how to be found

originally posted on great weather for MEDIA

 

how long until/ the limbs become/ just/ skin’s memory 

 

I travel west to contact every doorframe and window hinge I have ever touched. I want to know if they remember my fingerprint configuration. I need to know I am impactful.

In my pocket are three words I did not know before three days ago and one references a fruit I have trust issues with: aubergine. I contemplate renaming myself this word because I like the sling of its third syllable slapping tongue against roof of mouth. Is it ever too late to retitle oneself?

My mother calls me while I am pretending to write and she goes off script. She tells me my uncle has passed away. How long until a body loses its shape? And what shape does it become? Death lay there in his body for at least three days until. Until.

How to be found.          Out.

While living in suburbia, as a teenager with a license, I walked out of my psychology class one day with a mission to drive to my favorite park and hang myself. I was without weaponry, but I much preferred DIY techniques anyway. No one noticed when I walked out, right as the teacher—with three day beard or lipstick on teeth, I cannot recall—was offering a lesson on fight/flight and the biology of mental illness (or perhaps something completely unrelated). Slowly, I walked through the school parking lot to find my car, which really my sister’s, and it was red with only two doors. If I listened to the radio, I would have searched for Nirvana to scream his suicide notes into my ear.

This was the 90’s.

This park I liked was small, with evidence of duck excrement littering the ground like confetti. I did not care enough to watch where I walked; I just wanted to find the perfect tree to keep me elevated.

I ask my mother how he died and she does not know. I use a word like autopsy because of movies and over-saturated crime television programs like CSI and Law and Order. I need to know that even after addiction and depression, one finally reaches an age of understanding and stillness. I need to know I won’t want to revisit that tree with DIY weaponry when I am in my sixties.

I was fifteen when Kurt Cobain died. Less than one year later in 1995, I will try what he succeeded at, choosing pills and knives over shotgun. When Kurt died, everyone around me draped themselves in capes of flannel. When I die, I wonder if everyone will dye their hair red or just head to work because. Because. Why not.

On my travels west, I reach a doorframe found in an old school house, now called apartment complex. I licked the doorknob to see if it still tasted of me. All I can report is my tongue felt like pocket lint and pennies for the rest of the day. There was no sign of recognition.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, an American commits suicide every 12.9 minutes. In the course of writing this, at least four people have died.

I ask my mother once again about an autopsy, sounding out each letter slowly. Don’t you want to know? I ask. But I know that I am really asking me.

The last song Kurt Cobain recorded with Nirvana was titled, “You Know You’re Right” and I wonder if we ever really do. The lyrics haunt like the loudest lover you never could get over.

Kurt growls, “No thought was put into this/ I always knew it’d come to this/ Things have never been so swell/ And I have never failed to fail.”

The tree refused to elevate me on that day I casually escaped the confines of high school. Instead, I carved my name into a bench that faced a manmade lake. I contemplated what I was contemplating. Almost twenty years later, I look up that lake on the computer, and find that it has a yelp page. People express joy for its vastness; a perfect place to picnic; a spot for fishing or handholding. I ponder submitting my thoughts on the trees and how they may have saved my life that day, when I might have contributed to the census of Americans who end their time. How many stars would I give and would I mention that I used to think this park was a perfect spot to die, but now I just think it’s the right place to remember how to be found.

but also because of this.

[for Lily.]

 

You asked me when I started writing. Where did it begin and what caused it.

I mentioned Lou Reed. Bob Dylan. My sister’s old boyfriend, my favorite, who encouraged me to poem and to hippie. I mentioned that assembly freshman year of high school when I read a poem that caused all the teachers to warn my parents that I might try to Sylvia Plath myself. I mentioned open mics and giving up my dream of being a pastry chef.

But also because of this.

I started writing when my razor’s blade grew dull. And I started to write when I ran out of girls to kiss. And

I write when I binge on too much food, and feel the need to purge something.

Here’s the thing:

I’ve been writing letters to this old, white guy named Richard Brautigan, who keeps feeding my book shelf.

And I think of my student who asked me: Prof, why do so many writers off themselves? 

And I said, because so many come from tragedy & addiction & too much sadness to be cured by prescriptions, and it is the writing that keeps them alive, until….it just no longer can.

So I write to stay alive. Until I no longer can. And then maybe someone who needs a reason to remain will find me. And I will feed their bookshelf. And we all can just keep saving each others’ lives. One poem, one story, one page at a time.

good with words

Recently, a Rabbi called me a wordsmith. He knew me many years ago, when my hair was a different color. I was not much like this person I am now. I didn’t want him to recognize me, and I was quite pleased that he didn’t.

