The struggle of being perceived

In a few short weeks I will bind myself in holy matrimony, and I cannot stop thinking about my body.

In basically every photo I’ve ever seen of myself, my first thought has been: “wow, I’m large.” Even when I was much smaller than I am now. Here are some examples:

  • That time I went on an amazing hike with a good friend and we rested our weary bare feet in the cold alpine waters of a lake in the Cascades. I turned back to smile at the camera. The skin and fat on my back stuck out around my tank top.
  • That time I dressed up as a ghost, or witch, or something, for Halloween in eighth grade. I smiled with every braces-locked tooth. Later I could see the curve of my stomach under my black shirt.
  • When I reunited with two good friends after a long absence. One was expecting her first baby. We posed to smile by the waterfront after a delicious meal, and before a wild afternoon involving a long drive and a trip to urgent care that would make us laugh soon after. My hips looked wide in my flowing shirt.
  • This weekend I posed with my fiancé on top of a mountain. He put his arm around me. We looked out over the land flowing away from us, red and yellow and green and blue. I looked unrecognizably thick; it ruined the next hour when I looked at it.

Ad nauseam. All these times I’d been in joyful times with people I loved, and what stuck out to me was the horrendous shape of my body.

(With the short exception of that time when I was the smallest I ever was. It was not to last, and I was miserable, but I was relatively small, and I didn’t hate those photos. It was a brief temporal window of almost-approval built on an unsustainable frustration. I still wasn’t thin enough—I was still ten pounds from perfect when my body started aggressively fighting back and I dove headfirst into butter—but I was close enough that I felt pride in those photos, even if I was actually depressed and furious. That’s diet culture, baby.)

So now when I should be—when I am—preparing to engage in a literal sacrament about how much I love this other person, I’m distracted, and I’m ashamed to say I’m distracted, by fears of what I will think when I see photos of myself in that white dress. I tried it on and I didn’t look anything like the model. She was long and willowy. I was something more like dumpy, frumpy, one of the -umpies. I lay awake for several hours one night worrying about this.

And here’s the thing: I don’t agree with these feelings. I feel passionately bored by the culture’s demands that all of our bodies look the same. I know better than to think our bodies all can look the same. I admire all varieties of human shape and form. I see women who look like me and I think, wow, what a babe. I am at my healthiest, in terms of what I eat and how I move and how balanced and sane I am, having abandoned my years-long quest to shrink myself.

And yet.

Despite all this, I do have these feelings. I see these pictures, and a cold hand of shame seizes my windpipe, and I know this has not happened to me for the last time. I cannot think my way out of this shame. Not yet, at least.

But I know something now. I know that when I wait one month, or six, and I look back at a photo that I hated to begin with, suddenly I can see it with eyes of love. Someone else’s eyes. Instead of seeing a roll or a bulge or an incorrect amount of mass, I see, wow, that woman was happy. That woman had a great day.

It’s whiplash.

I know I’m not alone here. In this earthly plane, at least in my corner of it, if you’re a woman you can never get thin enough, even if you get too thin. At that point, you either permanently damage your brain and your organs, or you throw up your hands because life is not worth living this way, and you regain the weight as your body helpfully prepares you for the next self-imposed famine, and then you wish you were that thin again. We spend decades this way. We waste whole lives this way. We miss many moments this way.

There has to be another way, and there is. Part of it is learning to stop focusing on whether you look fat in photos and to actually experience your life.

I’m not there yet. But I’m trying.

Micro-stories

Quite apart from this neglected space, I’m writing a very long story. It’s taking me a long time. Let me tell you some short stories here tonight.

