One of my favorite books – on InkRemnant:
As this beast has become a little unruly – and in an effort to create a more writerly space for myself – I have carved out a new site in the interwebs for my writing of and about fiction. Please check it out and follow there, if you are so inclined.
Here is where you can begin at the beginning:
We were three women standing side by side – taller and older and far more weathered versions of the eleven-year-olds we were when we first met. Life, that bitch of a word, had happened in the last nearly thirty years. A lot of it, that two of us do not know about each other. The woman in the middle, the bride, had tied a string to both of us, held us close and far and close again, from half a world away, and so we were both here, as she started her life over, again, with a man who makes her smile in ways I remember from those years before high school, before the tight lips and drunken eyes of our black-clad teen years. But there was no wistful nostalgia in that three woman circle. Not for me. And so there was no group hug, no warm embrace to close the circle. Because of me. The one who would not budge.
If you know me at all – in real life or even just here – you know that I am an opinionated person. I believe certain things without waver. I am also able to see a thousand shades of gray and can understand the reasons behind mistreating each other. But seeing them does not make me forgive the ways we (myself included) wage war on each other day by day. I also believe, deeply, in being kind to people. In giving someone the benefit of the doubt, in knowing that I have no idea what they are facing, that very day, that may cause them to be short or rude or glib. And from arm’s length I will forgive that for almost everyone. But I will not be your friend if you think less of me than any other human on this planet. I will be civil (that loaded word of antiquity) but I will not have real conversations or share my life or act falsely happy to see you. I will be what I call real. What often just looks bitchy.
I am a compassionate person. And if you mean enough to me, if we have enough history, and the loss would be immense, I will fight tooth and nail to work out our differences, to find a place to meet, in the middle or just to the side of it – wherever need be – in order to stay connected. In order to be friends. But my face hides nothing. It is virtually impossible for me to pretend when it comes to real emotions (which, perhaps, makes holding to my convictions, if not easier, more necessary than for some people).
So when this long-ago friend came up to me as I was talking, for the first time that wedding day, to the bride – to the woman who links us both now – and acted happy to see me and put her arm around me and asked how I was, I answered, good, but I kept my arms at my side and my face neutral. Against accepted social order and politeness. Against expectation. It’s such a small thing really – what I did not do. I did not hug back. I also did not pull away. Or make a scene. I simply stood still, smiled a small upturn of my lip and let my arm remain at my side. And she said, oh, we don’t want a hug, do we? while she stood up and stiffened and looked me in the eyes.
What I did do, though, was keep my mouth shut except to say no, not really, but thanks. Out of respect for the bride and the moment and the space we all filled that day, one of love and lightness and laughing, I walked away while answering her last question, which included what to me sounded like a back-handed stab at the bride for having left this woman’s mother out of the festivities. I smiled at the bride and walked back to my table and my friends and those I love. Instead of saying what I wanted to say. Instead of saying what I would have said had the moment been different. Instead of defending myself, for that moment and all the ones before.
I sat down next to my boyfriend and told him that Sasha was in full effect. Sasha Beesh. What we call me when I am being, seriously or otherwise, a bitch. It is a pet name. But it is serious, too. I draw lines. When I need to, I will. And I will, if the situation is right and I think there is use in it, tell you why. And then I will think, sometimes say, that I am such a bitch. Wherein bitch is firm. Wherein bitch is rigid. Wherein bitch is honest.
Naming it that, naming myself a bitch is simultaneously a prayer to the sky that I do not react roughly unnecessarily and a slice through to the comic of life – look at me, bitching it up everywhere – don’t look at me, I’m just acting up over here. It is a way to hold it at arm’s length, this way I am, to stare at it and laugh at it until I know for sure, each time, if it was the right way to be.
It was but a few minutes in the almost seven hour event. But it is the kind of encounter that can leave me conflicted, that can take up brain space for hours, for days, until I decide how I feel about my own actions.
Instead, I let go of that moment and went on to have a fabulous time at the wedding. And this long-ago friend sat at the wedding party table throughout the night and was composed and dignified and reserved. While my friends and I were loud and rowdy and danced ridiculously and laughed so hard that my voice was hoarse by the end of the evening. We could not have had more different evenings, she and I, although I would guess that, my presence aside, she had a great time, too. In her way. Just as I did in mine.
What has stuck in my brain, what is getting turned around and around since that night last month, is the question of how I should have acted – by my standards, by anyone’s standards, by her standards – versus what really happened and how the gaps between those expectations define me. Moments like these, which happen not infrequently in my life, force me to look at myself and my ways of being and to try to walk the fine line of my own personal code, balance between my integrity and ethos and trying to still be polite in the ways that I define that word, while still minding that others define that word very differently than I do. I do not want to hurt people. I do not want to start fights. I do not want to make a big deal out of things that need not be enlarged. Mostly, I don’t want to be an asshole unless being an asshole is the only acceptable option.
If I feel that it is worth it, I will make a mountain out of what I feel is a sheet-covered mountain. I will call a spade a spade, to use another cliché. I will describe its outline and fill in that shape, mark it clearly as what it is, and then feel good about not having tiptoed around a delicate moment for the sake of propriety or decorum or civility.
If not, I will walk away. Let it go.
Sometimes, I will do the first and then decide later that I should have walked away.
And, you see, the details of why I won’t hug this woman or pretend to believe her joy at seeing me are as ridiculous and as serious as it gets. So my response to her greeting is both disproportionately gruff and entirely too kind. We reconnected more than a decade ago at an event I was hosting in grad school. Her husband was reading and I was shocked – and happy – to see her. I could tell, without knowing for sure at that time, that she had returned to the religion of her childhood – Mormonism. I introduced her to my girlfriend and assumed that I would never hear from her again. I wasn’t sure about that, but I would have been surprised to have her be positive about this aspect of my life. Still I was honest and knew that those who fall away need to – that secrecy is no way to handle these reunions in life.
Years and years later, she sought out being my friend on facebook. Ahhh, I thought, she is more open-minded than the majority of her Mormon cohorts. But she quietly and covertly unfriended me after enough time to realize who I was and what I stood for . . . I noticed when we both commented on the same thing and it gave me the tell-tale how-many-friends-in-common link below her name. And while it didn’t really matter, in the large scheme – I never figured we’d have a deep and meaningful relationship – it did stab. Why seek me out? Why make me think you knew me and still wanted in? Why do it so secretly? Why not just say, like a grown-up, that you found my views loud and offensive and judgmental and then I could say ok and we could be cordial in public because I believe what I believe and you believe what you believe and que sera sera. When I noticed online that she had unfriended me, we had a small group reunion coming up in a few weeks and I wondered how much awkwardness would be packed into that day and night if she did, in fact, show up.
She didn’t. And hasn’t. To anything until this wedding. Until she had to in order to be included in such an important day for such a close friend. And instead of standing tall and keeping her distance, she feigned excitement and emoted too much and then recoiled when I did what I felt was most honest in that moment – held back and stood firm.
And what bothers me most is multi-faceted, of course. Initially, I was and am insulted that she dumped me. Not out of some personal pride, really. I was and am most offended by the fact that I find her religion an affront to my very being. I am offended (and hurt) by the money and rhetoric her church spends on attempting to negate the lives of people like me and people I love. Over and over and over.
And yet I could have stayed friends in that virtual way of these times. I could have, would have, been polite and respectful of her beliefs. I can not, though, – and did not – keep my mouth shut in my own little pocket of the internet universe. And that, apparently, is what she would have preferred. It is my virtual ramblings that sent her to the unfriend button, that made her tell a friend that I was judging her and trying to tell her what to think, that made her disappear instead of glossing over my words and standing firm in her own beliefs at the same time. It was her inability to hold that we can occupy space on opposite sides of the spectrum and still be friendly, if not friends.
The difference, though, between us lies exactly in that action and the encounter at the wedding. Where she shunned the confrontation of being honest and then acted against the honesty of just steering clear of me – where those things happen, where fake emotion replaces the truth of the matter is where I can not abide. I detest phoney – phoney smiles, phoney friendships, phoney greetings. Be real. Even if that might, to an onlooker, seem rude. I prefer to know exactly where I stand with you. And I will give you that same respect in return. Don’t give me that honesty and I will still react honestly. It’s how I know how to be. It’s the only way I will feel ok with myself later. Even if I wonder, in the moment, if I am being harsh. If I am being a bitch.
