Inside out

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Inside and out collide, lock horns, battle for opening of doors, windows, for blending, mixing, homogenizing. You are outside, always, engulfing, tentative, unsure. What is this fortress you are not of, know nothing of? If you waft in, what will you lose?

The fortress looks out defensively. I have a moat, a portcullis, turrets. They are mine, don’t breach. Your air is your air, and my air is my air. I warm mine with wood. What warms yours? Stay out.

You are inside the outside, and inside the inside, and that makes you outside the inside and outside the outside. You cannot tell the difference, except for the floors, though they are similar enough. The smell of fire is close, the inside oozing out.

Panic

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Your daughter is walking down the stairs, her footsteps racing, rhythmic, rapid. What if she trips, falls, tumbles? What if she breaks bones, ruptures her spleen, shears the tender capillaries worming through her cerebral membranes?

You stand on the seventh floor balcony in South Beach. Your heart pounds. What if some demented impulse to jump overtakes you and you can’t stop it? What if the railing cracks when you lean? What if the whole balcony crumbles to the street below?

You lie in your hotel room in Midtown and listen as sirens slash the night. What if someone breaks into your room? What if you get hit by a car while crossing 7th Avenue? What if someone abducts your child while you are not looking?

Can you smell fear? It smells like mud, like wet dog, like Sasquatch being chased by errant hunters. It sticks in your throat and it gives you away. It advertises your availability — to be snatched, devoured, deleted.

What if your daughter doesn’t pay attention? What if she isn’t careful? Will she vanish, disappear without a trace, mutate into what the world expects from a woman?

Red on white

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There’s white on white and black on white
And no relief from it in sight
And black on black and red on white
And feathers floating in the night

And feathers floating in the night
They hover softly in mid-flight
In swirling motion they delight
The air swallowing the light

The air swallowing the light
I wish I may I wish I might
The bloody memory of night
A distant cry of distant fight

A distant cry of distant fight
Why here it is, in red, on white
I see it clearly as I write
This white on white and black on white

Sunset

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The sky a kid’s face covered in baby food
Orange streaks ending in root chunks
Opaque memory of the future
Clouds rushing as if late for work
The occasional crow’s swoosh into the distance
Like a paper airplane across my dining room
A gravitational heave arcing up in a paradox
What a clever fox you are waiting
In the clumps of your own strategy
Marooning your desire in feet of delight

Given what we know today

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Let’s get right down to it: I have been obsessing about death. No particular reason other than just being alive, and that this life is bookended by birth and death. Birth I’ve done; death is still on the menu. So I obsess, I fear, I catastrophise, I project. I think about all kinds of scenarios, but I cannot quite trace them all the way to their logical ends.

Was it Roosevelt who said “there is nothing to fear but fear itself”? I saw this today, felt it, contemplating my own mortality. What was this fleeting ghost of a feeling? When I queried myself, really pushed, to understand what exactly was so fearsome, so crushing, it was the fear of feeling fear, fear of uncontrollable anxiety. I was actually afraid that it would be the thing without an end. As if anything lasted forever.

What am I really afraid of? My cosmology envisions a grinding halt, the flicking of the body’s off switch, a dissolution of proteins, nucleic acids, organelles into their components, a recycling of amino acids, bases, cholesterol molecules, an enzymatic holocaust sowing the seeds of progeny. Then I realized what was worrying me: consciousness, I am obsessed with my own consciousness. What about it? I know my molecules, atoms, subatomic particles will survive and reconstitute. But what about my consciousness? And why does it matter so much? Why do we want consciousness to go on in perpetuity, like some Faustian contract? Would we want Trump’s consciousness to persist? Hitler’s? Stalin’s?

This being a uniquely human fear, animals seem to ignore the whole conundrum, although how would we know if they weren’t? We obsess and perseverate. We make up stories — heaven, hell, God, devil, saints, cherubim, seraphim, entire pantheons of mythical creatures to help us prop up our need to believe in our own infinity. Heaven and hell are carrot and stick, the price for basking in this laudanum-infused illusion. Just like rats in a maze, it’s primitive operant conditioning, sugar cubes and electricity, heaven and hell, blessed and damned, all biologically determined.

