My new Jungian Catholic Worker First Wave Feminist therapist said that only 5% of the population are intellectuals. It seemed like a dubious statistic. It was, I think, meant to compliment me, to infer that I was one of the 5%. I do not consider myself an intellectual but I feel secretly good about being labeled as such. At the end of my session she told me I could use the number on the back of her card whenever I wanted. "I'm an old lady who lives alone in the South Loop,” she said. "There isn't anyone to disturb."
It’s my first winter in Chicago and the worst one on recent record. It has become imperative to cover your body. I walk around shivering. Last night my husband put two more blankets on my side of the bed. I didn't think they would change much but I was wrong. "In the morning when you woke up," my husband told me, "you were grinning.” When he told me this I was still in the bed, and still grinning.
My last therapist was a Chinese national whose husband, an academic, was also a runner. When they moved from Beijing to Berkeley, his mile time had improved considerably, because of the improvement in air quality. “Artists, they feel more deeply," she told me. "There is more pain. That is why you are compelled to make art." I felt like this couldn’t be true, that other people didn’t feel so differently—it seemed odiously chauvinist—but also took it in as a possible explanation for my clinical moodiness. She told me to read Man's Search for Meaning, a holocaust memoir by a psychoanalyst. I got most of the way through, but reading it didn’t feel much different than when I had gone to Sunday school, where we had been told over and over never to forget lest the past repeat itself.
Back in the fall when we were looking for an apartment, we employed the services of a real estate agent who had just finished reading a literary crossover novel which I had also enjoyed very much. We talked about that and old movies, and looked at a string of depressing apartments with leaky windows and confetti of mouse shit scattered across floors. "Usually I do sales," she apologized. I didn't mind. I liked talking to her. "My daughter’s a bruiser," she said. I thought maybe she was saying this to me because I was also a bruiser. "I've never had to worry about my weight," she explained. "She sees me drinking a large coke from McDonald’s and doesn't understand why she can't too." I didn't know what to tell her but I wished I did. So this morning I sent her a link to a feminist blog about health and body image. She is helping my poet friends find a condo.
When I was in high school my first therapist reminded me too much of my mother so I mostly lied to her. She operated out of the basement of her suburban house and had a waiting room where NPR was always playing. One night, having arrived early, I sat in the waiting room and listened to a rebroadcast of a Fresh Air interview with Hugh Hefner. That night I told myself I was going to talk to her about how much I hated the way I looked, but instead, I told her I hadn’t realized that Playboy had such a tradition of publishing quality short stories. “That was before you were born,” she laughed, and tucked up her feet. She was a nice lady but what does anyone do with a seventeen-year-old girl.
Later after I sent the email I was worried the real estate agent would be offended. That she had forgotten our conversation even though I referenced it in the email, and that I was calling her daughter fat, just by sending her the reference.
In college I ate blue cheese dressing on my salad and when I looked up the calories I started to cry. My best friend Alex said that if salad dressing could make me cry I should probably try counseling. I called Student Health Services and made an appointment with Connie. The next day in her office she told me she probably couldn't see me because I was so close with Alex. Her expression reminded me of Julia Child cheerily picking up the roast from the floor where it had fallen. The second counselor I saw at Health Services was finishing his Masters, was young and gay and chummy. Because of this I mostly talked to him about the various young men in whom I was interested, which at least gave Alex a much-needed break.
Whenever I tell my mom I'm in counseling again, inevitably my father calls me up an hour or two later "just to say hi.” It makes me feel loved, though when I was younger it annoyed me and made me not want to share. Now I take it as a sign that they are still collaborating actively in my parenting. I, who am old enough to have a child though do not, am still being parented. I imagine my parents talking about me in their kitchen, in the house where I grew up, my mother filling her coffee mug all the way to the top with skim milk.
I am on this new kick where most of the time I only eat protein and legumes and vegetables. It is based on a popular health book with dubious science backing it. On one day a week, I eat whatever I want. On that day I feel not guilty about food at all, no matter what I eat, and this is a new feeling. On the other days I imagine I can feel the lentils I had for lunch fueling me in such a way that even the strangely heighted steps up from the west entrance of the Division El stop feel like nothing. I listen to Le Tigre and Peaches and old Iggy Pop, and feel powerful walking to the gym, instead of exhausted. This kick feels less disordered than counting calories, less obsessive. Also I am understanding food as fuel in a new way. There is eating for fuel, and eating for pleasure; just as there is walking for transportation and walking for pleasure and walking for psychogeographical investigation, as with the Situationists. This distinction feels like a breakthrough, but also, duh. Saturdays are when I eat for pleasure. I admit there is some overlap, but it is negligible. I feel very "first world.” I wonder if there is a way to eat for intellectual investigation — not criticism, but more like something Diane Ackerman would write.
