Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A Few Questions from a Single Lady

An old one, but one of my favorites nonetheless.  Obviously, I am no longer living with him, and I have completed my coursework for my MA.  However, many of my sentiments remain the same.  I hope you enjoy the humor of this...

A Few Questions from a Single Lady

            Right about now, my roommates from college, high school sweetheart, and chums from elementary school playground are either changing diapers, coordinating with caterers and wedding DJ’s, or shopping for their new friends’ baby and/or bridal showers.  I, on the other hand, spent the morning at the gym, paid some bills, and helped my grandparents with a gardening project.  And now, I sit before my laptop writing one of my final papers for my master’s degree in English.  As I look over my screen, I see my boyfriend sitting on the couch watching the unfolding events of the NFL season in which free agents are now up for grabs and on the market to be wooed with mansions and multi-million dollar signing bonuses.  I often wonder what it would be like to be a prized athlete who was so good at what I did that dozens of teams and fans across the country wished and prayed that I would come and reside in their hometown.  I wonder how it would feel to sign a contract, a simple piece of paper promising to support and inspire the team and surrounding community towards victory and a championship and be rewarded with gifts and huge amounts of money for keeping that promise.  Would I be able to get along with my teammates for the entirety of my contract?  What would happen if I got injured or suddenly decided I didn’t want to play there anymore?  Would I succumb to the wooing and temptations of joining another team in a more favorable climate or interesting city or would I remain faithful and true to my home team? 
            I often feel that is how young adults are auctioned off today and the same questions exist in my budding feminist brain wondering what it would be like to have a piece of paper, a contract that comes with material benefits of a bridal shower and wedding gifts, tying me to another person for all of time, or at least as long as we can stand to have such an arbitrary symbol uniting us. I have been asked, many times by many different people when Jamie, my boyfriend and I will settle down and get married.  We’ve been together over two years, “Shouldn’t you make it official by now?” they’ll ask us.  We are constantly asked when we are going to give our parents grandchildren and my grandparents question out loud if they will be around long enough (hint hint, wink wink) to see another generation of youngsters running around the blossoming spring garden.  My mother has a collection of knitted hats, socks and blankets waiting for my hoped-for offspring sitting in a chest in one of her guestrooms. 

No pressure. 

One particularly fond memory involves a dinner party at my employer’s home a few summers back.  I stood in the kitchen with my white wine spritzer admiring a large, complicated machine of metal spouts, bells and whistles making up what I could only assume to be some sort of European espresso maker.
            “Do you like it?  Do you and Jamie drink espresso?” my boss’s wife asked me when I asked what it was.  Naturally, I would not have survived many of my college years without such a staple as coffee and espresso and unequivocally answered “yes.”
            “Well, consider it yours as soon as you’re married.  Jon and I will buy you one for your engagement gift!”
            She seemed so sure and enthused about the prospect of awarding, or rather, baiting us into nuptials with the spoils that comes along with it.  Why couldn’t we have the espresso machine simply for being us – single and together who also happen to enjoy caffeinated beverages?
            I dread hearing the news that yet another one of my friends or acquaintances will soon be either tying the knot or cutting the cord.  I roll my eyes as I walk away from the obligatory hug or hand shake because inevitably I will be receiving some frilly pink, manly aquatic-blue or safety net green invitation beckoning me to enjoy crust-less-cucumber sandwiches and canned laughter when prompted with the unwrapping of a not-too-risqué piece of negligee purchased knowing the groom’s mother will be present.  And what purpose exactly does that filmy piece of paper inside the invitation serve?  Is it supposed to soften the blow of the announcement that there is yet another couple that we are about to be forced to shop for?
            I can usually be found before sending in my RSVP, sitting and scrolling through their lists, angrier and more resentful by the minute clicking through the Target or Macy’s website provided by the happy couple.  I silently simmer and balk at the price of gravy boats and throw pillows – two equally useless items that should not cost me the amount I made waiting tables last week.  It frustrates me that stores have created a scanner for couples to use as they register for their upcoming wedding or squealing additional to their home.  I can picture them now, holding hands and skipping gleefully through the store scanning Kitchenaid mixers, 1000-thread count Egyptian sheets, and a 24-piece copper cookware set that will end up costing more than the down payment on my car.  I chose two items equaling the cost of the most expensive item thereby ensuring I do not look like a cheapskate and they will feel loved in their tempurpedic slippers, sipping wine from the stem-less glasses and playing the collection of board games surely added so they appear with this registered gift to promise future use and invitations to play from its purchaser. 

