Fat Girl

Though in my last post I talked about the cumbersome baggage I’m lugging around, this post is about the film, Fat Girl, not myself.

Catherine Breillat is my favorite director. This week I’m devouring her films, some for the first time (Fat Girl, Bluebeard (now streaming on Netflix)), some all over again (The Last Mistress, Anatomy of Hell). Breillat’s films are always explicit yet surreptitious. Natural yet philosophical. Audacious. Feminist. Perverse. Delicious. Exceedingly gorgeous. And oh so French.

ImageFat Girl is a story about the relationship between the sharp and hungry Anaïs and her sister, belle du jour, Elena. Anaïs is thirteen, Elena is fifteen. Both are coming into their bodies and trying to understand their sexuality: what it is, how it works, where it should be directed, exposed, displayed, or hidden. Elena falls in love with Fernando, an Italian college student; though, when we meet him, the way the camera angles, the tone of the movie, conventional hopes and tropes dictate that he’ll pursue Anaïs, snubbing the sometimes cruel Elena. Expectations thwarted.

There will be spoilers. You are now officially warned.

One of the things I love about Breillat is that she finds poetry in the ordinary. She’s not afraid to keep the camera, the scene, the characters rolling. Fernando sneaks into Elena and Anaïs’ room. Anaïs pretends to be asleep. From an ignored corner, through her eyes we watch Fernando persuade Elena to give up her virginity. She’s visibly reticent, afraid, and uneasy. As are we. His rapey persistence masquerades as love until finally Elena gives into anal sex, which doesn’t really count everybody’s doing it and besides it’s an act of love. By the time he inserts himself and Elena gives us a couple of anguished cries, I’m twisted and nauseated.

Anaïs’ powerful, beautiful sister has been reduced. Like a charcoal drawing of Icarus falling (to borrow from Swamplandia! (the current book I’m reading)). Anaïs knows this, and behind the typical veil of proscribed passion, I get the feeling Elena does to, or maybe I’m just hoping. But while I hope, Anaïs cries.

The sincere and authentic emotions come from the concealed sleeping girl. (We’ll see later, in Sleeping Beauty, Breillat explores these themes again.)

To the film’s credit, nothing happens to Anaïs. But still, in spite or because of, she is our princess. Boredom is her power. She sings, I get so bored It’s not over yet, swimming back and forth from the pool’s diving board to the ladder, pretending each was her lover. Still curious, still hungry, this fantasy isn’t at all like what happened to Elena. Here, Anaïs is in control. When her lovers become jealous she says, “Women aren’t like bars of soap, you know. They don’t wear away. On the contrary, each lover brings them more, and you get all the benefit.”


But then the ladder says, “You make me sick. How can you disgust me and attract me so much? You’re the one I’ll give it all to.”

Elena’s insecurity comes from being an exchangeable, ordinary body. Anaïs knows her power comes from her body, the same body that renders her invisible, that allows her to watch, to take it all in. This isn’t the body that will be taken down by a boy. She knows a fuck is a fuck. Wise for a thirteen year old. Wiser than her sister. Losing your virginity shouldn’t be about love, and certainly shouldn’t be about forever.

Fernando does end up getting Elena’s virginity. In exchange he gives her his mother’s opal ring, who later comes to the door demanding it back. Pissed, the girls’ mother ends the vacation. They start the long journey home. Everything changes. The mood is grim, sad, foreboding. Elena is crying. Anaïs is whining. The mother, as always, completely ineffectual, is smoking, says, “Your father wants to have you examined.” WTF? To see if she’s still a virgin? Just to make sure she isn’t pregnant? Oh, don’t get me started on the Western father fetishizing his daughter’s purity. UGH.

Speaking of breaking the fourth wall, I love how lecherous these girls are. I’ve never before seen teen sexuality depicted so candidly and honest. I could never imagine an American film with such bravado. Most of our texts pander to the masses, who are (oh so unfortunately) prude sheep, heads buried in the sand, gums flapping all the same.