I read a short poem and words about mourning at a funeral for my uncle. Afterwords, once all the salt that sifted out from both eyes had dissipated, and I, longside five other men, took on the role of pallbearer, he said to me, “You are quite the wordsmith; you should keep at it.”

I smiled because he had no idea how much I needed to be reminded that I do. I smiled because my sister heard and she looked at me with pride.

This man of God, saying to me, a human who teeters on the edge of atheism, that I am good with words. 

On a Friday night, I sit wearing nothing but skin and remnants of sick still stuck to my flesh. I light a stick of incense and encourage the smoke to breathe me in, wrapping its seductive trail all over me. When one stick burns out, I light another. Inhaling this nag champa tickled my stuffed nose, but gathered me into a deeper mindset.

I began to think of the time my mother stormed my bedroom, and threw out all of my incense. She thought I had it because of drugs. She had no idea that I had yet to begin my thunderous battle with addiction; I just enjoyed the smell.

Even now, I like lighting these aromatic perfumed sticks not to mask any other smell, but to remind me to breathe in deeper. To get lost in the curls of smoke.

All I could say was, “thank you,” to the Rabbi, even though I wanted to say so much more.

I wanted to say to the Rabbi, “Do you remember me? I used to be blond and my parents liked each other. But you must see a lot of rotating marriages. It is 2015 and all.”

I wanted to ask him, “I know Jews don’t believe in heaven or hell and I don’t either but. But what do you think about a human who no longer feels comfortable in the body they were born into? There are words for this, but for me, those words don’t quite fit. And Rabbi?” I’d continue.

“Rabbi, what I mean to say is, I’m not so good with words when I need to use them to describe how this all feels. And also….” Here is where I will pause for such a long time, I will watch this scholar of Jewish law, get uncomfortable, and even impatient.

“…The thing is, maybe I just have a difficult time committing to letters. And designations. And clubs. And groups. And classifications. And stereotypes. And….”

The last time I went to synagogue, I sat, nervously reading prayers, translated into English. I was with my partner, who practices.

I practice to0. But not religion.

I practice how to be.

I just said thank you to this Rabbi who knew me before puberty and mental illness and trauma. I’m much better with words on paper; I’m just not so good with words when they want to come out. Sometimes, they just need more time to prepare.

to be seen

You build a door affixed to the one you already have to challenge the ones who try to get in. You tap your chest nineteen times every day, more than once, for every time the crowded city bumps into you. You purchase forty-nine different thesauruses in order to find better words for gun control to try to solve the excess of bullets. You spin globes in your free time; you call this both exercise and foreplay. You grow an allergy to your reflection, but you research creams and pills to push you toward relearning the manifestation of your skin. You want to be seen, but you are afraid they will only notice the gain. You are told– on a Wednesday — by someone you knew back when skin was less rebellious — that we are far more than what is seen; our selves extend to the map of veins traveling within us. You are told that the potholes pressed against your body are a conversation piece and a link to being human. You are told that doors prohibit not just the bad ones from getting in, but the good ones too: the poets, the teachers, the lovers, the students, the historians and translators. You strap on a face mask and worker’s gloves, but forego tools. You want to feel your skin rip when you pull off door from hinges. As it tears, you tear. As it detaches, a piece of you does as well.

how to address a scar

I didn’t expect you to be here this long.

I was in math class, grade ten and you were just supposed to keep me from jumping.

When James B. told my best friend, Drew in 12th grade, that I should just kill myself already, you kept mocking me with your inability to go away.

I didn’t know you’d grow louder in the summertime, from sun baking you into a starring role on my arms.

My mother remembered a commercial for a cream that could be rubbed on scars to vanish them away. “They may not disappear completely,” she said, “but at least they won’t be so visible.” I cried that night, realizing how forbidden you are.

I was dressed in just skin and water, in a bathtub that belonged to me due to monthly rent payments and name on mailbox. When I was a kid, it was the water, which washed away my chalk drawings; I thought maybe it would wipe away the carvings on my hips too.

Hello. Yes, I remember the first time. And I also remember Rachel, from the mental hospital, teaching me other ways to push myself off ledges after all the sharps have been taken away.

No, I really meant it when I said that I find scars sexy, because it is a reminder we have given ourselves permission to falter.

Age nineteen, I am in the only car I ever owned—a green Honda Civic I titled: Quentin Antoin McKenna. At the gas station, the attendant looks at my forearm as I hand him a ten-dollar bill and he makes a comment, which reminds me there is no escaping this billboard of sadness.

