local_cafe Magic From Scratch for Improvised Women

by Stefene Russell

Published in Issue No. 14 ~ July, 1998

Not this: old, new, borrowed, blue.

This: “At some point, I began to feel that my life had turned out ‘strangely.'”

Those are the words of Marcelle Clements. She’s from France; she also has a book coming out this month called “The Improvised Woman.” She is doing interviews with all the women’s magazines, talking about the fact that “women on their own are turning up all over the cultural radar – perhaps not least because nobody knows quite who they are, what they want, what they’re going to do, and how this story will end.”

In Utah, getting married is the most important thing you do as an adult. Drive down Main Street in Salt Lake City, and you will see brides and grooms passing endlessly in and out of the giant brass doors of the LDS Temple. It never stops. It’s a life-scale hybrid of a cuckoo clock and a wedding cake. Grooms and brides and brides and grooms, the doors shutting an opening, traffic passing, photos being taken, wedding party after wedding party, floral dresses with doily collars, brown suits, the clouds passing overhead … it goes on all day until dusk, like some kind of flowery mobius strip. According to Mormon theology, when you marry, you are “sealed” to your spouse for eternity. As a matter of fact, part of the work that faithful Mormons do in this same temple is to perform sealings for the dead so that all couples in the Celestial Kingdom can be together for all time.

The thought of being being “sealed” to someone for ten years, much less eternity, gives me heart flutters, hypocardia, hives. Yeah, there’s that “always a bridesmaid” stigma; I’ve been forced to read poems at every wedding that has taken place in my family over the last ten years, in the hopes that the eyelet-lace magic of dearly beloved we are gathered here today will rub off on me. I’ve been coerced into overseeing the “Wedding and Romance Guide,” at work, poring over articles like “Dealing in Diamonds,” and “Dream Dates for Every Budget,” for probably the same reason. Never a bride, just a guest at backyard weddings, neo-pagan hand-fastings, new-age weddings in the woods, vague humanist weddings in art galleries, cheerful weddings at resorts and raucous weddings in dance halls, and terribly religious, prim weddings in cold churches. My present boyfriend is even ordained to perform weddings. After the last one, my best friend said to him, “Who’s going to perform the ceremony when you guys get married? You can’t be the priest and the groom both.” He said, “Well, it might as well be the Devil, since I’ll be ice-skating down there.”

I don’t know if that comment distresses me or not. I think of my sister Melanie, who is five years younger than me, married, and a mom. She lives in a house that is decorated all in white. She goes on vacations every month, carries around a diaper bag, picks out wallpaper, gets perms and facials and manicures. Sometimes, when I’ve been working until 7pm, I think it would be great to stay home all day, vacuuming the floor, eating cereal, watching cartoons. I live in an attic, with no furniture, no TV, just my cat and my radio and my typewriter, but I like it. I like to go out driving barefoot, like to travel by myself, like to go out dancing all hours of the night, like to talk on the phone for hours and take long, leisurely bubble baths. Having a husband would ruin all that. Maybe it was too much Sesame Street. Or Mary Richards. Or Holly Golightly. Or Marlo Thomas, both as “That Girl,” and as lyricist of “Free to Be You and Me.” The biggest problem in this whole equation, though, is echoed in what Clements says – there are no ceremonies, no rites of passage, no way to find your way through. No bromides, bridesmaids, births, or birthday parties after that.

In Utah, where the average age of a bride is 19, and the average age of a groom is 21, trying to figure out what to do at 26 without PTA meetings or anniversaries or family counseling to guide you is definitely distressing. This is the first thing I learned: find something you care about as much as a baby that isn’t a baby. If you don’t, this is the ritual you’ll end up with – that of the professional girlfriend. It means being desperate, so desperate you take on the persona of whoever you’re dating. You’re with Ted, so you listen to Motorhead, drink beer, wear yellow eyeshadow and tight t-shirts. Then you dump him, and go out with Frank. All of a sudden, you’re wearing bright, floral dresses and listening to Brian Eno and driving a scooter. Then Frank dumps you, and you immediately hook up with Bart. Now you’re into body-building and acid jazz. And the entire time, you’re freaking out when he wants to hang out with his friends. You throw up if he doesn’t call you, or breaks a date. If you can’t find him, you spend the rest of the night in the bathroom, crying into the toilet, pacing around, mutilating yourself with a pair of toenail clippers. You smoke. You eat. You hate everyone. And if this is the only ritual you know, then you are lonely by yourself, whether you’re a wife or not.

I worry about my sister. She wanted to be an artist. I don’t know if she paints anymore. After Melanie got married, and I was the last unmarried sister, I worried, I walked; I spent nights watching Home Shopping Network and the Catholic channel with the sound turned down, playing my own CDs, putting big, uneven blonde streaks in my hair with cheap bleach kits. I had an affair with a true-crime novelist, and then after he’d gone home to his wife and kids, I didn’t eat for three days. I went to a fake psychic, who told me that I “was born under a lucky star, but somebody put a curse on me,” and then disregarded her when she told me to pay her two hundred bucks for prayers. I bounced checks. I found an apartment in an old house that was full of roaches, with no phone, and cloistered myself up there for three months, and wrote stories. I read lots of trashy magazines. I watched a lot of trashy TV shows. I tried to learn how to sew. I got sick for a week. I got a real job. I figured out how to say I am Dulcinea without any Don Quixote. I had a one-night stand in a YMCA in New York. He showed me all his dirty cartoons and tried to get me to stay with him, but I went back to my room and watched Montel Williams all night and listened to a couple of pigeons beat each other up on the ledge. And in the middle of all this I had my writing and a circle of friends – I think I might’ve suicided with those toenail clippers if I hadn’t. In between being entirely alone and entirely not alone, some kind of switch kicked on, like the one that pops the furnace on in the winter. And I feel that maybe I am not the sister that is on the rim of the world, about to fall off.

“I always think that the best way to know God is to love many things.” That’s what old Van Gogh said. I think that’s a pretty good magic poem, at least as good as old, new, borrowed, blue. It’s true that being improvised means being the defective Tetris shape, that everything stacks up on top of you, and there you are, all awkward and struggling. But it also means there is a place for the blue of the sky to show through the windows of the spots where you can’t settle in, those spots that will never click together with another shape because they’re the wrong angle, and your timing is bad. Your life just turns out strangely, in a difficult way. But the view out of the windows you create with your own awkwardness, your own inability to fit here or there does allow you to love many things – and not just a dozen naughty, striped cats who are the only benefactors of your final will and testament.

An Archive of Improvised Women

Blueprint of Mary Richard’s Living Room
Voltairine de Cleyre, America’s Coolest Woman Anarchist
Hildegard of Bingen
Frances Farmer
Victoria Woodhull
Louise Brooks
Fracoise Sagan
Joan of Arc
Lola Montez
Hester Prynne

account_box More About

Stefene Russell is a writer and editor who lives in the Midwest. She also plays in a samba/world percussion band, and still uses a manual typewriter from time to time, including as a percussion instrument.