And reincarnation? Another myth I can neither prove nor disprove. As things stand today, as a scientific theory it is decidedly uninteresting; as a philosophy it is seductive but far-fetched. “Given what we know so far…” This should preface any belief, any conjecture, given the state of the knowledge to date. This is true for climate change, origins of the universe, fracking and cancer — given what we know now, I believe… Tattoo this on your forearm and chant it every night before you sleep. The ultimate prayer, a universal liturgy, “given what we know now, I believe…”

I can fantasize, make up parallel universes, alternate destinies for my soul. Whatever follows my last breath should not concern me now. It will be either nothingness, which is the opposite of bothersome, or perhaps my consciousness will join that universal consciousness that people on acid feel, the warm fuzzy belonging that fuels love and war. Or perhaps some acellular incarnation of myself will finally be able to frolic in all ten dimensions at the same time, reach out and touch the edge of space-time with its invisible fingers and weep at the reflection of God. Given what we know today, I believe…

Hillary Clinton’s neck

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Every time I see Hillary’s neck, something inside me breaks. It’s a topographical map: peaks, valleys, passes traversing mountain ranges. Her chin, cheeks, eyes, forehead house craters of experience, gullies of intelligence, oceans of wisdom. Hillary’s neck makes me want to weep, bury my face in it and whisper soothing encouragements.
I look in the mirror. Mine will look like that in another decade-and-a-half, maybe sooner. In a world where a hot 69-year-old’s cleavage can send us into paroxysms of judgment, a neck like this is a revolution.

