I’m sorry for all the things I taught you
when I was still learning to be myself.
I’m sorry for all you learned inside me,
the monologues I baptized your splitting cells with
on long walks home from the train
after working on my feet all day
or on the way to the laundromat,
pushing the cart over packed snow—
at the sink, on my knees, at the stove,
hanging the rags to dry; and finally, in dreams—
once I felt I’d earned the right to sleep.
I’m sorry for the way I said it was,
the things I said we do for love.
I said it like a prayer, while getting him tea
in the hours I didn’t need to be awake in.
This is how we love.
I’m sorry for the lessons of obedience and survival
my body taught yours as it grew.
I’m sorry for all the “yes” echoing in your ear-seeds
when I meant “no.”
I’m sorry for the times I gave in gracefully,
following his own advice
about earning his cooperation
I’m sorry for the little sacrifices and concessions
I made to the Man, who was more altar
than man to me; a monolith of bone and muscle,
a taut ribcage: prison bars around a heart
I often lost the key to.
I collected flowers, small stones
and bits of fabric for him as I walked the city each day,
carrying this growing weight of him in me
that was you. I loved how he towered over me,
and the shade he threw—I took it like a woman.
You learn to take bitter fruits, I told you,
and harvest them. Make do. Stew them with sugar,
soften them into jam; candy the yams, put it by
for the winter—he’s had a bad day, this is just his way
sometimes. Feed it to him on toast, with tea of course—
he may have a tough rind, but he’s soft on the inside
if you take the time to learn how he unpeels.
He’ll appreciate your skills.
Girl, you gotta love your man—
take him by the hand, make him understand.
Write purports to the problematic scriptures
of his fixed ideas. Make him your gospel.
Do the labor; go into labor, push out the pain
through the keyhole where the light gets in.
Take it all lying down.
Like a woman.
This is a man’s world,
but it ain’t nothing without a woman or a girl.
The things I won’t tell you he said:
words like heavy jackfruits falling on me,
their spikes impaling me—words
he believed, rumors from family and enemies:
“worthless,” “loser,” “lazy,” “you’re getting fat,”
“why would you wear that?”
but now and then, he praised me—
“you’re not like those other women,
tu es serièuse.” I make tea just like real women,
like his mother in Côte D’Ivoire, who got up every day at 4am
and prayed before the family awakened,
cooked, swept bending over, fired up the kettle—
walked her pregnant self outside with heavy pots,
selling food to strangers until her waters broke
and the Man was born: three months alone in an incubator
while she walked the streets, sold more food to strangers,
came home, cleaned, prayed again.
“She never complained.”
This is how it is.
This is how you love, I told you.
This is the epitaph of a good woman:
“She never complained. She was made of service; she loved with fierceness.
She climbed Alpine regions of devotion where only lichens grow
and she gathered pitch by the streams, tamed golden eagles;
she found flowers growing on a secret precipice.
She stretched the borders of the country of love
until it broke through to the stars.”
I want to be like her—like the woman he measures me against
every day: these matriarchs with their billowing sleeves,
impeccable virtue and secret wings,
who learn to contain their pain—wring it out with the laundry,
braid it into their daughters’ hair
and sometimes, cry alone at night.
This is how my mother loved, back home—
containing all the bitter word-fruit until that once, she spilled over—
shocking me into silence
because I didn’t think mothers could cry.
I can’t escape this:
my mother taught me well too; same old game of telephone
women pass on, an intricate shame-heirloom—
social scripts in sampler-stitch to place upon the mantel,
a daily reminder to gracefully self-immolate.
I tried, as a renunciate—
attempting monastic life like it was something new;
like I could just string my tears like beads and chant my pain
without examining what it was even for—
what trauma was hiding under the sound-snow of mantras
I chanted, trying to drown my shame
in Holy Names—
trying to conjure some minute imitation in me
of this love of Devis, Devi-Dasis, perfect wives
who served and served—
throwing themselves into fires; cooking a thousand offerings.
The lesson was untimely—
I hadn’t untangled my own strands.
The cord wrapped around my neck, and
I carried my beads home with me: my mother’s strung-out tears,
to The Man—to this hollow tree;
brought my offerings at his feet.
“This is what we do,” I told you the night I learned you existed—
walking home in the snow, wrangling with laundry over ice floes.
“This is how we love.”
The solidarity of mothers, daughters and sisters
working together to fill the altar,
trying to find the right offerings
to elicit his favor; circumvent chaos.
Wiping it clean of tears
before he awakens and notices the mess.
It’s a daily practice.
I wanted you to be prepared.
Even now, I don’t want this
apostasy, this dismantling of religion
that made you, and unmade me.
I left the offerings at his doorstep, and waited
to be invited to enter. I slept by his feet,
asked permission to be loved.
Sometimes the flowers wilted and died
and he swept them away with the pebbles—reminding me
to keep nature outside, and not to buy things
from second-hand stores; we’re not poor.
The flowers stopped blooming. You were born.
I know you’ve been watching everything.
I started dying. I didn’t mean it to be like this.
I left the fallen fruit to rot with the milk
that ran from me into you. You grew stronger,
and you laughed, and your laugh made me remember
what laughter was again. Sometimes.
We gathered pebbles together; picked flowers.
Sometimes I just stood on the porch
watching planes taxiing,
runway lights flickering on the horizon—
and I thought about cages, and flying.
Maybe there was another key somewhere
that would unlock his compassion,
make it a predictable thing.
He began noticing my conversion
to the religion of loving you.
His words turned to razor blades
and chased me out of the house. I covered your head
with a sheet in the sling
because you were crying and it was too hot outside for you
and I whispered in your ear as we went for a walk:
“This is how we love;
just let him cool off. He doesn’t mean it.”
The falling fruits turned into swear grenades:
staring me down, chasing me down the hall—
backing me into the fridge that slammed against the wall.
There’s no use remembering all that today;
the lessons are done; it’s beneath my dignity
to wander through junkyards of broken parts.
In the end, there was only me—
no causeless mercy I didn’t offer myself.
But there’s you, now,
and you’re almost grown—and
I’m still untangling things I taught you
that were all wrong, that I no longer mean.
I’m so sorry.
So many things I taught you that I take back now.
Don’t do as I did—try as I’m trying.
Find your own way.
Write your own sampler stitch,
invent your own scripture.
Love yourself: and if you want, someday,
find a love that loves you back—
a love that treasures your offerings, and gives you shelter
and soft fruits.
Find a love that takes the pebbles you gather
and polishes them, paves a mosaic path to your door.
This is how we love ourselves.
This is how we are loved.
© Psyche Marks 2018