Dear Patti Smith,
I am a stranger to you as you are to me no matter that I have devoured your images in black and white and your prosetry that flows in books I read while nesting my egg of a little boy last year in a rocking chair waking where night and morning met in the quiet of 3am, when I couldn’t sleep for anticipating the birthing. Not so long ago, I walked the same streets as you, on the Bowery at the end of the CBGB days, when yellow cabs had dents and needed a fresh coat of paint and smelled like cigarettes and semen. Where drunks slumped in alleys with paper bag-hidden cans of Colt 45 and called out for quarters or subway tokens, when there were still tokens that landed in slots with a clink to ride a train from the 2nd Avenue stop to Brooklyn or to 42nd Street, where the spiderweb met in the middle and I’d change from the N/R to walk up the stairs and down the hall, passing the sleeping men on flat cardboard beds near the blind flutist playing Ravel with a Choc Full-Nuts coffeecan full of coins to go up and then down the stairs again to catch the red line, the 1 and 9 the uptown line to 66th or 72nd or 96th where I lived just south of Columbia south of the Hungarian Pastry Shop where I lingered for hours drinking latte and writing sophomore poetry in a leather bound journal not knowing where I was going or where I’d been before. I walked the lower East side streets that were the Soho of my time, the lofts and the fire escape iron staircases perched just above where single pots of Rosemary grew on windowsills and we’d stoop with cigarettes in the narrow grating to catch a breeze on July nights when the city would spill to the ocean without us as we had no money to go to the Rockaways, so we’d wander the empty Lower East Side and drink tequila shots at Motor City on Ludlow with the juke box full of Lou Reed and Television and the smoke piss stink from the subway grates would always smell like home to me at a certain damp 5am time just as the party was ending on the way to the all night diner for coffee before we’d fall asleep in a stranger’s arms too drunk to fuck and too tired to get back to wherever it was we called home.
I bought a $24 men’s wool coat, brown flecked greygreen, at some thrift shop on Rivington, 3 sizes too big for me and I’d throw a worn leather mail bag around my shoulders full of journals and Sam Shephard plays and whatever book I’d bought at The Strand sidewalk bins that day, and I’d walk from 11thand A up 1stAvenue to eat spaghetti Bolognese at a small 6 table restaurant that served red wine in juice glasses feeling like a poor sophisticate. I’d eat breakfast at The Sidewalk Café on 6thStreet with poets and actors before their waitress shifts, scrambled eggs and a bagel toasted with light cream cheese with a salted tomato slice. And then I’d wander down St. Mark’s Place to Café Nine where a tall pale boy with a Buddhist name who wrote poetry would smile and bring me coffee as I stared out another full-paned window hoping for an idea, for inspiration, for a vision, hoping to fill the blank space with importance.
In the days of the Lower East Side, I was searching for my voice, bouncing from flat to flat, from bed to bed, from bar to bar until I found a guitar and tried out the sound of melody on it. I couldn’t hear you yet as I didn’t understand the beauty of the raw, I was looking for something easier then, something that wasn’t so sharp and guttural, something that didn’t scare me but made me feel safe. I didn’t find it at all, I just kept trying to pose for a nice picture with a pretty dress on until I was spinning around in that dress to keep it from touching the dirty downtown street.
I once laid in the square grass of a sidewalk tree, too dizzy from tequila, and hugged that zoo creature birch until I threw up all, hugging the bark. My crowd laughed with me and we all sang our way onto the next bar.
I would wear that woolen coat in September over shorts and worn cowboy boots long before I found my way south to Nashville and I’d stomp through puddles on MacDougal with a boy with lion green eyes, a stolen night upside down that felt like the promise of Paris in the 20’s, a heaven I’d never have found staying in Pennsylvania like the others.
No. I wanted Bohemia. I didn’t know what else I wanted but I wanted to taste a cinema life. I didn’t know what I’d do when I got there but I wanted to taste the city of the poets who’d drunk themselves to death in bars along Abington Square, in Chumley’s Speakeasy on Barrow with white dogs that roamed the wooden floors layered with peanut shells, a fire roaring throughout the winter. I wanted to walk by the Cherry Lane Theater in the morning, around the corner from my apartment I shared with someone who’s name now I have forgotten. I wanted to expand into something more than was expected of me.
I wanted darkness and danger and light and joy and explosions of art and color. I wanted the spotlight of theater borne in the Bowery and folk singers in corner clubs and endless glasses of red wine to soothe the restless fear that fluttered constantly in my chest that told me I was better than all of this. That told me I was fooling myself by even being here.
I found you later, Patti Smith. Much later. Your voice a brave howl of a thing, ugly and unglamourous, unwomanly, unmanly, genderless — just animal growl. Yet your writing feminine like a heavy-footed goddess and I knew you were the mother I needed to become. I brought you into my dreams, my meditations, the beautiful non-chalantness of your straight hair down in grey braids, the pale lined skin, your kind soft eyes that matched the harp of your spoken voice, a polite question, an apology. I found you just in time for the end of my youth, the crest of the 5thdecade’s wave crashing over me as I was about to give birth. As I was about to surrender to the complete unknown, maybe give up everything, throw the dream out with the baby in the bathwater, to choose the baby in the bathwater over the dream that would always just slip through my fingers as I could taste the salt from the oceans it promised, falsely, falsely like the mirage of Prospero wielding his triton arms.
Dear Patti. There are not many of you that can show me how to age how to art how to grieve how to mother how to create how to dress how to be brave. Happy birthday dear Patti Smith who I have not met who I may never meet.
So, today, happy birthday to my muse my spirit animal my goddess of poetry and song and freeflung creativity and taking time off the hamster wheel to choose love and motherfulness and coming back unmadeup unpretentious joyfully vulnerable who dances through my meditations as my older self draped in a men’s overcoat found in a Salvation Army bin in Detroit with long grey braids and looks over her shoulder as she walks me out of the grove of the cedars as if to say, ‘follow me…there is nothing out here beyond youth that is terrible if you walk directly into the sunlight of the crone’.
December 30, 2018
My mother in law gave me this nighttime book for my son in his first month. I have a bookshelf full of books I recognize, “Goodnight Moon”, “The Velveteen Rabbit,” “Are You My Mother?” and a host of Dr. Seuss, CS Lewis, Mark Twain (of course) and a boxset of A.A. Milne. But this one I have never seen before. The first time or two I read it I thought it was lovely, but it didn’t hit me with the stillness, the vast empty beauty of “Goodnight Moon” with its blank white page and black lettering, devastating “goodnight nobody” and the last two pages that dropped into a freshly made vulnerable space in my chest: “goodnight stars, goodnight air, goodnight noises everywhere.” That book took a grip around me and squeezed that place in my heart and head that bring me back to my own single bed, my grandmother’s rose talculm hands reading stories to me, the glow in the dark stars on the footrest of the Van Gogh blunt blue painted child’s bed that I had before my sister inherited it a few years later when I graduated to an adult-sized four poster single bed. I’m sure my mother read that book to me. But this one: this one was new.
Tonight, I am alone with Huck, which is rare. My husband is out listening to music with some friends. His boy’s night out. I am never here alone and I’ll admit it’s nice here, on the couch, stretching out, the Christmas tree lit up, the rain and wind against the window panes, cookies baking in the oven, a flour stained t-shirt and sweats, a quiet mix of music made by soft-spoken men that threaten to break my heart – Ray LaMontaigne, Damien Rice, Gregory Alan Isakov, the softer Jason Isbell songs, Iron and Wine. A playlist of deep mellow that I unapologetically love. Like Yacht Rock, I’m afraid soft-spoken-male-singer-songwriters will one day be mocked. But hell, I also love America and that crazy song “Horse With No Name” even though the lyrics are stupid. I just love that sound. It reminds me of the early 1970’s, which is exactly when I’d have been lying in that royal blue bed staring at the stars by my feet, the sounds of my parents voices softly flowing in through the crack in the door.
