“A woman writing thinks back through her mothers” -Virginia Woolf.
My partner has pointed out to me that I, similarly, trace myself through the girls and women in my life. And when I think of my richest relationships, the ones that continue to resonate and provide instruction, it is true that, with the exception of one man in my mid-20s, it is a feminine line.
There is Kathleen in 2nd grade. Having also finished her class work early, she was also excused to “sit quietly in the hallway.” At recess, we would excavate the tiny beads that make friendship bracelets—somehow we discovered that, behind the portable with the fourth and fifth grade classrooms, in a raised, flowerless flowerbed, these beads were buried. We deposited them in a jar set on the stacked railroad ties. Sometimes we showed each other a white bead with blue stripes, or a red bead, or a yellow, and sometimes we just dropped them into the jar and kept digging. Kathleen moved after that year.
And “my girlfriend” in 4th grade, she passed me a note in carefully practiced cursive asking if I wanted to “do it” during the class outing to Mason Lake—in the woods beyond the cook sheds. She introduced me to the phrase “two-timing.” This meant that she would concurrently be the girlfriend of Jason Wells—I checked the box indicating ‘yes.’ This seemed reasonable. Less two-timing, I suppose, than polyamorous fourth graders.
In sixth grade, Amy was quiet, self-contained, and we could not hold hands because she was a Jehovah’s Witness. That relationship ended in a flurry of pinecones (an act which caused me such regret that I apologized years later when I made a deposit at the credit union where she worked as a teller).
In seventh grade, Becky; she was only at our school that one year. I think of her as landed, there, and then I picture a branch, how it bounces after a bird alights. When I remember her, I feel a sense of certainty about her, strength that could be fierce.
And throughout middle school, one of my best friends was Jessica. It always felt like she expected me to be mean to her—baiting me a little, sarcastic—and then, she was glad when I was not.
Jennifer Converse. She and I warmly competed for high test scores.
And in eighth grade, Jannifer; she and I were “going out.” As a new student she became close friends with Jessica. It was known that they would go beyond the worn grassy athletic field and smoke cigarettes. I remember thinking once, after school at a flag football game, that she was stoned, or on acid. (I was just beginning to form a concept about the more ambitious drugs.)
Two years older than me, Jannifer spoke below the register of frantic middle-school banter. She never talked about her home-life, but we recognized one another anyway. We recognized one another the way Vietnam vets often seemed to recognize one another in spite of their efforts at blending back in. That was the case for my father, at least.
For the most part, in this line of relationships, my intuitions felt clear. And that feeling became a barometer for relationships.
In my mid-20s, perhaps searching a masculine line, I found myself serving in the Peace Corps in West Africa, in a country dissolving into civil war. That was the first time I felt a male friend did not shy away from or reduce the possibilities of what being masculine meant. Where is your boyfriend, other volunteers would ask upon seeing one of us without the other.
I often explore the space between sensual and sexual—the body desirous, but the desire not assigned to gender. I find myself hyper-conscious of gender designations. Of pronouns, for that matter. And I try to stay grounded in the body (so that the exploration is not strictly a language exercise, but what happens in the occurrences of real people).
The body not as a product, ultimately. Nor a natural “resource” to be exploited economically. Not easily categorized and targeted. My poetry right now largely considers post-colonialism, but it is all pretty inseparable to me—the colonial/racial/environmental/gendered matrix that propels the Western economy.
My sense of the body, particularly a woman’s body, perhaps, comes from these girls that I knew when I was a boy—in many ways, I believe myself to be simply following the arc of, and responding to, who these girls might have become.
Jannifer, for example, is someone I still behave in deference to, respectful of the last notion I have of her. She sort of disappeared to me after that eighth grade year. Two years later, in the middle of high school, she called me. She had broken her back in a car accident and, I think, dropped out of high school. She was tentatively living with an uncle.