over the last few years and how I visit store after store and website after website hunting for “my look.” It’s starting to dawn on me that I’m a little lost. I say a “little lost” but it’s also possible that I’m completely off track. It’s easy to change the little things (especially if you start going to a barber so it no longer costs a fortune to change you hairstyle, and you also make piece with a certain credit card bill by praising yourself for paying off a number of other credit card bills), but there are larger questions to be asked, larger changes to be made. I just don’t know what they are.
I hate it when someone describes me as impulsive, yet, if I’m honest, there’s something that’s comforting about impulsivity. Join a gym! Join Weight Watchers! Join this Meet-Up group (that you never go to!) Go blonde again! Embrace your latent goth/punk side! Get a new tattoo! Join an online dating site! Vow to get up 1/2 hour early every day to go exercise!
And while those things—well, most of them—are beneficial, they’re kind of like putting Spanx on my life. They smooth out the bumps for a while, but only for a while. There are deep changes to be made. I don’t know what they are, but I do know they require deep thinking. Which I’m terrified of. It’s one thing to think deeply about the things that happened in my past, which offer fine fodder for poems, and also have the benefit that I don’t really have to DO much because it’s all in the past.
But to think deeply about the present, to admit how damned comfortable I am, and how it’s preferable to complain lunch after lunch, and journal entry after journal entry about my job than to actually face the fact that I’m bored but don’t know what to do next because next has always magically arrived and I’ve not really ever had to set any goals…
I was talking to someone the other day about how I have never really wanted to be a writer, which may seem odd because I am a writer. But that’s the thing, I am a writer. Just like I’m Afro-Caribbean and a cis-gendered woman and the oldest of four and brown-eyed. Being a writer has always just been something I was born with, a pre-existing condition.
This is possibly the part of the conversation where you say, “Well, what is your passion?” And I don’t know if I have one of those, nothing long-term anyway. I’m not short of enthusiasms, but they wax and wane, and the thread that runs through them eludes me. I think it’s there, waiting on the tip of my tongue for me to articulate it, but for now I’m tongue-tied and lost.
I’ve been quite content to just drift along in life. And I have to be honest, it’s worked. I’ve been able to earn my way out of poverty*; I’ve published two chapbooks and numerous poems in magazine; I’ve interviewed countless people I never expected to call on a telephone or sit across from like Liesl Tommy, George Lucas, Josh Groban, John Barrowman; I’ve been to Paris and several times to London, and I’ve lived in Italy. I’ve manage to get promoted up four grade levels in the same department, and—since I’m not being modest—I—with help, of course—founded the social media program for a federal agency. Which is all great, but none of this was a goal. I’ve been smart enough to recognize opportunity—which I realize can be its own gift—but as I look out into the great unknown (my agency possibly closing down, life at 50, etc etc etc), I don’t want to drift anymore. I want to have something to work toward. I want to know who I really am, what I’m really made of. At least I think I do. Cause, let’s face it, drifting is not just easier, it’s more comfortable, and most likely I won’t have to give up a thing. But goals are better, right?
To be continued…
*I mean my own personal poverty, since fully taking on full financial responsibility for myself once I graduated college.