This girl’s love is getting stronger with each passing day.
This girl’s love is getting stronger with each passing day.
So if you’ve got
Someone whose love is true
Let it shine for you
who isn’t me
***This is how I feel when I make something nice for myself, no man necessary for this feeling.***
I’ve been going through a bit of a rough patch, despite the very positive start I’ve had in 2013. I’ve followed through with almost every promise I’ve made so far, something that feels really good to me. I’ve already tried to love again. I’ve realized that I am so far from having what I want in life. I keep reaching, and stretching, and not quite making it. When I wake up with tears in my eyes, when even my therapist and friends can’t understand how I feel, I remember that I have been missing a fundamental relationship for all of my adult life.
Sometimes a girl wants her mom. Sometimes all a girl has is a pile of letters. This, I find, is better than nothing.
I naively used to believe that if I cried enough tears the pain from the loss of my mother would magically be gone. I don’t believe this anymore. I recognize that the wounds will get ripped open each and every time I experience a loss. The scar tissue thickens, and thins. I forget that it’s there until a slightly raised portion gets caught on something, tears apart and starts the process all over again. I acutely experience the same insecurities I felt as seventeen year old, realizing that I would be going at this life without the physical manifestation of a very important person.
I used to think that someday I’d be whole again. That if I did enough soul searching things would heal completely. I don’t believe this anymore. I will never be whole. After 11 years I acknowledge that there will always be an emptiness. That’s what makes me, me. I accept that I feel more deeply because of this. That I have a part of me that I want to fill up with something else, even though that is impossible. I attach a little bit faster, love a lot harder, and crash a bit more spectacularly. There is no one who will ever be able to replace my mother, and there is a big part of my heart that still wants and needs her – that wants to be loved in a way that I imagine (cause I can’t ever know for sure) only a person who has raised you can.
My mother suffered from a rare genetic condition called Machado Joseph’s Disease, one that is passed on from parent to child. It’s symptoms include a loss of muscle control, double vision, increased frequency of urination, muscle fatigue and pain, trouble swallowing – as far as I can tell it’s kind of like turning back into a baby with a fully aware mind. She suffered greatly as she tried to both battle the condition, and reclaim her body and life after becoming wheelchair bound. Her fate was unavoidable.
MJD is relentless. It strikes and progresses until it’s job is done. If only I had such focus. No cure has been found and the only action it accepts is submission. Major symptoms started to present themselves at my birth. She was unable to push me out of her body. I would be dead if not for medical intervention. When I was six months old her hands stopped working and she scratched me in the face. Another time, she fell while carrying me in her arms. She was 32 years young when all of this began. She died a few months after I turned 18 and just three days before I headed off to college. I spent most of college numb, not surprisingly. I still managed to get decent grades, soooooo…no harm?
I can say with great sincerity that the experience of watching a parent die before feeling the excitement and boundless pleasure of youth had it’s effect. I recently admitted to myself that I think I want children, which is a huge step. For most of my life I equated parenthood (and my future) with death, demise, decay, degeneration, and a host of other negative d words. I saw my fate as intimately connected to hers.
In February of 2008 I decided to get myself tested for MJD because all the cool kids (my siblings) were doing it. I was 25. I lived my whole life with complete assurance that I had the disease. I had planned a career for myself based around MJD. I was looking and finding signs of the illness by the age of 22, so it was only a matter of time. I knew MJD better than I knew myself, and was prepared for it. This is what I had spent my whole life doing, preparing to be sick.
I was in Illinois, spending time with the man I was dating at the time when I got the phone call. The nurse on the other end of the line excitedly confirmed that I did not have MJD. My life from that moment on crumbled into a million, tiny pieces. Everything I’d been preparing, while thinking I had MJD was, in a moment irrelevant. I had been planning my life around an illusion.
There were a lot of things that I was afraid to do because I thought I’d be sick. I never sang or danced because these were things my mother loved, and to watch her loose her abilities was heartbreaking. I just abstained, and watched everybody have a good time. It was almost as satisfying as the real thing. At this point there are a lot of things I have done, but there are still a few youthful indulgences I want to fulfill. Having a sick parent meant being responsible for myself at an early age. There was no easing into adulthood. I could be seen doing adult-like things at an early age. I still find it quite difficult to loosen up and get silly, I’m a bit too serious. I still have never made out hard core in a movie theater, had embarrassing hickeys, bought a Christmas tree, or had a fist fight in the streets! These are all things I want to do before I die.
I’m only now finding my footing, returning to a path that will hopefully give me some stability and let some joy into my life. Being and artist and being stable seem incongruous, but this feels like the only way I can live my life: sharing my experiences, celebrating my life, loves, failures, successes, desires, and problems.
Time for a musical interlude.
The title of that song is Freedom/Motherless Child. There is a freedom in being a motherless child, but at a pretty high emotional premium from what I can tell. I sometimes look for other women who have lost their mothers around the same age as me. We are hard to keep up with because we like to run around, from place to place, trying to fill our hearts with something that can never actually be re. I dedicate all 7 of these posts, and the many more to come, to all the women who’ve lost their mothers during the sensitive teenage years. I know that it has made me both fiercely passionate, and in some ways developmentally stunted/emotionally sensitive. It’s hard for me to know what changed, but something did.
A few weekends ago, the same weekend that my father went in for radiation therapy on his prostate, my aunt found a box of letters from my mother to her mother, spanning the years from 1969 (my mother’s first year in college), to 1973 (the year of my parents’ marriage), and beyond. It’s the best gift I’ve been given, but I was hesitant to dive in. What if I found some horrible secret? I threw the bag in the corner and felt generally uninspired by the gift until last night when I woke up with that empty feeling. I knew what I needed, (Mot)Her Words.
I spent a few hours trying to piece together her experiences, and perhaps light my own path, through page after page of of nearly illegible, missives. I will start with a letter written in the fall of 1969, a few months after my mother entered college at the University of California: Santa Cruz. My parents met there.
