It’s no exaggeration to say that I learned to eat by reading cookbooks.
When, at age 27, my doctor told me I weighed too much and that my blood pressure was so high she was going to have to put me on medication, I figured, well, I guess it’s finally time to change my habits.
I tried Weight Watchers for about five minutes. Regardless of the calorie counting, I sensed that I was undernourished and nutrient deficient. In some dimly lit cavern in the back of my mind, I recalled having read an interview with actress Naomie Harris in which she talked about how Woody Harrelson introduced her to raw foods while they were filming the movie After the Sunset together. With this shadowy concept of raw foods in mind, I reasoned that I couldn’t possibly go wrong if I just started eating a ton of fruits and vegetables. So, my conversion to vegetarianism, and eventually to a raw vegan diet, began.
The first order of business was buying a cookbook. I searched Amazon and was happy to come across Jenny Cornbleet’s Raw Food Made Easy: For 1 or 2 People. The name was its obvious selling point. I was living with a roommate at the time, and we generally went our own separate ways food-wise, so the idea of making dishes in individual servings was appealing to me. Especially since I didn’t know what I was getting into with this dietary shift. But, since I was never much of a cook prior to that, there were no bad habits for me to unlearn or recipes to miss or ingredients to regret not being able to use. I was as blank a slate, culinarily, as it was possible to be.
Thinking back on it, I actually have no idea what I ate for those first four years I was living in Chicago! I think probably a lot of pasta and chicken breasts made on a George Foreman grill.
I eased my way into the raw food thing gently, by learning how to make desserts first—avocado-based chocolate puddings, apple crumbles, and such. Then, I added in raw vegan versions of familiar, identifiable entrees like spaghetti with tomato sauce (made with zucchini spiralized into noodle shape) and various nut-based pates. The other wonderful thing about Cornbleet’s cookbook was that it didn’t call for any exotic ingredients that I would have been afraid to try (with my then-limited palate) or that would have been hard to find outside Whole Foods (I don’t think I probably had ever stepped inside a Whole Foods prior to this new dietary era).
Once I felt a certain level of proficiency using Cornbleet’s cookbook, I graduated to Ani’s Raw Food Kitchen by Ani Phyo. The recipes were slightly more complex, but the book was longer and had more to choose from and so I felt comfortable skipping over anything that was daunting. I gained confidence in the kitchen, and though I tried to never be an obnoxious proselytizer, I was always pleased to be able to share the food that I’d made with people and hear them say they genuinely enjoyed it.
Over the next few years, I did manage to get healthy enough that my doctor took me off my high blood pressure medication. This was a triumph in itself, and I’ll always be proud of that, but secretly, of course, I was dismayed that that accomplishment didn’t magically result in my suddenly having a brand new body. My skin cleared up and my eyes were blazing white and I did lose a pretty significant amount of weight, but it was never enough. I was never transformed. I was never not me.
Not to mention, the vigilance to maintain the raw food way of life ultimately became too much of a time investment for me to sustain it long term, especially once I started getting busy in other areas of my life that left me with less time for experimenting in the kitchen. So, over the next several years, I stopped identifying myself as a raw foodist. I continued to drink green smoothies pretty much every day (thank you, Victoria Boutenko!) and remained vegetarian (for the most part), but my raw food recipe books languished on my shelf for longer than I’d like to admit.
But these days, I have a new cookbook love: jae steele’s Get It Ripe. My boyfriend remembered that it had a great recipe for peanut butter cookies, so we purchased a copy about a year ago just for that. Luckily, it’s been the source of a handful of terrific new recipes that we now make and eat regularly: Sesame Kale Soba, Coconut Cauliflower Chana, and Banana Chocolate Chip Muffins.
I will never be the kind of person who can just throw a dish together based on feeling. I don’t trust myself enough to improvise at that level. But, it’s gratifying to have a shelf full of cookbooks that I can rely on to fill in the blanks if the cupboard is less than well stocked and I need to make breakfast in a pinch. Knowing where to look for the answers, in this case, is enough.
I’ve, historically, not been known among close friends as a crier. So, one of the most unexpected, and, in some ways, welcome, developments of ’08 was my transformation into, well, something of a basket case, frankly. Name an event, and chances are I’ve sobbed through it this year: movies, concerts, sex, meditation, and, in Caribou’s case, laundry. Yep, Caribou made me cry doing laundry. It was the morning after their transcendent springtime concert, and as I sat watching my clothes tumble dry, I got to mulling, and then tearing up, over the previous night’s events: the pastel wonderland the normally dark and scuzzy Empty Bottle became under the magical influence of the band’s psychedelic projected backdrop and what a warm, welcome, enveloping setting it was, if only for a few hours, after an exaggeratedly pain-in-the-ass winter in Chicago; the musicians’ genial ferocity as they tore through an inspired selection of songs from Andorra and The Milk of Human Kindness; and how thankful I was to be there to witness the phenomenal brilliance of the propulsive double drum attacks between sit-in drummer Ahmed Gallab and the polymusically gifted Dan Snaith. The exotic, weirdly circular drum pattern here always brings me back to that gray Saturday morning in April when I was overcome by the beauty of the remembrance of what had just passed and the sweet yet forlorn sadness that came with knowing I couldn’t share my enthusiasm about it with one of the few people who ever would have truly understood and appreciated it.