The chord that strikes in these kinds of social tangos is a deep one for me. I struggled, long and painfully, to fully rid myself of the shame and guilt and embarrassment of living a life that makes people unfriend you, that makes people leer at you in public, that makes people say they have nothing against you but a portion of their paycheck goes to proving otherwise. Landing outside of that ingrained shame means I have no patience for, no play with, no space in my life for people who do not have at least the decency to be real with me. Having fought that battle with myself, I am virtually incapable of playing along with some social song and dance in the name of ‘politeness’ when I know you’d rip the rug out from under me if you could – and, more than likely, you are trying to with every tithing and every political donation.
I can only suppose that, for her, feigning joy at seeing me felt right. It felt like the socially acceptable way to behave in the situation. That it felt like respect for the moment, for the bride, maybe even for me, as she sees me. I would suppose that there is a canyon between how she sees that moment play and the way I do.
I would guess that the biggest difference is this: my arms at my side was the most respectful thing I could do for her in that moment. Honesty is the kindest thing, for me, in moments like that. For her, even. Respect for her beliefs and freeing her from the fake smiles and inevitable questions that lead to answers she doesn’t care about and doesn’t want to hear. Where she probably sees my action as rude, I see it as kind, to us both.
To be fake would be an affront to my own beliefs, too. I would feel I was selling out the ethics and morals I stand for if I play kissy-face-greeting with someone who sees me as less than a full person. I would be saying: Sure, hate me, hate people I love, fight against our very being and I will still hold to decorum and embrace you as though there is anything real in this moment. As if when we part, you will not still wage war against me and those I love.
Bitchy? I guess so.
Polite? Not by most people’s standards.
But today, still, I feel ok with it. I wish I hadn’t been forced into opting out of that hug, into doing that with the bride between us. And I don’t hate her. I truly don’t. I have a lot of feelings about how isolating it is to move outside of the lines of religions like Mormonism, especially if you were raised in it. But understanding it, feeling for people whose whole lives rests within specific codes of conduct, knowing the loneliness of people who leave such religions behind – none of that changes what is right, for me.
I make up my own standard of conduct. In a way, I make it up as I go along. But it is guided by a deep and abiding sense of what is right – outside of religion and commandments and holy creeds – what is right and true, as a human, as someone who believes in the sanctity of each person’s right to be and be respected. Dear Abby and Emily Post have no sway with me. I am incapable, really, of rote social grace. My code is constantly assessed and evaluated, but I will do what I must to be true, to myself. To say what needs to be said and to swallow what does not.
To say, without saying (if the time is wrong to speak), that I won’t play along.
To say, when it needs to be said: I know what you think. And not only do I not agree. I am offended – as a human, as a one-time long-ago friend, as an adult you tricked into believing you felt different – and so I will not hug you. I will not kiss your cheek and make small talk. I will hold firm. And then walk away. Out of a sense of propriety. Out of my own code of civility. To be honest. With you. But mostly, with myself.
My most recent faith struggle is not one of intellect. I don’t really do that anymore. Sooner or later you just figure out there are some guys who don’t believe in God and they can prove He doesn’t exist, and there are some other guys who do believe in God and they can prove He does exist, and the argument stopped being about God a long time ago and now it’s about who is smarter, and honestly I don’t care.
– Donald Miller
In educated circles, science is god. And by god, I really mean king, because if you are smart then you only believe in real people right in front of you who you can hear and see and smell and sense as their hands reach out to slap you across the face or their arms reach out to hold you or as their legs carry them right past you. You believe in logic and reason and that blood works through your body and water filters through the world in all of its stages to keep us all alive and that what a microscope can’t show us, then a computer can. If you can prove it, it exists. Logically then, if you can’t, it doesn’t.
It seems that being educated, unless you attend a religious college (which by regular college folks standards isn’t even the same thing), means having outgrown god, if you ever believed at all. God is a tool that is used to hold people down. God is a crutch for weak people. God is like a childhood blanket that you leave behind once you are big and strong and know better.
And in educated circles, we are beat up all of the time for who we are and what we believe by people who hide behind religion, who believe in ghosts and miracles and stories about yeast and sugar and flour becoming living breathing fish. Crazy stuff. Unbelievable stuff. Magic stuff. We are busy fighting off the mandates of people who tell us that God knows best. We are busy trying to live our own lives. As a woman, as a queer, as a person who believes that god and government should be separated, Religious People are like a clone army sent to shackle us all to their religious texts.
I get the aversion. I was so anti-religion in my teen years that I threatened to writhe on the floor of every classroom at the beginning of every period, ‘foaming’ out of my mouth directly under the crucifix, when my mother threatened to send me to a Catholic school.
I got older, though. And I encountered people who I greatly admired who were smarter than me, more informed than me, more brilliant. People I deeply respected as intellectuals. As liberals. As humanitarians. And some of them believed in God. With a big G. Even, sometimes, a Christian one – the one I held in the most contempt, personally. It was one of the loudest, most trembling moments of cognitive dissonance I have personally experienced. I could feel and hear and almost smell the heat and smoke and burn of cogs grinding together and locking up and motors starting to wrench themselves inoperable. In my own head. In my own heart.
Does. Not. Compute.
That’s when I started the slow and very personal journey of reconciling my own misguided notion that smart people aren’t religious. That educated people don’t believe in god. That to be rational and reasonable means you deny faith and, certainly, Religion. I listened to the ways that these smart people interpret their religious texts, to the way that they work to better their churches, really listened to what it is they believe and what it means to them.
It is a continual journey, really, in the way that we all need to be aware of and alert for the insidious ways that we fall back on old, weathered and mass-mentality notions of groups and cultures. That moment, though, shook loose the idea that one belief precedes the other on some sort of intelligence barometer and that the only way to move further along the path is to become educated. I lost the need to hold onto the idea that using your smarts and believing, in any god, were two particular stops on the same evolutionary line.
I have never been an Atheist. Even in my most angry, combative, anti-religion phases, I have found it impossible to believe that all that exists is what we can see. There is too much in life that is real that cannot be seen or touched or slid between two slides and studied. So I fall back on the term Agnostic. The shape of my agnosticism has morphed many times in the last two decades. All kinds of shapes and densities. It has veered remarkably close to sidling up to a notion of Jesus that has nothing to do with Pat Roberts or Fred Phelps or Al Sharpton but might startle anyone who knows me well. I don’t know where it will go in the decades to come, but I do know that it will be something my brain and heart work out together. I do know that intellect will not dictate the journey no matter how hard it tries.
You can talk to me of science and reality and make-believe and weakness. You can make a logical and rational case for atheism. And still I will know deep in my human body and brain and soul (yes, soul) that there is more, for me, than science. There is more to this world and universe and life than a human ant farm that just magically appeared out of space dust. And I could try to argue with you about that. I could try to sway you to believe, in anything at all, in any kind of force or nature or power besides science. But I don’t. I won’t. Because I don’t care if you think there’s nothing. If, deep in your core, you know that to be true. I don’t need evangelism. I recoil from it. I believe in something and you can believe in nothing. And I don’t gauge your intelligence by that difference. I don’t decide whether you are a good, caring and righteous person based on your non-belief.
But sometimes you do. Gauge my intelligence. If you are Atheist. If you also fancy yourself smart and rational and a good thinker. If you believe something must be proven in order to be true.
All kinds of religions judge me as well. But I care less about that. I am used to Baptists thinking I am going to Hell. I am fine with that idea – me as Toto in Dorothy’s bike basket headed straight for Satan’s lair. I am used to Mormons thinking I am dangerous and lost and misguided. I am used to the Bible being wielded like a sledgehammer against my right to live as I see fit.
But when my friends make blanket statements about the foolishness of believers. Of those who have faith. Say things that make us out to be small brained, developmentally retarded, delusional people who believe in caped crusaders for salvation – that hurts. And worse, it is insulting. To me. To more people on this planet than not. It is as belittling as being made out to be a child-molesting moral-less pervert for wanting to marry the person you love.
It hurts me, yes, but it also pains me on behalf of the people I know and love who are not robots, are not sheep, are not unthinking weaklings who forsake intelligent thought and critical thinking in favor of an easy how-to guide to life. Who do not use their faith as a weapon against anyone unlike them.
Election seasons are particularly rabid in this area and we have just weathered a doozy of an election season where the Religious Idiots were thick and loud and full of some of the most ridiculous and shockingly offensive misinformation. But they are to believers what they are to humans – cartoonish and extreme and not the mold. The Mitt Romneys and Pat Roberts and Ann Coulters create a compassionless vacuum into which falls the voices of people who I care about, who I believe care about me, saying believers are dumb and they’re all idiots or various versions of: faith and intellect are exact opposites.