I am baking, which is what I used to do to soothe my sadness. And then I took it back up when I married Jamey and was trying to do things differently in this marriage – to not only really commit all of me all in, but to not eschew domestic femininity and goddamn it, bake some cookies (Hillary Clinton be damned). I am baking for the neighbors who drop little plates of cookies and fudge, or hamburgers and fries, little gifts they leave at our door, knowing we are new parents and may not be eating. I am baking for the ones who live across the street and stopped by in Huck’s first week to give us gifts of clothes and blankets and I have yet to personally thank them. I am baking for my morning meeting of drunks, a crowded room of men in overalls that are not worn ironically but because they farm and mulch and haul dirty things for a living, full of women with grey hair and grandchildren. I am the youngest woman in the room and I have grown to love these people over the past year, for it is tonight, one year since we moved into this Hendersonville house, 20 minutes north of hipsterville, of bohemia, of where the cool kids are moving to plant their flag on Music Mountain. Making their mark. Starting out. I am long past starting out. I have been here now for 20 years, quietly making little grooves. No flag is flying anywhere. Just two handfuls of records and a respectable but under the radar and always emerging career.
I am baking to soothe a sadness I am indulging with whispering men’s songs that comfort me. The Milk Carton Kids. Peter Bradley Adams. Many of these men I have met on stages we have shared. I am baking cookies for myself and banana bread for neighbors and friends. These songs are all about longing: a longing for what they don’t have – love, a town, the moon, a memory, a long drive somewhere else. And these songs wrap their loving fingers around this heart of mine, open wide, and squeeze.
I bathe Huck in the bathtub, now, without the infant tub. There’s a soft mat that keeps him from slipping and toys that float and squeeze and Huck loves to lay on his belly in the shallow water and splash and put his tongue in the body-temperature water. He smiles at me with wet blue eyes as blue as the azure Mediterranean in a painting. I feed Huck in a high chair and he eats oatmeal and sticks his tongue out at me and laughs the most beautiful laugh, a wide smile of 2 bottom teeth and pink gums. His eyes dance like the waves and that laugh snakes its crescendo fingers around my heart, wide wide open, and squeezes. I have never seen anything so beautiful in my life as his laughing eyes.
I have stood in front of The David in Florence, Italy and wept in awe.
I have stood on the steps of a temple in Angkor Wat, Banyan Trees wrapping their smooth thick vines in and out of the earth around it like boa constrictors and I’ve wept at impermanence.
I have stood on a houseboat on the Seine and watched the sunset, drunk on red wine with an old friend and wept over mistakes and chances passed.
I have stood at the edge of the Grand Canyon with a friend to catch the sunrise and wept at the emptiness of future promise.
I have stood at the grave of my father’s identical twin brother and wept in grief and, twinly, in anticipating fear.
Tonight, my son lay on my lap and I read him “You Are My I Love You”:
I am your parent, you are my child
I am your quiet place, you are my wild…
I am your water wings, you are my deep
I am your open arms, you are my running leap.
I am your way home, you are my new path
I am your dry towel, you are my wet bath.
I am your finish line, you are my race
I am your praying hands, you are my saying grace…
I am your lullaby, you are my peekaboo,
I am your goodnight kiss, you are my I love you.*
I wept. He looked up at me, I think because he heard my voice change, the tone went from calm and soothing to cracked and breathy. His hand reached my cheek as a tear fell down and his head leaned against my chest.
I have been working on a record of songs I wrote last year and recorded right before and after he was born. And it feels large and small at the same time. All projects feel large and small at the same time, as if I’m grasping for more meaning than I am due right now. As if it’s audacious to ask the Gods for more than just this perfectly healthy miracle of grace that I was given when the jury is still out on my deservingness. I am working on things, creative things, and I am not sure I am finding my voice or if it’s messy, or if it’s perfectly messily chaotically vulnerable. I am a whiplash of hormones and tears and “I don’t knows” and forgetfulness and losing things like keys and wallets and words and songs half written and melodies and lyrics. But I have not lost the desire to be seen and be heard and be validated and yet I know this is not my season for that. I am home with a 9 month old who tugs at my pants and puts his arms in the air and says “Mamamamamama” and cries if I put him down for too long. He needs me. No one ever needed me because I wasn’t really available to be needed. I had it, you know. “I got it,” I’d say, staving off help or care. I didn’t need you so please don’t need me.
Can I be honest here, in a way that maybe I haven’t been honest so far. I really really really wanted the stars. I did. I wanted that brightness. I wanted to have that happen to me. And it didn’t. Maybe I got a taste of it. I got closer than most, I travelled adjacent, I reached my arms up and tugged at coattails and a few even pulled me up in their arms close to their light and pointed out the constellations and whispered in my ear and told me, assured me, allowed me to belong in that light. For a moment. But then, as we do, they’d put me back down, as they should have, to find my own way up without the lifting, and I was back on earth not knowing how to get back to the milky way.
I wanted that so much that the hurt on my chest tonight as I read to my son. And that comes back like lovely fingers that softly touch my chest and trail their touch down between my breasts, swollen with milk, and trace a path down my neck under my hairline and then gently press into my skin and through it and through the bones and blood and thread a net around that same heart, still, so wide open, weeping from awe and art and anger and grief and fear and desire and emptiness and vastness and understanding and confusion and surrender and grace, so much grace, and those fingers…they are soft and they …
Here’s one thing I think I know. Nobody deserves anything. We get what we get. Sometimes we work hard for it. Sometimes it is given. Sometimes we stumble upon it. Other people will talk and tell stories about our getting but those tales won’t be wholly true, they won’t know. Only we know. And sometimes we hide what we know and spin our own tales for others to oooh and aaah over. To not belong. To soar above, as if that will justify the deserving. But that only separates us from the ground. Because the stars are lovely but they are farther away than they seem and they are only clusters of old old fire that has died a long, long time ago. The stars are a myth we keep telling. And that kind of knowingness is an emptiness in the loudest, most echo-filled beautiful way. It is truth. And truth isn’t easy. It’s an emptiness that tugs at the heart and squeezes and hurts. Like love.
I still desire a flight amongst the stars. Don’t we all? I want that flying so much my own 50-year old arms reach up high, stretching as far as they can toward it, aching, weeping, wanting, needing comfort. Just like those little 9-month old’s hands stretched up my leg, tugging at the fabric on my sweatpants, crying “Mamammamamama”, those hands that need me more than he needs stars. And I lean down to say to him, as I have to trust the stars to the Gods who will also say to me, too:
You are my I love you.
*You Are my I Love You, by Maryann Cusimano Love, illustrated by Satomi Ichikawa. Used without permission. Forgive me. Go buy it from a small independent bookstore like Parnassas Books in Nashville.
December 13, 2018
I am on my knees in the living room of my house next to the out-of-tune piano with my screaming, crying, snotting sick almost-9 month old wrestling out of my arms. I am crying. I know that what I am crying over is not life threatening. But right now it feels like it is.
“Uncle,” I think. Almost out loud. “I. Need. Help.” I say to nobody in my house. Quietly. Desperately. My small voice, almost stuck in the back of my throat, like the one I used to use when I was 15 and terrified of the tomorrows that lay ahead. Similarly, for no discernible reason that would convince anyone else I was in danger.
Talking to god. Lower case god. Because I haven’t committed to believing there is anything listening, despite the evidence of miraculous happenings in my own current life. “Please, send me something or someone to help.” And my child cries harder and so do I.