Today at the gym there is a woman who looks thin enough to be anorexic; her knees are wider than her thighs. I wish that I didn’t notice other women’s bodies but I do. Even though she is on a treadmill directly in front of me I try to avoid looking at her, because it makes me anxious to do so. I cannot just look past her. This is my issue, I recognize. I almost hope that she is instead recovering from a major illness. Not that eating disorders aren’t major. But you know what I mean.
At the grocery store where I worked after college, I had a co-worker who I at first assumed was anorexic but later it turned out that she was recovering from cancer. She was very careful about what she put in her body, and wore overalls often, because all of her pants were too big. I still remember her, even though it was ten years ago, because of how skinny she was, and because of how I felt about it, and how I did not want to feel that way.
I tell a new friend that we should do drinks, and not dinner, because I’m doing “a food thing that’s too annoying to inflict on anyone else.” She says “Ha.” For me drinking is always fair game, because I have no issue with it. Some do but I do not, and so I allow myself the pleasure of bourbon or wine in genial moderation. I should not assume that you are judging me, although I would if I were you, even as I knew it was wrong to do so.
Once, during October break my first year away at college, I spent an hour or two in my childhood bedroom cross-dressing and even put a ball of socks in my underwear. Then I tried to look butch in the mirror, to middling affect. I should say I went to very liberal college that had an annual drag ball and also a number of students who did not subscribe to gender or sexual binaries. I had always been pretty straight and femme, but I guess I was curious, wondering whether or not I would make a “handsome man.” Later that school year at the drag ball, Alex (with whom I was not yet close) told me that in drag, I looked like one of our mutual guy friends, one who I did not think was cute or a particularly “handsome man.” I remember at eighteen being very insulted by this, whether or not it seemed logical or not to feel that way. Incidentally, Alex turned out later to be one of the very good friends of my life, one who eventually came out as gay, and who for a long time wanted me to wear maroon dresses because for whatever reason that was his personal favorite.
The part of that story which I have always left out is that both I and the young man to whom I was compared were both “larger” people, and that this was the part that hurt me the most. Though Alex couldn’t attend our wedding party last summer, our mutual friend to whom I had once been compared did. At the party in my parents’ backyard I saw that he was attractive and charming, and thought that he had probably always been this way, and I felt sorry to him, for thinking otherwise, even if he was entirely ignorant that any of it had ever gone on.
During my first meeting with my Jungian Catholic Worker First Wave Feminist therapist, we talked about the concept of expectations. She said that young adulthood is for forgiving your parents, and that young adulthood lasts until around 40. "I feel I have already forgiven my parents," I said. "I feel I need to work harder on forgiving myself."
This is not an essay about body image or counseling, despite evidence to the contrary. It is merely a personally vulnerable discourse on the idea of issues. When people say that everyone is broken—the way people say it, with angst, when they’re drunk, at the end of the night, smoking a cigarette on someone else’s porch—I think maybe this is mostly what they mean. There is a porousness in the line between how we feel about ourselves and how we feel about other people. I think maybe there is something to be said for encouraging this porousness, or at least acknowledging it. I think maybe there is something I can gain from thinking about this. I think maybe I can have a better world or life or mortal coil this way. With compassion, with kindness and less obscurity.
In the gym locker room I watch the very thin young woman put on two pairs of thick tights and then a third, and her legs look less scary to me and then I think, who fucking cares if that scares me, what business is it of mine? We are the only ones in the locker room. The whole time I am watching I am also disgorging my locker of my things, sitting on a stool rolling on my leg warmers, with the locker door open so I can kind of sneakily peer past the door over at her body to see how she, with so little body fat to keep her warm, is going to deal with the blizzard currently happening outside. Then I force myself to stop, and put on the other leg warmer. She says something to me. “I’m sorry?” I say. “Those are cute leg warmers,” she says. She says it like saying it is no big deal.