Nope, not sorry

I recently moderated a panel on Secularism and debated the benefits of an irreligious society with four respected professionals renowned for their contributions in related fields. This angered some people (most of whom weren’t in attendance), just as the bi-monthly Ask an Atheist booth hosted on our campus disgusts uninformed people who claim these students are advocating immorality. Women have a tendency to ubiquitously apologize for anything and everything that could potentially inconvenience anyone in the slightest, but neither the female president of the Club of Secular Understanding, nor its female faculty adviser are apologizing for their controversial presence on campus. And neither am I.

In the documentary film “Never Sorry,” the BBC interviews the influential renegade artist Ai Wei Wei as he is returning from jail in China where he has been violently interrogated for showcasing sociopolitical art projects that clearly offended the government. The reporter asks Ai Wei Wei if he thinks art is a vehicle for changing the world. Ai Wei Wei responds, “I think that art certainly is a vehicle for us to develop new ideas, to be creative, to extend our imagination…to change the current circumstance.”

“But do you think it is a responsibility… to continue to speak out?” The reporter continues to prod.

After his ordeal in prison, Wei Wei sighs, but hardly hesitates. “Yes, I think it is the responsibility of any artist to protect freedom of expression and to use ANY way to extend this power.”

I believe every single one of us is an artist, and we can learn to tap into our innate creativity, because creativity isn’t a talent; it’s a way of operating in the world. As Picasso suggested, “All children are born artists, the problem is to remain an artist as we grow up.”

I have been teaching college since I was 21. I have spent my entire adult life thinking about expression, how words and phrases and styles are codified, how technology changes our modes and rhythms of expression, and how students can best access and appropriate the hegemonic discourse without losing their most essential selves. I take my profession seriously, and perhaps even more so as a tenured professor at a “community” college, where I believe it is my duty to give underrepresented students access to modes of communication that will help them be heard.

In critical thinking, composition, and in journalism, I teach students how to research for credibility and how to express themselves in ways that will be respected in their chosen professions. In creative writing courses, I encourage students to take risks expressing themselves, above and beyond whatever vehicle through which they will ultimately choose to earn a living.

Every single one of them is creative in ways they have frequently squelched throughout their compensatory education. Learning to re-access and reactivate one’s recessed creativity is an act of courage. It requires us to risk being seen.

In curating a literary and visual arts journal, I ask students to create a space where artists and thinkers can convene, a place where the sheer diversity of voices can be celebrated beyond their commercial value. The freedom to express ourselves is one of our most fundamental, significant and cherished rights in this country, and especially in our California Community College system, which specifically upholds the right of students to be heard on their own terms, even if they offend faculty and administrators in the process.

I am grateful to my academic community for the opportunity to engage regularly in this vital conversation. I believe our job as teachers and as lifelong learners is to evaluate established voices for their relevance to our society, and to embrace emerging voices for their vision– whether or not those voices are conventional. Covert acts of censorship, on and off college campuses, take the power away from the individual and put it in the hands of authorities who have already obtained their positions of power and made up their minds. As academics, our job is to assure that these choices remain securely in the hands of individuals, who may or may not have access to disseminating information on a wider scale. Whether my students are naive or experienced, I defend their right to be heard. I understand and fully accept that I may not be liked, appreciated, or even respected for defending their right to expression. But as Ai Wei Wei suggests, protecting the voices of artists is not a luxury I dabble in; it’s a responsibility I uphold at all costs.

Long-Distance Daughter

When things are great between my mother and me, we will have Sunday dinner. Her husband will barbeque chicken for my kids, and she will send me home with leftover potato salad and cornbread. When things are good, she will walk her three little furball dogs down to the baseball field to cheer on my son and sit by me in the bleachers. When things are good, she will drop off a little Easter basket for the kids on my porch or give me a birthday present and a card that says she loves me.

When things are bad, however, she tells me in her rich Southern voice that she didn’t raise me like that. That could mean anything to religion to politics to my diet. Anything really so long as she doesn’t agree with me. When things are bad, she will call me and tell me I am the most selfish person she knows and who cares if it’s my birthday that I ruined her life when I moved out at sixteen. When things are bad, she does not even bother to call me or my kids—her grandkids—she just doesn’t call.

But she has been gone for seven days now. She is 2,485 miles from me now. My whole life she has lived less than 10 miles from me, and now she will be 37 hours and 40 minutes by car or a 5 hour direct flight and then a two and a half hour car ride.

She wants to go home. Back to the rich Carolina soil and thick Carolina air. Although she’s lived the last thirty-five years in the same San Gabriel mountains of Southern California, she wants to retire. Home, is all she keeps saying, her vowels drawing out like a sour song.

I do not blame her for leaving, for wanting to start a new chapter in her life, for wanting to return to her two sisters (her only remaining immediate family), for wanting something familiar and warm. In North Carolina she will be able to clear the weeds from her parents’ gravestones, to take care of an aging aunt or two, and walk in the dried-up rows of tobacco plants and corn stalks where so much of her childhood was spent. There, no one will ask her where she is from because it is obvious she fits right in. There she can watch the dewy mist of the cape roll in at night and watch the fireflies ballet on the banks. There she can spend her days quilting. There she can be buried in the family plot alongside her father since she was the youngest of five and her daddy’s favorite.

