Every month at my church, my friend Laura and I host a “Sharing Our Stories” evening with a new theme each month, which we attempt – with varying levels of success – to bring to bear on the issue of Reproductive Justice.
We met on on Friday, the 20th this month, just last night. The theme was “Our Bodies.” The essay I wrote to share turned out rather well, so I am sharing it here also.
I had my first mammogram in December of 2011, a few months before my 40th birthday. It was a tiny bit intimidating as a new medical experience, but it was a very efficient procedure, and a week afterward I got a little note in the mail saying everything was normal, I do not have dense breast tissue, my results would be forwarded to my referring physician – my gynecologist – and they would see me in a year. Perfect!
Then in December 2012, I had my second mammogram, and it was still quite efficient, but this time a week afterward I got a note in the mail saying they had found some…anomalies. Or perhaps the term was āirregularitiesā? Anyway: Something was up in my left breast, and they needed to take another look.
In December of 2012 I was in excellent shape and excellent health. I had made a lot of slow changes over a lot of years and for the first time in a long time (possibly ever) I liked my body. I was in fact beginning to learn to love my body. I felt like I was in a great place, mentally and physically and spiritually, as I was finishing the very first year of my 40s. I was going back to school. I was becoming active in my new church. Everything was going great.
And with all that, friends, even with all that…in that healthy place I was finally getting to…when the follow-up mammogram and ultrasound led the doctor to order a biopsy, the first thought that went through my head was:
āHoly shit, what the hell am I without my tits?!ā
In 2011 my book club read Barbara Ehrenreichās Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America. It made a huge impression on me, possibly because confirmation bias showed me many things Iād suspected to be true all along. Particularly powerful was her more personal chapter on dealing with a diagnosis of breast cancer, and the relentless, near-poisonous levels of āpositive thinkingā she was confronted with. Also striking were her stories of the infantilization of her diagnosis: a cancer center providing her with a ābreast cancer bear,ā a stuffed teddy bear with a pink ribbon, baskets sent by well-meaning well-wishers full of pink branded items and self-help books and āSave the Ta-Tasā bumper stickers.
You do NOT want to get me started on āSave the Ta-Tasā bumper stickers.
But I remembered my reaction to that book when I had my own reaction to my biopsy: Oh my God, I thought. DID I really think I was nothing without my breasts? Did I really?
Of course I didnāt. And mercifully, my biopsy showed nothing, and I am more or less back to regular boring mammograms (though that left breast does still occasionally show anomalies – an older friend of mine likes to call them the āgristly bitsā that show up in scan after scan).
But I was given real pause. The language we use surrounding womenās breasts, and the near-panicked societal reaction when we think about losing them to a disease, are worrying. It is wonderful how much better early detection is now for breast cancer, how much treatments have changed, how many prognoses – how many LIVES have been improved by research driven by those dollars pouring in from selling yea pink crap every October.
But but but. I have a condition, ulcerative colitis, that is treatable but not curable. I am very fortunate that there is a medicine that is effective for me and I have been in remission for many years (I have had UC for over 15 years). This condition means that colon cancer is, for me, essentially unavoidable. The only way I wonāt get colon cancer, basically, is to not live past 60, so quite frankly: sign me up for colon cancer. (It is mercifully easy to detect – and thus treat – Ā in early stages.) Colon cancer is a common cancer. It affects men and women, more and more of us the longer we live. But I am not seeing brown ribbons on car bumpers, is what Iām saying. There arenāt any āSave theā¦ā well. You know.
My breasts and their unlikely cancerous state (no history of breast cancer in either side of my family) are of a greater concern to society, clearly, than my colon and its inevitable cancer. Colon cancer isnāt sexy. Breasts are. Breasts are held up, prized, valued, gilded, worshiped, coveted, groped, grabbed, dreamed of, longed for, made a huge fuss of.
And this fetishization, this compartmentalization, this diminution of a cancer that yes does in fact also affect men – means that a smart, secure, self-assured 40-year-old had to have āoh shit my tits!!!ā as a first thought on hearing of a biopsy. What am I without these things you prize!?
When I was in college, I often ate at the food co-op, a hippie haven of cheap local vegetarian fare where if you didnāt have cash, you could work for an hour or two to earn your lunch. One day as I was buying a bagel and some soymilk, I noticed a Xerox of a photograph taped to the cash register. On it was a topless woman with one breast, her arms reaching out to both sides, her face wreathed in a beaming smile. In the place where her other breast had been, there was instead a beautiful tattoo of a spray of flowers, climbing up to her shoulder.
I thought to myself, āIf I ever lose a breast, I hope I can do something that strong and beautiful.ā
I still think that. After my own shock at my biopsy reaction, I try actively to remind myself that MY strength, MY beauty, my worth do not rest in my breasts or any one body part. This package is more than a package; the truth of me is not entirely contained here, but this package of parts makes a beautiful, strong whole: no matter what needs to get cut away.
MY BRAIN: Come on! Itās the 10th of February, we should start working on our annual Valentineās Day post!
MY HEART: I donāt wanna.
MY BRAIN: Oh come on. This is a tradition, now.
MY HEART: No one cares.
MY BRAIN: Now youāre just being purposefully defeatist. You have been doing this since 2008, you weird little niblet.
MY HEART: Niblet!?
MY BRAIN: Even if not a single other damn person out there wants to read your take on Valentineās Day this year, you should write it.
