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Poem: "Umbilical Lines" - The Wordsmith's Forge — LiveJournal
The Writing & Other Projects of Elizabeth Barrette
Poem: "Umbilical Lines"
This poem came out of the August 5, 2014 Poetry Fishbowl.  It was inspired and sponsored by ng_moonmoth.  It also fills the "shopping together" square in my 7-30-14 card for the Genprompt Bingo fest.  This poem belongs to the series An Army of One.

Umbilical Lines

Sargasso Base is becoming
something of a trading post because
of the jumble of scrapped ships
floating around Lagrange Point 5
and the growing colony of people
moving into Lagrange Point 4.

Astin is happy to dock for a while
and jaunt through the junkyard
with Weavercreep and Operetta
to sort out what things might prove useful
and which to melt down for their metal.

They come back with their satchels
so full they can't even clink,
crammed with small portable tech
and abandoned personal effects
now coveted in trade.

"We should go shopping,"
Weavercreep suggests then,
because he loves looking at things.

"I hate shopping," says Astin,
who always has, because
nothing ever fits right
or looks good or feels true.

"Well you need new clothes,
those are all for the wrong gender
you had on bad paperwork from the Arms,"
Operetta points out, and oh yes,
Astin loves  the Lacuna.

"I heard somebody got the MacroScan
up and running," Weavercreep says.
"It's meant for dealing with machine parts, but
people are using it for clothes and everything else too.
It's not like folks can just come here to try things on."

So they stroll through the Agora
looking in windows and pointing out signs
and nobody pushes Astin to buy any particular thing.

There's a kind of honey-colored shirt
that fits soft and loose, and later,
yoga pants in a smokey gray.

There's a long slim scarf of multicolored cloth
that can be a belt, a sash, a neckwrap, anything.

Astin thinks about the different truths
of identification, presentation, and perception --
about what it means  to prefer honey-color
instead of the clear canary yellow
those women are cooing over
or the rich chocolate attracting the men.

It's nice to go into a shop and find a bin
full of elastics and clips and laces
for changing the sizes of things
that only almost  fit.

Astin thinks of Venn diagrams
and topographic curves,
how ideas overlap or stack
or smear together at the edges.

The flexibility of a truth
seems strongly correlated with
the amount of personal effort required
to incorporate it into one's worldview.

There's a calculus of effort here,
with the equilibrium point lying where
the effort of further flexing the truth
is comparable to the effort
of further changing the worldview.

If the disconnect is too extreme,
one aspect or the other
will snap under the strain.

There are men's stores and women's stores
and Astin doesn't want to go in either.
Other places don't cater to one or the other,
offering uniforms of all kinds or things
people are making that aren't uniforms anymore,
that don't have meanings already coded into them.

Astin is like that, nothing uniform
about mind or body or being --
how Astin identifies is not the same
as this juxtaposition of presentation
still trying to clarify itself from past muddles,
and different yet again from what people perceive
when on the outside looking at the freetrader
who invented the Other box on the forms.

Self and others must be
protected from painful ruptures,
taught how to stretch safely, but
Astin isn't always sure how to do that
and not go dutchman to doom.

There's a store that sells underwear
and only has one changing room
for lack of space and supplies.

Astin tries on everything
and none of it fits,
but leaves the proprietor
a set of scavenged door latches
just for the joy of opening and closing
a door that said only 'Fitting'
instead of 'Men' or 'Women.'

Identities are like umbilical lines,
connecting each to the other,
truths that need to be
both flexible and resolute:

flexible, because if rigid,
they would break under strain;

resolute, because if infinitely elastic,
they would provide no anchor.

In space, umbilical lines are life.

The MacroScan is crammed in a corner
of what has become a warehouse
for bits of things that nobody wants yet,
only just repaired from a pile of junk that
some technician couldn't stop twiddling with.

Astin climbs in and lets the machine do its thing,
spitting out a list of measurements, and then --
delightfully -- a recommendation of patterns
for various garments that would fit.

