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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It can be lonely next to you

The power of memory to edit can be a strange thing. It’s understandable — our brains are constantly reshuffling what we can recall from where, the older we get, so it’s the essentials that tend to stick. Mine is stronger, particularly visually, than average, but even so, the mundane moments between the highlights are as unlikely to stick with me as they are for anyone else.

I find myself wondering lately: How did I do it? In the beginning, the early parts, how did I manage what seems to have become so challenging now? Did it hurt? Was it confusing? Was it so much quieter? It must have been, and yet…

How did the time pass, and where was my head then? My emotional state then, how maddening could it have been for me? How anxious, how habitual, how manageable? Was it easier because there were fewer expectations, because I had no idea what would happen? Not that I have any better idea what might happen now, but how was it I could accept that so much more easily then? Did I? Or have I just forgotten those struggles in order to make room for what I’m wrestling with now? How did those days, those nights feel? How much have I edited out, for brevity? There must have been more of them then, and yet…

I wish I could call her up — younger me — and ask her: What are you thinking right now? How are you feeling? How are you doing it? (You don’t even know what it is you’re doing, do you? It just seems like that now, because now is not then.) (Younger me, probably, were this possible: “What the fuck are you even talking about?”) Hang in there; watch yourself. You will get careless, difficult, complacent. You will find new ways to create problems you don’t have to. You will end up stuck only because you walled off your best options with fear. Take it easy. Don’t get so ahead of yourself. Don’t confuse hopes with plans, which can be a trap. Be open, which is not the same thing as hovering over the precipice of holes you’ve already dug. The latter only means you’ll end up working so hard to control your future you’ll run headlong into a brick wall of your own making. You don’t like to be wrong, and you don’t like to be afraid, but in order to be prepared for whatever comes next, you have to allow yourself to be both. Whatever feels so insurmountable to you now — and it must be something; probably several somethings, everything is so new and scary and impossible to predict — will pass, to the point you can’t even recall it now. Can you even imagine? You got through it, you learned from it, you made yourself more. You are stronger than you realize, and yet…

Thinking back, so many of the best things, the best moments, the best experiences — you know the ones I mean — were never planned or expected. (Remember how your heart raced, how suddenly everything seemed so open ahead of you? It was because you allowed yourself to give up control, to be afraid, to move past it, to step into the unknown, to not pretend you had any idea what might happen. That’s where the magic was. That was brave. Stop, breathe, wait, look around: you can surprise yourself again.) Often they completely surprised me, snuck up on me, occurred despite things seeming unlikely or hopeless or somehow otherwise dire. The surprise in them was a bigger part of what made them great — made them memorable — than I think I have allowed myself to remember.

The revisionist in my head likes to look back and claim she knew what she was doing, she had a plan, she laid out all the pieces in order that That happened, and This was wonderful, and There was where we ended up. She’s also a liar, of course. I didn’t plan any of it. I couldn’t have; no one can. The illusion of control over one’s life is not confined to the present. I can tell myself that hopes being realized and plans coming to fruition were one and the same, though they were in fact nothing of the kind. My hopes only came true when I let them linger quietly and stayed open, did not impose plans upon them at all. They came true almost in spite of me. They were most fruitful when I got out of their way.

glance

This photo of me, which I took by mistake — I’m clearly not paying attention; I thought the lens was facing the other way — is one of the rare ones of myself that I love. (Candids are almost always my favorite photos, of anyone.) I want to look that lovely all the time, and yet apparently I probably do, or so I’ve been told; I look so hard the rest of the time, pick every little thing apart, until I can’t even see it. But there it is, right there: and it was a mistake. It, and the moment I captured within it, is vivid and worth keeping almost entirely for that reason. It’s okay. Just get out of the way. It sounds easy, but it’s not. Do it anyway.

I want to allow the world to surprise me more. I want to surprise myself again. I will.

Just have the courage to open up to yourself
Then we can be free, yes
I wanna be free…

Exoskeleton

17934563_440062826327421_3878326052056989696_nI’ve spent too many years, mostly in the half of my life spent at work, sitting with my legs crossed, and some of the many marks on them now attest to that. I hate them about as much as I hate all the other myriad marks on my problematic skin, and yet entering my thirties I am coming to accept that they will go nowhere, no matter how much I hate them, and I must simply do my best to — at worst — ignore or not see them, and — at best — learn to love them. I don’t love much about how I look, so this is a large task to ask of myself, but it would be irresponsible of me not to ask it, simply because it is unpleasant and difficult.

Summer is almost here; the time of year in which I can indulge most often in lovely walks around my neighborhood and my city, but in which I cover the least amount of skin, thanks to just about the best weather in the world, and this always presents a conundrum. I want to walk up the hill to the park near me that overlooks the city I love, I want to lie on the beach and swim in the ocean that I once took to like a fish; I want to stretch my long legs out in the sun, the grass, the water. I want to do these things unselfconsciously. I want to do these things without the back of my mind whispering to me — sometimes yelling — how much I hate the skin I inhabit. I want to not care. I want to be free of the vision of myself that is ugly, flawed, marked, imperfect. I want to ghost through the water and the air as freely as I did when I was young, before these marks came to me, before I realized, desperately and angrily and painfully, they would never leave. I want to believe that those who say I am beautiful just as I am are not keeping the exceptions to that beauty to themselves out of misguided kindness, that they mean what they say, that I am beautiful as I appear now, and not as I wish to. I want to no longer feel aching envy in my chest when I walk behind all those beautiful girls with their flawless skin who have no idea how lucky they are to not have to think of it at all. I want to walk and sit and be, and to like what I see when I look down and observe myself, which — as the late John Berger once so eloquently described it — all women must do, in some way, every moment of our lives. I wish I knew how. But summer is almost here; it will arrive whether I am ready for it or not.

It is a surprisingly late week of cold weather at the moment. It’s both a reprieve in that I can hide behind extra layers for another week, at most two or three, but it will end, of course. I am working on not seeing what is there, mapped on my skin, which no one has been able to explain the presence of, nor fully heal or erase. I am working on pretending no one else sees it. Eventually I hope I will no longer consider these marks a burdensome, ugly thing to carry; that they will simply be there, and I will no longer care.

Tattoos, in my life, have served as expression, reminders, declarations, and challenges to myself. When I think of them, all of which I have chosen very carefully, I see my body as a canvas. I’m trying to focus more on that, and less on the rest.

“Tugging at the darkness, word upon word…”

“I am beautiful/ Molding my own world/ The old me is behind/ I will march ahead anew.”