Sweetness and Singularity

Recently, I let a friend read some pages of my memoir-in-progress, and when we got together to talk that progression, they said, “Right now much of this is Things Happening to You, but so much of you isn’t here. In particular, what’s missing is your sweetness.” I’ve been turning this over and over, and arrived at thinking: those pages have no sweetness because every scene, there’s something got me bucking, somehow trapped.

It’s easy to be sweet in the dim lamp light, isn’t it? Easy to be sweet after long talks and intimacy, when it’s known that there’s no need for promises or shared drudgeries.

Not so long ago, after years of playing single, which followed years in two failed marriages, I tried my hand at being someone’s girlfriend again. We tried for nearly a year. It helped that we stayed mostly states away, with me entrenched in parenting and doctoral studies, and him back home sharing space with roommates and friends. I don’t think I made a very good girlfriend. As a friend, I can let people be. As a friend, I can keep a soothing ear for the people I love, and only require that they be whoever the fuck they need to be, honestly.

Tether me to future, though, and the anxiety sets in. All the old haunts and past betrayals creep around my ears. Keep me as a friend, and I will respect your privacy. I will recognize your space and believe what you need me to believe. Try to keep me as your one-and-only, and I might read all the letters in your bedside drawer, might go through your text messages while you shower, might scour you for any hint that you may not be who you’ve posited yourself to be. I hate myself in those moments, but I’m that terrified of winding up trapped in other people’s lies.

When I was a wife, I stayed up with my anxiety, listening to my children breathe, submerged in memories: creaking hallways, my stepfather’s hulking steps, all my mother’s unknown variables. As a wife, I was terrified at every turn, and over and over again encountered the reality that I plain couldn’t let myself fully go in love.

As a wife, too, I had plenty of reason not to trust, but for the sake of love and hope I stretched myself–trying, trying anything I could manage to prevent more trauma, to stave off any other heartbreaks.

When my most recent partner called last month to tell me we were done, I feigned nonchalance on the phone. Then I hung up and sobbed more or less for a week, less out of loss (we still have friendship and care) and more out of the sense that I’m wholly incapable of serious partnership. Then the grief broke, and I texted him in thanks for setting me free.

Truth is, I never want to be a wife again. I never want to have my livelihood entwined with another adult’s. My life is not lacking in love. It doesn’t bother me anymore that I might not be fit to share the daily grinds–bills, shared space, bartering over finances, time, and chores, and all the myriad regularities that come with a marriage. I’m more and more okay with knowing that what I need at the end of my days is not anyone else’s waiting arms, but my own bed and my own mess and my own cup of tea. I like knowing that my children are safe, and there’s no one in our home I’ll ever need to protect them from. I like settling into solitude after they’ve gone to bed.

Years ago, one of my partners said to me, “Damn. You don’t need anyone, do you?” I think it was considered a deficiency, my lack of need, but I don’t see it so anymore. No, I don’t need anyone. But everyone I have, I cherish on our own particular terms. And then, as time suggests, we keep our love but let each other free.

I can be sweet when my relationships don’t need serious compromise. I can be sweet when I’m free to give without needing to self-efface. I always thought Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater was the most horrific nursery rhyme. Let me be, and I’ll be sweet, but I can’t be sweetly kept.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

She Says He Dropped His Beautiful Kimono for Her

The stardust and ash have hardly settled, but already social media is sending out missives to discredit David Bowie’s legacy. He sexually assaulted a child, they say, referring to a tell-all article where Lori Mattix gushes over her days as a teenaged groupie to rock stars like Bowie and Jimmy Page.

To the question, “In retrospect, do you think he might have exploited you?” Mattix responds, “No. I feel blessed. I feel like I was protected rather than exploited. I feel like I was very present.”

I’m left wondering, after reading Mattix’s account, where and how do we decide how to draw our consent lines? The age of legal consent varies widely by geography, and common recent understandings hold that someone cannot consent to a sexual relationship if there are age or power imbalances. This makes sense, particularly given how often predators lure and coerce, rather than force, and also given how unfortunately viable the “victim wanted it” argument remains.

