Category Archives: Reading

Hyper-Vigilance and Reading

There is a gate across the rough road in the woods where I live where two world views compete.

Here, barbwire on rough-hewn posts stretches between two trees, which can be loosed from a wire loop so that a bike or a runner or a truck can pass through. A yellow sign says, “Please Close the Gate.”

But for some, a truck is not welcome. They have piled boulders and branches across the road in what I imagine to be a fit of frustration, a sweaty frenzy: moving rocks from where they have lived, displacing what lives there. I think of their motivation as a form of road rage, an effort to check that-over-which-we-are-powerless out of a desire for control in a fearsome climate. Though the futility of this makes me smile, I am empathetic.

As the road continues back towards our neighborhood, a couple of other natural gates, made by fallen trees, have been similarly narrowed. Once someone pounded a metal stake into the earth there. It bore an official looking sign forbidding cars beyond that point.

Meanwhile, the men in trucks transgress. They drive off road around such barriers. I think I am on an elk path, only to discover I am walking in the tracks of wheels. Recently, a bulldozer went through and moved the rock piles. The sign disappeared immediately. I imagine these off-road warriors resisting such arbitrary and despot government. Like libertarians.

There is a break in the social contract here. There is a return to violence. There is a contest of what I read as white peoples’ wills, a free-ranger vs. a liberal restraint. Both do harm as they attempt to win this battle, a battle that has waged in private, solitary grouches. Do their hearts drum as they drive up on the gate? As they walk around the corner, does adrenaline roar in their ears? Then—victory! Or just the hate, broken back open. Do their knees buckle from the rush? As they bend over, reach for rocks and wood like weapons.

This has gone on for at least four years. Recently, I started to snap photos of the barrier. I have meant to write about it.

I have thought I would write about boundaries between us. How we navigate and negotiate the terms of relationship. How we construct our separation. How we police the borders that cut through our simpatico. How sometimes I want to drive off road and wind amongst trees and risk the undercarriage of my four-wheel drive as I charge over rocks and the springs of my shocks buck and leap.

I have learned not to: our social contract is a more delicate ecosystem.

Yesterday, we were chatting about writing. I wrote something to you and sent it recklessly. I pushed the arrow and then said, out loud, as if from the wiser woods, “Oh, you are actually going to send that?”

“I have to be myself,” was my retort. “My intentions are good. It is ancient history.”

But sometimes digging up our past can cause you to go missing. So, I tried to power down my phone. I did not want the silence to hang over me. It was then that my elk path became truck tire tracks. I came to a kind of acceptance.

Then the Messenger ping! (These go through me now like a jolt. The nerves on me as fine-tuned as a horse or a rabbit or some other form of prey.) And you have gone on, ignoring me generously.

Alone in the woods, I cry with relief.

We are talking about a piece of your writing, now under revision.

Readers want us to be explicit. They want to understand everything before they come. They are wary of every sensation of the unknown. They are as sensitive as horses. They are as cagey as a mistreated dog. They are hypervigilant.

I suggest you resist someone’s suggestion–to be “so obvious.” I love your nerdiness. I trust your intelligence and your instincts. I have a theory that too much writing is “over work-shopped,” until everyone writes in the same voice. We would lose your subtlety. And the thrill of your purpose, the dawning of clarity. I say something like, beware of the arrogant editor who thinks she knows better than you do.

I almost edited you that way once. I did actually. I over-wrote your borders. I like everything so explicit. I pile rocks. I drive my truck wherever-the-fuck-I want and end up in torment, surviving your long absence. Until I learn better. Mind the fences.

On the first page of my journal, I have written: STAY OPEN, NO MATTER WHAT.

To you I say, “you are a poet and will satisfy any reader who lets you.”

The yellow sign reads, “Please close the gate.”

And yes, reader, yellow has a meaning. And this essay is full of signs.

 

 

 

 

 

Despair and Teaching About Act UP

What was lost.

Many of the readings for my course, Pride in the Time of HIV/AIDS map this out in some way. A whole, very recent history has been forgotten and misrepresented.

