Author of Breasts Don't Lie

An Imperfect Mother

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Most of my readers know about my ambivalent relationship with my mother. She was so many things – ill, sad, and abusive, but also independent, feisty, and in her very peculiar way – loving.

When the memories of her other characteristics threaten to make her unredeemable, I remember this story.

She could see things that other people couldn’t or refused to see. When I was struggling with my weight as a teenager who desperately wanted to be a ballet dancer, she took me to the perfect meal. Weird, huh? A meal.

I had spent my fifteenth summer at a dance camp, and I came home freaked out. A couple of months before going to the dance camp, I had gained the necessary ten pounds to jumpstart a late-onset puberty. Literally, before the weight gain, my body fat was too low to provide the necessary materials for a teenage body and brain. Pleased with my new curves, I went with another girl to our yearly dance intensive.

But throughout the camp, my dancing teachers had complained about my weight gain.

After the first few days, they would take me aside and say things.

“Your dancing weight is 98 to 103 pounds. Do you weigh that now?”

I let the ice cream drip down my hand, onto my toe shoes.

“105 is too much for your height.”

I was 5’6” tall.

“How much do you want to dance professionally? Really? That much. Well, you can’t be a dancer at that weight.”

In an audition, before my fellow dancers and competition, my teacher said, “If you lost some weight, you could make the company.”

When I fell out of a double pirouette, the ballet mistress said, “Maybe you could bind your chest. And your hips.”

I slept the whole way home from camp, too exhausted from writing down every little thing I ate, trying to find my balance (no one explained the needed rebuilding to suit my no longer androgynous body), while every second blocking out the faculty’s hurtful comments. Mom met me at the door, and I burst into tears. All week, I would catch her watching me.

On that next weekend, Mom said she was going to the mall and did I want to come? I must have muttered something because we ended up wandering around until we were standing in the doorway of the mall’s cafeteria. Over my objections, Mom pulled me in. She giggled. I had heard her laugh before, but giggling was new. She tucked my arm under hers. Like girlfriends.

“Let’s have dessert for dinner,” she said. “Pick two.”

She slid me a tray, smiled at me, and went off to pick her desserts. Lost before a line of forbidden desserts, I looked back at her. She was bright enough to keep her overt focus on her choices. Time to choose. Anorexia or dessert. I picked the chocolate cake and Jell-O. She didn’t say anything about my choices. Just paid. It was not a big moment but a decisive one.

I guard that memory. Mom could be so many things, lots of them ugly and painful but every once in a while, she was perfect.

Happy Mother’s Day. Share one precious memory, and we’ll guard them together.

(Image used with permission. By Andrew Giovinazzo.)

Yoga, Cows, and A Texan

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Saturday I had an urge, an almost unable-to-resist urge, to run someone down using a Ford Focus …

The car had a few dents, and I had a fleeting thought of “What the Hell.”

It’s been a trying week. We rolled into Frisco, a small Cowtown outside of Dallas, last Tuesday night at 10 pm. Stiff with sitting in a car since 5:30 am in some time zone, getting out for potty breaks and snacks, we stumbled into the apartment, trotting back to pick up the cat meowing in her purple plastic cage.

The next morning, the full force of the move hit me. I am in Texas. Without a job, a yoga home, a writing group, friends. Eeeoogh. Time to make the best of it.

So, I started out looking for yoga studios. This city is obsessed with hot yoga, my idea of a bad time. I come away from their heat mixing with my constitution creating cranky person prone to hissy fits. Then I expanded the search. I found a lovely studio just 25 minutes away in another city/burb/whatever. Entering the information on my phone’s Google Maps, it suggested a tollway. No way. Lots of very tall walls. How do you get on and off? Not happening, and I mapped another route. Getting there was not a problem. Lovely classes – I took two – leaving after 2 and ½ blissful hours in the studio.

