“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.”
I have chosen to call this strategy the interior intersubjectivity, which I would, in turn, designate as the locus at which self-interrogation takes place. It is not an arrival but a departure, not a goal but a process, and it conduces to neither an answer nor a “cure,” because it is not engendered in formulae and prescriptions. More precisely, its operations are torque-like to the extent that they throw certainty and dogma (the static, passive, monumental aim) into doubt. This process situates a content to work on as a discipline as an askesis, and I would specify it on the interior because it is found in economy but is not exhausted by it. Persistently motivated in inwardness, in-flux, it is the “mine” of social production that arises, in part, from interacting with others, yet it bears the imprint of particularity. In the rotations of certainty, this “mine” gets away with very little, scot-free, and that, I believe rebounds back upon the ethical wish that commences this writing.*
My husband had an affair with my friend, a woman whose young age nearly matched the duration of our twenty-two-year relationship. “So you’ve heard?” she announced to our mutual acquaintances in the local food co-op the morning after my husband confessed. They hadn’t heard.
My husband, a middle-aged man struggling with his identity, on a quest for the “unexplored self”, divorced me and married my friend less than a year later. The real pain, however, isn’t the destabilizing contrast between the banality of these facts and the specificity of personal devastation, but the retroactively revelatory #MeToo Klieg lights which would come to illuminate cultural consciousness just a few short months later.
“We had a sleepover,” my friend told my suspicious co-workers to raised eyebrows during a breakfast date with my husband at the restaurant where I worked. I was out of town for the weekend.
A few weeks prior on an otherwise-pleasant, June night, my grandmother sat, scared, in rehabilitation facility hundreds of miles away. “I know what to do,” was her familiar battle cry and defense. So that evening on the telephone, her plaintive, “tell me what to do,” unnerved me. My friend came over to comfort me. Early in the evening, exhausted, I headed to bed. Upon waking in the morning, I startled to find her still there having slept in my husband’s study; she sheepishly ducked out before coffee. The sudden sense of her expression struck me only weeks later, once I learned of their affair.
My husband confessed they’d slept in my bed that weekend I was out of town; he slouched on the shower floor and wept under the weight of shame (a word he kept using, explicitly disavowing guilt). This only after I punched him, closed-fist, in the mouth. Not because of the affair, but because, in the climax of his smug confession, he laughed at me. His practiced absence intensified at any sign of emotion, making me feel as though I might disappear. My connection to reality felt tenuous and distorted. What he mirrored to me in those moments was something of funhouse nightmares, foreign and destabilizing. His laughter was aggressive, retaliatory even. I punched him because he wasn’t even there. His lip bled over his teeth and he returned to his body; the smugness dissipated. He expressed desire to stay in our marriage. Despite the disgust and shame with which I recall this encounter, a neutrality or resignation has emerged as I contemplate that fundamental absence and presence that pervaded our relationship for so long. To say that being in our heads was a disease of our marriage, while undoubtedly and ironically a feature of the attraction, would be a gross understatement. So while I could not have prescribed or recommended the violence, it feels now like throwing a sort of life-raft to the body, imploring, like a slap to wake up, cold water splashed. As if one body implored another body, albeit way too late and beyond the metabolic scope, to let this sink in. These words, sink in, an invocation of the physicality of consciousness, of wisdom.
In the movie Klute, Bree Daniels, played by Jane Fonda, discovers an intruder’s semen in her bed. It’s understood as an unambiguous horror. Was it because women don’t leave semen that my bed was no crime scene? Does a tearful admission of bad conscience absolve culpability, playing into the notion that women are too weak to perpetrate? I imagine her tone of voice delivering the classic lines: “we shouldn’t do this” or “you have to tell her”. The verbal equivalent of rolling-onto-one’s-back, walking a fetishistic line between helplessness and exhibitionism. Sometimes it’s just called seduction. An ethically cloaked posture undermined with every false protestation and surreptitious declaration of love. My husband was her accomplice, washing evidence from our sheets.
When I returned home after their tryst, he came onto me in that bed. If some drug induced my oblivion, my inability to rightfully consent, instead of a weekend out-of-state, surely the violation would be apparent. What kind of omission constitutes fraudulence when it comes to sex?
The real betrayal, however, were the lies yet to come. He told me he didn’t think about her much, that he wasn’t seeing her, despite her plaintive text messages claiming she knew better than to write, but was ‘weak’. Urged by these disclosures, I unwittingly spearheaded the farcical efforts to repair the damage. Every exchange under the aegis of these false intentions I recall in lightning flashes of renewed pain: He carried my grandmother’s coffin at her funeral. We rearranged our furniture, visited a Shaman, wrote poems, contemplated moving. He suggested we have a baby.
After years of keeping his hair cut short, he left it longer on top. I gave him a small, carved comb made of bone. Perhaps I wanted to nurture change. Perhaps I wanted a gesture that broached the topic of his body without subjecting my own to that work. A promissory note of sorts: I would wade slowly back into intimacy.
I was uncannily drawn to the elements.