Much like Elena and Anaïs’ mother who zags in and out of lanes. We already know she hates driving, and also that she’s the type of person who, instead of moving to safety, prefers to pull the covers over her head and clamp her eyes shut, as though sleep will protect her from the storm. She can’t take it anymore. She pulls over to a rest stop to sleep. Bad idea! The tone isn’t right. Something awful is going to happen. Elena gets out to go the bathroom. Alone. TERRIBLE IDEA! But she safely returns and they all go to sleep. My terror subsides and I realize, Breillat wants you to be terrified. The terrain of female sexuality is dangerous. It isn’t all jealous diving boards and mooning ladders, or even douchey law students. You never know when an axe murderer will suddenly charge at you, shatter the windshield, smash your sister’s skull, fondle your mother, then strange her to death before raping you in the forest.


Except during the rape, with her panties in her mouth, Anaïs locks eyes with him, and then they share a moment. She participates. The axe murderer is confused. Off screen, he lets her live. In the next and last scene Anaïs is escorted by the police, telling them she wasn’t raped, and she didn’t care if they believed her or not.

This ending is so unexpected, so brutal and hideous, that you long for something to make sense. Then you remember all those times Anaïs warned Elena to leave love out of losing her virginity, to do it with nobody so you can go on living, so you can go on to love. As this rapist takes Anaïs’ virginity, she looks him in the face, daring him to kill her (because, as she sang earlier, even long after death she’ll still be bored), but also, telling him, that he isn’t taking and she isn’t passively taking it either. This is her fucking show. Go away so she can finally experience it.

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Bad Feminist

Photo on 2012-10-31 at 12.33I’m overweight. At times, this consumes me. Then, immediately thereafter I feel like a bad feminist.

Roxane Gay writes in her article, Bad Feminist:

As Judith Butler writes in her 1988 essay, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution”: “Performing one’s gender wrong initiates a set of punishments both obvious and indirect, and performing it well provides the reassurance that there is an essentialism of gender identity after all.” This tension—the idea that there is a right way to be a woman, a right way to be the most essential woman—is ongoing and pervasive… Butler’s thesis could also apply to feminism. There is an essential feminism, the notion that there are right and wrong ways to be a feminist, and there are consequences for doing feminism wrong.

I know that my figure doesn’t define me. I know it’s not even an indicator of beauty. I’m not supposed to care. I’m not supposed to body snark myself into a dark corner. I’m not supposed to adhere to the narrow and superficial principles of how a woman should look. I’m not supposed to want to ever be objectified. But I do.

Sometimes I feel fucking fantastic. I look at myself in the mirror and fall in love all over again. But then other days I feel like such a pathetic glowworm.

I know I’m supposed to forgive myself: I just had a baby! And I’m still nursing her 16 months later, so I’m hungry, like all the time. Things have been stressful: out of work, flooded with rejection letters, exhausted, moving, temporarily squatting next door to the house where I grew up, back in the neighborhood that displays the scars from my bullied years at Catholic school.

Then I think about Anne Frank. Ivan Denisovich. Ivan Ilyich. Precious. Celie. Ophelia. Sophie Zawistowska. Winston Smith. Catelyn Stark. Esther Greenwood. Chloe from Fight Club. Hecuba.

Then suddenly my suffering isn’t suffering at all.

Allow a moment from Girls.

Adam: “You think that just because you are 11 pounds overweight…”
Hannah: “I am 13 pounds overweight, and it has been awful for me my whole life!”
Adam: “Holy fucking shit. Here’s the world’s smallest, tiny violin playing ‘My Heart Bleeds For You.’ Fuck you! You don’t know struggle…

I’ve lost friends over the illusory bifurcation of feminism, because sometimes I’m on the wrong side. I’m in a heternormative marriage, one on which I’m emotionally dependent.  If we’re fighting, I am not operating at one hundred percent in any other sector of my life. To some, this is a sin. Much like marriage in general. To some, I willingly signed myself into a system that oppresses women. Simone de Beauvoir famously refused to marry Sartre on existential grounds. Because how could she, or he, be free if they belonged to one another? Or, if you like your feminism angrier, Andrea Dworkin says, “Marriage [is] an institution developed from rape as a practice.”

In the end, obviously, I decided one could marry and still be a feminist. I drew some lines though. Our marriage was a joint decision. I am both proud and glad that there was no proposal, no engagement ring, no traditions where I’m put on a pedestal, on display, given a day to feel as pretty as a picture, veiled, dipped in purity, white as a dove, given from one man to the next. Weddings depress me. So we didn’t have one. And I never took his name.

