I’ve heard that we must generate knowledge.

A historian said he is obligated to tell the truth, even if it is ugly, to make sense of things for himself and others, as a service, a moral call.  How can this making-sense be compatible with the kind of truth-telling he means? The act of making-sense is quite literally a manufacture, a creation for sense-apprehension, it is pulling from undifferentiated space with the tools endowed by curiosity, fear, joy, sadness, and anger, and carefully hoisting onto a platform, set free from the debris that would obscure the way to hosting and nurturing that feeling for as long as we can.

To show something, is it necessary to contrast it with something else, to disentangle it?

Female Background would be called history if it partook of time instead of space; it has no past.

Future Female: Forget Balance, Go For Suffering

“Why is your wife so intense?” asked my husband’s class of graduate students. He had just finished describing my response to their lecture request. I admit I had a strong reaction, but one I am still willing to defend. Students should learn how to confront material, formulate questions, and through discourse or writing come to meaning. (I have a favorite line from the movie State and Main: “Everybody makes their own fun. If you don’t make it yourself, it isn’t fun. It’s entertainment.” Analogously, there’s no passivity in learning.)  My husband reported my outrage (a hyperbolic way of stating my case, but it makes for a better story.) Their response is not an unfamiliar one. I often have strong, and I’m not proud to say, black-and-white responses to situations. Not that my responses don’t respect a gray area, but they do so in a decidedly adamant way.

Pregnancy and an 8-month old baby have noticeably tempered this tendency. Take my dietary habits: A vegetarian for 27 years, I now eat meat. I especially love steaks and hamburgers. I fed my son grass fed steaks just today for breakfast.  This morning, as I considered my so-called intensity and this laissez-faire approach to my new diet, it occurred to me that they directly relate to my identity as female.  The bodily entanglement required by motherhood* generates ‘femaleness’. We know a mother shares her body with someone else in pregnancy. We’ve heard about the fourth trimester.  My selfhood is indeed moderated, quite literally by someone else’s. I am not me. Not entirely at any rate.

A friend recently remarked that it must be exhausting being a mother, constantly considering another’s needs. I am exhausted, but my relationship to my son’s needs is not one of active consideration any more than I consider what I’d like for dinner. I won’t draw the comparison between the consideration of my own respiration, or better yet, my heartbeat, because his needs are not quite so automatic, but they are firmly in the territory of sustenance, of biological imperatives.  There is a diffusion of identity, of ego, that comes with sharing your body with someone else. Extending it into autonomous space inhabited by another will, another ego.

I’m sure there are plenty of examples of this physical extension. As I sat in a group Vipassana meditation session, I marveled that someone else’s sneeze, across the room, should send such waves of feeling through my body. It really is as simple as an adrenaline rush from being startled. But, regardless of how I describe it to myself, the bottom line is that I’m very affected by others, who are ostensibly outside of myself.

I continued this musing as I walked my four dogs this morning, baby strapped to my chest. I experienced the slow growing rage that accompanies these walks, the subtle sensory onslaught, the gauntlet of perils that besiege the springtime morning. So let my description to follow sound less like a rant and more like a meditative investigation of my bodily response to this routine.  

It begins while trying to leave the apartment, gathering the coats, definitely the baby’s and sometimes all four dogs, depending on the season. A process no one is particularly keen on, making the challenge of lifting everyone’s spirits while completing tasks they’d rather not, all the more daunting. Coats, baby carrier, leashes, poop bags, house keys, and cell phone.  I arrange this efficiently, minimizing the always looming risk of crankiness (canine and human). I also try to minimize the number of squats I do holding a twenty pound baby.

Next, it’s getting down the five flights of stairs and two doors (heavy doors that open towards me and threaten closing on dog tails and noses.) I watch my steps amidst a tangle of leashes. I cannot see ahead of me as I step out the door, not onto a landing, but down another short flight of steps, occupied by neighbors sitting, trying to enjoy their morning. Here I come, pack in hand, bursting towards the sidewalk propelled by four urgent bladders. The wild card: will a passing dog incite this already precarious circus act into complete chaotic lunging, barking, and frantic snapping, tethered ineffectively by deep breaths. I attempt to keep my balance and some charade of equanimity. If all of this goes as smoothly as possible, it is nonetheless accompanied with the kind of hypervigilance that knows, bodily, how tenuous any calm.

The rest of the two mile journey is about the same. A woman passes by, “You’ve got a lot going on,” she cleverly observes. I laugh to myself: “Man, I’m making it look easy.” (Although, thank you to the young woman who remarked to her friends, “that lady is the MVP – she’s got four dogs and a baby!”)

Our walk (in all manner of weather conditions) is punctuated by squatting to pick up dog feces in what I’ve learned is called a hell strip. Some people call this patch of terrain the road verge. However, as I squat (remember that twenty pound, squirming baby and picture my sweater now grazing the ground), the breeze-stoked gyre of dog feces, cigarette butts, chicken bones, grease stained paper, and fluttering plastic feels more like a hell strip to be honest. I’ll give you one more image; congestion, both human and canine, approaching from all directions as I maintain this delicate balancing act. I take refuge in oncoming traffic, letting others pass as I wait to resume our morning perambulation.

