The Visible Woman by Miriam Sagan

It is not the world’s job to see us. It is our job to see the world.
On a pleasantly rainy day this July I had two disparate experiences. I read about how older women don’t feel seen and I got “hey babied” in my neighborhood.
Not feeling seen is of course a sad state. It can derive from—and lead to—depression. So what do we mean when we say we don’t feel seen?
On the most superficial level, it might mean that for women being young and conventionally attractive was once a source of esteem that has now faded. You can deconstruct this however you want, but for me the bottom line is I’ve never felt safe entrusting my sense of self to the passing glances of strangers. I was amused to get “hey babied” although let me confess—the dudes in question were pretty antique. However, if this never happens again, I’m not going to care.
And that’s because being old is not making me more insecure. And also, although many men are very important to me as spouse, family members, and friends—I don’t care about what “men” in general think of me.
OK, I’ll admit it. I don’t hate being old. And don’t tell me—you’re not old. Because I patently am. I’m old enough for social security. I’m only seven years younger than my maternal grandmother was when she died at what was then considered a ripe old age. I’ve been widowed. I can remember dial telephones. Trust me on this, when I feel the amazingly rich weight of my own life experience I do not feel young.
Probably in part I feel seen because I’m loud and noisy, I wear bright patterns and colors, and I often laugh hysterically in public…I’m sure people look at me and think “I wish that woman in polka dots would keep it down!”
On a deeper note, I think one reason I feel seen is that I’m connected to my community. I run into people I know all day in my smallish city. Does this mean everyone know me for who I really am? No, that is reserved for an intimate few. And that’s what I prefer.
Another thing—maybe the most important—I see myself. I take off all my clothes and dance around to loud music. (Anyone watching might think—I wish that naked woman would keep it DOWN). I drape myself with scarves and look deeply into my own eyes. I try on different outfits and shake (aspiring to be like Tina Turner in her sixties) in the mirror. I do not ask myself to enumerate my physical flaws, my many ailments. Instead, I say—looking good, Mir. I’m not in denial. I don’t think I’m young. I’m just happy to be alive and able to dance and I want to share that with someone special. Myself.

I Hated School by Devon Miller-Duggan

Good lord, I hated school. This thought came to me courtesy of a younger friend posting about how irritated she is about her kid’s summer “homework.” I know there are solid arguments out there for a year-round school year (maybe especially in areas where kids need school to, you know, eat), but we don’t have that, and there are even more arguments about the importance of kids having down time. Big chunks of it. Of course, so much of education in this country is based, relentlessly, on bad info, increasing corporatization, criminal underfunding, and uncountable practices that have no basis in the actual needs of actual human children. Some of that long list is why I hated school. I also hated it because no one knew I had ADD, so every teacher and both my parents just thought my inability to remember that I had homework, let alone focus on it or remember to hand it in—it was just some sort of un-nameable character flaw on my part. Also, homework was BORING.

Practically every teacher I ever had shook his/her head sadly and said some version of “You’re so bright…if you’d only apply yourself…” Aside from this phrase (still in heavy use, I suspect) turning my “gifts” into a club to beat me senseless with, it also taught me a very valuable lesson: Adults LIE. I used to feel very sad and angry about the extent to which I loathed school—kind of pathetically so–until recently.

My earliest memory of school is of the taste of Ritz crackers and tomato soup. My second earliest is of sitting in the back of the classroom (where I could sit because I was such a “good” girl—something I’m hoping to fully get over before I shuffle off this mortal coil…) so BORED I cried. Specifically bored into anguish by “Dick & Jane” readers. I do not understand the weird nostalgia for those torture devices. My third memory is of getting fewer Valentines than other kids—not sure what that was about—I hadn’t gotten weird or fat yet in first grade. I don’t remember feeling especially bad about it, just befuddled.

Even in the years when I had good/great teachers, I loathed school. It was, for me, a criminal distraction from reading and drawing and making things, and looking at fashion magazines. It was where I failed, every day, in some significant respect. I was too something—too slow with Math, too fast with words, too big, too loud, too arty, too bad at gym, too quiet, and way too mouthy for a girl, even as I was awfully busy being a good girl. Sometimes I’m amazed that I didn’t simply explode from my own paradoxes.

