We’re watching The Color Purple in my Intro to the English Major course to teach them about visual analysis. We discuss the Bechdel Test, read Laura Mulvey’s concept of the “male gaze” and discuss how it changed cinema, and trace where the fractures made earthquakes in our perspectives of gender and where the tectonic plates of gender roles still remain. I discuss patriarchy and the ownership and control of women, the literary corrections that show how women revised history to include their experiences (this is where The Color Purple comes in), and the modern perspective that shifts away from gender identity toward individualism.
All of this is important and fascinating. But this is what I watch for in The Color Purple: Shug Avery. I watch for Shug. I watch for her to sing “Miss Celie’s Blues,” watch for her to tell another woman to stand up, own yourself, be sexy as hell, don’t act like you gotta be beat down to be a woman. She looks at Celie—who hasn’t been anything but beat down her whole life, who has had everything ripped from her by awful men, who has been called ugly and worthless, who lives hidden and ekes out life just doing what men say—and Shug sings to her from her sexy, badass, do-it-girl strength that don’t give a damn what any man say:
Sister, you’ve been on my mind.
Oh sister, we’re two of a kind.
So, sister, I’m keepin’ my eyes on you.
I betcha think I don’t know nothin’
but singin’ the blues. Oh, sister,
have I got news for you. I’m something,
I hope you think that you’re something, too.
Oh scufflin’, I been up that lonesome road
and I seen a lot of suns going down.
Oh, but trust me,
no low-life’s gonna run me around.
So let me tell you something, sister:
remember your name. No twister
gonna steal your stuff away, my sister.
We sho’ ain’t got a whole lot of time.
So-o-o shake your shimmy, sister,
‘cause honey the ‘shug’ is feelin’ fine.
Shug lends Celie her power for a moment, knowing she’s got enough to spare and that Celie needs it. I know that moment. It’s been done for me, when a woman will look right in my eyes and smile, knowing what I’ve got inside me. And I do it right back for women: look right at them, smile, and let them know, “No, honey. Don’t let them do that to you. Go on now, girl.”
At the Women in the Workplace luncheon today, I looked at the women at my table who were assigned to learn from me how to be a strong woman, and they looked at me because I was sitting there with the answers for them. All you gotta do, ladies, is believe in yourself relentlessly. Nobody will want you to, so you do it, you do it. And then you help other women understand how to do it, too.
I walked out of there thinking of Shug. I’m not Celie. I’m not Nettie. I’m not Sophia. I’m like Shug Avery. And I’m happy as hell to be that.
My daughter Olive has been having nightmares about the human body, which she is learning about in school. She makes me hide the diagram pictures of the heart and lungs that she had to color. She doesn’t want to know what’s inside her. It’s better left unknown to her, because knowing it is disgusting and terrifying.
I suppose someone who wasn’t like her would lecture her about how looking at the inside of the human body is for her own good, would force her to look even more closely at it, would force her to face her demons, would make light of her fear. I’m not that kind of person. I know Olive will do the work required of her, even if she hates it. I know it will give her nightmares no matter what tools I lend her to normalize it. So I cover up the diagram pictures. I understand.
Tonight, as I was once again soothing her fears, trying to help the pictures get out of her head and replace them with better ones, the situation reminded me of what I’ve learned to do with myself. Protection. Protection from the outside. Protection from what I don’t need to know. Protection of my own happiness.
Happiness, for me, isn’t about accomplishing big dreams. I’ve accomplished those. Happiness is about not letting things hurt me by not giving them any space in my life. I don’t expose myself to people who break down my defenses. I spend my days doing what I love with people I love who love me in return. I don’t need to fit in outside of that. I need to be me, no matter what anyone thinks of it. And that’s who I am.
And so I think of her sleeping now, trying to figure out her own protection of herself so she can cope in this world without having nightmares. I think of her building her own defenses around her happiness, a happiness that the world will want to steal from her because so many of them are lost and want to make her lost too. Protection isn’t about ignorance: I know more than most people in the world will ever know. Olive will too. She doesn’t need to be cured; she only needs to be happy.
There are some things we don’t need in our heads.
My students are working on papers about love songs. I think of them listening to the same songs on repeat, feeling the meaning rather than just reading it, trying to understand what this feeling does to people’s lives.
A student said to me today, “No one’s ever let me write about music like this before, even though I’ve been studying it my whole life.” We all have in a way, I guess. Music has real power in our lives. Alone, sitting with friends, in a coffee shop playing in the background, driving down the highway: music can make us love and make us long, make us remember and help us forget, make us sad and make us feel so good, transport us and root us to a moment. Music is as much a part of our love stories as the places where we loved, the weather when we kissed. People live in songs, stuck there as who they were to us in specific times and places. Our emotions are wrapped up in auditory bundles we flick on and off within a few notes.
