Female Background is spending the month of October immersed in the radical creative energy of Ultracultural Others.
Self-integration for PEACE.
“I didn’t really fall in love with you until you fell in love with someone else,” my husband said. The light of this insight would soon be blotted out by the darkness of his affair with my friend, a young woman whose age nearly matched the length of our twenty-two year relationship.
I’d met someone over a decade before at Haystack, an artist residency on the coast. I saw him as soon as I stepped from the gravel parking lot onto the wooden deck upon arriving. My palpable response to his presence had more to do with a sense of movement than with appearance. Something tangible, yet invisible. We grasp at forces like magnetism and electricity to explain the kind of tugging and sharpness.
When I found that he and I were assigned to the same studio, I was deeply relieved. I felt inexplicabley safe. His proximity allayed the familiar, but long latent, social anxiety that blindsided me with it’s resurgence upon my arrival to this place.
I experienced my feelings more like the memory of feelings. I felt like a person I’d been long ago. This alienation was provocative, like a traveler’s estrangement, revealing intimate things that never seem to change, though sometimes they’re forgotten. This reverie made me miss my husband and I began, almost immediately, writing him letters. I reflected on how we’d been ten years ago, when we’d met at a tiny liberal arts college on the East Coast. Our connection then forged by some shared version of what I was feeling again in that present moment. An inquisitive and observational drive meandering back and forth over the line between excitement and anxiety. I bummed a cigarette from another artist and smoked alone on the deck, enacting another memory, a regression.
That first evening of the residency, all of the artists gathered for a communal dinner of homemade pizza in the lodge. After eating with my new studio mates, I suddenly felt acute pain in my abdomen. A doubled-over, face-flushed, leave-me-alone, but someone-please-help-me kind of pain. Without missing a beat, my new friend, confirming my most immediate intuitions, took charge. He made contact with the staff after hours, procured medicine, tea, and sat next to me until I was well.
The two of us spent the next weeks working side by side in the studio. We learned how to make nets by tying different kinds of strategic knots. We used crochet for sculpture. We tied silk and cotton yardage around small and various objects and dipped it into steaming, noxious vats of dye. He made me a silk scarf with his newly acquired skills, but added a well-placed iron burn, a contradistinctive gesture in this place where everyone seemed to put the world aside for utopic immersion. For us, the shine seemed suspicious, calling to question what it obscured.
In addition to these sanctioned pursuits, we made creatures from spent pistachio shells. The exquisite corpses emerged from bits of string, bobby pins, and ink throughout the days.
We paused in pleasant surprise to discover our mutual Wu Tang love, further demarking us an incongruous demographic.
We laughed at the messages left in the guest book and added our own under each other’s names. We marveled at the behaviors of people away from their daily lives: I interrupted my roommate getting an awkward massage from a man named Ed. Ed had written in the guest book, too: “Life is short. Haystack is long.”
The day our studio group was tasked with presenting histories of our work to one another; I nervously fumbled with my slides. He loaded the projector for me.
Not only was vulnerability OK; this man helped me. The effect was so foreign I could not then name the experience. Even as a child my well-intended parents would push me, hoping that through immersion or coercion I would unlearn my pronounced and innate reticence. I learned instead that even the smallest bits of life were painful and no one was there to help. It was my moral obligation to overcome, my fear a kind of failure. Through these new kinds of interactions it was as if something inside me dislodged, like a bit of ice melting in a glass of cubes, and soon everything falls just a bit, into a new place, and slowly becomes less rigid, more fluid.
I was flirting, but I indulged it, not because I didn’t assess that risk, but I determined there was none. First, my new friend was surely gay. He even referred to his current partner with gender neutral pronouns, not a usual habit for straight people. Second, he was six years younger than I, which seemed like a lot at the time, especially since those particular years marked different stages of life. Finally, this residency was only two weeks and he would soon return to school 2,000 miles away.
