Most days I find myself asking “What do I need? What do I need?” I’m a bird with an idiosyncratic call that makes a noise somewhere between a harp and a jackhammer. What do I need? It is curious to me, the question. I’m not sure when it began to follow me around the house, like my dog, or the ancient cat wanting a refill of some undeniable emptiness. But even more curious is that often there is an answer. It appeared about a year ago, when the pandemic lockdown began. A noise inside the throat and the thorax: “What do I need?” All my questions begin in the body.
I am concerned, as I write this, about the birds. Have they become too dependent on the feeder? I fill it and fill it and fill it and still they want for more. In that sense, they are more human than birds, in their ongoing desire to be made whole by something outside of us. Once, around a fire pit in Kentucky, a low moon over the neighbor’s hillside, my friend S said, “I’m so tired of the word insatiable. Describing desirous women as insatiable. I don’t want to be insatiable, I want to be satisfied.”
The poet Marie Howe once said if I didn’t know where a poem was going, I should just put an “I want” in there and see what happens. One of my best loved parts of the movie Flashdance, which is one of my all-time favorite films, is the part where Alex (part exotic dancer, part wannabe ballerina) is in the confessional and her confession is simply, “I want so much.” And she begins to cry. I want I want I want. But the question of want is different than the question of need. What I want is for the world to open again, for the grief to leave us like some storm in a dream, for us to wake up and be healed. If I’m honest, I also want a sipping shot of very good tequila.
I am not prone to loneliness. In this, I am lucky. I miss people, but particular people. Not just the idea of people. I don’t need a crowd. But I like the way I move in an empty house. It feels more like moving around in my brain, from room to room I go on wandering. It is not like that outside of the house. Where the strangers are. As a gendered body, I move with more fear, even in the safety of my wide suburban streets. We all know women end up dead in ditches daily. In the movie Coal Miner’s Daughter, when an unknown person comes into the holler, a kid yells, “Stranger coming!” My heart yells that now when I see someone I don’t know. What do they want from me? Do they have a mask? Why are they walking so closely?
During the pandemic there is more time to ask myself what I need. More time to be curious as to the answer. Sometimes the answer is something to eat, sometimes the answer is napping, sometimes it’s to cry, just to break open and cry. Like Alex in Flashdance in the confessional, bawling at all the possible dreams gone awry. Most people are afraid, if we listened to our bodies, they would lie to us. Who do we trust more? The body or the brain? Or, as the poet Brenda Hillman says, “The brain is part of the body.”
I am currently the visiting poet at a university and the person I work with was asking me about virtual readings and virtual teaching. It was then that I realized how much I like to enter a room without my body. I have chronic vestibular neuritis which is a fancy way of saying I have vertigo occasionally. Getting around can sometimes be hard. It is such a relief to sit down and teach and not have a body. Not worry about falling. I like being a head, only a head moving in a black box. You can see my overactive expressions and feel like we are close. Though we are not close. No one can touch me or my body.
It wasn’t until recently that I realized that I am in pain more than others. Something in my brain makes my pain receptors overly active. It’s weird to think of pain being in the brain and not in the body. In Bill Bryson’s book The Body, he says you don’t feel pain until it is registered in the brain. He also says there are three types of tears: reflexive, basal, and emotional. And scientists still don’t know why we cry, “as there’s no physical benefit to crying.” I disagree. I feel better after I cry. The more you read about the body, the more you realize no one knows anything about the body.
It’s not that I don’t like my body. On the contrary, I love my body. I am grateful for my body. I ask it what it needs and it tells me. I can move around in it easily, for the most part. I was sick for a few years, but now I can dance. It’s that I don’t like my body being judged by others. The way people look at my body or, because they have not met me in person, are surprised by my body. In that sense, not having a body for teaching or reading feels like freedom. No one is looking at my breasts, my small stature, or my curved spine. They are just seeing my face and sometimes, if I am in a mood, my un-scientific tears.
When I worked for Brides Magazine in Times Square, I was in charge of managing all the talent for an upcoming bridal event where brides could meet famous event planners and wedding gown designers and get tips on how to plan their upcoming nuptials. I used to hold conference calls in a big empty conference room that was so air-conditioned I wrapped a blanket around my body. At an event, I met one of the designers who I had spoken with on a call, she was taken aback by how short I was and my thick black hair—my “ethnicity.” She said, “You should just stay in a tower and make your calls so everyone can imagine you’re tall and blonde.”
When I ask myself what I need, it is not often that the answer is: nothing. Mostly, my body needs something, the brain needs something. I move from room to room in this way, my curious self looking to be sated.
There are so many rules about the body. I have always loved to dance. In college I took dance classes every quarter, though I was never brave enough to make it to the advanced classes. Those bodies were exquisite, like something out of a dream. Mine was more of the earth, closer to the earth, real in all its heavy effort. It wasn’t until the pandemic that I started taking dance classes again. Now, I dance three or four times a week. I wonder if it’s because no one can see my body.
As a 17-year-old, I moved to Germany to be with my tall, hilarious, handsome, blonde boyfriend. We both wanted to be actors. We had a flare for the dramatic. I lived with him and his family. After only a few months of heavy German fare and nightly hefeweizen, I put on weight that I had not experienced before. I immediately limited my calories and worked out. In order to work out, I kicked everyone out of the family room and closed the blinds on every window so that even the neighbors couldn’t see my body. Why do bodies feel so embarrassing? When I first had sex, I remember thinking it was best if I could leave my body, instead of being in my body. One part of me was underneath a boy and another part was safe at the top of the room, hovering, free.