I wonder if therapists and psychologists would tell us not to do this, not to listen to music that resurrects, intensifies, or creates emotions. Music detaches us from reality, and therapists and psychologists encourage staying rooted in reality. But a beauty of life, a beauty of art, is in the disconnect from reality, in the intensity of emotion, in separating from the daily life of laundry and bullshit. People read love novels and listen to love songs to feel those unrealistic, intense emotions, because love only feels real for many people if it is the most unrealistic thing their hearts can imagine, even if that feeling is what messes people up.
I tell my students to be realistic in how they live their lives—to be smart and do what’s best and healthiest for them—not to wait seven years like the guy in The Notebook. But people who decide to study English are not usually practical, realistic people: they’re dreamers, they make magic, they do the impossible. They devote their lives to studying unrealistic people who did the impossible before them. At the very end of Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera the captain asks, “And how long do you think we can keep up this goddamn coming and going?” Florentino Ariza, with his absurd, illogical, illusionary love, who “had kept his answer ready for fifty-three years, seven months, and eleven days and nights,” says simply this: “Forever.” And dammit, that’s a wonderful way to feel, a wonderful thing to read, as stupid and as truly unrealistic as it is.
So I think of my students listening to songs on repeat, getting lost in them, feeling pain and love and longing, smiling and thinking, and I want them to know this: I’m sitting here doing the same thing. I do it most nights. I listen to music that takes me places, I let myself go those places, I feel whatever I find there, and I write it down. And this is part of my work. Just about anyone would say that is an unrealistic job to ever expect to have. I hope their own love of illusion turns out as well as it did for Florentino Ariza…and for me.
On our first date, I knew I had to marry him, that there is no other one like him, that there will never be anyone like him, that my life will be amazing if I marry him, that I could see the future laid out like a runway at night—lights leading faster into a fantastical flight—that with his view of life I would glide on his slipstream and sail higher than I could alone (handling all the wind drag I’m not equipped to handle), that I would become what God intends if I can learn to fly with this man who soars like nothing weighs him down, that this man picked me already knowing I am a strange bird, that he can’t be anything other than what he is so there’s nothing he’s hiding, that he is exactly what I think he is, that he is as amazing as I feel in my core and so I really have to, I must, I would throw my life away if I don’t marry this man.
This is my husband of nearly fifteen years. I was right about him.
When my little boy was a baby, I would sing to him the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts” every night at bedtime. The chorus says, “When true simplicity is gained / to bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed. / To turn, turn will be our delight. / ‘Til by turning, turning we come round right.” Now as I read and read theories of love psychology, what I see through the mist—if I distill them down, purify them of their own stupidity and muck—is that love is only a turning toward someone or a turning away from someone.
If two people turn toward each other, that is love. If one person turns toward and the other turns away, that is heartbreak. If one person turns toward, and then away, and then toward, and no one really knows which it’s gonna be, that is cruelty.
You can call this communal responsiveness, love styles, triangular theory, brain chemicals, whatever, but it’s all describing the same thing. Turn toward or turn away. You choose one or the other when someone wants you. You continue to choose every day as long as you’re together. To give pain or to give love. Tough love, love with contingencies, love at a cost: those are bullshit tactics that mean you’re choosing to give pain and justifying it, pretending you’re not.
If someone doesn’t want to turn toward you anymore, you’ve got to rip that person out of your life like you’re ripping off a bandaid. There’re few psychological pains greater than trying to get someone to love you. You’re worth love as you are; anyone who needs convincing of that needs to be as far out of your life as possible.
That last sentence: I had to learn that the hard way. “‘Tis the gift to be loved and that love to return. / ‘Tis the gift to be taught and a richer gift to learn.”
LOVE AND SILK
We connect to people in threads. Sometimes the threads are gossamer; they break in the breeze and we don’t mind. Sometimes the threads are like rubber bands that snap back and sting every time. Sometimes like a coil that springs us back over and over. And sometimes—the strongest, rarest fiber—the thread is silk that bends as we move around the country, as our souls widen through time, adjusting to the adjustments, as lovely as when formed.
That’s why I went to Boston: to see her. The silk. She knows my darkest year and loved me through it, twenty-two years ago. She understands what this meant to me.
"Gonna open my heart right at the scar and listen up," he sang. She swayed. Always been so beautiful, that. Free. She was free. They all looked so free. She was free with me.
I’m in the clouds now in a plane. Philly is below me. I’ve got the ocean by my side. “I’ve been roaming around always looking down at all I see.” I thought more would be like her. That there would be more silk. I was naive about rarity. “You know that I could use somebody. Someone like you and all you know and how you speak.” So I went to Boston. Silk. Still silk. “Gonna be who I am. Be who I am. And give it up.” I have enough with what was given me, formed as it connected—the good, the so good, that never leaves.
