Lend me some fresh air

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During recent drives, I’ve had a couple of albums on rotation in my car’s CD player, and they’ve gotten me thinking about women and anger.

Specifically, I’ve been revisiting Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill and Fiona Apple’s Tidal, originally released in 1995 and ’96, respectively. I was nine and ten years old at those moments, though it’s my pre-teen years I most heavily associate those songs with, as they both received decent to heavy radio play at least through the late ’90s.

I remember first being struck by Apple’s explicit youth; she was only 19 when Tidal crashed onto air and television waves. The biggest hit from it, and the video that played on MTV and VH1 pretty regularly, featuring in top 10 countdown after countdown, was of course “Criminal,” which I had learned to not only sing but mimic fairly closely in vocal styling by the time I was 13. Rewatching it, there is no question as to how young Apple really is. I remember being struck most, secondly, how much she looked like me. I was reedy-thin, big-eyed (also blue), with long dirty blonde hair, too tomboyish to look feminine. I had a disarming stare, too; so much so I’d been advised not to look people directly in the eye, which I eventually trained myself out of doing. Fiona did not: she confronted the camera directly throughout the entire video, no matter who she was crawling over, who was hanging off of her stark body; almost the entirety of that now-classic album cover is taken up by those eyes, those big icy blue eyes, looking right at you. I looked like her; I could sound like her. I wasn’t as angry as her — not yet. Until those particular years, I didn’t feel it was really allowed.

It can be argued it was never really allowed for her — for any woman, truly — either. Despite struggling with the aftermath of her rape, an eating disorder, depression, self-harm, PTSD, and so on… she was never given remotely near the leeway we give our beloved, “eccentric” — typically code for “unapologetic asshole” — male artists. The unfairness of this, particularly taking into account all the additional labor expected of women all our lives — the emotional labor, the caretaker roles, the inoffensive and quiet smile assumed to naturally come with all of it — can’t be understated, either. There is so little room allowed for a woman’s anger, no matter how young and talented she may be. I didn’t care, and loved her anyway, and I loved her anger maybe most of all. I mimicked it when I sang it; I aspired to it, almost.

The opening lyrics to Tidal — nothing arriving first to cushion them in any way, just a sparse, dry snare drum beat — are still probably some of my favorites that Apple ever penned — and given her talents as a lyricist, that is no small praise — and they too are directly, purely, deeply angry:

I tell you how I feel, but you don’t care
I say tell me the truth, but you don’t dare
You say love is a hell you cannot bear
And I say “Give me mine back and then go there
For all I care”

(Emphasis mine, but there is no denying that is how she sings it.) It was the most powerful, immediate, introductory “fuck you” I’d ever heard from a woman, let alone one still under 20, like me. I looked like her, I could sound like her; I could be angry like her, too.

The only woman I remember listening to during those formative years who sounded as angry, in as visceral and unapologetic a manner, was Alanis, and Jagged had only come out the year before. It is the quintessential “angry girl” album of the ’90s, but because of that assessment, it still feels underrated to me. Or maybe the proper word is really “underestimated.” You can crack as many (arguably fair) jokes about the misapplication of the entire concept of “Ironic”‘s lyrics, or make as many laughing asides about Joey from Full House as you like, but the indisputable fact remains: there was no other album as commercially successful, nor as familiar to so many mainstream music listeners of a particular decade, that was as angry as Jagged Little Pill.

My favorite Alanis song off Jagged was always “Not the Doctor.” It’s undoubtedly an album crammed full of one great song after another, which is why current teenage girls still buy it on any format in the record shop I work in to this day, but that track in particular was the one I loved most then, and still do now. I only wish that, when I was singing along to it then, I’d had even the barest inkling of what it truly meant, even if such a thing wasn’t possible; I hadn’t (yet) been used, abused, or discarded by men in the way that allows for a deeper identification with that song. But the entire thing is a screed of different metaphorical ways to say “I will not carry your extremely tiresome fucking baggage.” It’s a deeply important song for any young girl to hear for that reason alone, even if we’re not able to fully absorb it, no matter how much I wish I could have. It makes it a bittersweet listen now. Just look at all those isolated “I don’t want”s:

