The woman: Smile, nod, stay watertight

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It’s easy to dismiss it all with a casual, if pensive and somewhat distant, “It just never happened for me” when answering people’s intrusive questions about why you’ve never married or had children. I, for one, often flash to multiple interviews with former US Attorney General under President Clinton, Janet Reno, who died in 2016, and all the times she was forced to answer the question about whether or not she had wanted to marry and have a family; not one to be forced into answers on even the toughest of subjects, she seemed always to reply with some version of “it just never happened for me” (referring to herself as an “awkward old maid”). I don’t know if there’s any more to her story – and it doesn’t matter. She was – and is – entitled to that privacy. Aren’t we all? But that constant, awkward, pesky question about what we want, but didn’t get, persists… and always invites Janet Reno into my brain.

But it’s so much more complex than that. People want easy answers, if they are really looking for answers at all. They are not truly curious; they just want to pry a little bit and see if some horror story will come bursting out. If your inner dam of tears doesn’t burst upon their initial inquiry, they move on and start boasting about their progeny and their accomplishments. Possibly even their progeny’s progeny. Because, yes, like it or not, you’re at that age: near the very end of the possibility of fertility, while many contemporaries and peers have moved into happy, if quite early, grandparenthood.

And you, skin shriveling and pruning with age and passage of time, smile calmly, nodding along, feeling the rush of all the suppressed grief hit the buttress again and again. Smile, nod, stay watertight.

 

And why marry?

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The Divorce
Hans Magnus Enzensberger
At first it was an imperceptible tremor of the skin –
‘Whatever you say’ – where the flesh is darkest.
‘What’s wrong?’ – Nothing. Opaque dreams
of embraces, but on the morning after,
the other looks different, strangely bony.
Razor-sharp misunderstandings. ‘That time, in Rome –’
I never said that. Pause. Rapidly beating heart,
a kind of hate, strange. ‘That’s not the point.’
Repetitions. Brilliantly clear the certainty:
everything is wrong from now on. Odourless, in focus,
like a passport photo, this unknown person
with the tea glass at the table, eyes staring.
It is no use, no use, no use:
litany in the brain, a touch of nausea.
End of reproaches. Slowly the room
fills up to the ceiling with guilt.
The plaintive voice is a stranger’s, but the shoes
that drop with a crash to the floor, the shoes are not.
The next time, in an empty restaurant,
slow motion, bread crumbs, they talk about money,
laughing. The dessert tastes of metal.
Two untouchables. Strident rationality.
‘Things could be much worse.’ But at night
the vindictiveness, the noiseless struggle, anonymous
like two bony barristers, two big crabs
in the water. Then the exhaustion. Slowly
the scab peels off. A new tobacconist,
a new address. Pariahs, awfully relieved.
Shadows getting paler. Here are the papers.
Here are the keys. Here is the scar.

Original

Die Scheidung
Erst war es nur ein unmerkliches Beben der Haut –
“Wie du meinst?” -, dort wo das Fleisch am dunkelsten ist.
“Was hast du?”- Nichts. Milchige Träume
von Umarmungen, aber am anderen Morgen
sieht der andere anders aus, sonderbar knochig.
Messerscharfe Mißverständnisse. “Damals in Rom-”
Das habe ich nie gesagt. -Pause. Rasendes Herzklopfen,
eine Art Haß, sonderbar. -“Darum geht es nicht.”
Wiederholungen. Strahlend hell die Gewißheit:
Von nun an ist alles falsch. Geruchlos und scharf,
wie ein Paßfoto, diese unbekannte Person
mit dem Teeglas am Tisch, mit starren Augen.
Es hat keinen Zweck keinen Zweck keinen Zweck:
Litanei im Kopf, ein Anflug won Übelkeit.
Ende der Vorwürfe. Langsam fullt sich
das ganze Zimmer bis zur Decke mit Schuld.
Die klagende Stimme ist fremd, nur die Schuhe,
die krachend zu Boden fallen, die Schuhe nicht.
Das nächste Mal, in einem leeren Restaurant.
Zeitlupe, Brotbrösel, wird über Geld gesprochen,
lachend. Der Nachtisch schmeckt nach Metall.
Zwei Unberührbare. Schrille Vernunft.
“Alles halb so schlimm.” Aber nachts
die Rachsucht, der stumme Kampf, anonym,
wie zwei knochige Advokaten, zwei große Krebse
im Wasser. Dann die Erschöpfung. Langsam
blättert der Schorf ab. Ein neues Tabakgeschäft,
eine neue Adresse. Parias, schrecklich erleichtert.
Blasser werdende Schatten. Dies sind die Akten.
Dies ist der Schlüsselbund. Dies ist die Narbe.