The printout is whispery plastic,
still warm from the extruder,
numbers describing shape
without trying to enforce a name.

Stepping out, Astin spies a pile
of fabric bolts stacked carelessly
on the floor beside the scanner.

They are all ambiguous, maybe-colors:
mauve and taupe and teal,
dusky shadows and faded highlights.

Astin wants  them.

"Who owns these?
How much are they?"
One hand flutters
over the folds of fabric.

The man who minds the MacroScan
shrugs and says, "If you want them,
you can have them. Somebody
was trying to dye things, didn't work out,
and dumped the results in here."

Weavercreep and Operetta
have to help carry the big bolts
but they don't mind -- there is
a sort of yellow-grey that
Operetta wants a dress of
and Weavercreep asks after
the spindles inside the cloth.

They take the fabric and the patterns
to the place that says 'Threads' over the door.
The people who are learning how to sew
are happy to make things for them in exchange
for the spool of copper wirefloss that
Astin had found in a Carinan derelict.

There's a girl with short bobbed hair
who nevertheless calls herself Shuttlecock,
squealing over the idchip that Astin hands over
to match up the clothing order for later pickup.

"You're our first other-gendered customer!"
she says, wringing her little hands with glee
to keep from flapping them the way some people do.
"Can I keep your measurements? Can I take pictures?
Will you model for me? We only have men and women
models so far, and starships don't wear clothes."

Astin gives a slow blink, then remembers
that the AYES have mostly registered
their gender as Other now it's an option.

"You can take pictures of me
wearing the new clothes."
It seems only fair.

The clothes, when they come,
are soft subtle shapes
that hug Astin's body without
advertising the form underneath
or sending out unwanted sex signals.

Astin didn't ask for it, but the labels
all say O instead of M or F,
as reassuring as the smooth loop
of an umbilical line coiled beside a spacesuit,
stretchy yet secure, and the tag text
is going all blurry through the tears.

O is to 0 is to lacuna,
line defining space in which to exist.
There is a calculus of effort concealed
in the minute stitches of machine embroidery
that points to an inevitable conclusion of care.

The next day, they go out looking for
the much rarer silver brand of wirefloss
because Astin isn't so good with words
but wants to show thanks and knows
that all crafters appreciate fine materials.

* * *


Genderqueer clothing is a favorite topic of mine.  Here's an interview about it.  I have some tips on how to choose clothes for gender expression.

Lagrange points are stable areas in a gravitational system where it's easy to "park."

Body scanners are now available in some megamalls.  If your body is unusually shaped, or you hate trying things on, you may find this helpful.

Agora is an old Greek term for "gathering place" or "market square."

There are some interesting gender differences in how people interact with colors.  One thing I've noticed is that genderqueer folks often like "maybe colors" that are blends, so shades like mauve or constructions like shot silk.

The same basic principles apply to stretching safely whether for muscles or boundaries.  Go as far as you can comfortably, push one step farther, then ease back to your comfort zone.  Repeat over time, and you can usually increase how far you're able to stretch.

The Flying Dutchman is an old legend about a ghost ship, thus a metaphor for things that are lost or out of control.  "Dutchman" is an alert code for someone who has slipped off a safety line.

"Quiet Hands" is a therapy method to discourage people from moving in ways that other people disapprove of.  Look at this model and you can see that someone who has 4 spoons worth of energy for social interaction is never going to learn anything if they have to spend all 4 of those to be pleasing and have none left for actually thinking about the material.  Also the quiet hands method can hurt people.  When they're doing it to themselves, it's not self-control, it is self-bullying.  So that's what you're seeing in the poem above, one woman who's been trained out of being able to express herself naturally.  Loud hands are okay, as long as they're not causing a practical problem by hitting people or breaking things.  You can find fidget toys for children or adults to facilitate safe play.  The Lacuna is culturally open about stuff like this, but includes people from very different backgrounds, so you'll see both quiet and loud hands.

Love languages are different ways to show affection or appreciation.  Some people, like Astin, do this with gifts.

