Female Background is spending the month of October immersed in the radical creative energy of Ultracultural Others.
Self-integration for PEACE.
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.
Steve Reinke @spreinke
“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” – Maya Angelou
Despite having written much over the past couple of years about a devastating turn in my life, I have not shared that writing. My body has decided on this opportunity to demonstrate a marked indifference to the compulsive clamoring of the mind’s narrative. The body insists upon trauma and it’s own temporal mandates: I am not healed.
Sometimes, on the other hand, the head knows what the heart still refuses to metabolize. The disjunction between the knowledge that true sanction lies within, and the invincible and contraindicated desire to share, causes me shame. I’ve failed to reconcile these internal mechanics, limping around like a simulated human from some dystopian future, not yet able to integrate different parts, to achieve credible likeness through human fluidity.
As I attempt to parse this conflict, shame emerges, thematic. The more I consider my reluctance to share, the memories of shameful experiences proliferate. Feelings of shame have been, for me, less terrifying than an alternative where those closest to me could not be counted on for comfort or connection. I have learned not to trust my own emotions, and have been unable to use them as a compass for living. I preferred the thought that I was the cause of my own distress,that my abnormality, my wrong-ness was to blame for feeling so alone.
After my divorce, there were people who never spoke to me again. One, a man I’d known for almost 15 years, someone I’d invited into my home after his own divorce when he needed a place to rebuild. The same man who delivered a reading from Wendell Berry at my wedding: “Marriage is a perilous and fearful effort, it seems to me… . It creates pain that it is the only cure for.” A particularized problem so complex and inextricable from our selves, so inexorable as to produce countless impasses for the imagination (the human tool possessed most fully of infinitude) that to evade that rhizomatic nest is simply to bury that self along with epigenetic hopes for future peace.
I thought back to one of the final exchanges I had with this man. He spent the night at the house I shared with my then-husband. He, firmly middle-aged, had recently started seeing a woman considerably younger than himself, a pattern that unfolded in the typical manner: he grew older, the women stayed the same age. This particular woman had apparently been through a series of sexual traumas, a topic he broached with us, his close friends, in a serious and avuncular tone. He, in his consummate sensitivity and gentleness would save her from this history. His manner approached fetishistic – he the guide to this young woman, a savior from the damage of sexual predators past. (Attempting to disavow any connection to a gendered power dynamic, he self-described as lesbian.) He elaborated tales of this young woman’s trauma, which, although undoubtedly trauma, he characterized as assault: In high school, she had given a blow job she did not want to give to a young man because he was “popular”, “black”, and “on the football team.”
Admittedly, I was rather blunt in my attack of this disclosure. Insensitive.
Lest the description of my dismay topple into the well-worn grooves the media and cultural discussion have handed us in order to properly analyze and divide over this kind of story, I’ve searched for the impasse. I’ll proffer a suggestion at bypass: There is the culture, or community, on the one hand, and individuals, on the other. #MeToo has taken highly personal stories and reflected them into a cultural narrative. We have not recognized that the equation, from one to many, is unidirectional. While appropriate to generalize from a pool of specifics, not so to reflect the general back onto an individual. We expand culture by adding elaborately specific stories, not by taking the average of those stories and waging it on the imagination of those who’ve yet to create their own.
In the case of #MeToo, the culture has given us two possible reactions to individual stories. On the one hand, you can blame the individual (she was drunk, she wore the wrong clothing, was too subtle, too unsubtle) and on the other, you can validate the victim (it was not her fault). Ostensibly different, there is common ground: Women are always victimized. If not by some outside force, then by the narrative that invokes her personal, often ethical, failure.
There is actually a third, and most powerful option: Just keep telling stories. True stories are like the body, like the heart, they demonstrate, in aggregate, that same indifference to the compulsions of analysis, in favor of something a lot more resistant to digestion. True stories quite literally don’t make sense in the way we like to think of it, unless we omit the nagging suspicions and fleeting glances that would never hold up in court. Making these omissions too shameful to report. They destroy our coherence, and women, most especially, are rendered powerless through an image of incoherence.
I suggested to my friend that a woman whose history was scarred by repeated incidents of unwanted sexual encounters hinging upon murky wagers of sexuality bore some self-examination. Perhaps the more accurate language would have been: “Your story about these events scares me in it’s implications about my own ability to consent, and therefore, the possibility of any personal integrity or cultural agency.”
