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.

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Your flesh has come of age

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“You destroy me. You’re good for me.” — Elle, Hiroshima, Mon Amour

(Rest in peace, lovely, prolific Emmanuelle Riva.)

“Here is what we know for sure: there is no end to want. Want is a vast universe within other vast universes. There is always more, and more again. […] One can make a life out of focusing on what one does not have, but that’s no way to live. A seat at the table is plenty.” — Elisa Albert

I’ve learned in recent years I cannot be careless with my words, which when I was younger, I realize now I often was. For a while, as a bitchy little contrarian teenager, who knew no other way of dealing with simultaneously sticking out like a sore thumb (due to being 4-6 inches taller than the 4,000 other students I shared a campus with for four years) and being completely invisible (due to, well, no one ever taking notice of me, regardless what I did or did not choose to do), I almost wore it like a badge of honor. Most young people shrouding themselves in protective sarcasm do, though we like to think, before we (hopefully) grow up, this is a novel or unique approach.

First for others who I care for, but also for myself. I was able to talk myself down so casually. (It’s a hard, hard habit to break, to quote a song off one of my favorite albums of last year. I still do it.) I was taught, approaching 30, the consequences my words can have, solid as actions, lasting as hammering nails into wood. Why was this such a difficult lesson to learn? Why did it come so late? Is this really just the consequence of a life spent mostly alone and lonely? Possibly. If no one around you cares what you say, it’s challenging to assign any weight to those words. But thinking on it now, there are so many things others have said so carelessly to me that I know I’ve never forgotten.

Another thing I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older is that there truly is no end to want or desire — regardless what it’s focus might be — frustrating, maddening, depressing, terrifying as that can be; how it can make you want to tear away your own skin. I continue to learn that being mindful is the only way to push through it, to the necessity of sheer survival, and cherishing what you do receive, which is rarely what you expect to, and even less often what you hope for. To give more. That, in fact, wanting things is good, and yet not getting everything you want is also good.

A lot of things have fallen away from me in these recent years, plenty of which have been freeing, while others have been dismaying. A best friend of over two decades, any close family ties with my father’s half of the family (I never really had any to my mother’s, with a few exceptions, to begin with), expectation of growing out of my invisibility. I suppose when I was younger I believed, or at least hoped, that someday I would, after so many years of cocooning myself, eventually emerge as a colorful, striking, beautiful butterfly — the ultimate cliche! — but, no. I remain, as ever, the sort of homely little moth who blends into the sweaters you’ve forgotten about in the back of your closet.

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But fighting your nature is no better (nor less futile) than fighting your desire, so — entering my 30s, continuing to grow older — seems as good a time as any to accept such lessons. I’ve certainly gained much more mental clarity and emotional stability over the past year or so, which seems to point to it being the right direction. There is so much negativity and fear in the world, growing every day; fighting constant battles with myself, on top of struggling with those greater issues of humanity, seems a great waste of energy. Onward, little brown moth. Someone, at least, may see one day the little holes you left behind, even if they’ll never see you.