The Elusive Search for Meaning

I write a lot about my early twenties as if they happened ages ago. It feels like ages ago. Five years ago I was twenty-three. That age has become a marker for many of my friends and me as a terrible transformative age. We drank a lot. We loved too much. We fucked around too much. I had many sidewalk drunk crying sessions over a guy that only wanted half of me, memories of my childhood that I could not make sense of, and that perpetual affliction of women, my looks. Most importantly, I would fall in and out of bouts of depression over the direction of my life. I would justify my laziness in quests for meaning. The truth was that I did not want to face reality. I was not ready to face it. My early twenties were a re-incarnation of teenage angst, only this time I was completely liable for all my fuck ups. I could not accept the fact that finding meaning takes hard work. It takes dedication. It takes sacrifice. Most of all, finding meaning or direction, for me, took a difficult awareness of my flaws, mistakes, and an even more difficult decision to completely change. There was one constant in my life, though. My passion, often infused in my will to create, has always instilled a belief in my own potential. Even in my darkest moments of angst ridden faux existentialism, I have always believed in my passion. This passion, characterized by Anais Nin as white heat, feeds my fragile ego. Even today when life gives me annoying hiccups, there is a deep-rooted passion imbedded in my emotional core. It gives me the strength to endure heartbreak, over and over again. It gives me the strength to stretch myself thin with school, internships and work. I virtually have no days off, and my sanity often depends on people urging me to relax. My passion is strict nowadays because it knows too well that I can become distracted when any little man pays me any little attention. I often cling on to that attention because it has been the one consistently emotion missing in my life. It never really works out because that is often the curse of creative and hard working women. Not that every hard working woman out there is an aging spinster, but for the ones that choose work over everything else, this is often a trait. My passion has always given me meaning. I have found a perfect way of infusing my passion into everything I do. I am passionate about my writing, my studies, my research and my commitment to sharing it. All three aspects of my life (work, school and personal) compliment each other perfectly. So, when I hear people struggling or complaining about finding meaning in their work or life, it’s a bit difficult for me to understand. I’ve heard it from countless of people, best friends, co-workers and new friends, and the first question I always ask is, “What are you passionate about?” It’s a hard question to answer. Most of these struggles have often been from men, and they have one common answer, they find passion in hobbies. They like to build things. They like to play video games. They like to play golf. I try to be sensitive, but all I want to do is yell at them and say, “NO. These are not passions. These are distractions.” We all need distractions, but realistically, we cannot pour our passions into distractions. It hinders us from taking a real difficult look at ourselves and accepting that the only way to move forward is through hard work. It sometimes saddens me. Is it a product of our disenchanted “millennial” generation? I cried to my sister today and I asked her, rhetorically, “Am I asking the universe for too much? I only ask to meet one person who can equal my passion, who can find great satisfaction in their work or studies. Someone who has a vision. Is that too much?” She said yes. She said yes because she said that it’s rare to find people with enthusiasm. I’ve dealt with people, men in particular, who expect to have that dream job right after college. When it doesn’t work out, they lose enthusiasm. Being an undergraduate at 28, I tend to meet a lot of early twenty year olds. I tend to meet a number of people dealing with anxiety and depression about their job prospects. My advice is always brutal. You will not find satisfaction right after college. You will not find complete happiness at this age. Some people might, but for most, you won’t. It’s a difficult process and if I could go back to my early twenties, I would tell myself to be patient and not to dwell in the things I cannot control. Finding meaning, purpose or an answer is sometimes pointless and it’s a sure way to become depressed. Having a vision, but accepting that it’s incredibly hard work, makes things a little easier. Not having a vision can be frustrating, but like Dan Savage says, it gets better. Being positive and accepting that things do not always work out has strengthened my emotional core. It was a difficult process and I still don’t have everything figured out. I get depressed and I get anxiety attacks, but I let myself indulge in that negativity for a short amount of time. It’s healthy to let it out, but I realize that itself is a privilege. Most people cannot afford to indulge in cries, in anxiety attacks, or bouts of self-pity, life doesn’t work that way. To put it annoyingly simple, life is a bitch. I can indulge in that negativity because no one depends on me. There is a degree of guilt in that. That guilt gives me the strength to pick myself up and realize, ok enough of that bullshit, it’s time to get actual shit done now. Sometimes I wish I could make people see the way I view life. Life was not always serendipitous, positive or exciting. Life used to be depressing, confusing and directionless. Though, I have always lived on impulse that has often been fueled by white heat. Whatever the situation was, sex, love, work, school, writing, there is something so stubborn, so rooted, within the chemicals that drive my emotions. It’s a belief, sometimes egotistical, that transcends meaning or the pursuit of. It’s a will, an indescribable need, to live my life according to a most primal need, the will to survive. My survival depends on cultivating my passion, without it my life would be boring, sad and dull. If I could characterize my generation, and some younger folk, it would be generation sad. I’m probably being too general, but that’s just my observation. But I suppose I should stop hanging out/talking with early twenty year olds, and even mid-twenty year olds. I remember being 22-25 and thinking, who the hell is this almost 30 year old giving me life advice?! Now I am that almost 30 year old.