These politically charged times create a climate in which the insults are thrown from both sides and to be an agnostic who fancies herself rather enlightened and intelligent and rational is to feel bruised from all sides. To feel as though your very core is being dismissed. Someone like that, like me, is drawn with loose pencil loops into a squat, awkward cartoon – a Mr. Magoo-like befuddled caricature who stumbles around reciting facts and data while going home to kneel at the altar of superman, offering rocks painted green that are set under a light to make them look like genuine gems. A bumbling idiot dressed as an intellectual.
It is to be called stupid, over and over and over. As though I have to make the choice between being smart and having faith. I must give up one to keep the other. I must denounce uncertainty to be considered wise.
It is not a large leap, in fact hardly a leap at all, for me to move from believing in love (all sorts, all types), that inexplicable, almost magical truth of life – to move from that to having faith that there are invisible, unnameable, unseen things at work in this world. The gap between those two things is smaller than the jump a single synapse makes in my brain. I feel things that cannot be quantified. I know things to be true that have no place in a lab. Even science, God to the Godless, is an imperfect thing. Is an evolving thing. Is a process in the process of becoming more and more useful and precise and fascinating.
I want to say: how is emphatically declaring that there is no god any different from a religious fanatic declaring there is one and you are wrong for not following? Is it simply because you are smarter? Because not believing proves that?
I believe in science. But I believe in other things, too. I have the ability to hold a variety of beliefs that, for me, do not preclude each other. As we all do. Two of the ones I can hold in one hand just happen to be two that a lot of my friends see as being at odds with each other. For me, though, one without the other makes me incomplete, unsettles me, leaves my world askew.
I find a very precise kind of beauty in letting go of reason, as a straight-jacket or a scaffolding or a restricting litmus test of real versus nonreal – in letting go of knowing if it’s true and allowing myself the space to believe that it just might be. There is a grace in it, and not the strict definition of religious grace, but a type of slope and swing and levity that makes my life better, that feels a lot like the look in someone’s eye who thinks you are lovely and brilliant and funny, a kind of thin cotton cloth that feels safe and soft, that feels like home.
I have a lot of faith. But I am also afraid a lot, and have no real certainty about anything. I remembered something Father Tom had told me–that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns
– Anne Lamott
Sometimes I pray. And I can hear a voice in my head that says this might be useless. This might go nowhere. But it helps. And if that makes me weak – well, I am. But so are you. We all are. We all need. Different things. In different ways. If praying to something when I can’t even decide what it is makes me weak, I am fine with that. I really am.
But it does not make me stupid. Or uninformed. Or laughable. Certainly not dismissable. I analyze down to fine points. I see nuances and patterns and connections and if there is a way that I consistently think, it’s critically. To a fault, sometimes. And I am educated. More than some, less than others. I am smart. Not the smartest, not by a long shot. But I am one of the sharp tools, that is one thing I will not disavow, ever. And my faith that there is something beyond science and the dirt I can hold in my hand and press between my fingers, something more than the invisible (without technology) electrical impulses that shoot through my entire being – well, that doesn’t say shit about my intelligence. And if you think it does, you do yourself a disservice and underestimate not just me, but millions of other people, of all kinds of faithful persuasions.
There are sheep. There are wolves. There are people who misuse religion for their own gain. There are people who are hungry to be told how to treat people, how to live, how to make meaning without having to work at it. There always have been and there always will be. And I pray, in silent and unorthodox and non-ritualized ways, that people will think for themselves. That each person will use their brain and their heart and not allow other people to tell them how to live or not to live.
I pray, in a hazy and shadowy way, that evangelism goes the way of Betamax.
I pray, sporadically and selfishly, that hate gets sliced clean from religion, a scalpel of intelligence and compassion rending it from faith like the slimy viscera of a chicken breast being cut and then ripped loose.
I pray that Fred Phelps’ family and his followers find themselves face to face with someone they should hate but, for some reason, for any reason, they cannot. And they then have to pull themselves out of that fabric long enough to see that god (big G, little g, whatever) doesn’t have to be venomous.
Sometimes, I pray that I never ever accidentally hear another Celine Dion song. (That alone should prove that faith and smarts are not mutually exclusive, right?)
The truth is that I will believe whether my book-smart or street-smart or punk rock friends think I should or not. I will continue to believe in something even if the religious right thinks I am unworthy. I will be who I am in all of the ways that I am, regardless, because it’s all I know how to do.
I get tired, though. Of being reminded that my friends either assume I have no faith (if they think I have brains) or think that I have a good deal less smarts than I do because I believe in something that cannot be proved. It is tiring, and heartbreaking, to feel that for friends to know the truth means they re-categorize you. Faith really is the Evil Gay of intellectual circles – the biggest academic closet. I am sure that you all have really smart friends who believe in God, whether they feel like telling you that or not. Who they pray to, whether they pray or not, is to their intelligence what atheism is to yours – a whole separate issue. Plenty of stupid people are atheists. Some really smart ones, too.
No matter what, I pray. Silent prayers like blades of grass pulled up mindlessly while sitting out in a park alone. That those I love are happy. That those who don’t love enough stay far enough away from me to let me live my life. That my family sleeps well and makes it through another day. That fewer people are sad tomorrow than today. That I do my best to be good. That I do my best not to hurt anyone. To remember that everyone has their shit. I send out words of thanks: for what I have found, for what I have survived, for the people I have in my life who stand with me and hold me up. And on and on.
But instead of dropping those prayers like blades of grass, letting them fall to the ground as I walk away, they float up and over and away from me: dark, messy, hopeful fragments of words. I am mostly unaware that I send out those filmy gray bubbles, wobbly and imperfect and unsure, permeable pockets of wishes and hopes and blessings. It is, at this point in my life, just like breathing or thinking or looking.
And whether you call it god or karma or positive energy or compassionate humanism doesn’t matter at all to me. We all send prayers out into the sky, we all send wishes and hopes and pleas. A prayer by any other name is still an invisible thing that can’t be dissected or graphed or filed. It is apart from intellect. Apart from science. Apart from learning. It is private and sacred and real, if only to the one saying it. I am smart enough to know that. Whether you see that in me or not.
This week it’s a spelling-impaired chicken. Last week it was a buffooning politician. Some time ago it was a red-faced talk show host. On and on and on. Ad nauseum. Gays, marriage, God and rights. Big abstract nouns. Big big umbrellas of words that house all kinds of tiny little specs of meaning, atoms and molecules and breath and heart that build the un-holdable mass of real people who make up any of those terms.
So let me break it down to one. Me. I’m in there. Right in there with all kinds of people I know and love as well as innumerable people I don’t know and/or don’t like. Me. So it’s personal. How you stand on this issue is not abstract or beside-the-point or separate-from-how-you-feel-about-me. It’s personal. Really fucking personal. It tells me exactly how you feel about me, whether you think it should or not.
And every time this topic swells up in the news and in social media – every time it becomes the super-heated topic du jour – my mind replays a two-scene drama that rips through my body like a swift and sharp electrical current. I feel it tell itself in my body. Every time.
There was a moment in time in the spring of 2004 in Portland, Oregon where some ‘rogue’ city commissioners started issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples because they couldn’t determine where in the law it said they couldn’t. There’s a lot to be read or written about the politics of that time, about the right and wrong, bureaucratically or otherwise, of that brief spell in Multnomah County’s history. But for me, personally, it was a magic moment in time – full of the giant wobbly iridescent bubble of hope and faith and electricity. Shiny and fragile and unbelievably weightless.
I am with a man now. In love deeply with a man. But back then, I was seven years into what I thought would be my life-long love. She was (is, still, to be sure) a woman. She. I pass as straight now. I passed as lesbian then. I am neither, really. But that point is adjacent to what I am trying to say here, which is, at least partly, that I am one of those people who were not (are not) allowed to get married.
When we saw on the news, on a Tuesday night, that licenses would be issued the next morning to any and all same-sex couples, I didn’t fully believe it. Hope is a tricky beast and social progress is always a dance more like the Hustle than the Tango. Sideways and one foot forward and one foot back, moving in a fluid square until you realize you’ve shifted enough from your original footing to be in a whole new place. I did not believe. I foresaw police and official decrees to cease and desist. I imagined broken up protests and folks sent home without that flimsy but powerful piece of paper.