I have yet to be invited to play. 

Athletes have an even larger right to demand their wishes met and their great-great-grandchildren’s college education paid for because they inspire hundreds of thousands of people to join in the age-old tradition of cheering a team on.  They entertain more than just the guests at a wedding for a few hours.  They are showmen and women who are expected to perform at their very best daily.  The glowing couple signs no contracts to us purchasers that they will produce a child who will someday cure cancer – so why should I supply its miniature hats and pacifiers?  A newly wedded man and woman do not promise that they will return the games and linens I purchased should their bliss come to a catastrophic litigating end.  They split the spoils between themselves and not with those that actually provided them. 
            I understand that this tradition is from days and centuries past.  Women no longer come with dowries therefore someone must be left with the bill and who better their loving friends and coworkers?  But I ask you, as a single girl untethered and unimpregnated, where is my gift for successfully surviving on my own as an independent adult in this tough economic time?  My first apartment after moving out (and paid for) on my own was not furnished with things purchased and brought to a party with delicate finger foods and toasts of champagne.  The couches belonged to a friend in college, the dishes and art hanging on the wall were purchased from Goodwill.  Why was I not thrown a party for surviving the dating world and college and navigating the treacherous waters of hooking up my own utilities, arguing with landlords over a broken lock and fixing my own running toilet?  I have emerged unscathed in the world of dating and have found a person that I enjoy living with for the time being.  But because we refuse to resign ourselves into an archaic tradition that was created in a time when he and I would be dying in about ten years consequently lessening the commitment of “‘til death do us part,” we get no party.  There will be no presents or well-wishers for us.  We will be met only with blank faces, and cocked heads trying to spill over any other example they know of couples that didn’t jump on the matrimonial bandwagon after exiting school and entering the workforce.  “Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins?” they’ll think, “But they’re weird, they’re actors, and didn’t they break up?”  They sure did, and don’t you think they are quite pleased with themselves that they avoided the circus of lawyers and pre-nups and Susan going through the dreadful process of changing her name back to its original?  And as for those prized football players – the free agents that are being wooed with millions and mansions, while their physical prowess and commitment to the game is impressive, why do they deserve such outlandish salaries and attention?  I concur with Sven Birkerts in his essay “Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man” and his attempts to validate his position of political passivity and extend his argument to my own “shower-passivity”: “I have to deem what I do – think, read, write – to be a part of the overall struggle.  Not, perhaps, of the immediate political struggle, but the larger one, which works to ensure the survival of spirit, free inquiry, humanness – value – in a world where these qualities are under threat.”  I too believe that those of us who have taken the less “certain” route and chosen the careers of words, sentences, voices and forms that appear on a page are also fighting the good fight.  No, we are not saving lives medically, arbitrating the fair work laws of the underrepresented, nor are we even doing so much as improving the condition of the roads upon which we drive.  However, and at the very least, some of us are responsible for the catchy slogans and jingles for the stores in which the happy couples will skip towards with lists of merchandise with glee.  We hope that we are expanding the minds and horizons of the students we teach and readers we write for.  But where are the writers’ contracts – the fat paychecks for those that craft a sentence methodically and laboriously over the course of weeks and months?  Why are authors and teachers not beckoned to various cities because of their mental dexterity and prowess instead of their ability to pass a football ninety yards and run a four-second forty-yard-dash in the incoming league’s turbine?  There are new stories that can not only be written but lived, stories that end somewhere other than behind a white picket fence.  We are fighting the invisible battle – the one against the presumption that young adults should still be caught in the interminable cycle of dating then marriage then babies then whatever version of Desperate Housewives is most appropriate.  But I digress…
            It is unfair that because I choose to maintain a flat stomach (mostly) and not use it as an incubator and producer of small sticky things needing constant care and attention (not to mention finances), I do not get gifts or any type of reward.  I get no tax break or financial recompense for continuing to work and because I claim only myself, I pay the most taxes than most other demographics out there.  I will not need three months to two years off of work to nurture and create a connection between mother and child, or scarier yet, leave the work force completely to ensure the small part of the next generation that I have created doesn’t end up being the next Unabomber. 

