Bloodwork

On the last day of my period,
The doctor calls to tell me I am in menopause
I put down the phone, feel the lump in the back of my throat,
Close my eyes. I will tell no one, I think
And then: I need to write about this.

My second mother-in-law would not have approved.

I suspected something was up a week ago when I woke up, heart a disco, drenched in sweat, Bedclothes banished.
I, historically hysterically cold.
Thus the bloodwork. Thus the doctor.

Last week before bed,
armed with a tall glass of water,
I started to read the article in the New Yorker about Hillary’s book
and I got so angry I had to put the magazine down.
“I am tired of hearing about Hillary,” my sleepy husband said.
“That’s why I am angry,” I said. But I let him sleep.

My first mother-in-law, upon turning 60 announced,
“I am now officially invisible. I walk down the street and no one, no one, looks at me.”
We all have primal fears. Some are afraid of being noticed; some are afraid of public speaking; some are afraid of being called on, or of disagreeing or of taking a stand.

I am afraid of becoming invisible.

My doctor—a woman my age—said, “What is the point of this?
You had a hot flash,
You are fifty
What about perimenopause do you not understand?
What are you going to do with the information the bloodwork gives you?”
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I’ll just…have it.”

November 8. 9/11. The day my first husband disappeared.
These days are cloaked and choked in shock and violence,
Trauma so painful to focus on that we look away.
I had to put the New Yorker down when they wrote how Hillary took a nap on election night
And woke up to find that Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania had all turned red.
She was going to wear white when she gave her victory speech
under a glass ceiling that was going to be broken.

We are tired of hearing about Hillary, say the Bernie Bros, who are my friends again.
And rivers of rage converge as if I am Pittsburgh
A man is strong and angry, and we call him powerful
A woman is strong and angry and we call her hormonal
Or nasty
Or manipulative
If she is young, she is a bitch
If she is old, she is a witch
I am not tired of Hillary.
I am parched for her leadership
After nine months of drought,
I have no tears left

Why did I want the numbers the bloodwork gave me?
What can they tell me that I don’t already know?
There are age spots on my hands.
I can’t open a pickle jar without a tool, or my daughter’s help.
I need glasses to read.
Soon I will need hearing aids.
But I can feel.
I can think.
I can sing.
I can do a huckle-buckle and make my kids laugh.
I can bathe my dog.
I can teach kids to sing.
I can find a new chord to play on the guitar.
I can hear an argument and change my mind;
or I can hear an argument and counter it with reason and kindness.
I can determine how to be of service to a friend.
I can plant some dogwoods in my backyard.
I can hold my children, still, and smell the tops of their heads.

Maybe this next half-century will be about seeing rather than being seen.

 

I woke last night
At the disco again
But this time, I heard the voices of my friends.
Felt their hands reaching
To pull me to the other side of the dance floor.
It’s better over here, they say.
Drier. Funnier. More solid. Trust us.
So I listened to the beat
Of my heart
And I swear it was beating the name
Carmen Yulin Cruz Soto Carmen Yulin Cruz Soto
I closed my eyes and let it rock me
Until I was boogying with my friends
And I let it rock me
Back to sleep.

I dedicate this tattoo
To both my mothers-in-law.

Oct. 2, 2017

The Pantsuit in the Back of the Closet

An election like 2016’s calls for massive rearrangements. We each cope in our own way with the seismic shifts that are taking place. Some of my friends are moving to Canada; some are quitting their jobs and running for office. My husband and I decided to switch sides of the bed. As part of the Grand Switcheroo, we’d also exchanged sides of the closet. So today I wasn’t surprised to see what I assumed to be one of his suits hidden way in the back, on my new side. Instead, it turned out to be my Hillary pantsuit, which I’d worn less than a month ago. Already dusty, it had the aspect of a relic. Navy blue, from Talbot’s, it was never attractive—I’d begged it off my mom in October when I was thinking it would be fun for Halloween, and for our Passim show scheduled for November 5th, just three days before the election. But in the days leading up to November 8th, I had come to cherish it and relish wearing it, usually with my hot yellow “Nasty Woman Vote” tee shirt and a pair of turquoise wedgie boots. Today, it just made me sad, seeing it on its pathetic wire hanger. In a year, will we remember Pantsuit Nation? Will we remember Hillary’s brave, tenacious performances in the three debates? Will we remember our optimism? Will we remember that she won the popular vote by a wider margin than ten other presidents did over their opponents?

No one knows what the future will bring. My friends on the Left seem to veer between a low-grade depression and full-on panic attacks. No one is sleeping well without chemical aid.

