Gravity

Songs arrive as meditations.

And as a result of unflattering dressing room glare.

Inner thighs.
Belly.
The approach of 60, more than 5 years away, but still.

This song.
All month long.
Playing in my mind.
Romancing.
Even.
This.

Turn. It. UP.

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topless

the author, fifty years ago

After walking the dirt half-mile from the highway, he arrives in the house, drops his backpack and removes his shirt, saying that the temperature was higher today than it was supposed to be. (In the chill of the early June morning, he chose to wear a long sleeve shirt to school.)

“Lately, I resent men going topless,” I say.

“Do you want me to put it back on,” he asks.

I don’t.

I remember my mother’s scoldings as a girl: “Put a shirt on!”

And later, about the age my son is now: “Put a bra on!”

The accumulation of shame.

As the temperatures rise in these Green Mountains, I feel anger rise in me when I see men walking the road–aged men and young men like my son–each one topless–as if all the space in the world is theirs, without a care for who might rape them.

the author, 30 years ago

On Turning 55

Michael McGurk

If 50 was raising the timber frame; 55 was me climbing the timbers & tacking an evergreen branch to its peak. (That happened. There was no photo.)

“50 is the old age of youth,” it is said, “And the youth of old age.”

And it’s true. The fifties are all that.

Or is it just me?

I lost Lila at 55. She had more than a dozen grandbabies by then. But with time’s passing, it seems impossibly young to have been taken.

My older sister died last summer at 55 too and just a few years before her—my aunt.

My mother had 2 years on the 2 of them, alive until 57.

Which is to say—While the sun is shining, I’m making hay.

Love, Part III. Cancer of the Heart

Because I left so little space within my travel days, my heart came to me, after midnight, in a hotel room, just off the highway, through my dreams.

A beautiful half-moon curve–freshly carved, into my left breast—tender, swollen, reddened—but more than likely healing.

So many times I’ve been told that I didn’t love “right.”

(Haven’t we all!)

And yet, my heart hollers back:

ALL evidence to the contrary…!

Haven’t you loved the same man for 32 years.

Haven’t you raised 2 amazing sons with whom you share the same abiding love, mutual respect & fierce boundaries.

And what of the friendships that still flower to this day, those begun 40 (forty!) years ago, and what about those emerging & unfolding even now.

And what of the generations of students & companions—in the classroom, on the mat, on the page.

And what of your youth—POURED into the parenting gap left by trauma, narcissism & addiction–into the lives half-dozen+ younger siblings until, one by one, they too came of age.

YOU, Kelly KNOW how to LOVE!

“That’s right!” I respond, “I do!”

And love is not only proximity, my heart replies.

Sometimes love is leaving space.
Sometimes love is letting go.
Sometimes love is feeling YES and stamping NO.

‘Yes, I love you,’ and ‘No, you may not traipse across the terrain of my tender heart just because you are lost.’

Yes, ‘Your happiness is my happiness,’ and Yes, ‘Your heartache is my heartache,’ but ‘No, my heart cannot serve as the safe house for the projection of your unmet needs, your scarcities, fears, and grief.

Which is to say that I find myself in unfamiliar territory, no doubt in large part due to the passage from Mother to Menopause which arrives on the precipice of an Empty Nest, and returns my heart to its original and departing purpose— loving—me.

“But aren’t you afraid of going to hell?” I was once asked.

“How can I be afraid of something in which I do not believe?” I replied.

Which is to say that there is a mythology of love and abandonment to which I no longer wish to subscribe.

Love is never absent.

Love ABIDES.

an infatuation or a love affair?

I’m in love. Or at least completely infatuated.

You know those movie scripts, the ones where there’s this colleague or neighbor, and the main character dismisses her, forever, and then something happens, say some kind of crisis, and she steps in, and he finally sees her, and then little by little, she begins to color in his days, until he wakes one morning and realizes he’s head over heels with her?

–With that musty girl that he never liked much.

That’s how it is for me, and Rose.

At first, it was just a framed print. I bought it as a present for myself when I graduated from Yoga Teacher training. I wasn’t sure what it was about the photograph –the way she gave herself to opening, I suspect–and although I dismissed her again and again, she kept tugging at me, and so I surrendered.

That was the year I would turn 50, and now, in the past 5 years, little by little–first the livingroom, now my bedroom—repainted; and then into my closet–a scarf, a sweater, a bag; and into the bathroom: new towels, a basket, a shower cap. And then in my toiletries, and in the soap in the soap for the downstairs bathroom, deodorant; and in the essential oils for the woodstove.

Have I forgotten anything?

She’s everywhere.

