Recently, I read a blog post written by a friend, a writer and a mother–a person I admire. She stays in the moment in her writing with all of her senses, where I tend to summarize and caricature. She has the patience to outline the shape of her surroundings and meditate on how those shapes provide metaphor, where I tend to string a list of possible metaphors together and move on. In the post she talks about gratitude, among other things, and how she rarely trusts it. And not seeing life as a road, and the overlapping demands of living for the future and living in/for and about the moment. For her, “there is no measuring the distance of the future, it’s just there, vaporous and potential” she writes.
Last week, I told Lost Boy that I wished I had a formula, a customized one by which I could insert my actions and learn step-by-step tasks I should complete along some trajectory. He said “so does everyone.”
But maybe that is not true. Maybe I only crave the formula when I am feeling lost, and maybe not everyone feels like this even on their lost days. I am craving a formula at times because this move to New Orleans and my new life with Lost Boy is unscripted. Maybe some people are confused that the rest of us want a formula. I guess I am not really deciding to trust gratitude, but gratitude is kind of blanketing me these days anyway, and I can’t think of anything I’ve done that would bring it to my doorstep. All I know is that since I started to set up house with Lost Boy, I take care in details like hunting up a pair of heart-shaped earrings my mom gave me twenty years ago and wearing them. They’re silver studs, each with two two toned tiny gold leaves affixed to the side of the hearts. They are definitely not my taste. The backs of the things carve into my flesh when I lay my head on my pillow at night (One reason I am not a jewelry person is that I am too lazy to take the stuff off, ever. Or clean it or not lose it or put it somewhere safe.) For some reason, I dug them out (really, this is the first time in years that I’ve had access to my actual box of jewelry, and a place to leave it). I wore them. “I don’t remember those,” said my mom. I actually don’t remember them, either. I just still have them. Just like I still have my high school yearbooks and I still have the pink floral skirt from my first year teaching middle school. I pack stuff up and run. I never open up all the suitcases and let the amulets of past chapters speak.
I like the earrings because they remind me of the fact that my mom wanted me to have a nice pair of earrings, and though she probably gave them to me in my twenties, when I was more comfortable in ripped men’s corduroys that hid my figure and sloppy buzz cuts that helped me be invisible, she still wanted me to have a pair of heart shaped earrings. I think the first time I wore them was approximately 15 years after she gave them to me. I’ve never been one of those women who have small nice things. I’ve never been one of those women who stayed still long enough to take care in such details, or to appreciate such details. I’ve always been trying to get from point A to point B, and believe it or not, that determines whether or not you keep track of and wear things like tiny expensive earrings.
This is the first time in my adult life I have combined all my worldly possessions with someone else’s worldly possessions, and I am not keeping track of how they intermingle (well, for the most part) and I am not worried that Lost Boy or his stuff will break my stuff. A friend asked me the other day, “are you combining your finances already?!” and I know this is the script for a cautionary tale. Women like me are supposed to know not to combine finances, at least not yet. Women like me are not supposed to move in with Lost Boy one month after meeting face to face. Women like me are supposed to know better, because Women like me are chiefly concerned with how something looks on paper. Do you use that term? I use it a lot. “He made a lot of sense…on paper.” “I know on-paper I’m supposed to take a full time teaching job.” “I know on paper I don’t make sense to that employer.”
I rarely talk about it out loud, the bedrock fear underneath on-paper pressure to take sensible self-sufficiency one step further and erect fortresses around independence. My role models have been women who always put the deed in their name; they always take the car and say “figure yourself out” instead of planning how two people will share one car; they always voice their rules about home decor. I think I’ve taken elements of these women and constructed this hyper independent woman in my head who I use to admonish myself whenever the mood strikes. Scratch that. Whenever I feel afraid.
I tried to explain it on the phone the other day to Starlily, who finds nothing revolutionary about the fact that I’ve found a teammate and best friend in a romantic partner. For her, that is what people rightfully seek out. As I talked to her, I realized just how much value I had given to a single-woman-artist role model–it gives voice to this “should know better” impulse that comes from some Wellesley/feminist/artist archetype that says I should never believe that I am anything but ultimately alone in the world.
“Whoa,” said Starlily. “I’ve never felt I am all alone. And I’m not an artist, but I guess I can see that you guys mixed certain strains of feminism and artistic intensity to produce that kind of weird pressure.” (She said almost that exactly. I am going on memory here.)
