by Katherine Bernard
From the beginning, I knew a mother: the body in which I was grown. And then, mothering: my mom, the caretaker. I picture her holding baby me, saying, “Those are your pants! Those are your eyes!” and talking into my fuzzy head like a mic, my brain recording her voice, the soundtrack to a field of long grass: Shhhhhh, shhhhh, shhhh. I remember the sound. Words change depending on who says them. Even a shush.
There’s a video of me, age three, telling the camera what I intend to be: A bird, so I can fly to California. A declaration I would later carry out, leaving New York for Los Angeles, for mileage, for daylight. Now when my mom and I talk, our voices pulsing through a cable under so many fields between LA and Baltimore, she says I’ve hurt her by withholding words.
As for the part of you that makes us uncomfortable, well, you need to come clean. Is this just something you are doing or are you gay? This needs to be made clear.
I try to explain that nothing, especially identity, is ever clear. I sound hurt, which is her cue: I’m just kidding, don’t take it to heart, you have no sense of humor.
In Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Jeannette Winterson writes that “no emotion is the final one.” Even remembering that line, telling my mom to stop talking to me felt final. I pecked out a text from California: I’ve made my own family and don’t need to feel attacked or like I owe you information.
The Argonauts, by Maggie Nelson, is available now. You can buy it wherever capitalism allows you to obtain books, including:
A few weeks ago, I got a package in the mail with Maggie Nelson’s new book, The Argonauts. The title comes from French semiotician Roland Barthe’s writings on the ship Argo, from ancient Greek mythology: “A frequent image: that of the ship Argo (luminous and white), each piece of which the Argonauts gradually replaced, so that they ended with an entirely new ship, without having to alter either its name or its form.” Nelson and her partner, the genderfluid artist Harry Dodge, are the argonauts, building a family, stretching the skin of its nomination, and feeling on the page what words used to describe us can mean.
Nelson becomes pregnant, flush with estrogen, at the same time Dodge begins taking testosterone, and for Nelson, words carry; italicized citations form a blended structure for Nelson’s feeling, little choral descants folded in, the authors’ names tacked in the margins, creating a family album of validating prose. Can language keep up with the ways we live? I don’t know, but The Argonauts suggests that perhaps feeling alive is to have nothing made clear.
Nelson poses the question: “How does one get across the fact that the best way to find out how people feel about their gender or their sexuality — or anything else, really — is to listen to what they tell you, and try to treat them accordingly, without shellacking over their version of reality with yours?”
Walking on a path in Griffith Park with my friend, we play a game of egos in which we reveal how we describe each other to strangers. About her, I say, “She’s an indie filmmaker, she is tall, has bangs, she holds dinner parties in New York,” on and on. About me, she starts: “She’s a lesbian,” and the sound goes white. Identity coats everything we do. What does it keep out? I believe there is a further out than outside of the closet. And that’s telling the truth, always. I still want the possibility of being drenched, surprised by feeling.
Is this just something you are doing or are you gay?
OR: the word itself looks like an illustration of a spinal vertebrae my sister, a med student, might jot in the margins of her lecture notes.
Gay OR straight?
Butch OR femme?
Male OR female?
Pretty OR handsome?
Happy OR sad?
What do you have in the middle? A backbone. The ORs: how I stand right now. I seem to love cusps. In my baby book, my dad wrote to me on my first birthday: “Just for your information I debate exactly which day you were born. It was so close to midnight that it depended from which angle you viewed the big-faced clock. It was a matter of seconds after or before 12:00 AM. In any case I went home after a few shots of Jack Daniels and left you and your mom at the hospital. I slept soundly.”
After OR before, I sleep soundly.
A different friend of mine gave a TED Talk, and afterwards, her Spanish mother asks, “Where were your maracas!?” Her maracas — her breasts — were there, held in by a binder under her button down shirt. “I don’t know who told them it was a phase, but they think it is,” she told me. “When I see them they say, ‘Oh, this is still happening?’”