Earth: I sat in my bathrobe at the edge of the woods, my face turned away from the house so that I could see only trees. The one-room schoolhouse we’d renovated together, now only the site of so many acts of betrayal. It was tainted with such thoroughness it’s tempting to call it calculation, even malice. Having lost my job in the restaurant because of their public activity, I went to work instead on the farm that supplied the business. My perspicacious and benevolent boss, seeing that I was ‘not in my body’ made the suggestion.
Fire: In a ceremonial attempt at purification, my husband sacrificed the necklace she’d left in his study.
Water: I planned a weekend on the coast so that we could swim. My husband suggested we take the New York Times quiz that makes you fall in love. We did not perform the final act of prolonged gazing into one-another’s eyes. Perhaps I no longer wanted to love him. Sex was easier, less intimate, than looking at him.
Air: We started running together.
No amount of elemental immersion, however, could bring me back into a body that did not want to feel. Under threat of losing my marriage, my home, and my life as I knew it, I felt compelled to have sex with my husband, despite reeling from trauma and shock. Our sexual encounters were dark, now just a final defense against unmitigated annihilation. “I feel like you’re treating me like an experiment,” I told him. “Using me to explore some private question.”
If the soil for abuse is an established power differential, marriage might be the Fertile Crescent. Subject for so long, perhaps women, like children and animals, are not capable of giving consent at all.
I knew something was wrong; I would dream the graphic details of their sexual encounters: He put our wedding ring up her ass. I was too deeply shaken to trust my intuitions. Confronting him again, he admitted to continuing the affair during our time of reconciliation. He walked into our home after work, handed me a bottle of wine, hoping I would anesthetize myself, saving him the trouble of undue interaction. He announced our divorce. He’d been seeing her all along: the weekend he ‘went to his friend’s beach house’. Those nights he ‘went to the movies’, when I awoke late and alone in our bed and called him, worried he’d not yet returned home. I ignored everything my body was telling me in the hopes of saving my marriage, while he sat comforting her at the edge of the lake, pitying her other-woman distress.
He prided himself on his capacity for what he’d long ago coined “emotional amputations”. There would be no discussion, “I refuse to deal with your ego,” he declared preemptively with no small measure of contempt.
Ego probably was the right word. This kind of violation threatens one’s sense of self. In many of the #MeToo stories, the violated question whether any violation even occurred. They seek some kind of authority or community for sanction of their feelings. Their identity has been fundamentally damaged. My husband repeatedly claimed that this other woman was the occasion for his desire, his ‘fantasy’. He made the distinction, explicitly and verbally, between his desire and an ego, and he chose his own desire. It’s this culture of permission (think “locker room talk”) that collectively refuses the ego of women in favor of objects of desire.
“Is this a story about you and me? You and her? Or just a story about you?” I asked with genuine curiosity. He scoffed, “Of course it’s all about me”, as if that were the only answer deserving dignity.
My one-time friend told people, in antagonism to agency, that she and my husband had simply and passively “fallen in love.” This palliative sufficiently eased the conscience of friends and family.
It has been a rare sleep, since my husband’s confession that hasn’t been adulterated by nightmares. I’m now quite familiar with not being in my body, especially when it comes to sex. Graphic images from the time I believed we were “trying” overcome me, unexpectedly, producing bodily sickness and psychic retreat. Perhaps those ways of feeling violated or compelled are too subtle, too ubiquitous, or just simple, sans hashtag me toos. Perhaps their transgressions only rise to the level of poor taste.
We suffer injustice because we’ve been sold a mythology of love and an aesthetic of empowerment. My one-time friend is a self-professed feminist, purporting the ‘Future is Female’, t-shirt, bumper sticker, and social-media-style. She aspired to being a midwife, idolizing Ina-May Gaskin. I flushed anger when I, in preparing to give birth to my son, came across this passage in Gaskin’s book Spiritual Midwifery: “A midwife must have a deep love for other women … The true sisterhood of all women is not an abstract idea to her”.
People remarked, at the time of my divorce,“there are two sides to every story”, something I don’t believe. There is only ever one story or many. I am now, as a woman, wife, and mother, deeply wary of self-betrayal in my most intimate relationships. I’m wary of becoming simply a fantasy. In other words, what others desire, my identity derived from the needs of others, even because of love. Perhaps because of fear, or of losing the way another can anchor us to our family, or community. Perhaps even because our lives depend on it.
If the light of #MeToo consciousness has unwittingly penetrated so deeply into my marriage and friendships, then let its proliferation of elaborately specific stories deliver us from ‘abstractions of sisterhood’. Let it change our understanding of who we are to reveal a path forward. Let the attitudes and tendencies of the world follow. That is the future of female.
*from Hortense J. Spillers’ “‘All the Things You Could Be by Now If Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Mother”: Psychoanalysis and Race,” in Black and White and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture, 376-427. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003, 383.