I am engaging in an activity that some people call sex and the one pressed against me grabs my wrist and rubs callused thumb against what is raised. Calls it braille. Asks to read the rest of me.

You twitch each time you see others like you. Thunder against my skin knowing how similar we all are. How sad we all are. How in need of other languages we all are. How loud we all are. How brave we are. How desperate we are to survive and yet desire to die we all are. How. How. How. How. How. How. How. How. How. How. How. How. How. How. How.

what it is to lose

When I was thirty-four, I lost my mind. It had been ten years since the last time, and I found myself ransacking my bedroom for the map—torn up and burnt—which would guide me toward my bearings.

Outside, the air was gathering up its new identity. Its nametag of Winter had been removed and thrown away; it was now calling itself Spring. The yellow daffodils, though beautiful, were just confusing to me. All I could see and feel was emptiness.

The last time, which was not the first time, I was twenty-four.Aimee Herman hair

The first time, which may have not been the first, was when I was newly sixteen.

I have lost my wallet once, dropped during a bike ride in Boulder, Colorado. But a considerate Samaritan returned it to me, several hours later. They knocked on my front door and handed it to me.

I lost my favorite red scarf somewhere in the Museum of Natural History during the first week of January. Then, I found it near the photo booth by the bathrooms. A few months later, I lost it for good somewhere in the halls of a community college.

Losing a mind is tricky. You can’t exactly retrace your steps or ask a friend to ask their friends to keep an eye out for it. You certainly can’t put up fliers or ask the subway conductor to make an announcement:

“EXCUSE ME, PASSENGERS, A LOST MIND, WEIGHING IN AT ABOUT THREE POUNDS WAS LAST SEEN IN CROWN HEIGHTS, BROOKLYN WEARING A NAVY BLUE SHIRT. PLEASE CONTACT LOCAL AUTHORITIES IF YOU LOCATE THIS MIND.”

When I lost my mind at sixteen, my mother found me. I was sliced up and unconscious. My mind slowly crawled its way out of my body. I was gathered up and sent to stay in a hospital for twenty-one days.

I was confused how I would retrieve my mind in a place that caused me to lose it even further. It grew blurry and the signal was weakening. I was around others that encouraged me to remain lost. I was given tiny capsules to swallow that slurred my mind into curious shapes. My appetite, that I coveted, was lost as well. It simply vanished, leaving me bony, translucent and weak.

Six years ago, I lost a brown, corduroy cap, which I had borrowed from my then-girlfriend. I left it somewhere between a thrift store dressing room and a bike ride throughout downtown Denver. That night, when I told her of this loss, she cried. It had been in her life for a long time, with memories stitched into the fabric, visible only to her. She asked me to go and look for it. By then, it was nighttime and all the lights had been turned off, but I jumped on my bike and began retracing my steps. I begged the moon to point me toward the direction of this hat, but it was barely a sliver of light that night. When I got home, we mourned the loss of her hat and slept in silence.

When I lost my mind at thirty-four, it was due to various factors colliding. It felt like a gang-bang of bad news. I had lost my partner, then my therapist, and the dark in me was growing like persistent ivy all throughout my body. I could feel my sense of direction weakening. Food, which once gave me such pleasure, was making me sick. I couldn’t chew. My skin was beginning to show imprints of my wandering mind. My white skin with old scars was turning red with new scars. My tongue was no longer being utilized and my spit dried up. I may have stopped swallowing; what was there to swallow?

One day, on my thirty-fourth year, I awoke deciding to no longer search for it. My mind was gone and I could feel myself slowly slink away, like a snake slithering out of its skin. But I was not looking to regrow anything. Instead, I was ready to disintegrate.

When I was somewhere between eight and ten, I lost a moccasin in a brook behind my best friend’s house that we weren’t allowed to wander in, so I couldn’t tell anyone of my loss. I can’t remember how I explained my arrival that night with one bare foot. I can’t recall if anyone even noticed.

When I lost my mind, no one asked me if I wanted help looking for it. People don’t tend to talk about this kind of loss.

I got it back. My mind. My skin of scars. No more new ones though. I’ve given up on the pills, so I’m free from the side effects. I’ve got my appetite and my voice back. I wouldn’t say I feel complete ease that I’ll never lose track of my mind, but I’ve hoarded enough maps to make sure I’ll at least find my way back to it sooner, if it tries to bail again.

some body that i used to know

This has been the longest relationship I have ever been in. I can celebrate over three decades of this partnership; yet, I’m still trying to come to terms with what we actually have in common. In the morning in my nude, I am reminded by what I have. I am not haunted by all of it. In fact, there are some parts to my body that make me want to take it out to dinner and forego sleep in order to get to know it even better.

