On a Tuesday morning when I should be going straight to work answering emails from students, arranging meetings, grading papers, designing rubrics, gathering data for our program, planning lessons and in general, being the professional that I now purport to be, I instead rise at 6:30, walk the dog in the park and come home to the project of nesting in my new apartment for the early hours of the morning.
I’ve just moved into a cute, funky little two-bedroom house in a particularly wonderful neighborhood in Providence. There are farmer’s markets, a natural food store, good restaurants, a bike path, young people, old people, people of all sizes, shapes and colors who speak many languages and seem to coexist peacefully. It is my kind of place. It means a longer commute to my job but it was clear to me immediately when I moved in that it is worth it.
Last weekend, I had a girlfriend come up from NYC and help me paint and so, I currently have a peach colored living room and a turquoise kitchen. After a week or so of living with this color scheme I have grown to love it. It is both warm and bright. I feel like this place might actually be a home for me and not just a place where I store my things and hide out. I haven’t felt this way in an apartment since I lived in Morocco, about four years ago. I can imagine things growing here. But it’s also funky and needs a few things. A spice rack is one of them. There are really no shelves to speak of at all in this small apartment. With that in mind, I scavenged a bit of spare wood from a pallet in the backyard, bought a little hand saw and borrowed a drill from a friend to put a few things up myself.
And here’s where I ran into trouble. It’s not that I am an incompetent woman. I have used a drill many times; I have used a saw. I know how to measure and cut and do the basics of home improvement. But apparently I am not very good at all of these things. That or I don’t have the right tools. But it never occurred to me to notice my lack of ability because I have always had my big brother around to help me out, show me how to do it and lend me his tools. Usually he just ends up doing most of it while I assist. When I do it solo, he is usually there to at least check my work and fix it if need be. Instead, I watch myself struggling to remove nails from the pallet. I break a board in half. It takes forever. My brother would get out his little electric saw and cut right through those nails. He would be strong enough to bang them the opposite way and remove the board quickly and in one step. I know because I’ve watched him do it before. And here I am on a Tuesday morning, almost in tears under the weight of my own ineptitude. And I don’t want to cry because I think I can’t handle it all or that I am hopeless and lost. I want to cry because I miss my brother.
This takes a lot for me to admit. I have a troubled and complex relationship with my brother. For all his luminous competence and kindness he also has suffered from the disease of drug addiction and alcoholism for the better part of the last twenty years. My childhood and the lives of my mother, my sister and myself were shaped by this disease in ways too numerous to understand. For example, I learned early on that instead of just asking for what I wanted or needed I had to quickly and undetectably take the emotional temperature of the addict in the room. I had to gauge whether or not there was going to be either an explosion or a need for me to care take this person before any other decisions could be made. I learned that the emotions of women in any scenario were always less urgent or important than the man in the room because he had the ability to either lift us all up or crush us to dust with sadness, shame, guilt, anger or resentment. The trouble is, I do it in every situation I encounter now. I am always looking out for where the power lies in a room and how I can either avoid or appease it. Or I counter it by being so absorbed in my own needs, I can pretend I am not afraid anymore.
I can say with certainty that none of this is his fault. He doesn’t want to be under the thumb of his addiction any more than anyone else does and my brother is a lovely, heartfelt, honest, incredible person in equal parts to his darkness. I love him. I also fear him.
When, last winter it became clear to me that there was nothing more to do to change, fix or save my brother I finally asked him to leave the property that he, my sister and myself have shared over the last years after my mother’s death. It was a line in the sand; a way for me to say, no more, and a step towards what I hoped was a better life for all of us. I now believe this to be true but I often question my motives and my decision. I worry that I treated him unfairly, that I was being selfish, that I am a failure at saving my family or keeping them together.
In this world where even my own concept of feminism has come to mean independence above all other things, I just miss the one person who has been the man in my life. I don’t think this makes me any less independent. In fact, I am (dys)functionally independent to a fault most of the time. It took me a week to get up the courage to ask my friend to borrow his drill. The story in my head went something like this: There is something wrong with me that I don’t own my own tools, I don’t want to bother him, he probably will say no, he’ll think I’m being too needy for asking, he doesn’t like me enough to lend it to me, I should just pay someone, I don’t want to depend on him, and on and on.
But what I want to say to that little beast of a voice in my head is that it is too hard to be alone in this world. We need each other. My amazing community in Taos always reminds me of this fact. My father has been learning this with me in the last few years as well. Feminism, or just life in general, should (and is, I believe) about being interdependent in a balanced, empowering way. And guess what? I discovered that I don’t really feel the need to be super competent at using power tools. I’m competent enough, even if it means I can’t do every task on my own. The time my brother and I spend working on our projects can be some of the best time we spend together. We like working together much of the time. I go get the thing he needs, he teaches me about what he is doing and shows me how. We watch formless things come into form beneath our hands.
We’ve poured concrete slabs, dug ditches for electric and water lines, put up walls, plumbed in a kitchen, installed windows, insulated the house, hung doors, plastered walls, stained floors, laid tongue and groove, hooked up electricity, and hung drywall. Two people can do a lot more than one. So, when I try to hold up one end of the shelf I’m trying to install in my turquoise kitchen, whilst simultaneously screwing it into the drywall, the gravity of my solitude hits me full force. I actually can’t do this alone, not this way.
And, as a person who has been single most of my adult life, it’s nice to know that even if I don’t have a romantic partner, I do have a partner on some things. And it makes me realize how much I love my brother. Some relationships can be built on usefulness and accomplishment as well as love.
But this morning, both my distance from him and from my community in Taos, make a bitter and melancholy pill. Particularly with men, I’m cognizant of the truth that I don’t choose to be vulnerable very often, if ever. Or I’m just super squirrely about it. My models of male-female relationships have been less than ideal and so, after making messes of them myself in my early twenties, I just stayed away. Or maybe they stayed away from me, I’m not sure. I do know that I am afraid of what it means to be unlocked in my heart with a romantic partner and it’s meant that I’ve been alone most of the time. Sure, I’ve had relationships. I usually chase after men who don’t want me and reject the ones who do. In fact, I’ve been in one of sorts for the last year. But I set it up perfectly with a person who can never belong to me fully and in that way I can pretend it isn’t a real relationship after all so that I don’t have to be fully surrendered. I’ve been cheating myself. Even though most moments of the experience have been lovely and I wouldn’t trade its gifts—this person actually does love me and is deeply kind, it’s also left me lonely and in fear. It’s left me wanting more. And on this gray morning, in a life that I am beginning to love, I still wish I had a person to call to come on over and help me put up a shelf.