MY HEART: NIBLET?!?!
MY BRAIN: You need to.
MY HEART: Tell me why. No. First, tell me why you called me niblet, then tell me why I need to write it.
MY BRAIN: [….]
MY HEART: […..]
MY BRAIN: [heavy sigh] Look, fine, itās just a funny word, all right? And it got you to stop feeling sorry for yourself.
MY HEART: I WAS NEVER.
MY BRAIN: You totally were. Hello, Iām your brain, I am kinda all up in here with you whether you remember that or not. Iām not on a tether, trailing behind you, to be reeled in as needed.
MY HEART: Now thereās an idea I couldā¦
MY BRAIN: Not an option.
MY HEART: Surely youād like a little freedom, though? Out in the open air, sun on your…um…synapses andā¦
MY BRAIN: Youāre veering off topic. I called you niblet to get you to snap the fuck out of it.
MY HEART: Out of what?
MY BRAIN: The funk. The sorry-for-yourself funk you were in.
MY HEART: I was…oh, okay, youāre right. I was.
MY BRAIN: And I…wait, Iām right?
MY HEART: Yeah.
MY BRAIN: Could you repeat that again, clearly, into your iPhone for me?
MY HEART: No, youāre gonna have to treasure the memory for however long you can hold onto it.
MY BRAIN: Fine. So why were you in a funk?
MY HEART: [heavy sigh] Look. Okay. You said 2008, right?
MY BRAIN: Yep! Every year since then!
MY HEART: Not true. I skipped 2013. Last year, when I was writing, I went back to look for every year and there wasnāt one for 2013.
MY BRAIN: Thatās still six out of seven years. Youāve written some really nice things about different kinds of love, explored new ideas, faced fears, shared memoriesā¦
MY HEART: Right. I have. And this year I donāt wanna.
MY BRAIN: But why? Really. I want to know.
MY HEART: Itās the dumbest reason. Iām lonely.
MY BRAIN: Why is that …thatās not dumb!
MY HEART: It is. Iāve tried, for six out of seven years at least, to reclaim Valentineās Day. Not to let the overly cisgendered heteronormative Hallmark notion of a romantic holiday control my own sense of self, or self-worth. Iāve tried to stake a claim for different kinds of love. Different ideas about relationships. Most of all I have tried, at least inside myself if it didnāt always come through so well in my writing, to let myself off the hook of being told I ādeserve love.ā
MY BRAIN: Oh gods the D-word.
MY HEART: Look I know this is a soapbox youāve heard me clamber up on many times before. But Iām tired. Someone telling me I deserve love strikes more deeply than I can describe, strikes at how very long Iāve been single, sets up little echoes that say āDo I? Do I? Do I?ā over and over again. Those echoes are counter-balanced with āIf I do now, does that mean I havenāt for the past mumbletysomething years?ā How do I deserve love? Who decides? What is the rubric? On what am I being judged? Where am I found wanting? By whom?
MY BRAIN: Justā¦
MY HEART: What?
MY BRAIN: Itās okay.
MY HEART: What is?
MY BRAIN: Itās okay that youāre lonely. Itās okay that youāre sad.
MY HEART: Thanks, but – and I feel greedy even saying this – I need a little more than that.
MY BRAIN: What do you need?
MY HEART: I need to be lonely and sad and angry and hurt and scared AND I need to be happy and excited for the future and gorgeous and ready to embrace lots of ideas and amazing things…all that stuff I wrote all those other years, Iām still all that too. I hold all those ideas. I contain them. I think theyāre amazing and Iām proud of myself for articulating them. So I am all those things and those are great and letās give me a gold star and a check-mark and an A+ and a whatever else I would deserve if there were any rubric for just getting through stuff sometimes. Letās give me all that and just let me be lonely today. Okay?
MY BRAIN: Okay.
MY HEART: Thank you. I really appreciate it.
MY BRAIN: Youāre a pretty astounding lonely person, you know that?
MY HEART: Heh. Kinda, yeah.
MY BRAIN: [….]
MY HEART: [….]
MY BRAIN: Iām proud of you, niblet.
MY HEART: Iām coming up there with steel wool.
It didnāt take me long, once I moved to Silver Spring, to settle into a new morning walk routine. I change it up once in a while, but I tend to head into downtown more or less via the Whole Foods, then walk over to the Cameron/Spring St. garage, where I run/walk up the ramps, do a bunch of squats and stretches and stuff, and then jog down the stairs back out onto the streets to wend my way back home. I like heading for a garage because theyāre a little closed off from some of the worst weather elements.
After a few days of this I noticed that there was a woman I often saw in the garage. The first thing I noticed was her car, because she drives an older RAV-4 that looks exactly like the one my Mom drove for like a decade. There are always people in this garage in the morning because it is across the street from an LA Fitness club, and people park in the garage and trudge over to the gym.
The thing about most of those people is, they look miserable. Probably a lot of it is that itās very early – around 6 a.m. But this woman, who I regularly saw getting into or out of her RAV-4, always had a smile. Once in a while I saw her with another woman. After we saw each other a handful of times we started waving and saying āGood morning!ā to each other cheerily.
On Wednesday last week, I was running a little late. I didnāt get over to the garage until 6:15 or so. As I jogged up the third-level ramp, I saw a familiar car driving down toward me. She slowed down and I raised my hand to wave. She rolled her window down and stopped the car, waving but also beckoning. I unplugged my ear buds and pulled them out of my ears, so they dangled over the zipped-up collar of one of my three layers of coats.
