The Banal and The Profane: Melissa Febos
“It’s a blessing and a curse, this business of writing about everything that challenges, confounds, or embarrasses me. Contrary to how it must seem, it actually springs from an aversion to self-reflection. If I didn’t write about my life, I would never understand what the hell was happening.”
This month’s “Banal and Profane” column comes to us from Melissa Febos.
Melissa Febos is the author of the critically acclaimed memoir, Whip Smart (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press). Her writing has been published in venues such as Hunger Mountain, The Southeast Review, and The New York Times. She co-curates and hosts the Mixer Reading and Music Series at Cake Shop, has taught at SUNY Purchase College, The New School, Sarah Lawrence College and NYU, and holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College.
Febos is currently an Assistant Professor at Utica College.
I woke up at 6am, Reddog’s paws flexing into my belly. I have this maneuver wherein I cinch his feet together like a hog tie and flip him over so we can spoon like normal mammals, but it was too early for such acrobatics. It’s a handy analogy for my new life upstate, incidentally: one day feels like a warm body curled into mine, its little animal heart thudding soft and alive, the next I’ve got nails dug into my belly. Sini has been in the city for a few weeks and I miss her. I meditated for 20 minutes, but mostly scrolled through mental to-do lists, and worried about getting to the city on Friday in time for my reading.
Sini is putting together a Kickstarter campaign for the documentary she’s making about Kathleen Hanna. She called, anxious about the video for it, asked me to give it a look. As usual, I could see that her anxiety had little to do with the actual video, which was adorable and convincing. The footage is so, so beautiful. It’s always so much easier to see the success of others’ work—we project so much bullshit onto our own, end up not being able to see it. Watching her in the video made me miss her more.
I should be working on this paper for a conference at the end of this month, about literature and feeling. God knows it’s familiar territory, but I’m glad to have this to write instead.
I’m afraid of the snow. Every time I ask someone who lives here how bad it’s going to be, they get the same pitiful look on their mug. Sini went to see Dante (our psychic) last night and relayed the information that I was going to have to purchase a new pair of hiking books. Hilarious, considering I’ve never owned a pair of hiking boots in my life. Do they make wedge hiking boots? I’ve actually transitioned to flats now that I’m living in the country and feel like a hooker wearing my normal shoes, but have to get used to all my giant basketball player students looking down their belly buttons at me. Dante said I could get them at Payless (the hiking boots), since I wouldn’t be using them much. He really gets down into the banal and profane, too, sometimes.
I wrote this essay about The Mangina (performance artist & painter Patrick Bucklew, who is known for sporting prosthetic vaginas) forever ago, and Drunken Boat just published it today. Despite being thrilled, I’m a bit more self conscious about publicly describing getting wax molds made of my own lady parts, now that I’m a full time professor to non-arty types. I suppose they knew oversharing was part of my career when they hired me.
It’s a blessing and a curse, this business of writing about everything that challenges, confounds, or embarrasses me. Contrary to how it must seem, it actually springs from an aversion to self-reflection. If I didn’t write about my life, I would never understand what the hell was happening. I published an essay about my awkward transition to country life in Salon last week, and shouldn’t have been surprised that it made the rounds at the nearby college (not to mention the one I work at). I’m sure it’s not doing wonders for my fitting in with the locals, although a bunch of queers came straight out of the old-tymey woodwork, wanting to hang out. I can’t help it. The other day I parked my car at work, and the pickup next to me had a bumper sticker that read: “Meat isn’t murder, it’s a really fun thing to do with dead animals.” I would have laughed at this in the city, but it was a melancholy morning to begin with, and it made me want to cry instead. So I wrote it in my notebook, and surely it will end up in something I write. I guess it just did.
The plumbers, Brian and Brian, came and fixed the tub this afternoon. Reddog lost his mind, like he always does when men come over (usually to fix or install something), whimpering like a baby. He’s never had much in the way of male role models, so he craves the attention of anything on two legs with a penis. Like a lot of people I know, incidentally.
The ponytailed manstructor of my yoga class really gave us hell with the lunges tonight. But man, I love it. I would never let myself lie on the floor and slowly relax every part of body to New Agey music, and probably that’s why it feels so damn good. My inner instructor is insanely mean. She’s always all, “get off your fat fucking ass and get some more work done! Look how many items are left on this to-do list!” I would never talk to anyone that way but myself.