I don’t want to be the filler if the void is solely yours
I don’t want to be a bandage if the wound is not mine
I don’t want to be adored for what I merely represent to you
I don’t want to be your babysitter
I don’t want to be your mother
I don’t want to be the sweeper of the egg shells that you walk upon
I don’t want to be your other half
I don’t want to be the glue that holds your pieces together
I don’t want to be your idol
I don’t want to be lived through
I don’t want to be responsible for your fractured heart
(And its wounded beat)

(There are a few more, but those were the ones most identifiable to me now as things that became far too familiar to me as more than just concepts, later in life.) It’s such an adamant refusal of being the dependable dumping ground so many men casually expect women to always be.

The killer one-two punch between the two of them: Fuck you. I don’t want this. (Do better, be better. God, but the bar for men is so pathetically low.)

It’s been comforting, too, listening to these again, despite the bittersweetness. Those angry girls were everything to me then. I was still small, still shy, but when a pack of boys descended on me one late afternoon when I was 13, I finally recognized I had the freedom to be angry. I broke one of their noses even with his fingers crushing down on my trachea and his knee in my chest. He said he would kill me and I thought, I’ll claw your fucking eyes out while you do it. I screamed so loud at him it felt like my throat would tear — I sounded like a wild animal; the sound carried so far belated help finally came running from the other end of the campus — and it was not because I was afraid: I had never been more consumed by fury in my life. I was so angry there wasn’t any room left for fear. Before those girls and their songs, no one had ever really told me what hardly anyone ever tells little girls:

Own your anger. Unleash it even as they slam you into concrete and make you bleed. It will save your life.

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Pastedown

Being reminded how much of me has been papered over or just plain forgotten in the minds of others of late really drove home how much I need to finish writing the massive thing I’ve been trying to write for at least two months now. More than, really; going on three, now.

Maybe two or three people, if any, will ever actually read it, but I’m realizing more than ever now that most of the things I remember — both the ones I chose to, and the ones I wish I didn’t; I seem to remember everything, and can’t help this even when trying to avoid it — are only ever going to be of any real note, importance, significance or otherwise to me, and me alone. Apparently if I don’t create some sort of record for myself, no one else will bother to remember them. Maybe that’s the conundrum of life, but who doesn’t wish, even just secretly, to be important enough to someone to actually stay in their mind?

It’s a nebulous way to feel. I’ve always been easily forgotten, but when it’s among those who supposedly care, that will always sting more.

Equinoxes

It was the end of April, and I was blooming in the riotous peak of spring.

The curls that had framed my frazzled head from pre-puberty through my depressed and searching 20s and the very beginning of my 30s were leaving me, replaced with relaxed, natural waves — the kind I’d always dreamed of having when I was younger, but could never achieve. My skin was slowly healing, evening out in tone. My body no longer felt like such a betrayal, such an ugly stranger.

I had brought a new little familiar into my life; the first time I’d be caring for an animal entirely on my own. I was becoming more myself than I’d ever been.

I was falling in love again, not quite as much in denial about it as the one before, and while simultaneously losing that first ever love — the one who’d both helped me to grow, while also putting me through more than I knew how to take; who’d both said some of the most wonderful things I’d ever heard, and yet so many of by far the worst things — and I needed to finally be honest and open to both. The one I was falling into in its place might very well have been as hopeless as the one preceding it, but it was beyond too late to stop it; I could only accept it.

I was beginning to write my memoirs. I needed to both let go, and embrace whatever my future held. I had to let go. It was the hardest thing I’d ever done. I needed to create, to move on, to move forward. I needed to finally see myself.

