OKAY – I know I ought to proofread this a few more times, but if I don’t post now, I never will. So, although I feel sure I will return and edit this again (and again) I am finally putting out my first blogpost of the year at 4:30 (and re-edit at 5:06, ha) on this 10th day of 2017.
My first post of the new year. I’ve struggled with this. Started and discarded many. 2016 left me in existential funk, mired in terror, horror, anger, and depression about how little we’ve learned, mourning the backwards way in which the world seems determined to move, making the same mistakes over and over and over. So, as I do, I needed to figure out why, which I do by translating the large into the small, the all into the one — Me and my experience. To answer how WE got here, I have to understand how I got here, and where is Here, this place, where we are going. So, here goes (or, returns?)
My aunt, Sissie, stopped buying herself clothes when she was in her forties. Her friend, Helen, who lived on the opposite coast, regularly sent her boxes full of her discards, which can best be characterized as Boston Marriage toggery; flannels, plaids, and tweeds, of boxy cut and pastel shades complemented always with grays, the pieces were expensive and well made, sedate and unpretentious to the point of self-effacement.
Sissie donated most of the garments from Helen’s parcels, keeping just one or two thick, warm shirts or sweaters, and, whenever a pair was included which fit in an approximation of a Katharine Hepburn look, a gray slack.
In pictures of her when young, long before I was born, Sissie, tall and slim, was elegant, soignee, radiating sophistication. I know now in those photos she was more Frances, less Sis, still dreaming she would leave Libertytown, Maryland to make her life and her living as one of the Bohemians of New York City, her aspiration to be not unlike Edna St. Vincent Millay meets Kay Thompson, and back then, Helen would never have considered sending Frances clothes, because Frances was the fashionable one of the group, the one with éclat and elan.
Never able to leave Libertytown because she was emotionally blackmailed by a needy mother who had what would now be recognized as early-onset dementia, Frances settled into being Sis who transformed into Sissie. She didn’t live her Bohemian fantasy, but, rather, was part of an all too common narrative; a female child expected to caretake for her parents until they died, as well as catering to the rest of the family as required until she was no longer needed. She jokingly called herself the “ole made ant” and after spending the majority of her life making sure no one ailed or died alone or untended, she finished her days by herself in a room in a senior care facility feeling abandoned and cheated, blinded by malpractice and unable to indulge in her greatest pleasure: reading, and cell by cell she deteriorated, losing herself in the past, reshaped by all the anger about what she’d given up and hadn’t done and been denied, anger that commingled with her delusions and confusions about who and where and when she was.
By then, in her 80s, she had long since stopped being fashionable and taken to a wardrobe that can best be characterized as Elaine Stritch gone Little Edie-esque; decades old Helen-hand-me-down plaid-flannel shirts worn as jackets and, too, tied round the waist over pantyhose made mostly of holes doubling as slacks.
I was horrified as Sissie segued to the stumblebum look, unable to reconcile my ideation of her as a 1940s Algonquin Round Table sophisticate with the hobo-esque, near bag lady she’d become, a castaway on an island where she no longer knew the tunes from the latest musicals or the authors of the latest books, but lived in her stories, As The World Turns and Guiding Light, and boiled pans of coffee until the ancient and chipped, green-enameled pan grew black as acrid smoke-filled the kitchen.
That was then.
Yesterday, I nearly boiled a percolator dry and spent the day in my preferred outfit, one I change only to launder it; ten year old sweatpants with a huge hole in the seat and a sweater I found at Goodwill, already used, fifteen years ago.
Like Sissie, the first, before me, I have stopped buying clothes. Like Sissie, the first, I watched soap operas until there were none left — or, none that I could bear to watch, and like Sissie, the first, after a life of catering to the whims and wants of others, holding them up, cleaning up after and cooking for them, listening and supporting and encouraging, it seems clear and certain I, like Sissie, the first, am going to end up castaway, alone and untended, though it is likely I will actually be on the street.
In the same way I was horrified with what seemed to me at the time Sissie’s decline into dereliction of savoir-vivre, I’m sure there are some of my younger ones who I mentored and encouraged along the way who are now abashed and appalled at the Little Edie-esque mien I’ve taken on. Hell, some days, I, myself, can’t believe where and how and what and who I am.
And, if I’m repeating Sissie’s pattern, ought I be surprised the world keeps returning to old, less than affirming behaviors? Why did I — like Sissie, the first, before me — not end up living in Manhattan where my tribe is more or less centered, where it seemed (seems) so clear, as it did with Sissie, I would have been much happier? Why did I not nest where who and what and how and why I am might have better fit and thrived? Why am I not where I feel — on those occasions when I am there — as if I am, after all, finally, home?
What was I afraid of? Because it was fear that stopped me. Despite Sissie’s best efforts to make me believe I could do or be anything, that I belonged at the Algonquin, it never quite felt true to me. So, when in April of 2016 I went to New York on a birthday trip and the Marriott-policy-quoting front desk clerk tried to turn me away from my pre-paid room at the Algonquin because I didn’t have a credit card in my name, her sneering disregard and dismissal of me felt like what I deserved. Embedded in me is the belief this culture encourages that without money, without the trappings of economic success, one is less than entitled to being treated with respect and decency. She was rude and loud about it, despite me telling her I’d just spent hours on a train and had nowhere else to go. She not only didn’t give a damn, she asked me to step aside.