Basically, I realized that one of my inside voices is about Aloneness— political glorification. Somewhere along the line I developed and added to that Aloneness voice the archetype of the female artist who cannot produce anything authentically her own unless she is emotionally physically, financially single. For the first time in my life, I am chipping away at that notion that I am alone in the world. And it’s making me do things like appreciate heart-shaped earrings my mother gave me.
I remember ten years ago commenting to a friend that taking a husband’s last name was ludicrous, an empty gesture, as we were all alone when we die, anyway. She paused, and the silence filled the space around the giant, recently emptied bottle of Chardonnay that sat between us, and she got sort of a heavy look on her face. “I refuse to adopt that outlook.”
I’m reading Nnedi Okorafor’s Kabu Kabu right now for the first installment of a new column at Bookslut, which I’m hoping to call something like “Cultural Crossroads.” The stories of Kabu Kabu portray a good number of female protagonists who are quite independent by American and African standards. The women are convinced by various forces, however, that nothing about their lives is solitary or singular. There are monsters made of asphalt and lizards, masquerades made of seven foot tall rotating car wash brushes, and even a flying carpet. I think her stories push against this artificial alone-ness that many of us have constructed most of our lives.
I, for one, hadn’t realized that my aloneness was artificial, or that it sounded so grim. Ever since I was little, I guess I tucked inside me a potent belief that my experiences and feelings were so singular that emotional interdependence would mean defeat of some sort. Granted, I’m sure my paternal grandmother has provided me with a healthy dose of clinical-level paranoia and a predisposition toward dementia, but all that stuff is in the fabric of our personalities, not really an ingredient you can extract.
After some reflection, I realize I can’t attribute this Aloneness voice to Wellesley or feminism. It’s what myself did with those messages in order to be alone.
I don’t know if what is happening to me is about gratitude, or if I have something in this churning to respond to my friend’s post on past, future and gratitude.
I think what is happening is a kind of coming home. But not in the way Lifetime channel would pitch it in one of their a half-becomes-a-whole-person romantic screenplays. This coming home is about Lost Boy, to be sure, but it’s about something else, too. It’s about finally having enough trust to stop running from myself, and that was the only way I was going to find Lost Boy to love. Another educator and writer friend says it’s about fear confrontation. And that feels right.
One of my best friends from Wellesley told me that a new relationship, new move, new job all make for the most stressful events in a person’s life. I guess you can say I’m doing all three, combined with living in the same city as my mother for the first time since high school. Coming home for me does not mean that things are finally tidy. It means that I am finally more okay with my mess that is my life. It’s my mess, and sometimes I cry when I am glad about it, sometimes I cry when I am feeling all of it at once, sometimes I cry when I think about all the people in my life who have made my day to day a little easier. A writer friend once said, “Oh, you have to understand–I cry when I feel anything, not just sadness.” This is a fact about me, too–I just work really hard at hiding it from most people. Lost Boy probably can’t believe that, as I never hide it from him.
Starlily and I are reading a book at the same time. It’s Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being:
Sometimes when she told stories about the past her eyes would get teary from all the memories she had, but they weren’t tears. She wasn’t crying. They were just the memories, leaking out.
I think that hits my crying jags about right.
Lost Boy and I are very different. I don’t understand the language he uses in his offshore oil and gas industry any more than he understands why, at a recent literary reading, no one yelled “HEY!” when the moderator tried timidly and repeatedly to corral everyone into the gallery room. (So he did for her.) He doesn’t like pineapples or lemon meringue pie. I am learning to like tuna salad. He is only sort-of interested in watching Hercule Poirot solve murder mysteries in crusty old English manors. I am only sort of interested in learning to shoot a gun. He is a morning person. I am not. He sees me, and I see him. Do you know what it means to be seen? Like all of your mess is there and finally, you can stand it, the being seen?
Last month he told me that he knows I am getting better at caring less about what people think, about the should’s I’ve imposed on myself.
“How?” I asked.
“Because I haven’t heard you use the phrase, ‘on paper’ in months,” he said.
I caught his eyes–maybe he was driving, or maybe he was folding his shirts in that moment, I don’t remember–but he didn’t stop what he was doing, just threw it out for me to munch on.
Like it was no big deal.