New York poet Eileen Myles has always been known as “Uncle Eileen” to her nephews. It sort of knocked my socks off when I first heard this. I inexplicably burst into tears, struck by the bravery it takes to bend language in order to utilize it in an attempt to more accurately describe oneself, others, and the world. It seemed fitting that only a poet could be innovative enough to repurpose language in a way that both hits us in the guts and asks us to question the value of words.
I first encountered Eileen while studying writing abroad in Florence. She was the poetry teacher and I was studying fiction but I found myself envying the students in her class, looking for ways to be around her. She was so uniquely herself. I was captivated. She was unlike anyone I had met before. She has this unique ability to put herself out into the world in a way that is part rock star and part curious child— simultaneously confident and vulnerable. Upon seeing her read for the first time, I wrote,
Her Boston accent dominates when she reads her poems. I think of the Boston Brians I know back home. Those are men. I want to be like them. Eileen could be in their tribe. And her worn in jeans and beat shoes give me comfort. And I think, here’s a human made of steel with skin like paper around her chest. Salty-sweet. I want to be like that. 'A man, a weird ass fucking man.'
She’s got these pink ribbons sticking out of her plaid suit pocket. A wreath she doesn’t wear on her head but still keeps near her body. A souvenir picked up at the castle we visited Monday. She seems too hard-boiled to want a thing like that. It charms me.
'Get your cut up heart away from what you
think you know,' I say to myself. She’s more
tender than the rest."
(The quotations are excerpts from a poem by poet Dorothea Lasky which resonated deeply with me. Dorothea read just moments before Eileen began to read her work and strangely, her words seemed to help me better understand Eileen.)
Her ability to ride between genders, harnessing both the feminine and the masculine in one body has always made her work and her personhood compelling to me. She writes about women the way that men do, or perhaps more accurately, the way that men can’t. Even in writing “she” I find myself catching my mistake— Eileen has recently self identified by the gender neutral pronoun “they.” In interviews they have expressed that they have always preferred simply to go by the gender of Eileen. There is something beautiful and pure to me about this sentiment. No two people are alike and therefore there really isn’t a pronoun that could express each of us to our fullest. Language fails us over and over. In this ever changing world in which new terms are created daily in hopes to find better, more accurate ways of expressing our gender, our sexuality, our occupations and our creativity, we are reaching for new words that can capture us. But can they? The word we use would need to be as multifaceted as we are. This word could end up being as long as the script which holds our DNA, our memories, the story of our upbringings, our ancestries, and a novel length description of the ever changing details of our sexuality as well as the deepest desires of our energetic souls. But perhaps trying for words that can encapsulate all this is the first step towards acknowledging how limited our language really is. Try as it might, language simply cannot keep up with our individuality.
We are entering a time in history in which the archetypes and stereotypes we have lived by from time immemorial are beginning to break down. We are at last discovering that we cannot fit all of humanity into those tiny boxes. We continue to expand the number of boxes which are possible to tick—boxes which identify us—our race, our gender, our sexuality. But by ticking boxes we negate all the possible boxes which haven’t found their way to the page yet. It would seem that the most authentic way to define ourselves would be to avoid ticking boxes at all. This might be the only plausible way to avoid limiting ourselves.
With this opening in our perception of gender and sexuality comes a plethora of long overdo questions regarding the role of the father and of the mother. Our concepts of these roles, which have been ingrained in us by way of governments, religions, textbooks, paintings, sculptures, and even the stories passed down through our families, are beginning to shift. The time of finding a multitude of father’s day cards which feature different variations of cartoon dads with golf clubs is fading.
Today a father can be a woman, a father can be trans, a father can be homosexual, a father can be absent, a father can be a single parent, a father can be the breadwinner, the stay at home parent, the adoptive parent, the uncle who raised you, the mentor who guided you, the sperm donor who never meets you. And of course with this whole new range of fathers comes a whole new range of so-called “daddy issues”.