I first noticed it in that SNL skit, where she as Val, the bartender, clad in a simple white shirt, criticized herself, Hillary, for being late to the marriage equality party. Culpam eius. Imperfect. No cleavage, but her breasts weren’t hiding, weren’t apologizing for being there, weren’t passing inside a high-end corporate suit. It’s as if she were finally saying, “Here I am, the real me, the one under all the masks.”
~~~~~~~~~
Remember in the ‘90s Brenda Vaccarro’s sultry voice selling Tampax without ever showing one, even unused? The sight of a tampon is triggering. The sight of a bloody one could kill. In those days Hillary talked about “politics of meaning.” It triggered anger, vitriol. Talk of love and kindness could kill. Just like a 69-year-old’s cleavage. And Hillary’s neck. Micro-aggressions, all.
~~~~~~~~~
A friend on Facebook, a smart man (I thought), says Hillary is anti-feminist because she stuck by her “philandering husband,” kept his name. And here I though her relationship was not my business. Of course, being the most ambitious woman in the world, if she had left, we would have been on to her anyway, trying to shake the Clinton reputation for future gain. So in a clever double deception, she stayed. She is so inauthentic! Just look at her chin: cold, calculating. Ambitious.
~~~~~~~~~
When it was time for “the talk,” my mother said to me, “A girl is a towel, a boy is a glass.” Huh? “That’s what my mom told me when I was a girl,” she continued. Two-thirds of a century later Hillary is still a towel with Bill’s grime.
~~~~~~~~~
Hillary talks about love. Who talks about love? And kindness? Isn’t she running for President? She has been talking about it for forty years. She’s been ridiculed for forty years. She is used to it.
~~~~~~~~~
Hillary is a first-term First Lady. I am on call as a medical resident in Boston. My beeper pings. I call back.
“Medical consults?”
“Yes.”
“Patient so-and-so on so-and-so ward, room so-and-so. Pre-op clearance for ophthalmology.”
We hang up. It’s dark outside, airport lights flicker in the distance.
I get to his room. Skinny, young, he is writhing, moaning. He has the face of The Beast: right eye bulges like a volcano about to erupt, milky white of the cornea all I can see, the left one is clamped shut. I turn away for a moment, look back. His hand-cuffed fists are in his face, knuckles digging into his cheeks, a boy wiping angry tears. A black splotch on his right cheek, another on his forehead, ink stains on a map. At the bottom of the bed, his feet in white gym socks look so vulnerable, like Hillary’s neck, ankles shackled.
I read his chart – prisoner, end-stage AIDS, eye infection not responding to antibiotics. Exquisitely painful. The surgical team wants me to say he is medically stable for the OR. I want to say he is too close to death for heroics. I think the gentler thing is to give him pain medicine and spare him the surgery, let him go peacefully. I think I know best. His sister on the phone likes my idea, more humane.
“The kind thing…” I start, to the surgeon in charge.
He reams me out. I mean top-of-his-lungs-right-there-in-the-middle-of-the-ward-in-my-face ream-out.
“Who do you think you are?!!”
I awaken from my trance. Oh, my God! Of course he is pissed! I’ve been arrogant. Naïve? Where do I get off questioning his judgment, talking about kindness?
“But at the human level…” I attempt.
He walks away seething.
“Sorry,” in a whisper. Mea culpa. Imperfect.
Not the first time humiliation sweeps through the wards. That neurosurgery professor reducing my classmate to tears, me on the verge. The handsome Ob/Gyn resident calling “Medical student, medical student, come here.” Same resident, like a peacock on Labor and Delivery, Haitian women ululating.
“There is no need to scream.”
My mother says my birth felt like an umbrella opening inside her body. Scream! Love. Respect. Hierarchy. Egos. Who talks about humanity at the hospital?
~~~~~~~~~
Hillary’s chin is determined. There is only one, and I envy that. In the mirror is a person I hardly recognize.
~~~~~~~~~
No one cards me any more when I buy liquor. Though yesterday the young man at the register did ask for my ID.
“Not to card you,” he clarifies with a giggle.
I know, it’s because my credit card asks to check ID. I thank him – so few cashiers actually do. He smiles, seems relieved.
“People yell at me sometimes. We have to check ID if there is no signature on the card, or if we can’t read it. They think I am carding them for their age. They should be flattered!”
We both laugh, I walk away thinking, “Flattered, hmm.”
~~~~~~~~~
My skin is beginning to sag and turn colors, my chins are multiplying like animals on Noah’s ark, my eyelids droop. At night I throw off covers, I cannot stand to have my own surfaces touch one another. I lie there, a snow angel on fire, spread-eagled, arms outstretched, heart barreling like a runaway locomotive. Why don’t I feel old?
~~~~~~~~~
Hillary’s green eyes are serious, unsmiling. Tired? Sad? Bewildered? Same eyes as the Wellesley undergrad, only now tinged with knowing. I worry about the bags under them. I am guessing people who do what she does don’t need as much sleep as the rest of us.
~~~~~~~~~
It’s dusk. I am walking home from the bus stop up Broadway in Somerville after a thirty-six hour shift as an intern on Cardiology. My patient went into heart failure with arrhythmia in the middle of the night, decompensated. We moved her to the ICU, called the attending. She came in, fired up the cath lab. The patient came out breathing on her own, looking better. We watched her the rest of the night between other calls.
A pair of men walk toward me, one in his fifties, the other younger. Father and son? We get closer, I look away.
“Smile,” the older one exclaims, as we pass each other. “A pretty girl like you…”
~~~~~~~~~
I cannot remember the color of the youth’s eyes. They operated on him, sent him back to prison. Never heard anything more, except a half-hearted reprimand from my attending the next morning, delivered with a kind smile. Was that a wink behind his glasses?
~~~~~~~~~
I raise my eyes, face my reflection again, jut my chin forward to see if I can make it single. I grab the handle of a small mirror, turn, examine my profile. The skin on my neck sags no matter how far my chin juts. My eyebrows are converging again, like they did when I was a girl, on the bridge of my nose. Thing is, when I try to pluck them, I cannot see them without my reading glasses. But when I put the glasses on, they block the eyebrows. And then there is the chin hair. I put down the mirror, look away.
~~~~~~~~~
Hillary talks about gratitude. A rabbi asks a quiet question, the balancing of ego and humility, how does she do it? She ponders, makes eye contact, unhurried, thoughtful, nods. Gratitude practice, derived from a religious teaching. For real, gratitude, that’s how she does it. It’s her talisman, her mantra. It’s the worry stone in her pocket during the 11-hour congressional hearing, chin up, eyes wide open, implacable, almost placid.
Do I detect impatience, resignation, fatigue? Is she thinking about being out with people, asking questions, learning how best to serve? A pack of men scolding a woman – nothing to see here, except her confidence, competence, calm. They escalate. It must have been like explaining quantum physics to a roomful of intransigent teens more interested in admiring their own selfies.
~~~~~~~~~
We moved out of the city thirteen years ago. No cable here in the hills; the starry sky is the show, blue jays the drama. I am getting less and less useful to the marketers – female, aging, no TV. I am also giving fewer fucks, accepting my skin, my chins, my facial hair. I don’t know if it’s just this age, or if it’s this age without the 24/7 advertisements.
Soon my neck will be like Hillary’s, then like my mother’s. White coarse whiskers will overtake my chin like weeds in an abandoned garden. My multiple chins will be down to my knees, neck and boobs will drag behind me on the ground. I will be like a used tampon, hard to look at, maybe even lethal.
You will get angry to have to look at me. You will remember how angry it made you to have to look at Hillary. You won’t understand why you are angry. You will think it’s nothing to do with sexism – you are too enlightened for that. You will think it’s my chin hair, my multiple chins, my unibrow, my frumpy clothes. You and your friends will agree that all of these reasons make it OK for you to tell me to hide, go back into my cave. I will be as “highly inappropriate” as the 69-year-old’s cleavage, blinding and traumatizing as the burning bush.
In your mind women still have only two choices: Madonna or whore. Perfect, binary, clear. Hillary is both and neither. I am both and neither. We are both and neither. And at our age, we no longer care whether you approve.
In a country where you want women to be seen and not heard; where you tell us that we are entitled to neither contraception nor abortion; where a single mother is a slut while the missing father is protected by silence; where legislators believe a rape victim’s obligation to the fetus supersedes her right to her own personhood; where, with straight faces, members of Congress preach that a woman “can shut that whole thing down,” should she be so inclined; where every woman walks a tight rope between shrill and meek; where the path we are given is even more narrow than Egypt was for the Jews, it’s no wonder we have to fight for every ounce of progress.
It’s a treacherous uphill climb. Hillary’s neck is our revolution. It does not apologize. We are Hillary. I am with her.

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