In Paris, I cannot pronounce Croissant

I have not written extensively about my summer abroad. I honestly thought that my penchant for sentimentality and prose would instill some kind of rejuvenation of my creative spirit. It had the opposite effect as I experienced a case of writers block. Although I went to study abroad, my primary objective was simply life, to experience something completely new and exciting. And I did, for the most part. I left the country with a completely new experience of what physical love could be. I left with a new definition of sensuality. As I channeled Anais Nin, the role of eroticism is an abstract manifestation of poetry. In those subtle touches and natural embraces, I gave in to a usual part of myself that is always guarded. Like a bad basic cable movie, I learned a lesson that most women my age know very well. Some men do not call back. Most men do not have a clue who Anais Nin is.

I always refer back to sex, not just because I miss it, but because it is universal. Unlike animals, we possess sensuality and eroticism. It’s a physical poetry that we sometimes call love, but that I often confuse it with simply just fucking. That’s ok, too. I was in Paris for a week, the last week of my summer abroad. The city of love, lonely as fuck. I met Valeria and Emmanuel at the corner bar of some street in Montmartre, right before the steps that lead up to the Sacre Coeur. I had already been drinking. I was returning from an all day excursion from the Luxemburg Gardens, where I saw a very attractive young man reading Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast.” A perfectly Parisian ode. I went to the Louvre, because that is what we all must do. I spent three hours sweating my sickness out. I saw the Mona Lisa. It was tiny. It did not change my life. I was most impressed with the Delacroix paintings. These were my favorite. I suppose I am more of a Romantic than a traditionalist? I went to dinner by myself. Had drinks by myself. The waiter tried to impress me with his own tattoos. I believe you, you’re cool. I rode the metro by myself, intoxicated. Somehow I was not scared that I was a woman. It was a very short and quiet liberty that I experienced in Paris. I still felt those aching strings within myself, “will I be loved when I come back?” The short answer was a very brutal No.

But I met Valeria and Emmanuel that night, a West African couple fluent in French, English and Spanish. Valeria greeted me in French, but I just gave her a doe eyed look for five seconds and uttered in Spanish that I did not speak French. She spoke to me in Spanish, and I did not feel lonely anymore. We spoke of revolution, literature, America and love. Emmanuel was much more in love with Valeria than she was with him. This I could tell by the way she held her cigarette and smoked it through her smirk while she gazed at him in dominance. I probably fell in love with her, too. I fell in love with her for the same reasons that Emmanuel’s psyche fell in love. It was the unspoken poetic gaze of her sensuality. I wish I was as powerful as Valeria.

I made them laugh with my charm. Valeria said she was drawn to me. She said I had a very friendly look. I usually get told I have a very sad look to me. I suppose it was the Paris humidity. I don’t know. I told them the funny story about the French baker and me. He couldn’t understand my accent when I said I wanted a croissant. You know the French and their R’s. Valeria told me that Parisians tend to get crabby during peak tourist season, but not everyone is like that.

When I returned to the apartment I was staying at, I felt a particular kind of magic. Not just the travel kind, but also a certain romanticism instilled in my sensibilities by Hemingway, Miller and Nin. The moment that I was experiencing wasn’t quite reality, that in time, would slowly store itself away in nostalgic memories, only to be referenced when I need magic and escape from the mundane demands of routine. Traveling tricks you into thinking life is so much better outside your world. Anything and anywhere is so much better when you don’t have to show up for work, pay bills, or drive in traffic. If I transplanted my responsibilities to another country, I would be just as miserable.

