Monday, December 29, 2008

My Mother's Chains are Broken

My mother's chains are broken.

My sister and I are going through her jewelry drawer. When we were children, it was just a jewelry box, but now it's a drawer full of boxes full of her colors, bright and deep, full of pendants, strings of pearls, necklaces, broaches and bracelets. Every time we find one that might match her outfit, the chain is broken. Why hasn’t she had them fixed?

It’s my sister’s idea for my mother to wear the outfit from her 50th wedding anniversary. We find the dress and then the slippers. But the necklace…

My sister untangles one. Beads fall and scatter:

Like the friends of her child-rearing years, Ruth next door then, raising 5 weird and funny kids of her own and sharing in her daily fun and fears. Off to California. Pauline, whose powerful mind turned on her. Maggie still carrying on in their college town Providence. And Mel, arm in arm with her through the years from college to the kids’ growing up, but not willing to go with her into piety and ecstasy.

Like the friends of her holiest days, Mona, Judy, and Mary Frances, retired to distant states, or sublimed to the final state.

Like her father, Norman Frederick, who taught her to sing their songs back to the birds, and to raise a barn in a field of canvas. His energies enfeebled slowly, were regulated by battery for a time, and finally went to ground.

Like her granddaughter Caity, shoved into a Florida jail cell. No phone calls go in, letters are returned. It goes on like that for many months. A package comes back unopened.

Like her husband Tom, her tall-dark-handsome. He stutters into speech, but the balloons of his thoughts and memories slip from his grasp. They go floating away into the brilliant sky. He watches them go with an uneasy shrug.

Like her direct line to god, which she wielded like a brickbat, a trumpet, a lasso, a healing balm. When her friend Jesus betrayed her, the line frayed like old black fabric-insulated cable, and she bit it through, tore it apart, ground it under her heel.

All my mother’s chains are broken. We braid a garland of flowers for her hair, even though the casket will be closed.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Monday, May 26, 2008


He is perfect we understand
we share lust for touch
we share irritation and spasms of violence
he raises his arm ready to swat
I feel the tension in my own hand
he is wired, like every perfect one
I strike one-two-three-four
he strikes once and is done
he nuzzles into my bosom and I long for tongue
Now! he cries. I say just a minute.
Better not to stare too long eye to eye
Better not to see where understanding ends
or where strange misunderstanding must stray.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Neatly Put Away

My mother’s in a box, all neatly put away.
Her singing Three Little Fishies at the dinner table;
her not-quite stern reminders: “I hope you’ve done your homework”
her working turps and oils on canvas into a radiant heat;
her lisping Castillan;
her Judy Garland imitation;
her temper and impatience;
her memories of her old fashioned aunts we never met;
her imprecations, “Oh dear GOD!”
her prayers;
her love of children;
her faith in her husband:
all have gone the way of seamed stockings,
twenty-five thousand dollar New Jersey farmhouses,
and neighborhood clambakes among the mosquitos.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Lowdown on Down There

The supermarket checkout rag quoted, in pink, some woman yacking about her “vajay.” “Oh, it’s got a nick name now?” I thought, a tad disapprovingly. Then the girl in my head kicked my internal schoolmarm in the shins.

People are talking about vaginas! On the cover of supermarket magazines! And on TV. Tyra Banks, a glamorous African American talk show host who aims her show at the young and female, did an entire show last fall called “What’s Up Down There?” entirely about women’s privates—the vajay. Meanwhile Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan keep flashing theirs to the paparazzi, we learn on Yahoo “news.”

The world has fucking revolved, people.

Women’s privates have been so private for so long that many women never learned to talk about that part of their anatomy at all. As a girl, I only learned the vaguest terms--allusions to a neighborhood like “down there” (by the docks, probably) or that void “between your legs,” neither here nor there. And since then, we have only had those dirty words assigned by men for the double purpose of jacking off and insulting—pussy, cunt, snatch, cooch, and so on. Women have had mixed success in reclaiming these words. Educated white women have for a couple of decades been able to choke out the clinical word vagina in private circumstances—to a group of other women, a doctor, or a good-hearted boyfriend. But the vocabulary was carefully correct. And this kind of talk was not available at the supermarket checkout counter in big pink letters. The result has been that the freest women in the world have not felt free to talk about their sexuality, the very core of freedom and creativity. A little progress was made in recent years with the cute “girl parts,” the full equivalent of cute “boy parts.”

Now at last we have the gift of speech.

And we’re talking not just about breasts, women’s secondary sex characteristic, but the primary sexual attribute, and quite possibly a healthy, lusty one, too. What a concept. “My vajay.”

The schoolmarm claps her hands together one time. The girl dances a little dance and goes on to the next thing.

Who should we thank for this gift? The source is probably threefold.

Black women have long been less hung up about sexual matters than whites. They have known the female genitalia as a “chore girl.” The term is a joke that brings together the image of the steel wool scrubber of the same name, which shares its curly appearance with pubic hair, and the chore that women’s genitalia so often perform of keeping men sexually satisfied. I believe it was Woopie Goldberg who introduced the term “hoo-hoo” to the wider world in a major motion picture. I suppose--and I hope readers will send me their list—Black American women have a variety of other names for the vagina, too. Possibly, vajay was among those. Possibly not, before vagina went mainstream.

But how did vajay break into the mainstream press? Eve Ensler must get the lion’s share of the credit, for taking the Vagina Monologues national, and international. Never before the Monologues had the word vagina occupied so much public space in newspapers, marquees, and conversation. The power of the title alone is hard to overestimate.

And finally, a little credit to the men who own the media that carries the word. Men have always had words for male and female genitals—and more importantly, permission to use those words. By easing control over women’s public use of the word (albeit in full expectation of financial reward) they remove the final barrier to this freedom of speech. Naturally, vagina would get shortened to our intimate friend vajay.

Thanks, Eve.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Twelve Lies and a Truth

People have asked me which of my postings is fiction and which is opinion. In response I have written the following. I hope it clears up the confusion.

  1. My whole life has been one long stasis.
  2. I have been married since I was 16 to a short, stocky, Italian man who smells like testosterone.
  3. Testosterone is not an Italian word.
  4. I have never known disappointment, disillusionment, discouragement or crème de menthe.
  5. I once slept with a call girl on her night off.
  6. She had a squint, gold rings halfway up her arms, and wore jasmine perfume.
  7. I have never smelled rotting leaves in the New Jersey rain or felt nostalgic for that smell.
  8. At 10 o’clock every night, just as I’m about to go to bed, chimpanzees let themselves in my bedroom window and keep me up for hours, playing poker, fighting, and discussing advances in genomics.
  9. A genome is a little bearded scientist, usually wearing a red knit cap.
  10. It takes me several months to decide whether or not I want to sleep with someone.
  11. Lesbian dating is very simple and straightforward; the rules are crystal clear.
  12. I am usually the neatnik in a relationship.
  13. If we wait long enough, the Twin Towers will rise again and Osama Bin Laden will turn himself in.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Plan

I’ve spent my freshman year at Skidmore trying to identify any lesbian at all at this posh women’s college and failing utterly. I have worked up the courage to ask a student if she was gay, in as subtle a way as I could. I use the old lesbian organization Daughters of Bilitis as a code word, further encrypting it down to “DOB.” “Do you know if there’s a DOB around here?” She looks at me as if I were speaking Greek—as, in a funny sense I am. It turns out she and her girlfriend go around hugging because they like each other and think it’s funny. She is neither unkind nor defensive, but, no, they’re not lesbians. I write this about the experience.

Polly and Pollyanna
It’s her own fault for walking
around kissing her
dark, cold, come under my
soft white wing
friend in public.
How was I supposed to know she was

I’ve been to the college psychologist to ask if she knows of other lesbians—yes—and if she could put us in touch with each other—no.

I’ve gotten it on with my only friend at Skidmore and she has dumped me just weeks later.

Now it is my sophomore year, and I am not going through another year like that. I formulate a desperate plan.

Since there is no lesbian organization around for me to join, and since the psychologist cannot or will not help, I will have to start my own organization. People post all kinds of notices in the mail room, and on the bulletin board by the cafeteria. I will post notices. We all have numbered campus post office boxes. I will use that as a way for people to contact me. I test it out. Will they deliver to my p.o. box without a name? Yes, my little envelope comes back to me in my box the next day.

This is before Xerox became a household verb, and Kinko’s is just a twinkle in its inventor’s eye. I will hand draw some signs and post them in the mailroom and by the cafeteria. I anticipate they will be torn down, so I make extras. I keep them rolled up in my desk.

I draw a cartoony closet door swung open a crack and three pairs of big cartoony eyes inside looking out. The text is about Skidmore Sapphics (lesbians seem to go for alliteration, I later learn) feeling all alone in the closet. My p.o. box number goes on there with encouragement to write.

Late at night, after 11pm, I take up skulking around in the mailroom with a couple of posters in my hand and some tacks in my pocket, waiting for an opening to post. This goes on periodically for several weeks.

I never hear from anyone.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Sitting with Grief

If life teaches us anything useful, it’s that pain happens and keeps happening. The disappointments of longtime love going cold, love dying in the bud, the heartaches of parting from longtime friends, watching parents lose their strength, loved ones fall ill—these are pains that accumulate as life goes on. They will continue accumulating and accelerating relentlessly until the very last breaths we breathe.

If life teaches us anything, it’s that a good attitude in the midst of grief is what makes the difference between subsisting and really living—and that no one should have to keep up a good attitude all the time.

It takes physical strength to survive heartache. When the metaphoric blows rain down on me, I bring the karate analogy into play. I go to the gym and build up my shoulders and arms, because rapid-fire misery is exactly like kumite, free fighting in karate. Your opponent is kicking and hitting at you, and you have to block the kicks with strong blocks, you have to block the hand strikes with fast blocks, and you have to strike back wherever the opportunity appears. It all happens very fast, and your arms absorb a lot of hits. You’ve got to have strong arms, padded with lots of good muscle. Your stomach and back have to be strong to keep you upright, to keep you from straining or exposing some part that should be covered.

So I go to the gym and build up my back, stomach and arms, so I can endure, and still snatch opportunities when they arise.

And when the waters of grief rise, I sit still and listen to them lapping around me, wondering what permanent erosion they might be causing. Today, as always, they whisper, wait, you know this; wait, your imagination fails you; wait, you’ll outlive this.

I’m impatient for better. I want it yesterday, all of it. The job, the lover, the house with the garden, the happy parents, the old, trusted friend, the pain to stop. But I’m up to my ass in grief and I will wait.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Minor Unsolved Mysteries

Why does a maple tree whose colors have turned in the fall seem to glow on a damp, cloudy day?

Why do we turn away from emotional pain in real life, but go to tear-jerker movies?

Why can we have documentable telepathic experiences, yet not be able to measure or predict them scientifically? And why do people who know that individual cells communicate with each other chemically doubt that humans can?

Why is violence so degrading to experience, but so much fun to watch?

Why, when we've made a mess of things, is it irresistable to make them worse?

Friday, January 4, 2008

Romeo is some other where

So often, when you’ve been living with a lover and the relationship ends, one of you, inevitably the one who can afford it less, ends up scrounging for some place to call home. Lesbians, independent types that we notoriously are, should know better than to get caught without a place to call home, indebted and impoverished. Certainly we should have been listening when the women’s movement tried to teach us the supreme importance of financial independence. And yet . . .

And yet, one understands so well the old adage, “A stone in the oven keeps the wolf from the door.” Or, in other words, What you don’t have, no one will steal.

After the love and the sex and the sharing of a home are over, it’s natural to feel ripped off. If nothing else, your expectations of the relationship and love itself have been dashed. You feel cheated. So often, you’re not ready to accept having screwed it up again.

And then, if you are the one scrounging for a place to live with too little wherewithal, finding yourself thinking, "Some trailer parks aren't so bad,” or "Wow, a lousy studio apartment in a converted garage is really expensive!” or finding yourself living with strangers, you may feel an impending sense of failure, panic, or doom.

Maybe you’ve lived in a lot of different places. On a good day, you feel like a world citizen. You’re bigger than any one town or culture. You are footloose. Should you stay? Should you return to some old haunt? Should you go somewhere you’ve always wanted to see?

Other times you are in danger of realizing that everywhere you go, you will always feel homesick for somewhere else. Stay or go, it won’t matter.

Because, immediately after a break-up, there is no home. You are a woman without a country. Your heart, where your home supposedly was, is a fist, or a fractured vessel leaking broken roses, or at best, a wonky pump shunting oxygen-poor blood along reluctant veins. Your sex has lost her lust. Or, she has detached from your TOTALLY LAME heart and is free-lancing. And she’s talking like some college boy or sports bar patron about every woman who looks like she’s never been through what you’ve just been through.

The fact that you’re about as appealing as road rash to those women only occurs to you later. They can see you’ve been through the mill, but your sex is a study in obliviousness.

Good for her.

Someday she’ll come straggling back, assuming your heart gets its act together.

Someday, maybe, you will make a home for yourself that can survive the bad weather of love.

Originally published in Weird Sisters.