Getting home from the studio was a problem – it took 90 minutes, a distraught phone call, and the above-mentioned urge. Without a doubt, I made a left when I should have turned right ending up in another city, full of walled communities, streets with no names or names I couldn’t find on my itsy-bitsy phone map, and limited places to make a turnaround. After cruising one street four times, I pulled into the BMW dealership, driving between two sets of cars to the man talking on his cell phone. He looked like a Texan. Smooth, hair slicked back, aviator sunglasses, and an incredulous look on his handsome-featured face. I rolled down my window. My face flushed with yoga and exasperation, but I smiled at him.

“Do you know you’re driving on a sidewalk?” he said.

“No. Anyway … “

“You are on a sidewalk.” He emphasized each word.

“I didn’t know that I was on a sidewalk. I need to find Preston Road,” I said trying to look friendly and feeling an urge to smack him silly.

“You have to get off the sidewalk.” He ran his hand through expensively coiffed hair.

“Other cars are on the sidewalk,” I said looking around. My hair was sticking to my face.

“You can’t get your car off this area without damaging the undercarriage,” he said waving his phone around.

“Look, there’s a dip in the,” and I paused for effect, “sidewalk. I’ll ease my car off the … sidewalk … if you’ll just tell me which way is Preston Road.” I turned my wheels towards him, inched forward a little bit to show him that I meant business. He backed up, made some vague hand gesture, and got in his car. Maybe he felt the need for some protection. Good call.

Completely confused by this time, I drove off without damaging the undercarriage of the car and with exemplary control having not hit him, his car, or the plate glass window of the dealership. I was protecting the remains of my yogic karma, minuscule as it was.

Against the odds, I found Preston Road and drove to the apartment. Flustered and cranky, I noticed the number of cows out grazing. They looked nonplussed. Peaceful even. One even mooed at me. Okay, I can do this, I thought. Opening both windows, I mooed along with the cow feeling … Texan. Not his kind of Texan, a kinder, gentler Texan-in-training who needs a road map.

 

 

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Yes, I am moving to Texas – the land of big hair and blue eyeshadow. I know, I know. But it’s my fear after spending ten of my formative years in Alabama feeling under made-up and under poufy-haired.

I keep thinking about fear, fear of moving, fear of my friends forgetting me, fear of loneliness from a general incompetence in making new friends, fear of the heat in Texas, fear that I am throwing out something important. The list goes on and on.

So, I went for a walk last night around Five Points late in the evening when the scraggly trees blend with the night sky. Total patches of the earth are black and vision-proof. I kept wandering the streets, shuffling my way along pavements occasionally stubbing a toe or tripping, bouncing off tree branches, feeling the spiders from said branches land in my hair, and working my way into a panic attack.

Like most Scots, when I’m worried, I walk and walk for a while, late at night, regulating my breath so the fear coalesces, snaking back into the dark edges to lay in waiting for the next time that it can grab me.

I can’t remember ever being freaked out about walking at night. I’ve walked this area for almost 20 years. I’ve survived the night of Dropping Spiders (one April evening I found three had dropped down crowning me with 24 legs – still makes me shiver). I have listened to the trains go past with the chug-a-lug sound, never changing in these two decades, and wondered about where I was going in life. I’ve sat on the swings in the park, surrounded by the toys of happily innocent kids and speculated if the wisdom gained is worth the innocence lost. In the dark, I have admitted my failures, where I’ve been mean or thoughtless, ignored then stared in the face my aging with the creeping vista of finitude, death. I’ve cursed and cried, laughed and said “I love you” where no one can hear me.

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I’ve met Kali, the dark mother, twice in one weekend walking these streets. During yoga teacher training, I walked my beagle-dachshund mix, PooPet, at 11:30 one Friday night. My doggie loved the darks holes, where the light had disappeared with the dipping sun and would scamper into places that looked fit for Moray Eels or Jack the Ripper. Nothing stopped her thirty pounds of courageous canine, but that night, we tromped along, meandering an uneven sidewalk when a silhouette stepped into the road. In a long robe, features obliterated, with a croak she whispered, “Don’t be afraid.” I remember opening my eyes wide, struggling to remain upright as PooPet jerked the chain to run behind my legs. When I gained my balance, the street was dark, leaves slithered in the breeze, and we were alone in the darkness. I didn’t think too much of it beyond, “Holy moly, we have weird ass people in this neighborhood.” But then the next night, walking the dog, another woman stepped into the light in the middle of the road. Even backlit I could tell that she was not the same woman. She lifted her arms toward the trees, and PooPet let out a bark that morphed into a whimper. The air stopped moving. I couldn’t breathe. Now I was seriously freaked out. PooPet was still, and for a moment, I could feel my blood move through my body, like I was being watered from the inside.

