Many mornings I send a long text to my sister to let her know I’m thinking of her. I usually end those texts with #GNF (“Give No Fucks” for those of you who don’t speak acronym or hipster slang.)
At the venerable age of 46, you’d think I’d be a world champion #GNF-er. I mean, I’m an artist, for goodness’ sake. Aren’t we all rule-breaking free spirits who wouldn’t know a boundary or a stricture if it slapped us in the face? And isn’t part of being a woman of a certain age being so confident and wise that the little things like what others think of one’s appearance just don’t matter?
And it’s true that today I’ve been wandering around—outside of the apartment even!—wearing paint-covered shorts and a black tank top, which is not scandalous at all until I disclose that I’m also braless and my armpits haven’t seen a razor in at least a year. I mean I’m all about the #GNF today, at least sartorially. And mortified at the way I’m dressed the whole time.
I had a friend once who said she admired me greatly for my impulsiveness, my free spiritedness. We’re no longer close friends, probably cause she never knew me well enough to see how deeply structured and rule-bound my life actually is. That it’s taken me years to be able to accept a change of plans gracefully. That though I was excited to have two weeks vacation, I felt too unmoored to enjoy it for the first few days because I didn’t have the regularity of getting up every day to go to work. That it took me years to feel comfortable wearing bright red lipstick and to wear tank tops without a sweater over them—even on the hottest days—to cover up my arm flab because of that rule of people whose sizes run to the double digits not drawing attention to themselves.
Being a #GNF person requires a certain lack of insecurity, which I sometimes lack. I’m certainly more confident about the way I look and who I am now as I inch toward 50 than I was when I couldn’t imagine all the way to 50, but my #GNFness can be pretty hard to come by as I sit at a party with my younger cousins—who are all thinner, taller, and prettier than I am—trying not to feel like the fat frumpy spinster cousin who doesn’t actually need cats to be a crazy cat lady. My red lipstick and vintage yellow earrings and all-black ensemble looked #GNF af* but my inner monologue was something like, “Why are you so fat right now? No, you look fine. You look pretty. It’s not your fault you didn’t get the tall genes. OMG–you’re one of the old people now! Why don’t you have any cool shoes?” In other words I was racking up fucks like they were the only things between me and POTUS Trump.
A couple of weeks ago, I went to see Sonny my barber to get a trim. Somehow while I was sitting there waiting for him to get through the five other customers who were waiting for him (seriously, though, ladies first should be a thing in the barber shop!), I decided he should cut my ponytail off. Which he did. And I walked out of said barbershop happy to have a curly-ish mohawk-ish chop that didn’t require much combing of hair, always a win in my book.
I loved my new look! Until the euphoria wore off. And I looked in the mirror. And realized how butch I looked. How unfeminine. Which spiraled into a long litany of, “Oh, if only I could wear heels, I could make this work! If only I were thinner! If only I had perkier boobs! I can’t leave the house without eyeshadow and blush and lipstick until this grows out!” In other words, again, I was giving A LOT of fucks.
Which seems ridiculous to me now as I sit here in my favorite chair, with the fan sending the perfect breeze my way, and the sun shining, and enough money in my bank account to pay for a steak tonight, and the realization that I can probably afford to buy myself a pair of light pink Converse especially as I have a DSW coupon, and the deep contentment that comes from GNF-ing about the laundry you haven’t done and the poems you haven’t edited and the list of things you were supposed to do over vacation that you haven’t consulted once because you decided it was more important to just “be” and not worry about “do. ”
Practicing #GNF-ing is exactly why I’ve taken out the trash and handed in my pool pass application braless today. And why I made myself a martini at 2:30 instead of waiting for dinner. And why I’ve been writing ridiculous things on Facebook all day and reading romance novels. I’m practicing my #GNF-ness because I’ve figured out that it’s not something that magically shows up with age (though the wisdom that can come with age can show us how important it is). GNF-ness is a habit. GNF-ness is a choice. GNF-ness is something I need to do a lot more of.
* as fuck: another thing the kids say to mean—as we would have said in the 80s—“to the max!”
I’ve written several times about the “monster” that I thought lived somewhere deep inside me who made me unloveable. I was looking at a blog post from last year about that pesky monster, and as I read my writing about finally getting some therapy (and some lovely pills) when I was in my mid-30s, I was surprised to find myself feeling shame. Not shame about the depression itself, not shame about initially needing pharmaceutical help to deal with it, but shame about the fact that it took me so long to figure out just how fucked up I was.