For this moment, I needed the profound sense of safety and belonging that I felt in our small exchanges and quiet work. That sense of security on one front, allowed an opening for growth on another; I glimpsed a new horizon for my work. One day in a group discussion, he said, “I just want to live my quiet little life.” The contrast between the humble content and his enthusiastic confidence was startling. It resonated with me so thoroughly as if we just made our life’s plans together.
The last day of the residency came. I walked alone on a wooded path towards my cabin, a lump forming in my throat. I sat on the ground to quell the vertiginous welling, instead, I began to cry, overcome with grief. Unnerved and mystified, I interrogated the feeling as it consumed me. What was my problem? I was in love and I would never see him again.
I returned to my daily routine, changed. My husband and I continued our work renovating an old one-room schoolhouse, transforming it into our home. I tended to my tasks absently. I was listless, tearful. My stomach ached.
One day, weeks later, I received a letter in the mail. He missed me, too. The partner he’d so vaguely referred to? He was breaking up with her.
“These are the challenges marriage is made of”, I told myself. “Events unfold over long arcs of time. The nature of feelings is transience, the nature of marriage, commitment,” I tried reasoning with myself, inspiration to just wait this out.
“If you feel the same way in five years”, I told myself, “then might be time for action”. The problem was, I had already taken action, albeit involuntarily. I was not present in my life anymore. I had to fix it.
So one night, as my husband and I sat in his blue truck parked in our driveway, I worked up the courage, “I’m in love with someone else”, I told him. The only way to protect my marriage was to bring this inside, believing the true work and hope of love is the creation of wholly personal answers to our most intimate questions.
“But, you can’t love two people at once,” he said softly, staring at the steering wheel.
“I guess you can,” I said, heartbroken. In some ways, I’ve been heartbroken ever since. I can say this still, over thirteen years later.
My friend and I continued to write letters and talk on the telephone. “I love you,” I told him, “but nothing is going to change. You should find someone else.”
I dragged my sister to visit him with me almost five months after we first met; she and I drove over thirteen hours and checked into a hotel in the city where he lived. Our next visit would be another eight months after that. Our relationship slowly became a part of reality for me and my husband.
“You have to make a philosophical decision”, a friend warned.
“But, we already have”, I thought to myself. We chose the only path that was not arbitrary, and although I recognize that as a matter of some indifference when it comes to meaning, it was everything when it came to wisdom.
I felt guilt, but not in a way I could have expected. I felt guilty for being with my husband. Was my internal compass broken, or did my instincts reveal a truth I couldn’t understand?
Despite that, I brought everything to my marriage first. My marriage was the largest circle in a set of Venn diagrams, everything that happened was within that circle. At our wedding we read aloud from Wendell Berry: “Marriage is a perilous and fearful effort… It creates pain that it is the only cure for.” My universe functioned only under the rules of that marriage, but not blind to the realities it faced. Marriage was my shelter, a wellspring of courage. It made meaning by virtue of it’s very structure, calling me to face and solve the problems it created, by revealing my reflection in another.
Our so-called pains and perils were hard to parse. Our marriage now included this third person. More so than conventional marriages, it was political as well as personal. This felt especially true in the rural town where we lived. My husband worked for his parents, conservative Christians who stayed in the small town where their family had lived and run businesses for generations. Despite his daily lunch and video games with his mother, he didn’t share much about his personal life. The decision to reveal our relationship to his family was left to his discretion. I didn’t want to violate his privacy. I had renewed empathy for other unconventional relationships in hostile times and in hostile places.
I had a very close relationship with my mother-in-law and it pained me to feel as though I were keeping something from her. “You’ll find someone someday”, she told my partner at dinner one night as the three of us stared at our plates, finding it suddenly difficult to swallow any food. The secrecy produced feelings of guilt and alienation, weighing heavily on me for over a decade and finding destructive expression in anxiety, obsessive work habits, and excessive drinking.
We were effectively in the closet for over twelve years.
“Can he even get it up for you if you don’t bend over?” a friend speculated on my partner’s sexuality as a way of insinuating a generally lurid and corrupting vein of suspicion into what she considered a reckless and degraded situation.