This Kali was formal, “There is no need to be frightened.” I think I said, “Uh, yeah, Okay.” At that point I was scared as fuck, running down that road to the safety of my townhouse. It didn’t stop me from returning to the training class the next day, but I was really, really, very alert between yoga poses.

Maybe that’s the way this is supposed to be. I am aware, actually frightened, that things could go wrong in a big way. But. I’m still going to move to Texas. My friends, come along for the ride but hold on. This will shake us up! Anyone up for a walk?

Om Kali Ma

 

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I didn’t know what the term meant – I don’t say things like that.

As most of my friends and colleagues and a few attorneys know, I have been stalked, my car and home vandalized, and my professional reputation threatened for a year by a mentally unhinged person. During that time, I walked a tightrope between creating more distress for the person’s family on one side and ignoring my safety on the other side. With this current act of name-calling, I am done being quiet.

There is something horrific about a woman commenting on another woman’s appearance in a way to shame her or cause her pain.

I’ll be sixty in a couple of years and with it has come some hard knocks leading to episodic wisdom.

I’ve lived through ballet auditions where I didn’t make it through the first rounds because they were ‘looking for a particular body type.’ Balanchine wanted his dancers to be ‘like racehorses, rail thin, beautiful, and not bright.’ No one cared how I danced.

Nevertheless, I modeled my way through college being a consistent size 8. Patterns were cut to this size in the 70s and 80s. I can’t take kudos for the size 8 body; it’s the family bone structure and genetics.

My first husband made comments about my looks, my weight, and my height. You can’t change some of these characteristics. They are genetic, predetermined, or out of your control. I will never forget the day I said to that husband, “I’m a size 8. Get over it. Not a size 4. Not going to happen.” And I returned to my graduate school studies. He remarried and described his wife as “young, beautiful, and stylish.” Good grief. She can’t stay that way forever. He can’t either.

I’ve had dates where I knew the men were not into my appearance. “But that body,” they would say. Yeah, I’m a little more than that. We are entitled to preferences but beyond 30, people, this life, my body comes with an expiration date. Go away and grow up.

I’ve lost jobs or not received a second interview because I look too old – employers can’t ask your age, but they figure it out. Ageism. Or maybe I did not fulfill their appearance requirement. Still illegal and still hard to prove but you know it when you are on the receiving end.

My wrinkles and the knowledge in my eyes are hard won – living, loving, making mistakes, grieving, being a friend – it is all there on my face and body. I don’t look, act, sound, think, or believe in the same ways of earlier decades. To do so would be a nullification of who I am, my genetics, my values, and every experience that I have lived through. I will not do that to myself. Or to another female. Or male.

So, to the woman who calls me BUTTERFACE, I am sorry for the time, and it will happen, when someone makes a derogatory remark about your appearance. By then, I hope you will have learned the self-acceptance to shrug it off.

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Valentine’s Day. Well, what can you say? I woke up this morning to find my stalker, yes, I think of her as mine, had enlisted her husband to harass me. Block, block, block. The shredder-guy is coming to release me of my deluge of papers and I’ve yet to gather the papers together (but not the transcripts of her texts and screenshots of her threatening to hurt me). Not an auspicious start to the holiday – maybe I should just sit this one out.

Gathering my stuff for the shredder, I realized that I was a magpie in another life – surely the monstrous number of books, photos, and papers is a sign. One box contained a yearbook from middle school – 8th grade. An infamous year of that awkward stage, the year after I had settled in Alabama when I knew enough not to carry my monogrammed shoe bag from Scottish boarding school but not much else. Academically, I was bored out of my mind being a year or three ahead in most subjects. And completely flummoxed by the teacher for English, Spanish, and French. She had a kind heart and taught conversational French by the book.

