For all of those 11 thousand AWP conference goers, we are all dispersed now, the great migration of poets and writers upriver toward home to spawn, preen, re-connect, posture, debate, read, hope for new book contracts, etc. having now concluded. Among all the commitments, the insanity, one moment stands out for me. It was silent.
Walking by the evening reception rooms on the last night on my way to meet someone, I saw a poet I’ve met a few times, one I admire a lot, and had I not had someone waiting, would have stopped to say hello, except that would have interrupted his conversation with the person he was talking to. Yet our gaze had met.
There seemed only one right thing: without slowing, I raised my hands in prayer pose to my heart and bowed my head, and he raised his hands to his chest and bowed back.
The poet Fred Marchant said at the panel we were on together celebrating first books that he wished there was something in the writing world akin to the the yoga acknowledgement of raised hands, bowed head, and the word, Namaste, I honor the light in you; you honor the light in me. He said, we should find a way to say, The poet in me honors the poet in you.
That silent moment with the poet in the hall was that for me, a quiet, yet full and generous split second in which no one had to catch up on, “How is your writing going?” or “When is the next book coming out?” or all of the other things we say to each other. Sometimes saying nothing, but being happy to see someone is simply enough.
I felt honored.
This is what I am holding fast to from this AWP.
That’s not the usual question, right? It’s all about wanting to look beautiful, but nothing makes a person look more beautiful then when they radiate the feeling from within. People can see it. More so, they can feel it. Increasingly, I find that if I look hard, if I pay attention, I see beauty everywhere. In simple things: the bared architecture of trees sans leaves in my town of Little Silver (and many of the trunks are white enough they almost look silver in the winter sun light); the unfinished building with its jagged spires of rebar in Asbury Park; the way a jar of tomato sauce splattered into a red cosmos across the countertop when it fell from the cupboard. But nothing seems as beautiful to me as other people, and sometimes I can’t help staring. The more I look, the more I can see. Yesterday it was the cashier at Good Will. Late in the day, and few customers left, no on on line but me, he started to chat.
It was hard to focus on his eyes. They glittered in the way people who have dark stories, have survived a lot of trauma often do. He told me how his dad had kicked him out when he was 16, how he bounced around, couldn’t finish high school, how he never got a driver’s license because he hadn’t had anyone to help him. He said it was funny how people thought the reason he didn’t have a license was because he must have done something to lose it. “Naw,” he said, “I just didn’t have no one to help me get it.” He went on to tell me that next week, he’s getting both his driver’s permit and his GED. It was hard to meet his gaze and hold it sometimes, but I did, and the more I centered myself to really see this boy/man who was telling me about the accomplishments he was about to make, the more beautiful his eyes became, and his face. When I thanked him for telling me his story, for sharing this, and that I was really happy for him, he said, “Yeah, my dad was a pretty mean guy, but I decided, hey, I gotta be the kind of person I wish he’d have been. I want people to be nice, so I try to be.”
Today, this young man is in my heart like a prayer, one to remind me to live better, one for him as a stranger who is hoping this coming week will be an amazing one, the start of a new phase of his life, and one about beauty and how easy it is to feel beautiful if you’re looking closely at the world.
And today, we found about another beautiful young man, a dancer, Lil’ Buck. See him here, dancing outside of Lincoln Center. If you watch it all the way through, you will see how the patrons of art (on the inside) come and go not seeing what he is trying to do on the outside, out of his own body, his life. And listen for what he says about beauty at the end.
He’s come to attention of Yo-Yo Ma, whom you can here playing alongside this dancer. They will be at Le Poussin Rouge in NYC in April playing and dancing to a score by Philip Glass. In this video, I love how Yo-Yo Ma’s face reflects that he knows he is in the presence of beauty.
Beauty makes us all feel more beautiful.
Have that kind of day.
Sex is still so hard to talk about in general, and those who find themselves grappling with health issues that effect their sexuality often feel isolated, alone, unable to get answers to their questions, indeed are sometimes not even able to ask them given the environment of secrecy that still surrounds sex.
