October 2, 2011
from, “On Earth,” by Carolyn Forché
“…between here and here
between hidden points in the soul
between hidden points in the soul born from nothing
between saying and said
beyond what one has oneself done
…bring forth what is within
bring in your whispering harvest
…that even this refuge might be taken:
that ing-ing of verbs in an eternal present
that light traveled from the eye to the world
that nothingness might not be there
that you might become one among others
that after-touching memory of relief…”
I will not subject you to a close reading of these excerpts of this poem, which are only a very, very small hopefully-slanted selection from a very, very long poem, one that often moves into an examination of atrocity and the human capacity for violence and silence, as well as for saving action and grace. But these sections, for me, reverberate throughout my body, skitter along nerves, glide along synapses, Échappé in my heart.
But this is no mere random quoting. Carolyn came to Allegheny College’s campus to give a reading the other evening at the invitation of my husband. She is one of our close friends, someone we spent a month with this past summer on Greece, someone who has inspired me as a writer—she is one of those bona fide world famous poets, and deservedly so, but also someone who inspires me as a human being. She has spent much of her life as a human rights activist, working for Amnesty International, working in such bikinied, umbrella-ed cocktailed vacation spots as El Salvador, Beirut, and South Africa, being air lifted, deported, and, on one particular occasion, a glamorous, candelabra-ed dinner party, forcibly attended, the subject of her poem, “The Colonel,” a bag of dozens of shriveled, severed human ears was ceremoniously dumped on the table—a pre-dessert, palate cleanser? Carolyn also told us a story of walking through the fields of El Salvador and coming across the murdered body of what appeared to be a pregnant woman, her arms folded, almost prayerfully, across her chest. This initial assessment was horrifically dispelled upon autopsy when it was discovered that the supposed fetus was, instead, the severed head of a man jammed into her womb-turned-sarcophagus.
And yet, here was Carolyn, sitting on my couch in front of the fire, listening with the same empathetic, respectful, interested intensity to my recounting of my latest struggles with depression and anorexia, struggles that must certainly seem paltry and superficial in comparison to auricleal laceration and rape by decapitation.
And yet. Her hand reached for mine as she asked about the memory loss I’ve been suffering from the ECT treatments. The humiliating, pride-filled blank-outs as I drive around town and am stopped short at a crossroads, unsure which way to turn in order to get to my yoga class or to the supermarket or to a friend’s house or to the coffeeshop or, most importantly, to home. Or those moments when I am stopped short in conversation, unable to summon up the word, the exact word I know that I know but cannot remember. Humbling, but more than that, really. Devastating for a writer.
Even now, when I am writing these entries, trying to find my words, I am forced to resort to the online thesaurus, something I have never in my life had to do. I have always been my own thesaurus, a devourer or language, giddy in my encounters with new, strange, long, incomprehensible words, and quickly committing their spelling and meaning to memory, then using them as quickly and pertinently as possible.
Carolyn was lovely and reassuring, reminding me that she has not only lived through large-scale, heartless brutality, but has also survived often the often overwhelming catastrophes of her own body, mind, and heart.
I whispered, then, to her, what I had not yet been able to reveal to my own husband. My new anxiety, nay, panic for my daughter, Sophia. Just this past week, she had been obsessing newly and unnecessarily about her body and weight. She has just joined the YMCA’s swim team, and absolutely loves it, which is thrilling to me as she hasn’t been able to find a sport that she’s been able to throw herself into with verve and determination. Sophia is strong-willed, forever on the move, and athletic, but not at all interested (at least yet) in any team sports—too much waiting around for a ball to be passed, too many rules, and then there’s YOUR position that you must ABSOLUTELY hold for the duration of the game.
Swimming? It’s you, your lane, and your ability to swim the laps, your determination to keep the pace, your love for speed. And just this week, Sophia took her first dives off the blocks—a beautiful thing to see. Her body poised, set, energy barely contained, then, like some impossible curved arrow, she dove off the block. Afterwards, when I asked her how her first dive felt, she said, “Oh, Momma. It was scary at first because it seemed so high up over the water. But once I took off, it was crazy amazing!”
On the way home after practice that night, the night of diving off the blocks, my daughter announced from the back seat, (still, might I remind you, strapped into a high-backed booster seat, still small enough and light enough to officially require one), “Momma, I want to move up to the next level. I want to practice 4 nights a week instead of 2. I want to win medals for the team. I want to bring home trophies.”
“You love it that much?” I asked.
“I love, love, love it. I want to be the youngest girl ever to go to the Olympics and win a gold medal for swimming. And I love swimming because it will keep me from getting chubby.”
I almost drove off the road. “Chubby? You don’t need to worry about getting chubby.”
“But swimming will keep me from getting chubby. I don’t want to get chubby.”
“Sophia, you should swim because you love swimming, you love how it makes you feel about yourself and your body. How fun it is.”
“I don’t care. I don’t want to get chubby.”
I didn’t think I was in a place where we could tackle this in any great depth—5 minutes until home and homework and to be honest, I wasn’t sure how to address it because after all, isn’t that in part why I run? My 8 miles in 40 minutes certainly keeps me exactly where I like to be, weight-wise.
What you need to know about Sophia is that she is medically in the 10% for height and weight, so obviously there is no realistic basis for her newfound worries. She’s 9, 4th grade. From what I know, the age for disordered eating and body image distortion begins around this age. What I also know, from picking her up at school, is there are many children suffering from obesity—perhaps she is afraid of becoming what she sees. What I also know is that children can be very cruel to children who are overweight—so perhaps she has heard the teasing, or perhaps, god forbid, has been a part of the teasing.