After two years of French taught by a Frenchwoman, I was way, way ahead of other students. In this class, we sat around memorizing little dialogues before reciting them with another student at the front of the class.

Remember 8th grade. The hormones. The preoccupation with skin imperfections. Always before the yearbook picture. The tight jeans and bowl cut hairstyles. Who was responsible for those atrocities? Those damn polyester shirts that gapped you know where. Always. Or the button popped off after giving a book review. Yes. A bad time.

French class was my respite. I could daydream and fret depending on the day, state of my hair, cooperation of my shirt, or clarity of my skin. I do remember the time I had to recite my little French ditty with the cutest guy in school, Serge. Not ever forgetting his name, his full name, but only giving you the first name so I can bypass the humiliation of someone contacting him.

Serge stood at the front of the class in his bell-bottom jeans. With the knife-like pleat. Wearing a chest hugging shirt. His blonde hair cut in a mullet. Green eyes half-shut. Skin like freshly churned butter. With his lazy lion looks, I thought wow. Wow. Frigid air conditioning lifted his hair, and I thought WOW. He’s so cute. Maybe I said it aloud. My mouth was open when I heard my name called and called again. I shook my head. Eek. I stood up knocking over my chair, tripped over my neighbor’s chair, and stumbled to the front of the class. I could do this. I knew I could. Do this.

At the front of the classroom, all eyes turned to us, the teacher said, “Begin.”

I looked at Serge and thought no bloody way. But it is school, and I’m a good student. He smiled at me without looking at me. In my general area. Hormones, adrenalin mostly, raced through my body.

“Ou … “ I looked at the teacher. A red spot formed on my flat chest.

“Go on,” she said. I clenched my fists. Somebody in the back of the classroom giggled.

“Ou guardez-vous …”

I felt more red spots creep up my neck. Serge smirked at me. He knew he was the coolest, cutest guy in school and I was just a dork.

“Ou guardez-vous … “

I bit my lip. So hard that I remember tasting blood. Burning splotches broke out on my chest, neck, and face. People in the front row of desks would not meet my eyes; facial muscles straining, not cracking a smile. The middle to the back of the class was out and out laughing.

Serge must have thought he was going to play with me. “What do you want to ask me?” he said arranging things in his pant pockets. By now, I could see the red splotches combining; instead of a collection of measles-like red bumps, I had Scarlet fever.

There was only one way out of it.

“I’ll take the F,” I said to the teacher.

“Ou guardez-vous vos saucisses?” The vignette would have me asking the cutest guy in my grade where do you keep your sausages? Sometimes in life, you just have to sit one out.

Oh, good, here’s the shredder guy. He needs to obliterate this yearbook then I can have a laugh and get on with Valentine’s Day.

file8001243264561When I was 17, I chose to become an American citizen. Immigrating with my family at 13 to Alabama from a private boarding school in Scotland was difficult for my family. My parents’ marriage could not withstand the pressures. I grew up feeling confused and out of step. So many missteps, as simple as the use of English, like everyone got the US instruction manual but me.

Asking someone in the seventh grade, “Can I borrow I rubber?” did not mean what I thought it meant. When mother explained why the boy behind me laughed, I was mortified. I asked him for an ‘eraser,’ and he thought I was asking him for a condom. Eeoogh.

When the time came to go to university, my mother was utterly lost. I needed American citizenship to accept scholarships and at some institutions, back then, to even submit an admissions application.

I chose citizenship because, in high school’s Civics class and American Government classes, the American system presented a model of checks and balances, made up of groups helping each other create and maintain a democracy. The government was rational and prudent to my 17-year-old mind.

The actual occasion was memorable. Going before the judge in Mobile, I answered questions about American history and government from information I had been taught in school and augmented by ancillary reading done at night. I wore my best clothes – a black and green print shirt and a green corduroy wraparound skirt. I curled my hair. I couldn’t stop smiling. A teacher from my high school was there. He was from Mexico and getting his citizenship that day too. We were part of a larger group of immigrants. There is a picture of us standing before the US flag in the Mobile newspaper. It was a proud day for my family. A moment where I carved out a piece of my identity. My family went out to eat afterward at our favorite place, a little salad shop in the mall. Now I had the instruction manual.

