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.
But I’m going to be blatantly Pollyanna and say it also means bad things end, and good things get even better or just change into a different version of a good thing. Nothing’s ever in stasis, is it? No matter how stuck we feel. Hmmm, so maybe that’s the only thing we can count on as being true forever? Everything changes eventually.
I’m not sure what to write about today, how to follow up on change and forever and stasis. It’s all been said, right? I can’t think of a single jumping off point that doesn’t feel like beating a dead horse. I can tell you that I went to see Inherent Vice today and I didn’t hate it exactly but I also almost fell asleep a few times during it. I love Joaquin Phoenix and I appreciate P.T. Anderson’s work, and I’ve adored Josh Brolin since The Goonies, but I just couldn’t find my way into this film. I felt bad because I really really wanted to like it. I didn’t want to keep getting distracted thinking about what it would be like to make out with Joaquin. What it would be like to date him, hold his hand. I mean he’s nuts, right? Super talented and super nuts. And I can’t quite decide if that would be exhausting or exhilarating.
And I’m wandering to the bus stop in a delightful winy haze (yes, it was an 11:40 movie, yes I got popcorn and wine anyway CAUSE I’M ON VACATION, DAMNIT!) daydreaming about holding Joaquin’s hand and trying damned hard not to notice how lonely I am. Not friend lonely. Not person to have breakfast before work with lonely or friends to laugh with at the office lonely or some place to go for the holidays lonely. It’s someone to kiss lonely, someone to hold my hand lonely, someone who just wants to stick his nose in my neck and take a good sniff lonely.
I don’t mind being alone, but I do mind being untouched. I do mind the day to day hunger for someone else’s skin next to mine. I’ve been celibate for more than a decade now. I’m a little ashamed to even type that as if it’s some badge of defectiveness. But really, I stopped sleeping around because I couldn’t quite play by the rules of the one night stand (I always wanted to have breakfast the next morning), and, you know, with the faulty narrative of the pitch lake sloshing around inside me, I never was able to have an actual relationship. I always thought—oh, when I lose weight I’ll get a boyfriend. Nope! When I go out more, I’ll get a boyfriend. Nope! If I stop mean-mugging when I walk down the street and actually smile more, I’ll get a boyfriend. Nope! When I learn to love myself and treasure my alone time, I’ll get a boyfriend. Nope! I’d like to think the pitch lake is all but drained at this point and still, here I am on my couch. Alone. Being a little too fond of how soft the blue velvet couch and squishy gray blanket are against my skin.
Intellectually, I know how precious my freedom is. I can make plans without consulting anyone, change my mind at the last minute, live like an utter slob, eat cheese and crackers for dinner every night for a week if I want, go weeks without doing laundry, you know, live the perfect bachelor lifestyle. I love being (romantically) alone—except for those aching moments when I don’t.
What I want more than anything is to find someone who I love being with even more than I love being alone. Who won’t pull away when I rub the small of his back. Who’ll understand why I hate talking on the phone cause he’s read every single thing there is to read on outgoing introverts and send me e-mails that make me giggle instead. I know that when it comes to relationships, I’m difficult, ping ponging between a wide-open heart and prickliness, affection and sometimes (God help me) outright disdain. I always envisioned that I’d meet someone who’d see right through me and when I got to the part where I tried to run away cause I was overwhelmed by all the vulnerability and responsibility of loving someone, he’d just kind of hold on to me while I ran in place, windmilling my legs like some they do in cartoons, till I ran some sense into myself.
But maybe the fact that I’m yearning after Joaquin Phoenix, who I’m just going to go ahead and stereotype as the wild-eyed difficult artist type means deep down I don’t actually want anyone. I’m not exactly daydreaming about the settle down and have a quiet life guy next door, am I? Or maybe it means that I’m looking for someone who seems like he’s like me, at least the me I am when the filter’s down and I’m having a hard time doing all those socially acceptable things one is supposed to do? Or maybe it doesn’t mean anything at all except I was lonely and there Joaquin was 20 feet high on the screen and looking deeply kissable? Maybe it means—though good Christian women who are trying to work on their relationship with God aren’t supposed to feel this way—maybe it means I just need to get laid. Sigh…
To be continued…
…like any good poet, I was always good at suffering. Though back then, in my 20s and my 30s it was always for the wrong reason. In other words, men.