When I showed up to work Wednesday morning, person after person looked at me and said, “What are you doing here?” And meanwhile, elsewhere in the city, as the day went on, more and more and more people were handed their license and sent on their way. Folks were getting married on the sidewalk. People were planning speedy weddings that made shotgun weddings look like Martha Stewart affairs. There was an energy and a hopefulness in the air along with a hurried kind of rush and panic. Let’s do this, quick, while we can, hurry, hurry, hurry before they take it away. The momentum was, literally, breathtaking.
So we made plans to try to go the next day. We were already married, in our hearts and in our minds, but we wanted not only to be part of this historical moment but to set up the safeguards that would guarantee that no one could legally wash away what we were to each other. Should one of us get sick. Should one of us die. Should anything happen where the legal flimsiness of our union could slam down on us like a dull guillotine blade.
We watched the news that night. We turned it on that next morning. We showed up to work for the first half of the day and then, when talk of a 3pm meeting that could shut it all down was being forewarned, our employers practically pushed us out the doors, saying go, go, go. We each drove to the county building and parked and met up on the sidewalk. Giddy. Nervous. Afraid we might be too late.
As I turned the corner onto Grand Avenue and I saw the giant brick building and the line, two people wide, down the sidewalk and around the corner and then down and around the corner again – as I heard people honk and cheer as they drove by, as I saw the countless people holding signs in support and nearly none in opposition – my skin became electrically charged, my chest ached and swelled, my eyes filled with tears and I wiped them from the corners of my eyes as we walked over to our place in the line. Last in line, but only for a minute, and then many behind us. I was floored by my own very physical reaction. This was big. Monumental. And not just as a historical moment. To me. For me. As a human. As a person.
And when we walked out of that building with that certificate, as we called our closest Portland friends and asked one friend’s husband to officiate, as we made plans to meet in a park in a tree filled neighborhood, I was awash in the headiest cocktail of emotions. What I can say now, after untangling all of the emotions, is that it was the first time I felt what it was to be suddenly validated. What it was to be told you were whole, even when you knew you were already – what it felt like to suddenly and completely realize the weight that had been pushing down on you telling you that you were less than at the exact same time that you feel the levity of it all disappearing in one swift swoosh.
I’ve never been a conventional girl. I wasn’t opposed to marriage, but never felt like I needed it to feel committed, to feel bound to someone by deep love. In the middle of saying my nearly impromptu vows, though, I lost my words. I lost the ability to say them. I wasn’t overwhelmed by social victory. I wasn’t overwhelmed with a feeling that the world liked who I was. I was nearly knocked over by something so personal and sacred and private, that space between two people who say, publicly and face to face, that they love each other and will be there for each other. Something no group has any place in deciding for me or for anyone else. No place.
There was a sequence of time where licenses were still being issued, but fights were being waged. The issuing stopped. There were campaigns about the sanctity of marriage. It dragged on for more than a year – what felt like a lengthy time and also just a blip. Because my body only fully remembers two polar moments: standing in that park that evening in March and then opening an envelope from the county more than a year later that had a $60 refund check and a note explaining that my marriage license was, after all, nothing. The moment my eyes saw that check, time collapsed and I had stood, weeping and speechless, in that park only seconds ago and that check’s invisible swift kick to my abdomen felt real and I bent slightly at the waist as I opened the letter accompanying the check. I cried while I held the edge of the counter, still slightly doubled-over from the impact.
I could spend hundreds of words on that moment, but I won’t, not here. I will only say that the giant fist of Fuck You was painful and crushing and infuriating. More than it would have been if they had yanked the license out of my hand before I had made any vows, because the voters had not only said I shouldn’t get married, but that I did and they still had the power and the right and the vindictiveness to take it away from me. Here: here’s your money, we’ll take all that love bullshit back because it’s not real, we won’t acknowledge it and you don’t deserve it.
So when anyone – people I don’t know, too, but especially people I do know and love – says that it’s not personal and they are entitled to their beliefs I say, Like hell it isn’t and sure you do, but . . . .
But, I am not telling you to get married or not.
But, I am not voting on the most personal and basic rights you should and do have by nature of merely being born.
But I am not voting for a man who wants to nullify you, I am not standing in a long line to eat fast food chikin in the name of free speech that says you are not a full person, I am not spending that dollar in the name of religious bigots having the right to inflict their bigotry on you . . .
But, but but but.
But, fuck you. Because it is personal. Very fucking personal. Painfully so.
And I don’t mean to be harsh. But someone denying me my most basic rights to choose who I live my life with and how protected I will or will not be based almost entirely on the genital combination of the couple in question – well, that’s fucking harsh. And it feels that way. Like a punch.
When I see people who say they care about me taking a ‘patriotic’ bite out of a sandwich whose profit is used to keep punching me, when a relative votes for a candidate who offers lower taxes but will fight to keep me fractional in the eyes of the law, they are saying that I am not worthy in their eyes. And when they say that I shouldn’t take it personally, they diminish me once more and I feel like a teenager bursting to rage against everyone. Fuck you – this is the most personal thing. The most. Personal.
I have the luxury of being able to marry the person I love, today, right now, in any number of places should we both decide that’s what we want. But not because I am a full human with full rights in the eyes of my nation. No, simply because I had the ‘good fortune’ to fall in love with a man. I am still as queer as I ever was – but I am monogamous and so, to all outside eyes, I am ‘normal’. I have rights. For now. The truth is that I am still one relationship away from being stripped of that option.
And even if I weren’t, even if I do end up with this man for the rest of my life, whether we choose to get married or not (what a luxury to get to ponder such a thing . . .) – even if that whole thirteen year ‘lesbian phase’ had never happened to me – I would stand up for a person’s inalienable right to be a full citizen bestowed with full rights. Because it’s right. It’s right. It is.
So sing your song and dance your steps that everyone is entitled to their beliefs and mine shouldn’t infringe on yours while you pump money into places that fund groups whose only goal is to slam their beliefs down on my rights. Mine. Maybe yours. Definitely your family and friends, whether you know it or not.
I want to repeat that: their only goal is to slam their self-righteous fist down on my right to be the person I am. Slam. Fist. Really – that’s how it feels.
So I take it very personally. Anyone fighting that fight is an affront to me. A danger to me. And to people I love. Lots of people I love.
Standing up for the people you love is about the most basic goodness we have as humans.
To say: I am here for you, not just to watch as you struggle, but to say that the struggle needs to end and that if you are struggling, then it is my struggle, too.
To say: I will not be blinded by fear and ignorance but I will say that even though my rights are just fine and dandy, I will make sure yours are, too.
To say: I love you and I will stand right beside you to keep you safe.
None of this is abstract. None of it is merely political. Anyone who loves me needs to replace gays with my name, replace rights with my name, see my face anytime they see an ad or a protest or a picket sign that says One Man One Woman or God Hates Fags – because those last four letters are full of the letters in my name. And the person carrying that sign is talking to me, is hating me, is working to make my life not only less full, but miserable. And if that was your name on that sign, or in that politician’s mouth or in the donation check of that business owner, I would yell to be heard, to denounce, to scream.
To say: I’m right here, with you, friend. Let’s fight.
It’s not unreasonable to expect the same in return.
I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
-from Diving Into the Wreck, Adrienne Rich
I never watch the news on tv. I am ashamed and proud of that fact, but that’s beside the point. I was distracted, while settling into bed, and let a dvr’d show end and the news popped up in front of me. Adrienne Rich had died. The day before. I had no idea. All of my social mediums had failed to inform me. None of my literary friends had posted about it.
I had, obviously, not read any news (online or otherwise), had been in a bubble of sorts lately – busy with a brand new niece and work and friends in need and being so very smitten all of the sudden. I leaned back into my pillow and felt dumb-struck. Sad, but vaguely so. Like the woman herself was already a mythical figure to me, so to realize she was actually physically gone was an impossible-to-understand thing.
It seemed fitting that when I woke, I had, for the first time in a really long time, reached out in my sleep, had woken up with half of my body aimed toward the other side of the bed, searching for the body that might have been there but wasn’t that night. I had reached out to touch someone, in my sleep, without thinking, trying to touch what is uncomplicated and good in my life while dreaming of Rich and her words and her death. I woke and thought she would be pleased with that coincidence, with that fact. I thought of her Twenty-One Love Poems and the image of a half-empty bed and feathered grass and new love at the age of forty-five. The image of myself and her poem and my own now empty bed made my heart swell ever so slightly.