Traveling through Paris, right after we had re-enacted “Le Baiser de l’Hôtel de Ville,” we had to run for a train. I was wearing a short flowered romper and I thought I looked very French in my long side braid, but now I know I looked very American. Smoking Gauloise in their shiny blue packaging does not make you French, only a little nauseated. My boyfriend was a foot taller than me and I was trying to keep up as we ran to catch the last train to our hostel. To incentivize me, he said, “I can see the cellulite melting off your thighs.” It did not make me want to run faster. It made me want to collapse. I was seventeen. I weighed 115 pounds.
The beloved photograph, “Le Baiser de l’Hotel de ville,” was staged. The two people kissing were aspiring actors just like we were. They were very much in love like we were. Photographer Robert Doiseneau had seen the two people kissing and asked if they could be bothered to kiss again for a photo. For years, other couples were convinced that they were the young couple in the photo. They saw their naive selves on the Parisian street, so fine and charming. Nothing was revealed until 1993, which was incidentally the year I was in Paris, when a couple that was not in the photo took Doisneau to court for using their image. Doisneau had to reveal the real couple in the photograph in order to win the lawsuit. Of the real couple, the woman went on to be an actor and the man went on to make wine. Their love did not last, even though their heads and bodies are immortalized, entwined in a kiss.
If I ask my 96-year-old grandmother how old she is in her heart, she says 15. That’s how old I feel as well. There is age and there is age. My grandmother was married at 18. She has always had very large breasts, ever since I can remember, and my grandfather, a good man, was always jealous of people looking at my grandmother’s breasts. Once, when he was coming out of a long illness, he could barely see, but reached for her breasts. My grandmother laughed and said to my cousin, “He’s always loved my breasts.” We are taught to apologize for abundance. We are taught to be ashamed of it, until someone wants it.
Last night, I went to a virtual memorial for Richard McCann, a writer and human I admired. He had a long history of illness, of a liver transplant, problems of the body, bifurcation of being. Even at the memorial, I was glad to only be a head. A head in a box. I turned my camera off to cry a few times even though I did not know him that well. I kept thinking about what will happen when the world opens again. I want it to open. So much I want it to open. And yet, I am attached to moving through the world only as a head. It was good to grieve in a public way that was also private, safe. I will need to do more work to be at ease in the real world again. In his essay “The Resurrectionist,” McCann wrote, “It is working preparing yourself for sunlight.”
My husband called me to tell me he had spent the evening thinking about an artist who killed himself. He said he had imagined the bridge he jumped off was small, quaint, something out of an Elizabethan novel, but instead it was an enormous busy overpass, like the Golden Gate or the Bay Bridge. Somehow that made him sadder. As you age, all the romance of suicide is sucked out. Another friend calls to tell me she is thinking of all the poets that have died before the age of fifty. How that used to sound old, and now it sounds so young. In an interview someone asked me why I chose to talk about Muriel Rukeyser rather than Plath or Sexton and I said, “Because she lived.” I worry about how we celebrate women poets who committed suicide young. Is it because they don’t have bodies anymore? Is it easier to love a woman who cannot talk back? Cannot be more than words on a page? Cannot age in a body?
Rukeyser, in 1971, a little less than ten years after Plath’s suicide, wrote this poem:
NOT TO BE PRINTED.
NOT TO BE SAID.
NOT TO BE THOUGHT.
I’d rather be Muriel
than be dead and be Ariel.
I will get my second vaccination in a few weeks and today I wondered if I should practice wearing shoes with heels again. In the old world, I always wore shoes with heels, boots or high heeled sandals. I thought it was best to be taller, to seem taller, I also thought maybe being taller would make me more human and perhaps thinner. But now, I only wear shoes that I can dance in. Mostly I alternate between two pairs of high tops. I called them my “Hip hop high tops” so that they know they have a purpose and I know their purpose when I put them on. I never knew you should wear shoes that you could move in. I thought shoes were meant to make you look taller. (No one needs to be taller or thinner if they are just a head in a box.)
When the pandemic began I started tracking my pain levels. For a long time I thought pain levels, for most people, hovered around 5. That is apparently not true. Though there is a lot of pain in the world. So many bodies in pain. In my forties, I have become a dedicated list maker. I love to write lists, and more than that, I love to check things off my list. I would write at the bottom of my list, “Pain level 6 today.” I ask my body what I need and what I want and sometimes I make that part of my list. I do a meditation guided by Anushka Fernandopulle called “Grateful for Your Body.” You feel the body in parts and in the whole. The other day, I realized my body was not in pain, and it made me worry. I thought, I cannot feel my body! I do not have a body! Pain is how I have always experienced my body and suddenly there was no pain.
I know I will have to be in the world with my body again soon. I will get on a plane with my body and I will hug my parents with my body and I will see my home valley with my body’s eyes. There is pleasure in this future thought. Perhaps, though, I need to recognize that there has been a safety in keeping my body private. My job has been to caretake my body only for myself. To not gaze at it with the eyes of others, but just with my own. My friend Rebecca Lindenberg always says, “There is no such thing as a whole story.” I love that, because it is true. And yet there is such a thing as a whole body. Complete with its needs and wants. All these months, tucked away in the intense privacy of lockdown, I have begun to witness my body as a personal intimate lover. I do not always have to offer it to the world. I can, if I choose, only offer my head in its black box, or the words in my head, the words that are the remnants of a body.