Men were a challenge–going all the way back to grade school before they actually bloomed into men–mostly because I had to both protect myself so no one would find out about the pitch lake monster and also pay homage to my raging hormones. I seemed to be able to get the best of both worlds by throwing myself with great force at men who were emotionally unavailable and/or completely uninterested in me. If my target had a girlfriend I’d make sure to become his best friend because nothing says love like having a front row seat to masochistically watch the boy you’re in heavy-duty like with love someone else. If by chance there was some shred of interest by a suitable man, I’d make sure to be around ALL THE TIME, which until you’ve sealed the deal is, luckily, exactly the way to not seal the deal.
Notable fact: I tried online dating back in the early 1990s when it was back-of-the-newspaper dating and met some rando (with a very bad perm and way-too-tiny shorts) for a double date at the Science Museum. Online dating–over the succeeding couple of decades–was also a great way to go through the motions of being a normal woman with normal urges while making sure no one got close enough to find the monster. And when all else failed in my quest to neither have my cake nor eat it, sarcasm worked. Wit can be a terrible weapon in the hands of a confused and floundering but intelligent and literate woman.
As I type this I’m listening to Roberta Flack. On vinyl. Killing Me Softly, which has that great two-sided piano cut-out flap on the cover. The first time I had my own record player—it was probably the mid-1990s—I played the song “I’m the girl” relentlessly. “He likes me yes/no more than that. The one he really loves/is you.” “I’m the one he’ll leave after a while/I’m the girl.” It was my f-ing anthem, and I suffered. Which was all I knew about love. All I’d been taught.
To be continued….
What follows is not a good poem. In fact, I haven’t looked at it since i made one attempt at a second draft in November 2005. (I eventually stole parts of it for another poem.) But it’s an interesting poem, I think, because of what it’s trying to get at—that there is an element of possession to love. We want to both possess and be possessed. That there is something somewhat cannibalistic about love, in how much we want to not only hold the beloved, but we want to have them inside of us, woven into the very fabric of our DNA. Of course, if we’re relatively sane, we don’t act on that deep desire. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there. It’s taboo to talk about, but we all have a whiff of the obsessive about us, particularly when it comes to love. In the case of this poem, the beloved in question is my mother, who I’ve now figured out was actually standing in for both of my parents. Two people I wanted desperately to possess. Two people who could never figure out how to possess me.
I should also say that the poem is dark, and I find myself resisting that darkness sometimes. It feels wrong to have so much fun being twisted, and I don’t want anyone to think I am actually this extreme. But as all great crime fiction writers know (at least the ones who write for the BBC), sometimes you have to push things to the extreme to get to the very ordinary human truth.
Eating Mother (second draft)
There is a certain desire toward
cannibalism of the beloved mother.
It asks an act of violence,
this sacrament of love.
I love you so much mother
I will wear your heart
hanging from my lips,
the best stick parts
gouged out. When
you expelled me. When
you threw me out
from between your legs,
didn’t you smell the grief?
What else is blood but mourning
for what has been broken?
Now I see your teats are a substitute
lacking the rankness of true intimacy.
They are given too freely.
I suckle too for the ghosts
who didn’t make it, those
you kicked out before
they had hands to hold.
What choice have I
but to open my mouth wide
as all our tiny mouths.
you are our beloved suckling pig.
you are our beloved first kill.
We are giddy with blood and delight.
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;
The scar from my abdominal surgery is six inches long, snaking vertically upward from the top of my pubis, listing left diagonally across the twin fatty folds of my belly, just missing my navel before petering out. The skin is puckered, that dull shiny pink of new scars. On either side of it, my belly fat hangs misshapen, one side hanging much lower than the other, a graphic ghost of where the tumors used to be. The incision itself doesn’t hurt, though the areas around it seem always on the edge of soreness. Still, it’s sound. I’m all knitted together and no longer in danger that lifting the wrong thing, or stretching too high will undo the surgeon’s work. True, when I overdo it, I do get sore inside, but it’s uncomfortable not outright painful.
I’ve been thinking about this scar a lot. How, somehow, my belly has knit itself back together. Sure there has been help from the surgeon, rows and rows of stitches inside me, and surgical glue to hold the very top layers together, but within this scaffolding, the cells have known to grow back toward each other, not the same as before, messy and not pretty, but whole. I can’t help but think of other scars, the ones made by harsh words, broken promises, all those that walked away or refused to show up. We all want to “return to normal” after these wounds, but I’m realizing that every wound permanently scars us, and some show more than others.
But though we may have scars, we don’t remain broken. We may not always be pretty at the wound sites, and there may be residual pain, but—with God’s grace, with the willingness to be scaffolded by the love of those who persistently show up—we can, like our bodies, return to whole.