The phone rings and startles my tantrum. I pick up an 800 number, unfamiliar, confused. There is a recorded message, “This is your requested return call from Godaddy.com. If you are…” — and my own recorded voice states my own name robotically — “please stay on the line and someone will be with you shortly.” I wait through looped electronic holiday music. A lot of synthesized strings. Mostly “Jingle Bell Rock,” the worst of the worst.
Finally, a voice. A woman, calm and kind. “Hello, this is Angela with GoDaddy, what is your account number, please?” And I proceed to try to explain the mess that I’ve been trying to untangle for the past 4 hours. That I am not a customer of her company, so I don’t have an account, but that my server or domain host or registrar or, ok, I’m not even sure what it is I’ve paid for, but this one company that houses my business email has been hacked and my email is sending out racist emails to thousands and I can’t get anyone from that company on the line to help and so I’m just trying to find out if I should quit that company and send everything to GoDaddy and I don’t even know what I’m talking about and that I’m holding a crying 8 month old who is sick and I’m sick and I’ve yelled at a lot of people and I’m freaking out and this whole debacle is bringing up all sorts of out of proportion reactions to this internet mess that is pointing out that I. Do. Not. Have. My. Shit. Together. And…and….and…
I stutter. I lose control. I cry.
And the miracle starts to become clear. Angela calmly says to me, “I get it. It’s so confusing and I would be overwhelmed too. An 8 month old? Whew. That’s a hard time for you, I’ll bet you are feeling really strange. Hormones start to change and kick in and mess with you. I cried a lot when my children were that age. What is your son’s name?”
“What a perfect name,” she consoles and I start to calm down. And then Angela, dear, sweet miracle of a call-center rep tells me of her 4 grandchildren and 1 great grandchild on the way, and while I’m re-learning to breathe, she explains to me in very clear terms basically the difference between a domain registrar and manager, a domain host and an email server and what each of my company’s I’m doing business with are doing for me (or, some of them, not doing for me). She doesn’t try to sell me anything. She simply explains and then says, “it sounds like you are paying for something you don’t need, so here’s what you do,” and then Angela walks me through the steps to correct the tangled web. At the end of this call she says, “I’m going to email you a screenshot of all of this so you don’t have to remember it because I get that you are overwhelmed, of course you are overwhelmed,” and she ends her call with “Merry Christmas if you celebrate that holiday,” which sounds like the kindest most inclusive way of saying that that I’d ever heard. I profusely thank her and hang up.
And look up at the ceiling, through the ceiling, to the sky, to where the GOD of my childhood lived and still may, that white God hanging on the cross cross-legged and nailed naked to wood, behind my grandmother’s single bed with the antique lace bedspread right next to the single bed of her late husband, where I slept as a child, with the palm fronds always dried and yellowing stuck behind the crucifix. I look up at that God, the one I’d committed to before I understood what a sacrament even was. The one I’d fired a few years ago when I was given permission to find another ‘god’ that worked for me. And now I look to that God, still, once in a while, when things get unmanageable, embarrassingly small things like feeling overwhelmed by technology which makes me feel like a failure and that I should just quit even trying to do business at all. Now, I look up at that God and in that small voice, a whisper, barely, I squeak out between tight vocal chords–
“I’m gonna take that as an answer to that prayer. Thank you.”
As a beautiful song goes, “God speaks to me through you.*”
There are days in the past 8 months I don’t recognize myself. Days of knowing how to take care of a child without asking anyone or reading a blog, but just instinctually knowing how to do something. How to nurse him. How to calm him. How to sing to him. How to play with him. There are days when I don’t recognize myself because the rage erupts without much warning and spills out over everything and everyone in my path, from my husband to strangers on Facebook simply posting advice that, even though it doesn’t answer the damn question I asked, is just their way of belonging to the conversation and being helpful (even if it isn’t and, at the time of my eruption, feels like a distraction from the panicked need for a real solution. Note to self: never panic post on Facebook). I should probably wear a t shirt that says, “Possibly peri-menstrual mother of an 8 month old who may be weaning. Hormones are out of whack. Steer clear.”
In the meantime, I keep re-learning that surrender is never an easy ride. It’s always hard, it’s always bumpy, someone always gets bruised. But that’s why it’s surrender. You learn on your knees that you can’t control much in this world. The best way to surrender is the way we learned when we were in kindergarten. Breathe. Count to 10. And if you can’t say anything nice don’t say anything at all.
* “God Speaks” by Travis Meadows.
My son said Mama.
He has crawled. He is pulling himself up to standing and moving alongside furniture. He pulls himself up to the piano, his hands reach keys and he bangs on clusters of notes, then picks one or two keys out and a melody happens. He hangs by one arm, sways back to see me, to see me see him and breaks out into a full faced smile.
My son is sick and I’m not there and he coughs and I hear him through the monitor and he wakes himself up and says “mammamamamamamama”.
My son sleeps through the night and doesn’t need to feed off me now every few hours. My son lays in my lap for only a few seconds before pushing my hands off him to squirm away, eager to move to the next place. My son is 8 months old today. My son is moving away from me and today I drive north to spend the weekend doing shows so I can pay some bills and I don’t want to drive away from the boy who is pushing away from me already, too soon.
My son said Mama, looked at me in the eyes, his hands outstretched toward me and said “Mama”. Just that. Not the stream of vowels, humming on the ‘m’ to break up the moan. He said a word and looked at me and put me together with that word.
My breasts are not full to bursting anymore. My son feeds off my breasts in the early morning, lingers on the left more than the right. My son feeds off my breasts after he cries, to calm, to soothe, to chew on a nipple with his new two teeth. I let him for a minute until it pierces and hurts. My son reaches out with his hands to my nipple and bats at my breast, a toy.
I am not necessary for my son to stay alive anymore. My husband feeds supplemental formula to my son as we have done since the beginning when my son hadn’t latched and was losing weight. We keep this up so that my husband is a part of the feeding of my son, so that it’s not all on me, as I need to be able to separate myself sometimes, and I feel guilty about this, but then, none of this is normal, this having a child at 50 with a full life that was challenging to put to pause. My husband always seems slightly jealous of the connection I have with my son, him on my breast. This may be something I am imagining.
My son said Mama.
The tendons in my left arm are in excruciating pain typing this. I have a tennis elbow injury from holding my son, from lifting him. I can barely lift a glass of water without pain. The pain was localized to just the elbow but is now spreading down tendons of my forearms and up the inside of my arm to my shoulder, under the scapula. It pulls and burns. My arm burns from holding the heft of my son. My playing arm is now compromised by my motherness.
My right hip burns too. Bursitis. Or inflammation. But I can’t walk straight after being seated for too long. I can’t lay on my left side and allow my leg to lay on top of the other as the stretch of the outside muscle of my thigh burns.
Burns from carrying the weight of my son inside for 9 months.
My arm burns from carrying the weight of my son outside for 8 months.
In one month he will have been out of my womb as long as he was in it.
My body aches in different places on opposite sides.
My heart aches right in the center.
My son said Mama. So, none of the rest matters.
November 11, 2018
September 14, 2018
The whirring creak of the ceiling fan. A staccato rise and fall of the cicadas. Crickets answering each other from across the lawn. A bird caws, another clicks. Traffic hum. A plane overhead. Late summer moans as I sit outside on our porch with my son, 6 months old in two days. He is in a bouncy seat, a circular plastic saucer of bright colors and things that go buzz and beep when he grabs, soft objects tethered to the base, to pull, large buttons to push and animals and clowns to pull from a padded arch. He puts it all in his mouth. Yellows. Orange. Red. Blue. All the brightest colors and noises. He is talking to the green piece, a large musical note shaped thing he is trying to get wholly into his gummy mouth. He squeals and moves his lips into shapes that start with “m” sounds, so everything ends up sounding a bit like he’s working out “mama” although I know it’s just random sound. He’s trying on his voice for size, taking it out for a ride, cawing like the bird, calling out to the fan. Swooping high and low in his tone arsenal. Mimicking me and his Dad and all the noises he hears inside and out.