But in these seven days, I have missed my mom. It’s not likely that we would have seen each other this last week. Sometimes we go weeks without seeing each other. Sometimes the closest I get to her is driving by her car on my way to drop off my kids at school. But that was something, and something is always better than nothing. I know too many friends with nothing instead of mothers.

It won’t be the same without her, and I will have to find a way to climb on a plane every couple of years or try to remember to buy a Mothers’ Day gift weeks in advance and mail them or try to remember to send her goofy school pictures of the kids. Or try to be a good daughter long-distance.

But as much as I am sad to lose her, I am hopeful that this will mean a new start for us. One in which I can imagine her telling new friends at the quilting guild how proud of her daughters she is and mean it. Maybe she will send a nice text every once in a while and call me her “Big little girl” the way she used to when I was little but towered over her petite frame. Maybe she will start calling my kids on Sundays to hear them blab about their impossibly fast-moving lives. Maybe she will be willing to forget that I am a liberal atheist vegetarian and start loving me because she did raise me that way. Maybe we will never again mention the past except to share colorful, almost cliché memories of summer vacation mishaps or the time she made my sister Sarah eat all her vegetables for the next three meals until they were gone. Or maybe we won’t talk at all. Maybe we will sit on the phone with each other and listen to the other—really listen.

The most recent photo I could find of my mom and I on her wedding day in 2007.

The most recent photo I could find of my mom and I on her wedding day in 2007.

Big Butts Are The New Black

I get it. Big asses are in. Big asses are fashion. Big asses are the new black. There’s a surge in butt implants. I get it. I am assaulted with images of big asses from the moment I wake up to the moment I fall asleep. Well, I have to undress don’t I? Yes, I can finally claim something that I have as an enviable commodity. My waist isn’t as tiny as I wish it were, but I have that round thing that may get some men sprung. I didn’t ask for it. I was blessed by the ass Goddess. I’d like to think of her as a cross between Athena, fierce and wise, and Aphrodite, flirty and sexy.

But, let me the bearer of bad news. I am a feminist. I believe I am more than just my ass. I don’t really care for the motto, “If you got it, flaunt it.” I am more into my motto of, I have it and I am aware of it, thank you but I am fine if we don’t talk about the size of my ass. But I am talking about it now because I just saw Nicki Minaj’s video for her new song, Anaconda. The song itself is rather unimpressive except for the fifteen seconds that Minaj raps exceptionally well. Everything else is just a remix of Sir Mix-a-lot’s, Baby Got Back. There’s nothing innovative about it. The most disappointing part is how Minaj puts “skinny bitches” down. It took my cringe levels to uncharted decimals.

Is that all there is? Is that all there is to a big ass?

I remember when I was a teenage girl sitting outside my parents friends house, I sat there in the muggy summer sulking in my angst. And as I sat there, a man sat next to me and I got up quickly because he was drunk. And as I stood up, he slapped my ass. I will never forget the chuckle and the look on his smug face as I walked away feeling ashamed of what I was.

If that’s all there is, my friends, then lets break out the booze.

 

It took me years to accept my bodacious curves. Part of it had to do with pop culture’s obsession with ASS. All of a sudden, rap and hip hop became the new rock stars and with that, an assault of booty. Thick women with big thighs, big butts (but flat stomachs, something I cannot boast about) and big hips became popular. I didn’t look exactly like them but I had some of their features. The look started to get hyper sexualized. I started having sex and my partner at the time would grab my thighs and butt in a fun and sometimes, passionate way. It felt great not to be ashamed of what I had. I had always felt ugly or embarrassed at the way I looked.

Now that big butts are fashion, I am scrutinizing myself once again. Now I compare every single dimple on my thighs and butt to the minimal dimples on Beyonce’s or Minaj’s butt and thighs. It’s like, great I won a battle and now there is a coup against me. The revolution has turned against me.

There are two prevailing thoughts in mainstream pop culture: Ass and Titties. The female artists themselves push the limits of their own ass and titties. I understand that female artists are not a guiding voice or a moral campus for young women. But they have a platform and I don’t think they realize how important and big that platform is. Yes, in the end, they are just women who are learning about themselves everyday just like many of us. But many of us don’t have a platform in which we can voice our opinions or be listened to. I can just imagine how groundbreaking it would have been for Minaj to deliver a strong female powered rap against the objectification of her body, to the the sample of Baby Got Back. But no, she decided to degrade women’s bodies that do not look like her own. She used herself as a prop and not the talent she is. She gave Drake a lap dance.

As a feminist, I want other women to succeed. I want to see women in engineering jobs. I want to see a female president. I want to dance and not be groped by creepy men. I want simple things, you know? I am a firm believer that female solidarity is the only way for female empowerment to succeed. I am not advocating against men. Most people have the notion that being a feminist is being anti-man. Talk to me on good days (or buy me a beer or three) and I’ll tell you exactly how much I love men.