This secrecy was counterbalanced with unwelcome scrutiny. The three of us were increasingly committed to our relationship, even moving in together. My unmarried partner and my husband became close friends – more so even, they were as family, planning a future. Eventually, my partner and I told our geographically-scattered families. His were concerned but supportive. Mine, I suspect, were ashamed, and mostly expressed anger and disapproval. (We spent some time not speaking.) Slowly, as they spent more time with the three of us, they accepted the relationship, albeit begrudgingly. We enjoyed holidays together. We traveled. We behaved much as any other family. Despite some level of acceptance, I felt uncomfortably overexposed – a private aspect of my life, one which ‘normal’ heterosexual couples could expect to be left private, was now open to the salacious, speculative, and critical fantasies of others.
On the other side, there were great joys and illuminations for having given over to this relationship. A pride in attempting to face something so inexorable and culturally pervasive with thoughtfulness and compassion. The three of us took great pleasure in considering and discussing it over the years, how it highlighted dimensions of relationships generally (“in order not to be alone, you need to be two, but in order to be a couple, you need to be three”). Nothing could be taken for granted, imparting a beauty and generosity often lacking once love’s urgency wanes and gives way, even if slightly, to the mundane. Honesty became king among values, a new prerequisite for engagement.
I once heard a sermon at a wedding comparing marriage to a triangle whose sides A and B represented the husband and wife. Alone, their union was unstable. The addition of the third side, C, for Christ, stabilized the marriage, a triangle being the most stable shape. Our trio did, in fact, last longer than most romantic relationships of any kind.
“I learned it from you”, my husband argued coldy. He’d slept with a young co-worker and friend of mine in our bed while I was out of town. He confessed only much later, laughing at me as he relayed the details.
A year before, this friend was going through a breakup. “Can I come over? Will you cut my hair?” she asked tearfully. We sat in my backyard and I cut the thick, greasy mass of blonde hair to a short bob, like mine, as she requested. I offered that she stay with us until she was back on her feet and she admitted to having wanted that, to being on the precipice of asking if she could move in. That was the beginning of a transformative dialectic where through some unwitting, but fateful collaboration I slowly disappeared, leaving her in my place.
Despite the outcome, she initially set her sights on my friend. “Maybe he and I will fall in love,” she calculated. Once she moved in, I had to tell her about our relationship, about the polyamory (a term I employ here, but rarely used and to this day do not relate to). I see only now that she was hunting; she was hungry and looking for signs of weakness.
The affair started once she’d moved out, with frequent text messages and emails. A party they attended together while I was out of town. Like so many years ago at Haystack, I assessed the risk. Sure my calculations were faulty the last time, but this time, the risk was visible from outer space. They followed a tried and true formula for falling in love in a series of various inappropriate interactions. She described and collected her dreams, mostly sexual in nature, for him. In some transparent pedagogical fetishism, my middle-aged husband would analyze them for this twenty-something friend. I protested, pleaded even, but my husband was volatile. She was a fourth side to the geometry of the relationship, irrevocably weakening the figure.
I knew if I pushed too hard, he’d rebel. He angrily assured me there was no risk. He would guard over his cell phone with a bodily paranoia, always angling a shoulder or an elbow against the world, folding inward and turning sharp corners outward. I, knowing better, felt my only strategy was a loose grasp. Sometimes this meant leaving the room to cry out of view. Any display of feelings produced contempt in my husband, coldness. Any resentment he’d buried over the years, he concentrated in this one willful act.
“Did your husband tell you about that racy dream he had last night?” her question landed like a blow to the stomach. “No,” I answered as breezily as possible, trying to control the expression on my face. I knew she was no longer my friend despite her pretense, but I had no commitment to her. She was insignificant to our problem.
Months before, the four of us had gone to a table tipping at a spiritualist summer camp nestled into a steep hillside overlooking the ocean. The medium called us at random to the table in small groups. She relayed messages from those who had passed. My grandfather thanked my partner for caring for me, startling not just because of the medium’s adamance, or its resonance with reality, but because we were in a group of strangers. The medium had no knowledge that we knew each other at all. “This is strange”, she began, “for some reason her grandfather wants to speak to you. Do you know each other?” she directed the question at my partner.
