The last piece! It's been so quick! Thank you all for your time, your thoughts, and your feedback. Every week, I look forward to hearing what you have to say. At the outset, I thought I was writing about these two subjects because I was an expert at the way they intersect. But, as with most things, digging deeper into their role in my life only proved how little I knew.
For this last installment, I decided to go back to the Source - my grandmother. That's her (and my grandfather), in this picture, with all the legs.
Happy Sunday, Happy February, and Happy Reading. Thank you all, again.
My grandmother has a lot of sayings.
If your nose itches, you’re having company.
Step on a slug and you’ll be nasty for nine days.
Don’t rock an empty rocking chair.
That woman is all fur coat and no knickers. (This one is particularly funny considering the fact that, according to my mother, my grandmother spent most of the mid-to-late 1960s wearing precisely this outfit.)
While I have lived by many of these aphorisms, just by the sheer force of my helplessness in the face of their repetition, I never quite understood the way they shaped my grandmother’s worldview. She used these phrases, these aphorisms undoubtedly passed to her from her own grandmother, to ward off a world she saw as basically ominous. They were her talismans, the worry dolls she placed under her pillow at night full of wishes. The problem with wishes is that they have to be for something that hasn’t happened yet. They don’t work for undoing what is already done.
There are many different ways to want something. There’s biological want, the basic gimme-gimme of thirst and hunger and scratching an itch. There’s a languid, yawning sort of want, the kind that usually comes in late afternoon, fingers strumming lazily on the belly, curtains rustling, and so on. There’s ambition. There’s prayer, an official form of wishing. And there’s lust - of course - so much lust.
Then there is what I think of as dark wanting, which is (without fail) unsatisfiable. Hate, for one. Vengeance. There’s the lungless, full body seizure of grief, of demanding that something un-happen. Then there’s compulsion, which apes instinct but is its opposite. Instincts are meant to keep us alive. Compulsions lure us into the guise of relief while creating a higher tolerance to that relief. And habits, even habits are a way of wanting. We create routine around our bodies, our relationships, our pursuits in order to give them shape. To stave off the feeling of helplessness. As Nick Laird writes in his poem Feel Free:
To deal with all the sensational loss I like to interface
with Earth. I like to do this in a number of ways.
I like to feel the work I am exerting being changed,
the weight of my person refigured, and I like to hang
above the ground, thus; hammocks, snorkeling, alcohol.
My grandmother is very beautiful. I think it is important to say this, because her beauty has probably been the most important thing in her life, whether she chose it or not. We never went anywhere without someone commenting on it.
One of her favorite stories to tell is how thin she was after giving birth to her first child, my Uncle David. “Ninety-two pounds,” she’ll say. “The doctors made me drink a beer and a milkshake every night.” It was made clear to me from a young age that thin was deeply important. Preferably thin enough to need medical intervention.
I was her first grandchild. She was only 48 and did not yet want to be called Grandma, has never wanted to be called that. Her middle name is Ann, so somehow she decided on Annie. When I asked my own mother if she also wanted to be called Annie by my someday-children, as is tradition, she balked. “No, no,” she told me. “That is her name now.”
As someone who is afflicted with a certain measure of perpetual dissatisfaction (genetic, to be sure), I am easily prone to compulsion. Especially living in New York, I want to go and do everything all the time. My inertia is dizzying - when I’m spinning out in the city, there’s no end to it. In order to survive my own high levels of impulsivity, I make many rules. I have a distinct and thorough punishment/reward system. This works well, most of the time, for both fitness and creativity: Run for an hour and then you can X. Write 1000 words and then you can Y.
Neither sitting down to write nor heading out to run are endeavors easily undertaken. I do both because I like the feeling after, not the feeling before. I also have a high measure of gratitude for the gift of choice I’ve been given - a healthy body, a healthy mind, a society in which my decisions are (mostly) my own.
And I do it for my grandmother - to play the reel of my life in the background of hers. I try to understand her ferocity, her sources of power, and what it means to her to see those forces in me. I try very hard to stay thin, to keep up my writing, as a measure of respect, and because I am a little afraid of her. Whenever I come home, she hugs me and holds me and kisses me square on the mouth. She either says something to praise me like “That figure!” or she says nothing at all, which means my figure is not quite up to standard. Truth is, I lighten my naturally dishwater hair not just because I think it looks better but because she is a blonde. Sometimes it seems as if she is the original blonde.
When I was a toddler, I slept over at Annie’s apartment all the time. She had a mini-trampoline on which she did aerobic jumping routines, a la Jane Fonda or Cheryl Tiegs. When she used to do her workouts on it, she tells me, I would stand next to her and try exercising too, imitating her movements. She would sometimes have to hold her breasts when they hurt from bouncing. I would then grab my own chest, holding up nothing, never missing a beat.
We have a deal, she and I. My towheaded mountain queen. My haloed barefoot girl. My sweet, spiteful Sandra Dee.
“We didn’t really work out in the 60s,” Annie says. “I never even thought about it. But I loved long walks. I could walk for hours.” Walking may be the only physical pursuit that outpaces running, as I wrote about in my last piece, as a stimulant for many writers. As Philip Lopate put it in his book Waterfront: A Walk Around Manhattan, "The mind relaxes through the calming, repeated movement of a stroll, while the legs' cadences trigger the rhythms of poetry."