So now I have a Ph. D. and am a teacher. I tell my students that college is the first place I ever felt normal, so I arranged to stay. I’m not joking about that. I also try very hard not to lie to them.

All of which is to say that I think it’s probably criminal to give kids homework for the summer (except for reading lists, which I know can be troublesome, but which have some actual purpose). And it’s another example of how adults mess with kids—you have the summer off, oh, wait, except you don’t. Pick one, people. Don’t write “Excellence is our expectation.” over the door of your high school and then change principals yearly and run an inhumane swamp. Don’t tell kids that what’s in their text books is the last word, or even the most accurate word. Don’t bloody tell kids that they’ll regret never taking trigonometry (not for a nanosecond, though I am sad about not getting to take more algebra).

Don’t tell them they have to graduate from high school to go to college—there are options. Don’t tell them college will fix EVERYTHING. Don’t tell them they have to graduate from college to go to grad school. I know that last one is fact because I ignored requirements at two colleges (Why I loved college: I took stuff I cared about, from professors who cared about teaching and ignored course I knew would torture me.), never graduated and went off to graduate school without even really figuring it out. And don’t tell them that folks who haven’t earned authority deserve respect. That one can cause real problems—it’s tough enough being 14 without having to live with the fact that a third of the teachers and more than half the administrators in your school are, at best, incompetent. But I remain convinced that it’s better to grow up questioning authority than blindly respecting (isn’t that an oxymoron?) it.

Hated/feared/despised school. But I learned early what mattered to me and what didn’t. I learned not to trust adults. I learned to tell which adults were actually paying attention to me and which weren’t. I learned that the world is too often made of lies. Along the way, Ms. Galloway taught me to read T. S. Eliot and Mrs. Harker taught me to read Faulkner and Shakespeare, and Mr. Prillman taught me to stop claiming to be “lazy” in order to excuse my lack of focus, and even though I nearly flunked the science exam, he read it to the class because the answers were so off-beat—and that kind of made getting things wrong feel right.

College (especially, bless its beating heart, Mount Holyoke) taught me a zillion things, among them that it was just damn fine for a woman to use big words, and that there were people who could actually develop romantic feelings for non-traditionally brainy humans—that me being me was sufficiently functional, perfectly do-able.

Not sure exactly how summer homework connects to all that, but I have faith that it does. Because along the way, I have learned to trust that connections will emerge.

Father’s Day FB Post, the Extended Version: Some things I learned from my father. By Devon Miller-Duggan

I read Devon’s post on Facebook, and was very touched by it. Here is a somewhat expanded version for Miriam’s Well. I’m grateful to have it, because this past Father’s Day I didn’t feel up to writing about my own dad.
This seems like a good time to express my gratitude to Devon for being a contributing writer here. One of her fans recently told me that she was struck by DEvon’s ability to write about things as they were happening. As little in life is ever truly resolved, I am continually impressed by Devon’s ability to express ambiguity, and levels of meaning.
—Miriam Sagan, editor Miriam’s Well

***

Father’s Day FB Post, the Extended Version: Some things I learned from my father.