It is notable to mention that the last person I dated went there also. It is not altogether unusual to meet people who went to UC Santa Cruz here in San Francisco, in fact, many of my friends studied there. This is the first time I’ve lived and dated in my home city, so something about it felt special. Like maybe I could reconnect with a lost part of my life through him. With me, everything feels special. I hope I never lose this quality. This last guy also studied the same things and had the same general interests as my father (psychology and music). This doesn’t mean I found him to be like my father, just that those were some of the things that made me feel connected to him, that made me keep up with it despite the doubts that I had. I think sometimes my brain tries to find my past and my future by being attracted to people that seem familiar. I want to connect deeply, so I find people who relate to important parts of me. I’m actively looking for something different now. I’m looking to make more of an authentic connection, not one based on things that I think feel familiar. Basically what I’m saying is I won’t be dating any more musicians.
I posted this Facebook status a few days ago in a desperate attempt to exorcize them from my romance sector.
Can I break a curse by making an offering to the musical gods on Facebook?
Throughout my romantic life I’ve seriously dated what I consider an inordinate number of aspiring/actively practicing musicians. There was the lead singer of the metal band in Spain, the sound designer and composer in Utah, and the drummer/dj in Virginia.
I’ve casually dated even more of them. The guy who was the backup vocalist for Santana in the 90′s, the bass and drum dj, the traveling songster who came and left with little more than a broken guitar, and the voice behind the shape-shifting, orchestral rock band.
I can only think that I’m attracted to these people because I was raised by two aspiring musicians, and for reasons still unclear to me, deny myself the right to openly and actively explore what songs I could be singing. The creative forces are after me, and if I deny it within myself they force me to try and date and love it, which is a punishment worse than the humiliation I experience at Karaoke.
Music runs deep on both sides of my family. My great grandfather, Frank Fairfax, led a big band in Philly in the 1930′s. The same big band that gave Dizzy Gillespy his big break. Dizzy was a figure in our family, and I met him a few times as a child. My father, brothers, and cousins have spent countless hours with their respective instruments and inspirations.
I have a cousin in LA, who I’ll admit to not knowing very well, who spent the last ten years playing keys for a band called The Mars Volta. I think people like this band. I remember visiting his house as a teenager.
Music, music, music, everywhere.
And so my offering is this:
Most holy music gods,
I will actively explore the music within me, support the musicians around me, and will wholeheartedly appreciate the gift that music is. I will even make a small shrine to music in my room, and pray that all the musicians in the world record often, tour comfortably, and remain addiction free.
I can get my guitar back and start playing again (yes, I’ve already started this process). I will even start paying for music instead of downloading if that’s what you want!
Please, don’t let me choose anymore musicians. There are too many artists in my family anyway. Send me a doctor, or a scientist, or a venture capitalist, maybe even a contractor, or a chef! I like food!
Hoping this reaches you soon.
Your humble servant,
I am backing these words up with focused action. Concrete works, backed by a faith that I will be able to find someone to love me the way I deserve to be loved. I’m being honest and I have evidence.
Last weekend I got trashed with a good friend while trying to forget that my heart was hurting after yet another unwise romantic decision that resulted in me getting rejected. Not only was I super annoyed by the end of the night, but my Saturday basically got absorbed by being ridiculously hungover. A man handed me his business card as we left the final bar at the end of the night. I stuffed it in my pocket, barely noticing what it said. I awoke the next morning and pulled the card out, squinting in horror after realizing that the man that I exchanged information with was a musician. A jazz pianist. FML.
He texted a few days later and we exchanged these words:
Jazzy Fingers: Hi Leslie.
Me: (I hadn’t put his number in my phone, cause who actually expects guys met in bars to call?) Is this the piano player?
Jazzy Fingers: Yup, that’s me. How are you doing?
Me: I’d be better if you weren’t a musician. I attract a lot of them. Trying to break this habit.
JF: Ahhhh, gimme a break. Not all musicians are the same.
Me: That’s what all musicians say. But seriously, I made a promise to myself to not get involved with any more music oriented folks. Love and respect what you do, but looking for something different at this phase of my life.
JF: So what kind of guy are you now looking for if I might ask?
Me: Warmth, empathy, emotional awareness, depth, commitment, humor.
JF: Are you sitting around at home texting like I am?
Me: (the next morning) Sorry, I fell asleep.
Hahahahaha! He never texted back, which was the goal. Apparently falling asleep while texting and telling a guy about it is seduction kryptonite. Look Ma! Ima changing my ways!
I spent a most selfless Sunday trying to connect a musician friend up with people who are totally into his band. I don’t know if my actions will bear fruit, but I sometimes think that it’s the intention that is important. My goal is to redirect this energy. I’m proud of myself for trying.
Without further delay, here is the seventh installation in a series I like to call In (Mot)her Words. My mom was probably about 18 at the time of this letter. She wrote it to her mother.
Sunday, October 19th, 1969
This is the first weekend that I haven’t seen all of you. Monica Ferris, that girl from Willow Glen [where my mom grew up], has gone home every weekend. Glen, has gone home every weekend. I’m beginning to like it here because all of the used-to-be unfamiliar faces are becoming familiar. The other day I bought another text – Basic Psych. Oh yes. I’m not taking Biology, thank goodness. I changed to Psychology instead. The lectures are 10 times more interesting. Prof. Marlowe, the instructor is a dirty old man and very funny. I think he is a frustrated comedian.
I would like to thank you for being such a good mother They are hard to come by these days, you know. I also want to apologize for all of the hard times I might have given you, criticizing etc., but you must understand that we adolescents do have it kind of rough. Am I still an adolescent? Golly, I guess not! Oh well, you have to grow up sometime.
We don’t get breakfast on Sundays and I’m starving!
Shirley’s mom wrote her a letter telling her that she could come home the weekend of Halloween. Did you know that Halloween falls on a Friday this year? That’s good for all the little school kids. Anyway, I think I’ll come home that weekend, too. Shirley and I can take the Greyhound to San Jose and we’ll get there at about 4:30. Her plane leaves the San Jose airport at 6:50, or something, so maybe she could eat dinner at our house that night.
