Wednesday, November 13, 2013

This is a Memoir: Week 10

A Love Letter

Before me there was you. And before you there was her. And before her the entirety of my matriarchal history lived and died, family branches full of women, leaves on the trees you love to hug.

I almost remember the day I slid out of you, purple and bloody. The doctor wrapped me in a bath towel and weighed that yowling bundle before presenting me. In the photo your thumb strokes the back of my tiny hand, your head bent, your face tired, but your eyes clear. The corner of your mouth curves ever so slightly, the beginning of your smile wrinkles, and you look down at your most delicate swaddled self. You must have thought in pictures, a parade of my future life: pastel, ruffled dresses and ballet classes, pigtail bows, pink birthdays, and skirt spinning. No, you singled in: Daughter. That was enough.

I wonder if that newness still exists somewhere inside my genetic makeup, because I want more of it. I worry I won’t have children. I don’t worry about birthing children, but I worry I will never be Mother. My fists clench around two ideas: in the right, the need, the base, visceral knowledge that this should be; in the left, the grey truth, perhaps, maybe. All things build on it. Wait. Wait more. Wait longer. Hope for the impossibility of age, of debt, of alone to lift. I have no biological clock, just biology.

I worry when you read this you’ll think I’m on the brink. I am, but I don’t know of what. I hope a sea shore, waves lapping at my feet, a clouded sunrise, salt and sweat and sand in my nose and between my toes. But it could be a cliff’s edge: black winds and debris settling their way into my wheezing lungs.

I worry if I am not Mother I am no woman. At least no longer woman-becoming but woman-declining. My skin will soften. My breasts will sink even lower. And I won't be able to console myself with the thought of my body as a pillow for a child; time will simply etch its self-portrait into my swollen, papier-mâché skin in swirls of varicose blue.

You made me a writer, Mom, asking me over and over again to, “Use your words.” I try to use them to write a different life for myself. Each morning I sit at my desk, I drink my coffee, and think about the stories I used to tell as a child. Today, every day, I just have to write one in which I can fit.

You love words too. I am thinking of those countless journals full of your loopy cursive. I made you buy me that workbook the moment I learned to write because I couldn’t wait to form my letters just like you. I wanted to write like you, to sleep in your bed, to wear your clothes, to borrow your underwear. I wanted to marry a man just like Dad and be an Engineer. I wanted to make peace. If you had it, I longed for it. If you wanted it, it became my heart’s only desire. I never could distinguish my own needs from anyone else’s. I learned that from you.

I learned to walk proud with my shoulders back, and my breasts pointing out. I learned no one should ever make me feel ashamed of myself. You told me that if I didn’t want to have sex with a man the minute I kissed him, he should never be my boyfriend, that sex is sacred and delicious. You explained to my Girl Scout troop how a threesome worked, because we asked.

I learned to want for thinness more than anything, because it’s what your mother taught you. I learned to sacrifice myself until nothing is left. And then to resent. You taught me to seek peace at all costs, to curb my anger, to let them win (except I am too much my father’s daughter to let this go on for long).

Why did you never tell me what life was like? Why did you never tell me how lonely it is to be an adult? Why did you tell me I could be anything I set my mind to, when I can’t? When you didn’t actually believe I could? I want to say you lied, but really you only told me what you wished the truth to be, about both of us. You tried to teach me healthy yearning, but I somehow learned mostly consequence, that you can have what you want until you realize you don’t want it.

I want to age in reverse. No human will ever love me like you did that first day. Except it wasn't me yet, just creation, spark, vessel, newness embodied. Even my little big brother, Allan, could feel it meeting me for the first time, holding me the gentlest he ever would, a change in the universe, a beginning star. You were not you yet that day either, at least not the you I know now, the you who struggles to find place, to say what she needs, to speak up, to sit still. You always said you were best at being a mom. Did Allan and I ruin you for all the other careers with our want and willingness to be yours?

Years ago, I called and said, “I hate you because you made me hate my body, which made me hate myself, which means I will never be happy.” And you said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t know what I was doing. I did the best I could.” And you meant it. We had this conversation for months, and every time you were so sorry. And every time I was less angry until I was sorry, for you, because you didn’t know what you were doing, you did the best you could. And I didn’t hate my body. And I didn’t hate you. I loved you more, if possible. And it made me long for my own daughter. I would be woefully imperfect, but when the time came I would take in and diffuse her anger, and she would finally be her own.

What is Mother? She is heart, lungs, feet. She is in front and behind. She orbits, controlling gravity well beyond when she should. She is extended, immortal. Who will tell beloved stories of my life? To whom will I pass on all those things I learned, all those silly, true, terrible, wonderful things you taught me?