No, that’s not quite accurate either. The shame is really about how long it took me to figure out that I needed help. That I wasn’t actually “high-maintenance.” That I didn’t react to the slightest change of plans like it was a betrayal because I was needlessly rigid. It turns out that a lot of what could be perceived as neediness, clinginess, coldness, meanness, flightiness and a whole hodgepodge of sometimes contradictory behaviors was the result of never being parented by my parents. Like most kids of narcissists (and other types of parents who abdicate the emotional part of their parenting duties) I parented myself by telling myself a whopper of a lie—that inner monster of mine—so I had a reason for why they hadn’t parented me.
It’s not surprising that given that that lie was my survival mechanism, one that had become enshrined in me, practically hardwired into my DNA before I even really had language or knew that language could both help you tell and untell stories, or understood that all stories we are told about ourselves aren’t true even if they’re told by the people we’re all supposed to agree are the most trustworthy. Given all of that, it’s somewhat surprising that I did eventually stumble on the truth that I was spending my life reacting to one hell of a whopper.
I mean, honestly, I thought it was completely normal to sit in the corner of my room, rest my head on the radiator, and sob till I felt sick. I thought it was completely normal to let myself ghost out of myself when I felt anything but numbness. And really, if you’re funny and smart and like to throw tea parties and can hold your drink fairly well (even though you do have an alarming tendency to ask men to sleep with you when you’re wasted but that’s another blog post) and you can find at least a few friends who will put up with your tendency to pee in parking lots on your way to the T or the El for the trip home, you can keep that lie safe for decades.
Until the summer you turn 31 and you work in a building in downtown DC with a beautiful flight of wooden stairs, and every time you walk down those stairs you have to fight the urge to throw yourself down those stairs cause you know you’ll feel so much better if you can just get the pain that’s on the inside to manifest itself on the outside. Until you make friends with writers who are in therapy and start talking about things like depression and anxiety disorder, writer friends who point out time and again how much longing is in your poems, how much grief. Until you are riding home on the Metro one day and you think, “Well, I could just kill myself,” which terrifies you because you’ve always prided yourself on not being one of those people who would commit suicide cause really things are never quite that bad. And that terror sends you to campus one day to the student mental health office and you talk with your first psychiatrist who is younger than you are and diagnoses you with “depressive disorder unspecified” and prescribes a baby daily dose of Zoloft. And you don’t know what to talk about so you tell her you procrastinate writing projects all the time because surely that signifies everything that’s wrong with you–your laziness, your lack of preparation, your general wrongness. And this baby psychiatrist asks one question: “Have you ever missed a deadline?” And when you answer, “No,” she wonders—then why are you worried about it?
Even though it will take another year or two for me to figure out that what I call “procrastination” is actually the way my brain works, processing all the information I need for the project, finding the story long before I actually scratch things out on a sheet of paper, that moment, when she asks that simple question, and I am forced to consider all the wrong words I have been using to describe myself for decades, is the first time I start to wonder what else I have told myself about myself and others have told me about myself is wrong, too.
So the moral of the story is that all of these things had to happen for me to finally catch a glimpse of the lie and that’s what matters, right? But shouldn’t I have somehow seen it sooner? I’m a smart woman. I read a lot of books. I write poetry for goodness’ sake. Doesn’t that give me some sort of insight into human existence and shouldn’t that insight of mine have detected the “Help Me!” sign that had been flashing above my head for decades?
But that’s the wrong story, too. That we are all-seeing when it comes to who we are. That there’s such a thing as “too long.” That self-awareness, self-knowledge is some kind of race with check boxes and status reports and ETAs. That when it happens trumps everything else.
Here’s what shame is: it’s believing the wrong story about yourself.
Here’s what I need to remember: The right story about me is that I don’t know why it took the time it did to realize I was wrong about the monster and so many other things about myself. The right story about me is that it doesn’t matter how long it took to get there. The right story about me is that penalizing or feeling bad about myself cause it took a certain amount of time is just a silly attempt to give myself another monster and really, who needs that? The right story about me is that I will sometimes forget that. The right story about me is that there will be so many other times when I’ll feel that shame and instead of letting it send me down into a spiral of self-doubt, I’ll remind myself that it doesn’t matter how long it took for me to get to that place of un-telling. The right story about me is that—despite the safety and comfort of that old story—I did, in fact, get there.
