By Susan Hwang
When I came to this block in 2014, I was 41 and had just broken up with my partner of 6 years, lost my corporate job, moved to Bushwick with only one cat (used to live with three), and would soon lose in January of 2015, my car of 20 years (oh, sweet BGY200 of 1994, manual transmission Toyota Corolla with a heart of gold). Things were so different than anything I had yet to experience. No one ever told me that the forties were the new twenties. Hello freedom and experimentation! I had the opportunity to “follow my ‘Ooo.’” That’s what I called it then—the freedom to choose anything that made you go, “Ooo!” inside—some curiosity or excitement.
My best friend and old roommate from college came to visit that summer, and on this humid, stormy August day, I took her to the block of 3rd Ave between Union and President so I could start my assignment. We sat in the car and took selfies, just like real 20 year olds. They were the first selfies of our friendship. We were giddy just to be together, sitting in my old 1994 corolla just like we used to, except now in our frisky 40 year old bodies and fresh from our break ups (her marriage of 10 years was ending then too).
The block gave me messages in every storefront window. Each awning told the story of where I was. The bicycle shop, the wheels, The Canal Bar, Union Street (ending of unions), President Street (“secret president” was a term my ex had coined, and I thought it accurately described how he functioned in my life — not just the sounding board, but kind of the behind-the-scenes approval-giver and direction provider). Even 2 Tom’s Restaurant — my ex’s name.
I think it may have taken me 5 years to complete this assignment because the piece that I started was so personal. I usually write songs about books—other people’s lives, other people’s words, fictional characters. I’m much more comfortable with some distance (hello, intimacy issues!). So maybe 5 years has given me the distance I needed to complete this song, if “complete” is the right word. It’s still feels very much like a presentation of ideas—an experiment.
The distance has also given me this new perspective on pain. Honestly, I can’t decide anymore whether pain is good or bad. This is confusing for me as a lifelong avoider of pain. It used to be clear that pain was bad, and I should avoid it at all costs, and also that it was my job to protect those I loved from pain (hence, lying to my mother and staying in relationships longer than necessary). And it’s only taken me 46 years to even begin to come to the understanding that it may not be good to do what you think is protecting others from pain, and besides, it’s not possible. You can’t do it, and it shouldn’t be done. It’s still a mind fuck even to write it aloud.
Also, what about the thought that some pain is good. After the break up, loss of job, change of residence, losing my car, etc… my ovaries decided that things were not safe out there in my life, so they were calling it a day. They freaked out and stopped working… for a year. One whole year with no periods. And that’s after being rock solid on schedule, three-days-bleeding-and-out since I was 13. I went to doctors, and they told me terrible things like I was probably prematurely menopausal, and they used terrible words like “vaginal atrophy” to describe what I had to look forward too. It was then that I decided the new rule for my life would be that the word “atrophy” would never get anywhere near my vagina. No, sir, not this one… you’ve got the wrong vagina. Keep it moving.
My period eventually came back (I started making some money doing freelance assisting for an old friend, and all of a sudden it looked like I had a way to survive on earth, so the survival trauma let go, and I started bleeding again). When I began to bleed again, I was so excited… so so relieved and glad that I didn’t have to let go of that yet. The pain of menstruation came again (so bad always that first day), and when I felt it, I heard this inner cheering — like when the air starts changing and you can feel spring is a certainty instead of just an idea. Or like knowing you can both pay rent and buy that bottle of vanilla. Or like when you hit that sweet spot of the day’s first caffeine hitting your blood stream and suddenly everything’s a good idea and everyone’s adorable. I was happy feeling this pain. It meant I was healthy. How could pain mean that everything was alright?? How can pain be the indication of rightness? That’s fucked up, isn’t it? I welcome the pain every time now.
I’m thinking the more you’re in acceptance of pain, the less there is that can hurt you. If you’re not afraid of pain, then you’re kind of not afraid of anything, right?
This of course is being said as I’m finding my way around sciatic pain from degenerative disc disease, herniated disc, blah blah… where the pain was so bad on Monday, I was weeping while making hamburgers. At the same time I was laughing, because it was so extreme it was ridiculous, like, you know, a girl shouldn’t hurt so much while making hamburgers. That’s moronic.
I know that pain is its own opportunity. It’s an avenue of understanding. It’s one way. Beauty is too. But I swear, it’s like there are layers and layers of both, and one does not negate the other. It seems like everything is an avenue. There are only avenues. If I get to choose, I’ll take jokes and beauty and puppies. If there’s only pain at the buffet that day, then I’ll scrounge around my purse for that reserve of acceptance.