This is a lightly-edited version of what I found myself journaling about this morning before church…
I love my life, but still, there are sometimes those moments when I wonder how I’ve made it to 43 without the expected benchmarks—a husband, kids, a few heartbreaks. Truth is my heart was broken so early, so repeatedly before I was even a teenager by people who should’ve known better that I couldn’t see past the wreckage for a really long time in order to let someone in. I’m wondering why it seems the only men I can ever expose all of myself to are married or gay. Is it because they won’t demand anything of me more than what I’m willing to give? Or is there just a certain type of courage I lack?
With a married or gay man, I can have a deep and intimate friendship but I still retain—I’m not sure what the right word is—is it my identity that’s at stake? Is it my selfhood? What is it that we give up when we enter into an intimate, romantic relationship with someone?
I have platonic friends of both sexes who have seen both my best self and my worst self. They’ve known me to be kind and generous and sweet, but they’ve also known me to be arrogant and jealous and mean. So, if I’m okay with giving all of that to my women friends, my married male friends, what is it that I’m withholding or scared of showing possible romantic partners and why? What is it that I’m afraid they’ll demand of me that I haven’t already willingly given to my friends?
I’m fairly certain it’s not just sex. Will it be fumbling and awkward given that it’s been more than a decade since I’ve even made out with anyone (and didn’t have much practice before that)? Sure—but I also know without a shadow of a doubt that it also will be so much easier than before cause I don’t intend to sleep with someone (or marry someone—they go hand in hand for me) until I feel utterly and completely safe.
Is it possible then that I’ve kept myself closed off from true romantic love not because I’m unwilling to open myself up but because I was raised with the deep knowledge that men are in fact bogeymen, that the most tragic thing that can happen to a woman is heartbreak, is being abandoned with mouths to feed and school fees to pay? What if I’m not actually afraid of romantic love but rather I’m scared of its aftermath? What if the real bogeymen is the dread of heartbreak turning me into a reflexively controlling woman who lives her life from a place of fear, becoming more and more impervious to receiving and giving love as I get older?
Growing up in my family of strong-willed women, I saw few happy endings. I learned that men always cheated and women (and the children) always suffered. As an adult, I can look around and see the relationships that have lasted, where there is mutual love and respect and tolerance, but those stories came a little too late.
So my real challenge is, I think, not just learning to be open, but convincing myself down to every fiber and cell, down to the DNA level, that the story of my mother, the story of my grandmothers, are not my own. That a happy ending for me is not only possible but is absolutely and positively worth the risk. The challenge is remembering that even if I do suffer a broken heart, I am resilient. That a broken heart or a string of broken hearts won’t make me brick myself up again unless I let it. I can not only be free to love, but I can be free to heal and free to love again, wounded, maybe, but also wiser, with a heart broken open to let love in, not keep it out.
Okay, it’s time to begin…
“That dawn is my final picture of Rachel, her round little face screwed up in anger and hurt as I make her promise not to tell anyone I was there. Her arms are folded so tightly that her t-shirt rides up and you can see that she’s wearing white panties. She just listens while I talk, her eyes seeming to become darker and darker. She knows we’ve come full circle to where she takes up a lot of space but isn’t really there. But I don’t let myself know that; I just wheel my bike down the hall and out into the morning.” — from “Rachel,” circa 1998
I’ve been rifling through my file cabinets trying to find something to write about tonight. I was watching the Christmas special of Vicar of Dibley where Geraldine finally gets married, and I thought I might write about weddings, but then I knew I’d have to ask the question, “Do I not want a big wedding because I really don’t want one or because I think I don’t deserve one?” and tonight I just want to drink wine and watch Netflix and not stick my hand down my throat and root around for my heart.
In the Miscellaneous file I keep a lot of false starts and fragments and finished poems that weren’t very good but I can’t bear to throw out. I’m not one of those artists that can blithely discard old work just because I don’t want anyone to find it. Even though the writer I am now knows it’s not good, when I read the old poem or story, I remember how proud of it I was then, how each was its own risk, its own achievement, and that’s what I’m holding onto, promise and risk, the failure part of it isn’t very relevant other than as a sign that I was willing to take a risk.
I’m also reminded how self-conscious I was as a writer, how worried I was about being honest versus hurting someone’s feelings. These days I know that the people whose feelings might be hurt by what I’m writing don’t actually read my work—there are perks to having a family who’s not into the arts. And anyway, would they even recognize themselves? Living the same life doesn’t mean you remember or feel or even actually do live it the same.
