The bathroom must have been cold in winter—our house was heated by a woodstove, downstairs—but I remember it only in summer, the window open, a blue-green damp coming down off the Allegheny foothills. My mother’s silver rings in a little box, her cotton balls and talcum powder, the two knobs for water, hot and cold, which came rushing into a cast iron tub. Among my mother’s powers: she knew how much hot to run and how much cold. Standing beneath her in the shower, it was as when sunlight rips through grass and the soft blades move like a sea. When silver, green, and gold are braided on the surface of the deep. When I think of God I think of 1988: a woman on the cusp of forty showering in a scuffed-up tub; the view is from three-and-a-half feet.
On the day after my twenty-eighth birthday, I set up a room. It was the third bedroom in an old rented house; it was mostly empty; it was the middle of July, everywhere acid green. In the room were two windows mottled by leaf light; on the floor was a mattress with summer sheets. I brought in flowers, anise hyssop and chicory, sunflowers, bee balm, wild carrot, poppies. On a low table, on a lace cloth, I arranged speckled shells, a saggy doll handmade of bright silk, a photograph of my paternal great-grandmother at thirty, a card with a copy of a painting on the front: three artists, women working side by side in a desert of the southwest. The windows, the room itself, arranged and rearranged light, all kinds: splashed scraps, flickers on the walls and sheets, light shot through the curtains, spangling the floor.
I cut a man’s white cotton t-shirt into strips and set these in a stack next to the mattress. I put my instructions in a purple folder and the folder beneath the stacked cotton. The brown paper bag, with the small orange prescription bottle inside, I also put next to the bed, on the floor.
And so I was writing: a story. A different story. A story about what Muriel Rukeyser calls “the relations that make us know the truth and the relations that make us know the beautiful.” Also about what the great poet Frank Stanford says: “the law ain’t nothing but bluebottle flies.”
The law: not only the written codes, but silences and given forms. Laws that protect us not from violence, but from imagination and consciousness. For example:
Along U.S. Route 15 where it follows Pennsylvania’s stretch of the Susquehanna River, a corridor of cinder-block strip clubs seems always to be open. You pass through this corridor to get to Harrisburg from Centre County, where I was born and still live. And to get to Route 15 from my house in the eastern part of the county, you travel south on two-lane roads through one valley after another. You pass hand-lettered signs attached to hay bales that warn, “Children Are a Blessing”; “Children Are a Gift from God.” You pass, in the village of Mt. Pleasant Mills, a low, windowless building on which is written in large, square black letters: FAMILY LIFE CENTER. Every time I drive this way, I try very hard to imagine the families, imagine the life. I try very hard to name the aura of the Family Life Center, which is identical to the aura of the strip club corridor. And I begin to feel the electricity of boundary, the tautening of law. The tautening of an annihilating choice: to be, as Adrienne Rich describes it, either “good or evil, fertile or barren, pure or impure.” A law after which there is no self.
In a very small way, in a way that was certainly swallowed by history and the heat of July, I tried once to refuse to abide by that law and its precarious contradictions. I tried to live as a woman neither evil nor fecund. “It is to marginal and secret stories that we have to look,” writes social historian Carolyn Steedman, “for any disturbance of the huge and bland assumption that the wish for a child largely structures femininity.” And that is why, when my sweetheart and I drove to Harrisburg early on the day after my twenty-eighth birthday, I wore a slender, ankle-length cotton dress patterned with the silhouettes of cut-glass perfume bottles: my virtuous, my motherly, my feminine best.
I tried. Maybe I failed, or was failed. Like Stanford says. Nothing but bluebottle flies.
My nursery was also my mother’s sewing room. The rug was nubby and dark red. The wallpaper had drawings of tiny kites with red, blue, and yellow sails. I remember clearly the view from the two windows, which looked south toward the long, soft line of the Bald Eagle mountain ridge. I remember her sewing machine, its candle-like light, its engine-hum. Only much later would it occur to me that sewing, which as a child I thought of as all funk and freedom, is in the Judeo-Christian creation story the first act of civilization and, hence, the originary expression of shame. Cast out, the first woman and man make clothes. But back in that nubby-rugged nursery, hardly anything in my world had to do with shame—not nakedness, not sewing—and nearly everything had to do with those thick Appalachian summers, that zigzag house, that horsehair-and-plaster room.
On weekends, listening to her sew, I liked to crawl around in my mother’s closet: a forest made of silk and wool, shadow and pattern, dresses and suits that moved vertically like trees. I’d pull the door to a crack, let in only a tall slice of light. I could crawl left or right for four or five feet in each direction; I could hear a wind, or maybe a rising creek.
I spent a lot of time in that closet; what did I do? Made things up, laid in a heap of shoes. Messed with my mother’s green suitcase, a large suitcase lined with sheer, cream-colored material. It had a spin lock, and interior straps for securing folded clothes. It was that suitcase from which my wicked alter-ego, Tanya from New Orleans, emerged as from a portal. (My parents had lived in New Orleans for many years; there was a picture of them in the French Quarter tall and lean, dressed in dark clothes). As the story went, when Tanya came and did mischief, I slept locked in the suitcase, curled like an innocent. But the suitcase only worked one way; I never woke up in New Orleans. I still don’t know why I equated being locked up with running away.
In those days after my twenty-eighth birthday, in that room filled with scattered sun, I wrote:
I was a violet bone
with the lit world, July:
it was like giving birth
to an open field
an entire absence shaped
like an acre of light.