Of course, the charm of Paris is its history. It’s in the buildings, on the cobblestones, in the churches and in the term Parisian itself. How fucking fancy. I wish I could transplant the magic of Paris, instead of reliving it in nostalgia. The magic of possibility, of adventure, infiniteness, space and love. Most of the times I am so wrapped up in my ego, in my pursuit of isolation, in my stubbornness to prove that I am not 23 anymore. I say that I have no time for magic, for the frivolous pursuit of companionship, but that’s just a lie because it’s downright silly. I am just scared. I do not posses the power of womanhood and sensuality that Valeria owns. Perhaps it exists in my words, but I’ve wasted them on men who see the world as a literal space, not a spiritual possibility of adventure and love. In my books, Paris encompassed all that. Valeria was the symbolic manifestation of Paris, a sensual woman with red lips smoking a cigarette. The seduction of Paris.

Breathe in, Breathe out

She died   a famous woman   denying

her wounds

denying

her wounds   came    from the same source as her power

—–Adrienne Rich

Zephyr often comes into my bedroom early in the morning to sift through my clothes, deciding what she might want to borrow.  Sometimes she asks, and sometimes she just usurps.  Sometimes I ask her to take them off, sometimes I say sure, go ahead, and sometimes I look the other way, pretending not to notice she has on my new t-shirt or leggings or boots.

 

Sometimes she just wants to use my sink, because the hot water comes out quicker. She often asks me to braid her hair in the roughly ten minutes we have left before rushing to school. I still need to choose an outfit, or I want to apply my make-up, but I look at her when she speaks. I watch her as she toys with her golden hair, a coy supplication that melts me.  I love this girl.  No matter how she looks at me, no matter what words she uses to ask, no matter what time it is or what I have left to accomplish, I braid her hair.

 

I know this won’t last. I know the backwards-side-french-braid she requests is only a phase, and she will grow out of it.  I know she will not always live with me, that she will not always steal my clothes, that one day she will have nicer things of her own.  So I ask her what style she wants today; I pause my own routine, and I braid her hair.  I haven’t once said no.

 

I have been told that love shouldn’t always be like this.  Sometimes we are supposed to say no.  But my love for her isn’t complicated.  It isn’t fraught with compromise and worry for how she might take advantage of me or our bond.  As her mother, I have provided structure and discipline throughout her childhood, and I have set high expectations, but my love for her isn’t fraught with worry for the future. She knows who she is and how to ask for what she wants, and she freely accepts attention and praise when they are offered to her. I know eventually she will stop asking me to braid her hair, stop asking for my hot water and clothes and for sips of my morning coffee, but that won’t be the end of us.

 

I wish all love was as straightforward.

 

My friends say I love too easily, too forgivingly.  They say that I let people take advantage of me and I don’t fight back.  They say I never get angry, that it’s not healthy to withhold wrath from those who hurt me.

 

They are undoubtedly right.

 

And yet.

 

I don’t give love in order to receive love. Sometimes I love those who love me back.  Sometimes I love those who hurt me.  One love isn’t greater than the other. The practice of loving is the practice of loving.  Love is its own reward, regardless of the outcome.

 

Breathe in, breathe out.

 

I don’t think it is in spite of, but rather, because my mother so tragically taught me that love is a weakness that I refuse to withhold my love or require people to earn it.  Unlike Zephyr, I may struggle to accept love, but I offer it unabashedly and completely, and I no longer see this as a source of shame, but as a source of strength.  What I used to hate myself for, I no longer work to change. Yes, I love those who hurt me.  And yes, sometimes that gives them license to hurt me again.  Does this sometimes cause me to suffer? Yes.

 

And yet.

 

As the Buddha says, life is suffering. (Or as Westley says to Buttercup, “Life is pain, Highness. And anyone who says anything else is selling something.”)  To deny suffering is to deny reality and to suffer more.  Loving someone who doesn’t love you back is painful.

 

But maybe not as painful as not loving.

 

In solidarity

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Photo credit: @natgeotravel on Instagram

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Snapshots of my 20’s: Twenty Seven

I did not write an end of year reflection post. I was just lazy. Twenty-seven and 2014 were truly a marker of growth for me. I still don’t have it all figured out, and I never will, but the personal progress and growth I made in 2014 was a real incredible experience.

