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Open Letter to Joni Mitchell, Day 2: Body of Work

Copyright 2015 Carrie Holbo Photography

Photo by Carrie Holbo Photography

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?

Open Letter to Patti Smith, Day 22 (#GNF)

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!”


Open Letter to Marc Maron, Day 25 (What story do you tell yourself about yourself?)

…Have I compared myself to others or tried to “keep up with Joneses” today? Have I given myself a moment just to daydream? Have I had a moment of gratitude for all that I have? Have I stopped contemplating all that I lack for at least a little while? Have I truly, madly, deeply lived today?

And one more question: have I really seen myself today? If you asked me what I looked like as a girl, I would say I was always fat. But if you look at pictures of me from that time, I’m not waifish, but I’m still fairly slender. Narrow shoulders, small breasts, a tiny waist, flat stomach, and hips that flare more like eggplants than the watermelons I lug around these days. In other words, I was somewhat curvy but I was far from fat. But I’d been made to feel ugly often enough by my parents during those days, and in those days once I hit junior year of college and really did start to gain weight, that the story I tell myself is that I was always fat, always the ugly sister.

I wonder what effect it would have had on my issues with overeating and body image and self-esteem if I’d had a clear picture of myself to begin with. Or if the narrative I was told about myself focused more on my strengths–intelligence, humor, leadership skill, ability to work on a team, empathy–than on the things I wasn’t so good at, or that I had to work a little harder at.

We all carry around a narrative about ourselves. Some of it we make ourselves but a great deal of the story we tell about ourselves has been–consciously and unconsciously, explicitly and implicitly–told to us by other people. In the ideal situation, the distance between what we tell ourselves about ourselves and what other people tell us about ourselves is minimal. (Let’s face it: we can’t be purely objective about ourselves, and possibly we can’t be purely objective about others either.) But in a case like mine that distance is Grand Canyon-sized. I’ve learned to get a truer picture of myself by, despite what Public Enemy says, learning to believe my hype.

But I still need to check in. To look around the actual evidence of my life and see what it reveals about who I am. True, it reveals that I’m a lousy housekeeper, but if I look at what I’ve accomplished in my 9-5 and with my poetry, and if I look at the quality of the people in my life and the quality of sustained relationships I have, it affirms that every time that old narrative starts running in my head–I’m lazy, not worthy of love, not good enough, voiceless, blah blah blah–I’ve got exactly the proof I need to shut it down. I just need to remember to ask the question before I get too far down the rabbit hole of that old story.

Speaking of being overweight…

To be continued…

Writing About My Body, Day 7

What I can control about the appearance of my body: how full my fat cells are, what clothes I put on my body, what products I put on my body in terms of keeping my skin moisturized, protecting my skin from the sun, highlighting certain features or covering others (like pimples), if my hair looks curly or straight, where hair is visible on my body

What I can’t control about the appearance of my body: the shape of my buttocks, the length of my limbs, the prominence of my knees, where my calf muscles are attached to my ankles, the shape of my right eye, the keratoconus in my corneas, the diameter of my wrists, the predisposition of fat to gather first on certain areas of my body, the length of my torso, the average ratio of my waist to my hips, the nerve damage that changed the shape of my smile circa 1998, the archless planes of my feet, the length of my fingers

What I might change about my body surgically if I had the money and the procedure was medically feasible: the shape and vertical position of my breasts, where my calf muscles are attached to my ankles

When I like my body best: When I am naked, when I am wearing a black bra and black panties and smiling at myself in the mirror, when I like the lipstick I have on, when I have just finished plucking my eyebrows, when I am hugging someone I love, when I keep going on a long walk even though my feet hurt, when I take on a physical challenge even though I know I’ll look ridiculous doing whatever it is

When I like my body least: When I am PMSing or on my cycle and I have to go through 4 or 5 outfits to find something to wear because nothing fits and I hate everything in my closet, when it betrays me with asthmatic wheezing or an attack of vertigo or a cluster of fibroids, when I don’t take on a physical challenge because I’m too scared to look like “the fat girl,” when there’s not enough room in a restaurant for me to squeeze between chairs and I have to ask people to get up so I can get by, when I can’t get up on a bar stool cause it’s too tall and I’m too short

Who I blame for how I feel about my body: That’s a dumb question.