I didn’t have much to do; I was hiding. After I placed the four unassuming tablets gently inside myself, after I lay there alone with flowers and seashells, waiting; after I closed my eyes, and my sweetheart held me—after the heaviest blood came, I didn’t have much to do. I washed my cotton strips, I watched the light grow and change, I watched the flowers flare and scatter pollen down on the lace cloth. Still bleeding some and tired, I imagined all those scraps of light as pieces I could pick up off the floor, stitch a flickering quilt or dress. And I remembered how in middle school I was once or twice called “ugly girl” by milk-faced boys. How, like all girls without “normal” hair, I had wished then for normal hair. How I had harbored a melancholy fear of being found unattractive to men, a terror of invisibility.
Now, stowed away in the hot crease of July, I thought about being invisible, and to whom, and about what exactly it was I had been so scared of back then, in that long, linoleum-tiled public school hall where the word “ugly” had hovered, where some small part of me had agreed to go in fear of it always. Had agreed to bow in grief before it always. When the people in Harrisburg stood with their signs and screamed, when they stood and prayed, when they stood and shouted out, that part of me split the wires and—exhausted, starving—finally slipped away.
In a progressive book on women’s health, I read that one way to avoid “post-abortion trauma” is to have sex only with men whose children you’d be willing to bear. The idea is offered as a counterweight to “casual” lovemaking, a kind of retro-radical focus on the sacred link between sex and fertility. The efficacy of this approach for women who may not want to bear children, the magnificence or shortcomings of their male sexual partners aside, is not discussed. I can only conclude that such women do not exist. I can only conclude that if one truly comprehends the sacred nature of sex and fertility, one will, under the right circumstances, wish to bear a child (or, at least, be “willing” to). I can only conclude that I do not exist.
In many obvious ways, I do not exist. I do not exist in the silence at the other end of the line when I call my doctor’s office to ask about medical abortion; I do not exist when the receptionist finally suggests that I get a prescription for Plan B. I do not exist when, a few days later, the soft-spoken, unnamed doctor calls from Harrisburg to counsel me; as he is legally required to do, he offers a pamphlet on fetal development and explains that my options include adoption and parenting. I do not exist in the ensuing post-counsel waiting period predicated on my instability. I do not exist in the rural borough of eight hundred where I live and wait, where starred-and-striped flags crack in the heat and the church bells play at noon “Were You There When They Crucified my Lord?,” where my sweetheart and I look up bullet-proof vests and wake weeping in the night. I do not exist in the nearby university town, where you can’t get an abortion, but where you can choose from among the most advanced fertility treatment programs, two palatial OB-GYN groups, and three religious, anti-abortion “pregnancy counseling” centers. The counseling centers fly American flags and inhabit sturdy old bungalows, in a downtown neighborhood with streetlamps out front.
But I also disappear in less obvious ways. I catch myself blurring into shadow; some mountain just beyond view casts its long, peculiar shadow. What mountain? What shadow? “That’s a hard choice,” more-or-less sympathetic people say, and I disappear. A friend who works in women’s health says, “That’s a hard choice.” “That’s a hard choice,” says someone else, and “was it hard to decide?” says another, and “that’s really hard.” And what do you do when someone is putting an ill-fitting dress on you, and you are grateful to be clothed at all but a shadow is falling and you are a landed fish, wearing a dress, drowning in air?
Considering the windowless clinic; considering the week of waiting and the two-hour drive; considering another woman’s tires slashed and the AAA guy saying, “Yeah, we come here all the time”; considering the Apostle Paul’s promise that “woman will be saved through bearing children”; considering the story in which God is not an adult woman but an embryonic male; can I really agree that abortion itself is “hard”?
A hard choice it was not, but the bluebottle flies nearly ate me alive.
For as long as I can remember I’ve been drawing—first with crayons and then with colored pencils and then with watercolor paint and ink—more or less the same thing. I draw women; I draw women alone. Women in dresses, women standing next to trees or towering blossoms or little houses half their height. Solitary women, women who live in fields of red or magenta, ringed with washes of lavender and cool green. I’ve made hundreds of these drawings, maybe a thousand over the years. In one I made over two decades ago, I drew my mother coming from the bath, her arms and breasts akimbo, her head hair and crotch hair twin tangles of black fire. I look at these drawings now and think of each one as a room, imaginary spaces in which a woman’s solitude is neither selfish nor crazy nor lethal, but holy.
“I want to have kids,” says a friend, “because I want to be part of making more joy in the world.” The shadow falls, it casts a peculiar tinge over my drawings, and it strikes me that we speak of childbearing not as subjective and mutable but as synonymous with generosity and joy; that childbearing’s unexamined monopoly on joy compresses the scope of possibility, becomes a violence. Someone asks, “Why do the women in your drawings always look sad?” They never looked sad to me.
It may be true, as the hay bales say, that children are a gift from God, but my own desire not to bear a child, like any fully-fledged desire, was a garden—incarnate, rooted, indisputable and beautiful in its complexity. And the grief I felt—still sometimes feel—had less to do with loss than with being cast beyond the boundaries of what’s heard. I think of that room I set up in July; I wonder, locked up or running away? Writes the poet Susan Howe, “Rungs between escape and enclosure are confusing and compelling.” I don’t have a magic suitcase anymore, and I’m not sure where it would take me if I did. Where am I and where would I try to go? Cast out, casting in, here among bee balm and poppies, ringed with washes of cool green. I’m making clothes with pieces of light.
A resident of northern Appalachia, Abby Minor directs community writing programs that honor under-heard voices in her region. She holds an MFA in Poetry from Penn State and is the author of Plant Light, Dress Light, a poetry chapbook published by dancing girl press.