Romance is never kind to me, but I am beginning to realize that some of it has to do with the places and men I hope to find it in. I had messy encounters with men who were really young. I was 27 and the oldest one, the one I ended up sleeping with, was 23. It doesn’t seem like a big age gap, but 23 is such an awful age to be at. I say this out of anecdotal evidence. A lot of my friends generally agree, 23 is awful. It’s a transitional age. I was really stupid at 23, and I think I’m a fairly smart lady. What was I expecting out of a 23-year-old male? Especially one who told me, “I don’t read books, I’d rather watch the movie.” I obviously don’t learn from John Waters greatest quote, “If you go home with somebody, and they don’t have any books, don’t fuck ‘em” What I did learn from my messy encounters is that I can be in control of my satisfaction and sensuality. I learned to be vocal about what I want, what I don’t want and what I want to do or not to do. That was a very important lesson in my journey towards self-love and acceptance.

Of course, my biggest adventure in 2014 was South Africa and Paris. Traveling usually, hopefully, changes the way you perceive the world. I still felt very much sheltered from the realities of South Africa. I felt generally pampered. I went on a study abroad trip. I was fed breakfast everyday. I was shuttled everywhere. I had a bed everyday. I stayed at a nice hotel our last week. It wasn’t the typical travel experience, and all those things weren’t negative things either. In retrospect, I wish I had made connections with strangers. To a certain degree I did. I met a shit ton of women. Some were beyond frustrating; people I would never talk to again. Others, like my roommate Gloria, and another student, Hayley, are still people I talk to and love catching up with. I also met Kimberley, another student from our trip. I met her before our trip because we decided to go to Paris together. I met Dr. Jones, from my history department, and Dr. Campbell from the psychology department at my school. I met Ngiri, a Kenyan student who showed us around campus and encouraged me to go for my PhD. I met Arleen, whom we all became close to. She was our guide to every excursion we made in Cape Town. She was a beautiful, warm and lovely woman. She was the first person I met in Cape Town. She greeted me after I walked up to her, as she was holding a sign with my school’s name on it, “Come my sweet child.” To hear those words after a two-day flight, where I ended up crying uncontrollably on the first flight, was exactly what I needed. She was sort of a mother figure to us, certainly the perfect representative of Cape Town.

This network of women was a beautiful experience. Dr. Jones reinforced my passion in history. During my trip, I had a drunken breakdown after another history student from our program flat out told me, “Who the fuck cares what you think! History isn’t about passion. It’s about facts. It’s objective. It’s research” She was drunk. I was drunk. Not a good time to make such bold statements. I questioned myself. Am I in the right business here? Am I too sensitive? Am I too personal? Am I too dependent on passion, not enough on academic objectivity? Am I a moron?! To hear Dr. Jones say that passion was necessary to become a historian certainly put my mind at ease. What’s more, she wrote me a lovely email after our trip telling me she admired my spirit during the trip. That meant a lot to me.

The connections I made with all these strong women reinforced my feminist spirit. To be mentored by strong women, to work with strong women, and to be friends with strong women has become so instrumental to my growth. Since my trip, I’ve made other connections with professors. Dr. Lyon has had such an impact on me. I admire her teaching and guidance. She has opened so many new ways of thinking and learning, and her guidance is invaluable. She intimidates me sometimes, but that’s good because it keeps me from being lazy or fucking up. It only drives me to do positive and productive things. Of course, it cannot be understated, the connection I made with my former creative writing professor, Angela, has been amazing as well. It’s the reason why I write my silly thoughts on this blog. Although I don’t personally know any of the other bloggers and professors, I always admire their posts and feel privileged to be in such great company. I know they’re all English professors, so I’m always stressing out about my grammar.

Twenty-seven and turning 28 was easier than I expected. I’m actually looking forward to my 30’s, you know, dirty thirties. I despise that phrase, actually. It conjures up images of women who wear too short, too tight dresses and drink too much in Vegas. When I turn 30, you’ll find me embracing it with a subtle 30’s party; an only in private good healthy dirty 30. I’m looking forward to all the possible connections I’ll be making with more strong women. I’m looking forward to growing, learning and loving. It’s difficult to be positive, and I’m terrified of something or someone messing everything up. I have to expect failures, disappointments, and sadness. It’s part of life. I just hope that when those things happen, I can keep my head up. I hope I’ll be able to deal with them in a healthy manner, in a controlled manner. I am prone to ugly bouts of deep depression, but I’ve learned to accept the things I can’t control. I’ve learned to have faith in myself, in my passion. I’ve learned to give myself a day to cry in frustration, sadness or anger, only to promise myself that the next day I have to move on.