I do not ask for much. 

In fact, I guarantee that the pair of shoes or new laptop or even monthly stipend at Starbucks that would satisfy this single, “barren” woman would amount to much less than the circus-themed changing tables, silver Tiffany’s engraved rattler’s (that you know the child will never use but be kept somewhere on a shelf as only another thing to dust), or warehouses of diapers that are bought and given to expectant mothers every day. 
            Harsh though I may sound, I do not criticize or rail against those that look forward to and embrace this phase in life involving change and weddings and lace-trimmed basinets.  Athletes have become a sort of class of celebrity that is celebrated for their abilities and victories and will probably forever out-earn the best of all possible educators and authors.  I understand that the tendency to want to unite oneself with another person (or team) is a strong and common one and the need to procreate is not only psychological but a biological urge as well.  I feel many pangs of guilt knowing that there is the possibility that my mother’s chest of miniature knitted clothing may go untouched.  However, the next time you sit in an obligatory circle ooo’ing and ahh’ing the “adorable” bibs and footies, or click on the overpriced dish towels and silver cutlery from the website of their registry of choice, ask yourself: “What makes them so deserving of this shower?”  They are no athlete who has spent every waking minute training their bodies and minds to perform on a team searching for victory.  They did not sacrifice themselves to the physical and mental punishment to become the best possible player they can be.  They simply fell in love.  They decided to create a bundle of joy to occupy their time and fill their home with giggles and abstract finger paintings hung on the refrigerator.  But that takes no great skill.  Couples have been getting married and children have been kept alive and happy with parents for centuries without the assurance that someone else will supply the spit-rags and espresso machines.  So why must we feel obligated to do the buying and supplying for them?

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

A Charmed LIfe

A new friend and I were talking recently about my writing, the types of things that I like to write about and I told him that I write essays, personal essays, memoir-like snapshots and flash fiction.  He asked me if I was happy with my childhood, if I liked how I grew up, if I would have changed anything.  At the time when he asked and now as I look back and think about it, I thought how very deep and personal of a question that is.  Would I go back and change anything if I could?  Would I have preferred growing up in another time/life/demographic/race/location/etc?

As an adult, as a writer, and in answer to his question that night in the heat sitting on the ground before an outdoor concert, my answer was and always will be an irrevocable “no.”  I would not go back.  I would not change anything. I would not trade my life and childhood for any other.  I wouldn’t want to have missed growing up with my fair haired and blue eyed sister who knows the “deepest secret that nobody knows.”  I wouldn’t want to have missed lying in bed, my eyes adjusting to the dark as my mother leaned over me, singing softly “Johnny Appleseed” and “Colors of the Rainbow.”  I can still hear her voice, smell her sweet breath, and feel her eye lashes on my cheek.  I wouldn’t change the resourcefulness of my lower-income family who improvised a breaking down on the side of the road by pulling out a guitar and singing and dancing until my father returned from the three mile walk to the nearest mechanic. 

I’m sure most would disagree from the outside looking in.  But we lived a charmed life.  We lived an interesting life.  My sister and I lived a life full of love and warmth and hope and encouragement.  It was far from perfect, but it was good.  We were lucky.

I just read a passage from a book, a book all about how to “free the writer within.”  Yes, it sounds hokey.  But it is an incredible book and possibly the best gift a friend has ever given me.  Natalie Goldberg, the author of Writing Down the Bones, states that “It is very important to go home if you want your work to be whole. You don’t have to move in with your parents again and collect a weekly allowance, but you must claim where you come from and look deep into it.  Come to honor and embrace it, or at least, accept it.”  My thesis, a sixty-two page long project required to earn my masters, dealt completely and exclusively with the idea of “home” and how it had formed me as a writer.  And while there is a great deal of honor and respect paid to the experiences I had as a child and young adult, there is a great deal of blame.  Like many, I blame a great deal of what and who I am today on what happened to me before.  I harbor deep resentment towards many occurrences and people that I encountered and still know today.  It isn’t an open resentment, or a very vocal hatred, but rather a quiet undertow that pulls me down into negativity and depression.  I use it as a crutch whenever something doesn’t go my way or I find myself unable to accomplish something.  I choose to not take responsibility because it is so much easier to shift it to something that happened to me from the age of eight to eighteen.  It takes a lot less energy to work and improve the way I do things than to simply point the finger, and throw my hands up saying “Well, I’m this way because of ­­­­­­­______.”  But I promise, I’m working on it…