Is this just something you are doing?
Nelson borrows a phrase from poet Dana Ward, referring to the voices she brings into the book as “the many-gendered mothers of my heart.” She invokes, not through academic citation, but seamlessly in her own story, in italics, the borrowed thoughts that complete her own. Nelson told Ariel Lewiton in Guernica’s recent gender-themed issue, “This book was really like family. Not just my family, but all the people I’m thinking through: Audre Lorde, Eve Sedgwick, all the people who are like my queer intellectual family, my feminist family. So I’m thinking with them.”
Through Nelson, I’ve realized how important it is to find your mothers. The mothers you can think with, the ones you adopt. Some, like Winterson, and Judith Butler, I tuck on the highest shelf, parents sent upstairs during a teen party. I love you, but my crush is here. Others I take everywhere. On my shoulder, where so many have the most basic tattoo — the word “Mom” in a heart — I have an empty circle, something I got for Eileen Myles’ poem “Holes” which starts Once when I passed East Fourth Street off First Avenue,/ I think it was in early fall, and I had a small hole/ in the shoulder of my white shirt, and another on/ the back — -I looked just beautiful. The tattoo is right at the start of my arm, and I think of short story writer Gary Lutz’s description of an arm “not as the pathway to a person but the route the body took to get as far afield of itself as it could.” Here’s what I take with me where I start to get away from me: a hole in my shirt, a reminder of beauty in a layer that is constantly changing.
Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Are You My Mother gave me the idea to try typing up the next phone conversation I had with my mom. Bechdel Snowden-ed her own phone monitoring in the book; she draws herself taking word-for-word notes as her mother talks. She captions: “I don’t think she knows I’m doing it, which makes it a bit unethical.” Here’s as far as I got:
The only thing we were concerned about is you went from one extreme when it comes to your clothing and your looks to another. I know gay women who wear lipstick. You’re anti this or that but if you want to change the world — and I love women having that attitude — I was a strong woman too, but I don’t understand why women have to look like boys or men. You can have short hair and no make up but look like a woman be proud you’re a woman. I don’t get it. I dont understand why you want to look like men. You’re in fashion and I’ve seen you in the same jeans and sneakers. That’s the big thing I don’t understand and I don’t think I’ll ever understand that. It makes me sad that you have to think you have to look like that. It’s just people look at you and they think “Oh my god.” It’s not about wearing makeup but a nice sweater and a nice pair of jeans and a nice pair of earrings, a little plain lip gloss. You loved wearing dresses, that’s what I don’t get. It’s fine that you’re different. Do you need money to get clothes? Every time I saw you, you had the jeans, those sneakers, a white shirt and that’s it. Can you just put some color into it? I just want you to put a little mascara on once in awhile. We need a transition. To take your long hair at first I was thinking, “Wow that’s a big step.” You go out on the limb, you are yourself and I’m proud of you. I think your hair can be short like but just have an angle. I got these pictures of you and it is just hard for a parent. If you asked a bunch of parents who had to go through this they would be saying the same thing. New York is a different world. I’m fine with it. It’s just that you don’t look feminine. It’s not negative. Don’t take it in a negative way. Wipe off that chalkboard in front of you.
In his memoirish roller-coaster masterwork, Testo Junkie, Paul Preciado writes: “Femininity, far from being nature, is the quality of the orgasmic force when it can be converted into merchandise, into an object of economic exchange, into work.” Doesn’t it feel like the women are always missing the show to dip back into the dark at the behest of a man with a microphone: “Don’t forget to check out the merch!”
“Your father and I think you have anti-men problems,” my mom tells me on the phone. In school, I was taught that the word “men” could mean all genders — it was up to the reader to be inclusive with the word in their mind. The word women always just meant women. So maybe men just need to find their path to include themselves every time I say women. Wherever I have fun with my anti-men problems, that’s not where I find my love for women.