I’m not cursing any women who have done things differently though. (Freedom is the freedom to chose, after all.) For a while I did consider changing my name. We knew we didn’t want to hyphenate our children’s last names (as that would only kick the can further down the road), and we didn’t want to combine our last names into some hideous portmanteau either. I liked the idea of the whole family sharing one name, but my gut told me to keep my own name. So I did.

There, my gut lead me to a decision that made me feel like a good feminist, but now, its prominence, its protrusion is leading me into a double-edged shame spiral. From vanity to fraud, this gut has got to go.

I’ve started running. And while I’ve always exercised here and there, it’s never been regimented, and it was never running, not really. I would do yoga, work the elliptical machine, ride a bike. All indoors. Running outside is a completely different animal. I’ve always wanted to become a runner, to train for a marathon, and whether it was laziness, or smoking, or my migraines, I have always found a reason to discourage myself. Then three things converged.

1. We are temporarily living in my old neighborhood where I grew up. One that I’ve mostly avoided as my parents have long since moved out of the south side. One that unequivocally reminds me of Catholic school and its ignominious end.

2. I’m overweight. More so than usual. And my metabolism is slower than congress.

3. I read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild.

Now, I run through distant settings, mirages, places full with childhood memories, with fear, shame, and self-pity. With hope and anxiety and immortality. Ethereal scenes made concrete under my crunching, aching feet, thinking about the strain, the sheer physicality of hurling my jiggling body through space, until I crash into a moment, something someone said, something I said, or did, or was done to me. Ghosts of friendships past. Fingers pointing. Whispers. Derisive laughter. Remembering what it feels like to have a rock thrown at your head. The first metallic taste of betrayal. My tendon then gives out. Frustration. Self-pity. Self-loathing. Looking for a way out. To stop. Retreat. Then I just keep going.

The fantasy is that as I run these bad memories will melt away. Not disappear, but that I can run through them, run toward something that resembles healing.

Much like Comic Crit‘s rendition of Strayed’s journey:

wildThis a spiritual journey. Hiking into the blaze of her grief and then right through it. Beating, scraping, blistering, burning her body with every step. In a pair of boots a size too small. Unshowered. Unkempt. Singing to warn off bears. Stomping into the unknown. Feeling weak. Feeling like a hardass motherfucking Amazonian queen.

I want this.

No, I need this. More of this. I want a spiritual revolution. I want to feel like a hardass motherfucking Amazonian queen.

The bullying from Catholic school isn’t on my mind much (meaning, if we hadn’t moved here, it would barely be on my mind at all), but it is the genesis for a great deal of my insecurity. I want to run through the source, then run through the rest. Which includes the guilt over the possibility of being a bad feminist.

I don’t like being fat. Body shaming is bad. But wanting to be healthy is good.

Feminism is complicated. There are so many inherent contradictions, problems, glass ceilings. For instance, wanting female protagonists to be strong warrior types, but then again, complaining when they don’t have these “masculine attributes” could mean that feminine traits are something negative. Hate femininity as it was bestowed or reclaim it? This is what I feel is at the heart of feminism’s polarization.

Later in the essay, Roxane Gay says, “The most significant problem with essential feminism is how it doesn’t allow for the complexities of human experience or individuality.” BAM. That’s it. That’s exactly it.

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Mom, I love you.

cheryl-strayed-wildCheryl Strayed is a badass. I picked up her memoir, Wild, because of her association with Lidia Yuknavitch (they work together in a writing group with Chuck Palahniuk), but also because the premise: lonely girl, grief-stricken and recovering from a dalliance with heroine, decides to heal through hiking the damn near entirety of the Pacific Crest Trail ON HER OWN. This moved me. It slayed me. I would stop, look over at my husband, just to say, again, “On her own! By herself! Here she is getting charged by a moose and I’m losing it because we’re moving, Aria’s Aria*, and I haven’t written in weeks.”

(*My darling, wonderful, happy baby girl is in her terrible twos, and has been for awhile now. She’s 16 months, manipulative, and sharp as the tack she’d shove in her mouth if I would only let her stand on the table long enough to reach them.)

