Season 1, 006: arriving at a right fit in our skin, our circumstances. How it feels to be without that.
Size and shape
It all seemed to start with dreams of big headed, small bodied people I had as a kid. They felt strange and unmentionable. What could I say? I never heard of anyone else having these dreams, seeing these odd figures. So was I odd? What did their dreams look like?
Now days and years and moments take shape in my head, fill my thoughts. They float in or tumble around.
When writing in my diary I always put the day at the top of the page, not just because you did that at school on a Monday when you wrote your “news”, but because it reminds me of the feel of the time, a little flag of the possible mood.
I run and I measure the time by the feel of a night shift. The ones I work through as a children’s nurse. The first part of the run matches the busy section of the night, the beginning where you meet the patients and their family. You meet their fear, their joy at recovery or their deep despair at life changing diagnoses.
Then there’s the middle section-you’ve travelled some distance, you have a rhythm know where you’re heading. But home and sleep feels far away. Will you make it in one piece?
At last there’s an uplift, it’s 5.30 and you can begin to feel the end of the night, the start of the day. You can almost smell the freshness of the next shift, the perfume, the recently showered and the clear heads ready to problem solve, to send the well home. The run is nearly over.
So is this size and shape of time universal? Did those odd people walking in my dreams ever visit anyone else? I don’t mind sharing so much now, in fact I’m intrigued by others head spaces , not scared of my own or theirs anymore.
First, an apology, for all the times that I have made fun of you, hidden you, kept you in the dark, starved you, stuffed you, forced you to hold all of my feelings in, stared at you in the mirror, looking for nothing but faults. For all of the times I compared you to others and found you lacking. For the times I wanted to alter you surgically. For the times I floated you full of alcohol. For the times I didn’t keep the boundaries around you safe and for the times I kept them too rigid. For Slimfast, diet pills, Diet Pepsi, Marlboro Lights. For covering you in baby oil and baking you in the sun. For making it hard for you to breathe because I sucked my stomach in tight. For wishing you were faster, stronger, thinner, different. For pushing you onto the scale. For keeping you stiff when you really wanted to dance. For making you stay angry when it was really sorrow. For not even trying to like you.
And then, a thank you.
For carrying my babies, soft, plump, healthy babies, giving me the power to birth them and love them. For feeding chickens and walking dogs and picking berries. For jogging and yoga, the joy of movement. For hugging people as they enter our house. For rolling out pizza dough, chopping vegetables and shredding cheese and dinners on the porch. For creating courage, allowing me to write. For riding bikes and playing soccer and deck hockey and sled riding and hide and seek and skipping rocks and woodland explores. For blowing out candles on birthday cakes. For watering plants. For reading. For finding snail shells and watching clouds and drawing me down by the creek to listen to the water flow. For planting willows and daisies and lilies and peonies. For planting kale and tomatoes and basil and pulling weeds. For lighting candles. For snow angels. For being amazed by moss. For making cookies and pouring milk. For baking bread and slathering with butter. For slicing cheese and pouring wine. For gathering eggs and picking phlox for birthdays. For terrible French braids and testing foreheads for fevers. For sweeping porches. For easy laughter, salty tears. And orgasms.
SUB FUSC - St Hugh’s College, Oxford, October 1977
I felt preposterous in my black and white plumage. My silly little pretend mortar board, my velvet length of ribbon looped over my shirt collar, dark tights already slipping down, the gown that came down to my waist. I had walked the streets for ages gathering the courage to go into the shop to purchase it. There had been no handout, no typed sheet sent in advance to warn of its purpose, necessity and cost. If you didn’t know, if you had to worry about the expense, you didn’t belong. If you belonged, you asked no questions. But I had many. and lacked only the courage to tell my truth, that a streak of skepticism born in the terraces of Lancashire wanted to snort with laughter at the whole idea of dressing up like this.
The only thing I could cling onto on this surreal morning of Matriculation was that for once everyone would be on foot. I wouldn’t have to walk alone because I couldn’t ride a bike. God knows I’d tried, all through that summer, but my hands and feet stubbornly went their separate ways, and my lack of balance on two wheels excluded me from far more than my accent. Today, for the first time in the last ten days, I would appear to fit into the crowd. And appearance was all I asked. Nobody needed to know about the reality, that I was floating in a helium balloon far above all this, dizzy from all the meals I’d been unable to face, watching it happen to someone other than myself.
As we crocodiled down the Banbury Road we were joined by chattering penguins from other colleges, gradually becoming louder and more pompous as we neared Broad Street. Eventually we became numerous enough to constitute our own reality, part of the glass bubble that surrounded Oxford in my mind. Two feelings tugged me apart - one that there had to be more to this glittering prize than a cold room in a spartan hall with oilcloth on the floor and a bathroom where rusty water came out of the pipes, and one that all this was far too grand and refined a place for a provincial Northerner like me, that there had been some mistake, that my silence in social situations would be noted any day now and mark me out as an interloper, who had no conception of years of boarding school and a world where parents provided things like smart shoes. Others could effortlessly unravel the linguistic code that called exams Collections and a silly little robe “sub fusc”. What they didn’t know, they would dare to ask, from generations of fathers and elder brothers. It seemed to me that the facade was deliberate, designed to frighten and silence the uninitiated. In many ways I already loathed the place, found its customs ridiculous, felt no desire to be a part of it. But I remembered my English teacher throwing her arms around me after the news reached my school, and talking about the lovely years ahead of me, as if there would be no work, no anxiety, no throwing up in the morning after breakfast, just an idyll of punting and champagne. It never occurred to me at the time that my instinct was right, and hers was wrong.
