You observe that I have left the academy. (True.) You ask, “Any plans to become a public writer?”
Can one plan to become a public writer?
Plans to write.
(Plans to submit?) Plans to learn how to finish things first. Plans to pick up my pieces. And then: perhaps: plans to try.
My husband has a garland made of paper and string hanging above his desk. It reads -T-R-Y-. A hand-made gift from the woman he drove across the country with the summer before he met me. Her: tattooed all over, with an asymmetrical haircut, in an open relationship with a German girl based somewhere out west. Her: sly and unexpected, laughing with her mouth open, a black ferret with a velvet ribbon and bell around her neck. Her: a performance artist, working with women in prisons, staging protests in Oakland, sending serial-art mailers, making love to my husband, encouraging him to -T-R-Y-. Her: fighting the man.
When I read -T-R-Y- I think of the tried-for child.
Do you know the story of Tamar?
Tamar is married to Judah’s eldest son, Er. But Er is wicked and cut down by God. Tamar is widowed then, and still childless. In accordance with duty, Er’s brother Onan takes Tamar to wife. He has sex with her, but famously deprives her his seed. For this God cuts Onan down. Judah has a third son, Shelah, who is as of yet a child. Judah advises Tamar to live as a widow until Shelah is grown. Back Tamar goes to her father’s tent. But when Shelah is grown Judah fails to send for her. So Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute and sets herself in Judah’s path. Judah’s wife has died and his period of mourning is over. Not recognizing his daughter-in-law, he offers a lamb in exchange for sex. Tamar accepts, but demands his bracelets and signet and staff as securities. Judah obliges. She takes him into her, takes his seed and securities. (Leaves his servant to wander around afterwards with the lamb.) Three months later word gets out that Tamar has prostituted herself and is pregnant. Judah calls her to tribunal that she may be burned. Tamar is defiant. She sends him his bracelets, signet, and staff. And Judah rescinds his accusations saying, “She has been more righteous than I.”
The story of Tamar is the story of Tamar trying.
It is one of the stories I think of when I think of my generation of women. The men who ought to be ours take a long time to grow up. And when they are grown they are disinclined to marry. They are willing to have sex with us, but not to give us our children. (Modern girls cooing over how thoughtful he was to bring a condom, pick up the prescription, sit in the waiting room during the procedure.) So our children, if won, are not the fruit of their abandon, but the spoils of our own stratagems, conceived by attrition or guile.
[I say ‘one of the stories.’ It is not the only story. But how is one to say anything if one doesn’t sometimes try to say something? One reason for leaving the academy: the sense that I had to be right before writing. Endless preemptive hedging, like taking leave of the King on a flat earth. His form forever visible on the horizon. Infinite hunched retreat.]
Striking, isn’t it, that Tamar doesn’t try to seduce the grown son, Shelah. She goes after the widower-father-in-law, Judah, instead. The sons’ father is at fault for not enforcing the rule. But deeper than that: The grown son will be busy making a name for himself, and should he want sex, he’ll have his own beauty to trade. The father’s beauty is past, which makes him susceptible to her beauty; his age is a debt. Nearing his second infancy, he sinks into pleasure, forgets himself in her, gives his seed and securities. In her arms, he turns child. And the child can be tricked, tricked into becoming a father. Meanwhile the grown son stalks about oblivious, finally walks off the page.
Plans to write. Plans to -T-R-Y-.
Plans to become a mother. One way or another.
My husband and I are trying to adopt through the state. A good thing to do. Though the goodness of the thing is obscured somewhat by the grinding bureaucracy of the state, and the sobering records of damage, and the rending grief that surrounds. Fragile hopes, small smiles. My husband and I pinching each other in the evening. “You ready?” “Are you?”
Our social worker writes, “Hey I need you guys to call your character references and have them email or fax me ASAP. Situation coming up. I NEED your file done.” She is not the midwife I would have chosen. Midlife midwife, plucking half-grown children from one shore and ferrying them to another.
My husband and I call asking for clarification. What does ‘situation’ mean? “9 year old boy, 5 year old girl. Can’t tell you any more than that. But I’ve got a good feeling. A really good feeling. I’m pushing for you guys.” Not the midwife I would have chosen, but as ferry captain will have to do. “We could be in court as soon as December, just need those references.” We look at one another. Pinch, pinch. We call our friends.
Why not write of Pharoah’s daughter raising the boy she found in the reeds? (Or Naomi, or Mordecai, or Joseph.) Why write of Tamar?
I suppose because I have been thinking about the shape of my life in the context of culture. It’s something like:
-Perhaps for women, culture is a step removed: A father-in-law rather than a father.
-Certainly I have loved the sons of my culture. And loving them, I have put myself under my culture’s protection. And [a conjunction that may or may not indicate causation]: I am childless.
-Perhaps there is something about adopting through the state that feels like playing a trick on my culture.
-Because my culture is one in which the child is a choice distinct from the choice to have sex. Which means my culture is one in which every child is implicitly asked, “By what right did the act that made you lead to your being here?” (“By what right are you here?”) Because the old answer, “By the will of God working through my parents’ desire,” will no longer do. Which means our culture indulges a fantasy of the world populated by children who could answer that question in some other terms: a world populated by the wanted, well-adjusted, sure-to-contribute, genetically sound.
-Perhaps I see my ache for a child—”In the body,” I try to explain to my husband, “like being afraid, like being aroused; a child cries in the crowd and I’m animal”—as an excluded remnant, and so a site of resistance.
-In no other way does my life resist culture. I am camped on the border. [Wondering if 9 year old boy likes books and the outdoors. Wondering if 5 year old girl will want to be held. Wondering what forms of affection 9 year old boy might allow. Wondering if I will know how to fix 5 year old girl’s hair. Asking, will I be able to hold steady for them? Will I skirt fatigue? Will I skirt resentment? Will addressing myself to the goodness of their being here help me to answer my own question, “By what right am I here?”]
-A trick: It doesn’t quite make sense (it’s not a perfect fit), but it’s as though I want to say to my culture: “See, together you and I have made this. (Here are my compromises to prove it.) And I claim them. They’re mine.”