As a feminist, I want Nicki Minaj to know that her ass is amazing and beautiful. I want her to know that she is talented. I can see her rapping better than male rappers. Those fifteen seconds of her rapping were impressive. We can have it all. We can have ass and brains without having to give Drake a lap dance. Which, by the way, felt voyeuristic and creepy. I’m not against lap dances. That lap dance just gave me a creepy vibe.

I don’t want to bring other women down just to make myself feel better. For years I was taunted with fat jokes. My little cousins in Mexico called me a horse because of my butt. All those things hurt but now that thick women are reclaiming their bodies, I am not jumping on the mean girl train. I would say that the dance floor is open to everyone, not just fat ass bitches. I like to include all bitches on my dance floor. Even the smallest of revolutions need solidarity in order to prevail against whatever body of oppressive politics it’s fighting.

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moving forward

The hard plastic chairs are the same blue as the tile. They are all in neat rows–the chairs were made to interlock, to force themselves straight, despite the various asses that plant themselves on them throughout the day. I am at the DMV, step number 2 in the process of changing my name.

Last week, I sat in the uncomfortable interlocking chairs of the Social Security Administration office in San Bernardino. It was significantly less pleasant. Here there is no screaming baby whose mother threatens to kick her ass if she throws that bottle filled with juice on the floor one more time. No chest tattoos that read “R.I.P. Lil’ Goofy-something-or-other” who was born in 1982, but whose year of death I cannot determine. There was a 30-second period in which I sincerely believed violence would break out. There were armed officers who locked the door at 3 and yelled if we stepped outside, there was no coming back. I avoided eye contact and sweated quietly in my seat until my number was called.

I always regretted changing my name. When we lived in New York, I even went downtown to get the forms and instructions to change it back, but I was always so busy and it never seemed urgent. But now I am getting divorced. It feels urgent now. I want my beautiful last name back, even if it comes with the part of it I always hated, my middle name Pearl. It doesn’t get much more old lady than Pearl. It was my grandmother’s name, my mother’s mother, whom I hardly knew. My father says she was crazy, which may or may not be true. She’s dead now. I do remember thin, penciled eyebrows, a dyed red perm, wild eyes. But I don’t even trust that memory. In any case, I don’t mind the attachment to my mother’s mother much anymore, even if she was crazy. Even if I barely knew either one of them.

There is always one fly in these places. It is heavy, dull, on the brink of death, and it keeps landing on my arm. Before taking my seat, I argued lightly with the stereotypically disgruntled employee. She told me to leave and come back after the divorce went through. I told her I didn’t want to wait, and that I didn’t need to. I showed her their website, the page with the name change instructions. I told her I had my birth certificate, my new Social Security card. I had the forms. I had a plan. The Social Security Office first, then the DMV, then work, then bank, then student loans, then credit cards, then utility, cable, and phone bills. Then online stores. My friend at work told me it has been 9 years and people still get it wrong, but I am optimistic.

I asked to speak to a supervisor. I was given my number.

The name change feels important and exciting, even if the process is tedious. I move from one state or federal office to the next. I complete the forms. I read the instructions. I don’t like crowds of strangers, but I sit shoulder to shoulder with them, all of us facing forward, all of us finding it impossible to get comfortable in these chairs. There are signs posted that instruct us in all caps but no punctuation not to seat our children on the counter, not to use our cell phones, to get in this line, not that one. Everything is a different shade of industrial gray or blue, and all of the employees appear to be barely capable of tolerating us. We wait because we have business to do and there is no other way.

I wait because it is worth it. The divorce is in progress. My name is coming back to me. I am moving forward even though it looks like I’m just sitting here, waiting.

South Africa From the Dorms

On the third night of my arrival, I went out drinking at the Observatory area near the University of Cape Town. I have quickly learned that in South Africa, good beer is hard to come by. I value my quality beer. Most of the beer sold at pubs is light beer that is the equivalent of Dos XX or Heineken. Back home in the States I go out of my way to purchase a good Duvel. Here, I can’t find those high percentage beers unless I find myself in the hipster, perhaps gentrified, places in Cape Town. I don’t like to drink for the sake of drinking. I can’t stand mixed drinks because they give me pounding headaches. Wine is really big here in South Africa. I prefer that cheap comforting bubbly; my main man Andrè. I have found one beer that I have stuck with, Bone Crusher. It’s a heffenweiser type of beer. Better than Blue Moon in taste but slightly similar. It’s only 6%.

I don’t know why I say it like it’s a bad thing. I can hold my alcohol but the older I get the less tolerance I have. I have noticed that as I age, my alcohol tolerance has lowered. It hits me faster. Even after a good meal, I start to feel that buzzing dance party on the corner of my temple. That’s a dangerous area to be in because I just want to keep drinking and start dancing or just start talking about all the wonderful and shitty aspects of the universe. The older I get, the more I want to talk, the more I want to share and the more I think I want to help.