I walked over to the car as I removed my ear buds, but sheād started talking already so I held up a finger, smiling and holding up the buds once they were out. āSorry, had to unplug!ā I said, reaching her car.
She said sheād just wanted to say hello, and we laughed over the fact that we saw each other so often in the same place. She explained that she was a personal trainer, who sometimes took her clients to the gym next door.
āOh, so thatās why I see you here with another woman sometimes, running and walking!ā I said.
āYes,ā she said, in a pleasant accent that I want to say sounded Trinidadian to me, but thatās a pretty uneducated guess, āSometimes I go to clientsā homes, sometimes we go on the track at the gym, and then walk over here afterward.ā
I explained that I was out here for exercise too, that I didnāt go to the gym but walked every morning. She started talking about how the important thing was to go do it at all, and she thought it was great I was motivated enough to be out on a cold morning, and asked me several questions in quick succession: how long had I been doing it, what got me started, that sort of thing.
I looked at her friendly face and made a quick calculation. I am very aware that people who know me (hi, the five people who still read my blog!) have heard me talk about weight loss and the saving power of exercise PLENTY, but whenever I consider bringing it up with a stranger I try to calculate how it will be received. I donāt want it to sound like bragging or showing off, but sometimes it is very germane to the conversation. It didnāt take long to decide that this woman would probably like what I had to say.
āIāve actually been doing this for years, and Iāve lost 110 pounds,ā I began, and before I could say another thing I was interrupted by her exclamation of happiness, her joyous near-laughter. When I added that I had worked my way off of Type II diabetes medications, I thought she might cry. We talked a little more, about how important it is to live in your body as an ally, not as a hostile force, to take responsibility to care for yourself, and how wonderful it can feel to do so.
At last she asked me my name, and I felt a bit foolish for not offering it sooner. I learned that her name was Patricia. It was time for Patricia to move on into her day, for me to move on into mine. Weād only talked for five minutes or so, but I felt invigorated and refreshed even beyond what exercise usually does for me.
As we were saying our goodbyes, Patricia said āBless youā several times. She expressed gratitude to me for sharing what Iād done, and I told her I thought that what she did to help others was wonderful too. Beaming happily at each other, we waved one last time and as she rolled up her window, she said, āGod bless you, Jen. Really.ā
And as she drove away, I said, āYou too!ā Sometimes I have real discomfort with saying things like ābless youā or āIāll pray for youā because they sound hollow or cliched. But I did want to offer some sort of blessing to Patricia, as if it could be half as amazing as the one she gave to me. The blessing of human connection, of finding an ally in a stranger. She told me I had made her day, but I am pretty sure Patricia made my week.
On January 7, 2014 I went ahead and posted a selfie as part of the ā#365feministselfieā project. I hadnāt started on the first. I knew I wouldnāt do it every day. But the more I thought about it the more I thought Iād like to give it a try.
Veronica Arreola kicked it off on her blog, but I read about it on Twitter. I remember all the fuss at the end of 2013, with āselfieā as the word of the year and the constant back and forth about whether they were good or bad. Because we still love that dualistic simplicity, donāt we?
I didnāt take my picture every day for a year. But I did take a LOT of pictures of myself. Sometimes it really felt ridiculous to keep posting them. (I participated primarily on Instagram and Twitter, though a few found their way to Facebook as well.) I wasnāt so much hamstrung by frustration with my appearance as I was with frustration over the sameness of my daily routine. I mean, donāt get me wrong, I love my daily routine. It makes me happy and comfortable and is good enough to keep me going on auto-pilot on those days when thatās all I can manage. But morning-walk selfies and office-selfies got real old, real fast. (I think I banned myself from office selfies sometime before we even reached mid-year.)
Selfies arenāt all good or bad, for me. Feeling confident in my appearance has been something Iāve struggled with for years, certainly. But in the last year or two Iāve struggled with something else. I feel better and more confident since losing so much weight of course – but I also feel far more attractive. I realize that plays into traditional notions of what is āexpectedā of women and that it shouldnāt be my concern, and that vanityā¦
SIGH. So I was value-judging myself for enjoying how I looked after doing a lot of work and losing a crap-ton of weight. Way to go, ME.
This isnāt a big end-of-2014 post, really. I write and reflect a lot during the year (home offline journal entry count for 2014: 102!) so doing some kind of public summation feels vaguely masturbatory.
Instead let me show you a bunch of pictures of myself! HA!
The biggest value of #365feministselfie to me, however, wasnāt increasing comfort with being proud of my appearance. It was the stories and pictures that cropped up every day with that hashtag. I made new friends, I laughed and cried, I cheered, I made judgments, I chided myself for making judgments and went back to just witnessing woman after woman feeling okay presenting herself to the world. (There was no gender restriction on the project whatsoever but statistically, the vast majority of participants identified as female.)