Also unnerving, however, is the notion that teenagers are incapable of sexual agency. Roughly half the teenagers in the United States are sexually active, and it’s dangerous to perpetuate the message that they are inherently unable to make decisions about their own bodies.

Setting aside issues of age, it should be obvious that there’s a huge distinction to be made between fucking for pleasure and sexual assault, shouldn’t it? The problem is, obviously, that those distinctions aren’t always immediate or obvious. It’s possible to be sexually abused gently. It’s possible for the body to have a pleasurable response, including orgasm, during an assault that nevertheless does lasting psychological damage. On the other hand, it’s more than possible to have consensual sex that leaves its participants in undesired pain or shame. And plenty of people prefer their consensual sex intermingled with some variation of power play, pain, constraint, or shame exchange.

So then, how do we define consent? And what happens to our definition of sexual assault when we put a sexual encounter–which was presumably mutually enjoyed and is positively recollected–on the same plane as child abuse, which has lifelong ramifications?

The final lines in the interview with Lori Mattix are sweet and swooning. Now she’s middle-aged and says, “Who cares what people said about me? I feel like I was very present. I saw the greatest music ever. I got to hang out with some of the most amazing, most beautiful, most charismatic men in the world. I went to concerts in limos with police escorts. Am I going to regret this? No.”

Another day, we can have a conversation about the sort of world which grants women power via their sexuality more readily than it does via their own skills or accomplishments.

Another day, we can talk about how the hell to hold the legacies of artists whose personal affronts seem at odds with their cultural impacts.

For now, though, I think the narratives with which we house our lives are nearly as important as the bodies we use to move through them, and I think it matters that Lori Mattix has not consented to the narrative that she was assaulted.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Dear Hometown Boys, Next Time I Will Deck You.

I’ve been home for the holidays and spending a fair amount of time downtown. Every time I come home, I see a slew of old faces, faces I adore attached to necks I love and hug. We are a handsy culture, and I am used to moving through my hometown full of hugs and winks and unassuming love.

Twice this week, though, I have had to pry men’s hands from me. These are men I know, men I love, men I typically let swing me around when we greet.

But for now, I’m done.

The night before Christmas Eve, a man I’ve known for years, whom I’ve sat with many nights at coffee shops, a man I consider my friend and greet with huge hugs, cornered me in my hometown bar. I was coming out of the bathroom when he trapped me in the hallway. Minutes before, I’d introduced him to my boyfriend–who he already knows, for years has known, though he didn’t know we were together. It shouldn’t have mattered. It shouldn’t have mattered whether I was at the bar alone, with friends, or with another man, but still as I’ve often done, my go to sentence came: “I’m spoken for.”

“I’m spoken for,” I said as I pried his hands off my hips, pushed back against his chest, felt my shoulder blades smack square against the wall. I pulled back, he grabbed my  arms and yanked me closer. “I need to talk to you,” he kept saying. “About what?” “I need to talk to you.” “I don’t see what there is to talk about.” Each time I squirmed from his grip, he grabbed again, again, until finally I twisted and ducked and wrested myself away into the crowd. Then I did the regular, easy thing: I ran to tell my boyfriend, and he went to intercede. I camped at the bar and the dear man next to me said, “Maybe you shouldn’t let (boyfriend) speak for you right now.” “I know,” I responded, “But if I go back over I’m going to make a scene. I might just knock a motherfucker flat.”

I eyed my mirrored reflection across the bar, and for a moment hated my black rimmed lashes, my bright dark lips, the bold lace peeking from my neckline. I thought how I never dress for exposure, even then my skirt grazing my ankles, my sleeves down to my wrists, my shoes nearly always chosen for their sensibility and easy removal if I need to run. For another moment I hated my friend, who over my shoulder kept making humbled/explaining gestures at my boyfriend. I watched him apologize, repeatedly, not to me, but to the man he felt he’d disrespected. I hated myself for making and being a scene.

A single apology came my way, beneath his breath, as my friend ducked his eyes out the door.

