I want to tell you more about C. I want to tell you how tall, dark, and handsome he was. I want to tell you how I couldn’t take my eyes off of him the first time I saw him in the dorm where we both lived. He may have been wearing the tri-color windbreaker, which I can still so clearly in my memories. I want to tell you the first time I talked to him it was to ask him if I could borrow a pair of his socks for a Secret Santa prank I was playing on a friend. (We may have misunderstood the premise of Secret Santa.) He did try to kiss me once when we were freshman. I ran like hell. I broke in my American Express card taking him to dinner when we were seniors.
There is more I could say, but it feels, strangely, like I’m violating his privacy, even though there are a few people reading this who know exactly who C is. And though there’s no reason to believe he’d recognize himself in anything I’m telling you. I know now that we all freight our moments, even the exact same moment, differently. That what to me is a rough pebble to be tumbled over and over in my memory until it grows smooth and cool in my palm is for someone else the pebble you kick out of your way while walking without even noticing.
I can still hear somewhat the sound of his voice, albeit like a radio station that I can’t quite tune in without static. I remember that since he’d moved here as a boy, his American accent still had a bit of European polish to it in a way I can’t quite articulate, something about the way he ended his sentences maybe, a certain angularity to some of his words. His athlete’s body was as comfortable in a track suit as in a beautiful double-breasted suit I once saw him wear. At parties he’d wear tailored button-downs, not silk, but something close to it, another nod to the European in him I think, though my memory may be embellishing that detail. I know he was confused by me. And I know that there were many times that all he could do was put up with me.
And I think that’s another reason I can’t fully commit to telling everything. I’d be invading my own privacy, the high fence I’ve built around the girl I used to be, the girl whose actions still fill me with shame even from the distance of decades. The endless afternoon’s wasted walking around a certain part of campus so I might casually bump into him. The times I showed up at his dorm room or his various apartments unannounced, ignoring all the gentle hints—or one memorably not so gentle one from one of his roommates—that it wasn’t a good time, even as I settled into their couch to wait. The time I rummaged through his closet and his personal letters while I was crashing in his roommate’s room over a holiday break.
I’ve been thinking too about why I still feel shame over my behavior. I’ve long since sent apologies for my behavior. (It’s interesting how finally getting your own apartment will teach you a lot about boundaries!) And when friends share their own stalking stories, I laugh sympathetically because I know we’ve all been there. At least intellectually I know we’ve all been there. Emotionally, however…
I’ve never been able to wear my mistakes lightly. Because of how I was raised (as I’ve written about here), mistakes or missteps of any kind flood me with shame. It can feel like utter failure to me to not recognize the correct set of boundaries for a particular situation or person. And though I’ve taught myself to deal more constructively and kindly with failure, and to put failure in its proper perspective (which is generally smaller than I’m feeling it), those missteps from before I came into that wisdom still feel immeasurably enormous to me.
No one died. No one was injured. And, for the most part, as far as I know, no one was seriously angry about my behavior, just annoyed and probably weary. Many young women stalk the objects of their affections, particularly if they haven’t actually dated a lot and don’t quite know what to do with their lust and love. Which is what I’ve told myself over and over again and yet still…
I feel like a fraud when I read my love poems. They’re spun out of thin air and imagination. From a lifetime of reading romance novels. From watching friends fall in and out of love. From TV. And movies. I feel I should read a disclaimer before I read any of them: “I know not of what I speak. Enjoy the poem!”
By writing about my father I have written my way into looking at him with tenderness. Perhaps by writing love poems I’m writing my way toward falling in love? Am I writing my way toward openness? Toward vulnerability? Or am I merely writing about the love story that might have been If I’d had a different set of wounds? Will the poems ever be more than the made-up stories I tell because I don’t have any of my own?
I think that’s why C crosses my mind every so often. I want to be able to say, “Yes, I’ve been in love. His name was C— and he played soccer.” It feels so aberrant to not be able to declare that authoritatively. Not having been in love can make me feel like I’m broken. It can make me feel even worse than you feel when you get picked last for the team.
It makes some conversations so uncomfortable. The kinds where over a couple few martinis you’re dishing with your girlfriends about the boys, the men (or women) you’ve loved and lost. I resort to talking smack about my celebrity crushes (Hi Armie Hammer!), hoping to get a laugh, hoping to disguise the fact that I have nothing to say and that my lack of romantic history is my sunken place, and the outside me who smiles benevolently at happy couples is just a facade.