She advised my young friend to move across the country.
Hazel, my husband’s grandmother, warned him to move away from his parents and the family business. To take charge of his own life, outside of that small town. My husband laughed it off, “The dead are just like the living, only more benighted.”
“You’ve decided everything. I’ve never made any choices”, he rationalized his leaving me. It was true, I gave direction to our lives. Our house, our four dogs, our finances, our social life, the state we lived in, these were all my choices. The decision to get married; I’d even gotten my own engagement ring.
“You are trying to fix something within yourself, with something outside of yourself,” diagnosed the shaman we saw when trying, if only very briefly, to salvage our marriage. Suddenly, the feelings of sexual urgency that accompany new love were a bright light beaming into his life, which now appeared like a prison cell of inertia. Love was now cause and means of moving away from our marriage. He used it as retaliation, suddenly discovering a repressed anger he’d always vehemently disavowed. “We can’t help you yet, because you haven’t done enough work on yourself for it to take”, concluded the shaman.
At Haystack all those years ago, I’d remembered an older version of myself. My husband was now, too, finding himself through renewed desire. He needed to go back to the place where he’d lost the thread of his own identity. Like a little girl learning double dutch, rocking back and forth until she spots the moment where she understands the rhythm, where she knows it in her body. It’s a version of belonging that calls her to jump in. “She is my truth,” he repeated. The lens of a twenty-something woman became a powerful occasion for self-revelation. This was a middle aged man using this affair as a form of self-discovery, on a quest for a new (or lost) identity. “I need to grow up. I can’t do that with you”, he said. It was a beautiful equation, by choosing someone whose age matched the duration of our relationship and approximated the age that we met, he could go back and undo it all. He could start again in his twenties and erase the history of our pain.
He referred to the feeling of ease he felt in her presence, as an immersion in “fuck-it time.” It was shorthand for a kind of nonchalant, pot-smoking, job-hopping, ethos of indolence, both physical and intellectual, that let him escape his otherwise hyper-critical existence.
There’s only so much self-betrayal one can take before the body rebels and compulsions take over. Heartened by her cavalier and relativistic attitude, he adopted it. Only in him, it mutated into a righteous nihilism. Intellectually, it gave him permission. With a simple, “Fuck it.” Poof! Our marriage disappeared. “I have new ideas about responsibility now,” he defended. “She’s right, it just doesn’t matter”, he argued for her defacto exposé: a marriage ceremony should be just a party, without the added trouble and insignificance of a “piece of paper” or legal sanction.
I experienced his affair, just like anyone would, as trauma. It was in our home, with my friend, and there were so many lies. I lost the home that I worked so hard to renovate and tend: That season alone I’d planted two-hundred ostrich ferns, five peonies, and four rose bushes that I would never watch grow. They even dated at the restaurant in the small town where I worked, culminating in the loss of my job. My privacy destroyed.
My husband told his parents about our twelve years of polyamory in the same breath as admitting his betrayal. The manipulative effect of the timing adding significantly to insult and injury. My in-laws have not spoken to me since.
My husband refused all conversation.
“We fell in love,” my one-time friend explained to people.
“She had someone else and now he does; it’s only fair,” people gossiped. To me, they’d nod, “You got what was coming to you”.
Their relationship was attributed to my selfishness over the years, (who was I to believe I could be in a relationship with two men?) Even my friends pitied him, saying he finally felt his anger and jealousy. It was my job to have emotional oversight, to read between the lines, to act as guardian. He’d let me have my relationship for all of these years, where was the quid pro quo?
To the world, all was sanctioned so long as the hetero-normative couple bond could be re-established as the moral of the story. Hollywood love always wins. The story of our relationship had been recast as the story of my profligacy. As with other unconventional behavior cast in the light of hardship, polyamory became the scapegoat for my husband’s affair. Being one woman in a relationship with two men, I was a certain villain. Assignation of blame quickly resolves complexity and promises to be the bulwark against undue pain.