Whose body I want: Mine. It’s been through a lot. Almost died from pneumonia. Been hit by a car. Had a corneal transplant. Been slit open from just above the pubis to just above the belly button because of tumors. This body isn’t perfect but it’s a survivor. I could learn from it if let myself.

30 Days of Writing About My Body, Day 5

“Some tissue, such as bone, is especially dynamic. Each body structure has its own rate of reformation: the lining of the stomach renews itself in a week; the skin is entirely replaced in a month; the liver is regenerated in six weeks… after five years one can presume that the entire body is renewed, even to the very last atom.” — Larry Dossey, Space, Time, and Medicine*

This is the body that splayed itself o a cold thin table, offered up its soft belly to the surgeon’s finicky blade. This is not the same body that cowered in the kitchen, drowning in my mother’s rage: “I don’t care if it hurts your feelings to hear that you are ugly.” How many cells are left of the body that cuddled with mouther on the couch, her eyes wild with delight as she watched The Bachelor. This is almost the same body that woke up to an empty bed this morning. This will almost be the same body who wakes up tomorrow and stitches herself into a garment of grief. And the body five years from now, when there is nothing left of the hand that is writing this or the giddy mouth that kissed the famous author or the arms that held my father’s shrunken body which was not the same body he’d had the day before, the body now turned to ash and loss, my body of tomorrows, how will I recognize its electric arrival, how will I mourn its sweet shed skin?

* I borrowed this epigraph from Maureen Seaton’s “A Constant Dissolution of Molecules” for which this quote is also the epigraph.

30 Days of Writing About My Body, Day 4

10 Reasons to Be Fat

1. So your hands can’t reach all the way around when you try to hug me. So I can’t be trapped.

2. Cause nothing feels as good as cake tastes.

3. Everybody’s doing it.

4. Who doesn’t want invisibility as a superpower?

5. Who doesn’t want a permanent excuse from gym class (life)?

6. Sometimes despite your best intentions you grow up to be just like your mother in all the wrong ways.

7. Because I have neither the faintest idea what to do with a man (love) or to learn what to do with a man (love.)

8. Two words: portable fortress.

9. Four words: Scared not to be.

10. If you don’t love me like this, how will I know you really love me?

Shall we dance?

for Danna

1. Dancing is equal parts rhythm + joy. Rhythm makes the dancing look good, joy makes the dancing feel good. A person in the throes of joy is infectiously beautiful irregardless of the downbeat and their appreciation or ignorance of it.

2. I can only dance when I love my body. I think swan or hawk or eagle. I don’t think albatross. The more I dance, feel each individual muscle stretch and bend and glide and hurl itself toward the waiting air, the more I marvel at my body, the more I think “home,” the more I think “blessing.”

3. Each day I know more and more the truth of youth being wasted on the young. The gaggle of twenty-somethings on the edges of D’s 60th birthday dance party mutter “I’m not a good dancer” when we try to tug them onto the dance floor. Dance now, I want to say, before you discover the price of joy, before you learn it’s not always a gift, but a prize hard-earned. Dance now while your body is still just a body, not a warning or a stop sign or a penance.

4. I think love is that moment of joy exploding because though you are in a room full of strangers, there is your dear friend, your home, exploding + exploding + exploding till the room is littered with her joy.

5. Songs to dance to: “Thrift Shop” — Mackelmore and Lewis; “Get Lucky” — Daft Punk; “Moves Like Jagger” — Maroon 5; “Tightrope” — Janelle Monae; “Rock Wit You” — Michael Jackson; “Lonely Boy” — The Black Keys; “Don’t Hold the Wall” — Justin Timberlake; “Hips Don’t Lie” — Shakira; “Hey Ya” — Outkast;

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