As I prepared for my total hysterectomy, questions I asked of my medical professionals were often met with averted gazes or jokes. In my memoir, The Belt of Venus, I recall a female surgeon, one whom I expected would understand my concerns as a smart, educated, accomplished professional and as a woman, who could not respond to my questions directly. “Can you talk to me about how the removal of my ovaries will affect my sex life,” I asked. She was leaning one hip against the counter, her hands clasped in front of her. She didn’t say anything for a moment. I waited, my husband next to me. She looked at each of our faces, then said, “You’re two professionals with small kids. When do you have time for sex anyway?”
It wasn’t long before I had a different surgeon, and this one, when asked the same question–and it’s important to note that we had left the examination room, and we were all sitting at a desk–spoke to my husband and I frankly and openly, without any hint of squeamishness, even when I asked, “And what about desire?”
But this isn’t common, and the blogger, SULEIKA JAOUAD is writing for the New York Times on her cancer experience. Here she writes about this very issue of sexuality and the cult of secrecy in a frank and moving discussion about patients’ needs for more counseling about medical treatments, disease, and sexuality.
Sexuality is a healthy part of the human experience, and routinely, sexuality is ignored, still treated secretively, as if we have something to be ashamed of. Even those who speak of it in the medical world often refer to sexuality euphemistically as “intimacy” and yes, sex promotes intimacy, but it is more than that. It’s time we stop feeling as if sexuality is an adjunct to a healthy life, something easily dispensed with. We need to talk about it.
I don’t just hate it; I loathe it. Loathe means to be disgusted by, have a total aversion to. Yes. That’s how I feel, but here it is a year after my total hysterectomy, and there are a few pounds sneaking up, not just from these past holidays, but from the stress eating from Hurricane Sandy. Not having electricity for thirteen days didn’t stop that. Somehow I managed to nibble my way through it.
But it is time to get real, grow up, be the fifty year old fab self I can be, so I bought a used recumbent bike off Craigslist and installed it in the basement. Got the kids a small trampoline and rummaged in the garage for hula hoops, balls, and a jump rope, so we can have family fitness time, and I won’t have to worry about the pounding on the floors above me or the screams of, “She took my crayons,” and “He’s got my sewing kit,” while I am trying to sweat myself into endorphin heaven.
Which is a crock of crap. I loathe exercise, but I have done some before now. It’s a grind to run every step, crunch every ab, strengthen any part of the core; in fact, it’s work.
So I am starting slow: stretches, then muscle work—pink hand weights, orange kettle bells, a green resistance tube (all on sale at the local Marshall’s)—then the bike. Started with eight minutes the first day at medium tension. Blared 80’s hits on an old IPod. Huffed and puffed. Next day, I added a minute, then another minute the next day, which I will do until I reach my target.
One of the things that is making this easier is that in my basement I can pound out the lyrics to an old Billy Idol song while I pedal. I can grimace, can make weird noises. I can even talk to myself: Come on, you can pedal harder than that!!!
Today, there were five minutes I did not loathe. Consecutively! My breathing actually got rhythmic and oddly calm. It was also noisy: whooshing in, whooshing out. Billy Ocean was crooning about how I should get into his car.
I stopped thinking for a minute. For five minutes, I didn’t loathe or hate or even feel anything but alright. I was okay.
Then I went two minutes past what I’d done yesterday.
After, on the floor doing some final yoga stretches, my dog laying so dutifully next to me, I thought about this past year, which had gone by so fast. We all have so many things that happen to us, to those we love. And this past fall was hard for many people I know. But for me, it was the culmination of a tough three year cycle of family separations, illnesses, deaths, difficulties. And I am letting something go now, coming out of that cycle.
And today, everything is okay. Not for everyone, but that feeling I always have when the phone rings, today, I don’t have that.
Maybe it’s because of the breathing.