A couple years back – 2008, I think? – I was in a terrible community theater production of a terrible play called Big Bucks. I played the wife of the main character, Buck (see what theyā¦nevermind). In 2008 I was at sort of a midpoint on my weight-loss journey, down significantly from my top adult weight but still 60 or 70 pounds heavier than todayās fighting weight. One day during rehearsal, I was waiting behind one of the set doors for a cue, and the guy who played Buck had to walk past me to get to the other side of backstage. It was tight back there so I squished myself into that doorway as much as I possibly could, self-conscious. āItās all right, you arenāt THAT big!ā said my gruff and good-natured stage husband, thus making me want to curl the rest of the way into a fetal position. He really was an affable dude and meant it in a ādonāt be so hard on yourself!ā way but I took it the same way I take the reactions I sometimes get to being carded: āDamn, girl, you donāt look THAT old!ā
Anyway, in 2008 I was still battling with deep shame at the amount of space I took up in the world. I still donāt have a good or accurate sense of quite how much room my physical body takes up. But whatever happens to my physical stature, I donāt want to shrink like that ever again. The magic of #365feministselfie was, to me, all sorts of women saying āThis is me, taking up room in the world, because itās okay. In fact itās okay if I take up MORE room. Itās okay that I let you know that Iām here, and not hiding, and not ashamed.ā
It’s been an appallingly long time since I updated the blog. Sure, I moved. Sure, I had a semester of work to finish. Sure, the holidays. Sure…hey, I guess that’s why I haven’t updated.
Today my friend Laura and I were asked to share reflections on the theme of “bells” – she shared hers on her blog (see link above!) so I thought I would share mine.
It’s my intention to write here more in 2015. I’ve felt hamstrung by all the weighty topics in the news and on my mind, but I think there’s room for funny things as well. And ruminations. And just plain more sharing here. So let’s start with this silly story, which will actually be pretty familiar to folks who’ve known me a while. I’ve been telling it since 2001, after all.
Jingle Bell Cat
Throughout most of the ā80s and ā90s, my parents hosted an annual Christmas Tree Trimming party at our house in mid-December. We asked guests to bring an ornament for our tree, in the hopes that people would not arrive laden with cookies and fruitcakes and candies and other holiday treats. So year after year, weād welcome people and their ornaments with open arms…even though many of them still brought unwelcome snacks.
This meant a wide array of ornaments on our tree year after year: some we would change up, some were perpetual favorites, some seemed to get broken awfully quickly, and some achieved a permanent spot in the display.
In 1988 we received a small stuffed cat ornament. It was actually a toy from a McDonaldās Happy Meal – a tie-in with the Disney movie Oliver & Company (which I will admit Iāve never actually seen). The ornament came equipped with a little chip inside, so that if you gave Oliverās tummy a gentle squeeze, the chip would beep out a merry, tinny version of āJingle Bells.ā
Even though I hadnāt seen the movie, I sure do love cats – and so does everyone in my family, so the Oliver ornament made his way onto our Christmas tree year after year. We would dig him out of the box, press his tummy, let him play āJingle Bellsā and hang him on the tree.
When my dad retired, they decided to stop bothering with the tree-trimming party. It was nice, but it was a lot of work, and weād already broken or just plain thrown away more ornaments than could decorate a squadron of trees. In 2001, we had our first āfamily-onlyā tree-trimming in nearly 20 years.
When I had moved out of my parentsā house in the mid-90s, Iād taken a few ornaments that had been given specifically to me over the years, by my friends or family friends or relatives. That Christmas of 2001, we faced boxes and boxes of ornaments – many more than would fit on a single tree. So as we weeded through the ornaments, we made three piles: ones to keep, ones to discard, and ones that I or my brother and his family wanted to bring to our own trees.
Little Oliver came out of the box looking as lively and squish-able as he ever had. So of course I pressed his tummy, awaiting that merry, tinny version of āJingle Bells.ā
Instead, I got a terrific monotonal beeping, almost like a low hum but far, far more annoying. If you kept pressure on the chip inside the ornament, it might warble out a few notes – or at least change tone! – but left on its own, it just made consistent machine noise. It was funny at first. But it quickly became clear that the monotone was going to go on much longer than the time the chip would ordinarily take to play āJingle Bells,ā and the family was on the verge of throwing it out. Or taking a hammer to it.
āNo, no,ā I said, āIām curious now. I want to see how long it can beep.ā So I took the unquiet ornament and buried it inside my heavy coat pocket, under my mittens, hanging on the coat rack by the door. We couldnāt hear it when it was muffled over there, so we went about trimming the tree, joking about the old ornaments, sharing a meal and a warm cup of ciderā¦ And when we were all packing up and getting ready to leave, I went over to my coat and dug out the little cat ornament. Still beeping! My nephews, who at the time were 9 and 5 years old, thought this was the funniest thing in the WORLD. They couldnāt stop giggling, especially when I would squeeze tightly to the little chip inside the cat and it would beep out a few garbled notes from āJingle Bellsā before going back to the monotonal buzz. I promised them I would take the ornament home and report back on how long it took for the buzzing to stop.
I took the ornament home. I buried it deep in my t-shirt drawer. I would check it daily. My friends, that ornament buzzed without cease from that Sunday evening until the following Friday. When I dug it out on Friday to discover it had quieted, I must admit that for one mad moment, I thought of pressing Oliverās tummy again. But no. I restrained myself.
We learn a lot of how to be in the world from our parents, for good or ill. By 2001 I had my own little tree-trimming party tradition, though I didnāt ask for gifts of ornaments – just for my friendsā help with trimming the tree. My own party was that Saturday, the day after the ornament finally went silent.
When the first guests showed up, I simply had to tell the story. It was just too funny. Then a little bit later when we got out the ornaments to trim the tree, one of the guests asked me, āIs this the cat you were talking about?ā Unthinking, I said āYes, thatās him!ā
And this party guest, this supposed friend, picked up that little cat ornament and squeezed its tummy with gusto.