I am not blind or unfeeling to the traumatic effect of such encounters, nor to the deep rooted structural inequity eroding the foundation on which all sexual encounters are predicated, however, I shudder to recast all regretful sexual encounters as assault. I do not know where the self resides in that narrative. The self that is the consciousness of thoughts and feelings, not their subject. I shudder at the implicit bias: the explicit designation of the perpetrator as “black” in the retelling of this story.
Should we outlaw sex between men and women? After all, we are so far from social equality, the existing power differential does not admit consent in any case.
My now ex-husband used to joke, “all heterosexual sex is rape.” Just one in a series of memories provoking waves of shame as I flinchingly contemplate my complicity.
My friend’s account of his young girlfriend’s story was pre-#MeToo. There was no cultural resurgence of Monica Lewinsky and Caitlin Moran had not yet written How to Tell the Bad Men From the Good Men; there was no conversation around Aziz Ansari’s behavior or that of his accuser. (A conversation which simply vacillates between the two aforementioned channels of prescribed thought: blame the victim or validate the victim.)
I should give a bit of context: the nature of conversations with this friend tended to the personal, but always through an intellectual lens, often making use of books or various theories to consider the topic at hand. Our conversations were explicit, probing, critical, contemplative, speculative, abstract, analytical. They weren’t shy. It’s likely I would not have suggested my qualms at the accounting had it been told by the woman herself, and I’m sure the first-hand account would’ve differed from the retelling. I did not know her, nor would I want to hurt her, blame her, or denigrate her experience. My observations reside now, as then, at the level of using these personal stories to contemplate my own integrity, my own consciousness, my own ability to consent. Hearing her stories (admittedly secondhand and through the mouthpiece of a new, male lover), my stomach immediately turned at the implications. Myself being the figure standing in for all of those implicated by the cultural exigencies created in these private mythologies. After all, we tend to tell stories that sound like the ones we already know. We can’t see things that we’ve never seen before. In these tales, we find palliatives for difficult feelings and we’re taught that our feelings are our truth. They’re not. They are metabolic flotsam to be witnessed for transience. We’re not comfortable living with mystery, and quite often agency treads too closely to responsibility to inspire our full enthusiasm.
This friend took a liberty in telling his girlfriend’s story. He was appalled at my reaction and vowed to protect his girlfriend from me. He would never bring her around me. I was dangerous in my cruelty. He would fix her with his compassion and would tailor his love-making strategy to her recovery.
I apologized profusely. I felt ashamed.
This man stopped speaking to me after my divorce. He preferred the friendship of my ex-husband. This makes a bit more sense in light of the details. Suffice it to say, my middle-aged husband also found a young woman to analyze, encouraging her to share her erotic dreams so that he could examine them. Let’s not forget, too, I am cruel. And insensitive.
During this same time period, my young friend who would become my husband’s second wife, was engaged. She was quite aimless at the time, floating from barista job to bartender job, fantasizing about being a midwife, but mostly creating drama in her romantic relationships to avoid facing the deadening ennui. She would break up, get back together, muse on the boredom once things had settled into a routine, shake things back up again with suggestions of moving in together, or moving out, or drunkenly kissing other men at bars. Generally, provoking feelings to mask the malaise and avoiding the work that would create meaning. In one such fit of impulsivity, she convinced her boyfriend to marry her. He was complacent, too, and agreed on one condition. They would not be married “for real.” They would not file paperwork. They argued: “It’s only a piece of paper.”
Her engagement announcement was met by a small group of friends with some measure of surprise. As the conversation tended towards diffusing the awkward reaction, she managed to back peddle away from anything that looked like an engagement or subsequent marriage. As it turned out the promise would culminate in a potluck dance party in her own honor, affording the opportunity to dress up and be center of attention under fraudulent pretenses while not actually committing to anything.
I suggested she take a closer look at what she meant by marriage, that perhaps there was more at stake in the piece of paper than she thought, in invoking the sanction and support of a community. After all, I told her, gay people are fighting too hard to get married so you can have your sham wedding.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m more in the “ban marriage for everyone” camp, than a subscriber to the “marriage equality” oxymoron, but what can I say, I find words meaningful, alchemical even. It’s another case of the complex boundaries between individual cases and the larger culture. Ultimately, a case of connectivity, perhaps of meaning at all.
I’m an asshole, it’s a theme. She cried, of course she did. She pouted and insisted, indignantly and self-righteously that her perspective was well-considered. I was being elitist with my ideas about what a wedding should be. Not everyone must be so rigid in relation to ideas. She sobbed.
Here’s the refrain: I apologized profusely. I felt ashamed.