  1. There is a strange briny smell in the woods this morning, as though it’s not just the forest and the cicadas and the river but the ocean that stands behind the veil. 
  2. One view of a bike-squashed frog with his guts upchucked across the trail, flies swarming, well, that can ruin my whole afternoon. One view of a fat woodchuck hop hop hopping through the forest floor, well, that can delight my entire day. And time passes. Bright white beach light streaks across your ceiling. Then by the time we are done talking it’s shrunken to a point of light. The dark I’m in is racing for you. 
  3. You have nothing to be ashamed of, I tell myself, quivering and raw with your presence. You’ve done nothing wrong. No one can prove anything. Because there’s nothing to prove. A sense of longing that chokes me up and then I clear it and it passes. Being sure of a person is one thing. 
  4. Who wrote this? You asked after I opened my veins into your inbox. I did, I said, feeling a painless pleasure for the first time in days, because you would not have complimented me if you knew it was me you complimented, and this is how I knew you meant it. 
  5. I went out one night with a friend who fancied himself very cool. That’s what we saw eye to eye on the best. I didn’t know the first thing about socialism, or about silencing my new cell phone, which made that fluorescent meeting room in the basement of Wheeler Hall very awkward for everyone involved. Afterward we walked north and ate burritos.
  6. First sex? The cabbie asked. I was squished right in behind his driver’s seat, which was cranked back as far as it would go. He seemed to know something. “I wish,” you laughed, and I didn’t know whether you meant it or not, but that night I came down to your bed and you held me and then we didn’t talk about it for months. 
  7. We’re in a car that’s ours for the weekend. You took the time to go through the manual and turn its extra alarms off, because you love me. We’re driving through the countryside as fall sets in. Winding roads. Yellow corn, brown grass, blue sky, green trees. Quiet places. We play music for each other. Michigan’s in the rearview now. I feel melancholy and nostalgic even in that moment even with you driving right next to me. I love you in a way that makes me sad that time even passes with you. Time passing with you is my favorite thing to happen. Being alone in a car, it’s just the two of us in our little hunk of metal, going anywhere we please. Accountable to ourselves. I want to pull over and kiss you stupid.

The story of thou

This is the story of thou.

In the beginning of this language it just meant “you.” Just a single “you,” no matter if it was a child or a peasant or a king. Any more than one “you” was “you.” But if you were alone, you were “thou.”

And as is often the case, it was kings who started to ruin things. In their hubris they demanded to be plural: a royal “we,” a royal “you.” People had to pretend there were multiple sets of eyes up there on “your” throne, your majesty.

And from there, it was inevitable. If a king could be “you,” well, why not a duke? Why not a viscount? Why not a knight? Why not a merchant, a grandparent, anyone whose boots were cleaner than yours?

They all became “you” too. And you stayed “thou,” if you were lowly or young or worthy of contempt.

Dost thou see where this is going?

Before too long it was rude to say “thou,” no matter who you were talking to. It implied that you thought you were above the other person. Of course, sometimes people meant it this way. But people tend to be polite, on the whole, so to be safe everyone called everyone “you.” Especially when just about anybody could become rich, or pretend to be.

This went on until most people forgot to ever say “thou” to anybody. The Friends kept doing it, and some people in Yorkshire, and Baptists when they read from the King James Bible, and people in Shakespeare plays, and the rest of us moved on.

We were “youing” all over the place, indiscriminately. At some point we grew annoyed at the ambiguity of “you.” Did I mean one person, or many? How could I tell? Various inventive strategies arose in different places: “y’all.” “Youse.” “Y’ins.” All ways to distinguish the singular you from something else.

(We forget that we already had the technology for this, if only we were willing to return to thou.)

And by that point, people only ever heard “thou” in old-timey ways, on stage and in stuffy movies, in English class, from people in robes. It became a verbal doublet, a verbal ruff. When you wanted to resurrect the sound of something high-and-mighty, holier-than-thou, you would sprinkle in some thous. You’d add some old-timey conjugations to your words, even if it madest no senseth.

This is the story of thou. From singular to informal to rude to stuffy.

A modest proposal: returning to the office

We’re all bedraggled. And it’s time to do something about it. We need to go back to the office.