Surprise! That paragraph is about my dad!
My dad had a stroke in July 2004, spent the better part of the next eight years in a nursing home in Indiana, and died on December 16, 2012.
I haven’t felt like I’ve done much mourning in this past year. Mostly because I did a lot of it circa 2007/2008.
Though I’d been in traditional therapy since mid-2004, it wasn’t until I started regularly attending the Sunday morning services at the Zen Buddhist Temple here in Chicago and recommitted myself to a daily meditation practice that so many of my hardened emotions began to thaw, and leak, out. In the paragraph from 2008 quoted at the top of this post, I write that I cried during movies, concerts, sex, meditation, and laundry, but it’s the crying while sitting on my meditation mat and cushion that I remember from that year most vividly now.
In the 20 minutes that I carved out for myself to sit and count my breaths before leaving for work every morning, I would sit there and sob and then scrape myself together to walk to the train. And though it all felt like an amorphous blob of emotion at the time, just letting out whatever needed to go, I think a large part of it was actually starting the process of saying goodbye to my father.
In my early 20s, recently arrived in Chicago after graduating from Indiana University, I remember talking to a friend of mine on the phone about all the wonderful film and music and theater and books and television I’d been getting into. We shared updates and recommendations about our new favorite stuff, and somewhere along the line I got philosophical and mused, “yeah, but where does that love go?”
It felt like a completely overpowering question. In many ways, I still am asking it, a little bit every day.
When I feel that excitement and esteem and affection for a piece of pop culture, what happens to that emotion? If I’ll never meet the actress who played the part, or the writer who wrote the words, or the singer who sang the song, and will never have a chance to tell any of them how much I loved the work they produced, where does that unexpressed feeling go? What does it turn into? What does it mean?
My friend, a devout Christian, tried to give me some kind of answer, though I barely remember what he said now. Something to the effect that that love contributes to some overall balance of Good in the universe. But, I think it really made him wonder too.
I don’t know if it’s a quirk of my character in general, or if it was just a characteristic of being in my early 20s, that the only way I could conceive of it at the time was as a turning outward: telling the artist, talking about the art, sending the love into the universe. That impulse to share, to spread, to give away was probably what started, and kept, me writing my old blog Wrestling Entropy in the first place—wanting to tell people about the stuff I enjoyed reading and watching, proselytizing for new converts to whatever hot shit I was obsessed with at the moment.
It’s only now, approaching my mid-30s, that I’m beginning to realize it’s possible, and even desirable, to use that love as a kind of internal nourishment. Keeping it, not out of a selfishness or a desire to hide things from anyone, but as a way of fueling my own creativity, of building up a positive energetic bank balance that will in turn help me create the kind of beautiful life I long to lead. To become the kind of beautiful person living it.
Despite my training as a psychic, despite having learned how to read past lives and access information energetically and see clairvoyantly with my inner vision, I still often feel baffled when I contemplate everything that is lost when a person dies. Everything that they knew, and remembered, and thought about—gone. When it comes to my father, a gifted piano player, it seems incomprehensible to me that all the musical knowledge and skill he’d amassed over his lifetime has disappeared. This is where I miss him most, and most uncomplicatedly.
I will never stop wanting to share new music with him, or ask him to help me parse a cool rhythmic pattern or chord structure. When I listen to a band like Caribou, or a singer/guitarist like Richard Hawley, or any number of other new artists that catch my fancy, that old instinct to turn outward with my appreciation is immediately caught short when I realize that I can’t offer it up to him, for his enjoyment, and for our ability to bond over it. It’s the time when keeping it really does feel more like losing it, like it’s disappearing.
As best I can remember, the first time I met another girl named Allison was in the fourth grade.
And not only was her first name Allison, but her last name also began with the letter F. Just to make it even funnier, her middle initial was the same as mine too, an M.
So, we couldn’t be distinguished from one another in the way we could have if we’d been, say, “Allison B.” and “Allison K.” “Allison #1” and “Allison #2”—aside from the obvious scatological connotations—wouldn’t work, because, yikes, who would be #1? Who would be #2? Though we eventually became good friends, we barely knew each other at that point and there was no reason for us to attempt to compete for ranking like that. I don’t remember who suggested that we come up with our own designated nicknames, but she soon declared that she would be “Ali” (like Ali MacGraw, not Muhammad Ali). And I declared that I would be “Alf.”
Yes, the television show about the cat-eating alien was popular at that time.
And, yes, it was a neutered variation on my name, continuing my trend away from my own feminine energy that had started the year before with my mother’s death.
The name followed me for years, though with less and less frequency, until it phased itself out altogether by the time I graduated high school.
In the years since, I have been known by a variety of other names. And I have known a variety of other Allisons.
