“The heart I hold tightly within my chest, tightly holds me back.”
Three years ago today, I wrote these words. They became the title of what I consider this blog’s first true post: a manifesto defying the “Woman, be silent!” command I felt from culture and intimates alike, and claiming instead my right to stand in the middle of my own life and speak my own truths.
A tiny piece—less than 200 words in total—and the first appearance of real voice on my page in more years than I care to recall. “I finally wrote in my own voice!” I exclaimed to my therapist in a session that afternoon.
I was hella excited, to say the least.
[THEN:] “The art and the work and the words I am here to do have been buried by the aggressions of men. By the bodies of men. By the silencings of men. By the refusal of their eyes to see, and their ears to hear. By my own belief that had I only asked politely, respectfully, with clarity of vision and specificity of language: only then I would have received the gatekeeper’s permission.
“Only then would it be proper and permissible for me to seize my own heart and dance myself to exuberant annihilation upon the beaches of my own dreams, that heart clutched tight within my ribs, its steady thumping the pulse to which my feet move.”
Heart and bone. Silence and speech. The body in motion, and the bodies in gender.
Images and themes that have haunted my writing since forever ago yet dissolved into nothingness over time, given away with so much else in desperate exchange for another few years of constricted existence. Sacrificed to whatever vindictive god I felt pursuing me, his breath always hot and far too close upon my neck.
Last year I had the opening words embossed on a ring that I now wear like wedding jewelry, a constant visual reminder of my commitment and primary allegiance: self to self, soul to heart, present and past holding hands as I step (together as one) into the future.
While concepts of the self as plural are far from a novel trope in writing—one need hardly be an expert in Cartesian dualism to talk about “my mind” versus “my body,” as just the most ready of ready-made examples—I am still surprised at how integral such multiplicity has become to my daily functioning. When I first wrote “The heart I hold…” I did not realize that a new binary of selfhood had taken root in my head nor how it would come to dominate my thinking. Only in the many months (and posts) that followed did the pattern emerge: my narrative “I” had a doppelgänger.
And that doppelgänger was a dead woman.
Over and over, this image of a dead twin-self inserted itself. A drowned woman. A reanimated corpse. An entombed prisoner, long ago bricked in and abandoned. And while the urgent prevalence of this figure in my writing has come down significantly since the integration of my psyche last fall, I still find myself stumbling across it without warning. During a recent freewrite, as I remembered my way through the variety of metaphors others have used for writing process—Peter Elbow’s cooking; Anne Lamott’s gardens; and my personal favorite, Natalie Goldberg’s compost pile, ideas as developing soil turned over and over in the author’s mind—I found the rich earth turning to silt beneath my pen.
In the metaphor as I followed it out, fertile topsoil gave way to loose dirt, where my combing fingers encountered bits of bone, a chipped tooth, fragments of a skull. Memories and images rising up not from a garden but from a graveyard, or the scattered ashes of a crematorium. My process was become, in this vision, the artistry of the ghoul or (more charitably) the public service of a death mask sculptor. In that moment I realized I had still not left the doppelgänger behind.
Or perhaps I should say: she has still not left me.
I learned long ago the wisdom of making peace with my own metaphors, however they arrive. To push an idea away is only to goad it to deeper persistence. Think how much richer our inner lives become when we follow our obsessions where they lead, when we learn what they are willing to teach? How much more fruitful, and more strange.
Mine have always led me most often to mirrors: windows, polished glass, the still surface of a lake, the portal of a looking glass and beyond. If in my labyrinthine nightmares of mirroring, I come again and again across my face on a dead woman’s body, perhaps…
…perhaps I need not fear her—
—perhaps she is merely sad.
Or maybe she doesn’t like being alone in the dark either.
Live long enough or fully enough, and someday all our joys necessarily coexist with griefs. Pleasure and loss do not cancel each other out; neither does one supplant the other. Choices and events mark themselves upon our soul, as surely as laugh lines and scars leave indelible records of the past upon our skin.
I guess what I’m saying is: Don’t we all accumulate hauntings, even if the dead are not always ourselves?
* * *
Many days still find me standing at the grave of the self I once was, inconsolable as ever at the enormity of that loss.
It is quiet here now, when I stop to truly listen. The grass over my tomb has grown thick and shaggy, like an untended meadow or farmland left to go fallow. The leaves in nearby trees rustle companionably in the morning’s gentle breeze. Despite a recent heavy snow unseasonably late, spring definitely arrived in the last week, and everywhere I look, crocuses have begun poking their heads up from the warm earth.
Every day I must forgive myself anew for having let that buried self die. And, too, for letting this current self live. For taking pleasure in this living.
For embracing my heart tightly.
For dancing with her once again upon the shores of my dreams.
[NOW:] We both wear red, my heart and I.
The music thumps with a beat both exuberant and solemn. I dip her backwards and she locks her leg around mine, our eyes never glancing away as next I pull her back to vertical and our feet resume their quick-quick-slow‘ing across the floor. Watching us move together so fluidly, an observer could almost mistake us two for being one.
We smile our little secret, each to each, and keep on with our dance.
[Sunset dancing girl image by D Sharon Pruitt, cc-by-2.0.]