And yet this morning, I woke wondering how I could get even closer to her, so that when I fell back to sleep, I dreamt of eating her, not just the petals (and not the stem or thorns of course) but the leaves, dried and crumbling on my tongue.

on belonging

One of the hardest parts of being born female is this matter of belonging.

As a girl, I saw that my mother–for good or for bad–belonged to her tribe of sisters; and to all of us children; and most demandingly of all–to my father.

HE, on the other hand, (like all he’s) seemed to belong to himself, to his work in the world.

And so, I set my sights on his horizon, only to discover, ever so slowly, that his choice wasn’t available to me…

At 15, I fell in love, and at 16, I offered up the gift of my body, and then it became my lover’s, increasingly so, demandingly so, guiltingly so, not only sexually, but also with regard to appearance, just as my father had evaluated my mother’s appearance and mine until the very last remark I can recall, just after I became a mother myself, the second time:

“You look good babe, but you need to lose some weight and get some sun.”

We were standing outside the hospital where he worked.
My mother, his ex, lay riddled with cancer inside.
The baby in my arms was 3 weeks old.
I was still bleeding.
I smiled.

I so wanted to “look good” to my father, but I felt pulled to surrender my body to these babies, this fleshy/messy/earthy life of womanhood, and so I did, until one day, my husband asked, when I passed him on the path to the outside shower:

“Would you mind shaving there?”

He explained his awkward request, recalling the sight of a much older cousin at the beach with hair poking out of her bikini bottom and down her legs when he had been a teen.

At thirty-five, he still recoiled at the memory.

I said: No.

If not for the pimples and the pain and how quickly the hair grew back and rubbed between my legs, I might have accommodated his discomfort.

It’s a risk this saying, No, isn’t it? At home. In the office. On a date. Among sisters.And specifically in a romantic relationship.

It’s always risk this being less beautiful than you are able, less attractive than those around you, less willing, less accommodating…

The threat of rejection is woven into our landscape, unspoken.

“Never let yourself go,” my father told me as a young woman. “When your husband arrives home from work, you want to look good.”

“…And don’t be too smart, or too demanding, or too (fill-in-the-blank)…”

And so, I was afraid.
I am still afraid
Only the voice of belonging to self grows louder and louder, overiding the other voices, the ones who still shout:

You are mine.

“Aren’t you afraid he’ll have an affair?” a friend asks when I admit how many weeks we’ve gone without sex.

Like winter into spring, the hormonal changes rock back and forth, so that sometimes it’s less painful and more pleasurable, and I could be sure to “keep” my husband, until the crescendo of Menopause, when the pain became unbearable like it had that first time–at 16–my head arched back, biting my lip, so that I might be desirable first and foremost.

It’s been more than 2 months now, and not without desire, but desire doused with fear. Not fear of pain. I was a home birther. Fear of despair, of no longer being… what?… I’m not sure…

I could take hormones, fool my body into thinking I was younger, like those who dye away the gray, but just like labor and menstrual cramps, I want to be present to what it is to be me in each moment, even aging, and isn’t this physical separation from the man I love and long for offering me something too?

I was never much for foreplay. I preferred it hard and fast, but as I’ve aged, I’ve opened myself up to more and more surrender, less forcing, more delight and awakening and slower unfoldings—in every part of my life.

He is exceedingly patient and kind and without demands, like those I once tolerated from him, back when I was nursing babies all night long, afraid of being left alone, afraid of being one of those wives.

In this new space between us, I am afraid that we will dissolve, and yet I am also finding something precious, recovering something precious, claiming something precious.

Belonging.

To myself.

When I listen and tend, my body is such a friend.

He draws me a bath afterward to soak my tender tissues.

I soften in the water, less anxious about the changes wreaking havoc in me; and when the water drains, I look down to see my pubic hair, full and bushy with the humidity, a dark crescent moon, smiling over creamy fleshy rising toward my belly.

“Remember when you asked me to shave?”

He shakes his heads, disappointed in the man he once was.

“I think it looks so pretty now,” I say, mostly to myself, remembering how I once took scissors to the hair between my legs because it wasn’t supposed to be there. Even men do it now I hear. (I should feel vindicated; Instead, I’m sad.)

After a week of vacation, I am softening into his arms again, but I am also pulling back, uncertain if I was ready to share my body.

When his fingers graze the side of my breast with the permission renewed after love-making, I see myself flip him over and press both my hands around his throat.

I am shocked by this violent vision, and curious too, and even amused–I am half his size.

I’m not sure if it’s Menopause or #45 or #metoo or Climate Change that has unearthed so much anger inside, not only for all the ways my body was claimed by others but for all the ways the body feminine–including Earth Mother–is raped, pillaged, sold, purchased, scorned.

It will be some time before he can touch me so freely again, maybe after these wild bodily transformations have subsided, or maybe never again, unless I have explicitly invited him in, an access pass which must be renewed, and is always, in all ways, worth the wait because a woman sovereign is desirable beyond praise.