The Allison from fourth grade sticks out in my memory now as being sweet yet strong. She had a birdlike frame, yet, exotically, was an accomplished downhill skier.
We lived in Northwest Indiana, where hills in and of themselves, much less downhill skiing on them, were difficult to come by, so this speaks to her family’s ability to not only afford all the gear, but to fly her to the places where they actually had mountains to ski on. She had also been adopted, which therefore also made her the first adoptee I consciously knew.
There was another Allison a year ahead of us at the same elementary school. Physically and temperamentally, she couldn’t have been more different from the two of us. She was loud and blonde and brash, and I remember that she had enormous nostrils. I have a vague recollection that she was probably being raised by a single mother, a mildly eccentric hippie type, who marched to the beat of her own drummer and evidently taught her daughter to do the same.
In the lead-up to the presidential election of 1988, most of the kids on our school bus, following both the general tide of the country as well as Indiana’s conservative politics, were all rooting for George H.W. Bush. She, on the other hand, would respond by taunting the rest of us with her loud, solo chant of “Dukakis!!” Even as an adult, I still admire her for the strength of character it took to stand out like that.
In middle school, my best friend Mary introduced me to a girl named Allison she’d met in a local children’s choir, and we soon became a triad. She was a year younger than us, and went to a different school, but we participated in a lot of the same local community theater productions, so we had ample time together outside regular school hours.
In years past I’d of course encountered the beginnings of girl competition, but at least the social hierarchies had been clear-cut, with a huge gulf yawning between the pretty popular girls and the more awkward, bookish nerds like me. But this triad marked perhaps the first time that I began to see the machinations of competition among girls who were actually quite similar.
Since we all sang and acted and were good students, we struggled to figure out how to define ourselves against each other, to individuate. The unconscious method we arrived at was subtle jockeying for position. Who got the better parts, who could sing the higher or lower notes, who had been taken under wing by the more impressive adult actors. My memories of our time together remain tainted by this eternal quest to rank ourselves against each other. Those tween and early teen years felt utterly exhausting. Even then I had a sense that friendship probably wasn’t supposed to feel like that much work.
That Allison, now in her early 30s, very recently gave birth to a baby. She and her husband had struggled with fertility and decided to adopt, only to become pregnant soon thereafter. I guess I’m happy for her, though the knee-jerk impulse to emphasize our differences compels me, still, to secretly think, “ugh, I am SO GLAD I don’t have to take care of two little babies right now. I am living better.”
Throughout high school, I’d been known among my theater friends primarily by my last name, in a burlesque of the way that athletes call each other by their last names. It wasn’t until probably my junior year of college, though, that I remembered how much I actually like my first name.
A grad student who’d been the assistant instructor for a number of my favorite film studies classes was chatting with me about a paper assignment at the end of a class, and in the course of conversation, he casually said my name back at me. “You know, Allison, you should keep in mind that…” or something to that effect. I nearly swooned.
With the exception of the very occasional guy who will develop a crush on me and suddenly decide that he’s going to call me “Allie” (they all think they’re terribly original when they do this), I’ve been nothing but Allison ever since.
A few years ago, at the wedding of a former roommate I’d already started drifting away from, my place card on the table at the reception listed my first name with only one L. It was a minor misspelling, an easy error for someone to make, but it very definitely felt like the final nail in the coffin of our friendship.
As I examined my pique, I found that I actively wanted both of my Ls. I wanted the All that had not so secretly been living in my name the whole time. I finally wanted the fullness my name had been offering me, a fullness that was never diminished, even while I attempted to disguise it by calling it anything but what it is.
My favorite thing about Tony Trigilio’s The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood) is, honestly, probably the title.
And considering how much I absolutely loved this first installment of the multi-part project, that’s saying a hell of a lot.
On the surface, it couldn’t be a simpler and more accurate description of the poem’s content and scope—it’s a comprehensive overview, in verse, of every episode of the old soap opera Dark Shadows, which Trigilio watched with his mother, yes, while he was a child. But, by the time I finished reading Book 1, I found the phrase starting to run through my head at odd moments, like a scrap of melody—especially that catchy, parenthetical bum-bump “of my childhood” at the end. Beyond the pleasant rhythm of it, though, I found myself turning it over in my mind repeatedly as I began to more fully appreciate and take in its poignancy.