You’ve kissed my hair
to wake me. I dreamed you were a poem,
I say, a poem I wanted to show someone . . .
and I laugh and fall dreaming again *
I had seen her read once, in Fresno, at an old theater as part of a college sponsored event. I was new into the writing program and I was new(ish)ly into a long relationship with the only woman I have ever loved. I was aging out of my feminazi phase and settling into a more level-voiced and educated feminism. I was learning the shape that the craft of writing makes as I was sitting in flourescent lit classrooms spending hours talking about art and writing and fiction and poetry as real life things, as ways to see the world, as vital necessary valuable things.
I was devouring Queer theory and discovering the poetry of Audre Lorde and Irena Kelpfisz and Gloria Anzaldúa at the same time that I was breathing in William Faulkner and Raymond Carver and Toni Morrison. Adrienne was always there, like a many-decked bridge between the great white canon and the mythic women of fiction and these new crazy wild women of writing that made my skin tingle and pulse with the possibility of making art, gorgeous beautiful art, that came with a fist and a howl, that lived beyond tenth grade reading assignments and dusty library shelves. That lived.
I probably first read Rich in high school, but my first memory of reading her was in college at San Francisco State. In one of the first classes (of many) that I started to attend and didn’t finish before eventually being disqualified from the CSU system for failing (to attend) too many classes, semester after semester. It was a class taught by a woman who was one of the founders of the non-profit women’s bookstore in San Francisco and when I think of Adrienne, I sometimes interchange this woman’s face for hers. They are not dissimilar in appearance and when I think of one I am just as likely to conjure the wrong face as I am to picture the right one. They are certainly bound together in my mind and so Adrienne is fused directly into the fabric that is that moment in my life – those weeks I discovered what later became the calling, the passion, that I had been searching for all of those lost semesters on that San Francisco campus, right there in front of me, waiting quietly until I was ready for it so many years later.
There is a ladder.
The ladder is always there
close to the side of the schooner.
We know what it is for,
we who have used it.
it’s a piece of maritime floss
some sundry equipment. **
At first, there was a depth to her imagery and language that made me feel un-smart. Made me squirm while I tried to meld together the emotions and feelings the poems gave me (that happened outside of intellectual understanding) with the way my mind would work and work to deconstruct the images. While I paid extra attention to the music of the words, the rhythm of it all – what I have come to realize is my base attraction to language: the beat, the hiss, the roll of all those letters staggered out on the page. She pulled at me and opened up a world I had felt locked out of: fiction and poetry, as revolutionary act, as art, as voice, as sustenance.
Her books are scattered in my collection – her genres varied and wide – and I have, over the years, thumbed over the spines in any given section of my bookcases to gently slide out one of her books, pulling it top first out of the tight cram of the books I have moved more than a dozen times in the last twenty years. I have fanned through, scanning, searching out whatever essay or poem had come to mind, creating a hunger, a need, a real force and drive to find the exact words she had used. However infrequently this happened, it always happened. With urgency. With real need and desire.
The most recent occasion was last spring. In the middle of my life being in limbo, in the middle of giving wind and air to the tornado that was about to rip my personal life apart, in the middle of spending day after day after day in my childhood home sorting through dirt and grime and death and madness. In the middle of what stands as the least stable time of my life so far.
I needed Diving Into the Wreck. Like I needed water. Like I needed sleep.
But my books were packed in boxes. In a large portable container. In a warehouse somewhere in Oakland. Taped up and stacked and so so far away from me.
That didn’t matter, though, to the need. The need stayed and swelled.
After a particularly rough three days where my childhood home had been broken into twice and the one day between the break-ins had been spent on a day trip trying to find another temporary home in Oakland. After I had felt my own heart crack open while talking to four police officers outside my childhood home and then tried to point out to one, inside, where anything might have been moved. After standing in the middle of a room filled with garbage and dog shit, that reeked of urine and had piles of clothes no one in my family ever owned, and as I fought the urge to fall on the ground and flail my arms and wail and whine.
As I was struggling to deal with a love that was demanding way too much, needing way too much, saying over and over again how I was failing to give enough of anything when all I had to give was gone anyway – sapped out, pushed down, really fucking tired and sad. As I was listening to another love promise everything I had ever hoped it would and say that I would, always, forever, be enough. As I had no idea where my mother, my very own mother, was at all. No idea.
I woke up that fourth morning and needed that poem more than I had ever needed a piece of poetry. As if not reading it was not an option at all. As if not being able to read it might actually be my final unraveling.
That morning I thanked the universe and god and all of the dead lost souls of poets and writers for the internet. I was able to look the poem up and read it, without the feel and smell and look of a real book, but read it nonetheless. It was enough. It calmed me. It gave shape to the way that I felt unhinged, unmoored, unhooked from all that was concrete and real and predictable. That day, it saved me. It shifted the ground beneath me just enough to give me footing. That long column of words held me to earth and helped me breathe without screaming.
When I unpacked my books a few months later, I cracked open the actual book and read it again. And again when I wrote about my experience of being in that house. The stanzas of that poem gave shape to what I felt. Those words settled in around me and kept me company as I wrote thousands of words about that time, as I waded through images I would rather forget, as I mined the memories for just the right thing to say, as I tried to make meaning, as I started to find my way out of that abyss.
And this is what words do, at least for some of us – they pull together to hold us in. To name it. To sing it. To stitch together the recklessness and unnameable things of life. To craft something out of everything, out of nothing, out of ugliness and love and pain.
And this is what Adrienne did (and so still does, will continue to do, even beyond death, through the countless words she has left us):
She lived a life that was authentic and stood up for the power and the benefit and the necessity of that kind of life.
She gave voice and respect and love to people like her and people unlike her.
She shared – praise, love, anger, community – with women everywhere (and so, by extension, men).
She took poetry seriously. As a tool. As Art. As Power. As crucial.
She made art, crafted it, admired it, made out of chaos and destruction a rope ladder for herself – but also for me and anyone else who needed it.
She did so much more than I can possibly recount here. So so much. But what she did, for me, was give me what feels like an inexhaustible trunk full of psalms and prayers for the believers in the literary word (disciples of the power of just the right words in just the right order with just the right rhythm) to heal, to calm, to suture. She gave me a wealth of pages to go to, whenever I need, to find the strength to explore the wreck and not the story of the wreck, the thing itself and not the myth. To face the face that stares back and see it for what it is, always, but also to see it as lovely and powerful and frail and fallible.
She is at the ready, to hand me the knife to carve my name into the books in which my name does not appear. The courage and the right to make my own book of myths and the space in which to live the life that builds that book.
Thank you, Adrienne, for fighting, always. And for sharing, always, with the women all around you.
For writing such lovely and loud and wonderous things – for being a serious crafter of words and passionate feminist and tireless voice for the disempowered and for showing one way to be all of those things at once.
Thank you for cracking open the life you were raised to live in order to find the life you were meant to have – for risking everything to stand up for what is real and beautiful and hard. For doing it with such wisdom and grace. May love still find you wherever you are as your words still find us, lost and in love and full of life.
from Twenty-One Love Poems:
Since we’re not young, weeks have to do time
for years of missing each other. Yet only this odd warp
in time tells me we’re not young.
Did I ever walk the morning streets at twenty,
my limbs streaming with a purer joy?
did I lean from any window over the city
listening for the future
as I listen here with nerves tuned for your ring?
And you, you move toward me with the same tempo.
Your eyes are everlasting, the green spark
of the blue-eyed grass of early summer,
the green-blue wild cress washed by the spring.
At twenty, yes: we thought we’d live forever.
At forty-five, I want to know even our limits.
I touch you knowing we weren’t born tomorrow,
and somehow, each of us will help the other live,
and somewhere, each of us must help the other die.
* from Twenty-One Love Poems, II by Adrienne Rich
** from Diving Into the Wreck by Adrienne Rich
I am closer to forty than twenty – by a long shot – and I am slower to angry, to that full-red, hot-cheeked, gasped-breath arguing and ranting of youth. Slower, but I can still get there. You have to truly earn it now, age having sheared away my hair-trigger. And while the routes to really mad are fewer, there are still deeply entrenched, well-worn ruts in the road that send my foot heavy on the pedal to pissed off before I can even get my hands on the wheel. Treat a human as less than. Hurt someone I love. Tell me what to do with my own life, my own body – try to own me in that way.