What was lost. Eleven students and I find–in Andrew Holleran’s essays in The Christopher Street Reader and Deborah Gould’s Moving Politics and Sarah Schulman’s Gentrification of the Mind

What it meant to be queer. What disco was. That there was a successful direct action movement that changed the world. Safe sex, camp, rage. They were not all white, nor were they all male, nor elite. They said, Bury Me Furiously. They threw their lovers’ ashes on the White House lawn. They stopped traffic with funerals, real bodies in boxes. They held a Die-In, laid down in the central aisle of St. Patrick’s Cathedral to protest the Cardinal’s decree against wearing condoms, while a man shouted repeatedly:

“Stop Killing Us. Stop Killing Us. Stop Killing Us.”

They awoke one day in the late 80s (after Bowers V. Hardwick declared sodomy to be a worse crime than rape?) to the realization that there was no love for them, no matter how good a boy and girl you were: no appeals to hearts, no display of heroic virtue, no public grief, no candlelight vigil would make the government recognize their humanity.

They had nothing to lose. And in that despair, like the night of Stonewall, rage rose and righteousness.

Fury. Fury. Fury. And Despair Changed the World.

They had nothing to lose. And so they went forth with brave skin and brilliance, everyday people who deserved to live. As I read these books by the Plague’s witnesses and watch documentaries, I feel the historical continuities, evolution: my queer bones, gay as fuck heart, vagus nerve, mirror neurons play and wince, this instrument I am, made of the same stuff. This is why I teach: to show my students who their people really were. They do not know what “queer” means. Isn’t that sad? And I had forgotten that queer never hopes for the government to save them. It does not ask for approval.

My students seem stunned as I perform this derisive, arrogant, beauty, the pathos of my fury.

They had never heard of Act UP!

As for me, I am Googling the old disco that Holleran remembers dancing to, long after the hip crowd went home. The endless slow beats not made for roller skates–and I am brought on his words into the late night, into the realness, sweating (I shake the sweat from my short hair), in a trance, the magic of my body, my aspirations, my handsome, heroic despair.

I Google a Super 8 clip of two queens moaning out the lines like Bronx cats, lounging in lipstick, muscled and lithe and dark in tough wigs (in Mark Morrisroe’s “Hello From Bertha” by Tennessee Williams, once a long lost yearned for gem, then found. Lost and found).

I Google a short film by Jim Hubbard, “Elegy in the Streets” silent. These young mourners release white balloons. A queen on roller skates lifts her skirts to show hairy legs. A vine grows up the tenement building, black balloons and red, and despair building, an angel in negative print, on her knees and the film stays and stays staring.

Lost and found. It’s a mess. It’s hopeless. My perfectionism wakes me anxious…something is wrong. There is no one here. I read this with a spiritual book that tells me to awaken! Remember separation is a lie. We are all electromagnetic energy my friend tells me and, there in his office, my mind’s eye clicks into this fantasy, to holographic memory, the whole on the shattered fragment, how a room lights up when a certain person enters. What does it all mean?

I do not know. I stare. Nothing.

What does despair give you? If it gives you nothing to lose, no sanction, no friendship, no love to lose, it is just your life left and then hardly even that, not for long. I know it is nothing I have ever felt, not on the scale of my Act UP elders.

I know the cowardice of having too much to lose. But less and less.

I have worn brave skin. I was madly in love when I felt it. It was the first morning.

After the first night.

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

Emily Fridlund: “As I tried to understand both these qualities in this peculiar teenage girl, it began to make sense to me that she would be a person forced into independence at a very young age, a kid schooled by woods and lakes—and that this very same background would also make her wretchedly solitary.” (“Stories We Tell When We Won’t See What’s in Front of Us,” in History of Wolves).

The feeling is that there are no grown-ups.

The feeling is that everybody is so caught up in themselves and their needs that they are acting irresponsible. They forget or cannot love. They lack empathy.

History of Wolves is a difficult book with a teenage character who is capable and loyal and yearning. There are big people, but no grown-ups in her life; just other children like her, fellow wolves, raised in transgression. She tries to find these other kids; she wonders about them, would pack up.

For much of the story she tries to teach a young one how to live in the woods there, how to spread and distribute your weight in order to crawl across thin ice. What to eat, what not to eat. Grasshoppers. Plants with milky juice.