Being on a trip with 20 girls has tested my patience to its maximum. Being around 21 strangers is harder than walking around a city with the highest rape rate in the world. The other day I took a stroll on my own and it was the most valuable time I had. Back home, I am used to doing things alone. I like going on bike rides on my own. I like taking drives on my own. I like eating lunch alone. I like shopping alone. I love walking alone. I like being alone. When I am around people, I am alone. When I am being held, I feel alone. When I talk to my mother, I am alone. When I fall in love, I am alone. I have a love affair with my loneliness. It’s there at the center of my heart whether I want it or not. I suppose, like a good clingy boyfriend, I just accept it.

I am lucky that I met and picked an amazing roommate. I want to dedicate a whole book on her because our conversations are like a supernova. They are just an explosion of feelings, thoughts and exchanges that when photographed, they look completely still, serene, aligned and perfect. Everything inside the conversations is filled with the chaos and beauty of our past, present and dreams. She says I remind her of her boyfriend. One week of sharing a space with her and I think I am ready to settle and look for a relationship as soon as I get back home. I’ve never shared this much space with anyone but my sister.

I should be focusing on the history I am experiencing. After all, I am older than the democracy of South Africa. I should be typing up my research, whatever the fuck I decide that may be. I had Black Consciousness and Hip Hop and then I found out about Franschhoek and the Huguenot “refugees” after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in the 17th century, and then I went to the library and Bev, the librarian, would not give up on helping me find resources and she deviated my research into wine making and slave/child labor. There’s too much to learn and take in in such little time. It’s actually quite bad for an impulsive personality such as myself.

All I know right now, at this exact moment, is that I have to wake up early because I don’t want to miss the ferry to Robben Island, the island prison where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned in. The island that I totally fucked up on my map quiz here in South Africa.

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Totsiens Vir Nou, Boys

When I travel, I have no sense of time. I don’t know what day it is nor do I care. On Sunday I left on a two day flight to Cape Town, South Africa. Once I said goodbye to my family right before the TSA check at LAX, I forced myself to produce tears. My eyes watered a bit. I felt I should have been sadder at the thought of not seeing my family for a month. But this is a journey of self-discovery and blah blah blah so my selfishness didn’t care to produce tears.

 

I had not flown internationally since 2007, so all these TSA regulations were completely new to me. My x-ray showed I had sensitive areas so I had to be patted down and warned that if I didn’t pass my pat down, I would be privately screened. The TSA makes you question yourself, “Am I carrying drugs?” The last time I checked I was not a drug mule. Right before boarding my plane I was stopped by what I think were the feds. It was a Hispanic lady and a light colored Hispanic looking male. The lady reached out to me with a huge smile and I returned the warmth because I thought it was curious that there was a Hispanic lady on a British airline. When she asked where I was going, I thought she was genuinely interested in my journey. She quickly stopped smiling and started interrogating me about my trip. I looked down near her chest and I saw a badge and became nervous. Of course, she noticed. Suddenly, I was being asked how I paid for my trip and why I was I going, where is my school located, where do I wok and other pointless questions. I felt this inner rage building up inside of me. Is it hard to believe that a short Mexican girl from nowhere can fund her own trip across the Atlantic? She let me go as she looked at me up and down half believing my story. It’s hard not to feel like my ethnicity played a part. Everybody else that traveled alone didn’t have this happen. Everyone else is light skin, white or traveled together. I was a brown girl alone in a British airline destined to Cape Town. I felt some rage. The first of its kind.

 

My first trip was straight to Heathrow airport in London. It took nine hours. My connecting flight to Cape Town took eleven hours. Before I left, I was running on two hours of sleep and hung over. My journey started that Sunday morning on a boy’s bed. We talked all night Saturday as we drank ourselves silly. The more we talked, the more he surprised me. Before Saturday night, he was just a cute quiet guy. By Sunday morning he was naked and had me wrapped up in his arms. The occasional adjustment of our bodies called for a kiss on my forehead or intertwining his fingers with my fingers and resting our locked hands on my stomach. I wasn’t sure how to process what was going on. All I knew was that it was different from everything I had ever experienced. It felt like a stupid sentimental pop song about feeling a connection, or some bullshit like that. I felt his loneliness as he pressed his chest on my back. There was neediness in his eyes every time he kissed me with his cigarette stained lips. He told me we didn’t have to do anything I didn’t want to do, but I said I wanted to. I don’t normally say that.

 

I did things I had never done. I felt emotions that I never allowed myself to feel. I gave in to the sentimental side that I was forbidden to give in to with others. I never thought someone could make me feel that way. I never thought someone would rather hug me tightly, kiss me on the forehead and look me in the eyes with compassion. I never imagined someone would think I am interesting enough to give me real kisses.

 

At least it felt real, but it is typical of girls like me to fall so quickly for a guy who is mysterious, good looking and interested in my pleasure only. Whether it was physical or sentimental, it was all about me and he was there to comply with either.