That’s why nearly 30 years later it still feels so important to put a name on what I had with C. It hardly matters now, and also it matters terribly.
Please don’t misunderstand: I know I am beloved. I know I have many people in my life who I love and who love me right back. I expect that unless I outlive everyone, there will be people at my funeral who will wish desperately I was still around and will feel a little empty in all the places I used to be.
I also know that I don’t need a man to complete me, that I am a complete person in and of myself even if I never have a romantic partner. I won’t die alone. I won’t die unloved even if I may die with the world’s record for celibacy by someone who’s not a Catholic nun or the Pope.
I’ve known longing. I’ve known hunger. I’ve known exactly what Lenny Kravitz meant when he sang, “I just can’t get you off of my mind.” And yet I still don’t know if I’ve ever really been in love.
I’ve been thinking a lot about C, a man I knew in college. At the end of Call Me By Your Name—the novel, not the film—thirty-something Elio visits forty-something Oliver, and I’ve been thinking about what it would be like to run into C again, how he would see me, how I would see him. He’s not on social media at all, but I have seen one recent photo of him and he looks like a man on the verge of 50 tends to look, though he’s still recognizable as the handsome young athlete I last saw roughly more than a quarter of a century ago. I think I could still spot him in a crowd. I imagine I’m fairly recognizable too—fatter, less outwardly drenched in neediness, but still the same round face, the same cheesy smile, the same childlike voice.
It feels odd to write about C though I haven’t told you much of anything at all. It feels somehow indiscreet as if I’m roping him into my tell-all without permission. No, that’s not exactly right. It feels indiscreet because I don’t know how to accurately describe who he was to me, and by writing about him, it feels like I’m implying we were something to each other, that I left marks on him, the way he’s left marks on me. And I just don’t know if that’s true with any certainty. I just don’t know if he’d recognize me in a crowd, or if he did recognize me if he could put his finger on who I was or if he’d even want to.
I’m babbling. Cause I don’t want to write what I’m really thinking about: Did I love him? Did I even know what it meant to love someone then? (Do I know now?) I know that he made me feel my emotions quite powerfully—jealousy, anger—emotions that I was used to tamping down inside me. He disturbed the numbness I cloaked myself in like a security blanket, like a wall. But I don’t know for sure that I ever disturbed anything in him.
I hungered him. I craved him like a drug. I liked the drama of dissecting with my friends every look he ever gave me, every conversation we had. I liked martyring myself in the feelings of unworthiness he triggered in me. (I should say here that those feelings of unworthiness and martyrdom were self-generated; C was never anything but kind to me,)
What the film Call Me By Your Name gets exactly right is the way in which the late teens and the early 20s are a time of gestures. Though we have accrued hundreds of words by the time we hit that age, we rarely use our words when it comes to crushes and infatuations and even love, depending instead on how we interpret or often misinterpret each other’s gestures. And we don’t have the capacity it seems to distinguish between the intended gesture and the accidental gesture, each of which sends its own (supposedly) soul-baring message.
Like me walking down a hill toward campus with C and his friends one day. He tried to put his arm around me and I pulled away for a moment, just to change my purse to my other shoulder so I could comfortably walk him, and then of course he pulled away from my pulling away and… And I wanted to say, “Oh, I was just switching shoulders…” but that series of gestures had spoken so loudly—with the wrong message, of course—that the conversation about us wanting to be close to each other was effectively over.
Or when I saw C several months after we graduated and he reached out to give me a hug, and I froze in his arms and he felt it as a rejection. If I’d known how to use words (and if I’d been courageous), I might have told him that my tension was not a reaction to him exactly, but that I was shocked by how powerfully good it felt to see him again and to have him hold me and I’d simply short-circuited a bit.
I realize these stories do nothing to answer the question of if I loved him. I know he was capable of short-circuiting me, I know I had to numb myself against him, I know I was decades away from being able to be openly vulnerable in the face of someone who made me feel so damned much. But surely, given that this post is populated with “I’s” and “me’s” mean I couldn’t have really loved him. Thinking through it as I write this, he seems more like an object to be acted upon than a love interest. But can someone who was merely the foil for your one-sided romantic drama mark you the way he has marked me? To borrow from myself, what do I name this things between us that left me with “shocky fingerprints?”
