Three Stories of Shame, plus Aimless Shameful Musings by Samantha Cohen
I’ve written other scores, messy and strange performance instructions, for other issues of RECAPS, and Martabel asked me to write scores for pride, for this pride issue. But I don’t know how to write scores for pride. It’s an emotion I feel so infrequently.
Frequently I feel shame. Right now I feel shame.
Right now grapefruits are falling from my tree, making scary thuds in the night and my neighbor yells at me to clean them up. She comes out to the curb at 6:45 a.m. to reprimand me when I’m leaving for work and comes out again when I come home. She’s Chinese, and elderly, and either doesn’t or pretends not to know many English words, so she shouts only “Dirty!” and “No good!” and now I’m afraid to leave my house because I don’t like to have these words yelled at me and because I know I’m too lethargic-feeling and sad to start actually raking grapefruits in the sunshine, especially if I’m being cowed into it, especially if she’s going to watch, which she will, hands on her hips and everything. She’s covered her lawn intentionally in concrete, and my grapefruits, even if they’re next door, are an invasion—a victory of my nature, of my hippie gentrifier grapefruits, over her carefully cultivated concrete civilization.
This is Story 1 about shame.
Writing this has already reduced my shame a little bit, about the grapefruits, and I think there’s something in that. Partly it’s just that I like sentences, I like making them, and that feels good, and partly it’s the owning of the thing, owning it and cajoling your empathy. You haven’t read this yet, as I’m writing it, but I already feel you on my side. And maybe too it’s just the admission, the acknowledgment of the shame, the relief of that. But partly my shame is reduced because writing this has reminded me that I have a lawn, that I have a tree that makes grapefruits, that the lawn that is mine is covered in grapefruits in varying states of decay and I like this. I love that the fruit is decomposing and maybe making the soil more alive and that there’s this whole system of life on this rented land that is mine.
And what I’m realizing here is that maybe I’m sensitive to having words like “dirty” shouted at me because so many of the things I like and love widely inspire disgust.
Story 2: At a party recently I was talking to a PhD student about an artist we both know. The PhD student described the artist’s work as “too earnest.” This, accompanied by a dismissive and sort of disgusted face. My first reaction when the PhD student said this was shame. Shame because I love earnestness, because I feel part of earnestness. And so, when she said this, I felt part of something unsophisticated and embarrassing, something deemed dismissible by this person whose smartness is maybe more officially acknowledged than mine. Because I like and make earnest work. Because I agree with David Foster Wallace that “irony tyrannizes us” (and see, I use DFW as backup here because he’s way more officially smart than both the party PhD student and me, which is maybe a smarmy way of garnering pride—but also reading DFW and having him expand on and flesh out and validate the stuff I already feel feels like a good way of garnering pride, too—it’s connection, resonance, support).
So, often, maybe, at least sometimes, shame is an indicator of where there is love—shame happens, at least sometimes, when we realize something we love is yucky to others and when we feel shame we can choose to either quash the thing, or to coax it out and pet it.
Story 3: One of the things I’ve loved most here on the earth is the face of my former lover. It is still one of the best faces I have ever seen. I will try to tell you about the face: the bones make sharp angles but the overall impression of the face is soft; it is unaffected like the face of a child but has all this wisdom and decisiveness in the eyes-area; the mouth when it’s confused looses from the jaw and wobbles; the mouth before it smiles is a perfect rectangle and when it smiles is hyperbolically beautiful.
Years ago when we were still together, I was invited to a wedding; a friend from high school was getting married. I was invited with a date, with this lover, but I didn’t want her there. I couldn’t bear the idea of everyone who had known me as a kid selling girl scout cookies, as a Jewish youth group leader, as a cheerleader, as this totally pretty girl with good grades knowing that this strange, sorta-female, sometimes-wobbly-mouthed face was the face I loved. This, even though I’d walked in dyke marches wearing only stickers and glitter on the upper half of my body. I thought of the people who would be at the wedding, neighborhood moms named Susan or Barbara, moms with shrubbish beauty shop hair whose faces I couldn’t quite picture and who I didn’t think I’d ever liked, but who knew me as a nice Jewish girl from the cul-de-sac, and I think I felt like I had a responsibility to maintain that image, and like I couldn’t quite if I brought my love, my love who looked wrong in a dress but not quite right in a suit.
We broke up right before the wedding, which might be a coincidence, but I’m inclined to think not: what happens to a love with such shame in its roots?