I’ve seen Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man (awesome and available to stream on Netflix) and that guy knew his shit. He was a seasoned hiker, knew the bears, trusted them, lived amongst them, AND WAS STILL EATEN BY ONE. I was very worried for Cheryl. But not really, as I know she survived. I was mostly worried for myself, the self that is transported into whatever I’m reading. But I couldn’t take the everyday cowardly self out of this equation. I would love to do something like this. But I couldn’t. I wouldn’t. At least I think I wouldn’t. I once lived on the top of a small mountain in Australia with no electricity or heat or a toilet for a couple of months. I had to sleep under six blankets and walk around at night wearing UGGs to avoid the rats (nice marsupial mountain rats, none of their vicious and filthy and terrifying cousins scurrying down in NYC’s subways). Then, I thought I was tough. Rugged. Agro-chic. Everyday we cranked the generator so I could juice my computer to write, or watch movies, then we’d drive to the town, stock up, and smoke weed and cook over the fire. Basically living in luxury. But this? Hiking the PCT by yourself? as a woman? took the kind of ovarian fortitude I’m trying to cultivate. Cheryl Strayed is impressive. Brave. And her confessional memoir only echoes everything implied in its physical premise.

The event that catalyzed her decision toward self-destruction bent toward self-discovery was the sudden and tragic death of her mother when Cheryl was only 22, that ripe age of existential angst already. Her mother was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer then only lived a couple of months after. This stung. I’m an ex-smoker who occasionally picks the habit back up for a week or two when I’m too stressed and weak and too eager to engage in some private ritual of self-destruction. I was never one to experiment with drugs heavily, most give me a nasty migraine. (Kids, anything that dilates your pupils, also dilates your blood vessels. If you’re predisposed to getting migraines, it’s best to avoid such drugs, or you’ll wind up on acid, in a dark room, accompanied by your demons, maybe literally, basically giving birth through your skull.) That being said, I loved to smoke. Until my hypochondria consumed me and I quit. Now, cigarettes are that ex-lover I just can’t help but occasionally sleep with because he just looks so fucking fine in those dark rimmed glasses.

My mother smokes too. She also gets migraines. On any given visit, one of us has a headache. We use different methods to heal, something that’s a bit of a sore spot. I worry about her. Of course. As she does me.

Not ten pages in and Wild has found my terrors, Strayed has reached inside my chest, beyond my blackened lungs, and threw my heart into my throat. I don’t want to die. I don’t want my mother to die. Especially not without saying everything I have ever wanted to say–needed to say–to her. I don’t want to live my life, drowning in domesticity, not living up to the potential I fantasize about. And then in the end, die, suddenly and in agony, ripping Aria’s mother from her, ripping myself from Aria. GAHHHH. WILD. FUCK. I NEED TO READ YOU RIGHT NOW.

Cheryl, I need your courage.

So I read the first chapter then quit my job. Because, YOLO!

I wanted to write this on Mother’s Day, but again, my evil and indifferent migraines got the best of me. I wanted to write this because I so desperately wanted to write, but I also wanted this to be a kind of ballad to my mother.

I wanted to say, Mom, I know I get on your nerves. I know my decisions often frustrate you, and I know you don’t want me to know this. I wanted to say, that it’s okay. I love you, Mom. I love you so much, but sometimes I can’t relax. I can’t be the silly and affectionate daughter you want. I’m too serious and angry. I want to yell at the world and behead the patriarchy and you want to just have a nice dinner and watch romcoms without me poking holes and complaining about traditional gender roles, and the Bechdel test, and the use of narrative to conform and shape and oppress. I want you to find the things I say interesting, but sometimes I don’t think that you do. I want to be as pretty as you, to have been born with your avian bone structure. I want to hear all about the things you think I don’t want to hear. I want you to write your memoir. I want to destroy anyone who has ever hurt you. I want to spend the day downtown, immersed in being girly: let’s get our hair did, and our nails painted. Let’s go shopping and drink tea and eat tiny layered cakes with even tinier fondant sculpted roses. Let’s watch shitty romcoms with green mud masks and sparkling lavender lemonades. I want to let my guard down.