A week from today I turn 31. Birthdays don’t tend to make me anxious. I’ve always had a pretty regular circuit of thoughts about my own mortality. I will say that there was a jump in activity around my 30th. I’m assuming that will continue. At least once a day I think: am I going to consider this a worthwhile use of my life when I’m on my deathbed? Not a bad question to ask oneself on a regular basis, though it doesn’t necessarily make household chores and administrative duties more precious. Though it does prompt me to try and turn the mundane into spiritual practices of some kind. It’s surprisingly possible. It does make me factor down faculty meetings and paper-grading and Facebook meandering to their basic potential for being of service in the world. It does make killing time seem like a kind of murder. Or suicide, I guess.
Tina May Hall gave a reading at the college today, and in preparation, I gave my students a few of her stories to read. They’re really wonderful: dark and sexy and sad and very lyrical. One concerned an ex-nun who had cut off her pinkie finger after God’s voice instructed her to do so. I asked my students what the finger might be a symbol of, and they seemed pretty stumped (no pun intended). I went on a little jag, talking about how we make our losses sacred. How the nun’s carrying her finger around in a jar might relate to the way we nurse our losses, our hurts, how we worship them, regardless of the pain, because of the pain. I wasn’t sure they were listening, but then one of them emailed me this afternoon about it. She said she’d been thinking that maybe the finger was a symbol for a lost baby, and she’d been thinking about it all day. I love that. If I can prompt some 20-year-old to spend all day obsessing about such a thing, I think I’m doing my job. I definitely feel like that’s a service to the world. Maybe that sounds like hubris, but I know we all have urges to make those connections, or to recognize them. Everything is a symbol. We don’t recognize ourselves by looking at ourselves, but in looking at the world, looking at its image in a story, in a raccoon skeleton, in other people.
My colleague who recommended my new running route told me today that she saw a wolf once, along it. I want to see a wolf! I was writing animal poems in my head while I was running this afternoon. Then, I was just whispering the word wolves to myself. Wolves. Wolves. Wolves. Wolves. It’s a beautiful word. I used to whisper words to myself like that all the time when I was a kid. I can see how someone could get all Mary Oliver, living in the country. There’s a lot of god in the country, in animals.
Rainy, bummed out. Reading Philippa’s work, which inspired some gratitude. Watched an episode of Entourage and felt even worse. Packed for the city. Trying to pack too much in? (Literally and figuratively, I guess.)
Before I actually moved out of the city, I had the idea that life would slow way down up here. In some ways, it has. But in most ways, I’m just as busy. It’s me, I know, and I knew that before. I just don’t like to acknowledge that every part of my life is chosen. It’s such a privilege, but also psychologically burdensome. Why do I choose things and then complain about them? Choose things that hurt me (nothing like the way I used to, but still)? Sini and I watched a video of Pema Chodron last night and she spoke about this. She described obsessing about writing an article, and knowing she needed to take a break, to spend a morning meditating. But she woke up and went straight to the desk, refused to do what she know was the right thing, because she was too attached to the anticipated satisfaction of having finished the article. Needless to say, I could relate. When I was younger, I compulsively procrastinated, and as an adult, I compulsively try to finish things.
This morning I woke up at 6AM, taught two classes, went home to pick up Reddog, and drove to the city to give a reading in DUMBO. I actually love the car trip. It’s basically just sitting, drinking giant cups of hot and cold beverages, and listening to podcasts for five hours. I would never sit and do that at home. It was pouring rain for a lot of the drive, which was stressful, but I listened to an episode of This American Life (“Gossip”), an episode of WTF with Marc Maron (the Lisa Lampinelli interview, which was fabulous), an episode of Fresh Air, and a handful of Moth stories.
Of course, I got into Jersey City during rush hour, and sat in a most unpicturesque landscape for a good while before getting into the Holland Tunnel. I went straight to the bookstore, parked, walked the dog, and met up with Sini. We sat in the car and hung out with Red for a while; it makes my heart ache to see how happy he was to see her. In his old age, he’s gotten even more pack oriented. He hates being separated, and I know that’s not just my anthropomorphizing him. Every time I get home, he looks behind me to see if she’s there, and when he gets home, he runs into her office looking for her.