What does it mean to get Genetic Testing? My family has been and continues to grapple with that as more of us get tested for Lynch Syndrome. Some of us don’t want to know. Some of us are concerned about long term insurance issues. Some of us feel guilt if we turned out not to have the mis-match repair gene that causes so many cancers in our family.
As science gives us more information, the medical community is finding new ways to apply it, but it is no easy thing. This month’s Scientific American explores some of the ethical dilemmas involved when, as the editors write, we can order a full transcript of our genetic code for $1000, something they say is just a few years away, and about what may happen when we can get the genetic blueprint of a fetus. Read the editorial in the January 013 issue of Scientific American. I’d love to know what you think.
These are complicated matters. What does it mean to know the possibilities of genetic expression? And in what ways might the very new science of epigentics change what we think of the genetic code, since the crucial question about a “bad” gene is whether or not it will be triggered or suppressed.
For Lynch Syndrome, at least in my family, it hasn’t been suppressed. Not yet, at least. So it is all about vigilance and medical testing, hoping to catch anything early.
But what if we in this generation had our genetic map earlier? Or what if our parents had? What will my own children do, who have not been tested yet, when they are planning to have their own children? These are problems for my family, but they are big issues for all of us as more information and more tools become available.
This is a poem by Stephen Dunn.
More things come to them,
and they have more to hide.
All around them: mirrors, eyes.
In any case
they are different from other women
and like great athletes have trouble
making friends, and trusting a world
quick to praise.
I admit without shame
I’m talking about superficial beauty,
the beauty unmistakable
to the honest eye, which causes
some of us to pivot and to dream,
to tremble before we dial.
Intelligence warmed by generosity
is inner beauty, and what’s worse
some physically beautiful women have it,
and we have to be strapped and handcuffed
to the mast, or be ruined.
But I don’t want to talk of inner beauty,
it’s the correct way to talk
and I’d feel too good
about myself, like a parishoner.
Now, in fact,
I feel like I’m talking
to a strange beautiful woman at a bar, I’m
animated, I’m wearing that little fixed
smile, I might say anything at all.
Still, it’s better to treat a beautiful woman
as if she were normal, one of many.
She’ll be impressed that you’re unimpressed,
might start to lean your way.
This is especially true if she has aged
into beauty, for she will have learned
the sweet gestures one learns
in a lifetime of seeking love.
Lucky is the lover of such a woman
and lucky the woman herself.
Beautiful women who’ve been beautiful girls
are often in some towere of themselves
waiting for us to make the long climb.
But let us have sympathy for the loneliness
of beautiful women.
Let us have no contempt for their
immense privilege, or for the fact
that they never can be wholly ours.
It is not astonishing
when the scared little girl in all of them
says here I am, or when they weep.
But we are always astonished by what
beautiful women do.
“Boxers punch harder when women are around,”
Kenneth Patchen said. Think what happens
when beautiful women are around.
We do not question
that a thousand ships were launched.
In the eye of the beholder? A platitude.
A beautiful woman enters a room,
and everyone beholds. Geography changes.
We watch her everywhere she goes.
Recently, at Peter Murphy’s Winter Getaway Conference, with the Richard Stockton College at the fabulous and swanky Seaview Resort outside Atlantic City, photographer and writer Nina Soifer did a photo shoot with me. I need an author photo, one not taken with my phone.
It was huge fun, and Nina put me at ease, snapping photo after photo in the bright January sun. Culling the best of them, she sent me twenty with the note, “I think you’re beautiful.” Nina is a beautiful woman herself. For her to say that about me made me feel a bit squeamish. And then I opened the file with the pics. I recoiled a little. The old shame rearing its head. People don’t believe me when I tell them my middle school nickname was “Flat, Fat, & Ankle-less” a memory I sometimes mistake, telling it as “Fat, Flat, & Ugly,” because, well, ugly it what it all amounted to. And the popular girls with their chestnut or long blond lengths still live somewhere in my head.