 

Sometime during my eleven hour flight to Cape Town from London, I fell asleep hard after the brutal nine hour flight from LAX to London. My seven hour layover and being under my quiet rage and hangover, I fell asleep even through turbulence. Just as I fell asleep, I suddenly woke up maybe two hours later. I looked around the cabin. It was dark and everyone was sleeping. The only sound was the sound of air in motion. That night came into my mind and I smiled but then it quickly turned into a clench of my lips. I tried so hard not to cry and then I started to breathe rather fast and tears poured down my face.

 

I’m such a god damned stupid typical girl. He won’t be there when I come back. That’s how it always is. I’m flying across the fucking world. I’m going to be in the oldest city known to humankind. I’m going to see fucking real wild lions. Yet, there I am. Exactly like the stupid early twenty-year-old girls in my program who take out their wad of cash in a city with the highest crime rate in the world. I’m just stupid and naive. I’m just thinking of what to write on his postcard even before I land.

 

Earlier today in Cape Town, I visited the V&A Waterfront, the real touristy side of Cape Town. It’s a mall that I don’t really care for except for its Ferris wheel outside, the beach on the front and the big screen broadcasting the World Cup. I entered a small café. A South African young man who called me a princess greeted me. He advised me to sit inside and drink my coffee so we could make conversation. We did and he was incredibly charming. He said I was beautiful. Cape Town people are the nicest people I’ve ever met in my life. I’ve only been here two days. Our guide, Arlene, has an incredible history that I will share soon. The locals on our first bar night out on Main Road down by the University of Cape Town were more than willing to share their views and perspectives on race. Somewhere in our drunken conversation we decided to bash ourselves and proclaim that Americans are arrogant…and loud.

 

Two days here but I’m still sprung on some guy across the world.

That’s how it goes when you try running away from yourself.

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The Women’s Room

“Let the beauty of what you love be what you do.  There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”   — Rumi

When I entered Pitzer College at 17, I hadn’t been to a formal school since the 2nd grade.  I had no idea who I was apart from my upbringing, didn’t know what I cared about, what I wanted to study, who I admired, what kind of career to look for, where I should live, or who I wanted to become.

I felt lost, frightened, existentially alone, and I was acutely intimidated by an academic world that held (for me) no precedent or projected future.  I consulted my academic advisor and went to classes religiously, sought counsel from every authority figure I could, and in time, began to mold a career trajectory that made sense to me.  But I agree with Anna Quindlen that it’s easier to write a resume than to craft a spirit.

 During my freshman year, I met Professor Gayle Greene in a course called Contemporary Women Writers, a class that legitimately changed my perspective on women and writing and defined what I would later choose as my life’s work. Gayle’s passion for her subject matter influenced me in ways that would, eventually, help me become a tenured professor, and I am deeply grateful for that.  But more importantly, Gayle helped me craft a life I am proud of, and for that, there is no gratitude deep enough.

Toni Morrison came to Scripps College that fall, and she sat with us around the square table in our Humanities classroom, answering our questions about her newest novel Beloved.  That evening held life-altering dialogue that would change the way I think about literature and art and women’s voices.  This culminated in the peak honor of being invited to have lunch with Ms. Morrison, along with a very small group who had the opportunity to speak with her one on one–about writing and editing, children and priorities, and juggling personal and professional obligations. These topics felt foreign to me at the time, but remain persistently passionate areas of discourse with my girlfriends today.

I don’t think it would be possible to overstate the effect Gayle has had on my career or the influence her work has had on the quality of my life.  In her classes I read authors like Margaret Atwood, Margaret Drabble and Toni Morrison for the first time, women who taught me that love is never any better than the lover, that wicked people love wickedly, violent people love violently, and stupid people love stupidly.  Remembering this over the years has saved me from despair during pinnacles of heartbreak.

Margaret Drabble came to our class the next year.  And for the very first time in my young life, I thought of what it might mean to some day become a middle-aged woman.  That’s a frightening prospect for any girl, but Ms. Drabble made it seem approachable, necessary, inevitable, a passage to navigate with grace and humor.

Gayle gave me these gifts in my youth, intangible offerings that continue to make my life richer in immeasurable ways.  Her dedication to her profession, and to making art come alive for scads of naive young women, opened up a world I couldn’t have accessed any other way.  In fact, it is now my top priority as an educator to bring writers to campus to celebrate and showcase talents and accomplishments my students have never had the opportunity to see up close.

In one of Gayle’s courses, we read Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, and Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room, books that explore the idea that women who choose less conventional paths are not inherently crazy.  The most significant thing I gleaned from these explorations is a respect for female friendships and a greater trust in my women friends as my deepest allies. This hadn’t occurred to me before Gayle’s classes.  My mother had no women friends; neither did my mother-in-law.  In Sula, Toni Morrison suggests, “She had been looking all along for a friend, and it took her a while to discover that a lover was not a comrade and could never be, for a woman. And that no man would ever be that version of herself which she sought to reach out to and touch with an ungloved hand.”