I was all fired up to write on my way home. Then I started reading a novel by one of my favorite romance authors, Susan Elizabeth Phillips. And now I’m regretting once again that I made this ridiculous vow to blog every day this year. I don’t want to crack myself open tonight. I don’t want to ignore that Mickalene Thomas is right when she says, “I think it’s the responsibility of the artist to reveal a little more of themselves.” I want to get lost in the story of two people trying to figure out how to love each other. I want to hang out with Daisy who’s figuring out how to claim her own power, and Alex who’s figuring out how to let the light in. And most of all, I want to know that no matter what happens by the time I get to the end, no matter how many times I reread it, Alex and Daisy always get together in the end. And given how much I’m trying to step out of my comfort zone and dare and risk in a way I haven’t in a good long while, or maybe never have given how intentional I’m being about it, I’m going to take a break and be selfish and spend the next couple of hours before bed in that circus with Daisy and Alex, knowing that no matter what, there’s going to be a happy ending.
Here is my artist manifesto. Well, really, it’s manifesto-ish. Manifesto adjacent. It’s not meant to be rigid. I don’t intend to ride or die on this manifesto. What I’m interested in is what I believe as an artist at this particular moment—February 25, 2018 at 4:15pm—and how that informs my plans for the next five minutes, the next five days, the next five months. I don’t expect it to be exactly the same over the next five years, for, as Sonia Sanchez has said:
“I think that the reason why art stays alive is that the artist grows. I mean the body doesn’t stay the same; the brain doesn’t stay the same. Your art can’t stay the same.”
This manifesto-ish thing is by no means comprehensive. I fully expect to read it over tomorrow, or later tonight and see some holes, gaping or otherwise. Still, it’s a way to see where my head’s at, to gather my thoughts, after a week of iron sharpening iron conversations—including two individual chats today with women artists I respect and adore as well as a three-hour symposium listening to really smart, passionate people speak smartly and passionately.
I don’t think there is anything original in this manifesto-ish thing. I am not the only one who’s had these thoughts or ideas, and, in fact, many of these thoughts/ideas are paraphrases of what other people have said to me during various creative collisions. I don’t believe we either think or create in a vacuum, but more on that below.
So here are some things I think as related to the artist’s life and practice, which you can take as a manifesto or a roadmap or a meditation or a behind-the-scenes of my brain pan or not take in any way at all.
I have to define my quest, my hero’s journey for myself. I may be Frodo or I may be Sam. I may switch roles as the quest requires. My quest may not look like anyone else’s, nor may it even seem like a quest. All of that is okay. It’s about feeling a sense of momentum, moving forward (or inching forward), even if we cannot make out what it is we’re moving toward either consistently or conclusively.
It’s okay to not be able to see past the bend in the road. But I should also not be fearful to imagine what’s past the bend in the road. So what if I’m wrong?
I must dream big. Then dream bigger than that. Then take a step forward. Baby steps are fine. As are leaps.
I do not have to wait for my greatness. I have to walk into the greatness I hold within myself right now. And, yes, we all hold greatness within us in some form or fashion, in some magnitude right at this very moment.
I must consistently and constantly be willing to ask and answer the questions: How am I stopping myself? How do I not stop myself?
There is no such thing as originality. I am always standing on the shoulders of someone else’s thought, someone else’s creativity, someone else’s work. What I mean when I say something is my original work is “I am being as faithful as I possibly can within this work of art to my own experience, my own vision.”
If I can’t write from a place of authority, I must write from a place of discovery. I also need to privilege work created from a place of creativity over that created from a place of authority. To quote Azar Nafisi paraphrasing Milan Kundera, “Artists are not here to preach the truth, they are here to discover it.”
I must engage fully in my life at all times. What that means from day to day may change. And what that means for someone else is probably not what it means for me.
I must allow myself to take up space in my life and in the lives of others. I must allow myself to inhabit my voice fully. There are people who need my voice in the same way there are those whose voices I need.
It’s Saturday night and I don’t know what to do with myself. I thought I was going to see Phantom Thread but my nap lasted longer than I thought. I am always so tired on Saturday afternoons, possibly from struggling to unearth the Italian buried in whatever past of my brain stores 1987-1989 (when I first studied Italian) so I can get through my Italian class sounding like I’ve occasionally made out with the language or at least made eyes at it.