It’s no secret that we expect perfection from the people who bring us to this earth. My mother, a Cuban immigrant, was born as the result of a broken condom and two people who were already in the beginning stages of divorce. My grandmother wanted to keep the baby, my grandfather didn’t. Nine months later my mother entered the world as a screaming infant like any other, unaware of what life is for and dreaming only of milk and the comfort of touch. In 1962 when my mother was just four years old, she left Cuba, in the care of my grandmother and great grandmother who would help raise her, and the three of them made their new home in Miami Beach. As my mother grew up, the concept of her absent father weighed on her. She has spent a great deal of her life trying to understand a man who wasn’t there for her. Only in death did she come to realize that he gave her what he could and that perhaps, providing her with the genes which have allowed her the athleticism she enjoys was enough. Her expectations of what a father should be came from television, from books, and from friends. The thing I have to wonder is if she would have missed her father so much if she were raised in a place which didn’t advertise stereotypes of what a family should be and look like. There was no shortage of love in her home. Her grandmother—my great grandmother, showered her in affection, but nothing could fill the hole in her heart which the world had convinced her should be there. Maybe?
In December a friend of mine gave birth to her son in a hospital where a sign hangs in the waiting room which reads something like “New Father’s Waiting Room.” The exact words escape me now but I remember the sentiment well. I could understand why this would seem cute to a heterosexual couple, but the implication that anyone waiting in that room would be a “father” or more accurately male, is outdated and quite frankly, very insensitive. And why are the fathers “waiting” instead of holding their wife’s hand while she births their child into the world? That’s a discussion within itself. But I digress. This friend—lets call her Leslie, chose single motherhood. At 36, after a divorce and some failed relationships, she realized that the thing she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt was that she wanted to be a mother. With her biological clock ticking, she soon came to the realization that she didn’t need to wait for the right man in order to become a mother, that the relationship she would have with her child was not dependent on there being a father. She selected sperm from a sperm bank, gathered the support of her parents and started on her journey toward motherhood.
During her lamaze classes, sometimes there alone and sometimes accompanied by her mother, people would ask her about the father of her child. To these questions Leslie would reply simply, “there isn’t one.” Her confidence in this being the right decision for her and her child is unwavering though the world will no doubt continue to challenge this confidence. At every turn people will ask, judge, pity, praise, congratulate, or even ridicule her for her decision to raise her baby as an intentional single parent. And while praise for this choice is a nice sentiment, it also seems to point at it as an obstacle being overcome or a pat on the back. The reality is that the family structure she has chosen is not better or worse than other structures and mothering is a challenging and unique experience for each individual who becomes one. I think more than praise for her decision, Leslie wishes only that it were treated as normal—that it would not attract special attention whatsoever. Today her son is a happy baby surrounded by love, with no understanding of what a family “should” be. My hope is that the world will shift in time that he will not be trained by his peers and television screens to doubt the validity of his family structure. The purity of love between he and his mother, his grandparents, his aunt is a beautiful thing to witness. And doesn’t it always take a village?
Some of my most important life lessons were taught to me by my best friend’s mother who took care of me in a time when my mother couldn’t. Others I learned from friends, my brother, partners both male and female, teachers, bus drivers, ski instructors, aunts, uncles, step parents, grandparents, and of course my mother and father. Today when I think of my family, the image that comes into my mind is a forever widening net of individuals resembling something like the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club album cover. It is a forever expanding landscape of those who have touched my life and had some hand in carrying me this far.
The fact of the matter is that growing up is hard no matter who raises or doesn’t raise us. We will find fault in our parents. This is a fact. As the complexity of family dynamics continue to morph with changes like the legalization of gay marriage and the continual expansion of gender and sexuality, we will begin to witness a new wave of so-called “daddy issues” which are yet to be known. The next challenge will be to find words to encompass the range of issues which stem from the ranging kinds of families and their genders which we are still on a quest to name. By then perhaps we will figure out that the only box worth checking is one that reads “human.” Until then continuing to play with language in order to find our most true expression is a noble hobby. We should know that it will never come close to capturing the complexity of who we are and who we are evolving to become on a daily basis. But for now it’s the best we’ve got.