For the person who survived on scraps of affection, there may be a lifelong habit of contraction that is only obvious when you are showered in appreciation. Here the heart is challenged to receive at a greater capacity than it has ever known. Bearing the pleasure means beginning to notice those jumpy places which anticipate pain, which expect abandonment, which brace for danger when it’s no longer there. Only then can we begin to invite a gentle exploration of pleasure, allowing life into those areas which have been cordoned off in self-preservation. We must acclimate, often through grief, to the life-giving nature of love which is all around us waiting to be received.  — Toko-pa Turner

When I was Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles for the first time, I was 10 years and 5 months old.  I was put in “isolation” in the Hematology Ward, which means I was housed alone, and medical personnel wore masks and gloves when they came into the room. I didn’t understand what was wrong with me, and neither did they, but I was covered in bruises and petechiae, and I had what looked like a single bug bite near my pubic bone. They drew vials and vials of blood, took my vitals every few minutes, lanced the welt, and discovered that my platelets were dangerously low (below 5,000 per microliter) and I had chickenpox. These may or may not have been related.

I spent a lot of time alone in the hospital.

For the next 3 years and 3 months, my life revolved around my illness. When I wasn’t in the hospital, I often slept on my grandparents’ fold-out chair, because they had a phone and lived less than an hour from Los Angeles. They were old and my grandmother had had a stroke a few years prior. The house was quiet and I often went days without speaking to anyone, or anyone speaking to me. I didn’t go to school, and for a long time, I had no access to books. I spent a lot of time on the fold-out chair, looking at my grandmother’s accordion desk. When she died, it’s the only thing I wanted.

I rarely talk about any of this.

It wasn’t really the illness that broke me. It was the isolation, the distance from the community into which I was born, the inaccessibility of my siblings and my parents–who all lived far away in the mountains, and for whom visiting wasn’t convenient or a priority.

Three years is a long time at that age.

The girl in that hospital bed has begun appearing to me lately, asking for my help.

This may or may not be related to learning to accept love.

In the chakra tradition, the heart is the center, the essence, the spiritual core, the source from which energy flows in each direction, from the lower three chakras that represent physical matter, to the ideologies of the higher three chakras that house our spirituality. The heart chakra integrates and balances the various aspects of our being, including what we long for and what we fear.

As we age, we continue to hold awareness of all the ages we’ve ever been. We might think of the entity comprised of mind/body/spirit as a container that houses all parts of ourselves, from the needs (met and unmet) of our bodies to the needs (met and unmet) of our spirits.

The task of the heart chakra is to recognize and integrate the disparate aspects of ourselves, from the performing parts we embrace to the shadow selves we fear. For most of us, it is a challenge to have compassion for all of these selves, especially those we believe are broken.

Rather than seeing love as an extension of need or desire, when we develop unmitigated compassion, we can begin to build an empathetic connection, starting with ourselves, and extending to others.

When we work to balance the fourth chakra, we begin to transcend ego, and loosen our self-defined boundaries. While strong boundaries are necessary to protect ourselves from abuse, they are also an attempt to shield ourselves from pain and vulnerability. But pain and vulnerability are central to the human condition, and denying them keeps us closed off from reality. Meditating on the heart chakra helps us recognize the people, places, events, commitments and emotions that scare us the most. Facing these with with an open heart is central to our well-being and to our growth.

The world I grew up in was the only world I knew, and it was so normalized, it has taken me a very long time to understand what I gained and what I lost from my isolation.

I wish I could go back and hug the girl in the hospital bed. I would tell her I love her, and I would sit with her and hold her hand and read to her, and I would assure her that whatever happens, I won’t leave.