My skin hung like an uncomfortable coat, buttoned up with unimaginative, beige indifference. A trick of nature had trapped me inside, sealed me up and confined me to my lineage. I needed someone to sit by me and feed me with the ambrosia from books, surfeit my appetite and glut me with words.
Five years of forcing my fingerprints on steel lie ahead. The clink and clank of metal on metal beckoned me from afar. I had already beaten out my second rate, secondary school mask ready for my five year betrothal.
Three years into my marriage of convenience, I had forged a ship strength chain that held me fast, docked me in a foreign harbour and forced me to feed on steel. Fodder for the factory. These shackles defined who I was, my strain, my brand; graded the perception of myself and ranked me to fit the shape of my breed. I felt emasculated by a poverty of words.
My identity was false. I lived with fake documents and became an imposter in my skin. I had been pre-cut, shaped and structured to fit neatly in-line. No freedom to roam. I stalled and stuttered, lapsed into inertia and froze until an epiphany blew in on a warm south westerly, high up on the White Horse Downs along a road running through time. The Ridgeway air was cleansing, full of integrity as it scoured out my doubts, emptied me of fear and blew away the now fragile husk that trapped my aspirations. I walked out of myself; the imago that first trembled at the thought of change now flooded with a clarity that seeped into my blood and awakened the sleeping poet within.
Having received my COVID booster shot a couple days ago, my mind is a bit squarely and I'm certainly in sound body at the moment, but nevertheless....I've read and re-read your extract and managed to craft a response. First...I'm struck by the pain of what you write, and I imagine (but of course could be quite wrong) that it might be similar to what my mother felt growing up. She had a stepfather, but of course never knew her biological father, or he was, until a few years ago when she was in her early 60s. A good man was in her life as she grew up, but it wasn't the same as knowing who she came from and she often felt without mooring and struggled to grow into the woman and mother she is now. Some things she still struggles with and probably will for the rest of her life, burned as they are into her experience and sense of self. I've no idea if my efforts fit entirely with the extract. I had to travel backwards. My body is a battlefield currently. There was a small window of time, however, when I was quite sure of my body's rightness and how I fit into it. This time a poem... Normally I'd work and work and hone things but I try to keep that to a minimum and just write from my center in response to your extracts..
Long before bad joints, fatigue, and disability
and before blond haired blue eyed toddlers in check out lines
gaped at my darkness from their mother’s arms,
I lived in my skin like it was a cape.
Ages five through eight.
My smiling uncle called me his Emma Buckwheats, and
I was a warm brown ribbon of sun-drenched chocolate
running through the sprinkler in my polka
dotted one-piece and yellow arm floaties.
I was a chocolate baby cannonball
plunging into the pool with black pigtails and
cocoa hands with bright pink nail beds gripping my knees.
A large white birthmark covered my throat.
Brought into sharp relief by hours of sun
it looked like the outline of a new and mysterious country.
Sometimes, when the kids on the beach asked about it,
I’d say ‘A shark bit me,' hand on my hip and matter of fact
just to shock and see their eyes bulge.
Black dog days
When it comes, all shrinks and grows in haphazard ways, distorting days into Jackson Pollock art. It does not bring me inspiration, joy, or fork lightning dances along synapses, the way I understood change would. It adorns every fragment though- inside, outside, over and through with viscous splotches and streaks that colour me blue with a special kind of drained.
Not special as in greater, better, grander or a treat, but special as in no one else is here, no one else has to enact this bone breaking veneer of pretence that leaves me husk like-hollow, staring at a speck of dust that has settled on my pillow.
Possibility shrinks to the size of the speck, my whole world balanced on this minute moment where the dust on my pillow is more sentient than me.
In my twenties, before I had therapy, I had a lot of sex. By that I mean that I let men fuck me. My body was available for their pleasure. Some of the sex was sublime: most, not so much. A very beautiful man, a dancer, said that sex with me was the best he’d ever had. I carry that sentence (still) like a pearl. I thought that if men desired my body, this meant that I existed. I was a sperm receptacle: my mouth, my cunt, the other place. The other place was painful and humiliating, but I never stopped them. Miraculously, I only had two abortions. I never made them use condoms.