At 3:45 am he woke me, as he has done for the last few weeks, so that it feels like a sign of something: 3-4-5. He touches my arm, curled next to me in the large bed, between me and my husband, as I’d left him there after the 2am feeding, which I know he doesn’t need, but I’m too tired to wait out his cries and I’ve been giving in to taking him out of his bassinet and bringing him into our bed, the only thing that will calm him these days. At 3:45am, I looked over. He was on his belly, propped up on elbows, staring right into my face, swooping his voice “Moooooomamamamamooooahhhhhhh!” Seeing me seeing him, his wide grin burst out across his cheeks and he squealed. My husband, sleeping, grunted and rolled away from us. I propped my son up nipple-height to feed, once again, as I listened to his cooing before his fingers loosened, his arms slackened, and his mouth slipped off my breast into sleep again.
It is 9am and he has eaten oatmeal and had milk and I’ve changed 3 diapers in the past hour, wiped green sludge off his back, my hands, gone through about 20 wet wipes warmed by the contraption somebody gifted us. Put cream on his backside over the redness. Sang my morning song I make up every day for him that always says hello to the sun, the birds, the trees, our dog. I balance him on my hip as I wash my face with one hand, brush my teeth with the same. I forgo brushing the hair. It stays wound in a high top-knot secured by any band I find near my bed or on the sink. It feels like an accomplishment to have learned to brush my teeth while holding him. I set him down in his swing, another thing to buckle him into as he bucks his back and grabs hold of whatever is near to pull him out of the thing I’m trying to strap him down into. He is impatient to move, to talk, to be a part of the world that has opened wider to him in the past week. He stares at our dog, Flo, and endures her licking his fingers as if he is one of her own. He does not like to be stuck in anything: a car seat, a swing, a crib, a bassinet. I put him down on the floor, on a blanket on the rug and he rolls over, pushes his knees underneath him and rocks back and forth, knowing that forward is the way to go even if he’s not yet figured out the mechanics of knees and toes. He continues his conversation stream to the rug, to the wall, to the chair, to the light streaming through the window.
I sit, laptop open, catching the ephemera I witness in sentences, in short bursts. It has taken me 43 minutes to write these last three paragraphs.
Mother-Artist-Protector-Writer-Weeper-Wife. They have all blended into one now. Before, it seemed, were the luxurious days of the freeing limitations of the one thing. The career. The answer to “what do you do?” at parties which pares us down to our essential worth in this world. Now, what am I but all of it, together, at once. And Mother is first now because it is up to me to keep him alive. Which means I can’t be kept to plans, commitments, dates on calendars. I keep flexible and hope my world and friends in it are liquid enough to give me room to feel my way into this new state of being.
6 months. In recovery world, when someone reaches the goal of being 6 months sober, they get a blue chip. A brilliant blue coin. “6 months…days and nights and concerts” someone may say. On Day One (the silver chip), 6 months seems like the impossible task: forever away. One day at a time is a no joke kind of promise you make to yourself: to not look too far ahead on that road. To just look at your feet. Stay on the mat. Stay in the breath.
I didn’t imagine I’d make it past 2 months. I barely remember those days. And nights. Now it all seems to be speeding by and I catch myself in the in-between spaces of his needing me. Like a breath. My own. I write what I can and hope to juggle the puzzle into sense later, while feeding my son with one hand and brushing my hair with the other. It’s a high wire balancing act. No net. Just faith in the flight.
This is my addendum, or postscript, to my last post. I wanted to write this only after taking a long breath from the last one, where I unloaded part of that story for the first time, publically. I say “part of the story” because there’s more to that one as there are others, as there are always others. And there are millions more and the world seems to be opening up a Pandora’s Box of trauma to a world governed by mostly old white men, many of whom just have no idea how to compassionately react to it all. Have you watched the news in the past few days? I think right now, these stories have to be spat out in anger. There’s a collective rage: mostly female but there’s a lot of men raging on behalf of women too. There’s a lot of men raging for the men, too, and (quite baffling to me) women complicity raging on behalf of their men. Not as many, I’d hope, but there are some.
This world is in the middle of the beginning tremors of an earthquake. We are in deep deep psychic pain. Collective trauma is real.
I will only share one more story, at the end of this, as a bookend to the college story. One hurt. One scarred. Both were painful because of the cold dismissal.
I shared the first story after hearing too many men and some women comment that it was such a shame to ruin a good man’s life with innuendo and unproven statements and that he was such a nice guy and couldn’t do this, yada yada yada. I wanted to say to people: what if that were your daughter? I mean, I’ll give Kavanaugh his rage. It must be hard being accused of something you really don’t think you did. But I know how it feels to be Dr. Blasey Ford and I know what it’s like to not tell your story because you know there’s holes to poke in there and you’re tired of it all. It’s exhausting. And with all the stories being spat out at the world, it must feel to men like a never-ending pile-on. Some men can’t be reached – that’s for sure – and a few of them are old and white and have been elected to office and it’s enraging to watch their defiance. My essay was not intended as a reactive indictment of Kavanaugh. It was to show the grey shadings of these things. Of course, I believe her. You know I do. I’ve been there and I can’t imagine the upside of her lying. But, you know, I believe something about him too. I do not believe he’s telling the complete truth, but what I believe is that he doesn’t remember the event happening as she does. In fact, he may not remember it all, and not just because it’s clear he could have been piss-blind drunk. He may not remember it because it may not have been memorable. To him. Which is the tragedy of these things. I hated that the media, and by media, I mean the kind of news shows I watch regularly, jumped to the language of “alleged attempted rape.” Nobody knows what Kavanaugh’s intent was in putting his hand over her mouth and grinding on her. We can assume nothing good, but what if this was his idea of horseplay? Sick, yes, awful, yes, but what if it was? I knew those guys. There was a football player from my high school who asked me if I’d give him a blow job (we weren’t dating) and I laughed at him. The next day in class he literally picked me up in my chair, tipped the chair, and dumped me on the floor. In front of the entire class. During a test. He was suspended for a day. To him: horseplay.
This is not the essay that parses what is true and what is not in the Kavanaugh case. This is not the essay to talk about the eruption of privileged white male rage – the President expressing sympathy that a man’s life has been ruined by this woman’s accusations. Another witch hunt. Burn her burn her (“lock her up”). Which turns my stomach. And probably re-traumatizes 60% of the population and 99.9% of women.
This is the essay to say, with some experience and authority, I know that trauma does a funny thing to memory. It takes it apart and puts it back together and sometimes the picture carried forward looks less like a photograph and more like a cubist painting. Limbs akimbo. Dead grandmothers next to your ear, whispering “you’re going to be ok; I’ve got you, Princess”. A book, The Velveteen Rabbit, on a shelf. The earthy smell of a futon. A few words, here and there. Nothing that constitutes proof, except that I changed, inside and out. I came to college naïve and trusting and I left jaded and cynical.
I don’t know if the rape made me an alcoholic. I may have ended up in church basement meetings on my own without that backstory. I don’t know that there wasn’t some trauma that pre-dated the rape, that made me, what my therapist has termed, ‘groomed and vulnerable’ to putting myself in dangerous, toxic, unhealthy situations. And they got ugly later in my life. The shame. The shame. But I do know that whenever I feel like I’m done with working through all these issues, they tug on my sleeve when I see someone else going through them and I’m seeing them in spades and it hurts to hear the dismissals, the easy mockery, the crazy conspiracy theories.