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Some tips for young journalists

I did not think of language as the means to self-description. I thought of it as the door — a thousand opening doors! — past myself. I thought of it as the means to notice, to contemplate, to praise, and, thus, to come into power….I saw what skill was needed, and persistence — how one must bend one’s spine, like a hoop, over the page — the long labor. I saw the difference between doing nothing, or doing a little, and the redemptive act of true effort. Reading, then writing, then desiring to write well, shaped in me that most joyful of circumstances — a passion for work. — Mary Oliver


I accompanied nine of my students to the College Media Association Convention in New York City this week, and here is a small sample of what we learned:

Meredith Talusan, Executive Editor @ them:

“Part of it is just being at the right place at the right time, but the way I look at it, as long as I’m doing good work, the opportunities will present themselves. I’m most interested in the quality of my work.”

We should have a Chief Content Officer.

Kimberly B Johnson, Associate Editor at Konbini:

Brand Identity

Obtaining the Knowledge

Finding the Stories

Becoming the Expert

When you immerse yourself in a culture, the stories find you. Small companies will give you more freedom over your platform.

Joanne Lipman on That’s What She Said: What Men Need to Know (and Women Need to Tell Them) About Working Together

We all have unconscious bias. We have been taught to overestimate boys’ skills and to underestimate girls’ skills, which starts in infancy.  For example, by objective measurements, parents overestimate their boy babies’ crawling abilities and underestimate girl babies. As early as six years old, boys pay themselves more (in Hershey kisses) than girls do for the same tasks. In fact, in repeated studies, boys paid themselves more at every age than girls do.  And in college, professors call on male students more frequently than female students.

Women get interrupted more often than men, even if they’re Supreme Court judges. And often, it takes a man repeating what a woman says for her idea to be heard.

Open secret: women are not as valued as men are in our culture.

Advice from journalists at VICE

Modern storytelling requires a multi-platform news delivery system, and the world is hungry for what youth is creating.

Have a portfolio with links to work you’ve done, posted on platforms like Medium.

Keep an updated Instagram site.

Do something that gets you out of your comfort zone, and keep producing. Master your craft. Be consistent and reliable, develop a personal style, and be adaptable (code-switching).

Take as many informed interviews as you can and don’t give up.  Self-learning is crucial. Look at professionals you respect and find out the trajectory that got them there. You might be surprised.

It’s not about internships or degrees. It’s about active links to your work, and strong storytelling with multimedia delivery, regardless of platform.

Some of the perks of working for VICE  include: no dress codes, options to telecommute, and free snacks.

From various students, advisers and industry professionals, during presentations and conversations:

Twitter is mandatory for journalists. Your social media accounts should be your name. Avoid dashes, underscores, or any symbols difficult to remember. Be as consistent as possible across all platforms. Building a following on every platform will help with engagement, sourcing for stories and brand building.

When people visit your social profile, are they impressed? Does your social media presence look like you?

When someone wants to hire you, they will cyberstalk you. Period. Be sure you know what they will find.

Your photo should be consistent across all platforms. Create a brand for yourself. Become a logo. Cover photos should be thematically consistent. (Look around at the background and be sure there’s no clutter or diversions.)

Your bio: must-haves: name, what you do, what you’re passionate about, and don’t mention anything in your bio that you’re not willing to post about.

If you want to get hired in this industry, you need a website. Use Google to search the best domain to buy your name. Maybe use WordPress, but buy your name, rather than use a .wordpress. Make the effort. Figure out how to do it and take the steps.

Generate content and post on your own website, in addition to social media. Everything should link to your website, which should have all your social media icons. If you start a blog, make sure you post regularly. Give your contact info on the site.

Don’t have a private social media account.

Connect on LinkedIn – make sure you have a professional presence – which may be a duplication of your website – connect with as many people as you can on it.

To truly do personal branding well, you need to treat your own social platforms like that of a brand; any brand that performs well will have a clearly defined strategy. Set an objective. Define your audience. Set you voice and tone. Create specific goals for each platform, and decide how you will measure success.

Outline a list of words/adjectives to use that define and describe your brand. Always use an image with a post when possible, and size your image for each specific platform. If you’re not professional on a platform, make it private (even though, of course, nothing is ever private).

Use hashtags in a sentence, whenever possible. Try

Monitor and keep a constant eye on your network/beat, follow members of your community on social media, set up google alerts and use google trends.

