Adoration revisited, part twelve

Welcome to Not Knowing How: Adoration Revisited, a capsule newsletter by Lisa Locascio Nighthawk in sixteen parts. Names have been changed. The version of events is my own.

I have a fantasy of a modern dance performance I never saw, set to Loreena McKennitt’s “The Mummer’s Dance,”1 one of my mom’s favorite songs. A handful of dancers—let’s say six—approach center stage from the wings with a light, exaggerated step that probably has a name I don’t know. They wear chiffon skirts over leotards, styled like fairies, or faeries, as I would have spelled it in the Nineties, when this fantasy is set.

Each dancer raises one arm. They bring their hands together and move in a circle, around an invisible maypole. The dancers curve back and lean forward.

I’m probably cobbling this together from different dance performances that made impressions on me over the years. A performance of The Rite of Spring I saw with my mom and Moira at the Auditorium Theater in maybe 2002. The Alberta Ballet Sarah McLachlan jukebox show I wrote an article about which is the second hit if you Google “sarah mclachlan ballet.”

My mom loved Sarah McLachlan, too. She took me to see her at Lilith Fair in 1997, one of my very first concerts. It was held at the World Music Theatre, not yet the New World Music Theatre, where just eleven months later I would see the Smashing Pumpkins perform for the first time.

I thought this would be an easy entry to write. I keep saying that in this space, don’t I? Why I ever, and always, think that anything will be easy to write is beyond me; it’s my special flaw, I guess, a type of faith. Kind of embarrassing for someone whose entire career is premised on the notion that writing is hard, a life’s work, requiring special training, a robust community of support, and endless self-compassion.

Anyway, I had a whole vision of the “Shame” newsletter in my head: I’d write about my own shame! Brilliant! My two main topics would be my body, the old habit of self-hatred that extends back to my earliest pubescence, and the fact that I neither own a home nor have any evident path to homeownership. I was going to draw a connection between the two shames, the body being home to the brain and arguably the soul, the house representing all the body cannot be. I was going to talk about how a friend told me they sometimes like to go to open houses, just to look, and how frightening this habit seemed to me, self-punishing, even, like going to one of those clothing stores where nothing has ever fit me, not even when my first marriage was falling apart and I was at my very thinnest—a state for which I was constantly complimented despite the fact that it was vivid evidence that I was not doing well—and holding the too-small jackets and pants and skirts in front of my body, dreaming about the day the clothes would pass over my hips and render me deserving.

There is always another store like that. They never have a name, at least not that I can see. The clothes wait prettily in the tall windows, perfectly hung, the uniform of a life in which I am not myself.

But when I tried to write about this it seemed too obvious, boring. I’ve been writing, and then failing to write, about my body problems almost as long as I have been writing. Not enough about the Smashing Pumpkins, and not enough about me when I loved them so much.

What was I ashamed of when I was thirteen, fourteen, fifteen? By eighth grade I had already begun to make myself into a creature who claimed not to feel shame. I had learned to perform a bravery I didn’t, and don’t, often feel. A character that has become a self, a tool, an expectation.

Today is March 17th, Billy Corgan’s fifty-sixth birthday, I wrote, when it was so. 

Saint Patrick’s Day. The day I originally pledged to complete this newsletter, back when it began in December. There was a perfect symmetry to it; I’d begin it on the anniversary of the last Smashing Pumpkins concert, and I’d end it on Billy’s birthday. Both dates live on in my memory, indomitable, their own miniature calendar. That shape was dashed when I got sick for the first time in January; this second three-week break from publishing has included a second bout of the mysterious ailment that seems less like reflux and more like a medieval punishment for too much ambition. But not just my body has kept me from this work.

Then I didn’t write anything else for a week.

When am I going to write about what an asshole Billy Corgan has either always been or has lately become? I have to listen to the podcast that is only the latest venue for Billy’s complaints about his long-suffering fans, watch the (2014!) Alex Jones appearance, reread the transphobic story in his LiveJournal, dig deep in the archive and also not so deep at all for his misdeeds. I laugh at Max Collins’s tweets about Billy and despair at pulling together a unified theory of why he is the way he is.