Over the years, sometimes I wished for a clearer picture of what happened to me. I wished he’d have held a knife to my throat so I felt more of a backbone about using the “R” word. The phrase “Date Rape” makes it sound cute, the little cousin to real abuse. Pain is pain is pain is pain. And I’m grateful for therapy that worked, finally, not endless talk therapy about my childhood but somatic body-centered therapy that cried and screamed and raged and massaged and acupunctured and painted and sang and wrote and structured and EMDR’d the grief until it regrooved my neurochannels and moved the pain from an uncontrolled present-day reaction to a past-tense story that lives arms-length away. Still my story, but I have some distance and some control over it. And I’m grateful for sobriety and a god(dess) of my understanding and my incredible husband. And I’m so grateful for the opportunity to be a mother at the last minute, before it was too late, so I can raise a good man into this beautiful broken world.
If it were possible, I’d like to take a walk with that college boy-now-man again. I have been back a few times for class reunions. I have enjoyed seeing everyone. I have said hello to that judgmental woman who sat between the boys. I have said hello to the date’s roommate. Both have barely contained their seeming dislike of me, years later, although I do have a vague memory of the roommate apologizing to me for his part at the end of our senior year at a party. But I have never seen the man I dated. He doesn’t return for reunions and I don’t blame him. I never saw him rage, as we all watched Brett Kavanaugh do. I saw sadness and confusion in his eyes. I saw someone of privilege not understanding how my version of the truth could be so different from his memory of the night. I did see some regret. Which is why he is not the enemy and is a bit player in this story. Because the enemy is the cultural conditioning that allows anyone to think this is all alright and that someone like me or Dr. Blasey Ford is lying or misremembering or doesn’t even have a valid complaint without lock-tight solid proof.
Here’s the last story. The bookend. The one I’d forgotten until today. When I was in 7thgrade, there was this 8thgrader named Scott who I had a huge crush on. Everyone knew because I was young and new to crushes and would blush when he was around. I was new to town. Scott was dating a popular, pretty 9thgrade cheerleader everyone liked. Scott had perfectly feathered blonde hair and lived a few houses down the street from me. Scott knew I had a crush on him. And in the spring of 7thgrade, Scott started inviting me to come to his house after school to play basketball in his driveway. The invitation thrilled me. I loved to play “H-O-R-S-E” and the like. For weeks, after school, it was just me and Scott, innocently laughing and playing basketball in his driveway. Sometimes his younger brother Skip was there and would play with us. His parents both worked. One afternoon, Skip wasn’t there, Scott invited me to come in his house. I followed him inside and he began to give me a tour. I was nervous – his parents weren’t home – as I followed him in and out of rooms until he led me into his bedroom and then closed the door and locked it. His girlfriend was popular. She was beautiful. She was nice. What was he doing, I thought? And he pushed me up against the door that he had just closed, came in close to me, body to body, so close I could smell his gum-scented breath. He held my hands in front of me, down by the waist of my jeans, and began slowly pushing my own hands, locked with his, up my waist, up my stomach to just under my 13 year old breasts where he stopped and looked into my eyes, teasing, staring. No expression. He said nothing. I had no idea what to do. I was shivering. I thought, naivey, dumbly, he’s going to kiss me! But he kept moving his hands and then I was confused, wait, he’s going to try to feel me up before he kisses me? This isn’t what I want. But I didn’t know what to do. I desperately wanted the kiss (I hadn’t had my first kiss – that would be the following year). I wanted Scott to like me, I wanted to believe a boy with perfectly feathered hair could like me, a girl who couldn’t figure out social signals from other girls, a girl who was so afraid to wear a training bra to school she wore an oversized orange Wheaties sweatshirt every day to hide her blossoming breasts. A girl who was terribly ashamed of getting her period during gym class. A girl who didn’t swear and went to church and said her prayers and wanted to get good grades and to make her parents proud. A girl was afraid God really could see everything. But Scott didn’t like me. Scott was just trying to get away with whatever he could get away with. And Scott was mean. And arrogant. And privileged. At some point, his smile faded, he grew bored by his game and he dropped my hands unlocked the door and walked out of the room. I followed him downstairs, and without a word of explanation, we resumed the basketball game. I didn’t ask anything. I just did what we do: we play it cool, act like nothing happened, wait for the next signal. He did not invite me back the following afternoon nor any other afternoon after that. I told a few friends in confidence what happened. Chrissie had an older sister in 9thgrade who was friends with Scott’s girlfriend and Chrissie was a gossip and couldn’t keep a secret, so word got out and one day I went to middle school to find that everyone was whispering and pointing at me calling me a liar, including the so-called friend. Nobody believed Scott, who was dating beautiful Michelle, would be interested in the awkward girl who had a center part with long, scraggly braids when feathered, Ogilvy-permed hair was in style. This shaming lasted a week or so and then was forgotten with the next Middle School scandal. A year later, I was sitting on my front lawn with Scott’s younger brother Skip who said to me, unprovoked: “I am so sorry about what happened to you last year. Scott told me what he did to you. I know it was true. He was a dick. You didn’t deserve that.”
I didn’t remember that because it was so mundane. Because it had seemed like something that happens a lot. A strange game I didn’t know the rules to, a cruel kind of hazing. What hurt the most was that I was not believed and that, it seemed, the entire school came after me. There was one person in that school who watched it all happen and could have stopped it by just saying, “It happened. I’m sorry.”
There are Scotts and there are Skips. And there are Chrissies. The Scott’s turn into Kavanaugh’s. The Skips may turn into Jeff Flake’s. And the Chrissie’s may well turn into the woman who sat in between my college date and his roommate. I may not like how they respond, and I just don’t understand them, but I have to send love and compassion their way because chances are, at some point, they’ve had the same thing happen to them.
It’s up to our generation and the ones below us to teach our sons and daughters better.
This post is a rare left-turn from motherhood and art into an excruciatingly personal account, but I needed to write this today.
Almost 30 years ago, I withdrew myself from an Amherst College in-house rape investigation. I walked away from charges I had filed while a senior against a boy who had sex with me my freshman year after I’d passed out drunk at a formal party. Almost 30 years ago. I don’t remember clearly much of what happened in my freshman year and I also don’t remember much about what happened my senior year.
Disassociation is a powerful survival tool.
But just because I don’t remember in evidentiary detail does not mean it didn’t happen. I walked away from telling my story when I was a senior because it didn’t feel safe for me.
I don’t think it will be safe tomorrow for Dr. Ford. And yet, as of now, she’s moving forward with telling her story to what seems to me a prejudiced panel of elected officials and one non-elected prosecutor. A prosecutor. Chew on that. I’d have run away. I did then. I would again. She is not. She is a warrior and this is my way of telling her.
Here is my story, which I have not told to anyone other than a few trusted souls. In the Fall of 1989, my senior year, Amherst College was dealing with pressure from the student body to deal with the occurrence of campus sexual assaults and what was then newly dubbed “Date Rape”. Free alcohol, an entitled fraternity culture, two storied women’s colleges nearby depositing busloads of women to our once all-male campus every Friday night – it was ripe territory for sexual assaults. I had been unravelling in the uncovering of the truth of what happened to me my freshman year, that I had been raped by a boyfriend when I was blind drunk on Casino Night, a black tie event and had just recently been able to talk about it and give it a name. And so, after many contentious all-campus meetings in the Chapel, with our President and our Dean of Student Affairs saying “we are prepared to do something but we need someone to come forward” – I came forward. I found out that a younger classwoman wanted to bring up charges on the same boy but was afraid. I was a fairly visible senior and was encouraged by my friends, strong, brilliant women.
And I was just arrogant and insecure enough to take on the role of the martyr for the cause. I thought I could handle it, false bravado. My own little Joan of Arc.