I have three daughters, the oldest of whom just graduated from college. When they were small, I emphasized the strength of the sisterhood, and I encouraged them to value not only their biological sisters, but also their female friends, to understand that men are not our only or even our primary vehicle to comfort, self-respect or social status.  I am proud to say that in addition to strong bonds with their respective boyfriends. each one of them has cultivated lasting connections to women who have served as powerful anchors in their young lives.

In Surfacing, Margaret Atwood emphasizes, “This above all, to refuse to be a victim. Unless I can do that I can do nothing.  I have to recant, give up the old belief that I am powerless…”  From Gayle I learned that to be a woman is to be strong, to be capable, to make hard choices, over and over and over. I learned to respect, rather than be ashamed of my body, and to admire my resiliency as a woman. I learned what consciousness raising means, and why the personal is political.  Our job as women is to fight for each other, for ourselves, and to record our journeys, truthfully and unapologetically. To hold a pen is to be at war, and that’s not a responsibility we should take lightly. 

Gayle changed my life.  The personal choices I make now are a vehicle through which I unite with other women– toward community, empowerment, and change.

We are subjects of our lives, not merely objects of someone else’s desire.  As Morrison reminds us, “There is no gift for the beloved. The lover alone possesses his gift of love. The loved one is shorn, neutralized, frozen in the glance of the lover’s inward eyes.”  We don’t have to see ourselves through the male gaze. We get to choose what and whom we love.

We may choose to domesticate with men as romantic life partners, but it is our love for ourselves as women that sustains us.  I try to hold true to that in all that I give to women in and outside of my profession.  From the grace and strength through which she has conducted her life, Gayle has exemplified to me over and over:

 “Wherever you are, and whatever you do, be in love.”

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Spending Summer in Winter

Next week I’ll be across the world.

I had to physically stop after I wrote the sentence above because I took one big breath before a dozen little fast ones. I keep having anxiety about it. I am terrified of flying because dying in a plane crash has always been one great big fear of mine. Dying a violent random death is my number one fear. I keep picturing myself right as the plane is taking off. I’m getting higher and higher and the speed of the airplane is accelerating in an upward slope. The plane rattles, it jerks a few times, and then it stabilizes in midair and we’re flying. I imagine that that is exactly how limbo physically feels. That’s a terrifying feeling.

I hate flying, so why did I sign up for a two-day flight across the world?

Because I am an annoying American. Experience and the pursuit of knowledge are my driving force. Yet, my heart looks like a miniature Teddy Roosevelt, clad in safari gear and a fanny pack to top it off. I am going to Cape Town and Johannesburg, South Africa. Ultimately, the decision to go was based on how boring I think my life is and an incessant need to “discover” myself. Don’t worry. I rolled my eyes harder at myself than you did. I couldn’t think of a more selfish American reason to go.

Experience has taught me that when I push myself into scary or unknown places within and outside of myself, I come out with a different perspective of who I am, who I was and what I want. I’ve come to realize that I am very selfish but I relinquish in that feeling. I’ve experienced a freedom and a self-awareness that has brought on many positive changes in the last five years. Of course, that selfishness has brought on many headaches and tears when I refuse to do what everyone else wants me to do.

I don’t know what to expect in South Africa. There is a cold front hitting Cape Town this weekend. Light snow is expected in the high mountain areas. I’m staying right near or below Table Mountain. It sounds like the place that expects snow in cold fronts. Snow in Africa, what? I’m ignorant of geography. South Africa has the highest crime rate in the world. I’ll be traveling with loads of cash because my bankcard won’t work. Getting travelers checks is pointless. It’s like a sticky note on my back, “Rob me…kick me, too.” I’m taking my laptop. I’m supposed to keep a journal of my trip. I’m studying abroad and 45% of my grade depends on this journal. I’m taking my phone because I can’t live without it. I hate myself for it. I’m taking a camera since I’ll probably use up all the space on my phone with “selfies” of me (that’s redundant, right?) with captions like “Beautiful Cape Town” but it’s only my fat round face that will be the focus.

While in Cape Town, I’ll be studying Apartheid history and researching burials at the Cape Town Library archives and the archives at the University of Cape Town. I’ll be taking pictures of documents written in Afrikaans. I won’t know what the hell I’ll be doing but I’ll be doing it. My most pressing concern is how will I get to and back from a bar to watch the World Cup soccer matches. I’m not a soccer fan, but again, I’m interested in the experience. Soccer reminds me of my friends, family and my native Mexico. Not to mention imminent destruction of national identities, riots and idiot tourists, such as myself. I want to be as far away from the American Dream as possible. I suppose now a day the dream is to get away from America.

