Report from hagdom

I’ve been sending missives from menopause and perimenopause over the last few years, and sometimes they feel like dead letters. Well, almost all poems land softly–but the so-called change of life feels so BIG to me that it feels like there ought to be a much larger body of literature about it. So I was really happy when “Oxidation Story” was accepted by Kenyon Review Online this fall, and even happier to receive lots of positive responses when they published it yesterday. I’d worked on this one for years. Maybe I got the words right, or the subject matter called to people, or the prestige of the venue attracted attention? In any case, it made me feel seen for a shining moment, for the writer in me.

That’s one of the weird side effects of crossing over to this side of 50: you’re catcalled, harassed, and menaced for most of your life, then you become invisible. I prefer invisibility on the whole, but it would be even better to become, say, “distinguished.” Most TV shows and movies provide illustrations of how impossible that seems to be. As my spouse and I burn through all the shows streaming services have to offer, we just tried “The Undoing,” which pairs Hugh Grant and Nicole Kidman as high-powered professionals in unholy matrimony. Kidman is ultra-fit and facelifted and bewigged into a simulacrum of Pre-Raphaelite maidenhood; Grant is carrying more pounds than in his lean thirties, hair grayed and face a little jowly, but he remains very much the leading man. It’s not that I’d put Grant on a diet; I’d rather see Kidman, or any older woman, allowed to wrinkle and accumulate a spare tire and still play a complicated, vital main character. The disparity gets old. (As does the effort to discern facial expressions in an actor post-botox.)

Even in the underresourced world of literary publishing, most successful women-identified authors are glamorously slim and able-bodied. I sometimes wonder if the best thing I could do for my career would be to go paleo and get my eyebrows done, but I’d rather jump my game-token right to witchy croneland.

A big thank you to the new editorial team at KR for giving a hag some bandwidth. I’m also wildly grateful to Julie Marie Wade for this review of The State She’s In in The Rumpus–what a gift! I love that she analyzes poems about gender and middle-aged bodies (such as a gory rondeau, “Perimenopause”), as well as the politics and the violent histories the book puts front and center. I continue to think all those subjects are deeply connected, often in ways that most people just don’t want to look at.

Some of my new-ish work is, like “Oxidation Story,” about the processes of anger and gendered physical transformation–material that I certainly have a strong personal claim to! I’m also writing much more explicitly about depression, anxiety, diagnosis, and medication, also aspects of embodiment that make people uneasy. It’s been interesting to watch more and more writers claim neurodivergence as an identity and think about whether I should. I feel a strong connection to conversations about neurodivergence, disability, and queerness, and while I’m emerging out of the old fears of making that plain, I’m also hesitant to claim difference that has been way more costly to others than it has been to me. I just received a request from the editors of an anthology of queer ecopoetry to include one of my poems, “Absentation,” and I said yes gratefully but also uncertainly (I didn’t answer a call for work–they just found me somehow). As I reread the poem, it does seem nonbinary, holding multiple identity possibilities in its mind. Is that good enough? Is what the work does the most important thing?

In any case, most of my poetry that directly addresses psychiatric diagnosis hasn’t been picked up by magazines, for whatever reason. Maybe I haven’t got the words right. Yet.

Why You Should Be Reading About Menopause

You know how obsessions grow on you and into you, like fungal hyphae bursting through carpenter ants’ heads and disseminating spore? I’m currently fixated on fungi, but a few years ago I developed a more explicable obsession with perimenopause and its sequel. Like puberty, this process has major effects on mind and body. I know post-menopausal people who say it wasn’t a big event, but it was huge for me, and I had a hard time finding information about it, much less encouragement. My novel, Unbecoming, imagines the so-called change of life as a positive time: the main character develops weird powers. I wrote the book I needed to read, and meanwhile developed the magic power of novel-writing. It was mainly as I neared a final draft that I started finding other literature about menopause, beyond crappy self-help books. I list some below and would love to hear of others.

I wish I’d known earlier what Darcey Steinke reports, that many women experience something like auras before hot flashes, occasionally accompanied by a sense of doom. I used to wake with a jolt in the middle of the night, have no idea why, then feel the heat rumble up. Instead of soaking through my clothes, I got to throw off the covers preemptively. During the day, this early-warning system gives me time to yell at anyone trying to cuddle, “GET AWAY FROM ME RIGHT NOW!”

What Beth Kanter says in her McSweeney’s bingo card about hoarding super-plus tampons: again, I wish I’d known. I attended an AWP Conference without a sufficient supply and ended up bleeding through everything, everywhere, way more gruesomely than the archetypal middle-schooler surprised in white pants. (Fortunately, muscle atrophy and metabolic slowdown, by which I mean weight gain, result in an all-black wardrobe). I bled for 7 weeks, went to the doctor, discovered I was seriously anemic, and was rushed in for an emergency ablation–basically having my uterine lining fire-blasted. Afterwards, my enthusiastic gynecologist gave me before-and-after pictures of my uterus and encouraged me to put them on Facebook.