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10 comments or Leave a comment
From: siliconshaman Date: September 6th, 2014 11:02 am (UTC) (Link)
Just saying I really like this one for the level of world-building involved. Everybody thinks of the big things when designing a reality, but I think you're the first person I know of to think of an AU clothing tag! Way to make it suddenly viscerally real.

Edited at 2014-09-06 11:02 am (UTC)
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: September 6th, 2014 06:56 pm (UTC) (Link)

Thank you!

>> Just saying I really like this one for the level of world-building involved. <<

Yay! I'm glad it worked for you.

>> Everybody thinks of the big things when designing a reality, but I think you're the first person I know of to think of an AU clothing tag! Way to make it suddenly viscerally real. <<

I like to start with a base premise and then follow it through to see what else it changes. So here, it's "Neurovariant people build a culture of their own." That leads to "And then what?" -- how do they get food in space, how do they manage social interactions, how do they evolve an economy, etc. Cisgender folks don't think about how ubiquitous gender-marking is, especially in places where it is not fucking relevant. Which is almost everywhere outside of the bedroom, fitting intimate apparel, or reproductive health care.
janetmiles From: janetmiles Date: September 6th, 2014 09:32 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Thank you!

Well, medical in general, I think; for example, women tend to have different frequency of symptoms of heart attacks than men do ( http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/HeartAttack/WarningSignsofaHeartAttack/Heart-Attack-Symptoms-in-Women_UCM_436448_Article.jsp ), and are more likely to have heart attacks with no sensation of chest pressure. I'd be very surprised if any research has been done on trans* or intersex people in that regard.
ng_moonmoth From: ng_moonmoth Date: September 9th, 2014 06:34 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Thank you!

>> Cisgender folks don't think about how ubiquitous gender-marking is <<

Not only that, but personal (people are gender-marked, often inaccurately, by a non-consensual opinion at their birth) and durable (changing a gender marker is difficult and, especially for non-normative genders, alienating). I'm finding that one of the most wearing things for me is coming up with a presentation that is close enough to my identification of the moment to not cause me emotional distress. Insufficient options and low tolerance by others for variation and errors make this quite challenging. I would absolutely love to have better choices.
mdlbear From: mdlbear Date: September 6th, 2014 03:13 pm (UTC) (Link)
"Shot silk" was another of those "there's a name for it!" moments. Thank you.

ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: September 6th, 2014 06:56 pm (UTC) (Link)

You're welcome!

It's one of my favorite fabrics.
From: technoshaman Date: September 7th, 2014 09:32 pm (UTC) (Link)
Good one.... ooh, *now* I get why this is satisfying.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: September 8th, 2014 06:08 am (UTC) (Link)


I'm glad that came through for you.
ng_moonmoth From: ng_moonmoth Date: September 9th, 2014 06:57 am (UTC) (Link)

Thank you very much

>> ooh, *now* I get why this is satisfying. <<

I really appreciate this. As a non-binary individual who must constantly work (hard!) to help others understand that the best description for my gender is "me", I am very much in favor of there being non-gendered presentation options -- even more so when those options are assertive ("My gender identity does not align with your cultural map") rather than negative ("I do not assert any gender identity"). Your gaining the understanding you have is an important step toward establishing a culture I can be more comfortable in, where I have enough presentation options to provide clues about my preferred contexts and forms of communication.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: September 9th, 2014 07:17 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Thank you very much

*high five*

Yay us for helping make progress happen! Crowdfunding for the win!

Gender identity and expression are complex things. Even within the standard "man" and "woman" there are a lot of variations. And then people can be both, neither, I'm-not-telling, mellifluous, or any number of other things. It's good to have options, and to appreciate other people's options.

*chuckle* I ought to introduce you to my Tazha some time. They decided that their tribes of origin had stupid gender models, dumped everything out on the sand, disassembled it, and reassembled it into something they thought would work better based on the interests of people they had in the band at that time. Which does not match what anyone else is doing, but it has held up over the years for the Tazha.
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