However, and in spite of my tendency to blame-shift, I am grateful every day for the way I was raised and the kind of home I come from.  Because as lonely as I get sometimes, as unhappy as I am almost daily with the size of my hips and thighs, with the unruly nature of my hair, as hard as it is to live with my unwavering and back-breaking obsession with working and earning and slaving my life away towards the end result of having “enough,” or trying (what feels like daily) to explain and defend my completely abnormal views of marriage and children and conventional family structure, I like who I am.  I feel as if most days I am kind.  I believe that I make decisions based on reason and ethics.  I am polite and respectful.  I am generous.  I am a good person.  And I am convinced that I wouldn’t like myself nearly as much or have as much optimism about my future and the future of this world had it not been for the place and people with which I was raised.

And I think that has been the hardest part about moving to a new city, all alone, without anyone that knows my character or past or accomplishments – I have to prove to everyone I meet that I am someone worth getting to know.  And in this city, this growing and boisterous and lively city full of characters from every walk of life, it's a fight to get noticed.  It’s a struggle to break into established circles.  It feels like the hardest thing in the world to walk into an on-going conversation in which you weren’t invited or included after you have arrived.  It is a daily battle to make this place “home.”  It is a constant fight against that small but mighty voice in my head telling me that it would all be so much easier to give up, move back, and that it’s alright to fail. 

But this choice, this one choice, was all my own.  I can’t blame this move on my parents.  I can’t point my finger at a boyfriend or a friend or my sister or God or a job when I wonder what it is I am doing here, so far from home.  This decision was all mine.  So whatever happens, if I fail or I succeed, I will have no one to blame or congratulate but myself.  I will earn whatever experiences I have here in this place.  And the only thing that I can hope for is to live the next twenty six years like the last, without regret for the ways they were spent, without looking back and wishing I had done differently.  When I turn fifty-two, I intend to give the same answer when asked if I would go back if I could. 

No, I wouldn’t have changed a thing.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Sad Melody

The music slowed down.  The wine was kicking in.  She was swinging her wide hips, the red skirt she bought that morning for her blind date grazing her calves.  Her feet had stopped hurting in her heels about an hour before, numb from standing on them in front of the cafe - waiting.  But he never came.  She texted her friends and joined them at the bar where she knew they would be.  She ordered a bottle of red and drank most of it.

That's when she went on the dance floor.  There were a few couples there, but she went alone.  She said she just wanted to move, she wanted to dance, she didn't want to sit anymore.  She raised her hands in the air, moved her head from side to side to the rhythm of the music.  She started turning, slowly to not lose her balance but fast enough that her buzz met her mood, dizzy and sad.  She still clutched her wine glass, one foot then the other, moving to the beat, moving to the rhythm, moving her body.  She loved the song.  She wanted it to last forever.

And it seemed to.  The song seemed to keep going and never stop.  So she kept dancing.  She didn't notice that she was the only one left there. The only one still dancing.  The only one still swaying to the music in the dark bar, clutching her empty glass of red.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

I Wish You So Many Good Things

We all have our own particular set of stories of endings.  How they end, why they ended and whose fault it was.  I’m sure I’m the culprit in most of mine.

I used to have this thing I’d say, whenever I felt like being dramatic, or leave a big impression.  It worked the best in England because while I was dating more men at one time than I ever had in my life, I had my return ticket, my method of escape, sitting safely in the room of my rented flat.  And it's working so well right now because we're in different states, and all I have to do is unfriend you on Facebook and stop returning your texts and calls.  And I have to.  This time, I have to disappear.