Most scary for me was the mental health upheaval. Midlife crisis is a cliche, as is empty-nest syndrome; hormones aside, a lot of 50ish people have trouble adjusting their ambitions and mustering optimism about the next phase. For a few, according to the medical literature I eventually found, these recalibrations coincide with brain-chemistry apocalypse. I’ve always been prone to depression and anxiety, but in spring 2019–when I was 51–therapies that had kept me sane for years stopped working. I was as messed-up as I’ve ever been, not suicidal but not wanting to live, increasingly sure this shift was permanent. I tend to maintain an appearance of control, so most people I confided in didn’t seem to believe me (or maybe didn’t know how to talk about it, which is common with illness and grief). I finally hit a new equilibrium in winter 2020–very lucky, considering what was ahead. I’m okay now, except for the standard 2020 stew of sadness and frustration.

Of course, mental health crisis doesn’t happen to most menopausal people, but women should know in advance that changes are coming, and as Mary Ruefle says, hot flashes are the least of it. In the essay I link to below, Ruefle also writes, “This was not depression, this was menopause,” somehow making it droll that she wanted to kill herself with a steam-iron. While I admire Ruefle’s writing enormously, I don’t find that joke helpful. When Sarah Manguso writes about rage, likewise, I’m skeptical of it as a symptom, except of women’s rational midlife appraisals of the world.

Here’s my pitch: menopause is relevant to everyone, whether or not it’s on your list of past or future rings of fire. More poets, journalists, novelists, and scientists need to write about it, storming past the editors who think it’s icky. We read about lots of crises we may not personally experience, right? Learning about others helps us be kind and wise. Further, like adolescent coming of age stories, menopause is full of dark passages but it’s also wild, weird, and often really funny (as Moira Egan makes clear). Menopause has been social kryptonite, but it should be literary gold.

Poems and a bingo card (thesis: ALL poems are hot flashes):

Prose nonfiction (literary, scholarly, journalistic):

Fiction (not just about midlife generally, but about menopause–there must be others)

  • Catherine Lundoff, Silver Moon
  • Doris Lessing, The Summer Before the Dark 
  • Samantha Bryant, Menopausal Superheroes (3 book series!)

Bonus: my rondeau from The State She’s In, written more or less synchronously with Unbecoming and originally published in Cherry Tree. Extra bonus: I can’t find those pictures of my uterus to include in this post, so count yourself lucky.



Perimenopause
  
Unstoppered. Uncorked. The spilt mess
of the body’s plan puddles in the john,
useless now. Recurrence gone wrong.
Broken verses and a bloody chorus.
 
Who could have predicted red excess,
unspeakable clots of denouement?
My mouths are unjammed, endless mess
of me congealing at the bottom of the john.
 
Ready now to lose the losing: night sweats,
palpitations, insomnia, floods of gore, done.
Dried up, a long fluent speech in crimson.
Dissolved and flushed. Yet the song carries
on, uncorkable pour of me, shameless.

 

Change of (literary) life

upsidedown

It’s fall, 2015. I’m on sabbatical. My mother is direly ill with what turns out to be lymphoma. I’m mourning my daughter’s departure for college and worrying about her experience there; my son, new to high school, faints in a clinic and is diagnosed with pneumonia. My own body is going haywire, perimenopausally. Amid doctor visits, road trips, and existential crises, I can’t concentrate on anything.

I have, however, been batting around an idea. I spent my girlhood writing stories and have always been an avid novel reader–literary fiction but also fantasy, science fiction, mysteries, horror, and a lot of the slippery genre-crossing stuff. Could I write a novel myself? A short one, maybe, drawing on worlds I know well to ease the learning curve? Could I do it–what the hell–right now?

I’d been inventing character backstories and had a couple of narrative threads in mind. Aside from artistic curiosity about the practice of novel-writing, though, the motivating impulse was to rewrite transitions like my own–which seemed at the time wholly about loss–so that they became empowering. In so many tales, magic or superpowers hit at puberty, and the physical changes I was undergoing were basically puberty in reverse. So wouldn’t menopause ALSO be a logical time for a person’s power to change? Why should teenage characters get all the joy?

So I wrote round the clock from November 2015 to January 2016, joyously, shocked at how fun and absorbing the work was, until I had a full draft. It was pretty terrible, but luckily for me, I’m married to an excellent teacher of fiction-writing. I rewrote it a few times and started sharing the ms with other friends. Many gave tough criticism in an encouraging way, bless them forever. Putting the ms under revision after revision, I killed some of my darlings and maimed a few, too. I deleted characters, complicated others, overhauled plot twists, faced a number of things I hadn’t wanted to admit about myself, and cut summary and adverbs and pretty descriptions and clever metaphors (I am a poet…). I queried agents; a bunch asked to see the whole ms but then passed, because I’d been deluded about its readiness. I revised some more.