Engage and be social on social media. Get involved in the conversation.

Grow and become a node for information and serve needs that are unmet by other organizations

Be (and stay) active on the social accounts you decide to focus on. Don’t be afraid to schedule tweets to keep your feed active.

Block people you don’t want following you.

Consider Trello/Slack integrations

Adopt newsletter strategies that can help with workflow issues.

Understand the difference between digital content versus print content.

Consider Apple News, traffic drivers, partner platforms, algorithm de-prioritization – developing communities you can talk directly to – you can’t trust any other platform to prioritize you.

Instagram stories – cover live events, show behind-the-scenes, and cover sports

FaceBook groups – Your publication can be enhanced by developing a community – by being an authority on everything on campus, delivering content they can only find through us – form a community group, make it private, create a barrier of entry, an air of exclusivity and connectivity

Lauren Duca, American Writer on “Establishing a Unique Voice in Today’s Media Landscape”

We should practice radical transparency – We’ve been doing a performance of objectivity in journalism, pretending the truth is a math equation. But we have new tools now. We don’t have to rely on the appearance of being true; we need to do the real work of researching and showing our process to the public. Legacy newsrooms used to be filters and provide accountability, but there were always holes in that. False information has always been presented to the public eye. We need to rethink how we factor in as journalists.

It’s impossible to keep track of the news at all times. We need to offer the public guides that they trust.

Freelance is powerful work because you’re not owned by anyone;  you can speak your truth, and you don’t have to wait to start.

While there are certainly new challenges in the digital age, there’s also an opportunity for diversity of voices, for independent channels, for stories we’ve been numb to for many years.

Read and reread The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect by Bill Kovach

Journalism is a trade, not a profession, and you learn by doing. You have to be motivated by your own sense of ethics, and have a commitment to verification. People may label Duca a“deranged feminist,” but she is transparent that she is writing opinion, not polemics.

Duca tried to sum up her career trajectory, the bottom line of which is that she was always desperate to find out how other people did it, and what she noticed is that you can master as aspect, but as a journalist, the ground shifts under our feet.  When you’re searching for stories, think about what excites you, what you want to tell your friends later when you get drinks, what have you been strangely exposed to.

You have to write to be a writer. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. No one really knows everything.

New journalists much challenge power by empowering citizens with information.

Media companies are desperate to tell stories online and young people are particularly adept at producing stories online with an emotional connection. Know your strengths. A freelance career is tough, but you can use the time to learn your field. The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm is a fabulous book.

The more you build your foundation, the stronger a journalist you will be. If you want to start a column (and you’ve been told that no one cares what you have to say), consider what you are uniquely bringing to the conversation. And then be rigorous in bringing it.

The truth is not a math equation. If you’re drawn to defending someone, and you are committed to verification, do the work to prove that position, be willing to learn and stay open, keep people around who will challenge your perspective, so you don’t get caught in the echo chamber of your mind.

If you’re a young woman and you do responsible work, but continue to receive harsh criticism, recognize that some people don’t think a woman (especially a young one) has the right to an opinion. Newsrooms traditionally blindly accept patriarchy as the norm in the media. As yourself who is controlling the lens.


Infinite Game

…every love story is a ghost story…

Last week, a friend brought me 80% Dunkle Schokolade from Germany and I couldn’t taste it.

He opened the packaging like performance art, broke off a shape resembling a scar. I watched him do this, grateful for the gesture, mesmerized by the movements. I reached out, tried to appreciate the taste and quality and texture of his gift, but it felt cold in my mouth.

I wondered if it was his kindness that scared me.

This morning, I made coffee and I saw the bring pink hues of the Haitian art packaging that protected the leftover chocolate on my desk. I turned it over to read the history, looked at the list of ingredients, curiously fingered the ridges of the foil. Then I wrapped myself in a red wolf blanket, warmed my hands on the coffee mug and held the chocolate next to the heat of the drink, softening around my fingers till it was pliable, like clay.