More than just the retold plot lines of an old TV show, the real dark shadows of this book are the excavated memories of childhood nightmares, family tensions, adult regrets and reckonings. As his memories of the episodes merge with his current reassessment of the show while he rewatches, in present time, the DVD box (coffin) set, these cheesy characters open all manner of vistas for him onto the places where ghosts of the past are finally ready to be dealt with. Just as the show itself jumps from the late 1960s back to 1795 and he must find a way to keep the narrative straight for us as readers, he likewise jumps from 2012 to 1967 (with various stops in between) to find the threads that keep it all straight inside himself, emotionally and spiritually.
at the 10/2/67 episode on 10/2/12,
as if reading about aliens traveling
hundreds of light years wasn’t enough
to imagine time is circular rather than linear,
that all moments in time exist at the same time
As I begin to embark on my own reassessment of the childhood incidents and influences that continue to affect me in adulthood, I was so deeply touched by, and grateful to, Tony’s willingness to divulge private moments with such fearlessness and clarity. (Full disclosure: Tony and I play in the same band!) Learning to strum Johnny Cash chords on guitar with his father, sitting with his dying cat not long after his divorce, and, perhaps most movingly, telling how his mother watched her deaf-mute brother finally speak in the hospital in the last moments before his death—these are the images that will haunt not my nightmares but my dreams for how truthful and resonant I too aspire to be on the page.
I’ve been known to say that I’m not terribly ambitious.
But what I just as often don’t admit is that I am actually terribly competitive.
In a weird twist on the expected manifestation of competitiveness, however, I tend not to redouble my efforts to get better at a thing in order to rise to the level of whoever I perceive as cramping my style; I usually just abandon the endeavor altogether. It’s all a very bitter “fuck you, I’m taking my toys and going home” kind of sad snottiness.
My perfectionism, delightfully, doesn’t just force me to want to be the best at a thing; it twists the knife even deeper so that I also kind of want to be the only person doing it. I want people to look at me and think, “aha, the singular Allison! She is just so incredible and unique, truly the source of inspiration for so many of us. We are all mere footnotes in her personal expression of excellence.” Or, as Carrie Fisher brilliantly put it a couple years ago: “I want to explode in the night sky of your approval.” When my explosion threatens to be dimmed by a nearby city skyline, a simultaneous fireworks display, or, heaven forbid, the very stars themselves, well . . . what’s the use in exploding anymore anyway?
The beloved Henry Van Dyke quote “Use whatever talents you possess; the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best” I know is meant to be encouraging, to inspire persistence and joy in the act of creation for the sake of itself, but my stupid, competitive brain always reads it and thinks, “but someone’s got to be the best bird; why not me?!” Ridiculous.
The other complicating factor in this competitive streak is that I’m still in many ways living out my father’s failure narratives. As he got older and more depressed, he became increasingly mired in that stereotypical middle-class male regret of feeling like he wasn’t a good enough provider for his family. It’s interesting, though, that I don’t think I ever heard him express any self-doubt about his talents as a musician. That was one of the few aspects of his life he never seemed to question. In fact, his artistic standards were so high and exacting that he would become enraged when he could tell a person playing with him wasn’t giving a 100 percent effort. Multiple people told me at his funeral that, despite his temper tantrums and profanity-laced tirades, they were grateful to his prodding, that he turned them into better musicians.
Perhaps having lived with that attitude for so many years of my life contributes to my instinct to abandon a task when I can’t be the best at it. Perhaps it’s a way to dodge the possibility that I’ll be excoriated for a less than immediately stellar effort. Or perhaps the sense of failure in our family is like a heat-seeking missile, homing in on wherever our personal weaknesses may live: for him, his masculinity; for me, my sense of self-worth as an artist. Then again, one other possible way of interpreting my struggles in this area is, as one of my clairvoyant teachers once suggested, that I carry the burden of his failure inside myself in a way that prevents me from ever becoming “too much” for him to deal with.
When I graduated from Indiana University and was invited to give a student commencement speech to a small gathering of fellow graduates from the English department, he found a way to crush my high spirits afterward, when he bemoaned the fact that he didn’t get any of the poetic references the professors were making during their speeches. I remember feeling stunned, and then of course hurt. Wasn’t this what he’d always wanted of me? That I would excel in my field, that I would be the cream of the crop, that I would travel in a world of excellence? Why had my moment of triumph suddenly become about his intellectual insecurity? Clearly this was, if not my being too much for him, at the very least it was him expressing his feelings of not being enough for something I couldn’t quite put my finger on at the time.
But, I’ve also come to realize recently that my impulse to abandon projects, or entire communities, is connected to that very sense of feeling like an underdog. Though I am proud to align myself with all manner of freaks and dirtbags and losers, I am also beginning to recognize the place where this sensibility obviously, directly clashes with my perfectionism. How can I be an underdog while also being the star? And this isn’t the Hollywood-style “against all odds, the biggest loser comes from behind, through sheer persistence and pluck to score the winning point for the team” variety of underdog narrative. It’s my adoption of my father’s class inferiority. If I perceive people as getting too fancy or too big for their britches—or if I feel insufficiently esteemed in the context of any given group or organization—I’ll usually find a way to extricate myself and move on to something else.
And so, as in Van Dyke’s silent forest, I’ve found myriad ways over the years to silence parts of myself that weren’t the very best.
In college I silenced much of my natural inclination to perform, both as an actress and as a musician, because I thought I wouldn’t be able to hack it in IU’s world-class theater and music departments.