I’m also going to be in Paris for six days. I’ll be there for the final World Cup match. I’ll be there for Bastille Day. Someone on reddit advised me to go party at some district where firefighters, sorry, Fire Men are abundant. They throw the best parties with really good-looking people but with really bad music and cheap champagne. I like a good party, and cheap champagne is never a bad time. Parisian Fire Men plus cheap champagne sounds like a really bad porn movie I’d direct and the perfect opportunity for any hedonistic tendencies I may have. But I’m terrified of catching Parisian herpes or worse. I don’t think that’s any different from local herpes. Most of my male friends say that I need to get me some international booty. I say, condoms don’t always protect against STD’s, pregnancy or rape. I’m an international prude, what can I say? I’m not opposed to kissing in well lit public places but we all know that’s rude and unsexy. Is it normal for us to think about sex first when traveling?

The second thing I thought about was visiting the catacombs and the graveyards, because sex and death are universal experiences. So it’s normal to think about hot French men and piled up skulls underneath a city. While I am away, I’ll be narrating my life for a month in Anthony Bourdain’s voice.

I don’t know what to expect and I am really terrified. I don’t know what I got myself into but five years ago, I would have never thought I’d do this. Five years ago it was a just a daydream. Just something that my cultured University educated friends did. Not me. But here I am, one week from Winter across the Atlantic. I’m the type of person that wants to write about detours in Victorville. I have a feeling my professor will hate me for writing a book instead of a journal.

 

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Left

 “Just move your legs and walk. Into a brand new world.  It’s that easy.”

 —–Tom Spanbauer, I Loved You More

 I love listening to podcasts.  Actually, most of my friends do, as do my mostly grown children.  There’s something so inviting and intimate about listening in on other people’s conversations– especially when the dialogue is professionally edited, and the guests converse capably on clever and compelling topics. I love listening to This American Life, On Being, Freakonomics, and RadioLab, with headphones while running, on speaker while driving, or alone in the dark before I fall asleep.

 Several months ago, my friend Nick and I were talking about listening to our favorite shows and we got excited about a topic we felt people rarely recognize or tout.  As we drank beer and brainstormed about some of the most fascinating people we know, we realized those individuals all made conscious choices to significantly shift their previously planned life trajectories.  They left who they were, without any assurance of who they would become.  We looked at each other and we knew we had our theme.  The theme of our friendship, and the theme of our new podcast.

Semper fidelis. Once a Marine, always a Marine.  In the community in which  I grew up, we pledged specifically to be brave, loyal, and true.  As Americans, we pledge allegiance to our flag, and in culturally in The United States, we undeniably value loyalty, perseverance, and dedication as qualities we admire in people of good character. We’ve been trained to think that winners don’t quit and quitters don’t win, we’ve been taught a deep fear of losing what we’ve invested, and we perceive walking away as a weakness.

For the most part, people don’t like to talk about what they’ve left.

But sometimes leaving is the only choice we can conscionably make.  Sometimes what we leave behind, what we lose, what we grieve, changes us in such profound ways, we can no longer recognize the person who clung to the safety of what was known. 

(Shameless plug: go to leftpodcast.com for powerful stories from ordinary people who have overcome extraordinary obstacles, who have consciously and courageously abandoned previously held beliefs and chosen alternative routes, and where those journeys have taken them.)

The first significant place I left, I was labeled a quitter, and that word held a thickness of shame I couldn’t cut with a knife for over a decade.  But eventually, I discovered a happier woman waiting for me on this side of that seemingly insurmountable track.

And so I have continued to explore this option, to quit when there is no solid reason to stay.  I have left things I thought I couldn’t relinquish, things I thought I’d never survive letting go of, people and places and identities that formed me, which I strongly believed I couldn’t live without.  I’ve left my family of origin, the religious organization into which I was born, many homes and cities, academic institutions, and relationships that restricted the person I wanted to become.

Most recently, I’ve left motherhood as my defining identity.  Looking back, I was a naive little girl, still in school, when I gave birth to twin daughters.  Instead of investigating who I was, what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go throughout my twenties (as I trust my daughters will do), I asked myself what they needed, and I made my decisions accordingly.  Of course, I don’t regret my devotion to my family. I stayed with my husband and gave birth to more children, creating a microcosm for them and their animals in the ways I thought would make them safe and help them grow.  It was a strong choice and a worthy focus for my time and dedication.  But now those first pretty little babies are about to turn 22.  My son is 20.  My babygirl is 16.  They are confident, healthy, happy and well-adjusted young people, with steady relationships and attainable career goals.  Of course, the youngest still needs structure and guidance and relentless chauffeuring, but none of them really need me to define myself solely or even predominantly by their needs anymore.

What does that even mean?

It means for the first time in my life I have to ask myself what I want.

I realize that this is a first world problem.  Still.  It is, perhaps, the hardest and least likely question most first world women will ever ask themselves.

 

 

5 Reasons Why I Have Cried 100 Times in 5 Days

1.   Wednesday, May 28, 2014 3:27 P.M.

I run over a rabbit. This doesn’t sound that extreme especially given that I live in the desert mountains where jack rabbits and cottontails are constantly darting across sun-bleached asphalt.  My kids are in the car; they don’t see anything.  They hear me screech and slap my hand over my mouth. Tires thrum once—twice over the little gray body.  What’s wrong?  Mom, what’s wrong?  They both echo from the backseat.  Are you sad?  I look in the rearview mirror and see the little white puff of the tail lying beside gray ears. Hot tears roll down my face and I say, Yes. Mommy’s sad.