Facing this devastation in light of the previous decade did not feel like a lesser betrayal as the community expected it should, but instead a far greater one. I was forced to move out of the state, closer to my family, my life wiped out on every front. I considered my life with my husband one of building: our home, our relationship, but most importantly a very hard-earned story of love, identity, and purpose. It seems he was right that I did those things alone. His one act of will, or work, towards our life was to destroy it, burning its bridges and salting its earth. In this he came alive.
A bright light now shines on my aloneness in that marriage. Despite the final suffering and humiliation, I was the builder. If the story was ever only mine, it remains so. I still believe that infinite consideration and gentleness can reshape the love experience. The great love for my husband is not lost. I am still living by the same generous wishes and inquisitive purposes. Love remains so strong and intense in my memory because it was my first deep aloneness and the first inner work I did on my life. His absence simply what its always been.
In a letter written long ago, I reflected on Ed’s comment in that Haystak guestbook, “Ed’s a prescient genius.” The truth reverberates still: “Life is short. Haystack is long.”
and young children, who, as with heavy metals and certain other poisons of the body and spirit, capitalism and the like, become more susceptible to theft of the narrative kind. To be unnaturally frozen, and on the internet at that, without their consent.
“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.
An Interview with Maura and Abigail of the Rational Dress Society
Maura Brewer and Abigail Glaum-Lathbury, of the Rational Dress Society, were in New York City for a workshop at MOMA at the same time I was writing a post for a popular women’s lifestyle blog. When I wrote topically and in the blog’s signature style everything seemed to walk a line between Christopher-Guest-styled parody and political critique of the very elements for which I was purporting enthusiasm. After all, I chose to speak with these two artists, who have for years worn little else but their ungendered monogarment, for a decidedly cynicism-free, what-does-she-wear-in-a-week column.
It’s of course not that the perspective of these women is irrelevant, the opposite in fact. However, their perspective is self-conscious of the lifestyle blogs’ implicit principle that identity resides awfully close, or at the very least, is expressed by the ever-elusive personal style: “. . .my clothes weren’t a distraction or a shield, but a mirror instead — a mirror held up to reflect me, just as I am.” In another iteration: “I love being the colors girl.” Sometimes the correspondence between identity and commodification is made explicit: “. . . people start to develop personal brands – and brands try to become more human.” Albeit this certain genre of women’s lifestyle blog has a liberal, enlightened, and self-determined affect: “When I find clothes that fit well, I feel more comfortable and confident . . . when someone looks at me now, I know they’re seeing the version of me I chose. Not the only version I had access to.” They duly take stock of the environment, sustainable manufacturing, avant-garde design, small business ownership, support-local, and support-women. Often items are thrifted, or a mix of high and low (which usually feels to me like a nod to a barely-latent class issue.) Finally, they don’t forget to keep at least one eye on all of the gazes (call me Man Repeller!) They deftly keep their blog-heads above intersectional waters, while still garnering tangible support from sponsors.
They are not wrong. I, too, believe critical enthusiasm for self-styling has implications for identity and one’s psychic life. As one who has not fully given herself over to the monogarment (although I highly endorse it), I know (thank you Stacy London and Clinton Kelly) that what I wear reflects something to someone no matter how I might protest or repress. In a market driven culture not-choosing and choosing are not only effectively the same, but bear a startlingly similar relationship to our awareness of that choice. (Just think of the billions of dollars in marketing aimed at making those choices for you, while chanting “freedom” in its various forms: free market! free will! Don’t read it here, instead become a comrade in Rational Dress.)
If the dichotomy is false between mind and body then surely, by extension, it is also false between mind, body, clothes, and everything. Why else does a haircut or parting ways with an item of clothing have the capacity for causing pain like a phantom limb?
