Caitlyn Renee Miller



I. Palaestra: A mental gymnasium

I have become protective of my fuckery. Each morning, I skim headlines, read novel excerpts—never novels themselves—and interrogate myself about what I've read: I don't ever get anything useful out of me, but I won't let anyone interrupt while I do it.
     In ancient Rome, exercising in the palaestra was the first step in a complicated bathing ritual that then moved to the roiling water of the caldarium, cooled the bather ever so slightly in the tepidarium, and ended with a plunge into a frigid pool. We know all about how the Romans attended to their bodies, but we don't know a whole lot about the women of the Roman Empire; no one found them important or interesting enough to write about. These ancient women are defined by their relationships to others, a lineage that's easy to trace backwards from present day.
     Sometimes I imagine an even more complex relationship between the past and present, one in which growing up involves experiencing each phase of human history. If I have passed from ancient times when my selfhood was inchoate yet somehow assured, the Dark Ages followed a crumbled empire. Surely I stumble toward the age of enlightenment. But these are all strange ideas I don't plan to share. They're all just new ways for me to say "there, there" to myself, after all.


II. Caldarium: Then get out of the kitchen

I would be embarrassed if you knew that one of my favorite hobbies is showering. While I rinse, it takes me too long to realize that the water has become scorching hot—I am so used to being fine with present conditions that I can no longer tell how I truly feel.
     Unsurprisingly, the only extant verses from the Roman empire written by a female poet describe similar feelings of powerlessness. Consider Sulpicia's lack of enthusiasm about marking a day that is supposed to be about her alone:

My stupid birthday's here, and I'm supposed
to go away and leave Cerinthus here.
What's better than the city? On the farm,
it's cold and rustic—no place for a girl.
Messalla, uncle, you're thinking of me,
but stop it: this is no time for a trip.
Take me away, I'll leave my heart and mind
In Rome: what good's free will? You make the rules. [1]

It's almost funny that for years, Sulpicia's work was either attributed to a man because it was "too good" for a woman to have written, or it was dismissed as the jottings of a silly girl. Almost.


III. Tepidarium: Actually, I've cooled on the idea

How anyone manages to build an empire is a mystery to me, but I think it probably starts with having a lot of kids. This is a step toward greatness I am unwilling to take. I was at the hospital when my nephew was born, and a highlight for me was the artisanal cupcake shop a block away.
     But the standout was my sister-in-law, who heaved that big-headed, perfect baby into the world in a performance of endurance that was, for me, like a key turning in a lock. The enormity of what she'd done became clear to me.
     Though I was not present in the delivery room, I saw pictures of her labor later in the day. My brother-in-law flicked through them on his phone and tensed when we got to the one of his wife, exhausted and topless, her arms flung open, and she, still in that same bed, said, "It's fine; they can see." I mean it in all seriousness when I say that she looked more like Jesus than Jesus ever has. I hope that's what she sees when she looks at it; one of things I like best about her is that I think she does.
     I admire the life (and lives) my sister-in-law has made. Hers might look very different from mine, but we both refuse to do something merely because it is expected of us. We insist that careful planning and thoughtful choices are the only way forward. Or look at my grandmother, an elegant woman with a hat appropriate for any occasion. When she drawls each syllable of I love you at the close of our "visits" on the phone, it breaks and remakes my heart. Mother to five—two, including my father, whom she has buried—my grandmother runs a ranch in Texas like a Better Homes and Gardens fiefdom forced from a landscape of burrs. She was raised in Michigan. Treating identity as desire, as battleground is in my blood, even if that blood stops here.
     But back to Jesus. It makes me angry to think that so many people love a story about the birth of someone who represents acceptance while hating the idea that I could forge my own path. I won't even get into how the Romans felt about Jesus, though.


IV. Frigidarium: You can call me frigid; I can handle it

I'm not saying it's hard to be a woman, especially if you have a body. I've realized I'm supposed to be like one of those molten lava cakes, except encased in Kevlar—in a sexy way. And I don't know how. I will not learn.
     Oh, here's a funny story: when I told the man I lost my virginity to that I might like to be a judge one day, he told me I couldn't because "there's a time of the month when women are unreasonable."
     Really this attitude is an idiotically predictable extension of Roman "science": In a chapter of Pliny the Elder's Natural History called "Remarkable Circumstances Connected with the Menstrual Discharge," he writes:

On the approach of a woman in this state, must will become sour, seeds which are touched by her become sterile, grafts wither away, garden plants are parched up, and the fruit will fall from the tree beneath which she sits. Her very look, even, will dim the brightness of mirrors, blunt the edge of steel, and take away the polish from ivory. A swarm of bees, if looked upon by her, will die immediately[2]

On the plus side, I have never once killed a swarm of bees with my menses. I have, however, gotten used to the weariness that comes from worrying more about how I look than what I am accomplishing. I understand that how I package the self is what matters. I know I am supposed to be a quiet vessel. I am sure that Sulpicia and all the voiceless women she lived among, bathing and perfuming themselves obsessively, could relate to the fact that women are raised to be empty, decorative containers.  
     Over time, I've absorbed the rules, and I have finally apprehended a weakness: If I say one small thing about the awesome potential of a woman's life (no matter what she chooses) and it is somehow heard, then I can be more than judge. I am, as Pliny surmised inexactly, the executioner.    



[1] Sulpicia, trans. by Anne Mahoney. Six Poems. 2000. [link]

[2] Text provided by Perseus Digital Library. Original version available for viewing and download at [link]





I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about the patterns that cut across history. Then I think about ways to disrupt them. This is the impulse "Tepidarium" is born from.