I can’t bear to watch the Alex Jones clip. I know what he says in it. I do not absolve Billy for this, or for anything else. I’d say this is part of why I stopped listening to the band, but when I was into them Billy wasn’t an outspoken…whatever he is, or he was and I just wasn’t paying attention. Meekly, with embarrassment, I want there to be a rehabilitation, a truly great new album, a new leaf. I can’t help still loving Billy, even as I recognize in my love its fundamental unknowingness. Once, long ago, I responded to an image and drifted, disinterested, when the image was no longer to my liking.

I remember a morning in high school when I couldn’t get my clothes to look right on me. I changed into a different outfit, then another, then another, trapped again wondering what I actually look like, since I will never truly know. No matter what I do, my appearance will be fractured through the kaleidoscope of my interiority. I knew this even then, but I was still fighting against it. Finally, I approached the mirror in tears and gave my body a tough love pep talk that began, “Listen, you and I are going to have to work this out.”

I’d like to say I apologized to my body, but I doubt it. An apology would suggest that I was in charge, that I had the upper hand. For so much of my life it seemed to me that my body did whatever it wanted and dragged me along inside it. This is how I felt about a body that was healthy and well, that seemed to prevent me, however I longed for it, from developing what I thought an eating disorder was: exercising for hours every day, eating an apple or two a week, binging and purging into the toilet like the girls in YM. It wasn’t buying the over-the-counter diet pills at Walgreens and lamely turning them over unopened to my mom, sobbing at having gone that far. It wasn’t making appointments with nutritionists who eagerly laid out elaborate meal plans with pre-bagged snacks of walnuts and dried cranberries and sandwiches with only one piece of bread.

If I really had an eating disorder, I thought then, I would be capable of making myself as thin as I wanted to be.

I thought what I needed was more willpower. I whose entire life has been the relentless project of my indomitable will.

There’s a good chance I owe you an email or a text message or a phone call, dear reader. There’s a good chance you’ve reached out to me and I’ve failed to respond. My difficulty communicating with people I care about is one of my most persistent challenges. Therapists tell me not to be so hard on myself before moving on to other topics. I complete as many tasks as I can, do the dishes, tell myself tomorrow I’ll be more able.

Enjoying his bath, my husband calls me into discuss small luxuries, the dream of a life in which we might have a backyard, a hot tub. I can’t enjoy it, can’t get outside of myself. “Go do whatever will make you happiest,” he tells me. Alone in the kitchen I check my credit card balances in penance. TGIF!

In the summer of 2001 my family went on a vacation to Italy. The first part of our trip was a package tour during which we stayed at a villa with two other American families, a couple from Massachussetts with a son and daughter a few years older than my sister and I, and two adult women traveling with a boy and girl tween. They turned out to be the adult daughter, second wife, and second set of children of an absent older man. The adult daughter told us she was an actress and was playing the new ADA on Law and Order. I don’t think any of us believed her until we saw her on NBC that fall. At least I was skeptical. But maybe this brush with fame was why, when we got back to our bedrooms after the first dinner with the other families, my mom told us that if anyone asked, she had gone to Boston College.

My mom did not attend Boston College. She went to a junior college called Pine Manor in Chestnut Hill, Massachussetts, and after two years there transferred to George Washington University, where she completed her bachelor’s degree in French Language and Literature. I had always known these details of her education. They were part of the world of story she raised me in, which began with the birth of her beloved great-grandfather in the Rio Grande Valley, continued through her parents’ trauma-ridden upbringings in Texas and South Carolina, and made a whistlestop tour through the many locales of her childhood: Chicago, where she was born, then New York, Westport, Connecticut, Paris, San Antonio and Brownsville, Texas, Chestnut Hill, Washington D.C., Dallas, where she met my father, and Chicagoland, where she raised my sister and I.