Anything else will simply force me to weigh out the worth of a debate or a discussion, weigh out the likelihood of my words having any value or any effect. I raise my voice regularly for what I believe in – without anger, without the heat of rage. It is a gift of mindfulness and age. I save my words for where they have a chance of mattering. (Yes, I do save words, ask anyone who knew me twenty years ago, I swear it’s true.)
I am almost forty. Staring it down. Far, far away from twenty. Thankfully. I am in possession of myself and my own body in a way that is worlds beyond where I was eighteen years ago. I know my body. I do love it – with reservation, with effort, but also in a completely organic and easy way. I trust it. I love what it does for me. I have earned this all with hard work and deep conversations with myself and others, with the kind of work we all have to do (especially as American women) to counteract the images and ideas that bombard us daily. I have this body and it has me and we have a lovely relationship now.
My body. Mine. No one else’s.
So when I finished reading Lisa Khoury’s article Why Put a Bumper Sticker on a Ferarri?, I lost my shit. Instantly. She hit the perfect nerve-centered intersection of arrogance and woman-hating and ideological force-feeding that will get me to red-hot Fuck-You in a heartbeat. It rolls right off my tongue and my hands curl into tight little balls of pissed off.
(And here, I’ve already proven myself classless and without elegance to Lisa, I’m sure, but it is my sincere, authentic reaction. Feminine or not: true.)
I still struggle to be free, every day, with my own body. To not be upset with it, to not wish it were something else. I don’t take lightly my own willingness to be seen, at this near-middle-age, in public in a bikini. It is a revolutionary act, one my twenty and thirty year old self would not do. I do it now as an act of strength. As proof to myself that I am beautiful, even if what I see in pictures will be that place on my thighs that I wish was smaller, the hue to my skin that I wish was darker. Even if I still see, disproportionately, the flaws. I accept my imperfections and try to focus on what is right with my body and step out with my belly bared to say Fuck you, world. This is me. My body, my way. And I look fine, perfectly fine.
When Lisa says that tattoos on women instantly degrade the merchandise, I want to stop, straighten my spine and rail into whoever is around me – yell to the sky that this is some Class A Bullshit. I read her article while walking down the sidewalk and I was so riled that I had to stop in the middle of a long, gloriously sunny walk to find a bench and write down some of my reactions so I could let them go, keep them from bouncing in my head – so I could keep enjoying my day. So I wouldn’t start ranting out loud and end up in the holding tank before I could even get home.
Go ahead and read it now. It’s short – I’ll wait.
She hates tattoos on women. She probably hates them in general, but particularly on women. Not because we look like outlaws. Not because we look like criminals. But because they make us less beautiful. Classless. Not feminine. Incapable of teaching or representing morals and values.
Let’s just ignore, for the purpose of keeping this short(ish), the anti-feminist, heterosexist, shamelessly pro-capitalist assumptions informing her view – that in fact riddle her short article like shrapnel. I can get lost in deconstructing all of that. And that is worth it, for sure (in fact, here is one article doing just that). But what I am more interested in is the intense anger she mucked up in me. It’s not a common thing these days. She had me really pissed off. Super irritated. Muscle-twitching, itchy-fisted and ready-to-swing mad. Instantly.
I am tattooed. To some, heavily. To people I know who are truly ‘heavily’ tattooed, moderately. I could count how many I have, but it will take me a minute. I would have to plan and make a conscious decision to cover them all up and then work hard to do it – my newest tattoos are right behind my ear lobes and I would have to carefully style my long hair and not touch it all night to not be found out. I can imagine no instance in my life where I would need to do that. I have absolutely no shame or embarrassment about any of my ink. And the people who love me know who I am. They love me as is. Even if they would never, ever choose to ink themselves at all. Even if they don’t think tattoos are ever pretty.
I know many, many beautiful women. Many tattooed. Many not. They all have class. They all carry themselves with grace and intelligence and will stiffen with the strength of a nation when and if they need to defend themselves or someone they love. There are women I admire greatly who have none or one or a hundred tattoos. There are too many un-inked women to count who I would consider ‘classless’ and without respect for themselves or anyone else – ugly in the only way that matters. I’m pretty sure the link between tattoo and class would fall completely apart under the microscope of even the softest sciences.
My first truly visible tattoo was in my thirties. My first ever was at eighteen (if you don’t count that failed attempt to tattoo my own hand at fourteen which only resulted in three faint dots near my thumb). But I hedged my bets in my early twenties and ended up with a handful of tattoos that were under my clothes. In my early thirties I tattooed my right upper arm. As a conscious decision to embrace a part of my body I have always struggled to like. To say: Not only do I want this tattoo, have wanted it for years and years, but I will stop waiting until I have lost weight, stop waiting until I have shaped my arm into something it is not and will never be. I will make this commitment to this arm I have. I will adorn it and stop hiding it. I will come to like my body more and accept it for what it is. It worked. My relationship to my body shifted, perceptibly, on that day. It worked.
So . . . first, Lisa, I want to say this to you: Not only did I learn something about myself in the deciding to get tattooed, again – I positively affected my life by putting a bumper sticker on this Ferarri. Something no amount of mall shopping had done. In a particular way that no amount of time at a hair salon had changed (& believe me, I’ve logged a lot of hours under the care of a stylist). Something no trendy clothes or gym time or dieting would have ever done. I know. I spent my time in that world, too.
Second, Lisa, I want to say this: So fucking what if it hadn’t – if I hadn’t learned a damn thing from that tattoo. It is mine. On my body. No one else’s. I think it’s beautiful. I don’t actually care if anyone else does. I really, truly don’t. And you know what? I’ve had no shortage of men acting interested in my body. No drop in the number of men who will, as you say, drool over us. Or women, but I’m sure that carries you so far out of your comfort zone that you may just put your fingers in your ears and start humming. And I say that not as a stab, but as what I surmise to be true. If you have resorted to such archaic notions of femininity and beauty, then I feel safe in assuming my notions of fluid sexuality have a decent chance of curling you up into a fetal ball before I can get to any sort of lurid details and fill your head with such images.
My anger at the notion that we are not lovely, we tattooed women, that we are not with our very own type of class, is well-earned and deep. As it is for so many women I know. I have inked myself more in the last six years than in my whole adult life prior. And each time, I don’t look to learn anything. I learn in all kinds of ways all of the time, but not under the needle. Some people do, despite your sweeping generalization. What I do, with each new tattoo, is become more of myself. I more fully become the woman, the human, I am meant to be. This is right, for me. Undeniably. Nothing you say can or will change what I know to be true.
But your ideas and your notions and the ways that you fire them off as fact and gospel do hurt people. As a budding journalist, it is your job to take very seriously the weight of your words and the responsibility of what you say. Words are powerful and your assault on the female form can hurt women. Not so much me. I’m confident. I’m too old (mentally, emotionally, physically) to have your words change my sense of self. But your words may have hurt twenty-year-old me. They certainly would have hurt twelve-year-old me.
I am a feminist. Among all kinds of other things that I am. It’s a dirty word now. Always has been, really, but now it’s dirty in some sort of post-feminist, post-everything way. But I claim that F-word. I always will, even (especially) when it is obsolete.
I spent my twenties struggling with what that word meant. If I believe in fighting the patriarchy, then I can’t be beautiful. I have to denounce all of those things. It’s the stereotype. The hairy-legged, clean-faced, braless, lesbian-prone Feminist. You have to choose one or the other: beautiful or powerful. It’s a very real struggle for many. It was for me. If I put on lipstick, am I undermining my politics? If I like dresses and heels and curling my hair, am I selling out my gender? If I have wire in my bra, am I failing to represent?
There’s an Ani Difranco song lyric that I love about ‘calling the girl police’ while she and a friend are trying on ridiculous outfits at a store. It’s more than funny, though, if you are a woman who actually likes some of the ‘feminine’ stuff and also raises your fist against the archaic sexism that still threads through our culture and our world. More than funny if you are a woman hell-bent on claiming the rewards of feminism: deciding for yourself who you will be and how that will look.
Feminism – or the more generic F-word that means the same thing to me: freedom – means (among other things) defining femininity and gender and beauty for yourself. Whether it’s something lots of people agree with you on or not. Especially when it’s a blend of accepted and not-accepted. Especially. A beauty buffet, if you will. The freedom to be exactly who you want to be when you want to be it.
I have visible tattoos. I shave my legs. I paint my nails, blue or green or grey. I wear heels. I wear man boots. I love dresses and, right now, I love having long hair that I can curl should the mood strike me. I work and support myself. I have an innate maternal sense that won’t quit. I am childless by choice. I cook and sew. I use power tools. I wear make-up. I won’t have plastic surgery. I wear bras, pretty ones. I do what I want when I want as long as it hurts no one else. I have arrived at a place of acceptance, however murky my own desires and wants turn out to be on any given day.