Here is a section from an epistolary short story I’m not writing:*
I haven’t been able to stop crying. No, let me be accurate about this. I have only been able to stop crying for short periods of time. I cry when I make my morning coffee. I cry while I unpack another box of books. I even cry when I’m sitting on the toilet and of course I pee so much these days.
Everything here is green. Which is beautiful and too much all at the same time. Sometimes I look at M, at those eyes I trust with my everything and think yes, his eyes are also too green.
I didn’t think that at home. I mean at my home.
I look like no one and nothing here, but I knew that going in. I said yes anyway. Loudly. Publicly. Enthusiastically.
I feel I need to be as accurate as possible now. So I don’t misname things. So I don’t get confused. So I don’t think “grief” when this is probably only homesickness.
You remember those poems about a lover being a home? Everyone liked them, including me. Do you think I was wrong? And who was I lying to? And why?
Who cries at the beginning of things? Who cries at wonderful and perfect for me? Who cries when it’s taken so long to happen? Why can’t I stop crying?
(Oh, about the pee-ing thing. I’m not pregnant, just middle-aged. Remember that time we talked about everything that disappears after a woman turns 40—why didn’t we include bladder control?)
I hate the phrase “ugly cry.” I told my sister about the weeping—not how often just that I was doing it—and she said,” I hope you’re not ugly crying. You and M haven’t been together that long.” (I also hate that she said “together” not married. I mean I know it was just a clerk’s office but she was there, wasn’t she?)
I should go now. I’m about to start up again. I can feel the waterworks rumbling just underneath my skin. I’ll write more tomorrow.
I’ll write about how beautifully green it is here. I’ll write about my plans. I’ll figure out how to tell you how damned happy I am.
*Reasons not to write this story: I have an adversarial relationship with commas, sentences and I don’t get along, James Franco, I am much lazier than I appear in the mirror, I don’t know where it starts, having a short story roaming around in me is more painful than the usual giants, the poems will get jealous and lustful for revenge, if the story refuses to have a happy ending, oh, how that will break my heart.
I was seven or eight when I discovered my father’s stash of Playboys. When I think back, I see them sitting next to the green recliner in the den, but I can’t believe they would’ve been so easy to find. They were probably, instead, in the forbidden cupboard where my mother kept all of her romance novels, the cupboard I raided regularly after I ran out of library books because my voracious brain needed something, anything, to read, and this explains both why I see all great love as involving tragedy and why I knew too much about sex before I was in double digits. I would sneak the magazines up to my room, look at them with a flashlight under the covers. It’s hard to believe I could be sexually excited by them at seven and even as I type this it feels like I am holding my breath and panting at the same time at the memory.
I was caught, of course. Many times. But still I went back to the big-breasted women and their chauffeur uniforms and twosomes and their slow stripteases over a series of pages. After the first time I was caught, at my grandfather Sugrim’s house, me unseen near where my father sat around the table with his brothers, my father told his brothers they’d caught me with the Playboys. My father joked, “It was only for the articles, of course,” and as they laughed, me not understanding the joke, I bloomed into the shame that should have been his.
A shame that has never left me, I should probably admit though I never dare even whisper it out loud. Mine is a body betrayed by its body-ness, by its needs, its wants, the way desire still flares at the sight of a woman’s beautiful breasts or heart-shaped ass, not because I’m a lesbian (I’ve considered it and when I can picture a life not lived alone, it is never with a woman) but because it was a woman’s body that first taught me that ache.
My mother was frightened of desire, too. She told me that some man had said something to her in Mexico when she was sunbathing with a boyfriend and that was the reason I had to keep myself covered up. That was the reason my over-generous ass, my flaring hips were a terror to her. Though now, I am disloyal and I wonder was she protecting me or was she protecting herself from me? Did she think I could only be seen at her expense?
I am looking too for my mother in those women, wanting her to show herself to me not the way those women spread and draped themselves across the pages, but the way mothers spread and drape themselves across their daughters so their daughters know what it is to be loved, to be desired, to be longed for in a way that shows how grief-stricken the mother was to expel the baby from her womb, knowing she could never hold that child as close again. But most mothers would try, wouldn’t they?