The little chip inside the catās tummy proceeded to play āJingle Bellsā perfectly, one time through, and then stop.
āHey,ā said the friend, āItās a Christmas miracle!ā
I looked at him and smiled and held out my hand. āHand it over,ā I said, taking it and hanging it back on the tree, where it hung quietly forevermore. Every year, he still does. I give him a squeeze each year for good measure, but that 26-year-old battery has beeped its last jingle.
Hilo, on the windward side of Hawaiāi, is āthe third wettest designated city in the United Statesā according to Wikipedia. Hilo overlooks Hilo Bay, situated between the flanks of Mauna Loa, an active volcano, and Mauna Kea, a dormant one. Two years ago, the day we visited Hilo certainly comprised the wettest day of our vacation in Hawaiāi. Having only a day, we boarded a tour bus and headed for Hawaiāi Volcanoes National Park, an uphill trip from Hilo through not less than five distinct microclimates.
Okay, thatās the book-report part over with. In the past few weeks Iāve thought about our tour guide to Kilauea in the national park atop the Big Island. Kilauea has been in the news again, erupting, an active lava flow threatening some populated areas.
I canāt remember our tour guideās name. A friendly, easy-going guy, he had moved to Hawaiāi over twenty years before, from either Minnesota or Wisconsin. One of the sorts of places where I imagine no one asks why heād think of relocating to Hawaiāi.
I wondered, though. I wondered why he chose Hilo. He described his house to us. Set in the lush vegetation of the rainforest microclimate, its walls needed to be regularly washed down with bleach to keep the flora and fauna from taking hold of the house. It was set on concrete footings, but not anchored to them, so that when the lava came, the house could easily be placed on a tractor-trailer and moved out of the way.
When the lava came. Not if.
No, after he shared he was from Wisconsin or possibly Minnesota, no one questioned his decision to come to Hawaiāi – but several of us questioned his decision to come to THIS part of Hawaiāi, to place himself in a situation of inevitable, unavoidable, impermanence. One of us actually asked – why? Why here? Why a mobile home with a bleach-bucket and the daily threat of lava flow?
I wish I could remember exactly what he said. In essence, though, his answer was, āThat is what I needed to do to be here.ā Why live in a bleach-box? Why fight every force of nature? Because when he saw that place the first time, he knew. He knew it was something he wanted well enough to ask the question, āWhat do I have to do to be here?ā
If that man asked āWhat do I have to do to be here?ā and heard the answers – be ready to move your house at a momentās notice, be ready to constantly battle plant life and animal life for the right to live in your space, be ready to lose it all if the truck breaks down and the house canāt be gotten out of the way – if he heard those answers and still wanted to be there more than anyplace else? Then I think I understand.
People talk about change a lot. Iāve made a few significant changes in my life and I get asked about them a lot and I never feel like I have the right answers. I know what MY answers are but I am never sure if that is actually what people are asking. I feel like they are asking me, sometimes, to tell them THEIR answers. Maybe I should ask a question back. āWhat do you have to do to be there?ā
There. The place youād rather be. Maybe not a literal place. Iād like to be on time for appointments regularly. Iād like to be more confident about some things. Iād like to go to graduate school which is sort of a place but is also a lot more than that.
Yesterday was Election Day and I know it didnāt go the way I would ideally have liked, or honestly even the way I rather realistically expected. And every Election Day some people wake up feeling like that. There is embittered talk, and snarky talk, and people vent and make legitimate points but mainly vent and also pout. I know, because Iāve done it. But after the fussing and the stretching and the realization-setting-in, I have tried to boil it down to: āThis world that I want. What do I have to do to be there?ā
This morning I read an online column by Parker J. Palmer, that contained this quote: āNo one who has stood for high values ā love, truth, justice ā has died being able to declare victory, once and for all.ā There is no perfect way to be in the world I want because my perfect world is not everyoneās. My perfect world is your idea of bleaching your house down for fun, maybe. And I cannot have the exact world I want because I have to share it with others who have different dreams, different ideas, and different goals. So right now my exercise is this: What do I have to do to be in the world I want? Not the ENTIRE world. My world. My immediate space. What can I do? The people I see day in and day out. The people I stand in line behind at the grocery store. The people I have seen today who were very pleased with how the election went. I donāt want to be in a world where I am full of bitterness and snark all the time. That was more or less 1995 – 2003 inclusive, for me, and Iām kinda done with it. It doesnāt work for me anymore. I want to do the work I have to do to be in a world I like waking up in each day.
Iām still thinking about that guy whose name I donāt remember, wondering if heās had to load his house up on his trailer and move out of the way of this lava flow yet. If not this one, then the next one, maybe. Thatās what he has to do to be there. Thatās how he knows itās his paradise.
Last night, Friday night, I was tired. It had been a long week. Workās busy, I had my mid-term exam in Spanish, I have some friends going through rough times I canāt actually help with, the move draws ever closer. So I was tired, and I wanted to go home, and chill out, and do nothing.
But I had baked a cake for our story-sharing night at church, and I had to go. And I had to go because itās my thing, itās partially my thing at least, a thing I try to do for the community each month to build up the conversation. And Iāve been tired before but Iāve always been glad to go.
So I went, and Iām so glad. Smaller groups, larger groups, cakes or no. Love is a thing I over-think. Actually I over-think most things but love is really up there on the list.