I try to metabolize the energetic shrapnel. The phrase “emotional contagion” running through my mind, lest my displeasure ruin my child’s chance’s for emotional self-regulation and become a text book “don’t” for Cesar the Dog Whisperer.

Here I am. Fully dispersed by 9 AM.

 

The demands on women are overwhelming. Be thin, but not too thin, cook, clean, nurture, be more aggressive, but not too aggressive. Women aren’t fairly compensated, they do more of the household chores.  Maternity care and family leave are abysmal. The work of the so-called stay-at-home-mother is not calculated as part of GDP, and frankly, things are primarily valued in terms of productivity.  This we already know. However, it’s the response , the counter-demands, that feel simultaneously oppressive and less achievable. We are called to love our bodies as they are, to care about health and not appearance, to embrace imperfection, and to generally act in consciousness of the double standards, the oppression. Reveal our too-fat and our too-thin, show our scars, our acne, share our #metoos, and declare #timesup. Any lack of self-acceptance, self-care, self-esteem, or self-advocacy is just another way we can fail.  On top of it all, it has been proven that practicing gratitude is how mentally strong people lead healthier lives. If we fall from this high wire, it is surely through our selfishness and mental weakness.

As a palliative, there’s the endless babble about how to find, or more accurately, how to achieve (our character is hence invoked and our success or failure measures our very integrity) the ever-elusive ‘balance.’ Now, let me throw out a suggestion: balance is not desirable. We actually already have balance; we hate it. Balance is a state of perpetual tension. We actually want integration.  We don’t want to be further fractured, further pulled in multiple directions that simply pull equally in all of the directions, like some sort of new age drawing and quartering. We want all of the parts to work together instead of at opposite ends of the horse-drawn rope. Even our zen is preposterous: Be here, now. Live in the present. Don’t forget to make the maximum contribution to your 401K, your IRA.

There is one final, perhaps ultimate demand: Forge an identity. If my identity is actually moderated by this fundamental dispersion, this inexorable confluence of mutually exclusive imperatives, identity is truly a Sisyphean joke.

Last Saturday, I sat in a group Vipassana meditation.  Afterwards, there was a speaker, he said, “the path is not ‘be here now,’” but instead “the path is suffering, this [Vipassana] is a way out.”  Finally, the resonance of truth.

Where does that leave me but to embrace my bodily reality for its implicit wisdom. Surely there is power in the invisible extension into space that has become the special place relegated to women, if not by nature then surely by nurture. It seems increasingly important to inhabit that space rather than retreat into a singular, if visible, entity. This grace seems the only appropriate ground for the future female.

*Femaleness does not require motherhood, nor does bodily entanglement require pregnancy. Consider the ever fascinating, and not relegated to female, field of epigenetics.

 

He lived in the house my grandfather built.

When it was my grandmother’s house, I told him as we sat at the kitchen table in the half-lit morning, she used to keep blueberry muffins in the freezer. The refrigerator was black, she always liked to keep a black refrigerator and the freezer was at the bottom; the muffins tasted like cake. Now the refrigerator was also black but had the look of shiny and dark wooden planks. I doubt it is a coincidence that this good friend now lives in my grandmother’s house, but on the other hand, no one could have made it happen that way.

Perhaps because there were no muffins I decided to go to Wal Mart. There were people filling the parking lot under tents, as if there were a fair or festival of some sort. I realized that many were protesting and many were defending the store. I wondered how committed they were to defense; they were mostly the elderly and wearing red smocks over their elasticized jeans. They were angry at the thought that their jobs might be threatened by these protests, creating a barely suppressed violent tension. I considered the ease and pleasure even, of physically harming these defenders and simultaneously the rhetorical futility and political banality.

I found her in one tent; I realized it was the tent passing out the pamphlets, inciting revolution. One woman had long, grey-ish hair; she was smiling and calm. She seemed kind, her kindness bearing no direct relation to the moment, in the way of kindness.

In an attempt to speak about my affections, by which I was significantly moved, I discovered an incapacity for telling the truth.

A calculus cobbled of wooden (vestigial) folding rulers lost in the basement, used-only-once fishing bobbins, maybe some tangled crab trap, a bit of public radio, and a red compact umbrella turned out to be the best-fit apparatus for the task. (Do these things all fold?) To some dismay, precision and clarity might, in every case, be at odds.

This calculus, being prone to impaction, requires expulsion for health (i.e., the persistence of the body via processes). It begins to feel like a lump in the throat, massed up and solid and legitimate. But in an expelled, and therefore attenuated situation, it can be most rightly understood as a best-fit apparatus of appropriated approximations. The truly interesting part is that there is no empty space left, but rather, a new calculus is already in place and this new calculus is similar enough to the old one that in most cases it is considered to be the same. And from this it is clear that what is said once is never true but only the repetition of the untruth begins to approximate truth. The lump is comprised of layers of the same thing (almost) instead of an undifferentiated semi-hard mass. Like a small onion-vegetable whose integrity is subject to immediate chemical-physical alteration upon interaction with words, most especially written words, but also spoken.