Step back Motherfuckers

(I Told, Part II)

Arriving in Paris was like arriving in a dream, like jumping into one of Bert’s paintings on the sidewalk outside the park, only Mary Poppins wasn’t holding my hand.

It occurs to me that I was living in London at the time, 1984, just after the IRA bombed Harrods at Christmas and just before the explosion at Heathrow Airport ahead of my flight back home to “The States.”

I knew I would love Paris, had imagined it forever, and even though I was arriving in February instead of May, with a few classmates instead of a lover, on a quick weekend instead of a vacation, I was determined to fall in love, even while the Yanks and the Brits were unanimous in insisting the French were rude.

My grandmother studied French at Douglass, dreamed of working at the United Nations, helped me with my homework translations of the Le Petite Prince, and spoke of the trips we would take abroad together, which due to her untimely death were never realized.

As a 20 year college student, my trip to Paris looked something like this—a steep walk with my backpack down the hill from the residence in Hampstead, a Tube ride with a transfer to Charing Cross Road, the train out of London to the White Cliffs of Dover, another steep walk down and a hill to the dock, an all-nighter on the ferry across the northern seas of the English Channel (the Chunnel had yet to exist), and finally another train from the North of France in Calais to Boulogne and from Boulogne to… PARIS!

I arrived in the early morning. It was cold, I hadn’t showered and I was traveling with women I barely knew (while I preferred the company of men for their simplicity), but I was in Paris, with francs in my pocket, having done the exchange of pounds before departing so eager was I to be at ease in this city which had long held so much promise for me.

Upon arrival, we crossed the street from Gare de Nord and my companions entered a bank, while I said that I’d take a little walk instead.

“Are you sure?” they asked.

“I’ll just walk around the block,” I assured them.

It was a dull, gray walk, without any romance at all, except in my mind, until an old man came out from a doorway and said, in a gruff voice, “Bonjour.”

“BONJOUR!” I replied.

So eager was I to practice my French with a real Parisian that I slowed my pace to his as he stepped in beside me, turning one corner, and then another together, when I wanted his company or not.

“Je parle seulement un petit peu de francais,” I explained, as he grew irritable about something I wasn’t quite understanding, something about money; and eager to part, I must have misunderstood or misspoken because before I turned away from him to join my companions, he reached out and grabbed my breast, which was covered by a puffy gray ski jacket that I’ve only just realized–I hate.

I’ve shared this Paris story throughout my life as comical testimony to amateur language skills and to my fervent devotion to this city. Baguettes. Cafe Au Lait. Eclairs. The Rodin. The Jeu de Paume. Le Seine. Vin Chaud. Shakespeare & Company.

“Zut Alors!” I screamed at the old man, retrieving the only expletive I knew in his language.

Now, I might say, “FUCK YOU!” but as a woman of 20, one is more accommodating than at 54, more of who we are “supposed to be” instead of who we are.

It must have been my right breast.

A month shy of 34 years later, I wake in the dark holding it.

I’ve had a dream, a nightmare really.

I am riding in the passenger seat as my husband drives us up Main Street. As we pass the vintage shop, I see a lawyer friend walking three large dogs (one of which isn’t hers.)  I smile when I notice that it is the dogs that are walking her.

I lower the window to holler hello, and when I do, one of the dogs lurches at me from the sidewalk—chomping my right breast.

(Even typing this makes me hold it again. Even editing makes me hold it. And now I recall the hours that the body worker spent circling that breast, asking me what was there, and all I could muster was outrage at her touch which remained silent inside like this memory had until now. )

Upon waking in the dark, the inexplicable sadness with which I went to sleep made sense.

“Sense,” is really important to me. I relied upon it as a child. Alcoholism. Affairs. Divorce. It’s how I digested the world around me. Viet Nam. Nuclear drills. Starving children. Sense is how I avoided being swallowed up by fear or grief or hopelessness.

When did I learn to let thoughts override feelings? My mind flashes over the years in Colorado, the way our father challenged us to stand in the deep snow in our nightgowns, barelegged.

I never lasted.

I so wanted to please him. To warrant his attention and praise.

Becoming less emotional was the route I chose. It turns out that this lent itself well to success Managing at restaurant at 18. Magna Cum Laude at 21. Classrooms. Non-profits. A family.

All along my body persisted, aching like it had in the snow.

Headaches began in my teens, rashes in my twenties, two miscarriages before 30.

I was 36 (and the mother of two) when my own mother died, and I suppose this is when I truly surrendered to the journey back to the feminine.

Baby steps.

Yoga. Bodywork. Women’s circles. Therapy. Singing. Dancing. Art.

