Ted had had enough of living, and planned to shut off his defibrillator, so I was surprised when he emailed the other day to tell me that instead, he was having it (like the Affordable Care Act) repealed and replaced. It seems he’d started getting blisters around it, then it just emerged like the thing in Alien. So they took it out, and explained to me that they’d gotten every last wire, a thing it would not have occurred to me to ask. Doctors do magic. That’s all I need to know. They couldn’t close the wound because it might trap an infection, so he’s going home Friday in a life vest to await the next surgical adventures, namely getting a new defibrillator put in, and having his bladder removed.
The bladder operation is related to problems with what Ted calls his “wee-wee,” and this depresses him, because he still yearns for true love. It sometimes seems tantalizingly close, as when guys from abroad send him pictures over the internet of what they claim is their buff, shirtless, well-coifed selves. They and Ted discover in a vertiginously short time that they are soul mates, and then they ask Ted for money for a ticket to the states– which he would send, if he had it.
Finding partners has been rough, always. Being obviously gay in rural Indiana would have been no picnic in any case, but his mother’s conversion to the Jehovah’s Witnesses when he was nine complicated things. He has lived in a demon-filled world. People in his congregation saw possession everywhere. Once his family had to burn their couch when they could not succeed in exorcising it. This is not a life into which love can easily descend, though sex occasionally enlivens an otherwise harrowing meander to the grave.
Ted’s mother, gruesomely misnamed Joy, once wrote a poem of which I can remember only the first verse:
Who is that yonder standing there
Who beckons me with bony hand
And sweetly softly calls my name
And bids me not to be afraid
Death would naturally be her familiar ally, with a husband whose beatings barely stopped short of killing her. And when Ted looks in his bathroom mirror and sees the skeletal hand caress his shoulder, and the shrouded figure of Miss Death materialize behind him, her head is bent at a motherly, questioning angle.
Besides, Ted has already been at his own funeral. When a JW comes out as gay, or an open sinner of some other kind, there follows a dis-fellowshipping ceremonly, essentially a funeral at which the corpse mingles instead of posing in a casket. After accepting the goodbyes of every JW you have ever known and loved, you are dead to them. They can no longer contact you. There’s some fudging on that– once in a rare while a sibling will send Ted some money, but even if they speak to him briedly by phone, they aren’t allowed to “greet” him (so no saying “hello” or “goodbye”). His mother, who could be faithful to the extent of having o Christmas trees and to banishing the last demonic futon or ottoman from their home, blew off the rules in this instance. His psychopathic brother was an unregenerate sinner in any case, so the three of them shared a trailer until the car crash that left Ted as the sole survivor. Ted can still see their trailer from his apartment window.
So Ted faces surgery having already “died.” But there’s more. There’s also the question of how many, and which, are going to die.
Ted tells me he believes he was multiple in the womb. I don’t actually think that makes sense, but at any rate he feels there was never a time when he was a single person, alone in his own skin, and neither he nor the rest of the Community wants to integrate. Being friends is a tad confusing, since he doesn’t always remember conversations we’ve had. Also, we can go along cheerily enough, and then it can turn out that somebody inside has been pissed at me for a long time about something I said years ago, and is ready to duke it out. There’s not much point in being pissed off later, because he might not remember, or the ones who are still mad at me may go underground for a long, long time. So it’s hard to know how to take an apology. One wants to be completely open to it, knowing that it’s not something he does often or easily. He’s more inclined to tell you off and sweep out of the room (figuratively speaking), slamming the door behind him.
Because he does this kind of thing a LOT, he’s down to a very few people who will deal with him at all, and only three of these (including me) are not abusive and/or psychotic. Which is not what you want if you might die soon.
“We’re all in this together” is a tough concept for someone who experiences themselves as many people. How can you believe that you will die right along with your host’s body, when all you see in the mirror is a five year old boy called Jimmy? Or a thirty year old Lothario called Bill? Or a yogurt-eating Yoga-practicing peacemaking young woman named Dharma.
Let’s be clear about DID– Dissociative Identity Disorder, which used to be called Multiple Personality Disorder, until folks realized that calling it that made people think of some sort of alien invation, with different people running around inside your brain. Actually, it means you’ve been hurt so bad, someone has taken a sledgehammer to your very self, and the pieces have taken on lives of their own. Anger, fear, love, shame, confidence, these things just don’t fit anymore into one person, so you experience yourself as many.
The first literary instance of it I know is the young man in the Gospels who is thought by his neighbors to be possessed. Jesus asks his name. He replies, “I am called Legion, for there are many of us.” And Jesus finds out what a trauma therapist could have told him, that you can’t get rid of the split off parts of a whole person. They have to go somewhere. The story says that Jesus sends them into some pigs, and those pigs plunge to their deaths. It doesn’t really work that way. The parts of a Legion, like Ted’s “Community,” live and die together.