I wrote a story in my late 20s called “Rachel.” It was my attempt to understand what had happened between me and the one who got away in college, who was also the one who was but wasn’t. My big idea was that if if I wrote it from his perspective, I’d maybe understand if I’d loved him, if he’d loved me, what had broken between us, if there was even anything there to break. I was still in touch with him a little then, and I faxed him the story (or maybe I e-mailed him) before I started submitting it to journals because I wanted to make sure he was okay with me revealing so much about our relationship. So many of the scenes I wrote about were barely disguised fiction: the time I was the a/v tech when his English class watched The Red Balloon, the time he tried to kiss me on his bed and I panicked and ran, the time he came by my apartment our senior year for a booty call.
Nearly two decades later I’m fairly certain that he wouldn’t have recognized any of those scenes. There was no reason for him to hold onto them, playing the filmstrip frame by frame searching for meaning, for connection, for love. I think I was important to him, but not the way I wanted to be, not the way that makes you remember every detail like that. I thought I’d written the story from his point-of-view but, really, the way I’d seen it kept getting in the way.
Sometimes I think I’d like to see him again but we couldn’t have the conversation I’d want to have, the one where he could tell me if the whole thing was in my head back then or not. The one where I could explain all the ways I used to be numb, and what a relief it was to be with him because I actually felt something, even if it was anger half the time.
There are answers I’ll never have. And really, I don’t need them because they don’t matter now. We wouldn’t have worked out even if I hadn’t been awkward and numb and fumbling. I still had decades of growing up to do. At 19, 20, 21, I still had no idea how closed I was, and I certainly didn’t understand that there was, in fact, another way to be in the world. He really wasn’t the one that got away, I guess. He’s the one who was a really smart, good-looking guy, who sometimes made me feel pretty, who got tired of how often I hung around him and his friends but didn’t know how to say it, and the one who introduced me to Patsy Cline. And that’s enough.
Allowing yourself to be loved is scary. Last week I sent out an e-mail to a group of friends asking for their help with various tasks—grocery shopping, laundry—while I’m recovering from surgery. After hitting “send,” and waiting for what felt like a long time for a response, I had some terrible moments of, “Well, no one really cares.” “They have just said they want to help cause that’s what you’re supposed to say.” I had to remind myself that not everyone checks their e-mail every five minutes like I do, that my friends had to check their calendars, and that surgery was still three weeks away and some of the tasks I was asking for help with were even farther out than that. But it took a certain self-awareness—that I still look for any excuse to prove that people don’t really love me—for me to take a deep breath and realize the spiral I was allowing myself to fall into.
It’s almost easier to expect—and perhaps even to want—disappointment than it is to expect people to show up. With disappointment you get to eschew your responsibility to others. If they don’t love me, then I’m not responsible to be loving back. And if I don’t have to be loving back, then there’s no possibility of me disappointing them when I’m mean or cranky or thoughtless. There’s no possibility of me feeling unworthy of their love, their care, their tenderness.
Given that risk, I suppose the question is: Is being loved worth it? And I don’t mean someone loving you just when you’re your best self, but being loved head-to-toe, inside and out, through misunderstandings and misapprehensions, through mistakes and flaws and disappointments and disconnects. Is love worth letting someone close enough to you to see you as you are?
I suppose if you think there’s nothing in you worth loving, which is the story I told myself for decades to understand why my parents were so emotionally selfish, then you’ll always want to keep people at a distance. But the reality is, the only way to discover/embrace/ understand that you are worth loving, even in brokenness, the only way to see that there is no monstrous something lurking at the heart of you that disqualifies you from being loved, is to somehow find a shred of bravery to let people in. And to also be courageous enough to keep looking until you find those people who are quite willing and able to both see you as you are and to love you as you are.
There will be many false prophets, so to speak, along the way. My experience has been that brokenness attracts brokenness, and, in some ways, no matter how perfect the childhood, how loving the family, we are all broken simply by virtue of being human, and having “fallen short of the glory of God.” But if you can find the courage to let yourself be loved, I think, I hope, you’ll eventually start to see that while there are those who try to get a fingerhold on your cracks and crevices to break you further, to keep you in the club of the mean and the scared and the closed-off, there are also those who are willing to pour into you what they know of wisdom, of their own healing. There are those who will take from their own stores of the balms of kindness, of understanding, of forgiveness and deploy them in service of your healing. They are the ones who will seek out your cracks, your crevices, your jagged places because they know those are the holy places where love can begin.