Tuesday, October 2, 2012

A Real Life

I'm rereading Barbara Deming's A Humming Under My Feet: A Book of Travail (The Women's Press, 1985), which is a fascinating book.  It's about Deming's long stay in Europe in the early 1950s, when she was thirty-five or so.  That in itself makes it stand out among books of self-discovery, which usually are set earlier in the writer's life.  Deming had been struggling for a long time to save enough money to spend a year in Europe and establish herself as a writer.  Her father wouldn't pay for it because, he said, he didn't want her to become "dependent" on him.  When her grandmother offered to give her the money, however, he changed his mind.

A Humming Under My Feet began in 1952, when Deming wrote an opening chapter and sketched out how the book would proceed.  But friends to whom she showed the sample "couldn't help showing that they were embarrassed for me" (vii), and she abandoned the project for almost twenty years.  Her friends' embarrassment, of course, was due to her writing bluntly and casually about her love for another woman, to whom the book was addressed.  (Later, Jane Rule would take the same approach in her novel This Is Not for You.)  What amazes me is that Deming had written as unselfconsciously as she did about her lesbianism in 1952, when Cold War antigay bigotry was on the rise.  When she took up the book again in 1971, she had to reconstruct the period from notes and memory, and the result is a double vision like that of Christopher Isherwood's Christopher and His Kind, in which the older writer looks at the world both as her younger self saw it and as she saw it much later.

One thing I remember from my previous reading is that Deming surprised women in Italy and Greece because she was a woman traveling alone, without a male custodian.
The next morning I left to spend some time in Assisi.  On the train I managed a conversation with a group of women sharing the same compartment.  They were amazed that I traveled alone.  Without either parents or husband.  My parents must be dead, then.  Alive!  And I was here without them!  'Sola!' They whispered it -- the word marking me much more a stranger than the fact than the fact that I hardly spoke their language.  When we told each other our respective ages, it was my turn to be shocked by the differences in our lives. One of the women I had taken to be my mother's age was not much older than I.  A woman wrinkled as my grandmother was my smooth-faced mother's age...
'Sola!'  The word kept echoing in me.  Word uttered by the women in awe.  They had not my privilege to roam.  The whispered word named me privileged; it named me also outlaw -- one who fit no accepted norm [31].
I'm still only about seventy pages in, and I find a lot in Deming's writing that I identify with: her uncertainty about being a sojourner in other people's countries, and her sense that her own life is unreal compared to those of her heterosexual friends and relatives.  Some of this is due to being single and lesbian, not too surprisingly: she even let her brother Ben court and eventually marry a lover of hers, and when that love became pregnant, she kept trying to believe in the connection between them.
It seemed to me that I could feel her child stir within my own body.  I also wished that I could be that child and be born to her.  She wrote that when she thought of it as a girl, she imagined it to be like me.  Reading these words, my heart beat quickly and I imagined myself in her arms again, a tiny girl.  That imagining flickered and went out.  It was not with my life that she was pregnant.  She wrote that her shape was changing.  Yes, the child was changing her.  And once born, it would change her even more.  I sat on, letting this knowledge touch me.  Though she had married, I believed she loved me still.  Of course I knew that she also loved Ben; but I had clung until now to the dream that our lives could be joined together still, I didn't know quite how.  Until this letter, her marriage had not been more real to me than the love between us I knew to be still alive.  But the child she expected -- the child was changing her, and the child would also change the marriage.  I sat there, the letter in my hand -- in the flower-bright park.  Sat waiting for this birth.  Not able not to love the child, and not able not to dread it.  Sat wishing that I were the awaited new life [53].
There's more to Deming's sense of unreality than this, though: I believe that if she could have asked those around her whose lives seemed more substantial, they might well have told her that to them, their own lives felt shadowy and incomplete.  This is a consequence of the fact that other people's inner lives are not directly perceptible to us, as our own are.  We feel our every doubt, fear, and shameful craving, but not those of others.  It was a shock and a revelation to me when someone who seemed grounded and sure of himself told me that he didn't feel that way to himself at all; and when other people, later on, told me that I seemed stable and self-confident, it completed the revelation.  I wasn't freed of all insecurity and confusion, but it did stop me from imagining that I could have been free of them if I'd only been born someone else.