Llorando

Mulholland Drive is one of my all-time favorite films, but it can also plunge me into the depths of truly unique melancholy. I remember once standing in line outside a different theater than the one I watched it in tonight, unable to avoid overhearing some young guy haughtily attempting to “explain” what the movie means to the poor, trapped girl with him. In the moment, I just had to laugh to myself about the likelihood that such a conversation would piss off no one more than David Lynch himself. Still, the older I get, the more I work through and survive, the more deeply the film seems to affect me. Maybe it’s a film which has threads that are only navigable if you recognize the feelings explored through them.

If you’ve come to a city, full of dreams, the place itself often described the same way, and watched them all shrivel away. If you’ve had something creative that you felt was yours wrenched out of your control, twisted beyond recognition. If you’ve attempted, feeling buried and trapped by the best and worst of your memories, to re-write your own history in a far better, softer light. (Naomi Watts’ incredible duality cannot be under-praised in this respect. The smiling, big-eyed idealism and breezy confidence of her fictionalized Betty persona, compared with her brokenhearted, bitter and raw, gaping wound of a real Diane is something to behold.) If you’ve ever wanted to imagine yourself as an arrival on a film set who commands the attention and drops the jaw of the director himself, as opposed to the one more invisible nobody that you are. If you’ve ever, hopelessly naively, given your heart to a charming, flighty, selfish Camilla. It’s all there, all at once. It’s beautiful, and dark, and hopeless, and overwhelming.

Walking out of the theater tonight, though it was already after 10:30, I knew I couldn’t go straight home. My life in general has felt almost completely unmoored of late — my family, my work, my measly personal life — and all I felt able or driven to do was continue walking. Which I did, for well over two hours. I reached a point where my legs, particularly the injured one, were protesting enough that I wondered if I would make it home, though I kept on. I think I was looking for something, anything, out in the night to help me feel less alone, or at least as if I still belonged here.

I only encountered things that came across as the opposite of encouraging, naturally. Even the little feral cats I used to visit in their yard, who I had particularly been hoping to see, were nowhere to be found; perhaps I’ve been away too long, and am just another stranger to them now, though I didn’t even see any slinking silhouettes in the dark. What I did see: a dead rat; broken bottles galore. Winding my way back west, I passed a man clinging to a pay phone, one of the few remaining that still functions, pleading and sobbing over the phone line, with someone who was not here with him. I knew how he felt, too.

Perhaps the time when there may have been anything or anyone out there for me to find comfort or encouragement from is over. Maybe the time before now, even, was — as the band leader reminds us in Club Silencio — “all an illusion.”

There is a stretch of Fountain Avenue that crosses briefly over the 101 freeway. It is so dark, late at night, along this particular piece of road, no one — if there even is anyone around, which there rarely is — can see you; it’s a struggle to even see the sidewalk ahead of you. It is a safe place for someone like me to cry when she never wants anyone to see. It’s a place where, though I’ve personally never quite reached suicidal feelings, even at my most depressed, I can briefly understand the impulse that drives people to jump off highway overpasses. It is loud, and bright, and nothing beneath you will stop, even when everything stops for you. It would be over quickly, if one were to do it. It would be forgotten maybe an hour or two later, afterward. The cars will keep on driving.

Naturally, I eventually made it back, only to discover I’d worn a hole through a favorite pair of socks. A fitting end to a meaningless journey in the dark.

The scene when Camilla leads Diane up the hill in the night, through a “secret path” in the brush, and Diane looks down and smiles to see her hand holding hers, and Angelo Badalamenti’s score sweeps through you… I’m not sure any other scene in a movie can make my heart ache more. It is the last moment she still believes in the illusion of her life, and her love, as if any of it was real.

It doesn’t last, of course. Not long after, she goes mad with grief and guilt; she kills herself. But at least, for that one final moment, the fantasy of what she’d thought she once had still feels like it might have been real.

There is a house.

There is a house.

There is a house, and it is out in the woods, or up in the hills, or beside a lake, or alone in a sprawling valley. It is late morning, it is early afternoon, it’s late at night and the stars are out.

There is a house, and I know this is a dream because I know that it is somehow mine. Nothing when I am awake ever belongs to me, but this house is mine, and this is a dream. This should make it a good dream, but it is all a trick, it is an illusion.