After being rejected for an internship at a well-known entertainment magazine in New York City, I eventually turned to the then relatively low-stakes world of blogging. But after about six years of that, when my readership was no larger than when I began, and as I seethed with jealousy over newcomers to the scene who were finding ways to make a living from their online writing, I closed up shop in order to devote myself to the development of my psychic abilities.
And now that websites like The Numinous are cropping up, and as more and more people are openly talking about their own paranormal experiences, I find myself thinking, “what’s the point? The fact that I do aura readings and can give healings on people’s astral bodies doesn’t make me special anymore. I should just give it up.” Why is this the first place my brain goes? Why am I not celebrating this mainstream resurgence of interest in all things mystical and feeling excited to be part of this growing movement? I’m not quite sure what would fix the problem for me—if suddenly everyone else abandoned their séances and guided meditation classes? Or if the world took a vote and unanimously decided, “yes, Allison, in fact you are terribly special. You can’t give this up. You are the very best of the best.”
But, on the other side of these fits of pique is usually the saving grace of my voracious curiosity. Now that I’ve achieved a certain level of proficiency in one school of psychic techniques, I’m hungry to learn more, to know more, to explore more. So, I’ve signed up for an entry-level reiki class. I’m tremendously excited to learn about this modality and am looking forward to adding the techniques to my spiritual toolkit. It would just be nice if my ego could give me a break for a while, so that I can allow the night sky to shine without my input.
I’ve spent the past little while in a fog of wrongness.
Maybe it’s post-holiday malaise, or self-diagnosed seasonal affective disorder, or the stifling of an inner urge to do more, be more.
Regardless of the shape it takes, these days, when I find I’m most self-critical about the stuff I’m not doing as well as I’d like to be—like writing, managing my time, saving enough money, taking care of my body and health—I often hit a point where I make the connection, “Oh, that’s because I’m comparing myself to men, measuring my progress against men, or trying to adopt stereotypically masculine working methods.”
I was raised by a perfectionist father, and took a long time growing out of that “one of the boys” mentality. You know, that whole Wendy and the Lost Boys thing of being the only girl in a big, rowdy bunch of guys and feeling special because of it, but also, of course, super-protective of my status against other women who might encroach on it. I do have a good group of close female friends and find it way easier than I ever have to make new women friends at this stage of my life. But still—it’s a pernicious mindset that I find hard to shake. I work on it, but it crops up, many times before I’ve realized it.
It’s somewhat more acute these days in that, as my daily habits and schedule have been restructured quite a bit over the past two or three years, I find I don’t have nearly as many female friends as I would like to whom I can talk about creative pursuits. By and large, the people I have conversations with about my writing and my music and my other grand schemes are men. Men that I adore and respect and find endlessly fascinating and inspiring and who encourage me in so many ways that I appreciate so much, but . . . men nonetheless.
So, it’s terribly important for me to read so many wonderful blogs (and Twitter feeds and Tumblrs, etc.) kept by women. It’s especially important when these women write about their own struggles with insecurity and anxiety. More than just that typical rah-rah-internet cri de coeur of finding togetherness, globally, from behind our computer screens, it is an active reminder to me that sharing my thoughts and perspectives is truly valuable—even when the self-critical voices keep harassing me with putdowns along the lines of “what makes you so special?” and “who cares what you think anyway?” If these women can find a way to turn their own demons into words, and loudly talk about their experiences in order to make the stings feel less venomous, surely I have a responsibility, at some level, to uphold my end of the cosmic bargain to do the same.
I’ve been swatting away a lot of those internal putdowns of late. Here are some of the pieces I’ve read online that have helped keep my strength up while I’m at it.
Veronica Varlow, “Battling the Dark Weather in My Brain”
The [negative brain] loop was murdered by thoughts of calling out to Big Foot and the Loch Ness and letting them know they could be safe if they lived on my mountain, that I wouldn’t report them being there to the papers, that I would bring them food if they wanted, I could just be there and leave notes or wave from the house and they would know that they weren’t hated or hunted and that
this crazy girl in this crazy house loved them
and they weren’t alone.
Lauren Percz, “Love Thy Self“:
My boyfriend is thin and athletic and I’m the complete opposite. When we first starting dating, I was in constant fear that he would be grossed out by my body and dump me. I dreaded the day when and if he would ever see me without clothes on. I figured he would really be disgusted by me then. But he wasn’t and he isn’t. I find that even now that we are an official couple, I still fear that he doesn’t like the way I look.
Mama Gena, “Results that defy logic“:
your resolution slowly begins to vaporize. And you are left with a shrug, an ‘oh well’ and an eerie sense of failure.
Why? Because there are circumstances which actually create creation, and allow for the fulfillment of any and all new year’s resolutions, but the culture we live in is not structured in a way to support a woman’s dreams coming true. We live inside this culture like round pegs trying to fit into a square hole.
It’s not through setting goals.
Not through logic.
Nor doing the right thing that cuts a woman’s imagination and creation loose.
It is her connection to her own pleasure.
Bri Emery, “Anxiety & Insecurity“:
even with this post, i am having this voice inside that wants me to have someone read it first so i can ask ‘should i post it? is it too much? do you think it’s okay?’