As I walked the oak-lined street to the car, I thought next time a man puts his hands on me and doesn’t accept my no, I will not halt before I throw a fist.

But I don’t want to throw fists. That’s mere fury, and I want more. I want desire to need mutuality, and I want it to recede at the first hint of no. I want crossing a boundary with me to be understood as a sign of disrespect not to my significant other, but to me. Most of all, though? I want for once to move through the world without regretting my own beauty.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

In Bedroom Doorways

My significant other likes the idea of sleeping in separate bedrooms. This is not so much a concern that affects us, yet, as we do not share living space, but the first time it came up my reaction surprised me. It’s not that I mind distance in my love, even.

But the thought of having my own bedroom is panic inducing.

The first time in my adult life that I had an unshared bedroom, I was newly divorced in a small apartment with my two-year-old son. I took care setting up that room–the cream quilt with embroidered leaves, walls a light forest green, an ecru lampshade with petals dried into the paper. Mosquito netting canopied the bed and gave me a barrier that looked romantic enough to obscure its actual purpose: protect me from the trigger of the doorframe. Still, most nights I slept in a chaise lounge.

Doorframes don’t much bother me in larger, public rooms where there are plenty of exits and space for traffic to move through. In a public room, there is the potential for friendly disruption.

Put me privately in a bedroom, though, and let the house hush? That doorframe will morph. The hinges will crawl like caterpillars up and down, and the memories of old creaks will start down the hallway. Then I’ll see his shadow over the room.

I don’t sleep in a bedroom now, and I haven’t since I split with my most recent ex, with the exception of when my daughter slept in the room with me. Having other people in the room keeps the past out. When I was a child, having a sibling or spend-the-night guest would ward him off.

When I’ve lived with or slept with romantic partners, so long as we shared trust I could sleep in a bedroom with them. Waking up to the scent of someone I love, being able to wrap around that person in the dark, pressing close to skin that’s not his skin–the sensory present dissolves the man at the door, sends away the caterpillars, and leaves in his place a simple frame.

When I sleep alone at night, I prefer a couch or a chaise lounge. Even a recliner or patch of floor will do. Lately I sleep on a twin mattress in the living room, against the wall and between two end tables, couch-like. I’ve been telling myself that my not having a bedroom right now is a matter of economics. Maybe, though, that’s not the whole of it.

If I’m spending the night with friends or relatives, and I’m offered a guest bedroom, I’ll not be able to sleep. When I ask to sleep on the couch, I’m met with, “Are you sure? That doesn’t seem comfortable.” I respond with, “Yes, thank you, I’d prefer it,” and not with, “If I sleep in a bed, the shadows won’t stop. If I sleep in a bed, the caterpillars will come,” because it’s fucking weird to tell polite company that their thoughtfully arranged and comfortable bedroom is a portal to my hellscape.

When I first started therapy all those years ago, I thought (hoped?) that sorting through these things would somehow make me less affected. I hoped I’d be able to lie down alone in a bedroom at night and be able to sleep. Normal people do that. They go to sleep in bedrooms. They don’t stay up all night keeping vigilant over their children’s breaths in the dark. Their door hinges don’t become caterpillars.

In recent years I’ve moved away from hope, lovely as some may find it, and settled into a sort of reckoning. After twenty-plus years of anxiety attacks, flashbacks and dissociative spells, I don’t hope they’ll lessen. I’m not so keen in medicating them away. I don’t even particularly need them to go away, disruptive though they may be, as I’ve learned to fold them into the rest of my day.

But no, darlings, I won’t have a bedroom. I have caterpillars to keep away.

 

 

 

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

On the Already Smoldering Old Canon

Recently, Claire Vaye Watkins wrote this blog post about the patriarchal modes in which much literary culture still operates: http://www.tinhouse.com/blog/41314/on-pandering.html

I won’t address every point in her essay, but y’all I do want to talk about the canon. I really thought we figured this shit out in the last half century or so.