Which leaves “Jimmy” the problem of accepting his mortality when he feels he hasn’t had the chance to grow up. Jimmy once created for me a virtual trip to the cellar in his old house, seeing it so vividly that I did, too. Down to the furnace. Down to the fire where something may have happened, or may not, and if anyone inside knows more about it than Jimmy, they aren’t telling. As far as Jimmy is concerned, he’s never grown older since that moment. He doesn’t feel fifty-seven. I don’t always feel fifty-seven. Do you feel that you’ve had the chance to grow up? Enough for death to be okay now?
And “Bill” has to wrap his head around dying when there are so many lovers to enjoy, so much new flesh to discover. Do you feel you’ve been loved enough to die satisfied? Or even fucked enough?
Then there’s the question of how to settle on one among the array of things that death can mean– or life, for that matter. One member of the Community is JW. Another is Mormon. Several are Wiccan. Of course, from my “singleton” point of view, that just means Ted is very conflicted about religion, and there’s nothing like the prospect of death to bring that conflict to the fore.
Or to inspire an answer, in the form of an image from a single heart binding many personas. The only thing they seem to agree on is mother. She is high on a ladder. She has been waiting for them. She is calling them up– like Death, who sweetly softly called her name.
Dharma wants to live the time she has left as a woman. I hope she can do it without so-called friends coming by to try to “father” Jimmy or seduce Bill, so they can crash for the night and steal his meds.
Meanwhile, since Ted left for the hospital with no specific plans for his cats or his pirranha, my assignment for teday is to get his keys and go make sure all God’s creatures are fed.
It would be hard to trace where it started, so I’m going to pick it up in the middle, with Travis. I first saw Travis at an open mic, a pale millennial beatnik seething Ginsberg-esque poems out of a marbled black-and-white composition book– outraged, images tumbling over each other in their rush to call out America in decay.
And I guess I’d also have to start with Marc, who is my FB friend, though I’ve never met him, and I can’t even tell you how I first heard of him. But I woke up one morning to a furious FB argument, featuring him and Travis, about nonviolence. Travis was 100% for it (nonviolence), and Marc, being black and gay and not up for being preached into masochistic civil rights sainthood by Travis, was somewhere less than 100%. I’d been reading all about being a White Ally, so I decided that here was my very first assignment. The argument continued most of the day, with many participants, lots of whitesplaining and lots of the verbal equivalent of tearing out of hair from sheer frustration, but in the end Travis apologized and dissolved into a puddle of guilt. Drying white tears is part of the ally job, so I messaged to see if he was okay and we chatted.
Then on one of my many nights of insomnia, he turned up on Messenger again. He was also awake, in spite of determined efforts to self-soothe by whacking off, so we talked about how that was working for him. I did mention that the last time I’d had such a chat, it turned out the caller was whacking off during the conversation, and I just wanted to clarify the nature of this exchange, but that being cleared up, we continued these late night talks, mostly about masturbation, but other things, too.
It turned out that Travis was hosting his own poetry event, and I thought I would go.
Well, the theme of the evening was anti-Trump poetry, generated by coupling American iconic imagery with porn and potty talk. Now I’ve been to a lot of open mics recently, and felt more than a little bummed that my own deeply introspective, wicca-feminist-tend-your-garden-love-the-earth-listen-to-the-goddess imitation-celtic rhymy-rhymy material lacked, oh, vitality?, compared to spoken word, but I don’t talk the way those poets talk, and I’m not going to try to fake it. But now as I’m listening to these young white guy protest poets, I’m thinking, shit, I can do this– maybe something like this for the next event:
her engorged tits taped shut
by the Appropriations Committee–
no milk for the tired and wretched,
and her green copper thighs closed
to the huddled masses surging for entry,
still whores for guns,
pees on the presidential mattress
and wears on her face the cum of a thousand paeons
of the Military Industrial Complex ….
It’s a start.
Travis’s open mic was my second all-white political small group event, the first being the fledgling local MoveOn.org house group, led by two guys who impressed upon us how much danger we were all in by the mere fact of being in their subversive Rocky Ripple lair. Angela Davis, move over. They wanted our consent before they took any pictures, just in case our identities might get out, and we were given the option of only using our first names—options taken by women attendees who feared for their jobs. These social justice warriors had already achieved such notoriety for their activist risk taking that they might at any time be under surveillance (good thing they told us, because I’d never heard of either one). The rest of the group, all women, served tea and sat at the feet of the masters.