I hear you, non-office-workers: you’re tired of hearing about the fattened layabouts who haven’t been required to go into work every day for the last sixteen months. You had to truck on as normal, using an old sock as a mask last spring. Listen, I hear you, and thank you for your service, but we need to talk about office workers for a second. (Someone has to!)

Office workers: I get it. You spent twelve to twenty years in school learning how to sit down and stay quiet and network and file reports. You found a niche. You found your meeting voice (friendly, but not too friendly). You mastered your commute and your wardrobe. You had a routine of rotating lunch spots and exercise laps around the fourth floor that strategically avoided so-and-so’s cubicle. You had just framed and hung your diplomas right in that window where they could be seen from the hall. You had plans to get a standing desk. You were thriving.

Then Covid happened, and all of a sudden you were working at that rickety table in the corner of your bedroom wearing dirty sweatpants and seeing far too much of your cohabitants. You no longer have any idea what time or day it is. You don’t get to talk to Sue anymore at the printer. Life has lost most of its fragile, precious meaning.

You hate your house. It’s grim, isn’t it? The smallness. How it lacks a janitorial staff. The canteen, such as it is, is nothing like that absolute gem of a spread they had just added down on the third floor, the one with all the vending machines and with the free donuts on Fridays. How it echoed with hundreds of footsteps. How it smelled (microwaved fish and burnt popcorn, mmm). You just can’t recreate that in your own space.

And you can’t quite get your head on straight when you can just roll out of bed, do your yoga on the floor, and then fire up the email machine ten paces away. It doesn’t quite give you that rush, that charge, as it did to run out the door with coffee splashing all over your hands and then squeeze in among several hundred fragrant and restive strangers on a subway platform. That was the city, you know? Or that car commute—the way you could sit for an hour directly behind a ton or two of internal combustion engine—now that’s a morning. That’s living. This—wearing slippers past noon, staring out the window at your yard—is some pallid substitute, and it should end. Immediately.

That’s why I’m calling for an immediate return to the office. With and/or without masks and social distancing protocols. We don’t know yet; these unimportant details will surely work themselves out seamlessly. After all, in the United States, the pandemic is/is not over.

Let’s keep in mind that this going back to work is really a public health issue of its own. If I had a nickel for every employee I imagine is so bored, who works all night and all weekend until she’s literally mentally and physically a wreck because she just doesn’t know what else to do with herself! Well, I’d have a lot of imaginary nickels. These people don’t have hobbies. These people barely have personalities. They need to have a glass of wine at six o’clock to remind themselves to log off the company email, and they think constantly of work projects when they’re alone with their dull non-work thoughts.

Think how sad: a whole class of human being, so thoroughly capitalistic that they’ve forgotten what “fun” felt like, and they don’t know who they are anymore except what they do, and they do that obnoxious thing where they immediately ask any stranger “So, Dan, what is it you do?” And they know it’s a faux pas, but they don’t even remember what else there might be to talk about, because going to and from work and being at work and thinking about work truly dominates their frontal lobes.

We can’t let these fuzzy people stay home a day longer. We have to bring them back to the office to give them some boundaries. We’ll make them come in at 8 so that we can dismiss them at 5, and then they’ll get home by 6 or 7 and they’ll have less time to realize that they have nothing to live for apart from working.

It’s, and I mean this sincerely, the only solution. We must make them come back to the office. For them.

And the earth trembled

I haven’t written in a week, I think. Maybe more? Not to mention the two months I haven’t written here. (And the earth trembled at the loss!)

I’ve been in a thick haze of doing. My muscles are very tired from moving. My brain is exhausted from deciding where everything goes in this new place we live.

All this doing—it takes it out of one. It commands the energy. If allowed to metastasize, all this masculine doing/achieving/goal-crushing can elbow out any space for being, creating, intuiting, inspiration.

Times full of doing—these are the times that try women’s souls.

I used to approach creativity through doing. 500 words a day! 1000 words a day! Two posts a week! Seven posts a week! Two months to finish the draft! Schedules, agendas, checklists!