The single woman: Alone with strangers

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“I started to think about how people say that the trouble with two strangers getting married isn’t necessarily that the woman has to marry someone she doesn’t know but that she has to learn to love someone she doesn’t know…But I think it must be easier for a girl to marry someone she doesn’t know, because the more you get to know men, the harder it is to love them.” –Strangeness in My Mind, Orhan Pamuk

“But how was one to be an adult? Was couplehood truly the only appropriate option? (But then, a sole option was no option at all.)” –A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara

Changing space and place

In writing an earlier post, The silent woman, about being middle-aged, or just being a woman who is trying to make her voice heard in the world we live in (it’s easy for me to forget that this is difficult, but then the news turns up some corporate jackass says women talk too much or one of the only hard-charging questioners, Senator Kamala Harris, was repeatedly interrupted by men at Jeff Sessions’s session in the hot seat at recent US Senate Intelligence Committee hearings), it started off with my thinking about the choices we, as women, have. The choices I, as an individual have – as a woman, as a middle-aged woman, in the position, station and circumstances in which I find myself now. I am fortunate; I cannot complain. I may always have been somewhere near invisible, but I’ve oddly been able to do most things my own way. I have never been railing against a system that is stacked against me. I run afoul of many of society’s expectations and have never cared what other people thought.

So when considering a woman’s place, a woman’s ‘requirement’ to marry or to bend to the conventions of society, I have never felt bound to these ‘norms’. Many of Erica Jong’s assertions in Fear of Flying, which may well have been the norm in 1973 (and in many cases remain so today), were thus memos I shredded in favor of doing whatever I wanted.

She wrote:

“Solitude is un-American. It may be condoned in a man—especially if he is a “glamorous bachelor” who “dates starlets” during a brief interval between marriages.”

Bullshit. Solitude may well be un-American, maybe even inhuman. But I prefer solitude and embraced it.

She also wrote:

“…be alone as a result of abandonment, not choice. And she is treated that way: as a pariah. There is simply no dignified way for a woman to live alone.”

Perhaps as a function or fact of the time, this was true. But I failed to embrace this.

She further wrote:

“Her friends, her family, her fellow workers never let her forget that her husbandlessness, her childlessness—her selfishness, in short—is a reproach to the American way of life.”

This is also not something that remains intact as fact today. Yes, a few people regard me as selfish for my lack of marriage and lack of children, and I occasionally confront the pity people direct toward me for these things I lack. But I understand in equal measure the envy that people also feel that I am free, and always have been. It’s a mixed reaction going both ways.

But then it’s not all about me. I am fully aware that I can only speak for myself and my own rather non-linear and unique experience. What Jong experienced and wrote about 40+ years ago is something different from what we have today, even if we can all cite 1,000 moments each day that we individually experience or witness more of the bitter sameness of obliquely discriminatory behavior. It is easy to dismiss what Jong, mid-20th century feminists or even my older female colleagues when I first joined the corporate workforce write or say as passé because many of us no longer experience the overt discrimination they exposed and fought against. But we see evidence every day, often not overt, but nevertheless pervasive, that there is still plenty of need for feminism and awareness-building. For society and for individuals and their choices.

Feminism, though it can be individual, is largely not about an individual perspective or experience. Each individual may need to define what feminism is for her, but on a more universal level, we are all responsible for making the world safe for women to make those self-determinations. Even if that choice is to follow a prescribed societal view of her own place and space. That means that sometimes we are not going to be on the same page just because we are women, e.g. some of the most vocal anti-choice activists are women; Donald Trump would not have become US president if it weren’t for white women in the United States. Do I agree with those women’s views? No. But do I feel that their right to believe what they believe is valid? Yes, insofar as it does not infringe on others’ rights (which, unfortunately, it often does).

Keeping pace: The marriage question – But who am I, and who are you? Who knows?

Many of Jong’s suppositions are tied to the search for love and the ultimate ‘subjugation’ of marriage. But most of us are not required to marry or pair off for material reasons or other obligations. Yet we do. By choice.

