“I wonder what it’s like to take the shape of the space you’re in?” -Tom Kane, “Boss”
That scene, pictured above, from the defunct Starz drama, “Boss”, caught me. It’s part of the episode, “Ablution” in the second season. Mayor Tom Kane (Kelsey Grammer) in the middle of a conversation with his chief of staff Mona Fredericks (Sanaa Lathan) drifts off, fascinated by a glass of water. He becomes transfixed by the fluidity of the glittering liquid, holding up the glass in such a way that the overhead light gives the water the appearance of various colors.
It grabbed my attention because of how, in the wake of my sister’s death, I’ve had to become like that water. Adaptive, flexible- fluid. If I had hardened, Lord knows I would’ve cracked by now.
That’s not to say there haven’t been moments.
This morning I went to the 8AM service with Z and K, and for some reason, I just felt off. Not CIDP-off, just… off. Like a great part of this country, Jersey has been in freeze this weekend, and heading out early meant getting walloped with temps hovering around freezing. The 1800’s era Anglican church we attended was so cold, everyone except the pastor, the altar servers, and the reader, left on their coats. Usually, sunshine beams through the stainglass windows in the sanctuary, but today it was (and is) so cloudy, we got nothing but a chill.
After the benediction, I headed up to light a candle in memory of Jos, and as I walked towards the votives, I heard “His Eye Is On the Sparrow”. It was playing over the sound system, one of those “Go and serve the Lord” and get on out-cues for the Faithful to kindly leave. Just as Lauryn Hill began to sing out, I burst into tears. It wasn’t just any old version, but the “Sister Act 2” one that Joscelyne loved. I mean, LOVED. Like rewind the old VHS and play ad nauseum, LOOOVE. I broke into a full-on, ugly cry. No one noticed. They had heeded the cue and were headed towards the back, greeting the pastor.
At that moment, I was not feeling fluid, free-moving or aqueous. You could’ve called me Elsa, because I was frozen, and far from letting anything but a mass of tears, go.
Jos in 2010.
Thursday will mark two years since Joscelyne’s death. I’ve already started getting the”How are you?” texts and messages from friends. She’s been on my mind more, too, as November has flown by. I’ve wanted to talk to her about her son Justin having a “girlfriend” (at 12, that word demands quotes), about Daddy’s slow and ongoing recuperation from the stroke, and even about Kim Kardashian’s attempt to break the interwebz. And I’d definitely want to talk to her about this article in The Hairpin by Vanessa Willoughby called “Black Girls Don’t Read Sylvia Plath”. Some excerpts:
It was another muggy summer, the summer I discovered Plath. If I had discovered her legacy later in life, it may have served as a calming revelation, the meat of hindsight. Wonderment not as thorny and beloved. I discovered Plath through the typical girlhood grapevine: a slumber party. A friend who looked like Stevie Nicks circa Rumors but had suited up in detail-heavy riot girrl gear mentioned Sylvia Plath. She had just finished The Bell Jar. She wanted to know if I had read it. She casually said, like a cowboy flicking a cigarette stub to the side, I think you’d like it.
Old journals act as sacred evidence; thumbing through the pages also feels like handling the soiled souvenirs of a serial killer. The scraps of someone I unchained myself from and pushed to the bottom of the ocean. I held my breath and stayed under, just to make sure that this version of me had fallen far enough. I wanted to make sure that she was unable to escape the gaping mouth of the abyss.
I chronicled the seventh grade in a slime green composition notebook. There are some moments of carefree, giggling girl silliness, like entire paragraphs dedicated to the way a certain crush looked on that Tuesday afternoon in the cafeteria, the way he looked right through me, or musings on what it would be like to date a member of a boy band. At twelve and thirteen, I think of these moments like little fish dying beneath an oil spill. Many of the pages are odes to rage. To pain. To loneliness. To a certain kind of internalized hatred molded by universal barbed insecurities, then sharpened to fangs. New England hospitality, at best, is a polite form of nosiness, a thinly veiled fear of the unknown.
In the seventh grade, I admitted to myself that I wanted to die. It wouldn’t be enough to disappear; I wanted slit wrists or handfuls of sleeping pills, I wanted death to stop for me. Each journal entry is threaded to the inevitable. The wish to die wasn’t triggered by an isolated event, just in the way that a riot is not really the spontaneous combustion of repressed emotions. It has to build, to brew until the only solution is release. I could dream of leaving behind state lines, but freedom couldn’t happen soon enough. The bleak persistence of the present began to eat its way into my brain and my body. I tried not to look into mirrors but sometimes I needed to look into a mirror to prove that I was still hideous. The self-disgust bloomed from mistaking Hollywood escapism for the golden rulebook, a template of what life was supposed to be. I had drunk up the magic of women’s magazines and makeup and glamor, then was disappointed that I didn’t sprout upward and outward like Alice.
The self-disgust also bloomed from the limitations of my environment. The passing years encouraged my poisoned way of thinking, the psychological ramifications of believing that you are as ugly and repulsive as a chorus of white faces wants you to believe. The same faces that later buy tubes of sticky gloss cleverly named Lip Venom in order to temporarily plump up their pouts. The same faces that gaze with drooling desire at the first gravity-defying ass that does not belong to the body of a black woman.
Why Plath? People are surprised or disappointed or embarrassed when I automatically cite her as one of my writing influences, one of my life influences. I think it’s because of the stigma of suicide and ingrained bias. She’s a polarizing figure, serving as a feminist icon or a creative failure, depending on the person wearing the judges’ robes. Why Plath? Maybe they think that a young black woman wouldn’t hold much regard for a white woman author who died decades before she was born. What do the black woman in your life have to say about you liking Plath? Maybe they assume that my mother is black and I was surrounded by a group of female elders who taught me This Is What Black People Do and This Is Not What Black People Do.
Why Plath? Why not? She exposed the dirty truth about depression: sometimes it never got better. Sometimes you could be brilliant and have the world open up its mouth to reveal a pearl and you still crumbled.
Do read the piece in its entirety here. I first read “The Bell Jar” as a senior in college, and after finishing it in a little over a day, I passed it to Jos. She studied it like she had suddenly enrolled in a Women’s Lit class and was facing a three hour-final. She sobbed. She understood the protagonist, Esther. Perhaps too well. She worried that I may suffer a breakdown like Esther; afterall, I was also interning at a major magazine in NYC and feeling overwhelmed and under appreciated. I assured her I would not, and I didn’t.
Jos did. Despite having multiple degrees, a husband and two beautiful kids, she crumbled. Sometimes you don’t have to cast a pearl before swine to get trampled.
The obituary from The Star-Ledger, November 27, 2012.
Bell jars are not just used in labs. A quick Google search pulls up many made to sit pretty in your home and garden. Keep out bugs or dirt or dust. The originals, though, for labs, were used to suck air out, to create a vacuum. Once air is sucked out, you can place a ringing alarm in one and not a ding will be audible. The scream is silenced.
Bell jars… trap.
Back to Kane’s fascinating glass, full of water, reflecting the light. May I remain like that water, able to adapt to whatever space, or in my case, circumstance. Perhaps at times frozen, with some cracks, or a bit steamed from pressure, but here, nevertheless.
I’ll raise a glass to that.