Thursday evening I interviewed the Iraqi-American playwright Heather R., a fierce advocate for women’s voices, particularly mothers’ voices on the stage. Tomorrow morning I am having breakfast with the actor and playwright Nikkole S. (who I also met through an interview for work) and who always inspires and encourages me to raise my voice. Nikkole’s in town to be part of a symposium on Theater as Politics (using Hamlet and Heather’s play Noura as jumping off points), which is programmed by my friend, the dramaturg (and sometimes playwright) Hannah R. I also had a good talk about future writing projects yesterday with the entrepreneur Sylvia M., who I met years ago when I was a part of a panel on how to do social media.*
I list these names not just because I’m prone to name dropping (Hi Armie Hammer!), but because this is what iron sharpening iron looks like in real life. Putting myself in the room with, or at least in a conversation with (and hopefully, a friendship with—I’m looking at you Heather) passionate, committed women who are, to borrow a phrase, doing the damn thing. While the seeds of my relationships with Nikkole, Hannah, and Sylvia came through a task I was doing for my day job, the actual relationships came from saying some version of “Are you on Facebook because I want to friend you?” or “Would you like to have coffee?” or “Do you want to try and do this project together?” They came from making myself vulnerable to a polite brush-off or even a flat-out No.
And yes, I could make a long long list of people to whom I asked those questions and with whom nothing long lasting ever sparked. The thing about making oneself vulnerable is that it doesn’t always work out, or it doesn’t work out the way you expected it might.
Or sometimes the initial connection turns out to be secondary to a connection you make via that initial connection. Take an actor friend I adore and connected with after an interview, but now don’t chat with often because life. Through the wonders of social media I’ve now become friends with his brother—one of my favorite people though we haven’t met IRL—who, though he’s not living an artist’s life is living a life full of passion for a sport he loves and doing the damn thing when it comes to nurturing that passion in the young people in his community. Which, in turn, encourages me to be passionate and committed. (Yes, James R., I am talking about you.)
And that is, in part, why I’m going to Italian class every Saturday. Yes, I do want to learn the language again, but more than that, I want to connect with people who are inspired and passionate, who may become good friends for the long haul, or maybe just for the seven weeks we’re together trying to figure out how to wrap our tongues around the passato remoto. Hmmm, maybe next week in class I’ll ask them to help me figure out how to say “Iron sharpens iron” in Italian.
*This is probably my favorite public speaking thing I’ve ever done, mostly because someone hollered out at some point, “Hey that NEA woman’s pretty funny!”
So I could write some stuff orrrrr you could just listen to the most excellent playlist ever and pretty much know everything there is to know about me. I’m just saying…. (BTW, I suggest you pick the listen to the playlist option cause I’m doing busy watching Wreck-It Ralph to write anything.)
I have no answers for you tonight, but I do have a question—by way of an interview I just did with the legendary innovator and choreographer Bebe Miller—that we should all ask ourselves on a regular basis:
How do I not stop myself?
Here are some things you should read:
And in case you’re not tired of watching me read poems yet, here I am at the now gone but not forgotten Monday Night Poetry and Blues in Charleston, October 2011
Oh, and you should definitely watch this, often, and honestly, I’m kinda judging you right now if you’ve never seen it …
Just back from the first read for Forum Theatre’s production of Nat Turner in Jerusalem by Nathan Alan Davis. Just hearing two extraordinarily talented actors reading an extraordinarily well written script was transformative. And it’s only going to get better once the director and designers layer on their vision. I am quite excited to see it up on its feet. I wish it wasn’t time for me to start getting ready for bed because it’s the kind of work that’s so good you want to come home and work on your own projects. Instead I’m going to de-fuschia my lips, hang out in the shower luxuriating in the hot water for far too long, and then slather myself in coconut oil so I smell good when Jon Hamm shows up in my dreams. (One of these things may not actually happen.)
But that’s enough about me. Mostly tonight I wanted to share this response from Jason V. to this blog post I wrote about vulnerability. (Rumor has it he and Andrea O. are starting a blog soon and I’m soooooo here for it and I’ll make sure to share the news when it happens. Did you see that Andrea and Jason—I said “when” not “if.” I’m just saying….)
