Gilding the Cage: On Brautigan, Appearances, and Being a Woman

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It is difficult being a woman. Kate Chopin wrote of it with birds and cages in her lovely book, The Awakening. Louise Erdrich wrote of it, and containment; of fluidity and solidarity; of the frailty of it, like an eggshell ready to crack, in her Love Medicine.

The problem is, I’ve always felt contained; in my own skin, in this body. We are not at all what we seem. I do not need an awakening. I have a storm inside of me; a fire; passions. It is just the breaking of the shell I have the trouble with.

Erdrich wrote beautiful passages about sex and the breaking down of some of these barriers; infiltrating (or not infiltrating) the containment, the vulnerability. And as much as I enjoy sex, as much as I may have tried this, sex alone will not break my walls. I was born with them by being born in this skin, in this body. And the rest is what they call “nuture”. I am a product of my past and environment. My past has built strong walls.

I keep thinking of Richard Brautigan and The Abortion. I feel like Vida. Brautigan’s Vida was a woman contained in the wrong body—a body that men would die for and women spited; a body that she felt did not reflect the woman she was inside. I feel all women, attractive to society or not, are Vida. We are not how we look. But people live their lives dictated by such projections. And that’s all it is, really—projections. People project who they think you are, they project it onto you, based on appearances. As if being contained isn’t enough, we have to gild the cages too.

I remember once, a trip to San Francisco to visit my sister. We were walking down the street and I kept getting cat-called and cajoled by strangers. My sister finally stopped, mid-stride, looked me full in the face and said, “I’m so sorry.” I was taken aback. “What are you sorry for?” I asked—naïve and young. She is a lesbian and said, “I am used to being yelled at for my being a lesbian, but I never thought about it being just as derisive to be yelled at because people think you are attractive.” I had never thought of it either. It broke my heart that people held contempt in their heart for my sister based on her sexual orientation and appearance. And I never liked being whistled or yelled at, but I was used to it, just as my sister was used to the contempt of others for being a lesbian. We base so much on appearances.

I wrote this poem for Brautigan; for myself—because writing seems the only way to break down my barriers, one syllable at a time. Writing makes me feel less contained. Writing could give two fucks about appearances. And I refuse to be a projection of society.

We weren’t meant for this world,
in this time,
were we?
Instead we travel time
through leaves in books,
travel worlds and space on pages;
walk lines on the subtle and sharp curves of words.
And when words fail us:
Music–
we traverse ruins and empires,
whole architectures
built in song.
We weren’t meant for these bodies either,
were we?
You were meant to be a different size,
a different shape,
something more fluid;
like hot water pouring over ice.
This face,
with this pale skin
and grey-blue eyes,
was not meant for me.
I was meant to have sharper awkward angles
instead of these soft curves.
Our bodies have betrayed us; hidden who we really are.
Perhaps someday
I will find you
stopped,
like Whitman,
somewhere waiting for me.

And like Chopin and Erdrich, like Brautigan, and so many others before me (men and women, alike), with words I will crack this shell.

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