I still struggle with where the line is, though. Maybe that’s part of why the bitter bile of anger rises so easy on this subject. I see protests about female genital surgeries like labia reconstruction that include protesting any current trend in the downstairs grooming and I spend hours un-threading my reluctance to join in without reservation. If I want to shave my pubic hair into a heart and dye it pink, that should be my right. But if you tell me you’re going to have surgery to make your labia more symmetrical, I will beg you not to, I will rail against the porn industry and its altered, sanitized, unrealistic portrayal of female genitalia.
Ultimately, I will say do what you feel you need to do to your body. But I will hope that one day you will come to love your body as it is, as it will be, without reservation or disgust. And I will fight against any shame the world throws on our bodies as they are, in their natural state. Always, though, I will celebrate our right to alter our bodies as we see fit – cut, dye, adorn, don’t. Wave your freak flag. But do it to be something, not to avoid being something else. Don’t be ashamed. Be the best version of yourself, always. Don’t let the world decide what that will be. Decide for yourself and be unafraid.
Lisa, I want to challenge you. Not to a duel, although that could be funny (& a blast) if it was all in good fun and for charity. I don’t want to attack you or resort to the kinds of arguments I would find offensive in any arena. The interweb has already been cruel to you in unnecessary ways. You have become the target for hurtful and juvenile ways to express the ire that your article invokes. You may have pissed me off, but I don’t hate you or want to lash out at you personally. Just the idea you chose to put out in the public eye.
What I challenge you to do is this: look at what you wrote and think about cracking it open. Think about how tightly wound that rope is around the giant amorphous thing that is beauty, that is class or elegance. Real shift in perspective probably won’t happen now, though. You sound sure of yourself. Even your quickly penned apology rings hollow, a sort of hands-up I-didn’t-really-mean-it-like-that distancing from your own typed-up and proofread and then published words. And all of these rebuttals are sure to raise your defenses. And many people who are tattooed have only reinforced your notions of us by calling you retarded and saying vile things at or about you.
I challenge you to reread your article at thirty. And then again at forty. And write another one. Answer yourself. I want to know how your views will have changed. I want you to own them or not. I want to know how time has changed you. I know how it has changed me.
I sincerely hope that with age you will unzip and crawl out of your very narrow, rigid notions of beauty and femininity because whether you see it or not right now, you are cutting off your own circulation. The air outside of those ropes is much clearer, more abundant and fills your lungs in ways you can’t even imagine from where you are standing.
But I don’t care if you ever get a tattoo. I don’t even care if you ever think we tattooed ladies are the sexy beasts that we are. I only care that you keep your own restrictions restricted to yourself. I only care that you keep your elegance clear of my body.
Because I hold all of these truths to be self-evident:
- My body is a temple. My temple.
- My body does hold power to make men (and women) drool. Tattooed or not. Trust me. Those times it doesn’t, those people immune to it – who cares. It really is one of the most ridiculously easy things to do if you’re doing it indiscriminately and/or for sport.
- My body holds a lot of powers that are more powerful than its ability to invoke desire. And tattoos hinder none of those things.
- I would be less happy if I listened to people like you. I would be less the person I was intended to be.
- I am beautiful. Less than some, more than others – all depending on who you ask.
- I don’t care if you think I’m beautiful. I don’t care if you see the kind of class I have. But if you tell me what to do with my own body, you best be ready to verbally go round and round with one pissed off, articulate, classless lady.
I have earned every drop of ink in this body. I have earned the sincere joy I feel at seeing the art my body is in the process of still becoming. Honestly, these tattoos make me smile often and wide, bring me a unique kind of happiness. I have also earned every wrinkle. Every dimpled spot on my thigh. Every crease in my brow and every scar from toddlerhood to now.
I have earned the way I feel about all of that, too. With no help from people like you, Lisa. Despite people like you. Against the odds of this day and age and its target-practice shots at the female body as a beautiful thing in all of its forms. I claim this peace I have with my body as a trophy in the middle stretch of a long race full of potholes and man-made obstacles. I win, already.
So in the name of the women who are still becoming, in the name of the girls who are struggling to be themselves – whether that means a pink prom dress or green hair – I call you out. I ask you to think, carefully, about the danger of your proclamations and statements – about the casual way you throw around such big notions and lasso them around anyone within your reach.
Mandating to others takes big cojones. Telling women with ink that we are less than beautiful and have made the poorest of choices, though, is a whole new kind of big-balls. Because us tattooed broads aren’t ones to shy away, usually. We aren’t afraid to be seen or heard. We’ve crafted ourselves into this thing we are and we, generally, love it. We have decided and acted and made ourselves into something instead of shrinking away from it. We are, really, a class all unto our own. Whether you like it or not.
This week is full of anniversaries – mostly painful, damaged, tainted ones, the kind that happen when real, lasting change is at hand. One year and two days ago, I drove down from Oregon, leaving behind a place I truly, deeply love. I laid out the physical line in time that moved me from there to here. It was an unbelievably hard day after a week of tough, tough days.
One year and one day ago, I received news, as I woke for the first time in nearly a decade as a Californian, that tipped my world on its side just as I thought I was about to settle in and get to the work of finding routine. The kind of news that sent my heart reeling and let loose emotions that created the destructive hurricane I became last spring.
One year ago today I was walking into my childhood home under circumstances I had hoped would never touch me in real life. That day spent salvaging our childhood artifacts was the physical representation of everything my life was at that moment in time: difficult, stifling, ransacked, messy. It was the beginning of a month and a half of rifling through real, tangible evidence of the chaos my life had become, marking what has been (and will hopefully always be) the roughest three months of my life, what has taken me nearly a year to iron back out, to understand, to make sense of in a way that allows me to move on.
All of this weighs on me this week, but not in the way that I feared it might. I am acutely aware of where I was at this time one year ago but what I can’t miss is how different I feel about it all today, the difference from then to now. Where I am today, compared to a year ago or six months ago or even two months ago, is proof that even the most shattering times give way to normal life if you have the heart and the strength and the people around you to make it through.
So thank you to my family and to my countless friends who have dealt with me in all of the stages of mess I’ve been over the last year. Words can never express the difference you have all made, so I will not even try here to capture that . . . just know that I know even what I can’t say: the ways that you have saved me. Then and now.
Here’s to making it through, to living in the middle of it all, to being lucky enough to have enough people to lean on and being smart enough to know when you need to do just that.
If you’re not getting happier as you’re getting older… then you’re fucking up.
– Ani Difranco, If Yr Not
Randomly, one afternoon last week, I experienced that heart-swollen feeling of looking at the image of a child that you love so much you have nearly no words for it, not the right ones anyway. Words are not enough for that kind of love, for the way the sight of them almost hurts, makes you ache with what it is that bursts open inside of you.
I was looking at a lovely picture that my sister-in-law took of her middle son – a simulated superman pose in goofy goggles and cowboy boots, a boy on the ground who appears to be floating above a chalk and asphalt skyline. I literally felt the pressure of my chest swelling, pushing out. I almost wanted to cry for how perfect I think he is without missing, ever, all of his peculiar traits and inevitable imperfections. He is my happiness, incarnate, as are his brothers.
Abstractly, I know they bring me joy – real, pure joy. But it is these tiny moments that resonate, that ring through my bones, prove to me that love is tangible and real. And my life is full of these moments. Of my littlest nephew’s heavy head against my shoulder as his almost-too-long-to-be-on-my-lap body twitches and writhes and fights sleep as we sit in the sun on a gloriously sunny day at the end of January. The way I feel when his body relaxes and his breathing steadies and he gives in to sleep, right there on my chest and in my arms. My arms are sore, I am sweating everywhere he is on me, but I can’t move. I won’t. Because he will be too long for my lap soon. And this is heaven, this precise moment, the particular feel of his weight gone fully slack against me.
The way the oldest nephew slumps his shoulders when I say the words he hates to hear me say: I have to go. His reluctant hug as I squeeze him tighter and tighter until he complains. The smell of his sweaty hair after he’s been rolling in the grass all day long playing football. The rock on sign he flashes me as I walk away.
My heart swells. All of the time.
Toward the end of 2010, I was haunted by the image of me standing on the bank of a river, readying for the kind of leap I feared most – one that meant leaving love behind, making one of life’s most painful choices. I knew I was making the leap, would have to, but I was planted firmly in the dirt, unable and not ready to jump, for so many reasons.