You wouldn’t believe what a bad case of zits I’ve been getting! Big, deep eruptions that are really ugly and hurt. Speaking of physical disturbances, I can join your club for “those females with a vaginal fish odor.” It’s not all of the time; just occasionally. Brunch in 15 minutes. [WTH!]
How are you, Mother dear? Are you or are you not getting along with Dad? Cyd? Do you miss me? I miss you (Golly, doesn’t that sound babyish?)!!
I got a letter from Andrea Sennot and she had another breakdown. When she went to Santa Clara U last spring, she had one too. She said that she stayed up for three days working on a paper. That did it! She went screaming into the infirmary and they sent her home for the weekend. Poor kid. Reed must be really hard.
Last night I played frisbee and twister with some guys and girls. That’s Saturday evening excitement at Santa Cruz!
Thank you for sending my jacket and toothbrushes. I wore Shirley’s coat (which was a jacket) until it came.
Kiss Cyd and Donne and Baly for me (you can flush Tareyton down the toilet).
This letter makes me feel especially vulnerable, for both her 18 year old self and for me. I can only think that I was just as insecure as my mother was at that age. I can’t imagine how I survived after moving across the country for college, far away from my family and friends, at a time when I was so young and had experienced such a deep loss.
I don’t know how I’ve made it this far. I wrote no letters, had no home to go to on weekends, and was most likely experiencing deep depression/greif during my first (second, third, forth, and beyond) year of college. I find it borderline miraculous that I am still here, that things didn’t turn out worse because they definitely could have.
So through my mother’s words I have been able to gain perspective, to imagine what it felt like to be away from home and to be inching towards adulthood. I am filled with gratitude knowing that I survived that time in my life. I’m especially glad that I finally opened up the bag of letters. I’m glad I loved, and lost, and was once again forced to reach into the big, great emptiness inside of me.
I have an admission (as if the whole blog weren’t a giant confession already) all the art that I make, all the writing, all the “talent” comes from this empty space – from a very deep and fundamental need to create something outside of myself, to try and fill in the gaps, to try and make sense of what I once thought was a senseless existence. I think everyone has this hole. Many ignore it, some fill it with pleasure, with the immediacy of addiction. Some people fill it in with a significant relationship or two, others with children, some with jobs and money, musicians are people that fill this hole with sound an rhythm. Whatever works!
Love and Enjoy.
I moved to San Francisco for one real reason: to distance myself from someone who did to my heart what Rick James did to Eddie Murphy’s couch. After a five year relationship, which included one yearlong breakup and a failed attempt at long distance, I found it impossible to stay in the same town as this person. I had to walk my own path to reclaim my identity as an individual. The connections in Charlottesville ran too deep for me to find an authentic version of myself.
These changes have been positive. I’ve found many of my own passions because of this loss. I’ve reconnected with myself, discovered the benefits of independence, and have found a way to form true friendships with men and women who both like and respect me.
However, I still have moments when I wonder what the hell went wrong. Moments where I place blame and am unkind to myself about past failures.
I’d written this ex a few times over the years, on his birthday and the like, but got nothing. Radio silence. That changed Sunday, when an unexpected response from an email I sent almost two years ago arrived in my inbox. This wasn’t the first time I’d recieved a letter well after the point that it could have been useful (see Between the Sheets: Part 5).
I hope y’all enjoy the letter he sent me, and the response that I painstakingly wrote but will never send. I asked him if he’d looked at any of my work (this blog/my website) over the past few years and he admitted that he hadn’t, so I’m not too worried about his eyes making it to these pages.
When I think back to the STORY OF US. I usually start at the beginning, retracing the events of our shared life, pinpointing moments to piece the roadmap together.The day that stands out to me is at the storage unit…. I think you were moving into Wertland (?) with your stuff in storage up on 29. Somehow it trickled down that I would assist you in the gold truck and off we went. I remember recognizing then that you were a little different. First off: doing some adult shit (schooling across country in racist-ass Virginia), having a storage unit (I partially blame you for further romanticizing moving/storage for me), and also being tough (and cute) while loading a box TV.Of course we had met before this; First year dorms, borrowing video game controllers at IVY rd apartments, some college party? But all of this was merely foreshadowing…Regardless of when I moved you that time in the truck, AT SOME POINT you lived at Wertland. And everybody was chill and played dr. Mario and complained about the New Yorker.
You were dating D____ at the time and we would all spend a fair amount of time in your room listening to your old iTunes (david bowie, flaming lips, brazzaville) and smoking pot. I guess I thought you were cool then, huh? And, of course, you were off limits (since you were still with D____) so PERFECT for me. But I wanted to keep hanging out, and was just sort of always over there (I know, right?).And then one night you were on the hood of his car in the middle of the street screaming at him, and I thought, Oh my God, I really care about this woman!I’m not sure if it was the paramedic in me taking over, but I think it was stronger than that. I really had grown to like you very much. And not only did I think you should get down off the car, I hoped you would get over D_____.
So, after you two broke up…maybe Christmas of ’03…then there was the birthday party, then there was foxfield, then there were some other blurry nights, and then you graduated in 05. I met your family and I remember feeling pretty nervous. We went to your Kente Cloth ceremony with C_____, S_____, and D____ (maybe A_____ as well). Your dad, broke the silence with THAT voice:
WHAT ARE YOUR INTENTIONS WITH MY DAUGHTER?
I swallowed nervously and blurted out some drivel about treating you with respect and trying to make you happy. Which he graciously (and unexpectedly) accepted, in a normal tone. And at that point I remember feeling strangely comfortable with the whole situation. Going to the ceremony, eating at Milan, hanging out on the porch at Wertland.
But then something happened. You stuck around with me. You stayed while I graduated even though you were ready to move back to California. This is the part of the story that gets still more blurry. We had our “upstairs apartment” on Valley, I was finishing school. I just remember pins and hair. Oh you’re hair (it deserves its own tale)! And the crazy landlady, and BICE and getting closer and closer.And then we had the hot hot summer.
Moving over to old ivy rd, burning up all night, taking cool swims in the pool. I remember you saying once that you thought this was your favorite part of our life together…the harsh conditions stripped us to our elemental cores perhaps? That was wild and then we had Grady.