I want to write that shame is always an indicator of love; that maybe whenever I feel shame it’s a sign that there’s love there, that the shameful thing is a thing that should be nurtured and petted and looked at for what it is and accepted. But I don’t know if this is true. Other things inspire shame. Bodies (their excess, their fluids), failure (to reproduce, to change the world, to make any art today, to keep the earth alive, to pay rent), stupidity (about behaving in public, about making people comfortable, about history, about pop culture, about relationships, about basic survival); ineptitude; singleness; unhappiness. I could, obviously, go on.
Bodies are often shameful, desire is often shameful, but shame is a particular feature of being queer—queer bodies and queer desire are widely considered disgusting, are widely considered failed.
People in general seem proudest of what and whom they love. My Facebook stream is a collage of baby photos and wedding gowns and if I resent this it’s likely because what and whom I love is so often weird or less publicly recognizable as an achievement. People want their love validated—they want others to click the “like” button—they want to feel proud.
I want to feel proud.
A lot of queer Facebook friends of mine felt angry when a lot of straight people changed their Facebook profile pictures to the HRC equal sign. I felt kind of angry, or more like kind of annoyed, when a lot of straight people changed their Facebook profile pictures to the HRC equal sign. I still feel confused about the source of this anger, or annoyance. Because what the fuck? I just said I want my love validated. And I’m not a person who cares overly much whether the users of the equal sign are aware that the sign belongs to HRC, or aware of HRC’s politics.
On one hand, it is heartening to see so many straight acquaintances and barely-acquaintances, so many Susans and Barbaras (or the next generation–Jens and Rachels), assuring me that they don’t think my desire, my love, is shameful or gross. On the other hand, I don’t really think these equal sign posters are validating me and my loves—instead they are validating imaginary sets of Susans and Barbaras (or more likely Jens and Rachels). They might validate me, if I loved someone who looked like me. And here I’m realizing my own “privilege” (which is always, too, of course it’s own kind of problem)—I have the option of casting off my queerness by choosing to go to a wedding alone. I can look amazing in a dress.
SO. The equal sign works to reinforce the gender binary, maybe—it reassures that queers are normal handsome boys and normal pretty girls who just happen to love each other. The equal sign, too, erases desire, or assumes desire, or tries to impose desire—for marriage before 29, for a kid before 32, for a mortgage and a stable-salaried job—a job, more than likely, which helps reproduce/reinforce the current economic and social systems, including the binary/biological categorization of gender—desire for discrete family units and like Carnival cruises or something*. So the equal signs validate desires I don’t have, that many of my queer friends and Facebook friends don’t have, and erases desires that we do. And they, the equal signs, might even cast us out further—for not celebrating their support, for not getting excited about the stuff the good LGBTs (or, really, just the Ls and the Gs) are getting excited about. For not posting how heartwarming it is to see so much red. Now we’re not just gay but also angry, also ungrateful, also irrational.
*Just to be clear, I’m not saying that straight people all want these things—there are plenty of heterosexual weirdos, too, and I think they’re erased or marginalized by the equal sign, too; that the equal signs try to reconfigure their desires as well. & I’ve also loved boys I might feel weird about bringing to a wedding.
DOMA is overturned:
Between the time I finished this essay and now, DOMA was overturned. I thought I didn’t care that much about the marriage movement, but I cried in bed this morning. I just Googled “DOMA overturned” and read a totally bureaucratically phrased sentence and now I am crying again. I am feeling all these feelings—they are physical, the feelings—they’re coursing, and kind of brightening and dimming, through different sections of my body and making me cry more. I guess happiness is one of the feelings? Or profound relief, which is something that doesn’t get felt that often, or maybe even pride.
Who knows why I have the strange, strong feelings I have about the overturning of DOMA. Who can explain feelings? I’m going to take guesses though. I guess one reason is the obvious reason that the unions of people I care about will be recognized if that’s what they want, that gay people can experience the security and community recognition and legal benefits of marriage if they choose to. Another reason is that I think automatically of gay 13-year-olds growing up in homophobic families in homophobic cities, and hope that this decision will be a little flag on the horizon, telling them that there is a place for them. But another reason I have so many strange, strong feelings is that the Defense of Marriage Amendment failed. That marriage as the exchange of women as property, marriage as the employment of women as babymakers/housekeepers/sex-providers, cannot be defended. That the Right is right that marriage is being powerfully redefined. (To be clear, I do not believe that employment of women as babymakers/housekeepers/sex-providers is what most contemporary heterosexual marriage is about—but this is marriage’s history, and those who would fight to defend marriage are fighting to maintain this sort of institution.) The feelings coursing through me likely have as much to do with being queer as with being female.
DOMA and shame:
I didn’t have any interactions with any of my queer friends on the day DOMA was overturned. None of us texted each other, or called. Maybe the decision didn’t feel like it was about us, even though it almost was.