Nina’s pictures where great, and I found one that would work, and so I saved it. I was going to delete the rest of them, but something made me hesitate. Maybe it was Nina’s comment: I think you’re beautiful. She took all of these photos; she wasn’t flattering me–after all she’s an artist–so I took some time with them. I think this photo captures something about me, a little wild, maybe even a little, well, embarrassing, but isn’t that what we want a photographer to do? See us as we perhaps can’t see ourselves? Show what is hidden?
When I let myself look at what Nina saw, I saw something, too: I saw life. Zest. And I recalled something my mom told me when I was a girl: a beautiful woman makes men feel handsome, but a truly beautiful woman makes other women feel beautiful.
And for fifty beautiful women over fifty, see this HUFF Post article. Dang. Fifty women over 50.
It’s time to look at ourselves without squinting: over 50 is fabulous.
Thank you, Nina.
Lynch, like the BRCA gene mutations linked to breast cancer, is beginning to get into the mainstream awareness. Here, Brian Mansfield discusses finding out he has one of the gene mutations lumped under the umbrella term, Lynch Syndrome.
On day 12 without power—no heat, light, or hot water—I cracked. Then on day 13, the electric company work trucks, with license plates from Alabama, Massachusetts, and Mississippi, came rolling down Kings Lane (royally named, and plural rather than possessive).
We live at the corner where Kings and Queens meet, but none of us felt royal, and I certainly didn’t feel like a queen when I came dashing out on the lawn, hugging my layers of sweaters to my chest, waving and cheering as if the Allied Forces where rolling into Normandy. My neighbors and I stood at the corner, the men chatting or walking about purposefully with no purpose, ignoring the trucks while we, their women cheered and called out to the men with southern or northern accents, “Thank you! We’re glad you’re here. Oh, thank god!” Oh, maybe it was just me cheering; I don’t know, but these men responded with tips of their caps and “Yes Ma’ams.” Even the guys on the truck from Boston seemed southern in their graciousness.
Our guys stood behind us talking about their generators, the jobs they were now going back to (our town is lucky, most of us didn’t lose jobs, though some lost houses, but many lost billable hours as professionals), but we women, oh, we women, most with jobs of our own, certainly educated, well, I can’t speak for any of my women neighbors, but me, after days without proper grooming, toiletry, and only three showers in two weeks, I looked like a country wife, I am sure, and these trucks blazing down the suburban road looked like rescue, and man, if I’d been younger, maybe I would have lifted my blouse, but instead, all I saw were sons and husbands and fathers who’d left their own families to come here, and all I could do when one young man stepped down out of his truck and asked me, “Where is your house, Ma’am,” was point my shaking hand toward my downed wires, and choke out, “Thank you, son; thank you so much.”
Thirteen days without power is nothing compared to what some NJ and NY families are facing, and my job has been to work with my students to help get their semester back on track. Many here are still helping dismantle tottering buildings, feed the displaced, and begin the work of restoration. I have been unable to blog, but I hope soon to begin to write for Feisty Over 50 again, its pleasures, its challenges. Make no mistake, please, this storm, this event—like those, I suppose that others have experienced—has offered life lessons, opportunities for change and growth, renewal, and surprise, well, not pleasure, but knowledge. In crisis, we grow.
Staying feisty here; hope you are, too.
Much has been made of the Freud quote, “What does a woman want?”, and I took a slant on this for my early book of poems What Men Want, which, since it is a declarative rather than interrogative, suggests that I actually know, which of course I don’t. The difference between framing something as a question versus a statement matters a great deal, too, as does the difference between the singular versus the plural: considering what a person wants is not the same as trying to identify the issues, concerns, or needs of a group of people.