Showing up: thatās love.
Listening: thatās love.
Talking: thatās love.
Sharing: thatās love.
Impatience: thatās love too.
Itās probably easier to list what love isnāt. I came home last night renewed and grateful, grateful for the myriad ways there are to love in the world, and be in the world, and grateful I still let myself learn about new ones.
Then this morning I awoke to another side of love: loss. I am not here to eulogize my friend Dan who passed away this morning. Iām not qualified, itās too soon, and I just canāt right now.
We live and love and go through this over and over. And it is different every time. And it breaks our hearts every time. How do we go out and get our hearts broken so often?
The alternative is not to love at all. Not to live at all. May we all live richly, fully, amazingly while we can. Next weekend is DĆa de los Muertos. My request is that everyone remember and celebrate those dear to them who are no longer here. And yes, take a moment in gratitude of everyone who has ever touched you, ever loved you, ever been a friend to you.
Safest of journeys in strong light, my friend.
September 20, 2014
Dear Dad –
Can you believe itās been five years? Yeah, me either! I canāt believe itās been five years since we lost you. I canāt believe itās been five years of blog posts and I havenāt once resorted to an epistolary modelā¦until now.
A lot has gone on in the last five years. I know that you didnāt want me to cry or be too sad, but come on. You knew me pretty well. I was pretty sad when you left, and I have certainly shed my share of tears.
Recently I was talking with a friend about how you and Mom never really did understand what to do with me when I would cry. Like, you were concerned, and loving, and looked at me like I was a dear, sweet, beloved alien child who had somehow started leaking.
Speaking of calling crying āleaking,ā did you know we lost Robin Williams too? It sucked. I wish I believed in an anthropomorphic type of afterlife where you and Robin Williams could be up there laughing your asses off together, but Iām pretty sure thatās not the way it works. But I could certainly be wrong! God knows Iām wrong a lot!
Anyway, so Iāve cried a lot in the last five years. Sometimes because I was sad, sometimes because I was happy, sometimes because I was angry or confused, and sometimes simply out of sheer beauty or sheer joy. Often it was severalĀ of those things mixed up together.
I visit your grave usually once a year, usually on your birthday. Remember how I never knew what to do at graves? And Iād talk to you and Mom about it, when we would go to put flowers on Grandmaās grave? Where I wasnāt sure whether to pray or laugh or chat or what? Yeah, I still have no idea. I love the cemetery where youāre buried though. It makes sense to think of you there.
I keep thinking of stories from the past five years, Dad. Funny things and sad things. The bird that got stuck in the church during your funeral. Continued Christmas gag gifts and how I tried to figure out a way I could possibly leave one of those singing fish plaques on your grave. There are things Iāve wanted to tell you and ask you. I visited your grave once not on your birthday, but after the first Flower Communion I attended at my new UU church. I brought the flower that I got that day to your grave, because I needed to tell you about where my faith was taking me, and what I feel I need to do.
But why now? Why take up this letter-writing business when after all, Iāve just admitted a few paragraphs ago that I donāt believe in the type of afterlife where you could at all appreciate this sort of letter?
Well, Dad, a few reasons. For one thing, Iāve had the blog since before you passed away. I still have it, and it seemed important to me to mark this five-year anniversary. For another, to be honest, thereās something I struggle with. Iāve written about grief and mourning and about missing you. The grief is part of me now, every day. It is a part of the sum total of who I am.
But Dad, I have to tell you. I donāt miss you every day.
You hear that a lot, you know? āI miss [name of deceased loved one] every day.ā
I couldnāt tell you when the first day I didnāt miss you was. I was pretty aware, a few months after youād passed, that I had at that point gone longer without seeing you than I ever had in my life. That kind of sucked. And there have been plenty of times Iāve been reminded of you, or wished you were there to read a book or see a movie I thought you would enjoy. (Let me tell you RIGHT NOW though, Iām pretty glad you didnāt have to see them make these stupid Hobbit movies. Yeah: movies, plural. Donāt get me startedā¦) The familyās been through so much we would have been so happy to have you share with us, good and bad.
But I donāt miss you every day. And I need to talk about that because I think sometimes people get ideas of how their grief should be. They listen to the people who talk about missing so-and-so every day, or the ones who note how long they placed a certain type of flower on a grave, or maybe they drive past the monuments on highways to people killed in crashes long ago. Maybe sometimes people hear what other people do or feel in grief and they feel guilt because their own grief doesnāt work the same way.
I know youād agree with me that that isnāt right. Because I know that you wouldnāt WANT me to miss you every day. You would want a life of love and joy for me. I know this because you told me, and for that Iām so grateful. We got to have a lot of conversations when we knew your time was coming – on top of the ones weād had all along. Maybe sometimes people need to mourn in a different way because of conversations they do or do not get to have with their loved ones before the end. If you had died suddenly, perhaps I would miss you every day.
Iāve had a lot of pain and a lot of joy in the last five years, Dad. There have been many days Iāve missed you. And there have been times I have been grateful for the freedom of not having you here. Itās hard to say that. But we each make our break from the life we were raised to in our own way. We make our own life, our own path, our own way. Sometimes we run away from our families, or marry and make new ones in a traditional way, or act out against our parents, or simply move on and make chosen families in less traditional ways. Part of becoming fully me, fully myself, has been facilitated by your not being here. And while I love you, and while I carry the grief of your loss, that is a scar and no longer a wound.