These stories had been given to me as the constitutive elements of my identity. They were the reasons I existed. I did not like to be told to lie about them, or to abet my mother’s lie. I sank into a gloomy mood from which I could not be stirred.

Later on that same trip, I suggested my family play a fun game in which we each said who we thought the “most difficult” member of the family was. I was horrified when they all immediately and unanimously named me.

I don’t remember if my mom’s college lie ever came up. Likely neither of the other families cared where she had gone to college. I do remember when she was asked, that first night, what she “did.”

My mom hunched over the table, looking at her hands, and said, “Well, I do many things. I’m an artist with a private studio as well as an investor, and for some time I’ve been at work creating an archive of my great-grandfather’s papers in preparation for writing a book about him.” She may have mentioned the fact that she worked at the Smithsonian, which like my grandmother’s time attending Juilliard, was technically true but much expanded in the telling. She might have called herself a philanthropist. I don’t remember exactly what she said, only her discomfort, her attempt to make her life sound important in a way that strangers could understand. Those people made her feel lacking.

I had always been proud of her ability to lie. I still dissolve in laughter remembering the day she received a call, some PTA volunteer ask. “I’m afraid I can’t,” she said with admirable sangfroid. “I’m getting a tooth cracked.” She hung up the phone.

“Mom!” I said, alarmed. I was maybe eight. “You’re getting a tooth cracked? What does that mean? Will you be okay?”  

“Oh, don’t worry, I just made that up,” she said. That’s how I learned you could do that. That sometimes it was the best thing to do. That people wanted it. For you to lie to them.

But that night in Italy was different. Her story didn’t come from a place of power. It wasn’t about maintaining her freedom. The story about Boston College and the self-serious monologue about her vibrant career served to obscure an emotion in her it redoubled in me, bounced off and amplified like I was a mirror. A sense that her life as it was wasn’t enough, that it was lacking something previously invisible to me but apparently obvious to my mother in the company of these strangers.

It felt like when I found pictures she had cut, or in some cases torn, herself out of because she didn’t like the way she looked.

My mom’s face removed from the image, and perhaps, nearby, the removed face, crumpled up in an attempt at destruction.

I was angry. I cried until she apologized to me.

I felt rejected.

At the first meeting of the self-care circle for new mothers I recently stopped attending because I felt like an outsider that no one wanted to befriend, I introduced myself as “the chair of the MFA in Creative Writing at Antioch University and the executive director of the Mendocino Coast Writers’ Conference, as well as an author of fiction and nonfiction.”

All of that is true and I felt insane saying it. What was I trying to prove? And why was no one interested?

The other new moms talked about renovating their dream houses, about meetups in the park, trips to Tahoe.

One asked me if my writing was “really funny.”

Shame is what keeps me here at my desk trying to write this, and shame is what has kept me away from my desk, not writing this. Shame is what makes me hesitate before responding to a friend’s text, email, or phone call, and shame is what makes me wallow in the feeling that no one wants to talk to me.

I imagine a past in which I was shameless. Not childhood, because I was ashamed of my way of speaking, of the way other children responded to me, of my inability to be like them. I was shamed and I was also proud of these things. It was both. I was both, and I always have been.

I bought a new dress to wear to a wedding, baroque, over the top, with bustling ties in front and full, poofy sleeves, a matching bow to wear in my hair. I queue up “The Mummer’s Dance” and sway around the room with my baby in my arms. While the song plays and the afternoon sunlight falls on us, I am untouchably happy, smiling at my baby, swinging him through the air above my head.

I have a memory of happy warmth and communion with my mother, closeness with her body, being cuddled and held, and that seems to me to have been the opposite of shame.

Ultimately, as with everything, she was right. In 2020, after my mother died, Boston College acquired Pine Manor. Today the institutions are one and the same.

Thank you for reading! This is the twelfth of sixteen installments of Adoration Revisited, which will be released every Friday between December 2, 2022 and whenever it’s done. If you enjoy my newsletter, I’d be honored if you share it with your friends. And I’m always interested to hear about your obsessions and memories.