I realize that I am mostly just telling events and not explaining my emotional development through this time. That’s because I don’t know what the hell that means. In many want I feel like I have had the same approach with adults/adult life/the world in general as I did when I was twelve. I wanted to treat people fairly and be treated fairly. But I always felt pressured by the “box of society” which is so prevalent in a place like conservative, rural, upper-middle class Virginia. I want to make the world a better place but I can’t overcome my sneaking dread of the other shoe dropping. And now I’ve replaced much of my emotional needs with self-medication, stunting me further.
So we sweated out the summer, moved to Grady. Rearranged. Rearranged. Rearranged. CIRCA began for me and you were wasting away at the VABC. What the hell did I want to stick around for so bad? You were lucky to get out, and im glad you did now. But I was hurt. I was low and we had put Darwin [my pet tortoise] in the ground. The thing was buried.
You went to Utah and for some reason I felt I couldn’t go with you. Stubbornness, unhealthy tethering to family, emotional crippled-ness were probably all factors. I preferred to live in a basement and move furniture and avoid adventure.
That was the worst summer of my life, which is honestly pretty good in the relative rankings of BAD TIMES. But I didn’t ask for help. My parents were relieved you were gone (I’ve always suspected this) so there wasn’t much guidance coming from them. When everything happened in those first weeks at cedar city, I turned to J______ (and K___ H_____) for support, and they consulted me not to go. And I made the mistake of listening.
SO NOW WE FAST FORWARD TO 2009
I think we broke up the first time because, again, I wouldn’t talk about things. I was just content to go through the motions of living together, but I guess not showing enough forward ambition to be really captivating or loving. I’m sorry for this Leslie. I remember we had those horrible screaming matches over nothing. Because I was a pothead? Because I resented you for resenting me (in my fool mind)? Because I could never grow up? Because playing house sucks? I think I wasn’t doing enough to make a happy life.
The 2nd half of our relationship was marked by a concentration of our selves. You had had twoish years to build your resolve, to consolidate, to improve. I had bounced back with fresh relationships and discovering Bike and Build, a truly incredible summer. If nothing else, for me it meant I had two months to focus my mind and body on a singular task. Perhaps even a noble one. Nobler than most things I was choosing at the time. It meant I was not smoking pot everyday. And then to find out that YOU were on the other end when I returned. What fortune!
And I think we tried to fall in love for a second time.
Because I hadn’t gotten over you. You still occupied a rarified space in my heart. You lodged yourself in my idle consciousness. I couldn’t escape you. Partly because I surrounded myself with your memory—I tried to make it impossible to let you go. Whether it was the boxes in my room at Plateau Rd after the Grady move-out or thinking of you when training for my 10-miler, I was setting up physical and mental cues to remember you. I never wanted to lose the image of you, hair glowing, face bright, laughing. Not caring at all for what anyone else thought.
So I tortured myself. It was why I never told N___ I loved her until she basically was pleading with me to hear it. It’s why I did a similar thing to C________. Why not tell the person you love that you LOVE THEM. What is wrong with me? I feel like we made it so easy to say I LOVE YOU to each other when we were together that it almost diluted the word. If I told you a 1000 times that I loved you and we were still broken up then what is the power of saying I LOVE YOU. I have been crippled. Ive crippled myself. And when you push the world away you’re left alone.
So there we were. You living in your tiny room on Altamont. Me living on Rugby Ave with B_____. I remember the first time I saw you (since seeing you in UTAH last?) and you met me in front of the Bodos and you were wearing that black and white striped dress (is this right or have I conjured up something more sensational?) and we just walked and talked like old friends…because we were at that moment.
And then we went skinny-dipping, and rode bikes, and smoked rolled cigarettes, and walked downtown, and played with the kids, and did all sorts of great things back together. The vacuum of Charlottesville preserving some semblance of happy times.
But had we changed? Had I changed? You most certainly had, you were bright and inspired. But the city dragged you down. The velvet rut is not known for its fairness. And it pained me to watch you struggle again. Why had you come back? Were you giving me a second chance—am I that naïve? Am I that selfish? I hoped you were.
And then I went with B____ to Minnesota. Then I went to New York and screwed up. Then I went to Philadelphia to break your heart. I didn’t intend for it to end like that. I don’t know what I thought. Were we in an open relationship? Had we communicated? Was I bitter about B______? Was I JUST THAT SELFISH? I guess so.
But I shouldn’t have torn you down. We had rebounded. We were back. You were turning me into a goddamn Buddhist! And I squandered it for a few selfish, stolen moments of pleasure.
And then that broke. And you had your cysts [tumors actually...5 of them], and your recovery. And all I wanted was to rededicate myself to you. And the months went by and then you left again. And somehow I was there with your remains in a box. I’ve been a curator of my own memory.Over these years we shared and were apart, I fell in love with you many times. Again: your hair, your smile, your clothes, your voice…I just liked you on an emotional/physical/biological level. You are the single most stunning woman I’ve ever been with. Beyond your appearance, you are smart, caring, FUNNY, insightful, wise. This is what I saw in you and hoped others would. The other thing I loved was that no matter how staunch I could be in a position (food, energy conservation, manners, appropriate dinner conversation, etc) based on years of rigorous training, you could supply and totally different answer with matching (or exceeding) results. I loved that we could GO OUT TOGETHER and turn heads and ruffle feathers.
And I think back to visiting California with you…holding baby L______, visiting your old middle school, seeing your grandma and hearing stories over photo-albums while the vinyl scratched in the background. And I guess we were not really together at that point, but we CERTAINLY WERE TOGETHER, right? We had suspended reality just long enough to LIVE and LOVE.And I remember going to the art museum where you “met” Vivian Westwood fully and we lied out in the grass, I loved you very much then and I think you felt the same at that moment.But even that trip was tarnished and divided. For what?I’m sorry if I made it seem like I wasn’t serious about being with you (I read this in an old letter) in the long term based on “irrevocable differences.” Apparently this is a problem I have in relationships. I loved you Leslie. I would have made a family with you in an instant. I think we would have been great parents. We had a joyful love one time.