But there is no saving this little wolf from the big people.

The whole book I want her to be loved. But none of the characters loves her. Her parents are not capable. The people she becomes loyal to are so caught up in their own stuff.  The wonderfulness and depth of this young person is seen only by the reader—and Linda is a frank person so in touch with her own violence that it makes it difficult to face her truths. But I relate to her. I want things for her that a parent might, like true love and a job that fulfills her heart’s desire. At the same time, I think I know that those ideals are not anything that can be secured, except in fleeting moments that pass and come again and pass. In places unexpected. In reading. In transformation through reading.

“I was focused, calm. I pointed to diagrams of pups in different displays of submission, and quoting from a book I said, ‘But the term alpha—evolved to describe captive animals—is still misleading. An alpha animal may be alpha only at certain times for a specific reason.’ Those words always made me feel I was drinking something cool and sweet, something forbidden. I thought of the black bitch at the Nature Center, fixed in her posture of doggy friendliness, and I recited that part of my speech over again, slowly this time, like it was an amendment to the Constitution” (Emily Fridlund, History of Wolves).

History of Wolves is set in the woods of northern Minnesota and in the context of sexual violence, which haunts those woods and the narrator’s fantasies.

And I am reading it in the context of my personal history with sexual violence, as well as in this historical moment, with its “Hollywood sex scandals” and #metoo testimonials.

It’s a moment that calls to me from the lynch mob.

I felt that once at a rally, when the crowd took off running after some neo Nazis. I felt the excitement. Righteousness licked up through me, like fire. I came to consciousness, running with the mob.

“Afterward, one of the judges poked his pencil in the air. ‘But—I have to intervene here. There’s something you haven’t explained very well. What do wolves have to do with human history?’ It was then that I saw Mr. Grierson by the door. He had his jacket in his arms like he’d just come in, and I watched as he caught the eye of the judge and shrugged. It was the subtlest shift of his shoulders, as if to say, What can you do with kids? What can you do with these teenage girls? I took a deep breath and glared at both of them. ‘Wolves have nothing at all to do with humans, actually. If they can help it, they avoid them’” (Emily Fridlund, History of Wolves).

I felt that more than once driving to work. I taught today about Bowers v. Hardwick, the 1986 Supreme Court Ruling, which affirmed that “there is no such thing as a fundamental right to commit homosexual sodomy.” The majority opinion described it as “an offense of ‘deeper malignity’ than rape, an heinous act ‘the very mention of which is a disgrace to human nature.'”

I heard it in the chants of Act UP activists in the documentary we watched. (Linda would understand my ambivalence, light and dark projections, a history of shame and pride shift across my skin.) They stood up to police on horseback. They threw the ashes of their loved ones on the White House lawn. They pointed. They shouted. They buried one another furiously, “The whole world is watching!

“The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!

“Shame! Shame! Shame! Shame!”

It’s a moment that calls to me from the lynch mob. From Linda’s wolf knowledge, from mine.

“‘An alpha animal may be alpha only at certain times for a specific reason.’ Those words always made me feel I was drinking something cool and sweet, something forbidden.”

 

 

Nothing to Lose

Grieving my dog while white supremacists try to take Charlottesville, Virginia.

One dead, nineteen wounded as a car mows down anti-racist activists. I wrote my senior paper in high school on non-violence: in the film Gandhi, I had seen non-violent protestors standing before British soldiers on horses, willing to put their bodies on the line. And trampled.

My skin and bones feel ready. My dog has died and my heart aches. I am walking alone in the woods, able to cry only a little in these scattered showers. I feel like a stray dog.

I want to make the ache in my chest about anything else—things I can fix or analyze or pursue. I call people, post, message, asking where the movement is today.

Give money to bail people out, is one reply.

The absence of my dog, Hippolyta “Ipo” is a loss of purpose, of a regular set of service commitments that have helped me hold off anxiety in these newly dangerous times.

I had not realized. At first, guiltily, I felt freed of responsibility.

But it became necessary last year to have her come to work, where I teach history. Where I have been targeted by white supremacists. And received a volume of hate mail and even a death threat.

Ipo helped. Helping Ipo helped me.

