44.1 Feature: Craft Essay by Jill Schepmann
Jill Schepmann’s work has appeared in Parcel, Midwestern Gothic, Afro-Hispanic Review, and NPR’s All Things Considered, and in 2013 one of her stories received a notable mention in The Best American Essays. She has been a regular contributor to This Week in Short Fiction on The Rumpus blog, and she earned her MFA in fiction from Vanderbilt University. Schepmann lives, writes, and teaches in San Francisco.
On Love, On Power, On the Bodies in Between
by Jill Schepmann
I suppose I always wanted first to be a person. This is not a new desire. I wanted to be all the way here, all the way seen. My brother arrived a few years before me. I can see him at seven, standing about fifty feet in front of me, throwing a ball. I swing the bat and there is the ball traveling away from me. I run as if to catch it. In the beginning, my body was only functional—what could it do? Where would I carry it next?
(Early on, there was a broken leg and I learned something of stillness. That was the crack where stories and words came in. Suddenly, there was a way to capture movement in other forms than just body.)
And later, when they started to tell me that girls didn’t play in that baseball league, didn’t walk like that, didn’t run for class offices above vice president, didn’t hammer those tools. When others’ interest in my body began to change. When it became less about what I would do with it. When it became more what others might appreciate about it, do to it, grow from it, I separated from that idea of what a woman-person could be. I remember a terror of becoming pregnant, all the stopping that would mean. I remember talking to my boyfriends in high school—there will be no sex I would say. I remember feeling cold, ending always at friend. Fearing my heart.
I remember the first time I let myself consider what it might mean to kiss a girl—and more—the realization that while I had never really identified as woman, I certainly loved women. I remember they tried to make me hate that part of me. They failed at that, and instead I found a way to be invisible again. That is, to not live in order to be seen by men, a tremendous and freeing privilege. I remember how that freedom, how women, helped me believe my body again. Who could it love? Where would it go in the name of love?
And so it went until something happened in my body. By the spectrum of body happenings, it was rather minor. But it was disruptive enough that I forgot how good felt and what it meant to have energy, and I started to settle into a new understanding of how my days might be and how my body might (or might not) move through the world. Having that brief taste of exhaustion and winding down helped me re-learn my body and something of the bodies of others. The experience also showed me a bit of how to write again.
By that, I mean, it introduced me to a community with whom I wanted to converse—to speak, to listen, to stand with and up—when it was time. My body happening occurred in my uterus, so it was something that happens only to women—65% of women overall and over 80% of black women. In this experience, my body found a way to connect me to women, some who look like me, some who don’t, some who forces in the world try to separate me from. Some who I have at times separated myself from, consciously and not. Amid the many other conversations of access and privilege these past few years, this body experience helped me see how I want to align and connect with these women moving forward.
I am one of the white. Childless. Queer. Married. Moderately incomed. Affordably housed. Usually and sometimes amply insured. Generously educated. In short, through so many circumstances of birth and privilege, I am one granted comfort without having to earn it.
Unlike me, some have had to earn more than they are given, have been challenged in their bodies by external (societal) and internal (bodily) forces in ways I can never know as they do. For instance, here is Audre Lorde, after learning of her cancer diagnosis: “And I began to recognize a source of power within myself that comes from the knowledge that while it is most desirable not to be afraid, learning to put fear into a perspective gave me a great strength.”
Lorde’s generosity of body, mind, heart, and imagination left room for all of us, whether or not we deserved it. She asked only that we be willing to work. In “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” she asked each of us to stop robbing “ourselves of ourselves and each other . . . to establish and examine her function in that transformation and to recognize her role as vital within that transformation.”
So. Something happened in my body. For eight to ten days a month, this happening made it difficult for me to be fully functional and present in the world. This happening had become something so routine over the years that I became pretty comfortable talking with lab techs while they performed vaginal ultrasounds to assess my fibroids. How big are they now? Fascinating. Yes, so many women. It’s a shame there aren’t more options.
