The last line of Kim Addonizio’s “To the Woman Crying Uncontrollably in the Next Stall” has been ringing in my head for the last few hours or so, and it’s got me to thinking about art that is probably or maybe definitely not intended for me, but which nevertheless lives in me. You may know the poem already but if not, here it is:
If you ever woke in your dress at 4am ever
closed your legs to someone you loved opened
them for someone you didn’t moved against
a pillow in the dark stood miserably on a beach
seaweed clinging to your ankles paid
good money for a bad haircut backed away
from a mirror that wanted to kill you bled
into the back seat for lack of a tampon
if you swam across a river under rain sang
using a dildo for a microphone stayed up
to watch the moon eat the sun entire
ripped out the stitches in your heart
because why not if you think nothing &
no one can / listen I love you joy is coming
When Addonizio’s speaker says “listen I love you joy is coming,” she is very specifically not talking to me. She’s talking to the woman in the stall next to her. It’s that specificity, given in the title, that I think gives the poem an extra something. And yet I have never been able to read that poem without feeling like it is, indeed, speaking directly to me and saying something that I desperately needed to hear.
I don’t think there is anything wrong with connecting with art that was not intended for someone like you, art that is trying to speak to someone else. I think that this is one of art’s great strengths: its power to connect across differences in experience. Of course, any connection that art creates—or, indeed, any connection between any two people—is necessarily a connection across difference, because no two of us are ever exactly alike. (As an aside, this reminds me of the answer Rachel Zucker gave during our panel on interviewing, when I asked about interviewing across difference, and she said that the more problematic thing in her experience is when she assumes similarity.) I’m thinking, too, of how much it has meant to me when people unlike me have connected with my own work. When, for example, child-free people have connected with my family images, it has been among the most profound audience interactions I’ve ever had.
Still, I think it is always important to avoid erasing this difference. Not only because differences are what make us unique as individuals, but of course because different groups face very different challenges and pressures. There is a special power to the experience of two people who share a community, a lived experience, being able to speak one to another directly, without interference or intrusion. It’s a different kind of connection, perhaps not necessarily “better” but special in a way that can't be reproduced in any other way.
There is a way in which I am sometimes so desperate to feel a connection, a sense of belonging, that my impulse is to claim—or at least desire to claim—a space that isn’t mine. The impulse itself isn’t wrong, but if unexamined it can motivate behavior that is unwelcome or harmful. My task as a reader, then, is to allow myself to love a thing—when it is a thing not intended for me—with my whole heart, to acknowledge and honor my feelings as real and valid and meaningful in my own context, but also accept that there remains a separation. To acknowledge and understand that this thing will never and can never mean to me what it means to the person it was intended for. The separation doesn’t make my experience less valid or less important to me, but it’s important to keep in mind the “to me” part.
And anyways, isn’t this what love ought to be? A powerful feeling of connection and meaning and admiration and perhaps affirmation, without possession or erasure or coercion or appropriation? A way of making not one thing out of two, but of allowing each to exist in itself, beautiful and wonderful unto itself, complemented and increased by its relation to the other.
I’m thinking about conversations I’ve had or heard or read with people like Matthew Salesses or Natalie Diaz, who have talked about the limits and the trap of empathy, of needing to identify with someone in order to love them. How empathy is (or maybe can be?) a form of possession. I’m not quite there yet, perhaps. There’s still something in me that struggles against rejecting empathy entirely—and, of course, that probably isn’t exactly what either of them have suggested, I don’t really know.
But I feel like I’m getting closer to understanding something about the seeming paradox of human existence being both wholly separate and different from everyone else, and being deeply and materially connected to all other beings. How love is both and maybe neither.
Again, I’m not there yet. But I think I get a little closer the older I get and the more I think about it.
It's not always a lot, but somehow it's always enough.
Here are a few things that mattered to me recently:
- The Movies With Mikey episode “Nihilism & Howl’s Moving Castle” talks about how the characters in the movie react to being swept up in situations beyond their control. I first watched it back in April, and if anything it means even more now.
- By coincidence Ada Limón’s poem “The Hurting Kind” just a couple of weeks before my own grandmother died. In it, her speaker says, “I am the hurting kind. I keep searching for proof.” I think I am, too.
- Jonny Teklit’s poem “On Some Saturday, After All This” is cathartically joyful. Perhaps that might be something you could use right now.
- Megan Pillow’s flash nonfiction piece “Instructions for Fucking Your Postpartum Wife” has this ache to it, this weariness and resentment and desire, desire for freedom, for newness, for intimacy, for rest. I loved so much about this piece, how it moved through different emotions and tones, how at times it feels like a flying-apart and at times like a coming-together.
- I don’t know if I’m reading W. S. Merwin’s poem “Thanks” right, but it feels to me that it embodies both the futility of gratitude and the sincere power of gratitude. It seems both frantic and ecstatic, both grieving and joyful. And isn’t that just where so many of us are right now? I am, at least.
- Last month on the New Yorker Fiction podcast, Ann Patchett read Maile Meloy’s story “The Proxy Marriage.” I can’t remember the last time I read a literary story about love that was well-crafted and profound and not a downer or fundamentally misanthropic, which is probably why I loved this story so much.
- I’ve been feeling a fair amount of burnout and despair lately, for obvious reasons. Adrienne Maree Brown’s “The Darwin Variant, and/or Love of the Fittest” looks right at the despair and grief, acknowledging the feeling of futility so many of us are feeling in the face of catastrophe. The way Brown turns toward love, reframes activism in terms of love, reframes movement in terms of connection, strives to find the possible in an out-of-control situation—well, it’s what I needed.
As always, this is just a portion of what has mattered to me recently. I’m grateful to you for being here with me. I hope that what you need today will find its way to you.
Thank you, and take care.