There is a movement, as in circles of a purgatory, from the detective to the monk. It is both a natural progression, but also a spiritual progression involving certain practices using a series of ropes and strings. The movement, which might be understood as a progression, or even an ascension, requires the proper movement of these ropes and strings involving the dexterity and coordination of an athlete combined with the precision and vision of a craftsman. The detective learns to identify clues and to collect them. He begins organizing them, using the ropes, tying one to another in an appropriate sequence to create a tool, like a net that may slowly hold all of the clues. It will account for them, that is why the order and sense must be present, leaving no space too large for things to fall through or too small for things to become pinched.
When I fell in love it was by the ocean, but not in a warm place. There were trees and moss and grey weathered decking. I was doing simple tasks with my hands like crocheting and making nets. In order to make nets one must tie a serious of knots and connect them. Like a wall with images and names, bits of button or cloth pinned up in clear plastic sleeves or bags, old hairnets and cigar boxes, an ashtray from a rest stop in Alabama – all clues that a detective collects and then connects with marker or pieces of red string, connecting until something comes together that can be used to catch other things. To hold other things. Maybe fish. A shape of time.
The future, it is like pure spirit, no encumbrances like body, pressing down and deforming the truth. The good detective, the one on the ascending path, has learned that eye witness testimony is either unreliable or exactly as true as anything else in the past, meaning not nearly as true as the future. It is this realization, among others, that incites the detective to ascend towards the monk. Moving from a series of clues that reveal a story to no clues, pure story. There is no language in the future, language has always been the currency of falsehood.
The detective moves towards the monk. The ropes once used for tying nets are now just turned and turned, no knots. He begins to learn his witnesses cannot be trusted, perhaps through malice, but more often by nature. As with making nets by the ocean, double dutch moves ropes in a rhythm, but unlike the detective, who ties the series of knots, who closes the loop to contain things, the double dutch ropes keep moving. They are never tied off; they never stop. This is why the detective introduces (again) double dutch to New York City. I will go there.
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 substance that I sense is between the other stuff. Between the people and the words and the chairs. It is what lets the 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 seemed 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. As if the point were made by banging a hand on a wooden table, only further confusing the issue by emphasizing the wrong senses, materiality, violence, the concrete.
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 am seeing 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.
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.
It had been years since I’d seen you and we pretended not to know one another, which I suppose was not truly pretense. I looked over my shoulder as we passed one another and saw the high heel of your pale blue shoe and the shine of your pant cuff. You joined your family at the table where we used to eat. I continued my work purposefully after this sad interruption only now wondering at the deflective sheen of your uncannily foppish attire.
They were among the highest ever seen and you wondered that they tested them at all. Machines pulsed. You wished they’d tested something else, measured it. You saw the apparatus, the tubes of green fluid rising and falling like breath, only somehow unnatural. This made you think that not all life was from nature as some would have you believe, or at least it’s origins did not have some state that was more of nature than its current incarnation. You wondered that they did not test instead your intelligence, something they would just as soon deny and certainly not so easily pathologize. You knew, though, that your intellect might be as dangerous to your health. You picked at your skin and considered just how the green fluid measured that level of disturbance that came through. That measured the quality of that final barrier, however illusive, between you and them.
DREAMLIFE: A collection of women’s dreams, recorded and then translated here as part of the Female Background metabolism. A way in, a way out.
We were cleaning up our property which was like a crossroads where you see strangers in a campgrounds. My former neighbor was walking her dog near the perimeter and I wanted to say hello, but I also wanted to not be seen, to just watch her. She was older but still had the same walk and the same hairstyle, the same glasses and smile, walking her dog as she had ten years ago. Once she passes out of my eyesight I get back to the task of cleaning. The yard has not only been untended, it’s has been an active dumpsite of domestic waste. Drugs and kitchen utensils are the first targets and we are making progress, but there is so much to get rid of and I am sweating now, but I’m not tired of doing it. I’m still not sure what I’m looking for in this mess. There is an auditorium stage that appears to my far right opposite to where I was watching my neighbor walk her dog. It’s light oak and I’m drawn to it, so I walk towards it. I get closer and I see discarded odds and ends that look like I might save something. There’s a kids’ sand shovel without its bucket. My two year old might use it even though I don’t think it’s hers and when I get closer I grab that shovel, but its covered in dust and something sticky so I immediately put it back down. All of my friends and family are helping me clean up at this stage and it’s going more quickly than I can approve or disapprove of discarding, one by one, the items. So I’m a little worried that they’re just getting rid of things that I want to keep. I reach for and look at a stack of papers on the stage because they have foreign stamps and it looks like I have kept them for a long time. At first I, when I open envelopes, I see they contain letters and they’re letters my ex-husband and I wrote to one another other when I was his college student, but then I look closer. They seem to change. They’re the divorce papers and I wonder if it is all over and if this is actually my MeToo moment and I wonder what’s left for my daughter.
DREAMLIFE: A collection of women’s dreams, recorded and then translated here as part of the Female Background metabolism. A way in, a way out.
I was with some friends and we were looking at my hair and we were measuring how long my hair was to see if it needed to be cut and when they measured it they told me that it was down to just above my butt and I was very shocked and upset and I told them that it was too long. It was too long for my hair. That it needed to be cut closer to my boobs.
“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.