I hope 2015 brings professional growth. I plan to cultivate my positive female network. I vow not to let any man determine my worth. I promise to make out or have sex with someone who owns and reads good books. I plan to be more socially aware, to be more conscious about food, animals, injustices, and politics. I basically plan to TREAT MYSELF. I hope to get in touch with my creative side a little more. I feel like I’ve lost my “poetic license.” I mean, history is objective, right?! I can’t employ artistic license when writing history papers. But then again, to quote my Nelson Mandela shirt that I bought in Johannesburg: History, depends who wrote it.

becoming a young man

The same year Ben found out about Santa not being real was the same year he found out that his parents would be separating. It will be one of those years of his life, I imagine, that he will run through the sieve of therapists and romantic partners and his own mind again and again to see what kind of insight catches. I was 10 when my mom died. It’s a year I return to often. A month after Benjamin turned 10, our divorce was finalized.

Ben did not take the Santa thing well. Here was a boy who did not believe in God but clung fiercely to all things magical, like Muppets and the Easter Bunny. I promised myself when he asked me if Santa was real, I would tell him the truth. One night, he asked. “Do you want the truth?” I responded. Yes, he told me. He looked sure. I looked straight into those sweet blue eyes and told him. And he shot betrayal back at me, howled from somewhere deep inside, ran down the hall and into his room, and slammed the door shut. He cried in ugly heaves, his face smeared with tears and snot, and Ryan and I sat next to him and tried to calm him. He reminded us about this dream he had in which Santa broke into his room and “rifled” (he said rifled) through his things and determined that he was good. In his dream, he had seen Santa’s boots at the end of his bed and looked up to see Santa staring down at him. This sounded pretty terrifying to me, but he was certain it was real and good. We had to assure him it had all been just a dream. We petted his hair and gently scratched his back and gave him all of the best lines about Christmas being in your heart etc. etc. but nothing made it better. The magic was gone. The Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny fell in quick succession. He gradually came to accept it, but I felt horrible for lying to him in the first place.

Then, later that year, we had to sit Ben down and tell him we were separating. It went much the same way. He made a terrible noise from somewhere deep within. It cracked my heart. He ran away from us and slammed his bedroom door again, but this time he locked it against us. You promised me, he said. You promised. He was right. I had promised. Years before, he had asked my why my dad and stepmom lived in separate houses, and I told him about divorce. I told him not to worry because it would never happen to us. I believed that then. That was back during the time when I believed that I could simply bend everything to my will and make it the way I wanted it, that I could give the kids a childhood completely free of some of the struggles I faced as a kid. But we were not doing well, and hadn’t been doing well for a long time. We sat together, all three of us on the bed, and Ryan and I petted and tried to soothe him again. We listened to all of his worries. We told him we would always be friends, would always love each other, just in a different way, and, most importantly, would always love him and his brother. It was the most painful thing I’ve ever done. I don’t know how much of it Ben believed. I can’t blame him.

Ben is growing up. In the past few months, he started asking about puberty. So I got out my trusty It’s Perfectly NormalHe knows all about male and female bodies, sex, the changes he will go through. Given his age, he still seems to see sex as primarily a way to make babies. He’s into science. That aspect isn’t yet upsetting. But the body thing, he isn’t happy about. He does not want acne and sweat or hair sprouting out everywhere. He told me he is going to make an invention to stop all of it. I try to make it sillier. I make up a song about puberty. I ask him to imagine what his dad would sound like with a young boy’s voice. He laughs and then his little forehead wrinkles again with worry. He thinks so much, all of the time, in all directions. I’m sure he tells me just a fraction of it. He does not want to grow up.

I remember when I was a little older than Ben, and I looked around, and everything seemed less magical. I had seen divorce and my mother had died and my family was weird and I didn’t have any friends at school. I went to Disneyland for a school field trip and found myself calculating ride line times and performing price comparisons with increased efficiency and reduced joy. I could see, plainly, how crowded and expensive it was. It seemed small and hot and not worth it. I didn’t enjoy it again until I got to take my own children there and see it again through them.