1. There is no end of interesting things to look at in the world: no museum too small, no scenic turnout not worth stopping at, no person whose story isn’t worth collecting, no restaurant someone else has recommended not worth trying.
2. Knowing how to do lots of things, both random and specific to your main focus, is great fun. He was a splendid dentist, and his huge hands (think Michelangelo’s “David”) could finesse the smallest, most precise work. He could also fix all sorts of stuff, ski, shoot, cook, butcher, raft, wrap gifts exquisitely, and when he was young, excel at most sports.
3. Craftsmanship doesn’t just matter, it MATTERS. I’ve had to unlearn this one a bit—perfection isn’t always useful or necessary, but that which is done beautifully is a benediction to the world. He also regarded this as a matter of character. I pretty much do, too.
4. The pleasure of arguing. He raised me to be very aware of politics, but was not altogether happy about how my politics turned out. My husband and his wife used to leave us to it and go talk cooking in the kitchen in peace.
5. Very good people can also be very bad people and still be very good people. (work that one out…) My father did a lot of good in the world. He was perhaps happiest when he was saving someone, or helping someone save themselves, or giving gifts. He was very much the person you wanted around in an emergency—calm, competent, reliable, and decisive. But he was also other things.
6. Love looks pretty weird sometimes. Sometimes it looks like extraordinary generosity and great warmth. Sometimes that generosity can become a form of manipulation (for both parties), and that warmth can turn frighteningly cold, or turn violent.
7. Never to stop living or looking for new things to learn. When he had to give up skiing, he took up whitewater rafting. He also read all those historical markers along roads.
8. He taught me that men are unsafe and capricious. My maternal grandfather taught me that men are strong and loving. My husband taught me that men are human.
9. It’s both possible and good to love people even though they’re much more complicated than they want to be.
10. Communication is a good idea. Argument is not necessarily communication, though sometimes it’s all you’ve got.
11. Even if you’re a hard-core introvert, it is possible to enjoy making yourself act like an extrovert for chunks of time. He was both charismatic and genuinely interested in the other folks in the room. I’m interested in the folks in the room, but would mostly rather not have to talk to any of them until I’ve been in the room with them lots of times and talked to other people about them—not gossip, research.
12. Beauty matters–everywhere and in everything. And he could never quite deal with the fact that I wasn’t—at least not as far as I knew. Near his death, he told me that I was for at least some part of early adulthood. You could have knocked me over with a gnat’s breath.
13. Never tell your children they’re not good enough.
14. Your children are not there to make you look good. I lost track of how often folks would tell me how proud of me he was of me, my artwork, my brains, my skills. I took up poetry partially because it was an art he couldn’t show other people. Mostly he told me what a disappointment I was.
15. The joys of storytelling.

I miss him. I didn’t for a long time, but I do now. I hate his not getting to meet his great-grandchildren. I hate his not getting to see how wrong he was about so many things in my life, and not getting to tell him how wrong I was about so many things in his. I also regret never getting to forgive him face-to-face. It would have done both our hearts great good. So, for today, I wish him great peace.

How Is Your Day Going So Far? (Please Do Not Ask Me That)

Contemporary life has it’s annoyances. I don’t like the superficiality of “how are you?” I found it particularly difficult when I was bereaved as a widow. Did the person really want to know? Should I lie? I still brush it off—charmingly I hope—with the answer “I have no idea!” Sometimes people laugh. Mostly they just ignore the unexpected.
At 8 am at the dentist’s office, I was asked “How is your day going so far?” So far? Well, I had coffee and psyched up to be injected, numbed, drilled, crowned, and charged a king’s ransom. My day was mediocre, headed for bad. Why ask?
“What can possibly have happened so far?” I said. I was unprepared for the answer, which in true New Mexican fashion looked at potential disaster with both resignation and humor. The speaker answered: “You could have been pulled over by the cops. Busted. You could have gone into labor. Someone else could have gone into labor…” I had to laugh. This sounded like some of the more plausible excuses I used to get in English 111 about why an essay was late.
So I enjoyed the exchange. Until the next time I got asked. At the airport. At 6:30 am. I’d had coffee, and psyched up for TSA, lines, turbulence, and strange landing gear noises.
This time, I didn’t say much of anything.
Next time, please don’t ask.

Letter To My Younger Self by Chasity Anderson

Once

We pretended satellites were falling stars and if we just believed hard enough our wish would come true. It was a simple wish. The need to be wanted, the want to be needed. Love. And we got that.

But.

I don’t think I need to tell you what we feared the most in our hearts. I don’t want to tell you that one day those fears would come true. One day we will be left behind, lost, forgotten… And I won’t be our fault, and it will be our fault. And the hardest we will ever have to do is

let it go…

move on…

There is nothing wrong with us, we are not…toxic…

And.

I can’t promise that even with telling you all of this that the pain will go away. It’ll show up at unexpected times, we will get sad, we will get angry. We will worry that our only purpose in terms of other people is to watch them leave, go away, never look back, and forget us. And it will happen. And I can’t promise that that part of us isn’t true. But we’ll find people who love us as well, even if they aren’t there.

Once.

We pretended satellites were falling stars and if we just believed hard enough our wish would come true. A need to be wanted, a want to be needed. Love.