The reading was really sweet. Melville House Books is a beautiful little place, with an art gallery feel, and adorable employees. The reading was for my friend Jillian Lauren’s book tour – she wrote the bestselling memoir Some Girls, and a year later is releasing her first novel, Pretty (a great read, you should buy it immediately). I asked Nick Flynn to read with us, so it was pretty much the best looking reading I’ve ever participated in. Not to be shallow; Nick is brilliant (The Ticking is the Bomb is his most recent prose masterpiece), as is Jillian, but they also happen to be outwardly beautiful people. Jane LeCroy, Hallie Goodman, Robin Shamberg, and Audacia Ray braved the rain, along with some other great folks, completing the smart/gorgeous motif of the night. I felt like a wet dog in my rain boots and crumpled road-trip clothes, and I’m sure smelled like one, since we’d shared a car all day, but all in all in was cozy and lovely, and I got lots of good hugs. I read a section of my novel-in-progress, which made me nervous, but in an exciting way.
Today was impossibly muggy. I woke up damp, but happy to be in a tangle of sheets with Sini and Reddog. Met with two of my private students, both of whom inspired me. One is at the very beginning of starting an exciting memoir about living her childhood on the run. I don’t think I should say more, but suffice to say, I’ll be madly talking it up when she finishes. The other is knee-deep in some gorgeous work about her life and work as a journalist in apartheid South Africa. Really mind-blowing stuff, and breathtaking writing.
Sini picked me up after my meetings, and then we picked up some cupcakes at Babycakes (they make gluten-free, agave-sweetened magic) on Broome Street, and headed to Cakeshop where I gave another reading. I’ve been hosting my own series, Mixer (with poet and pal Rebecca Keith) there for five years, so it was a trip to be there as a reader. The ice machine started grinding, as it is wont to do, and for once, it wasn’t my job to worry about it disrupting the readers. Gary Indiana shared the bill with me, and he opened with an amazing chapter from his memoir-in-progress, about being speeded out in LA in the 80s (?) and getting held hostage by a tweaked out drug dealer who showed him a cat frozen in a glue-filled aquarium. Just the kind of fucked up shit that I remember so well from my own drug-fueled days. He is an amazing character, and writer, and I totally felt sweaty and tweaked out myself by the time he finished. So of course, I had to then read an excerpt from Whip Smart about doing heroin, to balance everything out. I made a crack about it, and Sini at least laughed.
I ended the night having dinner at Caravan of Dreams, one of my favorite vegan spots, with as many of my friends as I could get in one place. Living upstate means really trying to soak it up when I’m in the city. So much love at one long table, and lots and lots of unchicken nachos. My heart felt really full, even punctuated by a few moments of melancholy – I miss being able to see my people on the regular. I miss the city. But I went to bed feeling like everything was as it should be.
Sini and I drove back to the city today, and listened to the longest string of devastating podcasts. Don’t get me wrong, I love to cry, but I’m talking about three hours of stories about homelessness, tinnitus, cancer, and injustice. The best/worst one was on The Moth, about a woman in Seattle (Charlene Strong) whose wife drowned in the basement while she tried to break in to save her. At the hospital, they wouldn’t let her in the hospital room because they weren’t “related.” Stories about this particular kind of injustice pierce me so deeply. I was sobbing, literally. With noises and everything. We both were. Luckily, Sini was driving. She knew about Strong already, but this was the first I’d heard.
Strong has subsequently become an advocate for marriage equality, and was instrumental in the passing of the 2007 Domestic Partnership Bill. There’s a documentary about her story that I just ordered, called For My Wife. Because I could really cry some more about this story. But really, I want to find a way to get my students to watch it. As a literature teacher, I’ll be the first to admit that they can be reached more quickly with moving images.
It’s so important, I think, to be seeking out stories like that. I mean, as a human being, but also as an artist. It really keeps my desire to make work that is of service close to the surface. Being an artist of any kind, I think, is a balance of going very deeply inward, but also of engaging with the most delicate, disturbing, confounding, and beautiful parts of living in this world. It’s easy, as a sensitive being, to get overwhelmed, and fold into oneself – to want to make your experience of the world smaller. It feels more manageable that way, less likely to break your heart. I really need to let it keep breaking my heart, so that it stays open, and desperate to do something meaningful. I want to do more than just survive and be comfortable. I think we all do, on some level.