I wrote these poems during a strange time in my own life. In October, six months away from turning 50—midlife by any accounting—I had a melanoma diagnosis, a kitchen mishap resulting in second degree facial burns, and a breast lump biopsy. By the election, I’d had the mole removed and the margins excised, and further biopsies had revealed no cancer. My face was healing. But I’d been badly shaken, and I had learned, from these scares, that nothing is ever guaranteed. I had taken so much for granted. I had been living in fear and concern about the future, addicted (as so many of us were) to my iPhone, checking on the latest polls and outrages. My physical mishaps all occurred during a time when the New York Times was putting Hillary’s odds of winning the presidency at over 90%. Even Trump was admitting that his chances were not huge. Still, I had a hard time believing this country would elect a woman for the highest office in the land. Given the predictions, I really thought all my fears about the election must be symptomatic of a massive anxiety disorder. I sought out optimistic, rational people to “talk me down” at every turn. So did a lot of women I knew.

What I learned from the election, and from the increasing evidence of my own mortality, was to appreciate the power of fear. Many of my friends are also navigating this most primal of human emotions. If, as Pema Chodron says, “death is inevitable and the time of death is uncertain,” it seems reasonable that we always have three choices: to despair, to deny, or to celebrate each and every moment we have now. In these waning days of the Obama administration, I am trying my best to choose the latter. Allowing fear to drive the bus is to live in despair 24/7. Pretending there is nothing to fear does not help the most marginalized in our communities. But finding that middle place, where we allow fear to wake us up to what is going on, to take action, to appreciate what we still have: this is the sweet spot.

What I learned from the election was that even our democracy is not guaranteed. I thought that Trump’s pre-election comments about not accepting the outcome “unless I win” were grounds for disqualifying him among the voters. I was wrong. I thought his inexperience was disqualifying. I was wrong. I thought his erratic behavior was disqualifying. Wrong, again. I thought his business conflicts and the fact that he was a millionaire who shipped his own jobs overseas would turn off working class voters. Apparently not. I took Hillary’s loss personally. It’s hard not to read the election as a referendum on intelligent middle-aged women. And so this collection grapples with what I and many of my colleagues are experiencing now, waking up female in the post-Obama era. Taking in what it means for my daughter and my nieces. Wondering what it means for myself and my sisters.

Where do we stand when the very ground is shifting? We hop a lot. We learn to find a new center of gravity.

I offer these poems as a kind of time capsule. In a year, they will look very different. Young readers ten years from now probably won’t even know what I was referring to when I mention Access Hollywood. Let’s hope that’s because it’s ancient history, and not because this era has been erased from the record. Let’s hope that’s because Trump’s presidency ended early, and that some other pantsuited politician found a way to connect with all Americans, thread the electoral college needle, and make her home the White House. Until then, I will draw courage from another writer, Colson Whitehead, whose powerful and timely book The Underground Railroad came to the world in 2016, the same year so many hard things came into the world, the same year so many dear friends left the world. In accepting the National Book Award, Whitehead said, “Be kind to everybody, make art and fight the power.” This is as good a motto as any to live by in a Trumpian America. Nothing is guaranteed. Not our health, not our best-researched predictions, not our democracy. We have this moment. We can choose to escape it, numb it, protest it; or we can live fully in it, connecting deeply with our beloveds, fighting injustice when we see it, and making sense of it through art. I am very grateful that 30 Poems in November came along exactly when it did. What a perfect communion of those three elements Whitehead emphasizes: connection, poetry, and social justice..

 

Nerissa Nields
December 5, 2016

From the Introduction of Nerissa Nields’s book of poetry, The Pantsuit in the Back of the Closet

The Pantsuit in the Back of the Closet

Black Cat

hillary11-17-16

One of the cats visited my yard yesterday
The black one
My favorite
Of course I thought of witches.

I want the cat to visit everyday,
But cats can’t be summoned.

I am going to take a vacation from the opinions of men for awhile
Maybe for a few days
Maybe four years
I am tired of their apologies
I am tired of their reassurances that everything will be all right
They were wrong about the election
They have lost their power.
I am tired of hearing that she was a flawed candidate.
I will keep saying this,
Even when it interrupts the poem:
If majority had ruled,
She would have won.

Yesterday, as she spoke,
I saw the grandmother in her face
The softness of aging skin
The apples in her cheeks
Less makeup
More wrinkles
Laugh lines
Wisdom
Almost tears.
Completely herself.
Where was this woman two weeks ago?

Those who say this is not about sexism
Are missing many of their senses.

I found another aging woman.
I raged
I wept
Until the tears were done.

She said,
Our work remains the same;
It just matters more.

I came back to the world
There is a new normal coming
It hasn’t solidified yet
One where a white nationalist
Can air his point of view on NPR.
The interviewer did not hide her disgust
But there it was: his words laid out for all to see.

So I brought my child to her violin class
I closed my eyes and listened to the kids play Bach
I prayed. To the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
To the Mother, Daughter and Holy Sophia
It is the era of the witch
The era of the cat.
We must be stealthy
And true
We must be creative
And brave
We must not lose our heads.

What saved me
At the end of the day
Holding my child’s hand on the way home, under the waning supermoon
Was the smell of the fallen leaves
Rich, warm, earthy, decaying,
Still present.

