The Personal is Political

“…man is defined as a human being and woman is defined as a female. Whenever she tries to behave as a human being she is accused of trying to emulate the male…” Simone de Beauvoir

Recently, I was given the responsibility to serve on a panel about Rape Culture, and afterwards, to lead a vigil for victims of domestic violence. At first, I wasn’t sure in what capacity I was being asked to contribute. But when I was told that I should present a linguistic and/or narrative perspective, I ascertained an angle from which I could attempt to set the stage for why the onus for rape so frequently falls on the victim.

The feminist movement as we know it today started with consciousness raising, a practice in which women came together to share their personal experiences with one another, to find, generally, a consensus about the particular challenges of being a woman in our collective culture. These early “second wave” feminists coined the idea that the personal is political, and they actively encouraged women to tell their stories.

There are narratives that lead us to believe it is normal to colonize women’s bodies. Even though we are socially against “forcible rape,” we are somehow immune to the subtle ways we teach and reify that women’s bodies belong to men. Do we even need repressive apparatuses when we so clearly have internalized these ideological ones? Why is it that men predominantly set the rules of political engagement? Aside from the dominance of their greater physical strength, where did this culture of hierarchy and subsequent double standards start?

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” John 1

There is immense power in words.

I told a couple of stories on this panel, which I have abbreviated here:

Story one: Once upon a time, Adam was pure and free of all sin and perception of sin. He communed effortlessly with both animals and God, until one day he told God he was lonely and God said, ok, I will make you a companion. And God created Eve out of Adam’s rib. And she became his helpmate.

“And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him.21 And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof;22 And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man.23 And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.”

Story two:

A woman committed the first sin and our reproductive challenges are direct punishments. In many communities, when a girl gets her period, it’s referred to as the curse, and the subordination of women’s bodies and minds are often rationalized as a dictate from God.
The man said, “The woman whom you gave me, she gave me some fruit from the tree and I ate it.” Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee. Genesis 3:12-16

I was relatively comfortable discussing these stories, since they are canonical and have nothing to do with me. I was relatively comfortable listening to my two colleagues explore the sociological and legal parameters of rape culture, even when they clearly articulated the relationship between childhood victims, the internalization of blame and shame, and the subsequent tendency for repeat victimization. I have read all of these basic theories, and they make sense to me. And I was fine. We were each presenting an educated set of perspectives, with research to support our claims. Which was predictable and safe. Until a woman from the audience raised her hand and told her story, in tears, asking for an explanation for why her rapist didn’t stop, how he could continue to violate her over her tears, how he could shame her after, vilify her to her boyfriend, and she kept asking for an explanation for his pathology, asking why, why, why, admitting a desire for vengeance (because, of course, she didn’t report or press charges at the time). Suddenly, I felt like I was going to throw up.

I stayed seated, but I couldn’t speak.

Someone else answered her.

This young woman spoke at the Vigil too, as did other women, all of whom reiterated how important it is to tell our stories, how in the telling of them, we release other victims from shame and blame. I managed to share a healing meditation, supported by candles, and I invited the circle to care for one another, but I didn’t share my story.

If the personal is political, I owed them more than I shared that night. In respect and tribute to the brave women who spoke that night, and to the brave survivors both male and female who tell or have yet to tell their stories, I was raped as both a child and an adult. Here is the beginning of my story, with minor details changed to protect my family of origin:

Ken hangs onto the molding of the doorway like a spider, cavalier, appearing disinterested, like he has nothing better to do. I think if there was an earthquake, he would hold on tighter, bracing himself for imminent disaster, but it’s obvious he doesn’t have to. I am clearly not a threat.

I am lying on the thin red bedspread, my seven year old bottom peeking out under my dad’s old football jersey, knees bent, calves up, ankles crossed. But of course Ken can’t really see that. I am perched up on my elbows, watching him linger, so he can only see my face, and as usual, my face betrays nothing. I have three siblings who share this room with me, and it feels arbitrary and random who might pounce and when. I don’t face away from the door, not now, not ever.

But they are in the kitchen. And I am here on this bed, watching Ken in the doorway eye me with his half-grin and his wide eyes like headlights on my chin. He is one of the boys my father used to coach, who is well past the 19-year-old cutoff, making him too old to compete. Mother says our father asks these boys to watch out for us while he’s on the road and that we should be nice to them and grateful they care for us, because they’re not bound by blood.

So I try to smile and be polite to Ken, even though I don’t know what he sees when he watches me, or what he’s protecting me from when no one is around, when he smoothes the baby blond wisps of hair away from my cheek and runs his hands along the length in back, pets me like a kitten, demure and soft to touch. I know my grandfather has asked my mother to cut my hair, but she hasn’t, yet. Women don’t have long hair where I come from. Maybe I am too young for her to see me as a woman, so I’m not significant. Her own hair is dark and coarse and shorn tight like a boy’s. Maybe she is proud of herself for producing what she is not, or maybe the blond hair and light eyes remind her of her husband, a man who still loves her in a way no one else has.