Perhaps Mother is not all there is. Perhaps I wasn’t born to love anything as much as you loved me that day, wasn’t born to honor the space you take up in my chest by taking up a space of my own in the chest of my own. Perhaps I was born to be yours and then to wash away like sand on the shore, a leaf ground to dust disappearing over a cliff’s edge.

Monday, November 4, 2013

This is a Memoir: Week 9

At Work
I stand at the window in the concrete emergency stairwell of my office building. While walking to the bathroom the mist caught my eye through another window in a fire door, and my feet began to ache. I pushed my way through the red steel that shut loud behind me, a satisfying slam before echoed silence. I pressed my hands against the glass. I am not thinking about dying, but I am thinking about jumping.
I have just come from the "Diversity Dialogue," a Harvard event where a large group of new managers supposedly learn how to have difficult conversations surrounding (among other things) internalized cultural and racial prejudices. Unsurprisingly, few people of color attend, although there are more than I have seen at any Harvard staff get together prior. Usually the audience consists of a sea of white women's faces. The speaker asks us all to pair off, and we each receive a sheet of paper. On the paper are five circles, one in the center and four others connected to the center circle with ruler straight lines. In the middle you write your name. In the four surrounding circles you describe yourself, one-word answers only. I stare at the white blanks. I write, daughter. I write, liberal. I write performer. I write, artist, but cross it out. The woman next to me has written quickly: Manager, American, Woman, and Wife. After we share aloud, silence. Until she yawns, telling me she is tired, "From last night. World Series Champs! Gosh, that game was exciting." “Oh, yes,” I say but I did not watch, do not tell her I was in a class wearing a cowgirl costume (Halloween), letting a friend update me and my classmates on the score, happy for the lead only because of the energy that would pulse through the group of adults wearing musketeer hats, yellow suspenders, vampire teeth, and Hipster scarves each time another run was announced. This americanmanagerwifewoman wears her Red Sox T-Shirt with skinny jeans, a taupe blazer, and riding boots. Her long legs crossed at the thigh, she admits to workaholism with a glint in her blue eye.
I am pressed against the window because the wind is ending the world, and I can’t look away. Red leaves rush on wet blasts, branches bend, tree trunks groan, and the sky opens wide its maw to gulp at earth. The roofs of neighboring buildings shine slick and unmoving. I feel surprised we still stand. There is no rain, but there are promises in the air.
Tomorrow I will have another conversation with my employee, and she will cry. I will use phrases like "crucial situations," "decision making skills," and "time management," all to help her understand the importance of properly setting up a laptop for any lecture attended by our Faculty members. I will tell her this, face stony, eyes concerned, with unfeigned gravity, and she will cry. I will push the tissue box towards her and avoid saying, "It's all right." She will cry like something is broken. After she leaves, I will close the door behind her and cross my arms, pressing myself back together.
I lean into the thick paned glass, palms pressed, fingers spread. I rest my hairline, tilting my gaze, counting the cars in the parking lot from six floors up. There is no hinged opening, no way to step through. My thoughts are most likely chaste in comparison to the others who have wanted for this. No one is out walking. It isn't time to go home.
My office has no windows so my therapist gifted me a sun lamp: a small rectangular box, 12 inches on the long side, six inches on the other that beams something resembling sunlight into my brain all day. "The light from the HappyLight Energy Lamp must be directed at your eyes; therefore, your eyes must be open to achieve the full benefit. Note: Tinted glasses reduce the amount of light reaching your eyes," says the manual. The first day even the lowest setting is so bright I find myself squinting. But I adjust. I stay awake at my desk now. I stay awake through the night. I am vigilant.
If I were a tree I would be a rain shelter, a place for prayer, solid, seasonal, dark, and alive. My thin wooden fingers would scrape hellos on remote windows, and at night I would be almost invisible, a shadowy outline of leaves against a starlit sky. How much wind would it take to knock me over, to tear me from the ground? What if I grew on the roof of this building, wood birthed from cut wood, roots winding into heating vents, choking lab equipment, grinding chalk to dust? How much would it take then? Would a gust be enough to blow me over the edge, spinning wildly towards my splintering?
But I am not a tree. I turn abruptly and walk back through the fire door, past the bathroom long forgotten, by the finished wood of the reception desk, beyond a closed office door to a closed door of my own. I sit at my desk. I type an email using words like "critical," "expectations," and "deadlines." I press send and stare directly into the sun lamp.
I do not want to jump.
I want to fly.