I licked the chocolate and a wave of resistance sprung up like a flavor, unspoken goodbyes choking me as I swallowed, a machine gun of memories punctuating the background, loud and violent, like a backdrop of war. My parents, my grandparents, the Field, Phosterians, Chapel, the Trip, Quiet Street, Devotions, driving through grooves of mud so thick, getting out is more than dark and dirty.

I hadn’t thought to tell him that Europe is not always a college playground, that sometimes abroad is the only place you can think of to go, but it’s not far enough away.

I dipped the chocolate in the coffee and rolled it around with my tongue and the coffee and chocolate calmed me, like a cigarette. I sensed the taste of fig, with a touch of floral and a tinge of nut, and it was warm and layered and acidic inside of me, the way a lover moves inside of you, and the bitter sweetness alternated in syncopation, like a heartbeat.


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The F Scale

“She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.  It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.”  – Toni Morrison, Beloved

I have never understood the phrase, “just friends.” Friendship isn’t a a consolation prize. Friendships can be the most cherished, solid and enduring relationships we have, a chosen space where we can be intimate and vulnerable and seen.

Of course, it depends on how you define friendship.

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle describes friendship as reciprocated goodwill. He suggests that in a healthy friendship, friends love each other for the sake of the other, as much as themselves, and they wish good things for each other, whether or not it directly benefits them.

I believe all my friends wish good things for me, but without a certain degree of closeness, I think it’s difficult to know how to participate in “reciprocating goodwill.”

One day, on a road trip, in an attempt to understand exactly what we were talking about when we mentioned a “friend,” my companion and I created an F-Scale,  It was a long drive and we worked on this so thoroughly, I sometimes forget that these terms aren’t a codified language. For example, sometimes I assume other people know what I’m talking about when I say, “Yesterday I had lunch with Wendy, an F2.”  

This whole idea of a scale may appear callous, but it’s astonishing to me that we don’t have more nuanced variations of the word “friend.” As someone who takes friendship seriously, I recognize that at least two of these categories would be better labeled as acquaintances–but in the interconnected era of social media, it feels necessary to use at least cop a nod to the F word. The base concept here is that anyone who actively wishes good things for another person is in the generic sense, a friend, but we might value our connections in some sort of vertical order, like this:

F 5 –  Those I know the name of, and respect details I am aware of about their lives, but this information has mostly been garnered through other people in our shared social spheres, and is really more an illusion of connection.

F4 –  Those I interact with publicly on a semi-regular basis, enjoy their presence and their stories, but our interactions are primarily through shared commitments, not specific intent.

F3 – Those with whom I share a meaningful connection, with whom I schedule to spend time and/or have multiple points of contact, but our in-person interactions are significantly limited by geography, conflicting schedules or otherwise disparate social systems.

F2 – Those with whom I have had many consistent, meaningful interactions, choose to prioritize time with, and care about the details of their lives–but we have not yet found a rhythm to our mutual interactions, so there is a degree of uncertainty, irregularity or question of sustainability.

F1 – Someone I care for deeply, with whom I have an ongoing conversation, mutual trust, respect, and honest disclosure.  I care about their hopes, dreams, opinions and goals, as well as their faults, fears and failures and can read many of their thoughts and moods. I feel free to express genuine concern, without fear of reproach, and we can count on each other’s responsiveness. We both initiate and prioritize our connection, and give deliberate time and energy to each other’s welfare.

At a Writer’s Conference, I once had lunch with a woman who had her own friendship barometer and we eagerly exchanged notes. Her view was gloriously simple:

  1. I will have coffee with you.
  2. I will have a drink with you.
  3. I would bury a body for you.
  4. I would kill for you.

I told her I thought there was a pretty large leap between categories 2 and 3 and she laughed. “Thin love ain’t love at all,” she said, “that there is the line.”