We’ve slept beside each other every night for over thirty years. We’ve been joined by another, though these were the times I lost track of its shift. You see, bodies never remain static. They shift in shape and desire. Sometimes, our bodies get loud enough in this displacement that alteration of clothes or vocabulary are not enough.

Initially, when we meet someone, there tends to be that immediate attraction that either let’s you know this is a possible friend or future love interest. Then, there are the ones we meet that remind us to keep walking. We cannot be expected to get along with everybody. When things don’t work out with someone you love, you break up. When things don’t work out with your body, it is far more difficult to walk away.

Recently, I was trying to explain my relationship with my body to my dad. He has seen me poke holes through various piercings, distract my skin in ink with tattoos, and alter my appearance with hair color and wardrobe. He wanted to know why I’ve been so afraid of the word, pretty. I stood beside him in silence trying to understand why he thought this and if he is right. Why might I be fearful of this simple word?

Beyond this adjective, I think about the parts of me that might attract such a word. Often, I am approached due to the boldness of my hair: knotty, red curls. My responses range from thank you to complete silence. Perhaps I shun this word because I prefer that my intellect and poems get approached, rather than the curvature in my hips or the flames in my hair.

As I officially slide into my mid-thirties, I recognize that I have been cheating on my body. I think of other bodies when we are together. At night, when it is just us in bed, if I am not too tired to be intimate with myself, I imagine my shape as something else. Not quite male, but not exactly female either. How to describe this?

Over five months ago, I started wearing a binder. There are many different versions to choose from, but the one I purchased is kind of like an extremely form-fitting tank top, that flattens my breasts and slurs away my curves. I’ve worn sports bras that have a similar effect, but I wanted something that completely smoothes them out. In addition, I have acquired a few more of various lengths and fittings.

My relationship with my breasts has been tumultuous like most love affairs. I desperately wanted them and then once they finally arrived, I eventually wanted nothing to do with them. Over the years, this detachment has grown more and more. Wearing this binder has been an experiment; I wanted to see if it would help the way I viewed my body. Now, I notice the way my button-down shirts, held captive by double-windsor tie and vest fit so smoothly over my paved chest.

Recently, a complete stranger called me handsome. When I was called this, I thought: perhaps this is how I am expected to feel when I am called pretty. Funny how letters pressed together have so much significance to us.

Here comes the possibly confusing part: I do not desire to be male and I do not view myself as transgender. If I must label, though I prefer not to, I see myself as gender non-conforming, genderqueer, and transgressing though consonants (M/F).  

When I was fifteen years old, I started treating my body like a tree. I began carving my way in and through my skin, searching for a way out. I soon learned this behavior was called cutting and I also learned I was not the only one. Many years went by and the wounds healed, replaced by scars. As I made my way through adolescence and into young adulthood, reactions from lovers and strangers ranged from looks of pity to obscenely rude accusations and questioning.

Summertime in New Jersey at nineteen. I am filling up my green car, scratched up just like me, and as I pay the guy, he says: Yo, what happened to your arms? Why they all marked up? At an open mic at twenty-seven. A young poet approaches me after exchanging no other words with me throughout the night, grabs my left forearm and says: These markings are so beautiful. Were they part of an art project or performance?

In the beginnings of these self-induced hieroglyphics, my mom suggested vitamin E and other scar-reducing creams. I got angry with her, though now understand that she just wanted to make it easier on me. Humans have a difficult time with scars. They immediately want to know how they got there and then they want to know if there is a chance more might arrive (depending upon circumstance).

I refused the cream because a large part of me wanted to be reminded of these markings and these years of sorrow inside my body. I am no longer a cutter, though have relapsed a few times in recent years. When I look down at my arms and the few ghostly markings on my hips, I think of these lines as words. What was I trying to tell myself? I want to believe that I was digging my way out and toward the innards of not only my gender but the core of my self.

How true is this body? What will it take to fall back in love with it? Have we ever been in love or has it been like an arranged marriage? Would I choose it if I could?

If we all came with our own airbrush machines that the fancy fashion photographers clearly use, I wonder what parts we’d compress away or enhance. Would I leave my scars alone? Would I flatten my breasts out permanently? Would I leave my dimples, otherwise known as skin deformities? How about dead-ends left on every strand of my hair due to forgotten haircuts? Would I want my thin lips to be fuller and my collarbone to be bonier and more dramatic?