And I’m not saying I didn’t write under this particular gun. I wrote. But I also groaned under the strictures. I’m not sure that what I wrote was all that good.

At other times I’ve managed to trust that creativity will come when it wants to, if I just set myself up to receive it. This often provides very exciting results. But it’s sort of like Tinkerbell: it dies if you try to force it. You can’t capture it. (Am I thinking of sand, rather than Tinkerbell? Sand is the thing you can’t grasp too tightly. Tinkerbell is the one who dies if no one claps. I’m mixing metaphors. I’m very tired.)

Someday I’d like to write something helpful for all the people who are out there wondering how to get into the discipline of creativity, because I think they’re approaching it wrong, and no wonder—if you seek help on how to start a creative practice, you’ll be flooded with advice about how Jerry Seinfeld is a slave to the string of successful days on his calendar and how so-and-so locks himself in his attic for six hours every Saturday and cranks out four drafts a year.

Reader, I don’t recommend these approaches. If this sort of thing worked, everyone would be a novelist if they wanted.

These days it’s slow going, creatively. Until today, for weeks I’d written something like a measly 67 words, and those were stolen from bedtime. In any event most of my current draft of Book Three is probably destined for the metaphorical wood chipper (word chipper?). It’s an exercise in futility. And yet here we are, moving tiny bits of magic out of inspiration, and letting that be the only point.

And the swarm descended

I had this thought as I walked on the National Mall today:

There’s something alike in the methods and the madness of the tourists and the periodical cicadas.

Consider it: both emerge at the outset of summer, although the cicadas have the decency to stay away sixteen years out of every seventeen.

It appears that they share a survival strategy: namely, being too numerous to eliminate. Both amble in packs across streets slowly and against the light, ambling awkwardly, veering into traffic, apparently daring cars and bikes and other pedestrians to collide with them. They find safety in numbers. And that’s just the cicadas!

But there’s something optimistic about both of them. Both look to the future. The cicadas awaken to mate furiously and create enough larva to emerge once again next time. They won’t live to see it.

Meanwhile the tourists wander around with their phones out taking selfies with every statue and building and every member of their group so that they will have proof that they were here, long after their footprints on the mall dissipate in the rain under the cicada husks.

The boy in the stroller thought it was scenic.

I get grumpy sometimes on my afternoon walks when the trail is too loud and treeless in this semi-industrial place where I live. I just wish it were scenic.

But then I realize that it is scenic to some people. It’s not scenic to me because I’m an adult woman fixated on trees and quiet. I’m not that little boy in his stroller, who is fixated with his mouth agape at the big machinery moving gravel. His mother points at the forklifts and the diggers, the cranes and haulers. He stares in rapturous awe at the toys he plays with on his bedroom floor come to immense life.

It’s scenic to him.

He’d probably find a tree-lined quiet path dead boring.

Consider the cicada

I, too, long to lie down next to a tree and sleep. I, too, want to wait to emerge until 17 years later, and only then to scream a lot and make love once, then die in the grass.

(There are many ways to live a good life, and that one doesn’t sound too terrible.)

While it’s underground, does the cicada count how many times it freezes and how many times it thaws? Does it draw tick-marks on the wall of its dirt lair until it has enough, and then began digging out in a rush of adrenaline?

Does the cicada get senioritis in year 16, longing to be done with this embarrassing larval stage?

Does it remember what life was like 17 years ago when it buried itself? My neighborhood was very different then, and as a result we have few cicadas. How many millions of them went to sleep in 2004, dreaming of 2021, only to be fatally plowed under in 2015 when they dug the foundation for a new condominium?

Does 2021 look quite different to the cicada than it remembers? Does it look different than it expected? Does the cicada get nostalgic for the way things were when it was a wee larva?

Does it take a look around and wiggle its thorax to feel the sun and the breeze on its exoskeleton, basking in how short the time is?