But do I understand love? I guess not because while I sure do feel like I’m passing it out, I don’t feel a lot coming back in right now. But I think I’m confusing love for general acts of kindness. And acts of kindness aren’t transferred when they are done out or resentment or passive-aggressive self-deprecation. I know talking and exploring feelings will help with some of this.
I think we should all love each other but we can’t force our love on each other in an oppressive or selfish way. Love needs time and space to grow.
I love you Leslie and I hope this letter/missive finds you well. I’m sorry it has taken me this long to write you. I’ve been pretty drunk (only half-not kidding). I am embarrassed to think about how we have dropped off. I’ve never even heard how your yearlong costuming project worked out. Secretly Yall is taking over Richmond, but you know that.
I’m proud of the legacy you have created for yourself and I’m glad that we had time to share some of it together and, maybe, grow.
Take care and feel free to reply, call or ignore this forever.love, ______
Because I did’t know my ex’s intentions and because he’s betrayed women in the past (me), I didn’t want to respond to him over email. Email communication has often led to some of the worst misunderstandings I’ve had. I refriended him on Facebook, observed his activity for a day, and then decided to call and have a conversation with him. I prefaced the conversation with a very clear text.
“I want to talk to you just once. Your letter is funny.”
Our conversation was pleasant and I actually felt relieved to talk to him after all of this time. For all of his faults, and there are many, I still wish him the best in life. Also, I am mostly terrible at keeping grudges.
I ask that anyone reading my response see it as a highly personal, reactive yet humorous take on a situation I did not quite know how to respond to. I always thought it might be wonderful to get a declaration of affection in the mail from a long lost lover, but now I think it’s weird. I want to be sentimental, in earnest, but I resist because there really isn’t anything to be sentimental about.
He was a shitty boyfriend, he never talked, he was high on weed through most of it, he rarely considered my feelings or our future, he cheated, he immediately got a new girlfriend after I told him we needed to do couples therapy to stay together, and then he ignored me for two years. Even his decision to contact me was selfish (as you’ll see in my response below). Also, during our phone conversation he admitted that he consciously decided to ignore me for that extended period of time, trying to make me pay for something I said back in 2006! Ooooof!
Here is my imaginary response:
Ignoring forever is really not my style. In fact, I spent most of Sunday figuring out how to respond to this unexpected information. I hope that in my haste, I do not misspeak. I’ve been known to act quickly. Usually things work out okay for me, but the people around me tend to get all choked up or blinded by the dust I’ve kicked up.
Saturday around 4pm pst I started to have back pain, lower back pain. It started in the above the butt muscle and then radiated out through my obliques to my lower abdomen. This is a fairly unusual bodily sensation for me. I immediately started thinking of all the reasons I might experiencing this.
Saturday afternoon I’d eaten a two to four week old piece of walnut cake I’d stashed in a cabinet, under some felt squares. Maybe it had been growing mold and I’d missed the fuzzy green patches while attending to my persistent and frequent hunger. Sounds like something I might do these days. City living requires that I refuel frequently, and sometimes I get so hungry I eat whatever’s in front of me. I’ve also been neglecting the duty of exercising my body…figuring that life and it’s demands, the many miles I walk a day, make up for conscious concerted effort to strengthen specific muscle groups. I went to bed with a make-shift heating pad Saturday night, warming an old sock filled with rye berries in the microwave. I missed the party/concert a bunch of my housemates were having. I slept.
It would silly for me to dismiss these bodily messages. I see them as indications that you were perhaps, thinking of me. Maybe you were composing this very letter. We’ve had these kinds of “psychic” connections with each other in the past. I did think of you last night as I lay in bed. You were the one in our relationship who had back pain. I thought about you and about your moving company and then I woke up Sunday morning feeling fine, only to find this letter. Coincidence? Probably. I bet it was the walnut bread…and gas.
I am glad that you have finally written me! It’s been two years. That’s a long time, you know? I recognize the amount of courage it must have taken you to write these words, to express yourself plainly to me, to highlight your mistakes and shortcomings, to reflect on the relationship and life we had together. My heart is open to you, but I am glad that distance provides an appropriate boundary. Also, you are kind of douche bag. This ain’t no stupid Proust novel. In real life we don’t wait two years and then attempt to reconcile neglect with a few choice words and a smattering of capitalized phrases.
We show a person over time that we are trustworthy by putting in consistent work and effort. I haven’t always followed this rule, but I see now why it works. I also see this as further evidence of your selfishness, choosing to respond when it’s convenient to you. Again it’s never been about us finding a middle ground…it’s always been about you. TWO FUCKING YEARS, DUDE!
I can only imagine what reasons you have for writing me after all this time. What I imagine is that you have just ended or are preparing to end whatever relationship with whatever woman you’ve been torturing and you are afraid of being alone [I confirmed that this is in fact what happened during our telephone conversation. ZING! ].
In any case your letter made me extremely happy. I’m happy to know that you’re alive, happy to know that you’re well, happy to know that maybe these last few years have been just as hard on you as they’ve been on me, that maybe you’ve been growing as much as I’ve been growing. When things ended two years ago, all I wanted to know was that our experiences hadn’t gone to waste. That the almost ten-ish years (five of relationship plus five of acquaintanceship) that we’d known each other and shared friends, families, and stories had been useful for the both of us. That we had both gotten something out of it, but all I got was silence.
So much silence.
We become women and men, who we truly are, by acting decisively and practicing what we preach no matter who it might hurt, no matter what we might lose. If the rewards are unknown then nothing is actually lost. Mistakes are inevitable. Intention is what counts. We become men and women by ignoring stupid advice, going with our own guts, no matter what anyone else thinks. We become strong by facing our fears.
I only go towards people who let my light shine. My light is very bright.
I’ve been met with so much silence that I’ve had to fill the spaces with my own music. It’s been difficult to find a beat. I haven’t dated anyone for more than a few weeks over the past two years. I’ve been on a journey to find myself, also, the wounds caused by our relationship left me with a deep mistrust of people, with a deep mistrust of myself. I proceed with extreme caution. I am not so carefree right now. I take that back, I’m not so stupid anymore. I am not so easy anymore. Life told me that it was time to stop being easy. It was no longer fun for me.