I was the first of my siblings to receive citizenship. It was an honor. It breaks my heart to see the country torn apart by this election –people torn apart. Friends and family, colleagues and companies split by the divisiveness of this time. The price of the instruction manual is steep.

I am not saying that we shouldn’t be activists and stand for what we believe in. That is my definition of a government of, for, and by the people.

I am saying that a democracy should help elevate the people of the country to higher levels of thinking about complex social dilemmas. A government should help the people reach and create more.

More appreciation for diversity, not just tolerance but union.

More health, physical, mental, and spiritual, not my way or the highway.

More equality between and among groups, not justice for some.

More complexity in thinking, not moral relativism.

More compassion for emotional responses, not discounting nor overrating but integration.

 

Pay for your instruction manual whether given at birth or with your citizenship papers: what are you doing to mend our collective broken hearts?

blog54         I did something bad, really painful to my back yesterday in yoga class. The muscles in my lower back seized tight like I had been digging graves or planting bulbs, you pick, for a few days. By 5 pm, I could barely sit at my desk, but walking helped, so I enlisted a friend, and we walked around Barnes & Noble bookstore for a good hour.

Giggling, I walked around the store, limping the gauntlet of back pain, circling literary fiction, then teen picks, over to poetry, and past the enormous display of 50 Shades of Mediocre Writing, More Mediocrity, and finally, The End of Mediocrity (until the author does some actual research into consensual sexuality versus stalking and rape). My friend was standing in the sex section.

You know.

The section of the bookstore that we want to peruse. But are frightened or plain embarrassed to be seen having interest, prurient interest in a topic that has been part of the NC legislature’s tussle over the last year.

Grow up folks; even the pearl-wearing and the seersucker-suited government is talking about sexual issues.

My friend looked pretty comfortable. We picked out books by their cover to be disappointed with the lack of pictures and the downright clinical tone of the books. When did sex become so dull? Well, I am living in NC, and it is a national chain of bookstores.

It wasn’t always that way. Ten years ago I took a similar jaunt to B&N to pick up some books for clients (counseling knows no shame thankfully). It was the middle of an afternoon in the middle of the week. I walked over to the shelves marked SEXUALITY, pulled a few books, tucked my skirt under me, and sat down with the books on the floor.

Within a ten minutes, a few people had walked by, walked by again, and then walked up to me.

“What you looking at?” asked a man.

“Books,” I said.

“Books about what?”

“Books about sex.”

“Oh.”

A few people skittered away. Fast feet and heads down. A few souls stayed.

“What do you think about this book?”

They sat down on the floor blocking the aisle. We started comparing covers. Yes, the cover of a book is crucial. (I like the hot pink and yellow book titled, ‘Hot Sex: How to do it.’)

In thirty minutes, we were a circle of people, different genders, different ages, different skin colors. And we were having a thoughtful conversation about what we look for in a sex book. Pictures, some humor, explicit information and directions, more humor, and permission to explore this important part of our lives.

“It’s great Barnes & Nobel has employees like you,” a woman said.

“Yeah, I’ve never felt so comfortable talking about sex.”

“Um, I don’t work here,” I said.

“Well, you should.”

“Who are you then?”

“Just a reader like you. Interested in sex.”

We unashamedly laughed, giggled, and snorted. Under the bright lights of the bookstore, we talked about the meaning of sex in our lives, how we wanted books that reflected that interest and employees that were knowledgeable and unafraid.

So what has happened in the last ten years? How did we end up with HB2? Why are we mute as our reproductive rights are being legislated away and programs are being defunded? We do not blink an eye as art, in its different forms, is rigidly censored. Art, the conscience of the culture, meant to confuse and inform and disturb us but we settle for sofa art – some image asking nothing of us.

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I think we are fucked, and not in a good way. What are you going to do about this?

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