How, then, with all these communication-based minefields in our paths do we reach a point that it makes sense to us to marry? Who and where are we as individuals that we think, Yes, this makes perfect sense? I get it – feelings and lust and all these other heady things cloud our logical judgment. It’s not that marriage and companionship are wrong or troublesome. They can be pleasurable, supportive and all kinds of other good stuff. But what is the need, at a certain point? Maybe it is not a question of need any more, unlike for example, the scenes described in Fear of Flying:

“Damned clever, I thought, how men had made life so intolerable for single women that most would gladly embrace even bad marriages instead. Almost anything had to be an improvement on hustling for your own keep at some low-paid job and fighting off unattractive men in your spare time while desperately trying to ferret out the attractive ones.”

No, instead of ‘need’, I see a few clear paths people take. Among them (and these are only examples):

Those who don’t find a voice or identity, so seek a voice in another. One is essentially alone with a stranger – but that stranger isn’t the person she has coupled up with, but herself. And in some cases (leaving aside the equality of Scandinavian countries, which is atypical of the rest of the world), it is the preference. She may want to subsume her half-baked identity in the identity of another. (“But I have lost my being in so many beings” -Sophia de Mello Breyner.) Maybe she still, in this day and age (and again, outside Sweden this stuff may still be true), buys into the myths:

“What all the ads and all the whoreoscopes seemed to imply was that if only you were narcissistic enough, if only you took proper care of your smells, your hair, your boobs, your eyelashes, your armpits, your crotch, your stars, your scars, and your choice of Scotch in bars—you would meet a beautiful, powerful, potent, and rich man who would satisfy every longing, fill every hole, make your heart skip a beat (or stand still), make you misty, and fly you to the moon (preferably on gossamer wings), where you would live totally satisfied forever. And the crazy part of it was that even if you were clever, even if you spent your adolescence reading John Donne and Shaw, even if you studied history or zoology or physics and hoped to spend your life pursuing some difficult and challenging career—you still had a mind full of all the soupy longings that every high-school girl was awash in.” –Fear of Flying

Then there are those who find someone who loves and cherishes the voice and identity she has cultivated for herself. Something akin to two complete and fulfilled people trying to enhance their lives with the presence of someone else who, by all accounts, understands and appreciates them in a way that no one else does. Illusion? Maybe. After all, understanding may be an illusion:

“What elaborate misconceptions form other people’s understanding of us! The joy of being understood by others cannot be had by those who want to be understood, for they are too complex to be understood; and simple people, who can be understood by others, never have the desire to be understood. Nobody achieves anything … Nothing is worth doing.” –The Book of Disquiet, Fernando Pessoa

The single misunderstanding

Perhaps these pursuits are doomed to be fruitless, but we can delude ourselves. Quite happily, maybe for a lifetime. We may never understand another and maybe we do not need to, completely, to find a kind of fulfillment in another.

“…is always myself that I seek in other people—my enrichment, my fulfilment. Once everyone grasps this, the logic of ‘every man for himself’, carried to its logical conclusion, will be transformed into the logic of ‘all for each’.” –The Revolution of Everyday Life, Raoul Vaneigem

And further, we may not discover or know ourselves, but fool ourselves that we have; we may not truly connect with another – because we are not really listening, not really seeing, but marry anyway, probably blind, often miserable, perhaps someday concluding that we are marrying strangers, or living with the stranger that is ourself, or something similar to what Pessoa cautions:

“Have you ever considered, beloved Other, how invisible we all are to each other? Have you ever thought about how little we know each other? We look at each other without seeing. We listen to each other and hear only a voice inside ourself. The words of others are mistakes of our hearing, shipwrecks of our understanding. How confidently we believe in our meanings of other people’s words. We hear death in words they speak to express sensual bliss. We read sensuality and life in words they drop from their lips without the slightest intention of being profound.” -Fernando Pessoa

blinking through middle age

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“Maybe marriages are best in middle age. When all the nonsense falls away and you realize you have to love one another because you’re going to die anyway.” -from Fear of Flying, Erica Jong

Erica Jong’s heroine asks in Fear of Flying: “Would most women get married if they knew what it meant?” She follows up by stating that perhaps in middle age, marriages would work better. It’s hard to say, of course, but seems reasonable enough to presume. But then maybe it’s more likely that a second or third marriage would work best, regardless of how old the participants are. The book’s protagonist is already stymied in her second marriage and seeking comfort elsewhere. Much ado has been made about “starter marriages” and the likelihood of future marriages working because you learn from the mistakes of the first. I don’t know what to make of this. It too seems plausible – but not applicable to me.