From Wild:

We were her kids, her comrades, the end of her and the beginning. We took turns riding shotgun with her in the car. “Do I love you this much?” she’d ask us, holding her hands six inches apart. “No,”we’d say with sly smiles. “Do I love you this much?” she’d ask again, and on and on and on, each time moving her hands farther apart. But she would never get there, no matter how wide she stretched her arms. The amount that she loved us was beyond her reach. It could not be qualified or contained. It was the ten thousand things named in the Tao Te Ching’s universe and then ten thousand more. Her love was full-throated and all-encompassing and unadorned. Everyday she blew through her entire reserve.

Scan 113610004

My mother and me.

This is my mother. Quirky and animated with love all-encompassing and unadorned. Whatever complaints about her I’ve ever had, I always knew I was loved. And that is no small thing.

Cheryl Strayed, you’re a badass.

Mom, you can be a badass too, just stop worrying so damn much.

All my love, Mom. Happy Mother’s Day.

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Excuse me,

Lately I’ve been craving female companionship. As my living situation at the moment is precarious, I’ve substituted books, my paper heroines for flesh and bone people. Still reading Kate Zambreno, I stop: “I find myself afraid, feeling too fucked up to have real friends in my embodied existence.”

That pierces. I’m afraid of making friends. Not light, easy friends, acquaintances, dinner party guests, facebook friends, colleagues, but close friendships, blood sisters. My best friend (that term both huge and pale) lives oceans away, and though ever-thankful for skype, speaking through boxes is not the same. I miss her. I miss laughing with her.

In this respect, she is my opposite. She makes friends easily, within minutes she’s charmed her elbows onto their tables and guiding conversations, while I’m neurotically speaking in waves, sometimes awash in irrelevance, I’ll slip away, often to smoke, except I no longer smoke.

As a kid at Catholic school I was bullied for no reason, though I’m sure there was a reason, I was just not privy to it. I know they hated how dark my arm hair was, and they didn’t like my sexual enthusiasm. How openly boy crazy I was. We were all friends, me and these girls. It was a group of about ten of us, always rotating who was in and who was out pending who couldn’t make the latest sleepover, but ostracism, while still devastating, was only temporary. Then, one day, it was my turn, again, except it never stopped. My clique hated me, then the rest of my grade. Later that year we moved. I was thrown a surprise going away party. They gave me a Precious Moments statue they collectively paid for. It was a cheerleader whose caption read: Cheers to the leader. To this day I have never been more humiliated.

I know this is why I struggle making and maintaining close female friendships. But that’s such a generic and textbook explanation. I’m pathologizing myself. Like I said, I also was completely boy crazy, just nuts for sexual intimacy, so I fluttered in and out of relationships with ease. My high school girlfriends were all the same way. We were close, but we held each other at a distance. In a lot of ways I felt closer to whoever I was dating. I can count on one hand how many times those friends had seen me cry, whereas my lovers had seen me collapse into a puddle on sometimes a daily–or christ–hourly basis. My friends never totally knew what a fucked-up mess of a hysteric I was. How dark and afraid and wild-eyed.

I maintained this Plath-like existence. So vanilla on the outside, wholesome and clean. I shopped at the Gap, wore concealer, exercised. But I was so sad and messy and angry, feverishly scribbling and scratching in my diaries, chain-smoking cigarettes, not giving a fuck while giving all the fucks. I wanted to be Ophelia, I wanted to carry the sexy crazy, but I couldn’t stand the dishes piling up.

Again Zambreno, “We live in a culture that punishes and tries to discipline the messy woman and her body and a literary culture that punishes and disciplines the overtly autobiographical (for being too feminine, too girly, too emotional).”

I do like where literature is going. I like the shift in the feminine identity zeitgeist. I like that there is now a space for messy girls. (There are even goddesses: All hail Dodie Bellamy!) Though there’s still such a long way to go for girls to be seen as serious, for them to feel their stories matter and are not frivolous.

The blogs that I follow, the tumblrs that I follow, I would’ve loved to have immersed myself in this online fucked-up girl culture in high school. Maybe I wouldn’t have felt so alienated in my other self, I could’ve found other sad girl ponies with which to frolic.

But, what am I saying. I’m still looking for those sad girl ponies. Meeting friends just never came as easy to me as ensnaring a lover. My best friend says it’s the same, just a different kind of seduction. I still cannot see it.