Later that week, on Thursday, gym day at school, the day Carolyn arrived, Sophia tumbled into the car, excited and garrulous. “Oh boy,” she gushed, “am I tired. We had our running time test today. I did really, really good. I was super-fast! 23 laps! One of the best times for all the girls! I love running. I think I should run more, maybe go with you, because running will also keep me from getting chubby, you know?”
Alexander was in the car with us, so there was no way to appropriately say anything more than what I had said earlier that week. “Oh Silly Sophia! You need to know that you don’t need to worry about your weight; at least you don’t need to worry right now. You eat healthy and you exercise and you have fun exercising. That’s what’s important. Try not to worry about getting chubby.”
I shook my head after I finished telling all this to Carolyn. “I don’t really know what to do. Christopher and I made the decision not to tell her why I went to all those inpatient Eating Disorder programs. She doesn’t know I have an Eating Disorder, at least I don’t think she does. I’ve tried my best to shield her from all this for precisely this reason—I didn’t want to pass on this shit, didn’t want to burden her with all this unnecessary garbage. But of course, I know what the research says—how much more likely it is she could develop an ED because she has a mother who has one. So what do I say? How do I help her with this now, before it becomes something real?”
Carolyn sighed, and then leaned toward me. “You can’t feel guilty for this. You can’t blame yourself for this. Believe me, I could blame myself for a lot of what I’ve seen and lived through, but I don’t because how else could I survive? How else could I choose to love my husband? Be a mother in the wake of all that? I think one thing you need to remember is that as women, we all suffer to some extent with a distorted body image. We all look in the mirror an see something that appears larger or isn’t there. We’re never really satisfied. But we look at ourselves and make peace and love ourselves and live with ourselves. What can you do? One thing to do is maybe ask her why she is feeling this way all of a sudden? Why is she feeling worried about being chubby? She’s a string bean, so why is she, in this sudden and compressed moment of time, feeling this intense worry about her weight or being potentially overweight? Feelings are driving this. So that’s what you need to excavate. Hard to do in a 9 year old who won’t sit still for more than 30 seconds.”
Words that were right and true.
Yesterday, on the drive down to the Pittsburgh Airport to (sadly) drop off Carolyn, I sat squashed between the kids in the back seat. Perfect, I thought. Sophia was bored, staring out the window, flipping through her Pokémon cards, literally strapped into her car seat for 95 minutes, nowhere to go, no way to move. So I asked, in a whisper, “Sophia, I’m really worried that you’ve been worried about getting chubby, because you know that you are perfectly healthy. Can you tell me why you are worried about getting chubby? Why you’re feeling worried?”
Sophia turned away from the window and shrugged nervously. “I just don’t want to get fat. I’m afraid of getting fat. I see a lot of fat kids at school. I even saw a mom at school one day who had to walk sideways through a doorway in order to get through. And once, Jordan and I were secretly making fun of **** for being, well, you know how she is. And I always hear kids making fun of other kids for being fat.”
I did know about ****, who was acutely obese, who lived on Dollar Store snacks, Gushers, and prepackaged Lunchables from Sophia’s reports over the years. But still no excuse for her to be part of the teasing, even if it was inspired by her own projected anxieties and fears about her own body—fears that could only be driven by the “chubby” bodies around her.
“Sophia, I’m really sad that you were making fun of ****. How do you think she would feel if she heard you say that about her?”
Sophia frowned. “Sad.”
“And just think. She probably doesn’t have a Daddy like you who makes her dinner from scratch every night and from scratch pancakes every morning. She probably doesn’t belong to a CSA and get organic vegetables delivered to her garage every week. And I bet her pizzas come from Dominos or are frozen. Your pizzas are handmade and baked in a wood-burning pizza oven in your own backyard.”
“So I eat healthy!”
“Exactly. And if you eat healthy and exercise and enjoy your exercise, I don’t think you have to worry about getting chubby. And there’s something else I think you need to know now that you’re old enough to wear dangly earring after all”
Her eyes got wide and she smiled and shook her head back and forth, the pink, sparkly earrings borrowed from my collection shimming at her neck. “What is it?”
“Remember when Mommy had to go away to Arizona for all those weeks in the Spring?”
“It was because I thought I was chubby and stopped eating enough and lost too much weight and got really sick. So I had to go to a hospital especially for people who have trouble with eating and weight and need to get better.”
“Momma, that’s so silly. You were never chubby!”
I smiled at her and kissed her on the cheek. “I know. But it can become a sickness in your mind. And I don’t want you ever to catch this sickness because it can become really, really dangerous. So if you ever feel worried again or scared about what’s happening with your body or about how you feel about it, I want you to know you can talk to me about how you feel because I’ve felt these feelings, also. Okay?”
She nodded, her earrings vigorously nodding, too.
“So I want you to swim because you love it and because it makes your body feel good and powerful.”
Sophia kissed me back. “Okay. But I also want to swim because I want to be the youngest girl ever to win a gold medal in the Olympics!”
“That’s a great goal,” I said, “and I’ll be right there cheering you on.”
from “On Earth,” by Carolyn Forché
“…”open the book of what happened”
…a steep wooden staircase
a sudden reticence that seizes the heart
a syllable a dove”