I am running up the stairs, in the house, and they change direction, or orientation, or the light falls on them differently, when it is there, and when it is not, the dark swallows them up behind me. I run up the stairs as they disappear behind me, falling away like dominoes. I don’t see them, I don’t turn around, they make no sound, but I feel them pulling away, almost still beneath the backs of my heels. I run up the stairs; there are so many stairs. I am dreaming, and so I do not count the stairs, like I always do when I am awake, and so I know it is a dream.

He is there with me, or he was, until he wasn’t any longer. The house is mine, and it is in my dream, but still, nothing can stay; the stairs, the walls keep moving around. We are in bed together at first, every time, tangled in warm sheets, without a care in the world. He is smiling down at me, stroking my hair, he is happy to see me, and so I know this is a dream. The more I realize none of it is real, the more it unravels, the way that dreams do.

He says something he seems to find funny, but it is harsh or cruel; there is a tapping at the window; there is a knocking at the door. I know who it is, I don’t know their name, but I know who it is. It is the same person it always is, face changing like a shape-shifter; I know it is someone better, someone more beautiful, more compelling, more talented and vibrant, stronger and worthy than me; it is someone lovable. When you have never been good enough, there are an infinite number of better someones out there. That will never be me, because I am none of these things, so of course he is gone, if he was ever there with me at all. He is walking up the stairs, he is walking down the stairs, all those stairs, wherever they go, I can hear his voice, but where did he go? No, he is gone; he doesn’t speak to me, not anymore. The rooms keep moving, the walls fall away; I do not know where he went, I will never know, I only know I’ve been left behind.

There are no stairs, there are no walls, there is no bed. There was never a house. There was only ever me, the same in waking as I was as the nightmare always closes: only ever me, alone in the dark.

Like you do

I wrote about my mother first; this must, necessarily, be about my father.

Why is it the men who raise us must inevitably, inescapably shape the ones — friends or otherwise — we allow to ourselves to love later? How long have we been musing on this overly familiar pattern already? How can it still be such a clever trick?

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Windows, or mirrors? (2 February 2016)

Distant, withholding, critical — sometimes thoughtlessly cruel — impossible to please men. Men talking up all their pride in you, while doing so little to demonstrate it, as if words alone are enough to swallow up such yawning absence of genuine action. I could only grow to constantly question any sort of love now, after being raised, shaped — groomed, even — to find myself wanting in my father’s eyes first. He left, went off far away, then wanted me to explain why he was alone. I don’t know, Dad; I can’t even tell you why I’m alone. You decided you belonged nowhere, and with no one, and so that became my lot in life, too.

Though I suppose I could. I could have written my younger self a letter. I might have said: Watch out, watch for all the ways he looks to control you. They are shaping you now, have already shaped you, will shape you always, no matter how much distance ends up between you. He does love you, but there are conditions, ever-moving goalposts, impossible standards. All of these will trip you up, again and again.

I might say…

You were the one who survived — though he never told you this, you had to lie to your mother to even learn that much; the other family who died, and you, the sole surviving child — but simply continuing to breathe, taking up some small space in the world, this is not all that will be required of you, of course. You will never ask to know more.

His pride is a performance, only expressed to strangers; to you, there is only more criticism, more questions to put you on the defensive, more requests that you justify yourself, again and again. Watch carefully, before you begin to feel you must justify yourself to your own mind, too.
You will miss school, your student years, sometimes: the only time and space in which, and audience for whom, you have ever managed to exceed any expectations. Elsewhere, you will only ever fall short. All that performative dismay over so much imagined potential.
You will grow up, and there will be other men, and you will not be told the reasons, you will only see their effects. Watch closely for all they hide and take from you, and how relentlessly they try to test your determination to grasp those unreachable rewards. Sometimes it will be merely distance and poor timing, or the fear of interrupting fantasy with reality. Other times, you simply aren’t attractive or interesting enough, when you are of notice at all, though they may pretend otherwise, for a while. (This is why you will wonder, always, whether they mean one single word of it. Do not expect them to understand; they won’t.) With a few, they will shower you with all manner of compliments and admiration, but only when they don’t know you well enough to know better; it’s no coincidence the most effusive are the ones who know the least about you.