Yesterday, two women flew up from my Mid-Atlantic roots to meet me, to interview me, to question me, to write notes on a yellow legal pad in pink ink. There will be no recordings, they said. We all agreed.

The night before I had put myself in a chat queue on the National Sexual Assault Hotline only to close the browser just as my turn came. (1-800-656-4673.)

Next I opened the page to our local crisis center and discovered that I could send an email. (advocates@womensfreedomcenter.net)

It’s easier for me to be vulnerable with my fingers than it is with my voice. It’s what led me to journaling at 18, and to publishing after my mother died.

The Women’s Freedom Center in Brattleboro emailed me back and suggested I put a call into an advocate the next day which I eventually worked myself up to do, just ahead of the interview. (802-254-6954.)

“I’m not in crisis,” I told the kind woman on the other end of the line. “It happened 3 years ago. Mild as far as the range of assault goes. I don’t have a career at stake. But I’m having these really intense feelings, and I can’t shake them.”

Facebook messaging was how I coaxed myself into first reporting the incident to the large organization 300 miles away. Fired up by the #meTOO movement and convicted in my response-ability (as a white, educated, middle-class woman with a platform), I spoke up on behalf of other women.

I wanted to dismiss what happened to me because I was embarrassed by it, ashamed that I had agreed to hug a man who then slid his hands across my ass. Appalled that at 50, I was still vulnerable to accommodating.

“Can you tell us exactly what happened that day?” the Human Resources Officer asked thirty-minutes into the interview. “We don’t want to trigger you, but we’d like to hear it in person.”

“I don’t mind talking about it,” I said. “It’s the reporting part that’s left me feeling oddly vulnerable.”

They nodded. I proceeded.

Was I standing?

Why do I remember standing?

I had spent an inordinate amount of time that morning dressing for this meeting, falling into the cliche, ie. I wanted to look professional, not like someone who wanted her ass rubbed by a stranger, but I also wanted to have an ass that said that someone might want to rub it. (In the end, I just dressed how I wanted to be dressed for the events after the meeting.)

We were all sitting at a long table in a hotel conference room. Of course, I wasn’t standing.

Was I performing?
Why do I feel like I was performing on a stage?

How is it that is it already feels like a dream? It was only 24 hours ago.

As I relayed the incident, time slowed, and I was surprised to find my eyes filling with tears.

“This isn’t a big deal,” I told myself.

My self wouldn’t listen.

When did my emotions get the upper hand on my mind?

Menopause and #45 have definitely played a part in changing me.

I hadn’t thought much about the ass-assaulting incident until his campaign… the video… the debate stalking… Jessica Leeds and more than a dozen other women’s stories of assault.

I should have been pleased that this organization responded so swiftly to my report rather than dismiss it. In fact, they dispatched two administrators on a plane in my direction the very next week.

I wanted to say, NO Thank you, it was enough to do the telling once, but I told myself that this wasn’t fair to other women.

My body had something else to say about my courage: headaches, dizziness, swollen eyes.

I’d met with my therapist the previous week. She immediately noticed my eyes. She sent me a note after our appointment:

“These processes of going public with violating men ask you to be so reasonable and reasoned. Where do the anger and vigorous pushback go? Is it expressed in a safe place for you? Is it getting stuck in the windows of your soul, around your eyes? Such dilemmas–wanting to be of service to move consciousness along but… where does our vigor go? …STOP to the violators or stopped up in us?”

Just before the interview, I began to lose my voice; while after the hour-long session was complete, I felt completely relieved; but then noticed that I was wheezing.

I’m still wheezing today, unable to take a deep breath.

I attended two events after the interview, relieved at the distraction, except in those moments when I stepped into the silence of a restroom, and I felt a great sadness sweep over me.

On the drive home, up Main Street, past the vintage store, I asked my husband, “Why am I feeling so sad?”

This is what woke me at 3:30 this morning, to a dog biting my breast; and this is what brought me to the kitchen table to write about the City of Lights on this dirt road in the woods of the Green Mountains of Vermont on this rainy winter day.

I never knew that I felt sad about the old Frenchman who grabbed my breast when I was 20. I didn’t know that I felt sad about the man who dragged his hands across my 50-year-old yoga butt.

It would be easy to continue grieving today with all this water, threatening floods, but I feel completely sober.

What I can see clearly now, is that even though I didn’t let these assaults define or disempower me, they lived on inside.

They said: Whether you are 20 or 50, you are ours to grab.

They said: You do not possess the dignity of bodily sovereignty.

They said: Your humanity is less than ours.

Until I felt the depth of that injustice–inside my body–I couldn’t claim what needed claiming:

STEP BACK MOTHERFUCKERS!

~

(Click here for I Told, Part I.)