Yes, every writer needs to find for themself the strands that make for a literary lineage, one that matters far beyond whatever so-and-so tastemaker has decided we should or shouldn’t be reading. But it isn’t enough to develop a personal canon, held close. Even with so much recovery work done in the last fifty-ish years, the female literary tradition is still being taught primarily in women’s studies classes or women’s colleges, and nonwhite writers are still mostly relegated to special ethnic studies classes, while the white male curriculum remains at the core of so many writing and literature programs. We are an elective, optional.

Though personal canons aren’t where this should end, I’ll offer the following list of my foremother writers. I typed off the spines on my shelves, so the order here is arbitrary and the list is in no way exhaustie. Still, it’s some sort of start.

Emily Dickinson
Adrienne Rich
Gloria Anzaldua
Gwendolyn Brooks
Louise Gluck
H.D.
Marianne Moore
Mina Loy
Sylvia Plath
Ann Sexton
Marilyn Hacker
Dorothy Allison
Ntozake Shange
Elizabeth Bishop
Phillis Wheatley
Maxine Hong Kingston
Jamaica Kincaide
Sandra Cisneros
Anais Nin
Nella Larsen
Christine De Pizan
Sharon Olds
Carolyn Forche
Anne Carson
Minnie Bruce Pratt
Nikki Giovanni
Rita Dove
Ellen Watson
Adelia Prado
Grace Paley
Heather McHugh
Lynda Hull
Dorianne Laux
Anne Bradstreet
Mary Karr
Mary Wollstonecraft
Mary Shelley
Martha Serpas
Sojourner Truth
George Eliot
Christina Rossetti
Kate Chopin
Edith Warton
Amy Lowell
Gertrude Stein
Edna St. Vincent Millay
Djuna Barnes
Dorothy Parker
Cate Marvin
Erin Belieu
Jean Rhys
Nikky Finnney
Louise Bogan
Zora Neal Hurston
Eavan Boland
Alice Walker
Stevie Smith
Eudora Welty
Marina Tsvetaeva
Anna Akhmatova
May Sarton
Muriel Rukeyser
Wislawa Szymborska
Margaret Walker
Carson McCullers
Denise Levertov
Flannery O’Connor
Maxine Kumin
Maya Angelou
Lorraine Hansberry
Toni Morrison
Thylias Moss
Lucille Clifton
Joyce Carol Oates
Margaret Atwood
Toni Cade Bambara
Leslie Marmon Silko
Sonia Sanchez
Virginia Woolf
Elinor Wylie
Edith Sitwell
Mourning Dove

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Unshuttering

It’s been two years since I posted here, and a year or so since I shuttered the blog and made all the entries private.

I was up against court with my ex after moving to Texas to pursue my doctorate, and apprehensive about how the material–any material–I might publish could sway the legal proceedings.

I was also newly trying to figure out what professionalization means in relationship to public and private space. I have students now, students who can google me–

But the more I’ve considered all the ways an audience can make a mob of themselves, the more I’ve also gotten insular and strange, in addition to my typical solitariness, out of fear that someone might use any minor swath of visibility against me.

These fears were perhaps not unfounded, but y’all, all this anxiety and give-a-fuck is gonna break me down.

So I’m bringing those few old entries back out, and though I’m not yet sure what I’ll make of this space, here’s my littlest toe in a quiet, corner spotlight for now.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Trigger Warning: Safe Space for a Haint?

Some years ago:

I sit in the therapist’s office with my mug of peppermint tea. She brings her dog some days, a small, shaggy, docile animal who serves as respite for the constant eye contact and gleaning I feel obligated to give her. “I want to start a new therapy with you,” she offers, “that will help you process this trauma for good. Before we start it, we need to work on finding a safe space where you can return any time you might need.” I close my eyes at her request. “Find the coziest place you can think of. Tell me about it.”

“Hardwood floors. Fireplace and a white shag rug. Crickets, cicadas, and tree frogs in a cacaphony outside. Aquariums full of angelfish flanking the walls. Large windows, a screened in porch, perpetual dusk and warmth. Fireflies just outside.”

“Good, good. Now who else is in this space? Anyone?”

“Elizabet’s there scratching the back of my head. A black labrador on the couch at my feet.”