I think of how hard it is for me to be comforted. I disqualify people for being too—something.

Aside from a rare few, Ipo only let me pet her. Then, as she aged, she disqualified them. Sometimes even I wasn’t allowed.

But in a thunderstorm, she came close by. In the end, I carried her frail body in my arms. On walks that went too long. To the beach in Trinidad, to say goodbye at the edge of the known world. It was time to let go of her brown eyes looking on me, of total love, of her jaunty walk.

As the sedative went into her body, she resisted sleep, worrying about me, with her left eye brow going up and up, still looking after me. I put my hand under her long soft chin and I rested my forehead on hers and I said, It’s ok. you can go. I can take care of this now. And she believed me.

I can still feel her and find her always in the corner of my eye. The house is not empty. What I did for her body and spirit, I can do for mine.

It’s ok to be wild and choosey, I tell myself.

I was reading a beautiful essay by Jeannette Winterson this morning, “The Night Sea Voyage.” She was going mad, then meeting her inner monster, conversing with this split in half child who muttered only mean, nonsensical things. We were never held she says to that monster, “nobody had cuddled us when we were little. I said ‘us’, not ‘you’. She held my hand. She had never done that before; mainly she walked behind shooting her sentences. We both sat down and cried. I said, ‘We will learn how to love.’”

I am studying the history of love and shame in the context of Gay Liberation. Of the young trans street hustlers of color who started rioting at the Stonewall in June of 1969, an observer in a recent film said something along the lines of, “these street kids have nothing left to lose.”

In this and other such films, we see scene after scene of police brutality and gay bashing. In juxtapostion, the riot seems just. It is cathartic. It is an act of self-love. Pride is the word we use for love.

A body is something to lose.

This makes me think of Coates: how he described American history in terms of the “plunder of black bodies.” He mentions women, speaks of the plunder of their bodies. Confesses to his own plunder of queer bodies. Is transformed by love of a queer woman from a queer family. It is Coates who made me think this…and James Baldwin.

Baldwin: “I know from my own experience that the macho men…They’ve created faggots in order to act out a sexual fantasy on the body of another man and not take responsibility for it.”

Throughout the interview, Baldwin expresses “impatience” with the term “gay,” saying “It answers a false argument, a false accusation…which is that you have no right to be here, that you have to prove your right to be here. I’m saying I have nothing to prove. The world also belongs to me …Best advice I ever got was an old friend of mine, a black friend, who said you have to go the way your blood beats. If you don’t live the only life you have, you won’t live some other life, you won’t live any life at all. That’s the only advice you can give anybody. And it’s not advice, it’s an observation.”

I feel like a stray dog today.

I was Ipo’s person. My phone was full of pictures of her. She had a bed in both rooms and the car, came “with,” had plenty of good food, treats, and she was my “wolf pup”, “my cashew nut”, “munchkin”—magnificent and beloved for exactly who she was. I was so proud of her. I loved even the things that were hard: the wafts of hair.

I cannot recall what else was hard.

Her refusal to be petted, I called “excellent boundaries.”

Hippolyta

Just an absence…almost the same as when I don’t pay attention. When I didn’t
And a racing ache
Like fear
A big rock on my sternum
The burn. Heartburn
A ratcheting
A stick dragged across the bumpy asphalt
Something unsoothable
Toys she loved, all emptied of cotton
I said she made them skinny
To match her
For a long while she was removing herself
Sleeping in the other room
And so I feel how we both walked out
Out of the woods.
She took me this far
And now I take her everywhere.
It is just that
The time of our bodies is over.

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

“I was flesh thirst desire dust blood lips cracking feet blistered knees skinned hips bruised, but I was so happy not to be napping on a sofa under a blanket with an older man by my side and a baby on my lap” (Deborah Levy, Hot Milk).

(I love how Levy writes in this breathless blurring without commas. She has produced theory and poetry and I am driven by narrative to understand something complicated about gender and desire. Reflecting on this, on icons of femininity, masculinity, and the symbols on bathroom doors, narrator Sofia wonders: “Are we all lurking in each other’s sign?” and realizes, “It wasn’t clarity I was after. I wanted things to be less clear.”)