Annie also loves to tell me about summers she spent on Belle Isle with her older sister Alice. Alice had moved away from their hometown of Harlan, Kentucky and gotten a job outside of Detroit. Annie would visit her there as a teenager and spend many afternoons at the beach.
“While everyone else laid in the sand,” my grandmother always tells it in her very southern, slightly childlike voice, “I would walk the shore forever and climb all up in the rocks. My hair was so blonde and I was so tan, you wouldn’t believe. And my feet would get all kinds of tore up.”
I love hearing these stories from her - about her solitude, her physical exertion. She sounds happy, which is not a sound she usually makes. Similarly, she loves talking about her youth running through the woods, ankle-deep in creeks, chasing her siblings up the mountainside. I wonder if she would have been an athlete - a runner, a dancer, a climber - had she been brought up differently, or in a different time. From what I gather, my great-grandmother was extremely proper. A real Southern lady. After a certain age, I’m sure, certain activities were not permitted. I imagine my great-grandmother (after whom I am named) was the kind of woman who didn’t have to tell you to stop doing something. You just knew.
My grandmother is a poet. As a young mother in Kentucky and later Ohio, she began writing poetry to combat loneliness and the onset of depression.
“The first poem I ever wrote was called ‘Solitaire’,” she tells me. “It had a lot of pretense because I wrote what I thought you were supposed to write - like you’re supposed to be happy and you’re supposed to be religious. But that’s not how I felt.”
At first, the attention brought her pleasure. Her aunts liked the work, even her mother. “Mom loved my poetry,” she says conspiratorially, “but never would have guessed that half of it was so pretentious.” My grandmother’s honesty, her willingness to call herself out, seems to me very brave.
Always a reader, she started devouring poetry books. Sometimes she would look for ads in the back of magazines - So You Want To Be A Writer? - though most turned out to be money-making schemes. Discouragement, it seems, is abundant. One need not even seek it out.
Even though she was still depressed, she tells me, the writing gave her an edge, a purpose to the depression. Despite her unhappiness, I like to picture Annie during this time: angelic young mother, furious and locked away trying to write a poem that wasn’t pretentious, going to church on Sundays and composing bitchy sonnets in her blonde head. Something about her rage seems appropriate, or at the very least exciting.
A few weeks ago, the most emailed New York Times article was a piece from the Well section titled "Writing Your Way to Happiness." It outlines a study that shows, among other benefits, that writing your personal story can improve mood and even stave off depression. “It may sound like self-help nonsense,” author Tara Parker-Pope says, self-consciously. “But research suggests the effects are real.”
This week alone, I have taken a ballet barre class, a yoga class, and a brutal but effective reformer-style class called BodyBurn that makes me feel like I’m going to throw up every time I walk in the door just from sheer anxiety over how hard it is. I haven’t been running much because of worry I’ll wipe out on all this miserable ice, but soon I’m sure I’ll resume my dates with Prospect Park.
What I’m saying is that I live in a place of abundance and choice. The world feels and has always felt (with a few glaring, brief exceptions) as if it was brimming with options. I am very aware that what stands between the things I want and me is mostly just me.
While I know my grandmother did not have nearly the options I am so lucky to have, she had more than she realized. Annie, I believe, knew what she wanted - to be a writer - but had no idea how to become one. She did the work, writing constantly, but never knew where or how or if. The wider world gave her immediate value for being beautiful, for being a mother, not for the pages she stored in a desk drawer upstairs.
Recently, Annie has given me a box full of her poetry handwritten in notebooks, loose leaf in folders, and some scrawled notes on torn corners of napkins. I’ve read much of her work but to have it all in bulk this way reveals a rich, devastating portrait of Annie and the things she wanted. All the fierce secrets she had. When Mark Strand passed away over the holidays, she was in tears. I had no idea she even knew who he was.
She’s also started pissing me off. Something about opening the seam of her writer life to me has given her license to criticize my own writer choices. Usually my biggest fan, she’s now calling me with aggressive questions: Well, why don’t you have a book yet? You have enough poems. (As if quantity of poetry meant a collection.) Why don’t you send to Esquire? I like Esquire.
I’ve avoided her calls, here and there, knowing full well that she is right. She’s pushing me, stage-mother style, because of what she wanted once, still wants now. She’s really asking me what are you waiting for?
My grandmother’s sayings, like her poetry, are really just incantations, verbal armor against a difficult existence. She wanted to give them to me to protect me, to help create me. Annie is tragic and glamorous and can be very difficult to understand. Being with her brings me peace and tumult all at once, as if I am groping at her past along with her, measuring my future against the things she wants until I end up wanting them harder. As Zadie Smith says in her essay Joy, “The thing no one ever tells you about joy is that it has very little real pleasure in it.”
I take immense joy in proving to Annie that I am her kindred, in affirming that I am part of her and that she matters to me to the point of madness. And, of course, that I heard all those things she said. I hear them now.
Originally from Georgia, Jess Smith now lives and works in New York City. Her work can be found in Sixth Finch, Phantom Limb, Ghost Town, The Best American Poetry Blog, Lumina, and other journals. She received her MFA from The New School in 2013.