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.
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.
“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.
I wonder how often that actually happens in writing. What that means cognitively. As if we have always recognized orientation to space as foundational to meaning, as the necessary underpinning to whatever may come. And is come the correct word, or issue? I suppose to be precise one must indicate whether it is a coming from or a coming to, and yet what of coming next? All of these seem quietly significant. They are background – notions that mostly go easily along without being considered, but belie all sorts of allegiances, perhaps better left unexamined if one chooses an “active” life, in the parlance of the underground. But what of the background life? Shouldn’t one know what it means if they love the novel that sets the scene? Or if one’s first impulse upon sitting to write and describing that he is in NY, at a blackened table, cold to the touch. A wobbling teacup that is not actually a teacup but holds tea and matches the clay-slab-books some wrapped in paper and pine tar. Why does this orientation preface consideration of what belongs in a sealed box? Not only what belongs there, but treats the question as if there are correct answers. Not to say that there are not infinite answers, but a specific infinite, one that is less than the alternative infinite which would include anything that fits in the box. It is important to consider the world that defines the box-content this way. It is not unlike consideration of the cat as alive or dead. And it is the consideration of background- any number of things could be, but not anything. The content of the box is undeniably different if the box is opened or unopened. In a simple analysis, it is either known or unknown. The quality of that difference is more important than the technical attributes. If books are solid, there is no inside or it is all inside, and if a box is full, but you must destroy it to discover the contents, what is gained and what is lost? There is undoubtedly another box inside the box, only it probably doesn’t look like a box and so one might assume he is finished with opening things. There is something to the impenetrability of solid books. Something to the undifferentiated solid space. Something to the homogeneity of all the books. Is that more accurate than a sealed box? There is only theory in sealed boxes. I suspect it require more than opening the box to transform the theoretical, although I can’t say I know what that requirement is.
If you never see these things again, there will be a part of you, something real, that will be gone, despite the extraordinary insignificance of these things. They are spaces in memory and meaning that can only be filled by their unique shapes and mass. In sealing them up, knowing they may so easily be disregarded, discarded, it proves difficult. I have committed to them for so long and now I am committing to their absence. It is an absence, that as with memory, once it is gone, it is gone forever. These are mummy boxes because they are packed for a true death. I won’t remember them, and I won’t ever feel the things they conjure outside without being reminded by their presence. In this way, the absence is more pronounced. I am preparing to forget.