My mother sent me strange celebratory e-cards, though, and a friend from college congratulated me during a phone conversation. She said she was happy for “(my) community.” This friend, I’ve been talking to her sometimes on the phone since she announced her engagement to be married, which has made us both nostalgic—we’d assumed at one point, that we’d be maids of honor at each other’s wedding and her upcoming wedding has driven home how deeply we’ve fallen out of touch. She congratulated me, and then later in the conversation said, “Remember that disgusting girl you were dating when I visited you when you were living in Brooklyn?”
I was startled and like, “huh?” and so she began describing the apartment, the girl, until I knew who she was talking about, someone I dated for only a few weeks, but who I remember tenderly and well.
“Wait,” I said, “Why was she disgusting?”
“I don’t know,” my friend said. “She was fat, or something, right? I don’t know, she was just gross.”
Some queers are writing right now about their fear of the loss of queer family, loss of the need for queer family that marriage equality might engender. I think this is a valid concern, but I think it’s good to remember that marriage passing doesn’t bring us neatly inside—Marriage laws don’t change our queerness, our weirdness, our icky desire or disgusting bodies, our outsider status, our need to gather and love each other on the edges.
Even those who support gay rights can still find us gross.
Since starting this essay, I’ve been having dreams that I am getting dressed in a bridal gown. I am about to marry my former love. And always in these dreams, I start freaking out—I must call off the wedding—I can’t marry her, not in front of my Aunt Barbara. In these dreams, I always decide to run from my own wedding, out of shame.
A story about P/pride:
A few weeks ago I went to Long Beach Pride. I missed the parade but when I was driving in I saw old men in only wrinkly skin and black leather straps and butches holding hands and femmey androgynes in tutus, and wigs and feathers and so many colors and rainbows. There was sunshine and people were shouting pick-up lines and compliments at strangers and getting drunk and making out and just generally cavorting. It was gorgeous, and I did feel it—I felt pride. And I understood right then why we need Pride Days—we need an invitation to express our desire openly, celebratorily, to celebrate the multiplicity of it, and the diversity. We are ashamed, or have been ashamed, all of us who are drunk and prancing, all of us who are painted in glitter with electrical tape nipples or wearing leather vests held together by chains. We’ve worn pantyhose and sensible heels, or button-downs or whatever and hoped no one was thinking about where we put our mouths when we go home.
After running around town drinking beers and hugging people and hitting people with free wooden sticks that were being handed out, a friend and I went over to another friend’s apartment. The apartment was on the second storey and the walls were tannish yellow and the furniture was cozy-colored midcentury stuff on sweet little peg legs and late-afternoon sun poured through the windows making bright rectangles on the floor. George Harrison was playing on the record player and I felt like I’d time-traveled here; I felt like time had emptied, or something. I felt safe and lucky. I laid on the couch with my head pressing against my friend’s thigh, and I felt so good there, so good and empty of desire that I fell asleep. When I woke up, the first thing I saw was my other friend, laying on a chair with her eyes closed and a slight sleep-smile. Her face was bathed in sunlight and she looked like a painting of a saint; in the space between asleep and awake, her hair looked momentarily like fire.
I felt pride here, too. Pride in having access to this space, in finding it, in knowing these gorgeous friends. Like I said, I’ve walked in Dyke Marches shirtless and stickered and glittered—I’ve gone to packed raucous after-parties—I’ve planned Pride outfits with friends and watched the parade, etcetera. But this Pride, Long Beach Pride 2013, was one of my favorite Prides, which seems strange—I wore whatever boring sundress I grabbed from my closet, I skipped every Pride event, I ended up sleeping on the couch by 7. But I think there’s something in this, too.
I went on an OkCupid date recently and was talking about how I’m writing about pride and it’s hard. I said how it was hard to have pride when the things you like are considered gross, and this OkCupid date shrugged and said, “yeah, just don’t let anyone yuck your yum.” I had never heard this saying before, which surprised my OkCupid date, but I liked it. It made me feel like this whole essay-monster was pointless, shameful, written already, much pithier and better.
Oh, and this! After I wrote the beginning of this thing, I went to a gardening class and found out that grapefruits are bad for the soil—they take too long to decompose, they mold. My neighbor is happy—as a reward for cleaning up, she passes napkin-wrapped grocery store citrus over our shared fence. She thinks her intimidation has been successful, maybe, but it turns out my citrus compost pride was just a fantasy. But what is good for the soil is shit. The stuff that possibly most widely inspires disgust, which is most reviled and pushed out, out and away—shit!—well, shit and dirt—is what makes new things grow; shit and dirt, if it’s mixed right and fed well and taken care of, is where creation happens. I think it’s good to keep this in mind.