Believe

Monday Feature by Michaela Kahn: Some days are good days for a little Rilke

Some days are good days for a little Rilke …

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875 – 1926), poet and visionary from Prague, became a crucial part of my life after I read his “Letters to a Young Poet,” at about the time I moved away from home in L.A. to Colorado, to study poetry. My husband, who I met that same year, had several of his books, including a well-worn yellow, green, and gold, “Selected” translated by Stephen Mitchell with an introduction by Robert Hass. The book, even more beat up, sits on the bed next to me now.

Its not just that Rilke is an amazing poet, that his language is beautiful and often startling – its also that what he pulls from the ether is profound – that it always seems to vibrate with energy. And that he isn’t afraid to talk about death. That to him death walks side-by-side, intertwined with life.

When my father-in-law died a few years ago, my husband was with him in Philadephia and I was some several thousand miles away house-sitting, alone, in Cardiff, Wales. I spent the day reading Rilke: The Duino Elegies, The Sonnets to Orpheus, Requiem, over and over, out loud until my throat ached. I sat in the Cardiff house’s kitchen, staring out the window at the gray skies, the wet chimney pots of the houses across the alley, the seagulls winging by. And at one point went out and stared for over an hour at the sunflower in a pot that had been planted by one of the young daughters of the house.

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There is a small field of sunflowers outside my kitchen window now, where I live in Santa Fe. Life connects. Today I am wondering if that might be its most prevalent characteristic … that even when you least expect it, life connects.

Here is a bit of Rilke, then, for Monday …

From “The Sonnets to Orpheus” – II, 14

Look at the flowers, so faithful to what is earthly,
to whom we lend fate from the very border of fate.
And if they are sad about how they must wither and die,
perhaps it is our vocation to be their regret.

All Things want to fly. Only we are weighed down by desire,
caught in ourselves and enthralled with our heaviness.
Oh what consuming, negative teachers we are
or them, while eternal childhood fills them with grace.

If someone were to fall into intimate slumber, and slept
deeply with Things–: how easily he would come
to a different day, out of the mutual depth.

Or perhaps he would stay there; and they would blossom and praise
their newest convert, who now is like one of them,
all those silent companions in the wind of the meadows.

Letter To My Younger Self by Katherine Shelton

Dear ten-year-old-You in your room in the house in Metairie, Louisiana, with the glass shelves on which were arranged your collection of tiny blown glass animals: the giraffe bending her neck over the deer, the family of mice lined up with daddy, mommy, babies, trooping along the back of the shelf, the rabbit with her pink ears. Beloved because they came from Venice, inherited from your Aunt Lib who’d lived in Florence for a year at a finishing school. There were three carved ivory monkeys too: see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil, their paws covering eyes, ears, mouth.These came from a trip to China from your grandparents who did not live to know you. Your mother was fond of surrounding you with her educational moral cautions which you feared you’d never achieve. You were right but no one reaches those high standards even with finishing school and you will do very well at living (worry though you will).
You in that room where you’d tacked up the two felt pennants from the teams we joined at Camp Monterey named for obscure or invented Indian tribes: the Wataugas and the Nolichuckies. You were chosen as the Junior Captain of the Nolichuckies.
You in that room where your father slapped you so achingly and stingingly hard across the ear and cheek and you threw a book at him but hit the closing door.
Whatever you did or didn’t do, trust me now, sixty-five years later, to say your life will be much better than you could ever have pictured. It will be more like the glass animals and Camp and thank goodness, less like the dad.
You didn’t marry Tab Hunter though his image shone tantalizingly from your movie star scrapbook. He turned out to be gay but who knew anything about gay then except to hide it. Tab was so handsome in that tawny, all square American boy way.
Instead you found a man who could right all wrongs. Yes, my darling Katherine, you still believed this was possible, and I salute your hopeful outlook, it helped. Maybe the glass animals taught you to nurture fragility and picture new arrangement possibilities? Some truth in you found the truth in your own real “Tab,” whose feet were on the ground: a gardener and scientist, a listener, and a thinker, a loving parent to your two sons.
Oh, and he drove an MGB blue sports car! Great first date driving through the Berkeley Hills with the top down!
Love from seventy-five-year-old-Me, not as battered as we imagined, even wise as hell, same young, same old.