Iāve written, Dad, about what a revelation itās been to look in the mirror and like what I see. I love who I am, scars and all. Itās not that I could never have learned to do that so well while you were here, Dad. Itās that this is the way it has happened, and this is who I am right now, and part of this woman I am is your loss. Part of this woman I am is more with your memory. There are things in my past I regret, things Iām ashamed of, things I am proud of, things I can barely remember. But to be here now they all matter. You matter immeasurably, Dad. You mattered for the 37 years of my life I was blessed to have you with me, you mattered for the 32 years you had before I showed up, and you will continue to matter so much for as long as I live.
But I donāt miss you every day. And I thought youād be happy to hear that.
I love you.
p.s. In the last five years Iāve gotten two more tattoos AND gotten my nose pierced. And I know how much you must love hearing THAT. Heh.
I canāt remember when I learned my father was colorblind. I do remember my tiny mind being blown. āWait, so what DO you see?ā I asked, struggling to understand. āMostly grayish thingsā¦I can see bright colors, like that yellow thereā¦ā and heād point. āBut, like, what does the SKY look like?ā āMostly gray.ā My mind went around and around, trying to figure out what that meant, to live in a world where only the brightest colors stood out. That inevitably led to the same speculation we all make at some point or another, maybe during particularly intense freshman-year up-all-night philosophical discussions: āHow do we know that what YOU see as blue, that wavelength of light, how do we KNOW that we each see that the same way? What if I borrowed your eyes, could see what you see?ā
It was easier to figure out tone deafness. Standing next to my father at church, singing with my own sweet little entirely competent, entirely ordinary voice and listening to my father simply butcher the hymn. One time in the car, as he butchered some other song on the radio (best bet: something by Johnny Cash), I asked about that too. āWell why is it so hard to sing with the radio, then?ā I said, understanding that holding a tune you didnāt know well with a tepid Catholic choir could be difficult. āI just donāt hear how my voice and his voice match up,ā my father said, struggling to explain. I didnāt get that either. Why couldnāt he hear how off he was from what was on the radio, and make corrections, the way I could do?
The one time in my life I was ever sexually assaulted, I barely recognized it as that at first. I was at Tracks, a gay bar in Southeast DC that had goth nights on Thursdays. It was very popular with my group of friends. I didnāt go all that often, clubbing wasnāt entirely my thing, and when I did go I often felt like a schlub (old shorts, Docs, t-shirt) compared to my friends who dressed up. One summer Thursday, I said the hell with it and actually played the part a bit, in a clingy black dress with a low neckline. Even without a low neckline, this dress would have done nothing to minimize or hide my breasts, which have frankly been prominent since oh about the fifth grade. However, one supposes that the neckline made them seem easier to grab, because that is what a distant acquaintance (a few overlapping Venn diagrams of friendship separated us but he was not a stranger to me either) elected to do. He shoved his hand into my dress with no particular lead-up or pretense. It happened so quickly and unexpectedly that I was barely beginning to register it (āHey! What theā¦!?ā) before friends were yelling at the guy to back off. He removed his hand and slunk off, and was then not-so-subtly removed from the club and told not to return. There was brief discussion about whether to involve the police, but frankly since the whole thing was over in under a minute and had been handled, I didnāt bother. I felt safe, because even though something unpleasant had happened, it was quickly and ably demonstrated to me that that sort of behavior would not be tolerated.
Iāve been wanting to write about a lot of things. Iād like to write more about some of the service work I did this summer. Iād like to write more about my vocation. Iād like to write about the sad death of Robin Williams and a sad death of a relative I wasnāt close to and how different my reactions were. Iād like to write about a few movies Iāve watched recently.
And I canāt, because thereās a post Iāve been composing in my head since February 2012 and the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. I felt stunned and uncertain and utterly unqualified to say anything about the incident even as everyone in the country seemed to have an opinion. And I didnāt want to seem to leap on a bandwagon or to speak with any sort of authority. I just had things I needed to figure out for myself.
This is not that post. But I cannot let myself write anything else until I address the August 9 shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the subsequent chain of reactions that has shown me (I hope, shown many of us) again and again how profoundly ingrained our institutionalized racism is in this country, how damaging it is, and how we do our fellow citizens (and ourselves) a deep disservice and deep disrespect by pretending it does not exist.
My father was colorblind and tone deaf. I donāt mean to pick on him, as there was racism entrenched on both sides of my family, but these two conditions mean he serves as a rather brilliant metaphor. The way I was raised was called ācolorblind.ā I was taught to treat all people the same. It is a lovely ideal. But it was tone-deaf as well as ācolorblind.ā
When I was pretty young, maybe 8Ā or 9, I heard my paternal grandmother using really hateful, racist language – the sort of thing that would have gotten ME in a lot of trouble. I was really bothered, but I hated confrontation, so I kept my mouth shut. After my grandmother went home from her visit, I asked my parents about what sheād said, the words she used, and why she was allowed to use them. āYour grandmother was raised in a very different time, and while she is very wrong to say those things, youāre not going to change her mind now.ā They told me that I was certainly allowed to say something to her if what she said bothered me, but that I must be respectful. I was still a little scared but when my grandmother used that language again I asked her very nicely not to talk that way, and she did listen. (At the time. I had to ask her more than once.)