Ben is growing up and seeing that life can be difficult. Magical things are tarnished, or gone altogether. I hope he will forgive me for my role in helping him to realize that. I want to smooth everything in his life that is rough, but I can’t. I am just trying to love him through it, even the wounds that I inflict. I want him to avoid growing as cynical as I can be, but I don’t know how to stop it.

I, too, have grown up and seen that life can be difficult. I had a bunch of illusions about myself that have just imploded. But it’s not necessarily bad. Being more uncertain has opened me up, too. There is so much to still learn about and see in a new way. There are so many small things to marvel at, like that spot of moonlight I notice on the floor of my bedroom at 3 a.m. when I am awake, worrying.

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Public and Private Identity

In the past months, I’ve been immersed in thought concerning identity. From my racial, ethnic identity to the way I exploit the sensual nature of my sexual identity. Everything in between, of course, fuses together to make me who I am. My brown skin, my short stature and the width of my thighs and waist invoke some to mistaken me for someone who does not speak English, and others to racially fetishize my body. When I speak, I am soft, unclear, and nervous. I do not yet posses a command or articulation of the ideas and words so grand and powerful that exist mostly at the flow of my pen. Or at the strokes of my keyboard.

Being a “public servant “, a library assistant, I deal with two and often opposing sides of the public. I deal with very white, old and conservative people. On the other side, I deal with everyone opposite of white, old and conservative. Sometimes I feel like white, old and conservative should be an ethnicity on its own. These are the people we fear pissing off. They have power in our communities. They have influence. Most of all, they have time to complain and they will complain.

This past weekend I attended one of our own programs that involved a Pearl Harbor survivor. I wanted to be directly involved because I am a public history student, and to be blunt, I have an ego about it. I am not a master of public history, but I can be bold and proclaim that I know my shit. I don’t know all my shit, but I know more shit than others. I learn everyday. I find flaws in my own thoughts and ideas. Other days I wake up and think, damn I’m brilliant. One thing I know, is that I will never know ALL the shit, ever, but I am ok with that. I am conscious that I cannot grow into a public historian if I do not implement some of the things I’ve learned. I wanted to have some degree of influence in this program. I did not, so I stood on the sidelines as half spectator, half critic.

On a side note: I’ve learned how to control my ego. Although, sometimes I can come off as snobby or conceited, I am not so in person. I love what I do and what I study and it’s an integral part of my identity, but the thing I love the most is learning from others. I love learning from my friends, my parents, my professors, my co-workers, strangers and radically different people from myself. I am open to learning about everyone and everything. I do not always agree with opposing views, but I like to learn why people think differently than me. I love people<<< take note future employers.

With that note, however, two elements of my identity clashed over the weekend that kind of overshadowed my openness to differences and radical opinions.

Our Pearl Harbor survivor brought up the controversial topic of the atomic bomb. He reflected on the fact that over the years, no one had really asked him about what he thought about the decision to drop the bomb. I was surprised and part of me hoped for a less than conservative answer. Immediately, the audience murmured with a resounding, and very patriotic, “yes,” to which our speaker echoed the same.

One of our volunteers asked the rhetorical question to our speaker. The audience became uncomfortable. She furthered elaborated on her question.

“From what I’ve read and from what I know, the Japanese were ready to surrender…”

Me, thinking, “What are you doing. What are you doing. What are you doing.” Not a question, but a proclamation of fear in my head.

“…was there a reason, then, to drop the bomb, if we knew they were going to surrender?

One of the audience members became livid. He could not find a comfortable way of sitting in his chair as he writhed in anger saying, “What is she talking about? No they weren’t. NO, they were not ready to surrender. No. No. They weren’t. NO. We didn’t know. NO”

Afterward, I overheard a group of elderly white people commenting on our volunteer. They were so offended at her question. “I wanted to ask that lady, would you ask the same to a Jew?”