And then, returning home from one such visit, a thought I had stopped allowing myself to hear: I need to write this down. There was something the lab tech had said—a vision of so many other women, sitting through these fruitless, often difficult doctor’s visits, so that it wasn’t just me lying there in the room anymore. So many other women there too. So loud inside. Once, I was one of the lucky who got to go to school to write for a few years. After, I became one of the weak who lost my drive when the world stopped asking me for words. But in that hospital room, it seemed the world was asking something again. Writing became a way to try to answer.
“We owe each other our bodies,” Eula Biss wrote in the essay “Sentimental Medicine” that grew into her book On Immunity.
Once the writing began for me, it was clear that the essay was going to come out much like the blood that had poured from me. That is, clot-like. Episodic. Rich. Dense. Ugly. And, at many points, a surprise.
I tried to write in a language that was an open invitation. I didn’t want to shut anyone out by overcomplicating, overlooking, oversimplifying, taking for granted. My simple language was also a result of my lack of medical training. It’s quite possible, in my essay and here now, I have misspoken about the body, about trying to love all bodies. I was/am scared, but I try to write still knowing I will likely fail.
I have certainly failed at living it so many times. One morning last spring I was riding in the car with my friend Donika who was staying with me on a visit back to California. At a dinner party the night before, there had been a discussion about just where in America racism existed. There was a suggestion its varieties weren’t as pronounced in California as in other states. Donika had responded that was very much not the case. What about the KKK rally in Sacramento last year? she asked. After some false starts in response, a silence began to fill the room. I had been quiet throughout the discussion, and remained so. Thinking about it, thinking about other things. This privilege of whiteness to not have to engage in every difficult moment. Soon enough, someone found a safe topic to reignite conversation and things moved on.
That morning, in the car, after another long silence, I asked if she was okay. Donika told me she was upset about the night before. I just felt so alone. I needed someone to be there with me. I stared at the red light ahead, squinting up, feeling that burning that happens at the back of my eyes sometimes. But something about having lived with and loved another woman for the past 13 years told me that this was not a time for my tears. Not a time for my feelings. The light turned green, and we moved forward. I hear what you’re saying, I said. I’m sorry I let you down. I’ll try to be better. Donika was quiet for a moment. Then she nodded, looking ahead of us. Okay, Jill, she said.
And what would I have said, had I spoken that night? Months later I’m still not sure, but I think I would want first to affirm the reality Donika spoke of, to acknowledge with her (maybe even before she had to speak), all the forms racism takes, how this desire for power and control seeps in even in places we tell ourselves it doesn’t, that none of us are immune from its effects. (I suspect that others in the room, had they known how this moment hurt her, would also have wanted to do the same.) And maybe after that I could have leaned forward and looked round at all the faces before me, these friends, these fellow writers and artists, huddled together in delicious food and comforts prepared by hands with love, maybe I could have asked, And what are we going to do about it? How big are our imaginations? How big our love?
I first read Adrienne Rich’s “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying” the day she died. March 27, 2012. It’s strange to me now to say I came to such an important work only so recently. Strange, because my intense devotion to Rich’s work began more than a decade prior to her death one early morning when my first girlfriend delivered a cup of coffee to me in bed with lines from Rich’s second of “Twenty-One Love Poems” scotch-taped to the side of it.
When I read that Rich had died, I felt an immense sadness. I had the feeling, a San Francisco sense maybe, that if I walked outside with my grief, I’d find a river of people in the streets to feel her loss with me.