I’ve been alone. Surrounded by people in a crowded city, even with new friends that I know love and care for me deeply, I’ve been alone. I’ve needed to be alone. I love to be alone. It’s less complicated this way. I needed the space given by your two year silence.
Love, oh love. What’s love got to do with it? The words in this letter flatter my ears, but my heart remains unmoved. People will do all kinds of crazy things in the name of love, but what love is can’t be put into words alone. People do throw the word around carelessly. Love takes time, but we sense it in an instant. Love is words, both spoken and unspoken. Love is actions, both done and avoided. I am skeptical that perhaps our frequent use of the word may have had some bearing on your ability to know love and to express it to other women in your life. I have never had that problem. The words I LOVE YOU have no power themselves unless matched with action, intention, and belief. The power of love is in the combination of these elements.
I have been made nauseous by the many twists and turns of my life. I am still unsure if I know exactly what love is, but I think that my ability to respond to your letter, to openly accept your apology and perspectives is a good sign that I still have a lot of it. And I want you to know that you are loved also, because that is what makes life good! Loving and being loved.
I do, however, feel confused about you saying that you still love me. It’s been two years and I’ve heard it all before. But I accept your reality as your truth, and will write your feelings into my catalogue of amazingly wonderful life experiences…the experience of being unexpectedly loved by someone who has been admittedly half-drunk and ignoring me for two years. What a fucking honor. The experience of being randomly informed, not based on my own actions or desires, that I am loved. In some ways this is really beautiful, I want to accept what you say, but really it’s not right.
I would also like to suggest that maybe what you’re in love with is the idea of me, because that is all I am to you at this point. That is all any of us are to each other now. I never knew you and you never knew me and that’s it. We had the opportunity to know each other, possibly to create something meaningful, but we didn’t. So that’s it. Not every sketch becomes a masterpiece.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings with me. It is easy for us to delude ourselves. I think you have deluded yourself. Your letter, if sent two years ago, may have been taken as credible. At this point it’s a joke. The letter seems little more than a string of random meaningless events and blurriness (synonym for being high or drunk), which somehow leads to love.
If I have one wish for you, it is that you know the beauty and power of loving yourself (I say this without for sure knowing if I’ve done it myself), and of accepting and forgiving yourself and others, flaws and all (I also say this without knowing for sure if I’ve done it myself).
I still sew, yes. And I still have wild hair, yes. But I am more than hair, and pins, and smiles, and a laugh. I am all those things, plus the darker parts too. The darker parts that your parents probably didn’t like to much. You can’t just decide to be in love with certain parts of me, the parts you like to remember. You have to love all of me. And being in love with me means recognizing and acknowledging everything that my black body represents! You never did this. You also thought that you were blackish because you smoked blunts and drank 40 oz. I am ashamed that we dated.
I believed for most of the two years since we last saw each other that you did not love me. I don’t feel that way anymore. I KNOW that you did not love me, despite your proclamations. I am just another girl who you’ve fit into your life story, the ideas you have about yourself. You wrong me and it gives you reason to continue to feel sorry for yourself. It doesn’t matter. I don’t matter. I am a character that you invented to play a role that’s been cast over and over again. My feelings aren’t hurt by this anymore. It doesn’t matter.
I am in great danger of repeating your mistakes, of casting a character to fill your role, because I was very close to you, and I very much wanted things to work out. I always want it to work out, each time, with every lover. I gave our relationship a second chance because I had changed and I thought that maybe my changes could change everything. I struggle everyday with men because of that mistake, because of the second chance I gave. I struggle to see something other than you. Most day’s it’s impossible. I’ve all but given up. I rely on a tiny chamber in my heart that has been reserved for love, one that I pretend to forget.
I made mistakes too. I didn’t know how to communicate my true feelings. I didn’t know who I was. I clung onto relationships that were less than healthy because I was afraid of what would happen without them. In coming to terms with myself I’ve learned that I was completely hiding because in this new life I am entirely too blunt. I do not care for niceties and sugar coatings at times. I will sometimes step on toes and break backs if it means I accomplish what I need to accomplish.
Also, I’m not always so kind, or funny, or wise, or caring (especially when I notice or feel that someone is beginning to take advantage). Sometimes I’m awful, and angry, and moody, and paranoid. I’ll even tell people I want to punch them in the face. And then I laugh about it. Muwhahahaha!
I am not easily so easily handled. Not so easily convinced that love is what people say it is. I search for it in graffiti and tattoos, messages scrawled on bits of paper. I look to the poets, I search advertisements, handbags, earrings, street signs, anything really. I write down these messages. I keep looking because I want to believe that it exists. I’m quite sure I will find it in a place that I’d never think to look. I also think I’m very close to it, despite my doubtful musings.
I have nothing to fucking lose except the hold that your so-called often spoken, now unspeakable, two years of silence, love used to have on me. You can stand on your pillar of upper-middle class, rural Virginia whiteness and continue to fear what it means to actually have your own opinion about something, to follow your own heart, and to live your life to the rhythm of it’s drum. You can continue to try and impress those who are themselves, unimpressive. You can keep trying to do what other people this is right. And your mustache is stupid.
I cared for you. I’m not sure if I loved you then, and I’m certain I don’t love you now. In a general sense, we are all worthy of respect and love, just by virtue of being alive, of being human brothers and sisters, and I love and loved you in this sense.
I wished that I could have told you that I wasn’t in love with you. Then maybe we could have gotten back to the business of being friends sooner. You were in love with a woman who you felt needed saving [hence the paramedic in you coming out], and who happened to be fighting for her right to be seen as a person, more than something for some dude to stick his dick in. I still fight for this, to be seen as a capable person who is worthy of love and respect in her own right, not because of any gender imposed handicaps.
Because of you I’m not afraid of being the bitchy girlfriend, if I ever find someone worthy and consent to being a girlfriend again. I might need to be that way to let someone know that I care about them and that their actions DO directly affect me ( I have a great standup routine that I’ve been perfecting about having been a “cool” girlfriend). I was lazy, expecting you to know what to do without giving you clear instructions. Trusting that you would “do the right thing.” Naive of me. This is where expectations fail and I see that now. The problem is not in having them, it’s having them and not stating clearly what they are.