I would not be the accuser. I would be a witness for the college who would accuse him. I was willing. I stepped forward and raised my hand and named myself: Victim. And began to gather my statement and statements from others who could write on my behalf. And then, only a few weeks later, after weeks of an out of control spiral of the story, a kangaroo court, phone call hang-ups, unbearable shame and fear, I dropped the whole thing and hoped outsized ambitious work would distract and define me rather than a half-hearted wolf cry.
What college is prepared to know anything about or address the after-effects of trauma? No psychiatrist was called in for me, no trauma therapist. And afterward, nobody was there to pick up the pieces of me, for me, with me. I just walked away, wrote two theses, defended them, graduated double Magna cum laude and walked into my happily ever after, which was anything but that for many years, armed with a bullshit version of the truth, where I was the heroine and where nothing could touch me. Where I could still have the Perfect College Story and work on being Somebody Important.
Back then, in the winter of 1990, when I retracted my own testimony, I let down the younger woman who had accused the same guy. I let down all the other students and alumni that I’d contacted in order to get statements from them about the event and aftermath itself (as I had little memory). I let down the college’s council (or whomever was bringing this up in a tribunal) who were hungry to adjudicate their first “date rape” case and test out whether or not such an issue could be handled from within. I let down the deans with whom I had entrusted my story. I let down my own professors who stood by my side. I let down my friends who encouraged me to come forward and let my name be known and name me the public face of the issue.
Mostly, I let down myself.
I didn’t realize until this week how much I had carried the shame of that part of the larger event. I had not buried the rape, but I buried the naming of it publicly.
I’ve spent years in and out of therapy around this ‘event’ that is still hard to call by its name. Rape. It’s such an ugly word. An onomatopoeia — it sounds like vomit. It sounds like a violent rip, a tear in the zipper of the black velvet dress I had bought for the Casino formal that January of my freshman year of college; that I bought at Philene’s Basement in Boston for $99, the most expensive thing I’d owned. I felt like a grown-up while trying it on with my girlfriends. I felt wearing it, I might fit in with the mostly private school crowd at my college which seemed full of legacy children of Amherst fathers and Smith and Mount Holyoke mothers. In the dress, maybe I would fit in with the New England prep school kids who wore double Izod shirts with collars flipped up, LL Bean Bluchers, and frayed khaki shorts like they’d been born to Amherst, whereas I had to buy the knock off brands, too stiff, too new, a costume for a middle-class public school kid who felt like she had something to prove.
That zipper was ripped beyond repair and I don’t even remember taking off the dress. I think I threw it out with the frayed black silk stockings. I don’t know how I got back to my own dorm the following morning in late January or early February, snow on the ground, in high heels in a ripped dress and ripped stockings and lace underwear that must have been soaked with humiliation.
I’ve worked through what I can remember of that night, the champagne, the cocaine line he smeared across the gums of my upper lip without asking me if I wanted any, terrifying me into thinking I’d done a drug I didn’t want to do, then feeling like a child after I pulled back and he offhandedly said, ‘come on, that’s only a freeze’, and when it was evident I didn’t know what that was, his roommates snickered. I felt my naivete show, so I played a part. I acted cool. I drank more champagne.
There are shards of things I’ve pieced together — shadow fragments and pixilated images. His tuxedo. A roulette wheel near the stairs that led from the dining hall now dressed up like Las Vegas to the dormitory bedrooms where he lived. Waking up in a room I recognized that was not his, as it was the Resident Advisor’s (a junior I was friends with) — a single with the dorm bed replaced by a queen-sized futon that smelled of hay and muslin and incense. The shelves full of books, a desk, a window that looked out onto a snowy quad.
I remember waking that next morning confused and cloudy, my tongue thick, my head hurt, my legs ached. I was naked. He was next to me. I asked him what happened. He seemed surprised I asked. I remember him saying, “you asked for it,” and something about how I talked dirty to him. I remember that was embarrassing, it was foreign to me, out of character. I wasn’t someone who had never fooled around but I was still a virgin and, although sex both terrified and fascinated me, I was clear I wasn’t ready for it and had told him so. I remember the light through the window landing on my clothes in a heap in the corner. I remember having to remind him I wasn’t on the pill when he said he’d ejaculated inside of me and realizing I had to do something about it but not knowing how or what to do. I remember having to go to the UMass medical services to take the Morning After Pill, before I’d even had time in my young life, still a practicing Catholic, to make up my mind about my belief system around abortion. I remember feeling like it was putting him out to take that trip with me. I remember feeling ashamed that I didn’t remember, feeling overwhelmed and sad, but didn’t want to betray that I felt like a little girl in over my head. Later, I remember piecing together parts of the story I couldn’t remember from friends who were there, namely, that the RA gave his keys to my boyfriend after I’d passed out, so that he could take me in his single for us to have privacy (the boyfriend shared a room with two other freshman), saying something like, “you can use my room”. I’ve worked through the strange memory of drowning (my legs were over my head and I couldn’t breathe) and a vision of my grandmother, my great protector, holding my hand while I felt like I was suffocating.
I’ve also worked through the memory of him breaking up with me about a month later after I found out he’d slept with my friend. After I’d done my best to make him fall in love with me (because that would somehow make the sex all right) and failing. And the feeling of the world spinning out of control that someone could have sex with me and then sleep with my friend and lie to me and then look through me like I was nothing. And then I remember feeling like I was nothing. And then I remember feeling nothing.
I’ve worked through the shameful, awful memory of having sex with his roommate partly as a revenge, but also needing someone to care about me and to take careof me, to take my side, to really like me, and to stay with me. And that most of those nights were spent in a drunken half-blackout. Stolen time in shameful places where I couldn’t stand up straight and always threw up afterwards. Days and nights and weeks of feeling nothing blend together and I barely remember that semester. I almost failed classes that should have been easy. I started to throw up every meal I ate, desperate to get skinny enough to disappear. I’ve worked through that I didn’t tell anyone how I was feeling. I’ve worked through how nervous I became, or always was – how neurotic and combative I felt inside. And I’ve worked through the memory of rage spilling drunkenly out on the last night of my freshman year at a party where I confronted both of these boys who dismissed me and called me crazy and I threw my beer in their faces, stumbled and fell and was brought back to my dorm where I woke up, the next morning, in my own vomit in my own bed, with no memory of what had occurred the night before.
I’ve partly worked through maybe the worst of it, too, because this I clearly remember. This I cannot forget. And truly, this I’m not sure I can completely forgive: the fellow classmate, a woman, part of my social circle, who coldly judged me that spring morning when I went to apologize to both boys in their dorm room, who sat in between them as if she spoke for them, sneered at me coldly as if I was nothing, told me my apology was not wanted, and dismissed me. I left that dorm room and packed my own room in less than an hour, threw it all into my station wagon and drove from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania without stopping, without breathing and didn’t say goodbye to anyone. That woman is the easy place to park my rage. And I am working on it as when I see her pop up on social media, my blood goes cold and bile rises. As the saying goes, I have allowed her take up too much rent space in my head. I’m working on evicting her.
But what I have not worked through is my shame of dropping the charges. And that, similar to the incident itself, I remember only fragments from that time. A very large “Take Back The Night” (maybe the first, it was 1990) on the freshman quad when, silently, a crowd of candle holders surrounded me out of a show of support before I thought anyone knew. I remember a brief feeling of empowerment that eroded into a sense of losing control of the story, my story. I remember feeling like I was too much, like I’d taken up my share of everyone’s time and concern, that no arms were big enough to take in my rage and fear and sorrow, that no friend could handle me anymore, not even the ones who had encouraged me to come forward, that my grades were suffering that I was falling backwards down a hole that would define me for the rest of my life. And lastly, that feeling of absolute betrayal and shame when I found out that everyone I’d dated had been contacted to make statements about our intimacies. That feeling of shame while just getting coffee in the morning when members of his elite circle, both men and women, glared at me, sent looks of pity or, worse, never even looked at me. The false bravado I took on when letting my advisors and members of extra-curricular activity groups know what I was doing, feeling like every time I talked about it I was taking off my ripped underwear over and over again, standing naked and bleeding in front of everyone.