I don’t know. She’s never here. Father is on a coaching trip for the next ten weeks, and if I were a boy, and eight, mother says he would take me. But for now I am seven, and my father already has his sights set on my brother as his athlete, and I keep thinking that maybe Mikey won’t have the moves, and our father will reconsider and train me instead. That’s my plan, to get trained by my father so I can compete and get out of here. I wonder if my mother is coaching this evening as well, but girls don’t get to go on the same trips, and she never really tells us where she is, so I don’t think she will train me, even if she could. She and my father have many serious responsibilities that keep them on the Field or on the road for hours, days or months at a time. I have been told they work for the Lord our God and the fulfillment of His Kingdom. I only know that home is the worst place anyone can be.

* * *

I stand in the kitchen with my siblings, watching my mother gather her things to depart for the evening and I ask her softly to stay, to please stay. I must have the sad face on, a look of need, because her body hardens as she turns to look at me.

“Stop it!” she hisses in a whisper, her face contorted in controlled anger. I close my eyes and pull the emotion in like a syringe, softening my face before the tears emerge. I take a deep breath. Nothing. I have swallowed the sadness and it lingers in my belly like a dead animal waiting to rot. But my face shows nothing anymore. I am sure of this from the way my mother turns away again, that I have managed what she most respects and demands. I don’t show my cards.

She has told me since I was three that the worst thing a girl can ever do is cry for herself. The goal of womanhood is not to shed a tear for either physical or emotional pain. Childbirth will bring pain, but you can’t let it get to you, she says. The Ticuna Indian girls don’t cry. Not even when they are eleven years old and everyone pulls out all their hair til they’re bald. They don’t cry even then. The community circles around the girl, torturing her, but she can’t show fear, can’t lose her composure or show any signs of distress. This is what it is to be female, my mother says. But when her hair grows back into fullness, she can get married. That’s the consolation. Marriage. That’s how we become women.

You have nothing to complain about, she says, you have it good. Your life is easy. No one has pulled out my hair in handfuls, so she has a point. It’s also true that things are easier without my dad, easier when he’s gone travelling with his boys. It’s true that his rage and random violence is more difficult to manage than her predictable whispers and the tightness of her lips, pursed in displeasure. It’s true that I have very little to fear from her, as long as I keep my emotions and my needs to myself. As long as I don’t ask for anything, I can remain in her presence. Need or vulnerability or desire for comfort, affirmation, human touch are sins in her world. What’s important is to meet other people’s needs and to be polite. Especially to father’s boys.

* * *

All I want for Christmas is a Jewel Magic. I want to make jewelry that will protect me, jewelry like Wonder Woman’s bracelets, jewelry that will ward off hostile invaders. I don’t know how I will make this jewelry work, but I know if I can create pieces myself, that I will make them strong, durable, and pretty, and they will be sufficient against whatever weapons he can use on me.

Ken doesn’t really use weapons, though. He’s nice to me. The last time he came over, while my parents were preaching at Phosterians, he sent the other kids outside with Big Stick popsicles and said I was special, so he had brought me something even more special, a 15 inch Marathon bar, a braided chocolate covered caramel bar I had never seen the likes of, and this was the largest version available, and he said he would sit on my bed and read to me while I ate it. I sat cross-legged across from him, far enough away that he could barely nudge me with his feet, and I sucked on that gooey chocolate bar for an hour, making it last while he read to me from Strong’s Concordance, and I would cross-reference and quote back the passages from the Bible I had memorized. He said I was as smart as a circus monkey. I asked him to read to me about Esther, because Grandmother said she was so beautiful and clever, the King gave her anything she desired. The King sought her out from the whole land. He brought her to the Kingdom for such a time as this. I loved the sound of that, loved the way my Grandmother imitated the drama of Esther’s words, how she went into the King without his solicitation to save her people, the Jews.

And now Ken is reading it to me and I think there must be hope in revealing the truth after all, that the King must have loved her enough, he could stand the pain of her words, the secret knowledge that she was a Jew too, that she had hidden that from him, but revealed it now when she needed to to save her people. If he killed her people, as he planned to do via military edict, he had to kill her too, and she would tell him this. And according to law and tradition, he should have killed her for deceiving him, and for making a request of him unsolicited, and of course, for being a Jew in the first place, but he had come to love her, and he raised his sceptre so she could enter safely and make her request of him. Ken runs his hands along father’s jersey, along my waist, and removes my panties. And I recite the verses and keep thinking, the King forgave Esther’s deception and told her he would honor her request, even if she wanted half his Kingdom for herself. He would give her half his Kingdom, even though she lied by omission.

And the King saved her life and the lives or all of her family and her whole tribe of people. I don’t know what will happen if I tell Father about the way his boys touch me, if I tell him what they do when he’s not here. Maybe when I grow up, I will have the courage, like Esther, to tell him, or to tell someone the whole truth, and maybe someone will love me some day and I will know he loves me by his forgiveness and “I will go in unto the King, which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish.”

self-promotion, yo

I have an essay in my brain about hard work and taking myself seriously as a writer and taking risks and being scared and excited all at the same time. It’s there; I just need to grade about 1,132 things before I write it. And help my kids with their homework. And help my friend with his cover letter. And prepare for a talk I’m giving in less than 48 hours.I love all of the millions of things I’m involved in, but I’m also sometimes worn down and stretched thin. My life is living me right now. Basically, I’m trying to work at and take seriously something I care about, writing. For now, I’m posting an essay I wrote called “An Open Letter to the Adorable Young Couple Leisurely Strolling by As I Frantically Usher My Children into My Rav4″ that got published in McSweeney’s. I’m very excited about it. Please read. It’s short; I promise.

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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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