Aged twenty eight, sitting in a therapist’s bright white room, I’m feeling confused. I’ve been coming for weeks, at the insistence of a friend. I am broken. I can’t speak. Go inside your body, the therapist suggests. See if you can feel what needs to be expressed. At first I start squirming. And then wriggling, my face contorted. I feel very small. The therapist is very quiet, but her words encourage me. Are there any words now, she asks, gently. I whisper, so that she can’t hear at first. Get off me. The words I had never spoken at the time, the words my body had been holding inside for years, since I was four years old. Can you say that louder, she prompts, and it takes me some time, but I can, I can say the words louder, and soon I am screaming, yelling, GET OFF ME. And then I am sobbing, and curled up on the therapist’s lap, and she is stroking my hair.
That was the start.
And now. Now I am 63 years old. My body is soft, ageing, but still strong. My body is where I live, who I am in the world. My body is full of my stories, my words, my truth. It is a safe place to be.
I was born female shaped. Clothed in painstakingly sewn matching dresses and knickers. Brought up to be clean and tidy at all times; quiet too.
No room for questions about why this must be so. My younger brother had the freedom to get dirty, and to play with knives and candles - which is how our house burned down on my thirteenth birthday.
At family gatherings I was withdrawn. Not because I was trying to be feminine, but through being overwhelmed by the noise and expectation to be sociable. Girls love to chatter, you know. Or so I was told.
Usually far too inquisitive and boisterous for my parents’ liking, I was suddenly too silent. I was simultaneously too loud and too quiet. Taking up too much space and not enough.
“Stand up straight, dear!” they exclaimed. “You’ve a lovely figure, you should show it off.”
As I stood, round-shouldered, trying to hide my developing breasts.
Pretending to be grateful for presents of slippery lace underwear from my grandmother and her sister for my fourteenth birthday.
“We saw it, dear, and thought it was so *you*,” they cried in delight.
And I buried my shame and disappointment deep, deep down. I’d have loved a pump for my long-saved-up-for racing bike.
How invisible I felt.
Decades later, having spent (wasted?) too many years squeezing and squashing myself into deformed shapes demanded by family, jobs, husbands and their families, I have finally called time on the whole ridiculous charade.
I am non-binary; I am neither female nor male.
We all need the freedom to take up our own uniquely shaped space. Gently guiding and encouraging less certain souls to claim theirs too.
We are all worthy of being valued, whatever shape and size we are.
Oh that's just beautiful. So vulnerable and yet hopeful. I love the metaphors: "a corset torn off and thrown aside". And that sense of just standing and looking into a camera, into the world, when you are never sure how you will be received, before the realisation that it doesn't have to matter, it can't, despite all our programming.
It has taken me a long time to respond to this - partly because it has forced me to think about my body, which is something I struggle with. I've had to think about how I feel about myself, and it's complicated. Like Amy, I've taken a different journey.
I started out feeling OK about my body. I had the usual questions about my appearance, the usual insecurities, but in retrospect I approached the world as attractive people do, with the understanding that with a little effort, people could be charmed.
When I was 42 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Over the next year, my body was transformed. Before that, I was looking good - I was happy with my body shape, I was happy with my face. I had thick dark hair, I had heavy eyebrows, long eyelashes. I had a cleavage.
I am now almost unrecognisable. It's 14 years on, and some of those changes would have happened anyway, I guess - but it all happened so quickly. Over the next year I aged - what? 10 years? 20? - I had my oestrogen stripped away. I lost my hair, my eyelashes, my eyebrows. I lost a breast. I gained weight (yeah, steroids). Over the next few years I had a reconstruction, then lost my other breast. The hair came back - thinner, grey. The eyebrows never came back. Even my hands are different. The veins have gone. One is puffier than the other.
I'm now a woman with thin, white hair, with no eyebrows, with stumpy little eyelashes. I'm, frankly, chubby. I'm back on chemo. I have new scars. I have old scars. There are patches of my body with no sensation whatsoever. I don't look at myself in mirrors any more - a quick glance at the start of the day to make sure I'm respectable - but other than that? No, not really. I have become invisible.
These days, I think of my body in terms of verbs. If I can walk up that hill, that's great. If I can enjoy the sun on my face, that's wonderful. If I can eat that peach and really relish it, that's fantastic. If I can walk into that cold, cold water and be cleansed by it, that's a miracle.
I just love this piece Tanya! I can really relate and oh how wonderful to be shown who you are through trust.
For the first time I recognized myself. There was relief, pleasure, excitement. A sense of being comfortable in my own skin. This is who I am. Contemplator. I think about things and sometimes I write my thinking down. I am interested in many things. I'm interested in, well, everything.
Unchecked, this led to unfinished crafts, hobbies, and a myriad of lines of pursuit, until the next interesting thing came along. I was a prime candidate for PNF. (projects not finished).
Unchecked, I rarely finished anything well. I started, started well. I didn't lose interest but there was always something a bit more interesting.
But this is the nature of the Contemplator. Life fascinates them. People fascinate them. And that was OK. A relief. A positive not a negative.
Now I am learning to add a little discipline. To recognize myself.
Unchecked, "You never finish anything." Now? "Yes that looks fun - but I'm just going to enjoy someone else pursuing it." Because I am not pursing 'several lines of enquiry' but living more intentionally. Choosing more deliberately. There is not time to do everything. There is time to do somethings well.