I’m not ashamed to say I’m queer. Around other queer people the language flutters: maybe that was only okay when Janice said it, and we’re all Janices. What I fear: the rush of exposure I feel after I over-explain myself. When I come to in the midst of an explainversation at a dinner party, hearing myself saying a line like, “Well, I’ll never say never, and attraction is a funny thing but none of us are a hundred percent anything and there’s a scale and love is love” to someone, the words sung-spoken, punctuated with the only stupid question: “You know?” Sometimes this party audience of one quietly diverts their gaze when I put my arm around a woman, like there’s a fish hook in their cheek pulling them through water. You’re catching on. That’s when the rush comes.
I just gave a warm stranger the shirt off my back.
A friend is sunning in my yard in LA. She reads my line about the fish hook and says, incredulous, Really? I can’t believe that. Performed nonplus at discrimination is a kind of passive participation. It safeguards the speaker with shock. They self-mythologize with this attitude, projecting a protected, best version of living in which they are not responsible for any unequal treatment because they cannot even imagine it. But misunderstanding, oppression and isolation are not just the reactions of conservative mothers in suburbs. Really.
“The issue of entitlement between parents and children, or between lovers, or between friends, can never be straightforward. The entitled are always too knowing,” writes psychologist Adam Phillips in Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life.
“Did you always know?” is one of the question queer people are expected to answer readily — for strangers, friends, co-workers, parents and their friends. That question, of course, really asks: “Would I know?” It’s the burden of explanation: offering a comforting, clear narrative to others to affirm that sudden change isn’t coming for them. They’re stable.
I don’t know, but really I know sometimes, and have decided not to report those times, especially not casually, especially not passively.
But not knowing is not unstable. There are parts that will fall away, and you’ll still be there.
In The Argonauts, Nelson describes debating with Dodge about what language gives us: “Once we name something, you said, we can never see it the same way again. All that is unnameable falls away, gets lost, murdered.”
“The cause of tragedy,” the philosopher Stanley Cavell writes in an essay on King Lear called “The Avoidance of Love,” “is that we would rather murder the world than permit it to expose us to change.”
Changing in front of people is uncomfortable. Identity is a sample sale with marked down clothes in piles. You want something new? Strip in front of this shared mirror, full of fleshy changery. Nelson from her book Bluets: “We have not yet heard enough, if anything, about the female gaze. About the scorch of it.” Other women are turning looking at their naked butts over their shoulders, “Is this what I look like or is it the lighting in here?”, buttoning up, unbuttoning. You don’t want to leave until you find something. When you do, you put it on — the jeans, those sneakers, a white shirt and that’s it — and run out of there to sit by yourself in your own new room in Los Angeles, where the sun is setting, casting panels of dark pink light on the walls.
After listening to myself about myself, I put on a fitted button up shirt and thought, Finally, a piece of clothing with vents for my heart.
Then: Do I look gay in this?
“People have to know,” say the too-knowing.
What happens if people don’t know?
I know why being queer is one of my favorite things about me: It’s possibly the only thing that no one else told me first. Me is what I see, not what other people see when they look at me (which, by the way, I will never see).
Nelson writes, quoting Claire Parnet in Dialogues II: “There are no longer binary machines: question-answer, masculine-feminine, man-animal, etc. This could be what a conversation is — simply the outline of a becoming.” My straight cis-male bestie sits with me and his iced coffee is sweating as he leans in to ask me how I’m finding the lesbian scene in Los Angeles. “I’m so fascinated by it,” he says. There are some people who never have to explain who they love, where they go, what they like, what they want, what they’re becoming.
In The Argonauts, Nelson describes fluid identity as a flicker. I think of the last line of Nelson’s book Bluets, passed around among the women I instinctively link arms with when we walk into sample sales. The line is: “I aimed to be a student not of longing but of light.”
The act of explaining: It’s as if, before you speak, you have to relight the room you’re standing in. Dim this, walk in a lamp or two, replace a bulb. Can you see me now?