I would tell boys, men, and one girl that they shouldn’t get too attached, try not to count on me and to please, please not get too upset.  I usually said this thing whenever things got too complicated or serious or hurtful or hard.  I didn’t want to be around for the sticky parts of relationships, I’d seen what had happened in my parents and my friends’ parents to know that I didn’t want any part of what happens after the glow of the happy days are over and night returns.  I would tell them not to worry; I would tell them that one day, before it became painful, before it just became too much -  

I would disappear.  

They wouldn’t be able to find me or contact me.  I would hold them close, pull back just a little and whisper in their ear: “I wish you so many good things” and I would turn and walk away.  

I was only ever able to pull it off three times, two boys in England and the girl.  And now, you.

I was fond of the thought that I would be just another happy memory, someone they could look back on and remember kindly, without ever having fought or disappointed or enraged or betrayed.  I was that funny little girl that they spent a few days, weeks or months with.  I wanted to be transient.  I wanted to be free to roam and move about without the strings and attachments of others’ needs and wants. 

And then I cared, I cared about your needs and your wants.  I wanted you to care about mine, and I really do think you did for a while.  But you didn't read what I wrote.  You didn't want to talk about the future.  You didn't care about what I cared about.  And then the funniest part was you were the one that disappeared.  You drove away in that red truck with your furniture attached in a U-Haul behind it.  

I have this picture, that I took on my phone, of you leaving our apartment, the apartment that would become only mine after you left, the apartment that felt so big and so empty and so cold and so lonely without your things or the TV to provide white noise or your bed to provide warmth.  I remember taking it because I knew that I would never see you walking toward me from that door again.  I wanted to capture that moment.  And I've looked at it from time to time, but only the picture that I saw on Facebook tonight, the picture of you with your hand around another girl's waist, is the one that told me I now had to disappear.  I had to stop existing in your feed.  I needed to stop texting you late at night when I got drunk and lonely.  I needed to stop thinking about you whenever I watched a show that we used to watch together.  

But how do you disappear from your own life?  How do I remove the person I was with you now that we are apart?

I'll let you know when I find out.  Until then, I'll try not to disappear anymore.  The only thing that I can do is appear, and show up for my own life.  Because we only get one, we get this one shot at being happy.  And I can't keep wasting time being unhappy over something that ended nearly a year ago.  

So, I will say it again.  I wish you so many good things.  I wish you happiness.  I wish you success.  I wish you health and the luck to find someone that will make you happy.  

I know now that person is not me.    

Thursday, July 4, 2013

the shirt.

My father had a shirt, a shirt that he would wear every fourth of July.  It was made of a thick heavy material, scratchy almost, but made to last.  One of the brethren in our Southern Baptist church had the same shirt, and like my father, he would wear it every fourth, or at least whatever Sunday fell closest to it.  And we would call them twins on that day, each with the exact same shirt, singing in their deep baritones the familiar "I'll Fly Away" and "On the Old Rugged Cross" hymns.

My sister and I would sit on the hard, wooden pews bickering and poking at each other through what felt like the ten hours of sermons and singing on those hot July Sundays.  It was never the pastor or the many mentions of hell fire and brimstone that scared my sister and I into good behavior, but the looks shot from my mother and father sitting in the choir above and in front of us, filling me with such an immense amount of guilt and shame.

I remember looking up at the ceiling of that church, imagining it to be the ark, or the belly of Jonah's whale, massive, gleaming beams of wood, like tightly woven ribs, a seamless structure keeping the water out.  The deep and rich cherry colors seemed hundreds of feet above my six-year-old head.  I felt safe there, bored sometimes, yes, but every time I looked up, I felt secure in that place.  I felt sure that there would be mashed potatoes, chicken, okra and pecan pie after church that holiday.  I knew that we would all sit around a fire later, my older cousins playing with bottle rockets and my grandfather and father's faces every so often lit up, glowing orange with each drag on their cigarette.  I counted on these things, that predictability, that warm tight blanket of family and tradition and church and starched shirts.

The shirt may still exist, somewhere in the back of my mother's closet.  I'm sure it has thinned, faded and might have even been thrown away.  However, there are some things, no matter how much time has passed, how far we may move away, that we cannot forget.  Feelings of home and security and tradition and love that will stay with us forever.  It might feel thin, weathered and tucked deep in the dark of our past, but it hangs heavy with the memories of home that it carries.