And sometimes, you will be close, closer than you could’ve imagined… Until you aren’t. You’ll turn to find your place papered over so neatly it’s almost as if you were never there. There’s nothing quite like the feeling, like that of your insides being slowly scooped out, of watching the shine come off yourself in someone else’s eyes. (What happened? You’re still you. Where did all that brightness go?) You may never know why, but you’ll see for yourself just how dull you look to them now.

Your seemingly innate inability to accept compliments or praise, the withholding men you’re most drawn to, your hawkish loneliness, the secrets you keep…
Your want to be understood, to be seen, to not be so easily forgotten, to be accepted, to belong; all that wanting, take care to familiarize yourself with that ache…
Wanting, wanting, wanting: All you will know is wanting.

No angle of your face will ever be beautiful enough, no arrangement of your body desirable enough, no amount you give adequate enough; all that straining to be…
Enough, enough, enough: You will never be enough. Don’t forget.

 

I might say — or might have said — those things. But then again, I might not.

Daily Prompt: Provoke

I had just finally managed to calm down from driving around, going nowhere, trying to get the rest of the unexpected bloodletting over within the too-familiar, protected, isolated confines of my car, only to come home, check my email, and find a message from my mother. It had, of course, nothing whatsoever to do with anything on my mind at this moment, but simply seeing her name highlighted in my inbox like a beacon prompted me to burst right back into tears. At least all my mascara for the day is already gone by now; I still hate how puffy my face gets.

When I was younger, and clashing the most violently (emotionally and verbally, that is) with my mother, I was extremely determined to never become like her. This is, of course, one of the ultimate teenage tropes that’s likely existed since the dawn of humanity, but when you are young and feeling everything at your highest intensity, it feels both very rebellious and extremely important. (I imagine this is why I, along with so many others, was so unexpectedly moved by Lady Bird, recently. The tone of those mother-daughter fights was so exacting and familiar — coupled with the very pointed and accurate outsider rendering of what it’s like to grow up on the poor side surrounded by so many bizarrely exotic rich kids — I felt deeply shaken by it.)

I would not be like her. I was positive — growing up under the burdens laid on a gifted child, always being told about all the great things I would supposedly someday do (none of which have ever come to pass, of course; do they ever?) — that I was smart and resourceful enough to make sure of this.

In reality, of course, I get many of my best qualities from my mother. I certainly inherited her self-sacrificing nature, particularly when it comes to bending over backwards for the sake of those I care about, whether or not that’s even the good or right thing to do in a given situation; the general lack of a vetting system to go with it comes from her, too. But that is a stowaway risk inescapably bound to big-heartedness, and accepting that, as I’ve grown older — about both her and myself — has become easier. What I struggle with more, these days, is forgiveness. Not of her, either; no matter how much we fought back then, or how crazy she could drive me, I’m old enough now to recognize she sacrificed as much as she possibly could simply to protect and elevate my life, in the hopes that it could be greater, happier, more fulfilling than hers. (She continues to find ways to do this, even now that I’m in my thirties.)

She did not want me to struggle, like her. She did not want me to be trapped, like her. She did not want me to end up alone, like her.

Unfortunately, I also recognize how badly I failed her, in those hopes, completely across the board.

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My mother’s hands (2013).

Younger me was certain I would make it further in my education, and knew it was expected of me. I did not: my mother only ever took one college course (I believe it was French, at UCLA), during her earliest years in California, and never finished. I dropped out of (community) college a mere 3 credits (a single online course) away from graduating. Arguably, one could say that’s even worse. I wouldn’t disagree, I don’t think.