I brought it up to our volunteer, who teaches history at a community college. She was very defensive when I told her she brought up a very sensitive topic. “They need to know the truth. I don’t care. We all need to hear both sides. Whatever, I teach my students both sides. I don’t care I that I made them mad”

Well, I cared. I did not say anything back to the volunteer because I was frustrated at her. I don’t know how to be articulate when I am frustrated. What I wanted to tell her, and what I thought was right, was that she should care because she’s not a community member asking a question. She was a library volunteer; therefore she was a representative of the library. The last thing I want, that we all want, is pissing off the old, white, conservative people that we serve. I get it. I’m a liberal brown girl working in a city that is mostly conservative. I’ve driven by the nearby streets, passing a blown up picture of Obama with a Hitler mustache. I get it. Yes, they do need to hear the truth, but our talk was not a symposium to debate the politics and ethics of dropping the bomb. It was a stage to reflect on public memory, a public memory that is quickly relegated to books, films and documentaries. It’s a living history stage. Yes, history is politics, ethics and horrors, but our stage was a specific memory and experience. An experience of a person we invited and by extension, she was part of as well.

And so, I grappled with this question. I was so angry about our representation and reputation (which is shaky in our community) that I did not really reflect on my own private liberal ideals of change, progress and freedom.

I asked my public history professor on advice as to how to approach this issue at work, and within myself. My public history professor has been highly influential in my growth, but she also scares the shit out of me. I am terrified of letting her down, which I suppose is a good thing. She has a firm and intimidating presence. I know she likes me and has faith in my work and me. She has these beautiful icy blue piercing eyes, that as I speak, I become more vulnerable and second-guess myself. I made it a habit to look into people’s eyes whenever I speak to them, with her, I often find myself looking away because I become nervous. But I love her. I love her in the way people come into your life at the right time. I value her advice on my professional aspirations. I want to be as fierce, articulate and confident as her one day. I want to carry that not only do I know my shit, but also I look like I know my shit attitude. What I value the most, is that she is a fierce woman helping out a not so confident soft-spoken girl. Is it slightly sexist of me to value the approval of my female professors a degree higher than male professors? I’ve had, and continue to have, male professors that are encouraging and influential, but when it comes to female professors, I value them just one little degree more. Their success, along with my mother’s, is what influences me. They made it, so can I.

Anyway, once I finished telling her my dilemma, she told me she had conflicting views on it. She understood where I was coming from. Yet, she said, it’s good to encourage that kind of dialogue. That population of old, white and conservative people need to be shown different and often conflicting sides to all stories. As liberals, we often get complacent about our opinions and we try not to risk pissing people off, but if we continue to do that, then how do we expect change to happen?

God dammit. Who am I?

She did tell me to become more confident in my abilities and to show my work that they need to incorporate me into these programs. Perhaps, volunteers need to be oriented in some ethical issues, and that if they think they cannot keep those questions quiet, then they should not participate as a volunteer, they should be part of the audience instead. She told me to let go of the exchange that the volunteer and I had. I should move forward with all this in mind.

I took her advice and without getting sensitive, I spoke to our program coordinator and now I am part of this project, a project that wasn’t a project before. I made it a project since I noticed a theme in our upcoming events, memory and survival. She loved my idea. I hate to think what reputation I could have started if I went into our coordinator’s office and just had focused on my feelings. I did bring up the incident with our volunteer and I offered some of the insights that blended both my own views and my professor’s views on the topic. I did it in a way where the coordinator and I had a lively and productive conversation about it.

It made me ponder, however, that I am in this odd place. Do I subdue my own views to appease the people of our community? Sometimes I feel like that is part of most jobs. A library setting is different. The philosophy of a library is rooted in democracy and freedom. It’s a space where, theoretically, everyone that walks into the door is one in the same. Not in a socialist way, but we are all there because we love reading, we love learning and we love the limits of our imaginations. And we love free wi-fi, too. It’s a space where we should be able to speak our minds without getting reprimanded. I am no longer confined to city politics, as our library’s management is private. Which is a whole other philosophical issue. I don’t represent the city. I represent my library. I am at a cross-roads because I haven’t figured out what my library represents, or what my co-workers want our library to represent. Do we want to be safe and build up the trust of the old, white, conservative people? Do we want to be radical and build a new reputation, a young and liberal appeal that might attract a diverse community? Or can we work towards a reputation where we are open, free, trusting and sensitive to all sectors of our community? The latter is the ideal, but so often hard to implement successfully.

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I get lonely too

It felt nice to lay beside you. We have not been this close in three years. It’s almost depressing how I remember what seems to be every minute of our last days together. I ended things three years ago almost to the date. I did not find out you cried about it to one of our closest friends until this year. It made me miss you, but in a sick way, it made me happy.