When I was growing up, my neighbors on each side and across the street had boys my age. I will call them Bobby, Roddy, and Teddy. Until I was old enough to extend my range beyond my own yard, B, R, & T were my playmates. Early on, I was imprinted by boy culture and, by extension, the culture of maleness. Later, I had three sons, all two years apart, whom I’ll call Cooper, Jake, and Nathan. My life was largely defined by the men I loved. My book of poems (if you’re interested, it can be seen or bought here) was an exploration of this, of sexuality, but also, and largely, about raising boys. (Another book of poems, if this is a subject that at all interests you, about men from a female perspective is Dorianne Laux’s The Book of Men)
Of the six men I have mentioned, the boys from my neighborhood and my first crop of kids, here’s the status:
Bobby is divorced, a father, runs his own business.
I lost track of Roddy.
Teddy is dead.
Cooper, Jake, and Nathan are “launching.” Cooper is living with his girlfriend in a house she just purchased, and is trying to figure out what to do with his life while getting tattoos, hunting, mudding his truck, and going to bars. Jake plays college football and is studying English and foreign film, and Nathan also plays college ball while making dubstep music in his dorm, DJing, and going to Made in America concerts; he hopes to visit Tommorowland.
Like any parent, I wonder what my sons’ futures hold.
Lately, the questions “what does a man want?” and “what do men want?” have been quite the rage–numerous articles have appeared in the big magazines, how men and boys are taking a backseat to women and girls, going to college less, losing jobs, etc., losing their sense of “maleness” along the way. Of course, no one can quite say what that means, but people are fascinated by the idea.
Stephanie Coontz’s opinion piece in The New York Times “The Myth of the Decline of Men” has an interesting take on this topic. It’s worth the read, as well as the hundreds of posted comments to it. Fascinating as I think her analysis is, and more on target than some, what men want is not what interests me so much as what do the men I know, the men I love want and need and desire. What frightens them? What inspires them?
Tommy Lee Jones’ character in the first MIB movie said, “A person is smart; people are dumb.” People want to be part of a group, but I wonder if how group is being defined is changing across generational cohorts, if my neighbors, B, R, & T, and I thought of gender and race as issues, thought the stories of Woodstock we heard as preteens were the height of coolness and rebellion, while my sons, C, J, & R are less concerned about those identity markers and have their own analog to Woodstock in the EDM scene.
EDM is Electronic Dance Music (read interesting post about Miami EDM scene), the kind performed by DJs today, the kind staged at the Tommorowland festival (read article in LA Times). Like the hippies of Woodstock, there are campers–in “dreamville”–but there are also four star chefs cooking international cuisine. The key word is “international” as over 75 nationalities are represented at this yearly event, over 180,000 participants, mostly young, affluent enough or clever enough to get to Belgium for the event where ecstasy–literally and figuratively– abounds.
Gender, sexuality, race, nationality are less important to these young people. Class is a defining factor, though, as it takes money to travel, and this generation’s articles 25 years from now won’t be about whether gay marriage should be legal, or whether men are being outpaced by women, or whether you are gay or straight, or whether you are black, or tan, or yellow, or white. They will be fascinate by class and by world migration patterns.
For now, they are dancing together, trying to find out what this generational cohort–this group–cares about. Meanwhile, we oldsters plod along worrying about the things that were seeded in our hearts as kids: should I play with the boys or the girls? Oh, what is a tom-boy? Does it mean she is a lesbian? Or does she have Girl Power? Is she a lipstick or stiletto feminist? Can a boy cry?
Do you want to see what this generation looks like? There are over a million and a half images of Tomorrowland if you Google it. There are none yet on Wikimedia Commons. Because it hasn’t infiltrated the mainstream consciousness yet. But it’s coming. And this generation doesn’t care if you’re a girl or a boy or who you kiss; they don’t care whether you’re black or white or tan. They care if you have media and technology, if you’re “connected”, if you can get there or make it happen here. They don’t care about the status symbols–cars, big name schools–that my generation cared about.
What do they want?
If we don’t ask them, they’ll tell us, eventually.
For now, Mommy’s getting her Krump on.
PS: See the Tomorrowland Official Aftermovie. It hits a real groove about 5.5 minutes in. A person is smart? People are Dumb? I don’t know, but “something’s happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.”