I don’t love insincerely and have love sincerely in return. But every twenty years I misjudge spiderwebs for silk and I crumble in my confusion. She sways in front of me, “All I want to know is how far you wanna go fighting for survival.” She takes her life and wraps it up for a day for me, and I put mine in my backpack. Fly to Boston. “It’s in the water, it’s in the story,” she reminds me, singing, “where you came from.”
You see, someone had talked to me until I doubted myself. “I feel all amiss now. I’m tossed in the scatter.” Deconstructed and pointed to things that don’t matter and told me they mattered, until they mattered like new emergent cracks in the foundation of a house. Crack. Crack. Crack. Make the house fall down. “I got so much I can not handle. Can not handle. I can not handle.” My eyes and some subterranean words tell her what that did to me, like “taking all I have to take. This takin’ is gonna shape me.” I was trying to do right, trying to be right, “on call to be there,” tried not to be broken, Lord I did, but someone looked at those new cracks and said, “I won’t ever be your cornerstone.” My transparency is my gold and my fragility: I hide nothing, but that means everyone can see everything.
Silk. I didn’t have to say any of that. She saw me and knew. She’d seen it in me before. Swaying, she looked back at me, smiled, and sang, “I’d take one for you. I’d take one in the temple.” Silk. She remembers who I am. Makes me remember who I am. “Be who I am.” Saw the beginning, sees the now, silk.
So I smile. “It’s all better now.” Boston was enough. Silk. And so I’m on the plane. Philly is below me. The ocean by my side. “Life goes by on a Talihina sky.” Me again. There’s me again. Silk.
This is love. This is love.
I went to Boston in the middle of winter. They drew shamrocks in the foam of my Guinness. I went to a concert where 18,000 people were really happy at the same time, with lasers and smoke and a giant screen to intensify the happy. I went to a pub in the middle of the night where the people sounded just off the boat from Cork, where they danced, and where so many men wore tweed hats. I walked in the biting late-night down streets with people who think it normal to do that, interspersed with taxi after taxi, and it all went into my brain until too much had gone into my brain and I begged to go home.
It was more awesome than my fear ever allowed me to imagine.
My students are writing about all sorts of things they’re doing to try to be better people. Not because anyone told them to. Not because they have to. But because they want to be happy and are figuring out for themselves how to be.
So I’m getting on a plane. It’s not for work. It’s not for other people. It’s not because I must. It’s just for me. And that’s something I’ve never done.
You see, I hate flying. A lot. I dread leaving my little family, even for the day. I am painfully shy. I am very uncomfortable in crowds. Meeting new people makes me really anxious.
But I practice what I preach. So I’m going out into the world for a few days. Just for me.
To the world: don’t bleed on me while I’m out there, because I’m not that kind of doctor.
One reason I like the blog writing assignment for the students in my modern love class is that, when I settle down on the couch at night to read them, I rarely remember whose blog is whose. They becomes beautiful, inquisitive minds writing complex thoughts, rather than students who sit in front of me three times a week. The blogs diffuse the hierarchy of professor > student and make them merely people of value and worth talking to the world. So I get to appreciate them as sophisticated humans on their blogs, without the dynamics of power. I get to just enjoy them.
It reminds me of the lovely musings of 97-year-old Roger Angell in this week’s New Yorker: “I’ve also become a blogger, and enjoy the ease and freedom of the form: it’s a bit like making a paper airplane and then watching it take wing below your window.” He goes on to say with such wisdom, “Getting old is the second-biggest surprise of my life, but the first, by a mile, is our unceasing need for deep attachment and intimate love…No personal confession or revelation impends here, but these feelings in old folks are widely treated like a raunchy secret. The invisibility factor—you’ve had your turn—is back at it again. But I believe that everyone in the world wants to be with someone else tonight, together in the dark, with the sweet warmth of a hip or a foot or a bare expanse of shoulder within reach. Those of us who have lost that, whatever our age, never lose the longing: just look at our faces. If it returns, we seize upon it avidly, stunned and altered again.”
Love on, my students, as wisely or as foolishly as your knowledge now allows.
Written by a professor friend at the University of Connecticut, here are “6 Truths About Relationships Nobody Wants to Admit” (found here).
This one is my favorite: “If you have conversations about how you are, in fact only ‘just friends,’ you are not ‘just friends.’ Friends don’t have these conversations. I’ve had friends since junior high; we’ve talked a couple of times a week for forty years. Never have any of us felt a need to pronounce ourselves ‘just friends.’ It’s not a topic for anybody except people who have the hots for each other.”