In Hot Milk, by Deborah Levy, Sofia falls in love with Ingrid Bauer—she is Ingrid’s monster, the monster of her desire.

Sopfia has this vision of Ingrid Bauer: “A woman is galloping on her horse across the burning sand of the playa. A tall Andalusian horse. His mane is flaming his hooves are thundering the sea is glittering. She is wearing blue velvet shorts and brown riding boots and she is holding a giant bow and arrow. Her upper arms are muscled, her long hair is braided, she is gripping the horse with her thighs. I can hear her breathing as the arrow flies through the air and enters my heart. I am wounded. I am wounded with desire and I am ready for the ordeal of love.”

Ingrid Bauer on her tall Andalusian also invokes an Amazon, appearing like one of those legendary women warriors whose society offered an alternative to heteropatriarchy. Some, too proud, preferring war, were virgins. Some mated with men, but (as symbolized by the golden bracelets worn by Wonder Woman) lived outside the bonds of marriage and sent the fathers of their daughters home. Or sent any sons conceived to live with their dads. At their most monstrous, Amazons murdered these sons instead. They were also said to have removed a breast to better wield a bow or spear.

But these accounts are surely lies, misrepresentations meant to undermine Amazons’ cruel challenge to tender male dominance.

I do think that our current political situation arises in part as a defense of that old social order: with white women cast as victims while while men champion and make perpetrators of the rest of us.

In Amazon love, you must be your own hero.  As Sofia concludes, “I am in love with Ingrid Bauer and she is in love with me. She is not a safe person to love, but I am prepared to take the risk.”

When I reflect on my own history, I often choose this as my moment of clarity: I was on a date with a boy I found beautiful, who occupied my teenage obsessions, for whom I haunted the stacks of the university library until I mustered the courage to invite him to my prom.

But when he insisted on opening the car door for me, I sat there needlessly and waited for him to run around,  hating the role that heterosexuality would call me to.

I don’t mind having the door held open for me. That is a kindness. It is a charming part of our gender bending banter.

But I object to the requirement that I forget how to open my own door, so that you can know your worth.

Find something else to save and defend with your gentle heart.

I can stand right beside you, also full of brave love.

I’m grinning.

(my teeth flash at you)

F.E.A.R.

“I have observed many runners who are moving their arms and legs and going through the motions of running, but what is missing is the sense of integrity that comes from having a strong center” (Danny and Katherine Dreyer, Chi Running, 36).

What happened made me.

And then it made me.

I want to write about running up and down Campbell Ridge Road. What makes this possible are muscles that I imagine and (so experience) as two giant fists pistoning up and down from my lower abdomen into the center of my pelvis. This is where I understand (from the Dreyers, Chi Running) the bottomless, most sustainable, most powerful energy in my body resides. I am very new to this practice. But when I tuck my tail, lengthen my spine and drive out from this center, I find I can run stronger and faster.

I am running 3, 4, 5 miles a few times a week, beginning with a tough mile and a half up and over Campbell Ridge as it quickly inclines through 4 hairpin turns. In places this road is so steep, it seems I am climbing hand over fist. But I am running. And when I have made it through to where the road eases off a little, the rest of the hill feels…reasonable.

My dog, who normally runs like a deer all over the mountainside, has taken to running with me like a little coach. She meets me ahead, as if cheering me along.

With this running practice comes greater access to my core. And amazement at myself.

Great hands reach into the bowl of me, into my center, and lift me up the mountain.

There is pleasure in running from this place too. For moments I have felt like I am flying. I have felt super human. Running has become a kind of craving. Even now as I write, I am wanting, looking forward to the next run.

And this is still my body able to do this, the very body that in November of 2010 experienced such pain that I considered disk replacement surgery, the body in which I could not sit, nor lay flat. The body without a core, as I discovered in physical therapy. The body at first given giant rubber bands and tiny imperceptible movements. Then given strength building, yoga, manual therapy.

It is my body back. As I had requested, speaking over and over bath water, please give me my body back. Back from my life. Back from what made me.

And then made me even more.

There is a reason why, at age 44, I am learning how to run all over again, to run, as the Dreyers put it, like a kid.