Heather Havrilesky, “Ask Polly: I Feel Bitter About All My Exes and I Can’t Get Over It!”
At my lowest points, I was (unconsciously) committed to repressing all ME-ness and approximating what I saw as my current boyfriend’s ideal woman. Needless to say, I was not convincing at this charade. But I didn’t even know that I was acting! I thought I was just trying to be less WRONG, less BAD, less CRAZY.
Kat Kinsman, “Living with anxiety, searching for joy“:
Despite my best attempts at slow, deep breaths and all the rest of the therapeutic tricks I’ve been taught, I’m unable to slow my firecracker pulse or the explosion of toxic thoughts rotting me from brain to skin. ‘You’re so useless. You let down the people you love. Everyone who’s been stupid enough to love you will regret it when they realize how weak you are.’ It goes on and on until my body just shuts down for a couple of hours.
Elisabeth Geier, “Choice Horses and Basements I Have Known“:
The neighbors were young and in love. I learned to keep earplugs next to my bed because I could hear everything that went on in the room above mine. I sat for their baby a few times; when she cried, she shouted ‘water-eyes, water-eyes’ and shook her head, alarmed by her own tears. I did my own crying into pillows and missed Chicago every day until the day I still missed it but wasn’t crying anymore.
Chelsea G. Summers, “Unmentionables, the second”
I told her how previous to purchasing this ridiculous expensive confection of a bra (and the subsequent four I bought online thereafter, drunk with the knowledge of my actual bra size and the pleasure of the feel of a well-fitting bra) I’d been wearing a friend’s hand-me-downs.
‘Chelsea,’ my therapist said in her Long Island accent, ‘you can’t wear second-hand underwear!’
They were nice, I said. Really expensive castoffs from a friend who’d had a breast reduction, I said. They were lovely, I said. Really, I said. Much nicer than I could afford, I said. I protested, perhaps too much.
My therapist tented her fingers and narrowed her eyes. ‘Have you considered how your X is like your hand-me-down underwear?’ she asked. No, I hadn’t.
And, though I am definitely not suffering from the kind of depression that Allie Brosh writes about in her much-celebrated post “Depression Part Two“, I have to link to it anyway, because she is amazing.
When I was in fourth grade, for some reason the gifted and talented program that I was placed in decided to hire a woman, two days a week, to teach us German. Why not Spanish or French? I have no idea. My best guess remains that the administrators simply couldn’t find an instructor in Northwest Indiana prepared to teach either of those languages to a roomful of nine year olds.
At any rate, Fraulein Leep was a delightful, energetic instructor auf Deutsch, and I took to the language immediately. I think at that age, I was probably just on the edge of that neural plasticity that allows children to become proficient in a second (or third, etc.) language much more effortlessly than adults. If it had been spoken around me more often than just two days a week, and/or presented as language immersion rather than dry grammar and vocabulary lessons, I probably would have achieved something close to fluency. Regardless, I had a natural affinity for the language and seriously studied it from then all the way through high school. I even declared German as my major as an incoming freshman at Indiana University, before abandoning it for English and Film Studies.
In high school, desperate to weasel out of math and science classes whenever I could, I eventually added French and then Spanish to my schedule. I’d convinced my guidance counselor it was OK because I would be going into international studies, hoping to become a translator or interpreter. I can no longer recall if I actually believed any of those arguments myself. But, I do know that I genuinely loved studying languages for the sake of themselves. I was also quite impressed with my newly invented identity as “language girl.”
So convinced I remained of my ability to pick up new languages with relative ease that, in the summer of 1999, I decided that I was going to teach myself Italian. Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful had recently been all the middlebrow rage, and I remembered a Mexican literature professor mentioning that he was able to get around Italy just fine, speaking Spanish, as long as he spoke slowly enough. I reasoned that the bits of Spanish and French I knew could only help my effort, so I procured a copy of Italian for Dummies to get me through the basics.
I was working that summer in the office of a small steel manufacturing company in Hammond, Indiana. I recall very little of whatever tedious tasks I was assigned to complete, only that there was barely enough to keep me busy for a full day. This was just before the Internet really took hold as a business necessity, so, instead of spending my downtime surfing the web, as I would were I in that position now, I somehow got away with reading all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novels in chronological order and studying my Italian flashcards at my big metal desk in the corner.
Since I never had anyone to practice or converse with, though, very little of the Italian I managed to cram into my brain stuck with me. But, I developed something of a fixation on Italy itself. Still considering myself a nascent Woman of the World, I declared that the next foreign country I wanted to visit, after I spent the summer of 2000 studying abroad in London, was Italy. In proto-vision board style, I took home a clean paper placemat from some church fundraising spaghetti dinner to hang on my bedroom wall, simply because it had a map of Italy on it.