I felt pretty pleased that Iād stood up for what I thought was right. But what I had no honest idea about was how very ātone-deafā the idea of ācolorblindnessā actually was. Thereās a popular quote, very often illustrated in a pretty graphic and shared on social media: āBe kind. Everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.ā
That is what I did not learn for an embarrassingly long time. I did not learn that my ācolorblindā childhood actually left me blind in some damaging ways. It was good to learn to treat the black boys and girls in my classes with the same respect as the white boys and girls. It was not good to pretend that we were all exactly alike, because it diminished the struggles – past and present – that my classmates went through.
In the wake of the murder of Michael Brown, who was supposed to start college classes the exact same day that my younger nephew DID start college classes because he is still alive, the people of Ferguson Missouri have reminded the rest of us, again and again, of those struggles. I have read countless articles and editorials. I tend not to read the ones by white people, because I am becoming aware how easy it is to live in a little echo chamber of oneās own, reflecting only similar experiences. Frankly the country has had enough of white people talking about this, as if we know. As if we know what itās like to raise sons that we must train how to behave when they are arrested. Not if. When. As if we know what itās like to have had predatory lending practices levied against us due to our skin color. As if we know what itās like to fear for our lives and wellbeing at every traffic stop.
But I have to write about this before I can let myself address anything else. I wrote about my sexual assault because it is such a good example of the way things should ideally work when someone takes a wrong action. Men and women stood up for me immediately, recognizing a wrong. I know how fortunate I am. I know how many others have been sexually assaulted and have not found help or support, at the time or after. I know how many people have called the police only to be disbelieved, or have failed to call the police at all out of fear or intimidation. That is wrong. That is tone-deaf. It is not the way to start correcting our society in the direction of fewer and fewer sexual assaults.
So what can we do to make the corrections we need to? To sing along with the radio right, to cast aside the tone-deafness? How do we start correcting our society so that we listen to black voices and respect black people by recognizing the way we have stacked the deck against them? I have no idea. I have no easy answers. But we must, must, must set aside the idea of ācolorblindness.ā Everyoneās story must count for something, even – ESPECIALLY – the ones it makes us as privileged white people uncomfortable to hear. Having said that much, my intention is to return to listening.
Last night my friend LauraĀ and I hosted our second “Sharing Our Stories” event at UUCC, on the theme of “Love in Action.” We host these evenings to discuss and raise awareness of issues surrounding reproductive justice.
But just lately I’ve had so much more than that on my mind. After I got back from General Assembly (see my last post), I had a bit of down-time and then I headed to War, West Virginia for a week chaperoning our high school youth group on a service trip. War, in extreme southwest West Virginia, is a part of McDowell County, one of the most impoverished counties in the country. It was like a whole other world.
And I haven’t written about it, because I’ve had no idea how. What I mean is, I haven’t written anything for “public consumption” – I’ve written a lot, but I’ve gone in circles. There is too much to say. About poverty. About hope, and its lack. About work. About perspective. About community. About loneliness. Some of this stuff I’ve been thinking about is outward-facing (“How on earth do we even begin fixing this?!”) and some is inward-facing (“How on earth do I come home and take up my old life of privilege and hope and desire when I have faced this other extreme?”). And mostly I’ve felt split in two.
For the theme of “Love in action,” I wanted to write something about the trip. Okay, strictly speaking, I felt almost entirely unprepared to write about anything NOT involving the trip.
I looked at my notes. I looked at pages and pages of contemplation and questioning and agonizing and frustration. What on earth to focus on? And how could I keep it SHORT?
I wrote the following, and shared it. It’s not poetry, exactly, because heavens above, I am so many things, but I am not a poet. But it’s not exactly prose because it’s the only way I could begin to approach the topic: by cutting it down to one, specific, emotional truth.
Before I read this, so help me, I also shared this songĀ by my friend Caleb. He and I have talked about what it means to write songs from points of view that are very different from your own. I love this song and am so thrilled he wrote it…yet every time I sing it, I think, this song needs to be sung by a woman. I am not forwarding myself as the best woman for the job; still I was the best woman to do it last night since I was the one sharing it, who knew the words. It is worth a listen to his lovely recording above.
Then I shared this. I will have more to say later I’m sure. But it was important for me to start this process, to stop sitting in silence and gazing at my own navel which – I think we can mostly agree – has a true but quite limited applicability.
It doesnāt seem possible that this womanās heart can actually be contained within the human-sized cage of her chest. When she speaks, the love pours out like the cavern within her is bottomless, spanless, neverending.
Here is where I am from, she points.
These mountains. These rivers. These trees.
Welcome in, though it is broken.
Welcome in, though it is tired.
Welcome in, though it is weathered.
Welcome in. It looks asleep. It looks exhausted. It is alive. Alive and boundless and spanless and neverending.
This woman takes it up. Another woman started it, the lifting. They come together, the women who have lost more than we understand. Their husbands, brothers, fathers, sons. Their homes, lands, dignity, opportunity. They have lifted back up their spirits in song again and again, to heal what is broken, to breathe hope in where it has collapsed away, to fill the earth rent so deeply.
And as that love pours out, she says, āThe men have lost so much.ā
The men here have lost everything.
Everything that they are. Everything they were ever told they were to become. Every chance they had to do the only thing they were ever expected to do.
It is gone. They are hollow. They need to be lifted, filled, healed. The earth will care for itself in time. Who will care for them?
The women here sing the answers. They lift their voices their spirits their hands their boundless spanless neverending hearts.