If this is true, what of middle-aged people who never married and got no “practice” other than in a collection of short or long-term, ultimately dead-end relationships? I cannot say because I am in this demographic: middle-aged and never married. I have had a couple of long relationships that never held any future promise and a lifetime, otherwise, of flings and experiments to which I would scarcely be able to apply a name or formal distinction. In between there have been shorter and longer periods of just being on my own, which have always been the happiest and most content times of all.

Confronting the ‘more’

While it’s true that being alone and – by extension – independent has given me a lot of joy, there are moments, often more frequent than in the past, that I imagine my calm life could be enhanced by the presence of someone else. I’ve already written before about not wanting to invite in ‘the wrong element’. After all, as Doris Lessing wrote in The Golden Notebook: “What’s terrible is to pretend that the second-rate is first-rate. To pretend that you don’t need love when you do”. It’s a delicate balance: you may finally confront the fact that you want and need to love and be loved, but to do so, is second-rate enough? Do you fool yourself into thinking that second-rate will do it for you? Can your view become so blurred that you think the ‘wrong element’ could be right? I’ve concluded that it’s most important to recognize the need for love – and go from there.

The ark of the ache of it

Many times I have cited Denise Levertov’s “Ache of Marriage” – and given a lot of thought to the ache one must feel within a marriage – but what about the ache you have without it? It’s something you feel without ever having had the missing part in the first place. It’s not constant but comes in waves. It can look so miserable when you look at it from the outside. Mundane, like a constant sacrifice of one’s own identity and preferences. What is it that softens us … age? The right element? The sunset? The need for warmth? Previous experience (which can also harden us)? The desire for daily soup? (Soup would really do it for me.)

Past sheds light

Blink. Blink.

A recent experience, brief enough to be like the blink of an eye, has contributed one significant thing to my life. It opened a long-closed part of me and made me realize it made no sense to close it again. I had so many times before let previous experience influence me, to close me off, to shut emotional responses down. And now… maybe it was this recent experience, maybe my age, maybe all the previous “practice”, maybe the starker-than-ever realization that there are only so many sunrises and sunsets ahead, maybe a combination of everything that convinced me to stay calm, and stay open?

Lunchtable TV Talk – Togetherness: The ark of the ache of it

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The ache of marriage
-Denise Levertov

The ache of marriage:

thigh and tongue, beloved,
are heavy with it,
it throbs in the teeth

We look for communion
and are turned away, beloved,
each and each

It is leviathan and we
in its belly
looking for joy, some joy
not to be known outside it

two by two in the ark of
the ache of it.

Today is my parents’ wedding anniversary. I spend a lot of time thinking about marriage as an institution. It is not something I ever really wanted, and as I have become older, it seems less than desirable and more of the “ball and chain” that it’s classically described as. Not being a religious person or in need of some kind of monetary or tax benefits that might come from legal marriage – and not being particularly sentimental – marriage is not a priority. That said, I also think a lot about marriage and the equality of access to it. If someone – anyone – wants to marry, s/he should be legally permitted to.

Fie on Love
-James Shirley

Now, fie on foolish love! it not befits
Or man or woman know it:
Love was not meant for people in their wits;
And they that fondly show it,
Betray the straw and feathers in their brain,
And shall have Bedlam for their pain.
If single love be such a curse,
To marry, is to make it ten times worse.

But then, I see a nuanced TV show like HBO’s Togetherness and wonder why anyone would want to sign up for marriage. The ache of marriage is fully alive here. I wasn’t totally into the idea of Togetherness when I read about it. It sounded like an unfolding tableau of overprivileged ennui, as middle-class midlife boredom clashes with midlife identity crisis. People stop being individuals, give up on their dreams, are stuck in the humdrum of daily life. This is at the heart of Togetherness, and could easily have been either as dull as HBO’s Looking or as self-indulgent and preachy as the recent miniseries The Slap. But Togetherness walks the tightrope and avoids conventional appearances – largely because of its cast, and the handling of its creators, the seemingly ubiquitous Duplass brothers, Mark and Jay, and Steve Zissis. It could easily sink to a whiny, pretentious semi-sitcom focused on a 30-something married couple with two small children. They seem to have everything a young couple, Brett and Michelle (Mark Duplass and a transcendent Melanie Lynskey) could want – the marriage, the happy family, the house and the white picket fence. Against this “stable background”, Brett’s best friend (an out-of-work, down-on-his luck actor, Alex, played by Steve Zissis) and Michelle’s sister (Tina, an event planner, played by Amanda Peet) both move into Brett and Michelle’s place temporarily, and this change seemingly upends the bored equilibrium Brett and Michelle have settled into.