But I was in Nashville, Tennessee, in the final months of my MFA program, and there was no river of sorrow in the streets there. So instead, I called friends and teachers in my program, emailed writers I had come to know across the country, and ultimately, through one such writer, read “Women and Honor.” Soon, I would be leaving this small group that had come to seem like family, this place I had written more words than at any other point in my life. I was terrified I wouldn’t write again, that I’d leave and lose sight of this creative part of myself. And Adrienne, on the day she died, helped me see what I wanted: “The unconscious wants truth, as the body does. The complexity and fecundity of dreams come from the complexity and fecundity of the unconscious struggling to fulfill that desire. The complexity and fecundity of poetry comes from that same struggle.” Here, I read “poetry” as a prose writer, not a poet. Poetry, as in, “the moment of change” to go back to Rich. (I can’t say where in her oeuvre this line comes from, but my second girlfriend made a cross stitch of this line for me that still hangs on my wall.)
When I think about how to write about bodies, it seems negligent to only speak of one or to do so speaking alone. I felt that desire to see and reach others when I wrote “What Grows Inside,” and tried to make space for those other voices and experiences. And now again, Rich’s words help me: “There is no ‘the truth,’ ‘a truth’—truth is not one thing, or even a system. It is an increasing complexity. The pattern of the carpet is a surface. When we look closely, or when we become weavers, we learn of the tiny multiple threads unseen in the overall pattern, the knots on the underside of the carpet.”
When we get this up-close view, when we see the arbitrary forces that hold some of us aloft above the fray, that weigh others of us down, the complexity can be overwhelming. This complexity can be enough to silence, to break, to look away, to gouge out one’s own eyes and continue on in what Rich describes as an “amnesia . . . [a silencing of] the unconscious.” We live in a time and place where many among us have, and desire even, an amnesia of the body and its inherent connections with others in mortality. This amnesia allows some to separate from others, to deny, to build false and soured private lives of happiness, to betray, to commit horrible acts of violence and hate. This amnesia currently runs our country, breathes in the policies that don’t protect all of us. The policies that work to oppress, maim, hamper, distract the darker, the more vulnerable, the poorer of us.
But how to translate the bodily experiences of women to men, whose bodies are different? How to learn to value, not just for reproduction, not just for whiteness, but all female bodies alive and moving and supported with free choices? How to share with all that autonomy of bodily being still only reserved for white male bodies? The physiological othering of sex can make a distance that is difficult (though not impossible) to bridge in physiological empathy. And then on top of that, there are all the psychosocial forces that would leave us on even farther, separated shores.
I don’t pretend at answers here. I look over. I look back. I turn, as I often do, to James Baldwin. In this case, that letter from a region in his brilliant mind, “Down at the Cross.” In it, he discusses his vision of how we might move toward a more realized America for all, a struggle he personally expresses as being between “love and power.” In particular, he is concerned with the relationship between blacks and whites and the difficulties in reconciling said relationship. But there is a moment where he speaks of something he calls the “tyranny of the mirror,” a situation he describes in which the white man simultaneously doesn’t want to be seen and judged for his actions and also desperately needs to be seen and judged, to better understand, to better be. (We might add here that some of that tyrannous mirror tilts toward white women and anyone on an upslope toward power as well.)
It seems to me that this is that painful process and moment we are in now where much of the medical and political establishments also actively fail those whom they are said to be serving. So many blinding, lying mirrors right now that hold power more important than love.
And this is where I want to leave us, because in his essay, Baldwin also discusses how the only known fact we have is death. And while he argues this should be a freeing fact for all of us, instead, there is a denial that he saw in 1962, that I think many of us would agree still and possibly even more overtly exists today in 2017. In short, he calls out the failure of the American imagination to believe in death. This is a robbing, he tells us, of what could be a most tremendous gift.
What feels most interesting to me in this moment as a reader and an occasional maker of writings—those moments where love overcomes power—are here explained by Baldwin, “All of us know, whether or not we are able to admit it, that mirrors can only lie, that death by drowning is all that awaits one there. It is for this reason that love is so desperately sought and so cunningly avoided. Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. . . . ‘love’ here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace—not in that infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.“
After the first time I read these lines, they imprinted deep within me so that sometimes they echo up of their own accord in my head. Love takes off the masks . . . Love takes off the masks . . . When I try to make something, this is the love I seek. When I try to imagine the future, this is the love I hope.