So much of this also comes from the isolation of parenting a toddler.

I didn’t intend for this post to get so maudlin. I’ve been sifting through my belongings and parting with everything nonessential. The entire process is taxing. I’m both nostalgic and cold, cutting memories off at the knees. I can’t believe there was ever a life before my child. That I existed once as a free agent, attaching and detaching myself to whomever I felt like, with feckless abandon. Yes, I’m nostalgic for that.

But I wouldn’t go back.

Excuse me, I’m now tired and embarrassed. Image

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To break the silence, the silencing.

From Kate Zambreno’s Heroines:

I am beginning to realize that taking the self out of our essays is a form of repression. Taking the self out feels like obeying a gag order–pretending an objectivity where there is nothing objective about the experience of confronting and engaging with and swooning over literature.


Before I read Heroines, I read a lot about Heroines: Bitch ;Necessary Fiction ;Full Stop; Jezebel; The Paris Review; Pank;LA Review of Books;The Daily Beast.

The internet has Heroines covered.

From blog to book about writers as characters: the suppression, the silence, the forced institutionalization of the “mad wives,” the femme fatales, the tragic muses to the modernist literary giants. Zelda Fitzgerald, Vivien(ne) Eliot, June Miller, Virginia Woolf, and Zambreno herself.

I align myself with the genealogy of erased women.

These women were pressed into madness, like flowers flattened in books.

I can relate to Zelda, married to a great writer.

I also relate to Zambreno, landlocked in the midwest, feeling as though I’m flailing, failing. Yet inflated with grandeur.

I’ve read the critiques, and I think most of them are bullshit. I couldn’t care less that Zambreno comes off elitist, or pretentious. I like it. I like it because it’s honest. She compares herself to the heroines she studies and she feels pathetic, but also hypocritical as she holds herself to higher standards. This masturbatory text is a brutal self-critique. And I found it brave.

Much like I find Lena Dunham brave. Though differently. (The internet definitely has Girls covered.)

Our blogs serve as legitimizing networks for anger. The rant can be revenge, to get something off our chest about our place in the world. To break the silence, the silencing.

I’m on the edge of a nervous breakdown, hyperbolically speaking. I’ve just recently returned to work (hence the lapse in time between this post and the last) and am still working on the balance between Pods, money, and me. It’s a part-time job, one that I’m lucky to have, but I’m not happy. The money is small, the tasks are small, my worth to the place and to its customers is small. It all makes me feel so small. Not insignificant. Eclipsed. Forgotten. As though I’ve given up on myself and took what was easy. Finances required immediate attention and this fell into my lap. In this economy, I would be a fool, a snob, selfish to pass it up. So I took the job, and now I spend 3-4 days a week away from my daughter. My free time, my writing time is meager.

I miss myself.

So I’m now moody. Surly and stressed and filled with existential loathing.

When life–to construct meaning–is assembled by mood, significance is placed on insignificant things.

I wear my self-hatred. It hangs on me. It’s as though I’m no longer inhabiting my body but am shackled to it. Stupidity then has become concentrated in the pounds I’m still struggling to shed. In public, out from the safety of building blocks and flashcards and Yo Gabba Gabba! in my living room, I feel exposed, ugly, dumb. As though they’re all of a piece.

Right now, I’m a mess.

The desire, sometimes, to throw everything away.

Tomorrow I am packing up my bedroom, but mostly, tomorrow, I am getting rid of a lot of clothes. Clothes I know I will never wear again. Because I am no longer X. Those past selves that have accumulated in my closet. The cheap bar tops. The frayed hemp necklaces. The goal dresses that were too sizes too small when I was in my prime.

Because I’ve been practically the same size since I was 10 (that is, until I quit smoking and made a person), I have clothes from when I was 10.

There are memories in these shirts: The day I quit that job. The day I finally fucked that guy. The day I was arrested. The day I broke up with my best friend.

All of it now: relics, horcruxes. Clothes I can’t wear. Clothes that laugh at me, teasing me, TOO FAT TOO FAT. Your time is over. It’s all yoga pants and hoodies now, both encrusted in puréed carrots and coffee stains of telling sizes. ACCEPT IT.