Well persecution has its excitement, but no-one-gives-a-shit-what-we-do seemed to me the likeliest outcome of the meeting. And when one woman said we should elect more women to office, and Mr. Activist said that was sexist, I was done.
The third event was an ally training, all women except for two guys with the telltale chinstrap beard of the formerly misgendered, and all but one white– a way of putting it that, as I reread it, makes the lone black woman there an absence rather than a presence; the non-white. Well, – “well” being, I guess, her one-word ticket back to the place of absence so I can get back to being the center of the story– I think I made myself annoying by talking too much (which happens if I talk at all), and probably too stridently, since I’ve noticed that everyone says women should be confident and assertive, but no one seems much to like it when they are– or at least when I am. Maybe it’s all in how you do it.
At any rate, discussing the pros and cons of social media, I opined that in one way, seeing so many FB exchanges had helped me to realize that some people were not going to change; did not want to change; and did not want to hear evidence that might threaten them with change– this recognition being the fruit of weary years of being mansplained to, having to marshall my evidence, keep a cool head and a civil tongue, while striving to convert the enemy becomes the substitute for living my life.
They were so nice. Their comments were so gentle. And so directed anywhere but to me. Soft-voiced, silky haired, beret-ed and long skirted young things, reviving in me an old pain that maybe connects to why Marcus (remember my FB friend Marcus?) didn’t want to rule out violence. Finally, a truth solid as concrete, no, as steel, something to build on– that I don’t have to persuade people who have no stake in my freedom– disappeared, enveloped in cotton candy. We need, these ladies agreed, to listen respectfully to all points of view; maybe a few extreme people, like white supremacists, were beyond reach, but if you approached most people with love– if your stance was “I’m educating you because I love you”– that was the way to have an impact.
Which left me thinking maybe, as a preliminary hypothesis, I could say liberal white privilege means that if you’re male, you think you can change the world by being really pissed off, and if you’re female, you believe that if you’re just nice enough, you can bring anyone around.
I’m all about the Woman Power, and never more so than the year I left my marriage (temporarily) and the Catholic Church (permanently). Someone invited me to join a local production of The Vagina Monologues, and from the heart of a howling storm of “woke,” I said “FUCK yeah!”
The idea behind the Vagina Monologues is that women have been discouraged from defining themselves and their own sexuality. In the world of my youth, at least, it was not proper for us to look at ourselves, talk about ourselves, touch ourselves, so we have been defined by male doctors, movie producers, porn makers, and all the men who are allowed to name our bodies among themselves when we can’t even name them to ourselves. Guys like the male acquaintance who watches the James Bond movies with “Pussy Galore,” but is scandalized by the title “Vagina Monologues.”
We reclaim our agency in the show by talking about our vaginas as if they were persons with tastes, convictions, preferences. What would your vagina wear? What would it say? What song would it listen to? And it is empowering for the women involved to be as overtly sexual as they like, to celebrate their bodies and feel safe doing so.
It’s also a place where residual assumptions about women and sex still surface.
One evening, the director calls us in for an extra rehearsal. We show up to find poster board, magazines and art supplies, and we’re told to spend the next three hours making our own special “vagina collages,” to share how our vaginas feel about life. My vagina is massively annoyed, but I try to cooperate.
“Can we include toys?” asks one of my table mates.
“Oh, you’ve GOT to have toys” purrs another.
I’m struggling to get the glue out of the tube, as the competition begins.
“I’m into variety ….”
“Every size, every color ….”
“It’s the combination that counts …. ”
“Just ask my partner …”
“Ask my partNERS …”
“Fuck,” I mutter, as the glue finally sees the light of day in an impulsive, gooey spurt across my artwork.
“You can say that out loud!” one of my companions assures me.
“Oh, don’t be afraid to say ‘Fuck!’” the other one chirps.
“You should really learn to say ‘Fuck!’”
“I’m going to make sure you say ‘Fuck’ from now on!” they promise.
Have you met me?, I wonder.
I notice, as I get older, that some young women want to take me under their wing. They like the idea of creating a scandalous older woman, though apparently they haven’t done the math, and don’t realize I was nine when Woodstock happened, and don’t need to be taught how to talk dirty.
The bringing-out process includes makeovers. I’ve never understood why some women are thrilled to be surprised on national TV with a makeover from loved ones who bring in “before” pictures to demonstrate the sad ruin that is their friend. If it ever happened to me, I would politely decline, saying I like the way I look– and see if they have the balls to argue that I shouldn’t.