Somewhere in there I queried Aqueduct Press, whose editors had been good to me during the publication of my speculative poetry collection, The Receptionist and Other Tales (all my poetry books feature ghosts and other flavors of uncanniness, but only The Receptionist is speculative through and through). The verse novella at the heart of it was named to the James Tiptree, Jr. Award Honor List, something I never would have thought I could even be in the running for.

Revise and resubmit was Aqueduct’s verdict, with some challenging, even deflating advice that I quickly recognized the utter justice of. More brainstorming, more character and plot overhauls, and a lot of the smaller screw-tightening fine-tooth-combing stuff. And then, a couple of weeks ago, with yet more notes about revision because that’s the writing life, came the offer of a contract.

So apparently, one of the magical transformations of midlife is that a poet can become a novelist. I have moments of elation about that, and moments of alarm. My turn to novels is a way bigger change than anything that’s happened in my writing life since I won a prize for Heterotopia ten years ago. It’s NOT a turn away from poetry, which is still very much at the center of my daily life, but it will be a turn away from traditional scholarship, I think. My novel, Unbecoming, and my next poetry collection, whose title I’m still fiddling with, will be out in 2020 (there’s a small chance of late 2019 for the novel, but I’m not banking on it). AND I have a book of poetry-based nonfiction, a hybrid of criticism and memoir, scheduled for 2021 (more details on that soon!).

Creative writing across the genres, full speed ahead!–I’ve been drafting a lot of micro-essays and some micro-fiction this winter. Reviewing, too. But I can’t do everything. And I know where my heart lies.

Learning to write a novel has been hard and surprising and wonderful, but now I have to learn about publishing one. PLUS do my best job ever at getting the word out about my new poetry collection, simultaneously, while revising the essay collection. It’s a lot. I anticipate a big pivot next year from the introversion of writing/ revision/ submission work to the extroversion required for traveling, reading, guest-teaching, panel-surfing, and all the other stuff. Some of it at SF conventions! And all this will happen right at my empty nest moment–this is also the winter of helping my son get college applications out and waiting for the verdicts. I mean, really–what’s the appropriate cheerful-but-scared expletive for THAT?

swamp

 

Don’t get ambitious

I’m trying to imagine myself as a pasty-faced superheroine–Anemic Woman!–battling vampires with cast-iron skillet and chimichurri (having learned fresh parsley is highly ferrous, I’m putting chimichurri on everything and calling it “Iron Sauce”). All this mythologizing, however, takes a lot of vim, and I’m tuckered out. I really enjoyed visiting Kenyon last week, and I’m delighted to be reading at the Taubman at Roanoke this Sunday at 2 pm , but I’m finding I have to spend energy cautiously. My hemoglobin levels were pretty low a couple of weeks ago, and it takes six weeks to make a new red blood cell, so all I can do is behave virtuously now and trust I’ll feel the difference in late May sometime. Even the morning walks Chris and I usually depend on are hard to manage–the littlest incline makes me lightheaded, and this is not a flat town. It’s frustrating to be sitting out some of our loveliest weather.

My experiences with chronic illness have been small potatoes, really (also good with chimichurri). But I can remember the first extended, taxing illness–gallstones at twenty-two, which took a while to diagnose–and how differently that experience colored the world. I would walk down the street carrying my own secret worry, looking at strangers’ faces, and marvel: all these people could be in terrible pain, and I wouldn’t even know! That’s true of grief and depression, too–before they debilitate you, they can be utterly invisible. It’s one of the few good things about pain, I guess, that it can teach compassion. I’m better than I used to be at taking a deep breath, when someone infuriates me, and reminding myself: I don’t know the whole story. There is a lot of suffering out there.

I’m better at compassion, mind you. I didn’t say I was good at it. That’s why it’s so wonderful when, instead of simply taking out her troubles on you, someone tries to explain them. Check out this poem and blog by Molly Spencer, for example, about the unpretty side of being a parent. Her frankness makes me grateful.

Some secrets, I suppose, may be better kept in darkness. For example, I had a perfectly good post-op visit with a doctor today, who cheerfully announced all my biopsy results were clear. She also–bless her heart–keeps giving me glossy photographs of the inside of my uterus before and after surgery. “Look how red and beefy it was,” she sighs. “You can post these on social media, if you want.” Um, no thanks. Truthfully, dear reader, wasn’t that beef image delivered verbally already TMI?

“Don’t get ambitious,” she then said, when I asked whether exercising was okay (I’d read some alarming things about overworking the heart when hemoglobin’s low). Slow to moderate. These are not words a writer wants to live by as her sabbatical draws to a close and brain fog hovers.

But I’m doing my best to be (imagine my wince here) moderate. Slowly reading and revising the novel I drafted last December and January, with even a nap here and there. The protagonist, a department head and mother of teenage twins, amazes me with all her chores and worries and plot twists. Who put her on such a grueling schedule, anyway? That poor woman deserves some rest.

P.S. I have some thematically appropriate poem recordings up on Cherry Tree‘s “The Stump” this week.One called “Perimenopause,” for instance. Rondels–that’s where a poet can REALLY get away with TMI.

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