Life, as it tends to, intervened, though, and these past fifteen years I’ve been less the international playgirl than I thought I would one day be. A weekend trip to take precepts at the Zen Buddhist Temple in Toronto in the summer of 2009 made Canada my next visit outside the U.S., followed by ten or so days in Ireland three years later. I still haven’t been to Italy and even question whether, as a woman in her mid-thirties in the post-Eat, Pray, Love era, that aspiration might even be an embarrassing cliché at this point.
So, as Italy remains a dream for me, it makes sense that I would adore the deliciously dreamlike film The Great Beauty. Chicago’s excessively cold temperatures were no match for its two hours and twenty minutes of beautiful people wandering around Rome, celebrating life and philosophizing about death. I’ve always been notoriously bad at parsing plotlines (something like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy makes my brain numb), so I was grateful to this nearly stream-of-consciousness visual extravaganza, where nothing much happens anyway. I was freed to just revel in the endless dance party sequences, the golden light bathing the city’s architecture in a sensual glow, the impeccably fashionable clothing worn by even the minor characters, and the director’s loving meditations on the lines in lead actor Toni Servillo’s face.
With notions of failure, and regret, and loss, shading the edges of the revelry, though, main character Jep Gambardella finds himself questioning the choices he’s made with his life. Was it the right career? The right place? The right time? His friends and associates (and often strangers as well) repeatedly ask him why he never wrote a second novel after his first and only youthful success, as if there could be a satisfying answer to such a question.
Because I watched my own father fail, in ways both major and minor, for so many years, I’ve long had a soft spot for these kinds of stories about men reckoning with what they didn’t, and couldn’t, achieve in their lives. Now that he’s gone, and now that the passage of time has brought me to what, I suppose, counts as the beginning of the middle of my own story, I wasn’t sure if I was identifying with Jep’s aimlessness on behalf of my father, or on behalf of myself. Jep, though, does eventually find inspiration for his future in a key memory from his past. I have to believe there’s still plenty of time for me to not only find inspiration from my past but to actually allow it to remain in the past as I build a future for myself that’s better than any dream.
As is perhaps obvious from my previous post about picking the “right” perfume to wear for New Year’s Eve, I’m a sucker for creating a Sense of Occasion for pretty much any event. So, of course, I love making new year’s resolutions, though I don’t take them as seriously as I did in my teens and early twenties. This year, however, I decided to try a slightly different approach, inspired by a few other blog and Facebook posts I’d read, and declared for myself a Word of the Year instead. After I bit of meditation and contemplation, I settled on BUILD.
Actually, I came up with REBUILD first. But, energetically, that felt a bit more shadowy. Not quite negative, exactly; just touched with loss in a way that I wasn’t comfortable with inviting in to set the tone for the full twelve months ahead. (I plan on still working with REBUILD to be honest, just from a more Jungian Shadow perspective, as a necessary yin to the yang of BUILD.)
As for BUILD, though, I intend to use it to remind myself not to run away from a thing after I’ve enjoyed the excitement of the Beginning of it.
I am endlessly capable of being seduced by Beginnings; it’s seeing things through their long, indefinable Middles that I am less good at. Someone once described my defining character trait as my sense of curiosity, which was one of the most accurate (and lovely) things that has ever been said about me. I never want to find myself in a place where I’m not fascinated by the world around me. However, I can often allow that curiosity to serve as justification for half-assing my way through the completion of a goal or project because I want to get to the next shiny thing that’s caught my eye. To be sure, in an effort to get to an Ending, I can grit my teeth and barrel through pretty much anything. But after a lifetime of wishing myself to 5 o’clock, or Friday, or the end of the season, or the end of the year, I’m hoping to finally slow down a bit and learn to actually enjoy the Middle of any given experience.
Focusing on Middles is also an attempt to step away from the precocious child routine that has been secretly running my life, like a bad Wes Anderson script, for as long as I can remember. My inner eight year old still wants to be immediately good at a thing, or not do it at all. As I watch so many of my peers beginning to find tangible success in their chosen fields—success that has come through sticking with an idea or goal—I find myself kind of inwardly pouting over my own perceived stasis or lack of achievement. Achievement being a euphemism for recognition here, of course.
I’ve always been enamored of the spotlight, and applause is usually more of a motivator for me than the simple inner satisfaction of a job well done. But of course applause doesn’t come in the middle of a thing, which, I’m sure, has contributed to my attempts to avoid all those slow, quiet spots between the beginning and the end. I wouldn’t need to remind myself to focus on BUILDING for a full year if applause didn’t matter to me.
But, luckily, I’m starting to see that the secret power of BUILD is in the way it serves as a reminder that I have so many good things in my life right now. BUILD does not equal CREATE. I’m grateful for the solid foundation I’ve made for myself in so many crucial areas of my life. Surely the best way to honor the work that I’ve done so far is to not allow those good Beginnings to atrophy into lackluster Endings simply because I’ve abandoned them as good enough. I’d like to work with the energy of 2014 as a gateway into the middle of my grand adventures, as I begin to BUILD my beginnings into something so much richer than I ever could have imagined from the starting line.