“This is probably going to sound weird, but, I want to be next to you” It is always offensive that you find it odd when you want to be with me. That is what you said and felt when I gave it up to you for the first time. I know things about you. Things that you once thought you would take to your grave alone. It is not weird to want to be next to someone you found that trusting. But I suppose that is just my opinion.

If I fell in love with someone else, would I still miss you?  Would I still want to lie next to you? Would I still want you to kiss me? Would I still want to hear your stories? Would I still want to pretend that I don’t understand your job, just so that I can keep you beside me longer?

We tried to condense three years of our lives to each other. I wanted to admit that I have not loved, liked, or met any person that has come remotely close to our connection. Doing so would have given you that much more power over me, again. I wanted to tell you how much you changed my life with your absence. Doing so would have reaffirmed the ambivalence I felt when I gave you my new address. I wanted to tell you that I’ve only slept with one other person, and he was at the same party as us. Doing so would have remind me of the stupid games we played to each other years ago. I was not trying to convince you or give you incentives to love me anymore. My loneliness just felt validated next to yours. But, for the first time, I felt like my own person laying next to you. Before, when I went along with you or when I laid besides you after we fucked, I never felt like a complete person. I was always half a person. You carried my heart, but not like e.e. cummings carries his hearts. I always longed for you to complete me. Last night, despite not being blessed by love, it was as if all my hurt and strength culminated in the space between us. Not even the caress of my thighs convinced me to place you on that old pedestal that you once owned inside my heart.

But I miss you and sometimes I want you. I don’t want you to complete me anymore, though. Sometimes I just want you to offer me some relief from my loneliness. You know me so well, after all. It is habit to miss you. I don’t want to walk beside you and hold your hand in the day. I don’t want you to tell me the hypothetical ways in which you might love me. I just want you to lie next to me at night. That is how you taught me how to love and that is what I miss and that is what I want from you, or someone like you. I desperately wanted to write to you tonight, “Come lay next to me. That is all” but I remembered how it felt to give you that kind of power, so I decided to write here instead.

My voice was softer last night. A girl like softness that invokes some mystery. A softness that was warm and that held your fragile ego when I rejected your kiss. I did want to kiss you, really bad, and I wanted to do much more than kiss you because I’ve missed the things that are particular of your love. In the past three years, I haven’t rejected a kiss from anyone because I kept hoping that I would find some semblance of you in them. And isn’t that always the hope of ex-lovers? To find someone like each other but a much more improved version? Something new, but not too unfamiliar. We often try to find the same characteristics of our old loves. I often find myself attracted to awkward, skinny and terrible jokesters that still make me laugh. All things that evolved from you.

I asked you if you if you regretted coming to my house. You said no, but maybe you said that because I sent you a dirty picture. I rejected your kiss, but I sent you my tits. I have to admit, I did it because I like being a tease and I like to see how far I can take things now that I am much more comfortable in my sexuality and sensuality. My pictures were tasteful, though. You can always count on me being classy even when I flash some nipples. My body now belongs in the perennial cloud, and it belongs to the despised characteristics of my generation. But, I took those pictures before you came back. These were rainy day pictures. A day where I thought to myself, “I want to feel fucking sexy tonight, for myself.” Three years ago, I thought sexy was only a feeling a man could give me. A feeling only you could justify.

In this essay, I hope to purge all my feelings of you. I want to gain my focus in this slight derailment into a nostalgia that you brought in with you. A nostalgia that reeked of marijuana and bad sex jokes. A nostalgia provoked by me. I asked if I could call you because I just wanted to talk to you about anything, and you did too. Anything but the past. It’s always difficult to read you, but I know there is a certain desperation in your eyes. I’m sure you’ve met wonderful girls, but you cannot be honest with them or yourself, because you do not know how to process your private anguish. I know this. I know you. I want you to lay next to me because I want to hold your confusion in mine. We can leave each other in the mornings and try to fall in love with other people, new but not too unfamiliar. I just want you to reserve some nights for me, with me or with yourself. I have new directions and new passions that make falling in love with anyone, or with you again, harder to fit in my plans. But I miss you, I just do not want you to know. If you had a song, it would be The Kinks Love Me till the Sun Shines.

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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We Will Begin Again

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