Believing that costuming oneself for daily life, as it were, is a worthy task, or at the least, an unavoidable one, it’s therefore deserving of our full political engagement and even our informed consent. I follow these lifestyle blogs for their thoughtful musings on the subject. After submitting my application, I left the interview with Maura and Abigail parked in google drive. Until this week when I read two articles on Man Repeller about finding identity through clothes. (There is a murky ontological area in respect to whether identity sits waiting to be discovered through our material choices or something to be created by them – but that point seems less of a concern so long as identity is won in time for cocktail hour.) The quest for distinction, for getting “to wear something that expresses how you feel as a person” allowing that you “never look exactly like someone else” starts to chafe. One thought in particular from Maura on choosing clothing everyday has since become the gadfly’s voice: “I wasn’t getting a huge amount of creative satisfaction out of picking out my outfits every single day because I have other stuff that I do.” It gives me pause to consider my life as a style. The world of “other stuff that I do” suddenly expands as it passes through the finite and myopic threshold of individuation.
I offer their interview here:
A Week of Outfits: Maura and Abigail
Designer Abigail Glaum-Lathbury and artist Maura Brewer
Designer Abigail Glaum-Lathbury and artist Maura Brewer happened to be in town leading a workshop at MoMA as I was compiling writing samples to send to a women’s lifestyle blog. As I re-read posts from my favorite “A Week of Outfits” series, I became curious about interviewing them. After all, who better to ask about outfits than these Rational Dress Society collaborators who not only co-founded Jumpsuit, but who have worn the “ungendered, multi-use monogarment” every day for the past three years. They’ve gotten plenty of press on the critical, humorous, and political nature of their activism. Their timely “Make America Rational Again” campaign collects gently used and “emphatically discarded” Ivanka Trump-branded garments in order to transform them into jumpsuits sold to support fair labor practices in the United States. However, I wanted to find out what it actually feels like to wear the same outfit every day. What happens to the self-revelation and identity forged in a woman’s closet? Maura and Abigail joined artist Cameron Crawford (a comrade in rational dress and jumpsuit wearing) and I for lunch on a bomb-cyclone-cold day to talk about rejecting choice.
Maura and Abigail
MB: It’s great. I love wearing a jumpsuit everyday. It’s super easy. I don’t think about what I’m wearing. But I think we’re also creative professionally and so I wasn’t getting a huge amount of creative satisfaction out of picking out my outfits every single day because I have other stuff that I do. You know that thing where you wake up and you feel like none of your clothes fit? And whatever hole there is you’re trying to fill, it’s still empty. You try on like seven things before you go out? That hasn’t happened to me in three years. It’s a big relief.
AG-L: I thought I would miss it. Miss clothes. Because I’m a fashion designer! I love clothes. I just love clothes. You know? It’s not about not loving clothes.
MB: Yeah. That’s exactly right. It’s just you don’t have to consider it everyday.
Getting married in white Jumpsuits
AG-L: The only time I had anxiety about wearing a jumpsuit was when there was a couple we know that was getting married in jumpsuits and I thought, what do I wear to the wedding? I wore a polka dot jumpsuit! I wouldn’t have thought about it if it weren’t a wedding. Now I sort of think, how beautiful? In another 13 years if Dave and I ever decide to get married, (26 is going to be our number), I mean how beautiful would it be if there were an entire room full of people wearing the same jumpsuit? That’s lovely. That’s beautiful. I like that idea.
MB: I hate doing laundry. I really hate doing laundry. I have a bunch of jumpsuits. But it’s just one garment. I mean how many t-shirts and jeans do you go through in a week? You can just hang them and shake them (she says stinking!) You don’t really have to wash them that much. The people I know that wear jumpsuits everyday, I think they have three or four.
Abigail with student at the Jil Sander Showroom, Chicago
MB: There’s less anxiety. As an artist, a lot of times, what you’re going to wear to an opening or to a dinner is a difficult question because you don’t have any money and so many people do. And so it eliminates that problem totally.
AG-L: The jumpsuit is a chameleon. The current one is really basic. It’s very intentional that it walks a line between casual and formal. It’s supposed to not be flashy. I can teach in it and then go to an opening. People don’t really respond unless they already know what it is. A bunch of my colleagues have them and my students will come bursting into the classroom saying so-and-so is wearing your jumpsuit and they’re so excited!