Realizing I cannot tell the truth, but not wanting to lie, I began to repeat. Which is not a new strategy at all, from a historical vantage.

If one says something it becomes untrue.

If one says something it then has the capacity for becoming true.

If one repeats something it achieves relevance.

Something cannot be repeated, but we understand repetition none-the-less.

You Be Me

I will practice replacing girls with other girls. With moving them into the background. All of them, so there is nothing to be distinguished between a landscape and a swath of hair. The hills around my house and the back of an animal.

A puppet theater in the bathtub: two twins moving back and forth between personalities with a simple incantation “you be me.” And then to switch, “ok, now you be me.” Mimicking each others speech and manner. Telling one another’s story. Becoming one another like jumping rope double dutch style.

Just the body sitting in for another body, learning to speak the language.

“We, however, are not prisoners. No traps or snares are set about
us, and there is nothing which should intimidate or worry us.
We are set down in life as in the element to which we best
correspond, and over and above this we have through thousands of
years of accommodation become so like this life, that when we
hold still we are, through a happy mimicry, scarcely to be
distinguished from all that surrounds us. We have no reason to
mistrust our world, for it is not against us. Has it terrors,
they are our terrors; has it abysses, those abysses belong to us;
are dangers at hand, we must try to love them. And if only we
arrange our life according to that principle which counsels us
that we must always hold to the difficult, then that which now
still seems to us the most alien will become what we most trust
and find most faithful. How should we be able to forget those
ancient myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into
princesses; perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses
who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps
everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless
that wants help from us. ”

 

Invisibility is a feature of the marginalized.

Visibility is marked by familiarity. We want to give up whatever attends the elusiveness of the unseen.

To draw out what is in common and to make concrete, a monument for those ways. To become visible.

The nature of background, in many cases, is to be invisible. It still must be apprehended, left to the mysterious and yet solved, as it were, by a more proper sense. A sense that once atrophied must be rehabilitated, cultivated, because it is not vision that finds the invisible.

When you sense what is invisible, or what is different than you sensed before, a different kind of substance, it may be considered an illness. Like deafness or blindness, a diminution of certain senses that allows others, now enhanced, to come to the forefront. This newly sensible is between the other stuff. Between the people and the words and the chairs.  It is what lets double dutch jumpers know the moment to jump into the swinging ropes, it is not only where the ropes are but where they aren’t and this is never static. So what is it they are waiting for? What are they accustoming themselves to as they rock back and forth judging the moment. Sensing the moment.

Falling in love. Sensing the movement of space and substance and accommodating oneself to that rhythm, first inside feeling that particular fullness and lacking that is that other person. It is a rhythm that you must match before you can jump in. It feels good to be home in that way, to find a movement that is yours, even if it looks different than you thought it might.

I started seeing things differently. Only the word seeing no longer seems like the correct word. I have heard people talk about the spaces in between things. The illusory spaces and the idea that even in what we think of as discrete bodies there is more space than substance. In this way people can imagine the physicality of interconnectedness, as well of course as disconnectedness. I’m afraid once I invoke the language of the space-in-between, it concedes too much to the concept that there is in-between, somehow as primary, or in-fact.

I watch the girls playing double dutch. Two swing the ropes, connected not through ropes but through rhythm. And the one girl readying to jump in. She rocks back and forth, one might say waiting for her moment. She is not waiting. She is preparing. She is becoming part of the rhythm, taking on some part of the motion and adding her own.

I see now the rhythms that are entered into. The ones that match our own, so we can most easily move with and through them. It is seeing what isn’t there. It is learning to see what is not visible, like background. Like female.

I don’t know how we made friends into enemies and I don’t know that we were a we.

We kept going to something like the same dinner party over and over again. I remembered getting to the hallway with the four black apartment doors, each with its own brass numbers. His was to the far left and hers was the third and each was similar inside, but different. His was much larger, but he didn’t know the square footage. It was open like a loft space with large industrial windows opening out onto an industrial part of the city. I was nervous being there every time, because every time was the same first time and I did not feel quite welcome and even if we were in his apartment there was the uneasiness about hers next door, or was it the reverse of that?

I carried my red jacket, the cream-colored striped lining was torn, but then there seemed to be two identical jackets and I wondered if I had stolen someone else’s from the dinner party, or if one had peeled into two, as if by replication. I looked more closely and one appeared to be slightly darker in color and after inspecting the labels I saw that one was marked with the size “s” for small and the other with “xm” for an extra-medium. I decided they were both mine and kept them, although I kept them folded together so no one would notice there were two.

Everytime we sat to eat we would discuss things, but over time we became more like enemies through this process. I excused myself from the table.