That booming voice? Yeah, I know it can go fuck itself. But, it does have a point. Those selves, those memories? They’re dead, gone, archived in journals, in dreams, in photos, in my head. I don’t need the fabric to remind me, to mock me. And let’s face it, I could lose all the weight in the world and I’m still too old for that questionable ironic Mickey Mouse sweater.

It’s all unbearable weight.

Tomorrow I’m throwing my clothes away.

(Well, donating or consigning them.)

Just as Zelda burnt all her dresses in the bathtub.

And then I will finish Heroines.

And hopefully write about it.

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Scratching at my Thanatophobia

I’m afraid to die. Terrified, actually. My parents think it’s because I’m an atheist. Though, I was terrified when I was a Catholic too. As a kid, I couldn’t shake the idea that I was going to be trapped inside my body, then buried, surrounded, corroded and forgotten. I would be stuck in my mind, without any further momentum, warts and all.

I am inclined to agree with Christopher Hitchens: that I didn’t become an atheist, but rather, I was always one.

Either way, Heaven sounded just as awful as Hell. So boring and prostrate (a celestial North Korea, Hitchens called it); the exact opposite of what makes life awesome.

To quote Alan Watts, “Nobody wants to be in church forever.”

Yesterday I came across this hauntingly beautiful mash-up video of an Alan Watts recording and the video for “Sometimes the Stars” by The Audreys on Brainpickings (which may be the best blog ever) and found myself very suddenly moved.

(Until I was violently interrupted with an irksome advertisement in the corner…)

Watts’s words were so familiar, and although thinking about death with any kind of empathy and immediacy generally ices my blood, sharing these terrifying thoughts felt deeply human. It’s moments like these where I can peek through and briefly experience what it might be like to not be so afraid. There’s ecstasy in giving up. I guess I’m just not ready to feel completely comfortable with my impermanence. I’ll get there, hopefully.

This video helped a little though, and that is worth sharing.

What’s it gonna be like, dying? To go to sleep and never, never, never wake up.

Well, a lot of things it’s not gonna be like. It’s not going to be like being buried alive. It’s not going to be like being in the darkness forever.

I tell you what — it’s going to be as if you never had existed at all. Not only you, but everything else as well. That just there was never anything, there’s no one to regret it — and there’s no problem.

Well, think about that for a while — it’s kind of a weird feeling when you really think about it, when you really imagine.

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The Penelopiad

I love Margaret Atwood. I open one of her books, wondering if I’m going to read it next, and then I’m on page 35. Her prose is like really expensive vodka: clear, neat, but surreptitiously powerful. I love it.


How can you not love her?

Just as Christa Wolf gives voice to Cassandra (though in Wolf’s retelling, Helen is disembodied: an excuse; a representation of woman as the binary opposite of man: 0: Cassandra: nothing), Atwood gives us Penelope’s perspective. Woven throughout the text is the chorus of the 12 maids who were hanged upon Odysseus’s arrival for “treason,” for sleeping with the suitors. These maids have haunted Atwood, and in The Penelopiad, Penelope gives us their story, uncoiling the truth behind their brief and dismissive appearance in The Odyssey.

Penelope reminds us that Odysseus competed for Helen’s (her cousin) hand but lost to Menelaus. After the games, each man swore an oath to protect Helen and Menelaus’s marriage. Depending on which myth you read, Helen was either stolen or gifted to Paris by Aphrodite, but Atwood goes with Occam’s razor: that Helen ran off with prettyboy Paris. Either way, Odysseus had sworn an oath, so off he goes to fight in the Trojan War. After 10 years, victorious, he sets sail for home. This journey also takes 10 years. He fights and blinds Cyclops, Poseidon’s son, creating a powerful enemy, particularly when you travel by boat; fucks and parties with Circe for a while; goes down to the Underworld; pisses Zeus off, then has to stay and fuck Calypso for a couple of years to redeem himself.

Through it all, Penelope waits.

Some suitors come after her (loot). Shouting that her husband is dead, they plant themselves in her court, eating and raping as they see fit, all the while demanding she marry one of them. The ever-faithful wife heeds the advice of her naiad mother:

Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can’t go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does.