Please indulge my addition of the final chapter to that engagement: It fell apart when she, after months of sending her sex dreams to my husband, staying up with him late at night, decided to put his penis in her mouth while I was out of town.
Remember when I apologized to her for second guessing the triviality with which she faced her engagement? I suppose she proved her case. She instantiated a reality simultaneously selfish and nihilistic.
I’d made a fundamental mistake in these cases. I took these conversations to be about ideas, to be the general case. I wasn’t sensitive to the reality that most people don’t want to test their personal stories against some Kantian imperative. Everything tends to get a little too not-in-my-backyard feeling when we have to consider a reality where we live with others, truly connected to others. After all what is the American self if not exceptional?
Let me tell you about one more friend. She and her husband are still in touch with my ex-husband, although admittedly they’re not so fond of him. Or rather, they describe him as self-serving, duplicitous, and deeply narcissistic. However, they know that according to popular culture you shouldn’t have to take sides in a divorce. In fact, it is much more deserving of dignity to be able to remain a kind of neutral party. This husband, he’s never thought much of me. He once wrote a short story depicting me (thinly veiled of course, only animals don’t invoke plausible deniability) as a cruel woman, albeit in a position of power, who would “spit” at her assistants and who demeaned her husband with her “roving eye.” He once gave me a book titled something like, Decor for Dictators. It made him “think of me”. I don’t behave as he thinks a woman should. I saw my friend, this man’s wife, recently and I told her I’d be interested in her thoughts on some articles I was reading about #MeToo and #TimesUp. She characteristically wrinkled her nose, “I don’t know what I’ll think about that. I’m pretty regressive when it comes to these issues”, she warned. When I shared my writing with her about the dissolution of my marriage, she was conspicuously quiet. I felt ashamed.
When people show you who they are, believe them.
Self-publishing my stories feels like another form of shame. As if the stories represent something abhorrent about me, something defective. It feels as though these kind of stories need authoritative sanction, an aegis.
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.
“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.
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 had some things to do before I could let it overcome me, stop me with its indifferent, tidal forces, rhythms of carnival activity, parades and acrobatics. I had so much to carry and I noticed others were in groups and sometimes had carts or sleds to help with their loads, but I struggled, making multiple trips, and also hiding. They would kill me, the war was advanced enough for that.
An older woman dressed in many layers, her lips bright red and eyes lined darkly, offered to paint my face, with “just the right highlight on the cheekbones”. This was her job and she was quite skilled, the best in fact. I thought it was about time to stop imagining that beauty might be different from craft, or to consider that honesty does not bear relation to fact or truth as we commonly suppose. The body has no natural state. The face has no natural state. And so I accepted her offer.
I found an old cart, I thought I might use this cart, like the others did, to escape the city more expeditiously. It was neglected, rusty, and one wheel looked askew. I had seen a woman using a sled, under her own power, and wanted this cart to be similar, but it was intended for oxen. I imagined that I could pull or push it just the same, even if it was not ideal. The large warehouse required some disguise if I were to enter. It was heavily attended by soldiers, a maze of rooms and floors, leaking. I abandoned that approach. I found a road out, out through a manicured lawn where people lounged as if collegiate. A woman I knew from years ago came smiling towards the lawn, her once-distinctively long hair, now short. She wore a colored leotard. She was an acrobat in the circus. This was a powerful position. Perhaps that’s why she headed in so freely. More people were coming in as I was leaving, so many people. A brigade of women holding signs, signs having to do with women – white with black hand-written letters. They were wearing orange leotards, orange hair, and with silver batons. They were in formation, quite choreographed. Leading the array were old acquaintances; they had maintained their friendships through these years, the same two that shared the ocean front condominium and swam in the rip tide, and now they were en pointe with colorful ribbons and high-kicks, moving quickly, smiling, towards war. I hurried past, disguised, recognizing old friends among the faces in the eager crowd.
I continued down the long dirt road. It was lined with grand marble government buildings each with tall columns and surrounded by green lawn. Gradually, this population of advancing people and the white buildings gave way to open fields and finally, to a still lake surrounded by trees. I began to feel relief. I saw the flocks of birds at the far end of the lake and they flew, in formation, in escalating manifestations. They began softly black, fluttering flocks in the distance, but then began to take on silvery and mechanized attributes, like sharply folded paper airplanes. Until they turned and with increasing aggression flew like arrows towards my place on the shore; I dropped to the ground and lay flat. I tried to run between the onslaughts, but that time shortened to nothing and I would have to crawl away.
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.