Sorry I abused you and all the other God awful things I did. I am a terrible mother.
I do not believe you should and need me in your life.
You are ahead of your time.
I wish you lots of happiness.
I have to live my own life with happiness, too.
Sent from my iPhone
In a February column titled, “Do Gays Unsettle You?” New York Times columnist Frank Bruni writes that he still shivers when he holds hands with his partner on the Upper West Side. He goes on:
A straight woman puts a photograph of herself and her beloved on her desk at work and it’s merely décor. A lesbian displays the same kind of picture and it’s an act of laudable candor or questionable boldness: a statement, either way you cut it. She knows that some people’s eyes will linger on it too long, or will turn from it abruptly. She has to decide not to care.
GLAAD found that thirty percent of people feel uncomfortable when they see a gay couple holding hands. Nelson quotes Sara Ahmen, “I have long known that the moment of queer pride is a refusal to be shamed by witnessing the other as being ashamed of you.”
For Thanksgiving, I told my parents that I wanted to bring my then-girlfriend to our house. At first, my mom said yes — she’d been hinting for weeks for me to bring “someone home.” Then my dad called and rescinded the invitation. “It’s too much,” he said. They wanted to meet her, they said, but just them, without my grandfather or family friends present. They asked how long we’d been together. My mom wrote, “Actually, the protocol usually is you bring the one you care deeply for and love home to meet your immediate family so we can all enjoy ourselves. Not bring them home to make a statement.”
The second read through of The Argonauts and I’m sobbing on and off. I can’t turn it on and off; it just happens on and then goes off. I think of all the time I spent reading before this, how it didn’t punch me in the throat — why wasn’t I feeling? Nelson writes: “Corollary habit: deriving the bulk of my self-worth from a feeling of hypercompetance, an irrational but fervent belief in my near total self-reliance.”
I don’t need my mother.
My recent search history betrays me, though:
Are You My Mother? Alison Bechdel
All About My Mother Pedro Almodóvar
I Killed My Mother Xavier Dolan
The Mother We Share Chvrches
I See My Mother Poliça
Ask My Mom! Maria Bamford
I’m in California, so yes, as I sob, the window is open. My cries take turns making the noise with a bone saw someone is operating across the street. Splitting something.
If you’re not sobbing, you’re not reading the right things.
A friend comes out in an official capacity with a group e-mail detailing the facts of her attraction to women and feeling-for-feeling how she arrived there. She writes, “For a splinter to be removed, the skin must soften around it. And I guess it took me till I was thirty to actually soften and sit with myself long enough to understand what was bringing me that pain.” I am so happy she is not in pain, or the same kind of pain. But I think what I’ve learned is there’s a plank lodged in us and it’s being alive.
Over a month after officially not speaking, my mom called me to say that she’s in therapy, a step I’ve encouraged her to take for years. She was supposed to wait ten sessions to tell me, but she does so just before session five. My mom tells me her therapist advised her to read a book, and she’s started Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project. My mom told me she hasn’t read a book since she was in high school, almost four decades ago.
My mom’s reading lapse. The fact that my adopted mothers are all book-bound. I’m suspicious when things fit so well into a narrative.
When I was a kid, my mom’s behavior was unpredictable, and my dad would sit me down on the bed to talk strategy. I was taught that I had to ignore her. “Her mind goes to the worst,” my dad said, “and she doesn’t have a filter.”
I think through Susan Sontag, writing honestly in her notebooks, in As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh: “I take words literally — as if they were written. Not as if they were being said by someone with a motive or a feeling about me behind them.” There was what my mother saw and said of me, and what I saw, and have finally learned to say about myself. Either way, the duality of our ideas was nightmarish. Either both were right, and I’d never know reality, or only one of us was and either me or my mother was extremely limited, to the point of delusion. These realities split and split and split.
Years later, my mother is screaming and crying on the green of my brother’s southern fraternity house. It is the day of his graduation. She wants to take a photo of us kids. We ignore her. My mom is a natural photographer — she wants proof she was there.