That hunger of the body, kindled when I was 7 or the 8, was that other hunger—for mother, for father—made flesh or made bearable or made into something I thought I’d found the glossy answer for. It was shame and guilt made flesh too, a reason to hold onto for why I wasn’t enough, for why I wasn’t seen, for how easy a daughter could become a punchline, for how a father could decide not to throw away his dirty magazines, but to instead throw away the daughter who’d discovered them, for how a mother could punish a daughter for wanting other women and yet stay stubbornly out of reach.
Tonight I am thinking about what it means to have a muse—someone who breaks you open or holds you open at the broken places. The muse doesn’t mean to be a muse, doesn’t know he is a muse (it’s always a man for me), but still, there he is willing the pen into the flesh, coaxing the flesh onto the page, showing you that the soul is merely puddle and puddle and puddle of ink to be harvested.
With the current muse, there is no sex in it. He is handsome and I know he is handsome but I feel about his beauty the way I feel about the clouds in the sky. No, I feel about his beauty less than I feel about the clouds in the sky because I’m always trying to capture the clouds in the sky. I mean I don’t want his beauty. I want only the sound of his brain coming through his mouth and landing on the fuse of the nearest poem like a lit match. I want to be with him all the time (except when I don’t) but I don’t want to hold him.
I have been inspired to poetry by two men before and there was sex in it, or to be more accurate, there was the unrequited longing for sex. And writing the poems was the only way I could have them though that wasn’t something I would have said out loud then. I would barely have whispered it to myself. The poems were the only place I could feel safe with the way they made my body feel.
“You sound good baby” one said after he let me sit in with his band and that transmuted to “You taste good baby…” my desire spilling onto the page. Lust transmuted to literature.
With the other I wrote poem after poem after poem until I left him behind in another city and finally understood that what he did to me was “pray up that rag doll feeling/that giving over feeling,” that to me he was “the Holy Ghost coming…as breath sweet and sweaty.”
This new muse has already left me, as I knew he would, and I don’t begrudge him returning to his beloveds and I want him to return to his beloveds because he has suffered and this time, this place where he’s arrived after his suffering is precious and fills him with joy.
But I need to know he thinks I’m funny and smart even from so far away. True or not, it’s been seared into my brain pan that his regard is what cracked me open and brought the poems back. Which is ridiculous and ignorant of my history—the poems always return one way or the other—and true.
This feels dangerous, to admit this need. I have no working calibrator to judge what one should say out loud and what should stay silenced. And I admit I want to say the dangerous things because they are my litmus test. I need to know who can bear, who can survive my hunger.
I have no pithy ending, nothing that ties this all together. I have only hunger and I have a muse. I have only the terror I will feel when I put this out into the world. I have only the fear that in writing this I may have broken something and that I may, in fact, be too much. I have only the poems I’m working on now, and the ones I will work on when the time of this muse has passed. I have only my embarrassment over how important I’ve made him and my gratitude for his friendship. I have only me trying to put words around some understanding of myself. May that be enough.
Today I have been deciding which poems to murder. it’s unfair they should die, I know, when I am the one guilty of not being able to raise them into the fully fleshed poems they wanted to be, but a poet always has blood on her hands.
There are poems, too, hanging from the wall, learning to get along. I put together a book like a set list. I do not know if that’s the right way to do it or not.
I have been singing for two days now. I thought I’d lost my singing voice completely but maybe I just don’t know anything about humidifiers and this is the first winter in a new apartment. It’s alarming how ready I was to give up my singing voice without much of a fight, except talking to my doctor about it when I get a physical on Tuesday. I like to sing but I don’t see the world in songs, I see it in poems. And well, anyway, next winter I will get a humidifier.
Last night it was all show tunes though I don’t love musicals anymore. “You Can Always Count on Me” and “What You Don’t Know About Women” from City of Angels. “Whistle a Happy Tune” from The King and I. “Tell Me on a Sunday” from Song and Dance. Today as I walked to a work event from the New York Avenue metro, there was “Good Morning, Heartache” a few times, which is not a show tune but feels so good rolling around in my mouth. I think it wants to push its way into a poem, at least a line or two, but that’s being negotiated.
I’ll leave you with this: A poem whose broken body might end up on the floor tonight. Or it may slink back into its folder awaiting another day’s judgement, another day’s grace. (It’s a Dread Pirate Roberts situation.)
(Do you ever kill your songs before they make it out of infancy? What’s the right amount of time to leave them on life support? I didn’t used to be able to kill any poems at all. This new skill and willingness–what does that mean?)