The cast’s notion of what is “sexy” is, to my mind, surprisingly conventional. This is the land of black and red bustiers, leather, fishnets, and spike heels, posing and innuendo. I’m not much of a cosmetics person, so before opening night I allow a young thing to do my make up. I end up with Madonna eyebrows and flaming red lips. I feel as though someone has just gone up to a wild, gray, craggy cliff’s side and painted it pink.
Trina– a stunningly beautiful and fiercely affectionate castmember– invites me to an outing to Lovers Lane, which I assume is a restaurant where we’ll chat. Instead, we go vibrator shopping, and Trina is loving her role as teacher and guide. She crams my silver hair under a blonde wig and wraps my puffy face and excess chin in a neon pink boa, like a three year old putting junk jewelry on her grandmother. She thinks I look beautiful now, and takes my picture leaning against the dressing room door like a film noir hooker against a lamp post. And what’s funny is that Trina thinks she’s liberating me.
There’s something oddly familiar in all of this. It feels related, somehow, to the racy remarks of the boys of my youth, who would make a show of keeping all explanations to themselves, as though the girls needed to know that they were the target, but also that they were excluded. What did that show of a sexual secret society do for those boys, and why do these young women need to feel they’re expanding my world? It seems that whether they aim to shock or patronize me, my sexuality, hot or cold, vanilla or kinky, must be a stationary object for use in their performance. I must not run ahead of your expectation, of your projection. You want to be a funny or scary or liberating mystery to me, but you can’t comfortably imagine me being an unknown to you. You can’t see me as having a sense of myself that makes the category “hot” not shocking, not dirty, not enviable, but at this point, not relevant.
I’ll be honest. I not only don’t try to stay young, I cultivate cronehood. I feel I was born to be old, and if anything I play it up, largely because it saves me the whole world of confusion that is sexual signaling. Granted, this freedom rests on the “ageist” assumption that old women are past all that, which is stupid. But it’s honestly a relief to me that no one ever thinks I’m hitting on them, or that I want them to hit on me. I can be affectionate and not raise any wrong ideas.
I’m a child of the sixties and seventies, when the sexual revolution created a demand for “yes” before feminism had plowed out a space for “no.” For many men of my father’s generation, the relevant question about a woman is the one asked in a Clairol commercial of the time– “does she or doesn’t she?” If she “doesn’t,” she’s the girl to marry– or to condemn as frigid, a gold digger, or a ball buster. And if she “does,” it has nothing to do with her agency, her preferences: she does it, so she owes it, to whoever wants it.
It’s not that I didn’t appreciate the fun of flirting, seduction and all the rest in its time, but passion went with expectation, adulation, temptation, frustration, manipulation, and of course gestation.
In the seventies, there were two strains of expectation. One was a holdover from a world that was passing away. I was supposed to want to be attractive, but this was to appeal to hormone ridden boys who would lustfully plot against me (they didn’t). (Corollary: I should need to be plotted against, because I shouldn’t particularly want sex– much less make the first move). And resisting them was the key to ultimately getting one of these shallow and manipulative jerks to marry me.
And on the other hand, there was the Cosmopolitan expectation that I should be turned on by anything at anytime– middle school involved a lot of lying on magazine quizzes to make ourselves sound hot (like we were REALLY turned on by the prospect of “doing it” in a laundry room or the back of a pickup truck).
So I would say that I wasn’t someone who learned mutual touch and mutual respect early on. Sex was a thing I was supposed to perform, and sexual feeling was part of the performance. I never was “a natural woman.”
In addition: I don’t know how many of you have small children, but there is a reason mothers of babies and toddlers have a reputation for disinterest in sex– I mean a reason other than vaginal wear and tear (I recall hearing my hospital roommate telling a friend on the phone, [southern accent ] “I think I’ve changed my mind about sex”). It’s that physical demands are being made all day long, so that at the end of the day, I was like, “ok, I’ve fed you, changed you, read to you, and had sex with you— is everyone OK NOW? Can I go read, or something?”
Then I spent over ten years as a therapist listening to stories of sexual abuse. Without going into detail, it’s a libido killer.
So when they asked me what song my vagina would sing, I answered “I Got Plenty o’Nuthin’, and Nuthin’s Plenty for Me.” They didn’t get the joke, I guess, and damned if it didn’t turn up on the cast mix tape.
When I shared the title of this piece with a male friend, he started trying to console me, as though by calling myself “asexual” I meant “unattractive”– as though I needed his reassurance that I was alright in his eyes. We are that far away from escaping definition by the male gaze.
We celebrate “hot, happy vaginas” in the Monologues, but I want to make room for cool, rested, happily retired ones, too. I wish orgasms deep and mellow, sharp and piercing and radiant to everyone who has the energy of desire. My vagina power comes from being allowed not to want, from being able to say “I’m full now,” and leave the table.