Both “sides” see the beauty of the other side. Alex and Tina, who have a really powerful chemistry but keep denying it, represent the initial spark we all recognize that comes from the beginning of a relationship and envy what Brett and Michelle have – but only because they are not trapped by the constraints. Brett and Michelle envy the freedom Alex and Tina have, and start to search outside the relationship for diversions – not necessarily diversions that lead them to infidelity. But just other entertainment, other sparks, ways to find their way back to who they used to be before middle-aged family life.

The bottom line, what I took away, what Togetherness imparts, with some humor and humanity, is that whether or not we are “together” with someone, we are still alone. We swallow so much of ourselves, not because someone else forces us to, but because we let some of ourselves go naturally with the march of daily responsibility and priorities. In following this path, sometimes when we are together with someone, we are more alone than ever.

“Together Alone” – Crowded House

Married to the TV – Wasting Berlin

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I am in a fantastic city (Berlin) and also have an article I need to finish writing that has been hanging over my head for ages. All these options and obligations and what do I do?

Of course, I watch a beyond ridiculous German television reality show (in German, of course – which I don’t understand at all – half the process was trying to figure out what was going on) called 4 Hochzeiten und eine Traumreise. Horrible. Its premise is three couples competing to have the best wedding or something similar – the brides each rate the others’ weddings (and different aspects of the weddings – food, entertainment, dress, etc.). It was nothing less than astounding in its stupidity – and I am nothing less than stupid for watching.

However, in the end, when tacky couple Rana and Samer won “best wedding” (if you could call it that) and then the dream trip, the whole 45 minute nonsense turned out to be worth having watched because of the bizarre physical reaction of the groom. He mimicked a kind of “boxing-match, rapid-motion, punch-to-the-gut” motion. TO HIS WIFE. Really, follow the link and click on the video called “Rana und Samer fliegen auf die Seychellen.”

This has provided an entire evening full of laughter, replaying this in our heads.

 

Dreams, Divorce and Geography

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I dreamt the other night that I was spending a lot of time with actor Kevin Bacon. Probably this infected my brain because I am still, somehow, inexplicably, watching the dismal, horrible, stupid, frustrating and badly written tv show The Following, of which Bacon is one of the stars. I have never been much of a Bacon fan at all – and shows like The Following don’t change that. In my dream, Bacon and I had a number of conversations, but where my brain finally let go of the thread was when I told him that I did not want to offend him but that my mom had only recently seen the film that launched his career, Footloose, and she complained that it was so stupid, she regretted that she could not get that two hours back.

Sudden Marriage – Sudden Divorce

I have observed from afar the strange tendency of people I am vaguely acquainted with people who meet up with someone and very suddenly get married. Because I know these people only in the sense that I went to the same high school – and did not really know them then either – and now know them only via Facebook posts – I don’t know what leads them to these impetuous marriages. Likewise I don’t know what leads them as impetuously out of these marriages. It would be one thing if I saw it happen once, like something anomalous, but it seems to happen often.

Geography Woes

I don’t really understand the tendency to marry and divorce quickly and frequently, as though it is as casual and easy as brushing one’s teeth. It seems awfully complicated when a couple could just… I don’t know – move in together? But it does seem Americans of all ages are more interested in marrying (and divorcing) than learning anything about the world.

I know and knew this. I recall the year I was graduating from high school and we had to try out to be graduation speakers. My speech had a lot to do with framing our little place within a global framework – that is, look at all the things that had happened in the world since we started school. But how would that context make sense or mean anything if people did not even know where to locate the Soviet Union on a map?

Americans really don’t know, understand or care about geography. I knew this, but Stephen Colbert provided a good reminder on his Monday, April 8 show. Ukraine, according to Americans, is pretty much everywhere. (Oh, Stephen Colbert, you are loved and will be missed on The Colbert Report when you take over the Late Show from David Letterman.)

Ukraine is wherever America says it is!