Younger me was adamant I would never end up stuck in a soul-sucking office job like hers, constantly fighting to meet the demands and satisfy the flighty, shallow whims of an endless string of horrible bosses, as she’s now done for over 30 years. Once it became clear, in the past decade or so, that the professional avenue she had chosen was nowhere near as “safe” or protected as she (and so many others) had always believed, I certainly was not happy, but some small, ugly little part of me did feel at least slightly, quietly justified in never accepting a similar job, though by now I’ve been working over half my life. (There were other reasons: it’s not work that I’m suited to, I’m far less flexible in what I can tolerate at work and separating it from my overall mental health than she is., etc..) I had stuck to my guns, and always (where possible, which it sometimes wasn’t) taken jobs that I wanted to do, whether they paid well or not (and they usually didn’t), that allowed me to keep my creativity alive. At the very least, I was never anyone’s secretary; I had drawn that line in the sand, and would never cross it. I knew she felt regret at having given up on art and writing when she was younger, before fully devoting her career to administrative work, however well compensated it might have been. I thought to myself: I will not have those regrets.

Does that make it ironic, then, that I see now that I did in fact end up just like her, merely in the one way I could not have anticipated? I’m sure it does. I struggle to stay afloat just as much as she does, so we’ll (perhaps generously) call that one a wash. I am trapped, like her, though not by my work. I am alone, like her, and in almost exactly the same way. And I suspect, if I were ever to admit this to her, that would be the one thing she would have wished the hardest for me to avoid. But I didn’t, of course. I am trapped by, and remain alone because of, nearly the very same thing that she was, and still is. Even if there is no possible defense for such a thing, I’m still astonished by the breadth of the blind spot I had been operating under for so long. I genuinely believed that, in achieving what I have, I had escaped what she wished for me never to have to bear.

I’ve achieved plenty, too. I’m still managing to keep a roof over my head. I have a stable job (much more so than hers, which at this point I just wish I could share somehow; she is reaching an age where I seriously fear where, or even if, she might find more solid ground ever again), and it’s one that I genuinely enjoy. I’m embarking on an exciting and creative new journey, too; one that feels very much like the culmination of something I was meant to do long ago, but had forgotten. I love my city, and my friends. I have done a good job of making my own home in the world. I have support and rewarding relationships around me. I have yet, still, to have a bad day this year. Even today, I can’t log as a bad day, because I seem to really have rescued myself from whatever hole I kept burying myself in last year; it was just (deeply) upsetting. But I’ve gotten through it, I’ve finally stopped crying, and tomorrow will be fine, too. I trust, finally, that I haven’t lost anything irreplaceable; only my one remaining secret, and a considerable chunk of my already rather small stores of pride.

But despite all of this, I was not spared sharing her most enduring pain, in ending up caught by my own. And I do struggle with forgiving myself, even now. I don’t know how to forgive all the arrogant and shortsighted assumptions I made about her, and myself, back then, knowing now how wrong they really were. (Yes, I was young and dumb. I’m not sure how adequate an excuse that is.) I don’t know how to forgive myself for expressing things I never meant to let out into the world, which I could not protect myself from, any better than she could protect me, and not for lack of furious trying on both our parts. Funnily enough, I am now the very same age that she was when she was either doubling down, or realizing and accepting it was already too late; I know now how she must have felt. Five years is a very long time to punish yourself for anything, no matter how foolish or pointless that thing may be, but that did not stop me, and still does not stop me even now. I am, after all, much more likely to cry out of anger or frustration than I am out of sadness, though in this case it’s that awful mix of all three. I suppose what this all means is that, as much as I’ve already been inspired by her tremendous continued survival, I must continue to look to her for understanding how, exactly, one lives with themselves this way.

I don’t hate myself. I’m all right. Often, I’m quite happy. It’s just… I genuinely believed, for a long time — in part, I see now, because she did — that I could’ve been so much better.

I did want to be so much better, Mom. You had only me, and you deserved better. I know you wanted that, too. But I also know how little wanting or hoping has anything to do with what you get, in the end.

And I am sure, at least, she would not need me to remind her of this, either. She already knows.

 

via Daily Prompt: Provoke