“Okay, now. Stay with this scene. Feel the warmth of the fireplace, the comfort of your friend’s presence, a soft blanket wrapped around you.”

“He’s just walked through the screen door. I didn’t put a door there, but it’s there, and he’s coming through in his work boots.”

“Go back to the scene. You have a lock on the door. You have as many locks on the door as you need. You have deadbolts, chain locks.”

“The locks keep disappearing. Each time I go to make the locks, make the door, another door appears. He’s here in the doorway, he’s in every doorway. I am a doorway, he’s in me.”

“Okay, stop. Open your eyes. You’re okay. It’s just us. He’s not here.”

“But he is. In my skin, he is.”

I walk home, hands in pockets, shaken. I kick snow off the sidewalks as I go. This is my seventh year of therapy. I’ve gone to outpatient intensives, women’s groups, couple’s therapy, a day program in the basement of the local hospital. Once, for two weeks, I dropped my two children off at school and parked myself at the hospital’s psych ward 9-5, sign in, sign out, like it was my job. Drank coffee from styrofoam cups, made small talk with the other “survivors.” Had conferences with white coats and clipboards. “Do you ever think about hurting yourself? Have you ever?” We painted masks about our feelings and hung them on the group wall. Gave a commitment each day for positive steps toward shining new lives.

Except it’s always the shining new life I’m supposed to be building, always hope I’m supposed to be harvesting. My therapist asks me to go home and write a safe space that he will never be able to penetrate.

I start by writing myself on an asteroid. A door opens through the black space. Him, in the doorway. I grow the asteroid moon-sized. I build a forest full of dinosaurs and biting bats, and a trapdoor in the forest floor that can only be opened by playing Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” on a plastic recorder. He’s still there. Next I realize there’ll be an ocean under the trapdoor, an ocean that can only be traveled through with the blessing of benevolent jellyfish and a special aerated skinsuit that does the work of gills. At the edge of the ocean floor, another door, this time with a fingerprint pad and large iron combination lock. I reach the other side, and he’s beat me there. I build a moat of lava and his ghost lunges across it. He’s not translucent at all. I can still feel his heft.

Today I saw a trigger warning on an article titled “Ten Ways to Talk to Your Child About Sexual Abuse,” and I got thinking on my triggers.

An article about preventative measures is not a trigger for me, though I am, in shorthand, a Survivor, and though I have Complex PTSD, the result of daily sexual trauma at the hands of my stepfather. I was six when it began, sixteen when it ended.

None of the things I’ve seen with the (Trigger Warning) label are actual triggers for my PTSD symptoms.

The following are some (not all) of my true triggers:

The sound of box fans

The way light and shadows play as a ceiling fan turns

Lotion, particularly in a pump bottle

Trojan condom boxes, especially the blue ones

Mottled mirrors

Changing a baby’s diaper

My children’s faces as they grow through the ages I was when it happened to me

Bathtubs

Showers

Beds

Couches

The sound of a doorknob turning in a quiet room

Riding in a truck with the windows down

Peanut m&ms

The sound of a train in the distance

Brooms

Being told I’m good

Being told I did a good job

Being called babygirl

Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream

The smell of steak in a cast iron skillet

The smell of a freshwater creek

The sound of a motorboat

The words “I love you.”

The sound of my name

Being touched

Being seen

And anything, anything that leaves me feeling beholden to other people’s needs or desires

I write poems that are full of violation, and for years I have been asking myself why I would do that to my audience. Isn’t doing so, by the (Trigger Warning) standard, potentially throwing survivors like me to the mercy of our old haints? Except, see that trigger list? Tell me again how I can live without haints?

When I read those triggering poems to an audience, survivors pull me privately aside and thank me. If ever I bring it up in conversation, I too often hear, “me too.” I always hold these moments in respect and confidence, because not everyone wants to face the shame our culture still lops on the heads of public Victims, and most people would plain rather not be public, anyway, but know that each time I speak for myself, scores more of you come calling back to me: me too, me too, and thank you.

And each time I go to the haints unalone, I molt out of the man who ghosts in my skin.

Image

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized