Zenith

“I married a woman who would not make me tired.”

“I married a woman who would not want to talk about politics at night.”

“Your mother, she could never be a political wife.”

 

-Themes in my father’s confessionals in the car.

 

We drove from my hometown, where he lived his final days of married life, to silence and Maine, to close-knit pine boughs and silent snow.

The journey is scenic, or it is highway – alternately. In fall, my hometown erupts in yellows and hysterical orange. The many ponds freeze slightly over. Jags of white and blue mirror amplify the reds, the browns of multifoliate forest.

From the school bus, we would see mist rise as the ice began to melt, and it would obscure familiar houses, leaving the colonial scenes incomplete and subject to rifts in memory.

Recitals of shortcomings persuade over time.

My mother silent after my political rants about President Bush. My mother’s deferral to other opinions. My mother and the other mothers in the pick-up line, and apart from their manicured mass. My mother picking me up at tennis lessons, her flyaway hair, her Boston accent, her wild laugh.

In childhood when the walls of self are down and disengaged, what you cannot do becomes what I cannot do.

I wanted to swing car keys like my mother. To wipe off lipstick in the rearview mirror. But I wanted to affect a power I saw in other people, to initiate the silence my father did. To tame my hair and clothes and schedule into country club order.

Associating with you, I build the weaknesses I can handle, the weaknesses that do not erode love or respect, the desire to be near and the desire to be known.

I did not sense my own limitations. I would play and assume my wants would settle into my reality as I became adult-looking. But one day, after caking my shoes with mud, I slipped and held the wood of our swing-set structure, getting wood splinters in my tiny palms.

My father held my hands outstretched and he paused before lowering the tweezers to my skin. “No calluses,” he said. “You will always be a lady.”

And then I began to perceive the work of self-creation.

There were so many ladies. I decided the best type were the ones that made cookies for you before you got home, like my friend Elizabeth’s mom.

But as I grew I found myself at odds with the packaging. When I would fold my floral clothes, I felt the absence of some essential element. I realized that hours of my day might be vacant if I stayed at home to bake. I realized men were difficult and loud, that mothers were political and unkind.

Instead of inspired, I felt capped by the problematic zenith of who I might be as a lady. As a wife – if I were a wife – I would be a political wife. As a mother – if I were a mother – I would be tender. I would wipe off lipstick in my rearview mirror. But what would I do with the reach of my mind in all those exposed hours?

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Still Face

I don’t know if I read it into my memory.

She would sit at the table, sorting receipts or reading, or clearing out the accumulated contents of her purse. I would be outside or in the living room, playing or drawing or coming home from school, dropping my backpack  on the floor with the front door slamming shut behind me.

She would be there in front of me, focusing through her glasses on whatever she was seeing. I would interrupt her to show her a drawing or to tell her, unprompted, about the fascinating events of my earlier grades. About playground drama, the scandals or how I was mad at a friend, or confused.

“Mom,” I’d say.

“Mom,” I’d say. I know at least once when I tried to show her a drawing she said, ‘that’s nice dear,’ without looking up.

But some or most times, she wouldn’t answer me. I was so curious then about whatever she was doing, and a little incensed that there might be something more important to my mother than me. Maybe she explained, but I don’t remember what she did that resulted in her strained and exclusive attention.

In those moments when she didn’t respond to me, I would look at how her hair fell after she ran her fingers through it, or out the back window into the yard. Or I would look down at the pages before her and try to make sense of the shapes. They seemed like long moments. That’s what concerns me.

I learned in linguistics about this phenomenon called the ‘still face’ effect. Children whose mothers do not engage with them for a period of roughly three minutes become ‘sober,’ or anxious, and then try to stimulate in their mothers the same standard pattern of interaction. The phenomenon showed how social infants are in their attempts to re-engage their mothers, and has been widely demonstrated and used to investigate the limits of an infant’s perspective.

My mother was depressed. And I know that now. Because the phenomenon occurs with depressed parents, I wonder whether those moments I remembered are remembered because of her unresponsive, still face. Because the frequency of still face reactions children experience is thought to be predictive of later attachment styles, I wonder if those were the moments when I inherited her depression.

I can’t know whether she was in pain in those specific moments, or if she was simply ignoring an annoying and overactive toddler. So when I sort through those moments, built of sparse memories and contradictions, I realize I don’t know what’s true.

I start to fear unconscious replication, but find that I can’t acknowledge everything. Maybe the solution is to practice intentional silence.

Whose decision?

But I do have psychological gravity. I converge on a center.

Pre-dream I envisioned myself as a plant branching towards the sun of my soul. I saw myself contort as I grew, the limbs folded in and over, towards light. Towards exposure of essence.

Resting, today I watched the world. Out of deep internal silence, dry mouth, or fear. I watched as the world expected. Telling myself I did not need to perform incessantly, reminding myself that death would deny me that kind of eternity, common to waves and light rays.

I tried to strike the flint at my heart, to generate the energy, the draw. The showman meets expectations. But in my closet mind, I relived my practice of silence, begun in childhood. Extracting the sound from footfalls, the sighs from breath, to be the walls. To be structural and so inviolate.

‘So calculated, so calculating’ – that is the critique that goes with acting internally. But the world inserts itself, impeding known movements. And the soul moves.

I act quietly to avoid preemption – the louder footfalls. I act quietly to act at all.

Emotional Clean-up Crew

Wake to the pain. It is fresh as light, new in the moments its causes remain forgotten.

You reach down to touch the sensation. You guess at its location. You find feet and hands instead – realizing the whole instrument.

When it hits you, it will sound the alarm. Your body will sing into sweat and grief and rage at abandonment.

First, reach deeper to feel the wound. Sit up in bed. What will answer it? Will you need an army? Will you need a new lover? Will art open you?

Go to the places he went with you. Smell the roses out of your memory. Place them on the ground.

Go to his hometown which you will not recognize. His perspective to dissipates to air, to gray city.  He is unknown.

The morning generates a morning and a new day. Tender, the pain is wrapped and held. Tender, it dissipates. Memory loosens. Find yourself in air.

Heartbreak, Hair and Philosophy

My last year of college shared a rhythm with the earlier years. On weekends, my friends and I sat on Melissa’s carpet, watching TLC reality TV or Hallmark movies on her television’s tiny screen.

Though she studied economics, Melissa’s passion was hair. So as we watched agitated housewives or people with addictions, she would massage our scalps and brush our hair.

It calmed me.  As I listened to the sounds from the monitor I let myself regress to first or second grade when my mother shaped my hair into curls, bound them up with ribbon, and soothed me into beautiful emotional order.

That year I decided to write a philosophy thesis. I was not prepared. As an English major, I’d read Shakespeare but not Kant, I’d read Milton but not Hegel. But nearing the end of my educational journey, I kept asking myself for meaning.

In all the poems and plays and stories I had read, descriptions evaded definitions. I did not understand love after War and Peace or after Romeo and Juliet. I wanted to strip ‘love,’ and ‘faith,’ and ‘certainty,’ down to sounds and forms and elements. To know when I carried them in me; to know when they were real.

In those days, I awoke and carried my wide eyes across the faces of loved ones, looking for clues. I tried to isolate the love behind their expressions. And with the same intensity, I stared at the sky, at the school athletic fields and the little, dense patches of New England forest.

I wrote and I read and talked through my work with my thesis mentor, until the day that a letter came from the school. Curtly the administration informed me that my mother had not paid my tuition for the semester, and that if they did not receive payment soon, I would be evicted from the dorms, unenrolled from my classes.

With help from my advisor, I worked out a way to graduate early. She told me it was a shame that I would miss so and so’s seminar, and I saw her concern. She knew too how senseless it was to abandon what I had just begun, how senseless it was to pretend my way into adulthood.

In those days I still awoke with wide eyes so that I would not miss meaning if it chose to appear. I continued going to class, and working, and watching TV with my friends on the weekend, feeling childlike and comforted when my friend ran her hands through my hair, adding pins and hairspray.

It is always comforting to be around people with a sense of vocation. “Have you been called?” asked the posters at my church, and they showed self-assured faces, people of all ages who dropped their lives as construction workers or engineers or grandparents to be folded into religious order, into certainty.

My friend was no different. As she twisting my hair knowingly around curling irons, I asked her how she knew she liked hair. What it was about styling that drew her back. She hmmed. She said she didn’t know, but that it was nice to see people respond to themselves with wonder.

I read that semester about Lacan’s idea of meconnaissance, or misrecognition. The idea that a child recognizing himself in a mirror realizes he has been mistaken; that he is the small and vulnerable creature in the mirror, whom the outside world has always known. As my school kicked me out, my mother stopped paying, my work ground to a halt, I felt vulnerable. I realized that the world could place itself between me and my search for meaning.

My heart was breaking.

I loved philosophy. Studying and writing felt like standing before an ocean, like I drew closer to the water every moment, closer to the clean sure words of people who would tell me why love was not reflected in movies, or why rote memorization could not fill or satisfy my mind. But I could not continue.