Here’s the poem. Let’s call it “Italian Study,” which may be a very good title. (Is anyone in the world good at titles, and may I have her e-mail address?) It also should be called “How Dumb I Was at 19” and “O Padova, Ancora Ti Voglio Bene.”
In Italy I wear long hair and the olive-colored corduroy skirt that rides my hips like a shroud. I am 19 and I talk a lot—in English and Italian—so I am the one who translates although I do not tell the boy we call “Turtle” what turtle means. I live in a walk-in closet big enough for a slender twin bed, an armoire, a student’s desk. It is narrow and I am not yet wide. My soundtrack is Rick Astley and Jovanotti and Lisa Stansfield and Antonio at Nuovo Bar saying, “Ay canalya” every time I order a cappuccino in the afternoon. Home is via Buzzacarini, an apartment where the mother sleeps in the living room, giving the bedrooms to her son who only likes solo sports, her daughter who may marry a policeman, and the three American girls measured in groceries and rent. We are forbidden to use the house phone to call gli Stati Uniti and we use it anyway and everyone pays what they owe on time but me. On Easter Sunday I scrub and scrub the long kitchen counters when everyone else is at Mass, and I wonder also if tuna with spaghetti is an authentic Italian recipe. I miss my school back in Boston but not my home back in New York. One night I forget my keys, travel all the way from Padova to Verona, dance and laugh and dream of an Italian boyfriend as I shake my hips to Elton John, and watch the sun crumble behind the ancient walls of the Veronese colosseum. The ride home is American girl after American girl after American girl with excuses why I can’t spend the night at their place, spare la Mama the fright of a ringing doorbell at two in the morning. This is the year I learn to be cruel.
Sometimes the people you grow up with become porn stars, which you don’t find out until one day at your government job, their name pops into your head, so you find their website with a search engine, flaring red when you see the life-sized picture of their privates. Or they grow up to be be gangster molls/drug mules, which you find out one afternoon over a rainy lunch in Georgetown, your former gangster moll/drug mule friend having gone into early menopause because of cancer. Sometimes they don’t grow up at all because of leukemia and they are the first dead body you see, after your seventh-grade self stops by the house of your friend who lives near the McDonald’s to raid her parents’ liquor cabinet for a few sips of whatever’s in the bottles before you traipse to the funeral home with the rest of your school.
I grew up expecting to be nothing. Not actually nothing, but I expected life would just happen to me the way it always happened to me. That is, life would act, I would react, and we’d continue this tango till whatever happened next. At 18, I imagined—as I told a college professor who asked—that in my future there was a house with an eat-in kitchen with me at the table working on a filmscript and chocolate chip cookies in the oven and my kids and the neighborhood kids running in and out. I’ve only recently realized that I never got as far as picturing the husband in that scenario. Only the cookies and the table and the kids and the script, which I was working on by hand because that’s the place I always returned to.
My father said once I was so smart I could have been anything I wanted, even a lawyer. There was no pride in his voice, or regret, it was just something he said, like reporting the weather. He also said that I was too smart to be as fat as I was.
My mother’s dreams for me went as far as her not wanting to be embarrassed by me. By what I was wearing. By how loud my laughter was. By her being not late for church but late for how early she wanted to be at church because I was getting dressed too slowly, three-quarters asleep after weeks of late nights and the opening night performance of the shows she never went to see even if I had a lead and the cast party and her insistence that God didn’t care about my excuses for why I should not go to church.
I tell the story of how I ended up with the job I have now forgetting immediately after each time that the woman who spoke up and badgered her bosses and did extra research and planted seeds with whoever she could to get what she wanted—to be a full-time writer, to work with social media—was me. I did not see this future for myself. I saw a secretary who wrote poems and maxed our her credit cards to go visit a college friend once a year and buy fancy cocktails for a week before returning to answering phones.
I didn’t know that I could see talking to Kerry Washington on the phone one Saturday morning as I stood in my kitchen beaming and trying to remain professional. Things like that didn’t happen to girls like me, girls to whom life just happened. Things like that still don’t happen to girls like me even though they do actually happen and I’m the only one continually and utterly surprised when they do.
I am trying to grow up now to be the woman I never expected, the woman who didn’t seem inevitable but who I’m learning to call into existence. I am growing now into the woman I never expected, the woman who didn’t seem inevitable but who I’m learning to call into existence. I am calling the woman I am into existence.