Eventually, the giver of the trip was reached and apparently read the clerk’s manager the riot act, for after that they were obsequious as could be, albeit with an underlying sneer. But, in many ways, my birthday beginning with that humiliation reinforced my self-doubts.
With money, you get power, and get to behave in pretty much any way you like with little consequence. While I, having no money, had my birthday begin by being subjected to public humiliation by the Marriott Corporation in the lobby of the legendary hotel which had long been part of my dream of my best self in life.
And I wasn’t angry at the hotel. I was angry at me for inviting humiliation by failing at the game of life as it is supposed to be played in this country. By not fitting in. Again. By being a have-not. Again.
But all of that life experience didn’t make me hate. Forget the news-blather about people in this country feeling as if they’ve been denied opportunity or the deck is stacked against them. That’s not an excuse for affirming hatred. Not having what is measured as success in our society didn’t make me choose to vote for a sociopath. I rejected his (and his party’s) hatred and bigotry even though I am in the bottom one per cent.
So, what makes my experience of being poor turn me into someone who wants to understand the whys of the world, to share in making sure we all thrive, while, for others, it turns them into angry, biting haters of “other”?
I don’t know. But, I want to know why.
Here’s what I do know, right now, today, in this first post of 2017: Now, in this end part of my life, I get the whole clothes-in-which-she-was-comfortable thing Sissie came to. After she had sacrificed her dream in order to make sure others had theirs, there no doubt came a time when she had to face and let go of the regret and anger about what she didn’t get to do. There came a time when she realized that had she been meant to be Edna St. Vincent Millay or Kay Thompson or Dorothy Parker or Mary Martin or Helene Hanff, she would have been.
It took me a long time, but I’m facing it, too.
If I had been meant to live in New York, to be a Broadway star, to be a writer; I would have been. If I had been meant to be loved by A, or anyone else, in a couple, long-term, happily ever after (some of the time) way, I would have been. So, this worn out, unraveling sweater and these sweatpants with the nearly missing ass are the clothes in which I am comfortable.
This is my life, here.
Important caveat; I spent the rest of that 2016 birthday trip with people who did make New York their lives, who didn’t let fear rule them, who are winning by the standards of the culture in which I am measured a loser (financially and career-wise) and almost all of them offered (and offer) me heart and soul embraces then (and now), so I am well aware it is not the entire world population who value wealth and power beyond anything else. I have many dear ones here and in NYC in ways and to degrees Sissie never did.
Which is important to remember. And I do remember it. It is part of what sustains me here, where I am, going. But, there’s more to figure out. Because while Sissie was the first, my model, my history, she never managed in the end to reconcile her eventual life with her early dreams, her what was with what might have been. Like me, she spent her entire life uncoupled. Like me, she was often the one to whom people turned when they were in crisis, in need, but not the person who they chose to be with all the time, for the daily stuff.
Like me, she was, I think, in part, content with being alone in that way, but also, like me, felt the nagging question of why am I disposable in the way I am?
I think we — Sissie and I — are pioneers; we have faced — because of circumstance or dumb luck or fate — the disposability with which we all must sooner or later contend, that final truth that we are, each of us, ultimately alone in a world of our own creation. It’s a truth easier avoided when one is coupled, or parenting, or responsible when the lights go out at night for another.
For me, like I believe it was for Sissie, exploring that truth of our lives takes the shape of letting go of material things. Letting go of fashions. Letting go of the dictates of society and culture about what matters, what should be. Because, when you’ve lived a life sort of outside of those boundaries, a life that doesn’t fit into any of those “should be” shapes, you can’t help but question all of them. Every. Single. One.
Which is what this blog is. Which is what my life is now. Just me, questioning. Trying to stay afloat in a world where my dream hotel tried not to let me in; where the politicians who’ve won power ran on platforms which included language declaring me less than equal; where people I have loved belong to churches and political parties that consider me disposable; where members of my own family abandoned me and chose others over me; but where I keep believing, no matter evidence to the contrary, that there is Love and Light at the center of everyone and everything.
I wanted to be the first male actor to play Fanny Brice in Funny Girl. That was a dream I honestly believed — in my teens — would come true. Sissie gave me that sort of confidence, I kept it in secret, while I was being called faggot and beaten up and targeted. It was impossible on a practical level and would have required a miracle of change. Which didn’t happen.
Yet. But I am MiracleCharlie, and although it didn’t happen for me in my lifetime, a gender-free world where the essence of the soul mattered the most, I still believe it will happen. Setbacks? Yep. Been there, had them, having some now, but, here I am, going.
In my comfortable clothes. Unraveled? Worn thin? Yes. But they fit. And I’m fine. And I’m not fine. And it is what it is. And it’s not what I wish it was. And it’s 2017, and though I have never in my life felt more alone and lonely, I am hanging on hard to the belief that the confidence I had about playing Fanny is somewhere in here and I can find it again.
And that, I hope, will happen in 2017. And thank heavens I have finally finished this, the first of the year, from me, proud to be the second in a line of Sissie, eager to be worthy of being the first of MiracleCharlie.
Love and Light, dear ones.