I packed away my things, I applied for jobs in a state of pure confusion. I found myself on the floor in Melissa’s room. I remember the sound of the brush she moved through my hair. The pressure of the brush on my scalp.

Melissa reassured me. Because she knew what she wanted. Because she carried it with her in a number of cosmetic cases, making moments of sense from disobedient circumstances.

Today

I woke, I ate, I thought, I ran through the park. I stared down the self-assured eyes of statues. I sat on a bench and meditated. I felt the bench through sweat-wick gym clothes, and let life flash through me. The day is still fresh and damp hair from my shower runs down my back. Today is my day off, and energy has been traded for quietness.

I treat myself with slow care, as if I am a child. I alternate tasks to keep my mind engaged. I take naps. I call to myself to disrupt wandering or painful thoughts. I remember the clapping rhythms used by primary school teachers to bring focus, discipline. Early instructions to my mind, they echo up. It hurts.

When I am alone with myself I ruminate. I wrestle past events into a coherent line that then breaks down on analysis. Jags of pain stem from attempts to solve the behavior of others. Faces come up and, tied to them, all of the love and weight of relationships that broke into confusion.

I wash my face. I sit down in a cafe. I focus for an hour or so, and take notes. But no immunity comes and the thoughts keep running, the tide of the past rushes over; it gives weight without grounding.

I know that I am here, in this chair. I know my name, how to spell, and how to shape the letters. I know addresses of childhood homes and the phone numbers of old friends. Through mastery of these practical skills, my mind has gained time to consider the life of my barista, the businessman with his wide stressed eyes, the mother in a sun hat, the seven year old scootering by.

Today, on my day off, I realize my incidental situation, in the backdrop, with partial information.

Post-sex cigarette

Ruddy-faced pictures of my friend at eleven show unkempt hair, a dolphin T-shirt, and over-sized board shorts. Certainly not glamorous. The contrast that exists, between my friend as she is and my friend as she was then, was irrelevant to our conversation.

My friend told me about her growing pains because she could see mine. In response to those first shocks of rejection, I’d adopted diets that led to acne. My haircut was awful. Because I was dissatisfied with myself, I lost too much weight. At one point, I stopped eating from anxiety. As she did my hair and make-up before a date she unfolded her eleven-year old images to me, confiding the slow creation of her image from raw, awkward, child material. I felt so comforted.

A few moments ago, I pulled the pins out of my hair and untangled the braids. I let it fall around my face, and I asked myself yet again if I was beautiful. I think this is a ritual question. Shockingly I had an answer a few weeks ago, after sex. He said, “you know, you are just so beautiful.” And I believed him. He was the first partner who shared my ethnic background. So how could I disagree with someone in whom I saw some shade of that same beauty?

I was attracted by our differences. His indigenousness, his proximity to my heritage compared with my isolation in the mixing pot. And he was older, understood more. And he’d seen the whole world and knew I was naive, despite my own travel. And he left.

I am not prone to much reaction. I don’t cry in public, I don’t chase people. I know that catching someone in a scene does not allow you to keep them. When he left, I kissed him goodbye, and grimaced when he said, “If only this were another place and time. I wonder what would happen with us.” As if he were interested.

Now when I stare in the mirror, I imagine I have control over the shape of my eyes or the pout of lips. And that in them – in the posing and posturing and applying of creams – some alchemy exists. That belief creeps in to override what he’d said about the vacation he’d planned, about his unwillingness to settle down “for, like, the next ten or twenty years.” It threatens the revelation I had that I am, in some sense, beautiful.

And it is not so painful to believe that my beauty, like the beauty in so many ordinary things, might be realized and let go, or simply go unappreciated. It is painful to think that my significance was dismissed or pre-empted, but because I only have control over my interface, I end up here, in front of a mirror. Critiquing my upper arms, for Chrissakes.

More damningly, I find myself closing the door. On opportunities, on events, and on would-be friends and the experiences we might have had. I insure myself against the possibility of rejection through an ascetic denial of the role I might play in other lives.

Sitting with myself, I find it easy to belief that another insider, someone with my knowledge of myself, would walk (or run) away. The way I ruminate. My maddening studiousness and my guilt over a thousand nothings. And the reality, the moments of rejection themselves are not so bad. It’s a mild pain. But like a bee sting, you can’t blow it off. It eats in, like the nihilism that comes afterwards for me.

I wish I could blow or burn it off. Maybe through a cigarette. Maybe I could delay whatever pain is there through the true indifference that more pleasure might bring. But I worry that these minor aches are part of some grander narrative that colludes to make acceptance sweeter. That fantasy is my post-sex cigarette.