I have just finished reading a novel about a man who survived a horrific childhood and who was so beautiful and so beloved, but who never recovered from the belief he had learned as a child that he deserved all the violence ever done to him.

“He rarely got angry about things that happened or had happened to him: his pains, past and present, were things he tried not to brood about, were not questions to which he spent his days searching for meaning. He already knew why they had happened: they had happened because he had deserved them” (Hanya Yanagihara,  A Little Life).

Before I was ten years old, I had learned to disconnect from the center of me. I had taught myself to leave, to go away from my skin. I had buried other people’s harms to me down deep in my core, in the place in me strong enough. I had owned them, incorporated them. They seemed fundamental. They were the secret truth about me.

And each time those great hands reach into the bowl of me, that shame is what I have known they will touch. Of course I had felt fear. It was to this that I knew I must return.

But shame is always a lie.

How can a person come to believe this? That the violence of others or their neglect, of a parent or a brother, of a perpetrator or a crowd of people holding signs that say God Hates Fags is not in some way deserved?

The first eighteen years of our lives: the first 6,570 days. That is 160,000 hours. 72 seasons. Whatever we learn surviving those hours and days and seasons is stored in our bodies. In our very cells. The whole of us learns to survive, right down to the cellular level. And as the cells die and are replaced, they teach the new cells what they know. They teach them how to be kidneys, how to be nerves, how to be marrow, how to be skin, how to be heart…

And how to survive.

Fuck Everything And Run.

The cells know and pass on and so remember. Sorrow. Shame. Fear. They know to flinch. To flush. To freeze. And to give up sensation. To deaden desire.

“He had all sorts of rules he’d constructed for himself over the decades, based on lessons someone must have taught him—what he wasn’t entitled to; what he mustn’t enjoy; what he mustn’t hope or wish for; what he mustn’t covet—and it took some years to figure out what these rules were, and longer still to try to convince him of their falsehood. But this was very difficult: they were rules by which he had survived his life, they were rules that made the world explicable to him. He was terrifically disciplined—he was in everything—and discipline, like vigilance, is a near-impossible quality to get someone to abandon.”

And yet, like me, the character in this novel is loved by incredible people who believe he is deserving, not of pain, but of love.

They have sat across tables from me. They have heard all my secrets. They have wept before me. They have believed me. In me. They have told me their secrets. They have shown me how to love. They loved me when I could not love myself. And I have done all of this now too. For others like me.

I have told you things that were so risky they could destroy you. They did a little. I could see it in your face. A long time ago, these things that happened to us, made us. Then surviving them made us even more. Now they heal us.

Face Everything And Recover.

What happened made me. And then it made me. And now it makes me.

Useful.

On my first long run a month ago, I had some moments of bliss, of the joy that comes of running on those Chi pistons. In those moments, I had risen up the hill on wings from the bowl of my pelvis, on the arrow of my spine, on light beaming out the crown of my head.

So when I was done, walking home through the pine woods and wildflowers at Toho Trail, I was suddenly flooded with memories, beautiful golden memories from when I was 4, 5, 6. All the hours embracing the rough oak tree out front of our house. Playing red light green light with the neighbor kids in the summer evening. Kittens born on my bed. My calico cat Psyche. Kicking a soccer ball against the garage. Halloween costumes. Learning how to make French toast. New shoes. Sitting at the sunny breakfast table. My sister on the phone talking to her imaginary friend Olive. Jumping in mud puddles. Riding my big wheel through the shady streets of Greenwood Drive. All in a flood of golden light. Beautiful memories, all of them.

And I was also crying as hard as a little kid who has fallen and is shocked at that sensation. I was beside myself. But I wasn’t surprised. I knew this could happen. I know why I have been afraid to draw from that powerful place.

I had buried other people’s harms to me down deep in my core, in the place in me strong enough. I had owned them, incorporated them. They seemed fundamental. They were the secret truth about me.

But that was a false belief.

And as I walked along, crying like a child, I told myself, you are safe now. I said, it wasn’t your fault. And I hugged myself.

I soon finished my crying.

And that same golden light now filled the woods.

The peace that came after everything. Because of everything.

I was beside myself.

F.E.A.R.

Face Everything And

Run.