Things you can’t tell just by looking at her

I saw a movie once called Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her: five short stories about women’s interior struggles with loneliness, grief, dissatisfaction. But let’s be honest. Most of these things you can’t tell just by looking at a woman, especially when she’s surrounded by her children.

The woman in the photo below, for example, was 30-something, proud, defiant—you can see all that. You can maybe tell, by the body language, that she raised her children to be self-sufficient, self-contained. There were reasons for that, but you can’t see the reasons in the picture. You can’t see her loneliness. Her uncertainty about how she was going to put food on the table for her kids.


The girl on the right in the striped jumpsuit grew up to be the woman in the photo below. The ashtray suggests she was a smoker, the teapot that she washed the cigarettes down with a cup of tea. You can see from the no-frills chocolate cake that the birthday cakes she baked for her kids were quick and plain. You can’t see why they needed to be: the six-bedroom house she kept clean on her own, the huge garden she tended, the alcoholic husband who was no help at all, the two old men he brought home for her to look after, like she didn’t already have enough people depending on her.


The girl on the left in the funky striped dress grew up to the woman in the photo below. You can see it was the early 90s by her huge plastic glasses. You can see she wasn’t one to fuss about hair and makeup, that she had two boys. Not much else is visible here. You don’t see the closet. You can’t tell she’s on the verge of busting out of it.


All three of these women carried secrets. Me, my mother, her mother.

infesting my half-sleep…
did you enter my wound from another wound
brushing mine in a crowd…
or did I snare you on my sharper edges
as a bird flying through cobwebbed trees at sun-up
carries off spiders on its wings?

running over my soul without sound,
only when dawn comes tip-toeing
ushered by a suave wind,
and dreams disintegrate
like breath shapes in frosty air,
I shall overhear you, bare-foot,
scatting off into the darkness….
I shall know you, secrets
by the litter you have left
and by your bloody foot-prints.

Secrets by Lola Ridge

Her 1941 obituary in The New York Times called Lola Ridge one of the leading American poets, but not many people — not nearly enough — have heard of her today. Born in Dublin in 1873, she emigrated to the United States in 1908 via Australia and New Zealand. An activist, an anarchist “when anarchy was a political possibility,” she was “one of the first to delineate the life of the poor in Manhattan and, in particular, women’s lives in New York City.” Asked in an interview once what poets should write about, she replied “Anything that burns you.”

You can read a selection of Lola Ridge’s poems here. She deserves to be much better known.

Cobweb photo on home page is by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

13 Responses to “Things you can’t tell just by looking at her”

  1. Lynda McFarland

    Brilliant – love this Leslie! You really don’t know what’s going on in people’s lives, do you? I get snippets in the shop..we’re made of strong stuff that’s for sure!

    • commatologist

      Thanks, Lynda! You must get really interesting glimpses into people’s lives in the shop. All kinds of story seeds, if you were so inclined. Not that you would have time to write them!

  2. Joan Conway

    The interior world is so rich and provocative, you did a beautiful job of portraying this through your photos. Makes me want to hear more.

  3. Laurie Doctor

    Compelling writing, from beginning to end. So powerfully told with so few words. The sense of transformation, bursting out of the family pattern, in the third generation– which bring to mind your other words, like a poem, “infinitesimal gaps in the journey toward oneself; butterflies with ragged wings”….

    • commatologist

      Thank you, Laurie! Your words make me wonder if a secret is another kind of comma: a pause or separation; a crack in consciousness; a gap. David Whyte, in his writings on honesty, connects dishonesty to fear of loss. He says, “The ability to speak the truth is as much the ability to describe what it is like to stand in trepidation at [the doorway to grief and loss].” I think of my grandmother and my mother and the places they couldn’t go in their minds, the places I’ve been afraid to go in mine. Whyte writes: “To become honest is in effect to become fully and robustly incarnated into powerlessness. Honesty allows us to live with not knowing.” To “ignore the dark shouters, caution and prudence”, as Mary Oliver put it in the poem you quoted this morning, and fall in.

      • Laurie Doctor

        Your response speaks to me, I am re-visiting Stephen Levine’s “A Year to Live” thinking of Mary Oliver’s poem “When Death Comes”: ….. “I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened, or full of argument…” or back to David Whyte:
        “… stand at the doorway of grief and loss…
        ” that immense “cottage of darkness” also takes courage and time…so that “robust powerlessness”, which is our vulnerability, I think is our only real power? There are so many threads here that lead back to the fear of loss, and to what Laurens van der Post said– that the deepest pattern that we have as humans is the one of departure and return.

  4. Anne Blaney

    Very powerful depiction Leslie! Generational links are often rich windows into our own souls. I’ve been feeling thankful for where I’ve landed in my life, and grateful for those who fed it with their lives.

    • commatologist

      Wonderful to hear from you, Anne! I feel much as you do – so grateful.

  5. carin

    I read this line in… I can’t remember what now, a novel, possibly by Constance Beresford-Howe, one of those wonderful running away stories… but then maybe not. Anyway, the line was either “Truth is but a version.” or “Truth is but aversion.” I realize now, of course, that it doesn’t matter which it was, nor did it ever… which is kind of the point.

    Your post reminds me that secrets are a kind of version or aversion of the truth, and the reasons we keep them, are the stories or truths we tell ourselves…

    Oh my. This is some post. As Theresa says above, ‘haunting’. Also I love the structure… so effective in teasing out the threads.

    (And the photos are lovely. And, oh, I laughed at your description of the 90’s… via the glasses. That and the 80’s were fashion at its height, no?)

    • commatologist

      Truth is but a version / truth is but aversion – I love this, Carin. And I love thinking about secrets as a version / aversion of the truth. I used to get so frustrated with my mother for guarding her mother’s secrets, and now I see I do the same with my mother’s. The ones I know, I mean. The ones she knew. Which can only ever be our version. Thanks for this.


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