And then came a phone call from a junior, a woman I respected, saying he wanted to talk to me one-on-one. And I was desperate for it all to go away. I remember taking a walk with him, that he did not say he raped me, but did admit that something had happened that upset me and he apologized for that, for hurting me, and that he was afraid he would be expelled and he was in therapy for it. And I felt sick to my stomach, tasked with something larger than I could handle, and I agreed to drop it. To just let it go. And I did. I called the deans, dropped my case, and took a leave of absence to sleep and eat and forget. And came back and put my head deep into books and started dancing faster than my shame. Pay no attention to the crying girl at 3am, look at her dance, look at her sing, look at her spin.
But I bailed on myself. And it happened. And by bailing, it felt like I was saying I’d lied or exaggerated. That it didn’t happen. That I made it up. That I was being dramatic and wanted attention.
Over the years, every time friends would gather to tell their romantic or salacious First Time stories, I would choke down bile and either make up a story, or say nothing. Sometimes I’d just quietly say I didn’t remember.
I would spend the next few decades chasing after unavailable men, in and out of affairs, blackout drunk, sometimes cheating in the back of cabs or in borrowed apartments. I’d have months and maybe years of keeping it together and feeling like I was sane, until I’d fall into another affair, not knowing how I could be so stupid to be stuck in this pattern. I burned through friendships, relationships, a marriage, my family until one after another they all had enough of my drama, without seeing the empty bottles of wine, Ambien and Xanax, or the half-hearted suicide attempts. The nights I’d never sleep but cry until I’d throw up. The nights only wine offered me sleep, waking up shaking until I could pour a vodka with tomato juice or take a Xanax. Nobody knew me. I was a quiet tornado. I fooled a lot of people.
Until I didn’t. And it brought me finally to a surrender that was not a hole in the ground to my grave but a door to the light to my life and I began to turn the story over into truth and through sobriety and meditation and trauma therapy and EMDR and honesty and an incredible circle of girlfriends and a safe relationship full of integrity and love with a partner on the same path, I was able to stand up for my 19 year old broken, raped self.
And until this week, I realized that I never forgave that 22 year old college senior who tried to stand up for herself but got scared. Until this week, I considered her an embarrassing failure and a coward.
How could I testify on my own behalf back then? I still have little idea what really happened besides waking up after blacking out and being told I had sex with someone to whom I did not give consent. I do know that everything that happened afterwards: the promiscuity, the bulimia, the alcoholism, the affairs, they are all textbook trauma survivor tools.
I also know I am not angry at him. I don’t think he is the enemy. I think he was a privileged, white, rich boy from New York City who was raised in the same kind of entitled world as Brett Kavanaugh. Boys who get drunk and think they have the right to take what they want. Girls who get drunk and lose their ability to fight these boys off when they physically overwhelm them. Boys who think of girls as notches on some totem pole to manhood and girls who are afraid to tell their truths.
When I learned another woman had been date raped by this guy, I came forward. When it became clear that it would be He Said/She Said followed by statements from other students about the veracity of my story based on my subsequent sexual relationships, and that I had no proof, and that it was a big grey mushy conversation, and that my parents whom I loved so much and wanted to be proud of me were terribly uncomfortable about the whole thing, understandably wishing it would just go away, and I realized as I watched the story spin out of my control I had one move left to take back my own self: I could walk away.
So I did.
And then I spent decades perfecting that fine art of disassociation.
30 years later, I’m watching the news spill out about accusations against the nominee for the Supreme Court and watching the mostly male Senators dismiss the accusations of not just one woman but now a handful. I’m watching the President barely contain his sneer. And I’m remembering the me back then confused and afraid as a freshman, grasping for anyone to save me in the years after, and then, as a senior, trying, albeit failing, to put my flag in the ground and name my truth.
But ask me today. Ask me now, almost 30 years later, and l’ll plant my flag in that ground today. I know my story and I’ll tell my story and my story is my truth and the truth set me free, as, in the end, it always does, come what may. Dr. Ford is telling her truth. I hope truth wins tomorrow because I’m tired of yesterday’s lies.
Last night I went to see The Jayhawks at Mercy Lounge here in Nashville. I stood in a club crowd, a pack of middle-aged music fans, almost entirely white, 40s and 50s, maybe some younger, some older, elbow to elbow with strangers and friends, my hands raised to the ceiling as the band started their final song, “Blue”, soaring harmonies –
“you brought me through
you made me feel so blue
why don’t you stay behind,
why don’t you stop
and look at what’s going down”
Megan and Jason and Meg and Andy leaned in near to add their voice to mine. Tim even came over, a large grin on his face. The man behind me from Salt Lake City, with his tipsy beer almost dripping down my back, took the high part in perfect pitch. The woman in front of me, barely 5 feet tall and dancing throughout the entire show in ecstasy, who’d told me she hadn’t seen them since she saw them almost 30 years ago in college, blissful, teary eyes, awkward girl alone there shaking her long hair and not even noticing (or caring) that she was bumping into taller people all around her as she danced, her head closer to the ground than theirs. Everyone was singing. Had been singing. Through the entire show. And for that moment, those moments, that more than two-hour show, I felt like we were all — like all of humanity, was on the same team.
Last year, before I got pregnant, in fact, in between the IVF implant that didn’t work and the one that did and resulted in my son, I took Megan to Louisville to see U2. Megan had finished her breast cancer treatments, was cancer free, her hair growing back. I was grieving the implant that didn’t take and skeptical that the 2nd(our last) would result in a pregnancy. And we were on our way back from a show in Columbus and I got on Stubhub and bought tickets to the U2 Joshua Tree tour. I’d never seen them live and I became a fan of theirs in high school because John Goodman really liked them and I really liked John Goodman. I found “Boy” and “October” and I wore out my tapes. Then I wore out “Unforgettable Fire”. That time on CD.
We stood at our seats at the end zone, the band just dots in the distance. The music roared above us like the thunder of the jet that took off right above the stadium as “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” came to its climax. I sang every single word to every single song, loudly. We danced. We cried. We laughed. I held my arms to the sky. And we sang, oh we sang, and the people around us, our age, too, sang. And we all cried and looked at each other with extraordinary gratitude, like as if to say, “Can you believe we are this lucky to be alive tonight?” We were all 40 somethings, reliving high school and college and maybe even junior high. Our first kisses, our first proms, our first bands, our first taste of out of body joy.
Last night, at Mercy Lounge, Tim came to join our pack as we all in choir sang “Blue” together and shouted over the music “How amazing is this? The power of music!” And for those few hours I forgot that outside the club it sometimes feels like we are all wary of each other, so different, so divided. I thought, if we can all get together and joyously sing, why can’t we this trainwreck of ugliness that hovers like a storm above our lives.
Huck came into this world under that shadow and I do my best each day to sing sunshine into his heart. We start our day with “Here Comes The Sun”most mornings and I will hold him in my arms and sing and twirl him around the room laughing. I sing to him everything I do, a little musical theater recitative constantly, rhyming “I’m changing your diapers”with “and feeling so tired”. He smiles at me and laughs and I feel like my own mother as she made up songs and rhymes and dances to keep us entertained.