Our breakup forced me to figure out how to make a better life for myself, I have an amazing art practice. Out of the loneliness and questioning came an expressive search for answers.
I can offer you my support, unconditionally. I offer this to all of the ghosts who meander around the periphery (a term I use for people whose page has turned in the book of my life, but who still pop up every now and then). Although it may be redirected, no love is ever lost.
I am now focused on making the experiences, stories, and desires of women of color a part of the fashion landscape. We have so much natural style. Unbleached, unaltered, and unyielding beauty. This has been my love since we ended.
I spent the better part of my twenties focusing on matters of the heart. Fortunately there are other things worth living for. It’s time for me to give those things a chance.
Thanks for taking some time to reflect, and to write about what we had. I’d almost forgotten. I wanted to forget. I have been hating all men (not even half kidding at all about this) because of our mistakes for a long time now.
Know that your actions have had direct bearing on how I am able to love in the future. I wish that weren’t the case, that I could have sung”I Will Survive,” at the disco all night with shiny pants and perfect hair. I wish that could have made me forget. That I could have just fucked the pain away. Or drunk it away, or anything really. I’ve had to live with it. I’ve had to deal with it and it’s effect on my life.
Remember to follow your dreams steadfastly. Remember to never compromise. I hope that your life continues to grow and change. I hope that I hear sparkling updates from you and yours in the future. I hope that you, at some point in your life, get the fuck outta Virginia. Enjoy all that life has to offer.
With love, care, and respect
I moved (back) to California a few days shy of 2011. I immediately went to visit my aunt Cyd, one of my mother’s sisters. During that visit she handed me a small, one-page, typed and hand decorated letter, a letter my mother had written when she and my father lived together in Los Angeles. I don’t know where this letter is ahora, but when I find it I’ll type it up along with the others I’ve posted in this series. I only mention it because a few days ago a receive a package from this same aunt, containing several artifacts from my late mother’s youth.
The package contained:
-2 library cards (one from the San Jose library, one from a library in Kenya)
-A map of the London underground
-Business cards from Indair International, an air travel agency
-A registration certificate from the University of Nairobi (she studied ART while she was there. I had no idea!)
-A membership card to the Games Union (she was in the swimming club)
-An international student ID card:
My mother at 20. My hair is bigger. Muaha!
-Several thank you cards my mother had written to her mother
-And three more letters, which I will be retyping and posting over the next few weeks.
As you might remember, my mother suffered from a rare genetic condition called Machado Joseph’s Disease, one that is passed from parent to child. It’s symptoms include a total, significant, and progressively degenerative loss of muscle control. This means that everything goes. Her vision doubled, she eventually had to be catheterized, she suffered from muscle fatigue and pain, she had trouble swallowing and eventually had to have a feeding tube installed – as far as I can tell it’s kind of like turning back into a baby with a fully aware mind.
She suffered greatly as she tried to both battle the condition, and adjust to becoming wheelchair bound. Her fate was unavoidable. MJD is relentless. It strikes and progresses until it’s job is done. If only I had such focus. No cure has been found and the only action it accepts is submission. Major symptoms started to present themselves just six months after I was born. Her hands stopped working and she scratched me in the face. She couldn’t turn a page while reading the bible and in an act of frustration, tore it to pieces. That’s how my father found her when he came home. Looking at the shredded pages of god’s word. Another time, she fell while carrying me in her arms. She was 32 years young when all of this began.
I currently have two family members that are living with the disease. I found out last week that my aunt’s (not the one that sent me the letters, the other sister) battle with MJD is getting more severe. She was hospitalized for several days after her leg locked up. They gave her a nerve block and sent her home. My aunt is unmarried and although she worked most of her life, is unable to afford the full-time care that she requires as her body begins it’s final descent. There are no emergency exits for her. I spoke with her last weekend. We cried together, although I tried to choke back my emotion and give her only positive vibes. I know how terrible the disease is because I grew up with it. I know that even though her condition is bad now, it will only get worse. She is bedridden, and she doesn’t have ongoing assistance like my mother had when she entered this phase. To say that I am worried is an understatement.
I find the connection I had to my mother remarkable. Up until last year I had a hard time figuring out where she ended and I began. As psychologists put it, I hadn’t differentiated. I thought I was her. Her problems were my problems, I carried them with me for too long. Being the only woman in my family made it infinitely more difficult. I was the only female-bodied offspring and was always being compared to my deceased mother by friends and relatives. I thought my life was fated to be just like hers.
At some point in our lives all of us are our mothers. We are not individuals, we are a part of them. We are completely dependent. Part of the process of growing up requires we shed that identity, that we realize we are not part of their bodies anymore. We discover that we are unique individuals, that we are different from our parents, friends, communities, lovers, and siblings, yet we all share the condition of being alive, of being a part of this human family. We, in our lifetime, all have the opportunity to connect, and unite, and relish in this earthly state. Still, we should never forget that our fates have always been dependent on women and the choices women have.
I was incredibly connected to my mother’s experience of health. I think she knew this, but she could never fully translate and understand my actions. She talks about wanting to light a fire under me, but never understood that part of the reason I wouldn’t budge was because I knew how much it hurt for her to see me doing things she loved to do, but couldn’t. That hurt inside of her sometimes turned into verbal and physical abuse, and I was smart enough to know how to protect myself. I don’t have to do that anymore.
She desperately longed for the outdoors – for gardens, mountain hikes, bike rides, and evening walks. MJD made this challenging, but she still held onto her dreams and desires. Below is a picture of my mother at Yosemite. She managed to hike up mountains even when her body was failing her. That’s fucking inspirational as hell. This is the first time I’ve been able to see it that way.