So without further ado, here’s Jason…
I want to take care of you but you first have to let me.
I’ve always found this to be one of the most difficult parts of any relationship, romantic or otherwise. The part where you love someone, and you need them, and you need things from them… emotional and physical and maybe even financial things… but you can’t bring yourself to let them help you. Whether it is a conscious decision/choice you’re making or something in the back of your mind and heart that prevents you from accepting help… you just can’t bring yourself to let them help you.
It’s a scary concept – the idea of needingsomeone. You feel vulnerable. You feel helpless at times. You feel as if you should have it together enough to never need anyone in these ways, no matter who it is. This becomes more pronounced the older we get. Accepting help is a very big deal for many of us. Especially those of us who carry forth certain (often very toxic) personality traits. Traits like pride. Ego. Guilt. Shame. Low self-worth. These characteristics tend to work to our own detriment, especially when we really need the help of a friend. We’ll hide the need for help. Even when we accept the help, we’ll hide the fact of that too. Or we’ll resent the person offering the help, like it’s somehow his or her fault that we need it!
And what can easily happen is we don’t accept the help we desperately need. Usually for reasons that are so unimportant to our overall health. We reject people who love us and want to see us do well and genuinely want to help us for… well, for what exactly? What does accepting help we need do to us or make us feel that we so often reject and avoid it?
It can make us feel weak. Weak in the eyes of others and in our own eyes as well. No one wants to appear weak to the outside world or to the people they care about. So we’ll reject help to prove our own strength except… the need for the help is still there. It hasn’t gone anywhere so in reality we’re no stronger than we were before we rejected the help.
It can make us feel like failures. Like because we don’t have enough money to pay the rent this month, we’re failed providers. Like because we need someone to put together our resume for us, we’re failed professionals. Like because we’re single parents and need someone to stay with our kids one night, we’re failed parents.
It can make us feel ashamed. Ashamed at ourselves for taking from someone else. Ashamed of ourselves for falling our household or spouse or child.
I’ve refused help I needed because I thought it proved my strength. When I went through a divorce there were friends and family who reached out, genuinely, to offer money or advice or just an ear. For many reasons I rejected most of their offers. I told myself it was because they wouldn’t understand my situation or because I didn’t want to burden anyone with my problems. That was partially true but the bigger truth was I was afraid to look and appear weak. Afraid to look like I couldn’t handle it. Even though the truth was just that – I couldn’t handle it all alone. And I shouldn’t have handled it alone. Even though I wanted to. Even though I tried to.
I didn’t realize it at the time but this refusal to take help I needed had become a personality trait of mine as an adult. As a man, I was always taught to be the rock – to be the backbone. Men are tough and don’t cry. Men stand on their own two feet and don’t ever need or ask for help. In my household, a man is not allowed to need help because if you do it means you’ve failed to do your job as a provider or protector. That was my mentality and it made tough situations even tougher because when I needed money or advice I wouldn’t seek it or accept it. And when I divorced and took on twin 5 year olds basically by myself… I needed help. Help that I didn’t know how to ask for because I’d never really asked for it before. Help with money, going from two incomes to one. Help with childcare so I could get some rest. Help with coping with the loss and help with coaching my children through it too. What’s worse, I had plenty of good people around me, friends and family, who were willing, able and wanting to help me.
I had to change that. And honestly, I only realized this after I felt I was hurting my children. I felt like I was letting pride and ego keep them from receiving help we all needed. I was prioritizing my own feelings over their well being. After I realized that, accepting help became a lot easier. I told myself “this is what’s best for the kids.” And maybe it was a sell job – maybe I was telling myself what I needed to hear to accept the help we needed. But it did allow me to be able to receive things that I needed at the time and that I wouldn’t have accept otherwise.
I learned from that to prioritize what was most important – our overall mental and emotional health and well being – instead of prioritizing my feelings and hangups. Admittedly, this is a lot easier to do when it involves my kids than when it’s me alone. I still have trouble identifying the times when I need help, which makes it more difficult to accept it. I still have a hard time saying the words “yes, I need you.” I still have a hard time accepting that I can’t, or shouldn’t, do everything alone. That whether or not I’m capable of doing it all alone is not nearly as important as doing what’s best for me and my kids.
But I’m getting better.