I don’t remember myself as being an overly girly little girl. Mostly, I was a show-off. So, if a dress or other frilly thing helped me show off more effectively, then that was great. But I don’t recall gravitating to any certain activity or hobby or way of presenting myself simply because it was specifically feminine.
Who knows how my self-presentation would have continued to develop if my mother hadn’t died when I was eight. But, not only did I lose my primary female role model, I also then instinctively but unconsciously began to align myself with my father. I’m sure it partly stemmed from a child’s need to imitate her elders in order to experiment with how to be a person in the world, but, in my case, it was also a strategic way to figure out how to avoid my father’s hot temper. If I could match him, then hopefully I wouldn’t end up doing anything to set him off, because I would be acting as him in some sense.
And so my energy became more and more boyish as I gained weight (thanks to genetics, uncontrollable stress-eating, and my father’s lazy habit of feeding us a steady diet of fast food) and marched toward puberty.
In high school, I delighted in being one of the guys, especially among my theater friends, and once wore a tuxedo to host a local musical variety show. I thought it was cheeky, to be a 17-year-old girl with a voluptuous figure dressed like a boy. In reality, I just kept distancing myself further and further from my own femininity.
Around the same time as that variety show, I was performing with a coed show choir that required the girls to wear formal dresses for our many concerts during the holiday season. I’d found an old black velvet halter dress that had belonged to my mother and had it altered to fit my measurements. My best friend and I, dressed up in our finery and walking through the school one afternoon, on our way to some performance or other, ran into two middle-aged women teachers in the hallway near the cafeteria. They asked us to twirl around and show off our dresses, and one of them, in reference to me, drawled to the other, “god, if I had a body like that. . . .” I remain shocked by the comment to this day. Not because it felt threatening or inappropriate, but because, with all my insecurity about my weight and all the ways I felt more like a boy than a girl, I couldn’t conceive of my very obviously female body as being anything for anyone to envy.
I’ve done a lot of work in therapy and meditation and energy healing over the past ten years, and I’ve started to feel more OK about my body and my gender presentation. One of the most effective ways I’ve found to play with persona is through perfume. Though I’d always been obsessed with scent, perfume became a more intentional hobby for me in late ’09, initially as a distraction from a breakup that wounded me more deeply than I had expected it to. And as my perfume collection grew beyond the point where it was possible to have only a handful of default scents (say, one for work, one for fancy occasions, one for winter, and one for summer), choosing a daily scent became an exercise in asking myself, “how do I want to feel today? What kind of person do I want to be? How can a perfume help me perform the version of myself that I most want to present to the world on his occasion?”
One of the sweeter aspects of my father’s personality that has become part of my own is his ability to get sentimental about anything and everything. Which means that I’m not only always looking backward in time at the things I used to do and be, I’m also always projecting myself forward and wanting to make sure that I do right by my future self in making sure I’ve done enough to memorialize whatever experience I may be living through at the moment. And since scent is so inextricably tied to memory, I’m perhaps overly fixated on finding the “right” perfume to wear on any given day.
I know I’m not alone in this, especially among other smell obsessives that I read about via the many wonderful perfume blogs being published online, but it’s extra freighted for me as I seek to retrain my childhood instincts away from a more masculine default that no longer serves me toward a femininity that I’ve long suppressed and find myself hungering for. All this is bad enough on a daily basis, just going about my regular workaday life. But the decisions are extra-intense on holidays or other special occasions. So today, New Year’s Eve 2013, the first thing I thought after getting out of the shower was “oh god, what perfume should I wear to say goodbye to the old year and ring in 2014?”
I’d just received a handful of decants in the mail that I wanted to test, but committing to one of those for the full day was way too risky. What if I picked something that didn’t work with my skin’s chemistry or inadvertently stimulated some dormant memory of an unpleasant experience? Better to go with something I already knew that I liked.
But, should I go with an old standby—with emphasis on the old? Would an old standby, because of its familiarity, not retain enough magic to mark the specialness of the day? So, that eliminated what felt like dozens of options.
And though I’ve made peace, despite everything that I’ve written above, with my attraction to scents that fall toward the more masculine end of the spectrum (particularly the smoky, leathery, boozy ones), perhaps obviously I felt like it was best to steer clear of those today as well. As I was pawing through my perfume box, my fingers touched upon the perfect thing: Arquiste’s Anima Dulcis.
It’s sweet and sultry and just a bit naughty; my favorite description of it would have to be Denyse Beaulieu’s evocation of “a series of embedded stories and/or spaces. In Mexico: a convent. In the convent: a cell. In the cell: a nun. Under the nun’s habit: a lace skirt. Under the lace skirt: pimiento, vanilla and chocolate. The holy of holies: a noble virgin’s body.”
The warm, chocolaty yet slightly sweaty embrace of this perfume pushes me to reimagine myself as a more unguarded, boldly erotic and unapologetic woman. Which, I feel, is as good a reason as any to leave this scent here, on this day, like a bookmark for me to glance back at from some future time, maybe less out of nostalgia and more as a marker of the declaration, “it was from here that I began again.”