My mom hiking somewhere beautiful
By 2008, both of my siblings had been tested for MJD. One had it, one didn’t. Fifty, fifty. In February of that year I decided to get myself tested. I was 25. I had lived my whole life with complete assurance that I had the disease. I had planned a career for myself based around MJD. I knew I would have to choose a partner that could take care of me in case I got sick. I was looking for and finding signs of MJD by the age of 22. I knew it was only a matter of time. I thought I was prepared for it. This is what I had spent my whole life doing, preparing to be sick, trying to find someone who would be willing to take care of me the way my father had taken care of my mother.
My mother had a hard time letting go of the physical abilities that she was losing, and since I was 100% sure that I had the disease I simply decided not to do those things. No dancing, no hiking, and no sports. I couldn’t get attached to those things because I would lose them, so I never tried. The problem was that I love art and I loved making things with my hands. I knew I would lose this ability too, so I made things with the fury of 1000 winds. I’d stay up all night completing projects, I’d make quick decisions and commitments, because from the plateau I’d climbed on, I saw that I didn’t have very much time. Time. Tricky bastard. Perception. Trickier bastard.
I was in Illinois, spending time with the man I was dating at the time when I got the phone call. The test confirmed that I did not have MJD. My life from that moment on crumbled into a million tiny pieces. I’m only now finding my footing, returning to a path that will hopefully give me some stability. Being and artist and being stable seem incongruous in American culture, but this feels like the only way to live. The only way I want to live, and there isn’t time to do things I don’t want. Everything I’d been preparing, while thinking I had MJD, was irrelevant. I had been planning my life around an illusion. I’d spent so much time not dancing for no good reason. I’m not destined to relive my mother’s fate.
I have, because of these experiences, committed to making better decisions – ones based on realistic expectations of time. I try not to rush, rush, rush, although I hope to move forward. I think this can be seen most obviously when it comes to me and love. As much as I want to jump right in, I tend to be a bit more cautious, a little dog-like even. Sniffing around, running away when called to, coming back, sniffing some more. If I really like you I’ll eventually come back and bring some toy for us to play with.
In previous letters my mother wrote about living her life in “suspended animation,” without desire for sex or food or life. That was the condition I grew up in and my experience of life was similar to hers. I am only now gaining and interest in food, sex, and pleasure. It’s amazing to be fully aware of my mind while doing this. I observe myself with fascination and amusement. The range of emotions I experience in a day is breathtaking and hilarious. I once cried until all I could do was laugh. I am unsuspending myself.
The letter below is one my mother wrote to her mother while my grandmother was at some kind of athletic camp in San Luis Obispo. My grandmother was a physical education teacher at the time. From the letter it is obvious that my mother was taking care of her younger sisters while my grandmother was away. She was also preparing for her term in Kenya. Both of my brothers have Swahili names, because my mother was able to master the language during her term of study. Impressive. I can hardly speak English. She was three months from turning 21.
Tuesday, August 10, 1971
You will be home in a couple of days. We have to hurry and get this house all cleaned up. Don’t expect the Taj Mahal or nothing like that cause if you are, you will be sorely disappointed. Now I realize how much work it takes to keep this household running. We stopped eating as well as we did the first week just because I have decided that I am not the only responsible one around here. I just plain got tired of preparing big meals. Tonight we had absolutely nothing, but we weren’t hungry. It is too hot to eat.
I got your letter today. You are getting a little better at letter-writing aren’t you? How long will this last? Congratulations!!! So far the people in Santa Barbara have not mentioned anything about the $1490.00, so let’s just do what we decided to do…Wait until my loan comes in. I am not sure if we will have time to play much tennis before I go, but I will be glad to hear the helpful tips you learned. I quit going to lessons. It is too hot at 4 o’clock and I play on my own anyway. The wall is getting a little boring, though. Working is even more of a drag. Oh well, Saturday is my last day, but I unfortunately have to work 8 hours that day. I guess my clothes are O.K. I tried to put a few in a suitcase today, but I don’t want the good things to get wrinkled (why worry..they are gonna get that way sooner or later anyway).
Today I did a couple of wash loads, ironed a little and folded clothes without the help of your younger daughters. Cyd says that she will do some housework tomorrow. I hope so. I am nervous again. Maybe I should take that librium prescription to Africa with me. Do you have the other big suitcase? I probably won’t need more than two of the large-sized ones that we have. I would like to get a nice, cheap tote bag to carry a few articles of clothing and some toilet articles with me on the plane. I’ll check Gemco tomorrow. Oh, I need those guarantees for my Smith-Corona. I don’t know how I am going to bring it along since it weighs so much. Maybe I’ll just leach off of some friendly native in Africa. It is a good reason to meet someone…”excuse me; I am a stranger in the these parts and I need to borrow a typewriter..” Sounds good to me. If I find that I really need it, maybe you could ship it to me, although that might be risky. Before I leave, I will leave a manilla envelope here so that you can rush off any last-minute mail to me that I might need. My stupid I.D. card still hasn’t come yet, but I wont be leaving San Jose until Monday night anyway, so they still have time. All of these plans are a drag. The next time I decide to leave the country, talk me out of it. My letters are always so cheerful, aren’t they? Sorry about that.
Charlie (my dad!!!) may be coming here this weekend. I hope it doesn’t make you unhappy (bahahahah, my grandmother once referred to my dad as “that black Charlie!” and not in a good way). I told him that I will be busy getting ready to go and that I want to spend my last few precious moments with my one and only mother, so it is up to him to do what he wants to do. You have not received much fun mail at all. Your gym clothes came today. I opened the package, if you don’t mind. I opened it even if you do mind. How’s that? They are cute.
I started reading Souls of Black Folk. Sometimes I wonder why you underlined some of the things you did. You’ll have to explain a few of your markings to me.
Gonna go read for a while before I go to sleep. Have fun on you next to last day at camp. Say hi to Donna.
As much as I’d like to deny it, every little thing I do is still attached to her experiences. Fruit falls close to the tree and karma is a real thing, although I find nothing spiritual or mystical about it. The things our parents learn and fail to learn, become both our assets and our obstacles. My question is, how do I transform her drags into lifts? Her anxieties into pleasures? Can I transform her karma and mine at the same time? I honestly am beginning to feel that this is what I am really doing with this project. Watch how it unfolds.
Remember to love and enjoy.