MB: Sometimes people come up to us and ask if it’s a “Jumpsuit” jumpsuit. Generally people are really nice. It’s lovely. People are really sweet.
AG-L: Social interactions are typically so awkward and if I’m introduced as Abigail-who-makes-jumpsuits and I’m a wearing one, it’s almost rehearsed, it’s an easy thing. There’s something nice and easy about it. It actually puts everybody at ease. People are very positive. Dave gets more compliments when he wears his than I do. But I get compliments, too.
Maura with two members of the Rational Dress Society
CC: I get negative comments. There’s the person who said: “What is he wearing that for, he’s never worked a day in his life.”
CC: Because they think I’m wearing coveralls, but like I don’t work hard enough to wear coveralls, or I’m wearing them with dress shoes or something like that.
MB: In what context?
CC: On the street.
AG-L: I feel like men’s fashion is way less permissive. I feel like you guys police each other more.
Maura reading from Ivanka Trump’s Women Who Work: Rewriting the Rules for Success
AG-L: I would have thought I’d get into really accessories. Jewelry, brooches. I like to get my glasses from Lab Rabbit Optical in Chicago, and Fabulous Fanny’s or Surreal Optical in New York. I have two pairs that are in regular rotation. We both have a deep love for Fabulous Fanny’s.
MB: I got my glasses at Society of the Spectacle in Los Angeles.
AG-L: Neither of us really wears lipstick on a regular basis, but we do have matching tubes of this stuff in bright orange. We both thought we were going to get more into accessories than we have.
MB: It’s the opposite. Yeah. Don’t care. We do spend a lot of time talking to each other about haircuts, though.
AG-L: We do. We do.
CC: I remember that day we went to five stores to find the right black bucket hat for you.
MB: That’s right. That was a good day. I still have that hat. That’s a good hat. But you have to go to five stores. You’re not just grabbing anything. It becomes more important.
AG-L: Sweaters are the thing I have to think about. Because the jumpsuit has a structured sleeve so it has to fit over the sleeve.
MB: We love nice looking things; we’re artists. I’m a totally acquisitive materialistic person. It’s not about pretending that doesn’t exist. It’s just about eliminating a major element of it and it feels more manageable. It’s also way cheaper.
AG-L: It’s incredible actually. You save a lot of money. Especially in my line of work! In my line of work the clothes aren’t just clothes; they’re expensive clothes and I don’t have that.
The official Rational Dress Society patterns for JUMPSUIT are currently being digitized and will be available to download as an open source document in the coming months.
MB: Women’s garments aren’t made to fit them. Almost ever. Abigail did all of this work. She’s really super talented. So much mastery and technical facility. She looked at real sizing data, from the government, from NASA, from uniform companies, anthropometric studies. If you look at people’s body measurements it doesn’t make sense to have male/female measurements.
AG-L: The way the patterns work it’s a ratio between your chest, waist, and hips. Jumpsuit embraces the physiological differences between bodies, tall and short, round and narrow. The patterns fit the individual while still maintaining visual uniformity. It’s just practical for having a garment that fits you. It’s a truly well-fitting garment, customized to the individual form. It’s really available to all, regardless of body type. So the first jumpsuit I made, the crotch was too low, and I made it shorter and thought it was beautiful; then I went to get on a bicycle, and so it turned out it was just a beautiful “stand” suit.
Photos courtesy of the artists.
And her moods were endless, so much so that when we came over, we would ban her from her own house. And she would wander and pace outside, fingering the edge of her appliance and inspecting the mosses. Or lichens. She liked to tell us the difference, but for her the difference changed every time.
It was earliest spring. I remember once, when we went down to make her lunch, to talk, to discourage the installation of more carpet, that her appliance was caught in a privet briefly. And she yelled for help, and the yelling shook it loose, but we came out anyway. I could tell you were repulsed, but hiding it well.