Nerissa Nields

Nov. 18, 2016

This poem was written as part of 30 Poems in November, a benefit to raise money for Center for New Americans, a Western MA organization that provides welcoming services and literacy for recent immigrants. For more information, or to sponsor me, go here

 

What I Didn’t Know


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I’m glad I didn’t see
The Trump sign on the public lawn
As a harbinger
Across the street from my house
On the morning of the election

Instead, I just felt sorry for the guy who put it there.
Fat chance.

I’m glad I believed she would win
I’m glad I wore white in honor of the suffragettes
I’m glad I spent the day with my daughter and BFF
Canvassing for Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire
On a perfect fall day
The benevolent blue of the sky
The sun shining in our faces as we held up the signs
The cars honking their approval
Stronger Together

We took our picture with cardboard Hillary
We took our picture with someone dressed as a suffragette
We high-fived a union worker.
“How’s it looking?” we asked.
“We’re going to win!” everyone said.

I’m glad I didn’t know what was coming
In the same way
I was glad I didn’t know
On my tenth anniversary
That my marriage would end within a year
I got to dance with my husband that night
To believe that it was the first of many decades together
To believe in love
To believe in marriage
I remember thinking, “I am perfectly happy right this moment.”

I’m glad I didn’t know what was coming
In the same way
You were glad you didn’t know about the cancer.
You trained for the Boston Marathon
So full of determination and joy
Right up until you couldn’t breathe
And they found the stage four tumor.

I’m glad I didn’t know what was coming
In the same way
I was glad I didn’t know about the miscarriage
The night my sister and I were both
Secretly pregnant
Singing together onstage
Our tiny bellies both just beginning to round
I remember thinking “I am perfectly happy at this moment.”

Yesterday
My daughter and I drove home from New Hampshire
The leaves that perfect gold
Past peak and still shining in the sun
Stopping at the store
For drinks for our election night party
Sure to be one for the history books.

I came home to my sister and her son
Piano lessons for the kids
Take-out for the grown ups
A cake to bake.
I looked up at my sister and said,
“I am perfectly happy at this moment.”

A younger me would say, “Fool. That’s what you get for being happy. That’s what you get for believing.”
A wiser me says

That perfectly happy unstatic moment
Is all you get. So take it.

No one can take away
The fact that the canvassing office was full of familiar faces
Northampton transplanted in Keene

No one can take away
This land is your land

No one can take away
She won the popular vote
The brown
The queer
The future.
No one can take away
That we turned off the TV when it got too scary
And sang If I Had a Hammer instead

No one can take away
That we were peaceful in the end––
One more peaceful transfer of power.

No one can take away
Our own decency

No one can take away
Pantsuit Nation

No one can take away
Bruce Springsteen’s passion
Or Obama’s class
Or Michelle’s sincerity
Or Hillary’s grit

We live our lives
We have our triumphs and tragedies
We get to keep it all, every bit of it.

If I had known,
I would have lost the day
And that might have been worse
Than losing the election.

Nerissa Nields
Nov. 9, 2016

 

This poem was written as part of 30 Poems in November, a benefit to raise money for Center for New Americans, a Western MA organization that provides welcoming services and literacy for recent immigrants. For more information, or to sponsor me, go here

 

 

 

 

The Day After

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I didn’t see
Who put the Trump signs on the public lawn
Across the street from my house.

That lawn is a no man’s land.
A triangle of grass
That used to have a tree
Now it is just a divider
For the two main roads in town.

But my daughter watched
The night before election day
As the car stopped
The man got out
Planted two of them.

In the morning they appeared
The way he does
Guilty and defiant at the same time

I didn’t want to take them down.
Here’s why:
On my side of the street,
I have planted so many Black Lives Matter
Signs I can’t keep count
They are taken
And I keep putting them back,
Closer and closer to my house

Last week my Clinton Kaine sign
Was twisted and shoved
On the inside of my fence

What’s at stake
Always:
The rules of the game
Not the winners and losers

And so I want to play fair.
I left the signs on the triangle.
“Take them down!” my kids shouted.
“Take them down,” our piano teacher said. “Do you want me to do it?”

I said, “It’s not my land. We have freedom of speech. And Gandhi always said,
‘Tyrants always fall. Always.’”

We stayed up as long as we could bear it
On election night.
We made a cake
In the shape of the electoral college
We filled it in with raspberries and blueberries

I’d bought too many blueberries
And no one felt like eating cake.

We went to bed
Anxious

Surely the cities were counted last
Surely the rabbit would come out of the hat
Surely this was the world I knew

I knew. Even in the unwired night, I knew.

In the morning
The phones told us
My son wept
My daughter denied,
Looked for loopholes
And rabbits
We polished up our speeches
We held them while they cried
And made them play their violins.

When I opened the door
To the new world
The Drumpf signs were gone.

Nerissa Nields
Nov. 9, 2016

This poem was written as part of 30 Poems in November, a benefit to raise money for Center for New Americans, a Western MA organization that provides welcoming services and literacy for recent immigrants. For more information, or to sponsor me, go here