Throughout 2011 I used the term treading often. I was treading constantly: no permanent home, no steady work yet, no idea what to do with a love I still have trouble containing that is neither here nor there and all over the place. I was emotionally stationary while in constant motion in the middle of the deep blue sea, feet kicking, arms circling, neck muscles tense and stiff and elongated, water lapping at my chin. Every muscle in my body working to keep my mouth and nose above water. I dreamed about floating as though it were a fantastical place only elves and gnomes could find, longed for it with every fiber of my body.
By the opening of 2012 I had crossed over, fully, but I was still gazing back at the other side of that river. Necessarily. To feel it all, completely. Then I bid it all farewell. And I’ve spent the first handful of weeks of 2012 remembering how to float, reacquainting myself with that calm, lovely place that is once again right here with me.
Through it all, I’ve never lost sight of the happy in my life – there are so many happys in my life – but the happy was overwhelmed, overshadowed by the treading, the settling, the mourning. What I have done in the last year and a half is absolutely right – for me. Where I am now is exactly where I should be. And there is so much that makes me smile and laugh and gasp with the best kinds of surprise. There is so much happy to be had.
A friend of mine, Jen Neitzel, posted a New Year’s project in January to help focus on the happy in your life. She shared a picture of herself holding her own list of directions for naming thirty things that make you authentically happy. Such an essentially simple idea. Such an amazingly powerful idea.
I made a mental card and slipped it into my brain’s card catalog (yes, I am that old). I saved that idea for a future date. This week something triggered a thought that reminded me of her post, reminded me that I wanted to take her idea and make something out of it – make a board of some sort where I could pin or tape or velcro words or pictures or memories of things that make me happy, that fill my bones, that expand my ribs with love. Something I could keep up year round, for years to come, something I could edit and adjust and keep as an evolving depiction of all the things that make my heart swell.
So I did.
The same afternoon that I saw my nephew in superhero pose, I also read My Girl Thursday’s post about Sarah Rooftop’s 3 Things February. She challenges us to end our day with writing down three things that made us smile or laugh that day. Three happy things. As MGT says, you don’t have to worry about the pressure and weight of gratitude – you simply remember three things that brought you happiness in a day. I have started this and am going to continue at least through February.
So far, in only a handful of days, I have been brought to hysterical tears while sitting in a charming new restaurant only blocks from my house and felt the warmth of that first thick, sweet sip of a small batch American whiskey and shared it with my father, comparing notes, toasting to all of this time we now have together.
I have stood outside in the cold after midnight on a ‘school’ night having a serious conversation with a hysterically funny and rambunctious new friend after spending an evening being ridiculous together at an SF dance club. I have laughed, a deep belly burst of laughter, after seeing a stranger’s face when I told him to take it easy with my friend because I have brass knuckles implanted under my skin.
I have lost my train of thought while my eyes scrunched and I nearly snort laughed as my sister’s nine-months-pregnant-belly jiggled dramatically from a tiny little laugh that escaped her mouth.
I have walked, for hours, in the winter sun, around this island I love to call home and walked out of the hardware store and went across the street to the beach where I could take off my shoes and sink my toes in the sun-warmed sand. I felt the deep-chest-love of seeing the world seem to disappear on the horizon, water trailing off into nothingness, that feeling of being right at the edge of it all.
And there’s more. A lot more. In only the first five days of this month.
I am lucky. Truly.
Being on this side of the river is returning me to myself. If 2011 was that river that needed crossing – tumultuous, choppy, crucial – then 2012 is the far bank, the one I was aiming for, the one I needed to get to, come hell or high water. And I’m here. I made it through the swim, I survived the climb back up and the view is pretty fucking stunning no matter where I turn, even when the sky splits open and churns the air at a dangerous speed. I am here. Where I was going.
I finally have the kind of time and energy and focus to do what I do best: Do. Make. Create. Laugh. Even when life is hard. Especially when life is hard. I spent one quiet evening with myself, making this board that brings to life the moments that light through my veins and swell my heart.
Because life isn’t what happens when you’re not looking. Life is what happens in every moment – in all of the good and the bad and all of the in-betweens – and you best look, best see it and know it and smell it and try to get it down, however you can. Life is better when more of those moments are remembered for making you smile, for making your eyes sore with laughter, for falling over from the funny of it, for the way your heart will grow, grinch-style, with every beautiful thing surrounding you. For remembering the things that hurt in the best of ways, that make you ache at the sight of them, the beauty that’s always there no matter how much shit life hands you.
Here is my Swollen Heart Board (and here is how I made it, with only things I had in the house). I will change it out regularly to keep myself focused on the moments we all live for, the ones that get us through, the ones we earn with every hard choice, with every devastating scene or decision or fact of life. The stuff that is always worth it. Bliss, micro or otherwise.
I had first envisioned my version of Jen Neitzel’s Authentic Happiness list as a fabric-covered bulletin board divided into thirty squares where I could pin or velcro small squares of paper. I wanted to be able to have a ‘permanent’ board where I could change out old things for new things as the mood struck.
When I decided to work on it this last weekend, I started to think of what I had around the house that I could make the board out of. I have so many ideas and start so many projects, that if I don’t first think of what I have on hand, I end up with an avalanche of craft supplies, half-used and waiting to be finished off.
As I took inventory, I nearly tripped over the backing board and glass from a rectangular three-part wall frame that had fallen apart almost as soon as it was given to me as a gift. I had already crafted the wood frame (along with some wide cloth ribbon leftover from a gift-wrapped birthday present) into an earring holder that hangs in my room. I’ve literally been moving this glass and board from one corner to another as I put my house together, slowly, after moving in last summer. I was sure, as all crafty packrats are, that I would find the perfect use for this. No throwing it out – that’s sacrilege.
My packrat tendencies did not let me down. Bam. Here it was: the perfect use. I decided to paint some sort of skeletal/line design on the glass and keep the scraps of paper wedged between the board and the glass, allowing me to change it out while keeping the paper from curling or falling off or disintegrating. Almost like my happy things were little pressed flowers tucked behind transparent images.
So I set out to put it all together. It took me one evening from start to finish and here’s what I needed:
- backing board and glass from disassembled frame
- acrylic paint and small brush
- image to lay under glass (I needed this as I can paint with precision but lack organic drawing skills – if you can freehand, more power to you). I chose a graphic set of lungs and a line drawing of an anatomical heart.
- Mod Podge and brush or foam applicator
- Paper (I used old scraps of construction paper as well as some scrapbook paper I had in my stash)
- Four small/medium binder clips (this is what I had on hand, you can also use picture clips if you want it to look more official)
The first thing I did was clean the glass and set out to paint it. I used acrylic paint instead of glass paint so that I can wash or scrape it off in the future if I change my mind about or get tired of those images. I placed the image under the glass and painted. I chose to paint on the top (as opposed to the backside of the glass) so that it would add texture and also to avoid it rubbing or scraping off as I change out the scraps of paper underneath.
I used Mod Podge to glue the scrapbook paper to the board so that there was a subtle background design. I weighted the paper down as it dried with whatever I had on hand. Once dry, I coated the top of the paper with Mod Podge. This is optional, but I wanted to be sure that as I pull papers off and attach new ones, that I don’t tear the background image. (You can definitely skip this step and leave the chipboard background as is.)
I cut scraps of paper to write on and cut out small photos or stickers that represent the things that make me smile, the things that bring me joy. I used museum putty to attach them so that I can simply pull them off and reuse that putty for the new scraps of paper. (I had this on hand, but if you don’t, it costs only a few dollars for a deceptively large amount and can be used for all sorts of things – I also used it this weekend to attach wallpaper samples to my wall so I can decide which pattern I like without damaging the paint.)
I placed two binder clips on the bottom of the glass and board to keep the glass from succumbing to gravity and then I placed two on the sides very close to the stop. This is more than secure enough to keep it all together and allows me to easily un-clip and change out whatever I want.
Hang it. Wherever you want. I put mine in my dining room which is really my sewing/crafting/painting/game room. I see it every time I walk through that room to get to the kitchen. It is a constant reminder of the happy things in my life. I see it first thing in the morning and right before bed and numerous times in between. I loved Jen’s idea and that it inspired me to make my very own version while holding to the core of her idea. It also makes me incredibly happy to make a project with things I already have on hand – it’s like a puzzle and a money-saver all wrapped in one.