I have a sign above my writing desk that says “breathe”to remind me of what is essential when I spin out into doubt and fear. Breathe. I wonder if I should replace it with ‘Sing’ these days. Just sing. Put breath on melody and let it fly, don’t try to control it or count it or hold it in, but let it be out of control, a high C that punches her fist through the stars saying “I’m here and I’m beautiful and you’re gonna have to listen to me spread joyshine all over your hurricane forecast.” Maybe that’s what I want to teach Huck. To learn to sing harmony. Anyone can sing lead. But to be a good harmony singer, you have to know to wait your turn and you have to know how to listen.You have to know how to add your voice to the others. The whole shines because of it’s parts.
“why don’t you stop
and look at what’s going down”
I’m up late again, writing, sleepy but unable to sleep. This feels like the first months of my son’s life again, as he’s waking again every few hours. He’s 5 months old. I can’t believe how big he is and as I lay awake, I pick up my phone and scroll through his entire life of photos backwards to see him shrink, his eyes go back out of focus, his skin get redder, his smile disappear. I like him now. I liked him then. I fast forward to next year, to five years, to 17, and miss the baby already.
I saw a post on a Facebook LaLeche League site by this woman thanking the community for helping her when she struggled to nurse her newborn and letting them know that her baby had died at just under 3 months old of a rare congenital disease. My heart stopped for a minute and I ached all over. I can’t even imagine. But…of course, I can. I imagine this all the time. Not in a morbid sense, but in the way that everything is now closer to the edge of my skin since my son was born. I am afraid of losing what I’ve come to finally find. But not in a way that makes me careful, cautious, full of terror. I’m just close enough to the edge of where life and death meet that I can smell it. I have an infant and I know love in that big “L” kind of love way that only happens when something absolutely depends upon you for life. My son literally depends upon me for food. All my ‘run away to India and travel the world for a year’ fantasies are now gone. There’s no exit in this Love. I love my husband and I love my parents and I love my dog. But this is different. And it’s not that goopy, glassy-eyed Vaseline-screen kind of love you see women have for their infants in the movies. Mine is crystal clear and sharp. It’s got edges.
I feel the fierceness of my protection now, but it’s not new like a foreign thing. It feels more like I’ve woken up to something that was dormant — not a surprise — it was always there. But, before, it came out sideways. Now it has purpose. That kind of love. The love that would throw her body over top of his if the sky fell. Just, you know, murderous and martyrish and practical like that.
I find myself feeling like I know things that my husband does not. And I’m arrogant about it and passive aggressive, too. Like I’m humoring him when he offers ideas or counters mine. Because I know something in my skin from carrying him, and I’m going to guess that even women who did not carry their children (adoptive moms, foster moms) feel that same thing too so it’s not entirely the domain of the ones who gave birth. It’s a mothering thing. I listen to my husband, or the male Pediatrician, with an open-minded skepticism that I can’t help and then I’ll check out what they say with what I know. From that Love I feel. That I harbor. That I have harbored upon. Like a lighthouse. Maybe the “love” is more of an intuition.
Admittedly, I always hated women who said things like “you’ll never know love until you have a child”, back when I was childless by choice. Back when I didn’t anticipate that changing. I thought they were arrogantly holding some impossible ideal of womanhood over my head. I was defensive. I knew love. I was a full and complete woman, without a child. I didn’t feel a vacuum of love. I once had a friend, (who, if I’m honest, never really was a friend to begin with) say to me, very cruelly, ‘Oh, how would you know anything since you are barren,’ to which I was left stunned and silent, my brain spinning so I couldn’t even come up with a sharply mean retort (I mean, a. I was not barren and b. fuck her). I imagined all my breeder girlfriends looking at me and thinking, ‘Oh, she’ll never know love like we know love’ and I wanted to spit in their nurturing faces. I know that the love of a pet is a fierce love. I have loved dogs throughout their full lives, laying down with them as they took their last breath. They visit me in my dreams. And I can absolutely imagine running into a burning building falling down around me in order to rescue my dog Flo. I’d give anything to have a few more days with June, with Maybelle, with Siggy, with Clyde. I still have a half-eaten bone from my dog Numpy who my parents sent away when I was 12 as we were moving halfway across the country. The night before we left, I had an elaborate plan to rescue Numpy from the farm they’d taken her to, and I know that plan and that route and that feeling of despair of the loss, still, 38 years later.
But Love here is different with this boy. It is more pointed, more direct, an arrow, a rocket, a missile, a tornado, a tidal wave. It’s the entire orchestra, not just the weepy strings, timpani crashes and all. It’s not sentimental. It’s volcanic. It’s not just one plane flying cartwheels, it’s the fleet blackening the sky in formation, headed out over my father’s farm in the 40’s near Dover on its way across the Atlantic to D Day. It holds life and death. It holds joy and terror. It’s a fear that I didn’t have before that is entangled with something sharper, more terrifying, and dare I say it?, Bigger? Or maybe it’s not bigger per se, but it’s just more weighted. Yes, heavy. Heavier.
It’s a heavier love than I have ever felt.
One of my favorite books in college was Kundera’s The Book Of Laughter and Forgetting. I used to read it once a year. To be honest, I don’t even remember it that well today. I know there were parts about the Prague Spring. I remember the chapter about Bach, how at the end of his life, after composing grand pieces, he returned to writing exercises. Finding the entire universe in the small.
Maybe this kind of love is the “unbearable lightness of being” that Kundera writes about in another of his books. Maybe it’s time to revisit his writing.
This week, my 18-year old niece is in her first week at college in North Carolina, which seems impossible. Didn’t I just hold her tiny body in the palms of my hands, bathing her with my sister and cooing with her? Didn’t I just hold her at her baptism, standing beside my sister as her Godmother, promising to raise her should anything happen to her parents? DIdn’t I just sit next to her in the woods near a campfire, roasting marshmallows? Didn’t we just go to the Nutcracker in Manhattan, her feet in shiny paton-leather Maryjane shoes, her hair cut in a blunt pageboy? I blinked and she was taller than I am. This week, my Facebook feed is full of photos my college friends are posting of their first born’s going off to college. There’s a photo of a handful of my classmates standing over Memorial Hill together, having just left their kids to the Class of ’22, and I can still see the 18-year old in my friend Linda’s eyes, just down the hall from me in our 3rd floor dorm, as eager and vulnerable and frightened as I. One of these parents is a writer who inspires me constantly and, quite honestly, inspired me so much I took to writing this bloggishly memoiry thing I’m writing, as she did it once herself and with the kind of messy humor that just defines her own luminous beauty that seeps out onto the page with such humanity that it makes me want to weep and laugh and weep again. And there she is, dropping off her son to our college, the same son she wrote about in her own memoir when he was just past crawling, a memoir which, got me through the first few months of my own son, not yet crawling. And here I am, 50 years old, spit up in my hair, desperately trying to catch 15 minutes of time here and there to write a sentence, edit a verse, even think about bills or how I’m going to pay them now that the way I’ve made money my whole adult life has to shift, drumming up side gigs here and there, squeezing cash out of what seems like stones. How does anyone do this? How did they? I had lunch this afternoon with my own Mommy group – a loose group of mothers in the music world. Basically, a good excuse to go eat Tacos on a Tuesday with our kids and ask each other the same question:
“How. Will. We. Do. This. Now?”
I don’t have the answer. I think I do, in those space when H naps, when a thread of a melody catches me and I can record it, or the tangle of words to a lyric I’ve been wrestling suddenly untangles and I can see the fix, in rhyme. The answer is we just do this. When we can. However we can. Because we can. Because we love to do this. Whatever the ‘this’ is. And the ‘this’ is heavy, too. In its own unbearable lightness, which makes it absolutely unimportant and completely elemental. As elemental as the heaviest kind of love.