And this got me thinking. Since love is definitely something exchanged between genuine friends, what do we mean when we say we’re in an intimate relationship? Is a healthy romantic relationship significantly different from our closest friendship? With an F1, I am personally open, willing and expecting to be transformed. If that’s the case, is romance an F1 with sexual attraction? Are there quantifiable differences between a lover, a girlfriend/boyfriend, a spouse or a partner? Is there a differing degree of loyalty inherent in each term? How often do people intuitively agree on how they prioritize their connections?

For many people, a romantic relationship requires more time and attention, as well as a commitment to and integration of shared values and experiences. But I would argue there is a similar element of interdependence between the closest of friends. And both friends and lovers can break our hearts.

Most Americans define an intimate relationship as one in which they’re sexually exclusive–but certainly not everyone does. And plenty of people are in long term marriages rich in friendship, shared interests and values, in which they no longer have sex.

Perhaps people who are in intimate relationships that work for both parties don’t play within sexual boundaries, but with sexual boundaries.

I think with romance, we often lose the delicate balance between effort and air. In most of our relationships, we don’t do the proverbial slow dance. We bob around each other, mirroring each other’s movements, holding hands, spinning in and out each other’s orbit, engaging with whichever person brings us the most pleasure or meaning in the moment. We make effort, then give space, and as we find ourselves getting closer, we tend to do more of the former and less of the latter.

In romantic relationships, however, we often expend and expect effort, without the grace of air, and with a possessiveness that can feel claustrophobic. While I respect and value the idea of mutual surrender between intimate partners, we are often less genuine and generous with our romantic love than with our Filia love. And because we are less attached to the fear of loss, we are frequently more committed to a practice of honest communication with a friend than we are with someone with whom we’re sexual.

We might do well to shift our expectations, and hold our romantic relationships to the same standards we hold our deepest friendships. Perhaps when people ask us what’s up, and we find ourselves having to categorize someone we may or may not be dating, we might more effectively explain, “We’re just romantic.”

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“It is better to live in a state of impermanence than in one of finality.”  

Sometimes the chakras are referred to as the wheels of life, even though we usually think of them as a vertical line, a hierarchy that goes straight up the spine.

These days, I’m more interested in horizontal thinking than vertical thinking. Sometimes a lateral move is the best move we can make.

We all have reasons

for moving.

I move

to keep things whole.

The purpose of the third chakra, Manipura, is transformation. A friend recently asked me to explain the relationship between the second and the third chakras. I tried to describe how when we activate the point of matter (chakra 1) with the line of movement (chakra 2), we generate energy. It’s like rubbing two sticks together to ignite fire. It is the fire of our will that propels us away from fixed patterns, away from the path of least resistance, and steers us past the expectations of others into a realm of integrity within the self.

He asked me how I maintain the discipline to keep moving. I said for me, moving is survival.

The Field was my home. It was the only home I had. The Field was my family, my fortress, my ballast, my only love.

Be brave enough to break your own heart.

When I was 13, I had been in and out of Children’s Hospital for over 3 years. I had felt weak and helpless and alone, separated from the Field since I was 10 years old. The operation I was offered was a risk. The doctors said it could go either way. My mother told me I should stay back, but she wouldn’t stop me from moving up. She told the Leaders at the Field where we come from that if they didn’t let me move up, I might die on the operating table.

Where I come from, this is the language we used.

Nothing could force me to stay one moment longer than I had to.

I moved forward.

My friend asked me how I learned to take care of myself at such a young age, how I could trust my choices. If I didn’t take care of myself, no one else would, I said. He pressed me further, “But why didn’t you just look for someone else to take care of you?”

Do not look for healing at the feet of those who broke you.

Where would I have looked? Need is inversely proportional to power, and my needs were too great for anyone to fill. I couldn’t have asked. I couldn’t afford to give up my power.

If you’re not enough for yourself, you’ll never be enough for someone else.

I left the Field at 17 because I had to. It was the only way I could grow.