She schemes around the obstacle, telling the suitors that she will choose one of them, but only after she weaves a shroud for her father-in-law. By day she weaves, and by night, with the help of her 12 youngest and prettiest maids–her daughters, as she calls them, since she’s known them and loved them since they were children–she unweaves. She sends these 12 maids to spy on the suitors, soak up all the information they can. Some are raped, some acquiesce to avoid the pain of rape, some, inevitably fall in love, but all report back to Penelope. None of them are unfaithful.

Their deaths are unjust. They are thrown away without a second glance. Because, after all, sex with the help is allowed but only with the master’s permission. As Odysseus was away and could not grant permission, the suitors were charged with theft, not rape. And since the concept of rape is a modern concept, the girls were blamed, charged with treason, and hanged.

(Oh, but wait, blaming the victims for their own rape isn’t all that archaic. Here’s a collection of hideously horrible tweets blaming the 16yo victim in the Steubenville rape case.)

In the afterlife they haunt Odysseus with their crooked necks and dangling feet. So much so, he never sticks around, instead he opts for rebirth. Thus, perpetually leaving Penelope, who then waits another lifetime until he dies again.

This is her fort/da. The waiting game. Her trauma repetition compulsion that she can’t get away from, even in death. Home/Away. Arrival/Departure. Love me/Leave me.

My favorite part was the meta-analysis in chapter 29, “The Chorus Line: An Anthropology Lecture,” where Atwood (presented by the maids) deconstructs the significance of the 12 maids’ deaths. I’m always a sucker for this kind of thing. Symbolism makes my day, my life. As a kid, I thought there was truth in symbolism, as though the “signs” I encountered were prophetic. And still, there is a sort of “truth” in unveiling the hidden messages in texts. Of course, interpretations are limitless, but still, it’s fun to decipher and illuminate (an often applicable) nugget of wisdom. Symbolism is the closest thing I have to divinity.

The 12 maids are the 12 months, which can be attributed to the virginal Artemis of the moon, because, as we know, month comes from moon and Artemis is the goddess of the moon. And since there are technically 13 lunar months, we’ll count Penelope as the High Priestess, the incarnation of Artemis. The maids, at the behest of their High Priestess, engage in orgiastic fertility rituals with the suitors, then after Odysseus slain the suitors, the maids were forced to clean up their bodies, their blood, possibly purifying themselves as Artemis had done in the blood of Acteon. In The Odyssey, Odysseus competes for Penelope’s hand in games rigged in his favor, notably, he is the only one who knows how to work the bow used to shoot an arrow through the 12 axe-heads. Bow: “the curved old-moon bow of Artemis.” 12 axe-heads: 12. “The arrow passed through the loops of their handles, the round, moon-shaped loops!” Then the maids were killed. Just as the moon hangs above the earth, the women hang before the men.

Thus possibly our rape and subsequent hanging represent the overthrow of a matrilineal moon-cult by an incoming group of usurping patriarchal father-god-worshipping barbarians. The chief of them, notably Odysseus, would then claim kingship by marrying the High Priestess of our cult, namely Penelope…

In the pre-patriarchal scheme of things, there may have well been a bow-shooting contest, but it would have been properly conducted. He who won it would be declared ritual king for a year, and would then be hanged – remember the Hanged Man motif, which survives now only as a lowly Tarot card. He would also have had his genitals torn off, as befits a male drone married to the Queen Bee. Both acts, the hanging and the genital-tearing off, would have ensured the fertility of the crops. But usurping strongman Odysseus refused to die at the end of his rightful term. Greedy for prolonged life and power, he found substitutes. Genitals were indeed torn off, but they were not his – they belonged to the goatherd Melanthius. Hanging did indeed take place, but it was we, the twelve moon-maidens, who did the swinging in his place.

How do you not love Margaret Atwood?

She turned The Penelopiad into a play now too! Which makes an infinite amount of sense, considering how made for the theater The Penelopiad is. Atwood in an interview: “The book is in essence theatrical. It’s a lot like the structure of a Greek tragedy, in that the central characters’ stories are told in quite long monologues, then the chorus comment on the action.”

Please come to Chicago!

(And The Handmaid’s Tale is now an opera as well! Swoon.)

The Penelopiad is part of the series, “The Myths,” from Canongate Books, a print publisher, in which top writers retell myths. I’ve only read Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ from that series. And I loved that too. (I also wrote about it.)

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