We exist in these bodies that grow and shift in ways we accept and in ways that can be deeply confusing and even painful. Some things can be controlled. If that extra weight on your belly overwhelms you, then a few months at the local gym or daily sit-ups may flatten it away. If the skin on your face sags in a way that disturbs your ability to feel pretty, you may choose a face-lift. What isn’t big enough, you can now make bigger. What is not small enough, you can pay someone to take away entirely. No one can really say what isn’t necessary, because no one is inside anyone else’s body but their own.

It’s not that I want to break up with my body. We’ve been through so much that I feel like no one else could possibly understand me in the way that it does.

It survived that faint from the deeply traumatic panic attack at age twenty-seven that left me with several cracked teeth, a scratched up face and nine stitches. It survived mental illness and more suicide attempts than I could possibly keep track of. It survived drug addiction. Deep into the night, it has begged me to remain. My body has allowed me to orgasm even when shadows of sexual trauma have crept its way in. My body has given me more love affairs than one should be warranted in a lifetime. My body has remained even after all the walk-outs (my self included).

However, even after all these years, there are still times like now, where I feel like we are still getting to know each other. I no longer wear dresses or bras with a clasp in the back. I prefer much simpler attire. Sometimes I have to remind it that what I wore last year may no longer feel right against my skin. So, we must unhang, fold and give away what no longer matches how I/we feel inside. It is not too late.

I want to give myself time with this binder just as I gave myself decades in these scars. I’ve learned to come to terms with the discoloration of skin on my body: war wounds from the battle between my body and me. This disconnection I have with my breasts may not be flattened away with assortment  of binders. I may need to move forward and make a more permanent choice. My fear of telling others obviously ends here.

The need to speak out has been modeled to me each time I hear a poem or read a story that moved me enough to write or speak up. We all have these bodies that encapsulate all these stories. If we continue to speak up, more languages will form. More and more humans are realizing that they’ve been living in the wrong body and finding ways to rebirth themselves into their truest form. There is absolutely nothing more powerful than that.

 

(Thank you, Imogen Binnie for breaking my mind open with your transferring language, relocating my thoughts in so many directions with your incredible book: Nebraska. Other gender warriors: Ivan E. Coyote, Dhillon Khosla, Carter Dyer, Kate Bornstein, Tahrah, S Bear Bergman, Dylan Scholinski and the list continues)

 

Dear Elizabeth.

I recently learned that you kicked out one of your students because she was exhibiting strange behavior. You told a thirteen-year old girl with visible sadness and markings of warning signs not to come to school. Since when do elementary schools have a policy that pushes out the mentally ill?

When I was fifteen, I rubbed Plath and Dickinson into my skin. Could not compare how I felt with the others around me. So, I wrote. Carved poems into my notebook. Carved letters and lines into my skin. No one taught me how to hurt myself. It was a language I gathered with each collected tear drop. Poetry wound up [in many ways] saving my life, but it also turned up the volume to my invisibility.

Freshman year of high school, I read my first poem to an auditorium full of 13-18 year olds. I don’t remember the title, but it was so dark, the lights lost their balance and afterwards, teachers started worrying for my safety. This was the moment I realized how powerful words can be. I carried a book of Lou Reed’s lyrics with me and reread all the poems by Plath that made my skin feel like it was finally getting nourishment. The school guidance counselor started making appointments with me. The bloodied hieroglyphics on my skin were getting noticed. I stopped hiding.

Even in my saddest state, no one ever asked me to leave. When I walked out on classes because I needed to retreat, to lose myself against trees or carve out my grey into park benches instead of myself, no one stopped me. When I missed over forty days of classes because I needed to medicine myself toward something more safe, I was welcomed back without judgement.

Now, I’m the teacher. And I notice every student in my classroom and help them to feel and be present. I would never close the door on someone trying to learn. Especially someone having a difficult time remaining with themselves.

There is a school in Elizabeth, New Jersey that recently asked a thirteen-year old learner not to come back. I think that if every school pushed out those having a difficult time with living, we’d no longer have to worry about over-crowded classrooms. We’d also have a shortage of teachers and (probably) administration.

Kicking people out is not the solution. Giving them a safe space to talk is.

It has taken me almost two decades to manage and understand my sad. I have finally located the root, so now I work everyday to create and find safe spaces to translate it.

Elizabeth, New Jersey, I am disappointed in your approach to mental illness and unwillingness to look at this young girl as a wake up call. It is difficult to be alive sometimes; punishing someone because they are having second thoughts about it will only perpetuate these behaviors, not help to solve them.