 

2.   Wednesday, May 28, 2014 8:43 A.M.

Maya Angelou is dead.  Or so my Facebook news feed says.  I am immediately sad.  Maya Angelou was the first female poet I ever learned about.  Before her, I had never heard of a woman poet.  Ever. I knew Shakespeare and Wordsworth and Frost. I credit the following lines with drawing me to a life of language and wordsmithing:

But a bird that stalks

down his narrow cage

can seldom see through

his bars of rage

his wings are clipped and

his feet are tied

so he opens his throat to sing.

 

Dr. Maya Angelou opened my throat to sing. I can’t help it.  I cry.

(Read it here: Caged Bird)

3.   Friday, May 23, 2014 10:16 P.M.

He looks like a Political Science professor with his salt and pepper beard and wired-rimmed glasses.  But when he speaks of Christopher, when he speaks of his loss, his anger towards politicians and their failure to do anything about the mass shootings, Richard Martinez’s voice deepens and swells, rumbles like a fucking hurricane.  It catches in his throat and he sputters out words through tears that make me ache.  His anger is so raw, so unmasked, I can’t help but to cry when I hear his grief.  When he speaks of his son, his beautiful, lovely, articulate, twenty-year-old son, I cry.

 

4.   Tuesday, the day after Memorial Day, 6:26 A.M.

She is dead. She is dead and I am confused. I just saw her last week. I click on her Facebook page because there must be a mistake. But there is no mistake. Her uncle has announced her death. Her cousins and friends add to the thread, endless good-byes and R.I.P.s. I am still confused.

I quickly message another student, a friend of Genevieve’s and another former student of mine. What is this business about Gen? She didn’t really pass, right? Before my student can get back to me, the posts keep coming. I will miss you, Gigi. God has another angel. I know it’s true before I can even log off.

I don’t cry. Not immediately anyways. I just saw her. She came to my office just two weeks ago to announce she was transferring to Asuza Pacific. I chuckled. Not because she wants to go there, but it is the way Gen talks. She is so excitable that she can’t contain it; she almost has to hold down her hands when she is telling me. Her eyes—her beautiful copper eyes shake while she laughs—almost guffaws at herself. I tell her no. Don’t go.

We have these conversations almost weekly. Gen comes in and flops down in the maroon chair by my desk. She usually gives me a quick hug but more often than not, she is talking before I can even look up from my computer. She is not my student anymore, but I love that she still comes by to confide in me.

Sometimes she shows me pictures and videos of her little brother Timmy. Once she complained about a guy who broke up with her via text. She laughed at his stupidity. I laughed too. Gen is beautiful and smart and so vivacious, she can’t walk more than three feet in any direction without someone talking to her. Boys are stupid. I sound like a big sister and not an English professor.

Our last face-to-face conversation, I am in a hurry to get her out of there. I have a class in thirty minutes that I haven’t yet prepped for. Don’t go to APU, I keep saying. Stay here. You don’t want to start your life in debt. Private school is debt. She smiles and says that she’s been here—at Chaffey—too long. She needs to move on. Plus, what would we do without you?  I say it as a parting gift because I know that I have class and I am unprepared and sometimes I wish I didn’t have so many students who seek my counsel. She leans over my desk and hugs me. Don’t go, I say and we both chuckle because we both know Gen will do whatever she wants. She may ask my advice, but that doesn’t mean she’ll take it. She is twenty-one.

I scream as soon as I am back on the highway after dropping off my kids at school. It is the first time I am alone all morning. Genevieve is dead.

I cry louder than I have in a long, long time. There are so many tears, I veer the car into a turnout and sob. After a while, I stop and listen for her laughter. My favorite laugh—the one where she laughs at herself for a cluck or two and touches her chest in a dramatic fashion. The one where her eyes burn gold.

When I get home, I hike back into the mountains and cry and until I am certain I am devoid of tears. Later, I shower and I cry. Much, much later, I cry into my pillow so my kids can’t hear me.

I have cried a hundred times this week. I can’t open my Facebook without seeing Gen’s pictures come up in my feed. I can’t choke out her name without falling apart. I can’t bear to feel the weight of the world without her effervescence. I will be forever looking for her smile in a crowd of students and waiting to hear her laugh springing up from around the corner. But the enormity of her death will not fully hit me until I go back to work in August and she is not in my office crossed-legged and giddy with summer vacation stories that she will never live.

Genevieve Gutierrez

  1. Wednesday, May 28, 2014 2:52 P.M.

The school bell rings, and my son wraps his thin arms around my waist.  He says, I’m sorry you’re sad, Mom.  They know about Genevieve; they know I am devastated.  I still love you, he says.  I know, silly, I say.  I muss his gold hair. I wipe the tears running down my neck as we walk back to the car. I am so full of love and tears. But mostly love.

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