My younger brother makes a request about a word he doesn’t like: frat. He and his brothers insist that it is not frat, but fraternity. The full word, always. They don’t think the associations with the word frat apply to their community, don’t speak to its completeness. I text my brother and ask him why he corrects people, “It’s fraternity,” when they say “frat.”
I feel like the short term frat has a bad reputation to it. A fraternity is a lot more than just raging face and “paying for your friends.” It is a bond established through a semester of hardship that turns into a lifelong friendship. I don’t care if it sounds corny, it’s the truth.
It’s important that the words honor the truth as decided by the person they describe.
I ask my brother if I can quote him and he says, “Yeah just don’t make me sound like a fuckboy.”
Gary Lutz is a non-gendered mother of mine. With warmth, he once e-mailed me a full PDF of his book of short stories, I Looked Alive, because I asked, and it was temporarily out of print. His characters are fluid, they may explain what arms are, their body parts, their hair, but never what they are attracted to. Actually, they barely have names, and we rarely learn what they do for work. Of course, they’re not people, but words, and often Lutz invents new ones. One of my favorites is “allhood” — “I was all but incarcerated in my particularings, the unglazy allhood of me.” The self is not a porcelain dolphin that you glaze and stick in a kiln. Your life doesn’t ding for you when you’re done. Sure, you look alive. Do you feel alive? You look a certain way for others; you feel for yourself.
Becoming is taking what you want, not what’s allowed.
As Lutz writes in his story “This is Nice of You,” “One naturally fits whatever one has into whatever somebody else had first.”
Sometimes I think my mother asks for language instead of feeling because she needs it for a Facebook post. A photo of us, her “babies back in the nest!” that shows how happy we are. She feels her sacrifices earn her the right to likes, for approval, for validation. I guess by disappearing, by being far away, and not sitting her down like we are on an episode of Glee, saying who I am, I can keep myself for myself.
On the phone, I realize my mom is talking about whether her sisters know I’m queer. I do not want to talk about this, and I haven’t actually said a word, so I guess I’m not. “They must know from your Instagram,” she said.
Ready for a test? Believe me now when I say, “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me…”
My friend and I are hanging out in my temporary house in Los Angeles. She knows Dodge, and has met Nelson. When she hears I’m writing about The Argonauts,she starts to say how much they — Don’t! Tell! Me! Anything! I interrupt. I need to finish this essay first.
We start talking about pets. I’ve never had a dog. I really like the dogs I meet, but when I listen to people talk about them, I wonder if they just need someone to constantly be doing things for them to narrate, so they don’t have to feel alone, so they have something to say. I say, “I get the appeal of a dog’s unconditional love, but it’s cheap; they just love you.”
“What kind of love is expensive?” she asks.
The other week, at a talk titled We Were Never Queer at the Hammer Museum, Maggie Nelson had a conversation with queer theorist Jack Halberstam, most famously the author of Female Masculinity. I attended alone, and I admit: I struggled to get dressed to go to this talk. My jeans felt too tight, and a thought flickered in and out as I listened: I’m afraid the person behind me can see my butt.
During the talk, Nelson explained to an audience anticipating the book the flickers of identity, carrying, and building in The Argonauts, calling it “a performance of not knowing.”
Not knowing does not mean one is unsure. Not knowing is time you take to live. As Vivian Gornick writes in Fierce Attachments, it is “the intermittent but useful excitement that comes of believing I begin and end with myself.” But wanting to be true and whole within myself reveals what I really don’t know: what it’s like to be a parent.
Nelson said of writing The Argonauts that she had “no real mission except for the speaking of experience.” Perhaps that’s why when beginning to write about the book, all I could do to explain its meaning was log and speak the experience of thinking through it. The book is a valve: where you gush, you’re queer. We all have it: the shifting, bright not knowing.
Photo by Annie Frame