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Let’s Talk about Enthusiastic Consent



it was when i stopped searching for home with others

and lifted the foundations of home within myself

i found there were no roots more intimate

than those between a mind and body

that have decided to be whole


— rupi kaur


A couple weeks ago, four women I know, three of whom are students at Chaffey, handed me or quoted or asked me if I had read Rupi Kaur. All on the same day. How do you not know this poet, they said, she’s everywhere! Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. So of course, I began reading her. And I see why at this particular moment in time, she may be the zeitgeist.

Women are angry. Women are trying to find a way to declare ownership of their own bodies. Instead of looking to the authorial voice of men, women are looking to other women for answers.

Uma Thurman recently wrote a searing editorial in The New York Times, ending with, “Personally, it has taken me 47 years to stop calling people who are mean to you ‘in love’ with you. It took a long time because I think that as little girls we are conditioned to believe that cruelty and love somehow have a connection and that is like the sort of era that we need to evolve out of.”

In a New York Times’ Magazine article, “What Teenagers are Learning from Online Porn” Maggie Jones profiles a high school porn literacy program. At the start of the program, 27 percent of the teenagers agreed that “most people like to be slapped, spanked or have their hair pulled during sex,” and 45 percent of the teenagers said that porn was a good way for young people to learn about sex. She argues that “you don’t have to believe that porn leads to sexual assault or that it’s creating a generation of brutal men to wonder how it helps shape how teenagers talk and think about sex and, by extension, their ideas about masculinity, femininity, intimacy and power.” Cindy Gallop, creator of an online platform called MakeLoveNotPorn, says: “Pornography didn’t create the narrative that male pleasure should be first and foremost. But that idea is certainly reinforced by “a male-dominated porn industry shot through a male lens.” And Al Vernacchio, a sexuality educator who talks to his high school students about sexual pleasure, mutuality, and the ingredients for healthy relationships, says that the problem with porn “is not just that it often shows misogynistic, unhealthy representations of relationships….You can’t learn relationship skills from porn, and if you are looking for pleasure and connection, porn can’t teach you how to have those.” Yet 93 percent of boys and 62 percent of girls admit to watching porn before they turned 18, internalizing the pervasive narrative of male prerogative in heterosexual copulation– without affirmative consent.

The media send women mixed messages when it comes to sex. Advertising teaches women that to be sexy is to have power, but if a woman overtly dresses or acts sexy, she is often slut-shamed, and if she is a victim of sexual assault, she is often judged culpable for own attack. This is part and parcel of the Madonna-Whore schism through which women are sifted and compartmentalized. In A Uterus is a Feature, not a Bug Sarah Lacey depicts how the deification of “family values” is a sociocultural lens purportedly protecting women from social ills –from rape or working motherhood or even from single motherhood– but is actually a form of benevolent sexism that comes at a high cost. Peter Glick, a professor of psychology at Sarah Lawrence University says those who score high on benevolent sexism are more likely to blame women when they accuse men of sexual assault. He says “The protection racket of benevolent sexism gives women a lot of incentive to either forgive men, or blame women. The alternative–acknowledging that the system is broken, and that virtue can’t protect you from violence–can be too terrible to contemplate.” Lacey claims that it is a tool of the patriarchy to make a woman feel like she is the problem, not the culture we’re living in.

Many Americans believe that feminism isn’t needed because women are already equal. I want to move beyond the accepted definition of feminism as the belief that women and men should have equal rights and opportunities and borrow a wider understanding of feminist consciousness from Gerda Lerner. For the purposes of this discussion, feminist consciousness consists of the awareness that as a gender, women are subordinate to men; the recognition that this subordination isn’t natural, but culturally determined; the development of a sisterhood; an autonomous definition by women as to the nature of their current condition; and the development of an alternate plan.

We spend a lot of time teaching a woman that she needs to protect herself from men, but we seldom acknowledge how much strength or agency she already possesses, and we rarely procure a paradigm where she can envision what it would look like to seek her own narrative, including articulating both desire and pleasure, in or out of the bedroom.

rupi kaur:

what’s the greatest  lesson a woman should learn?

that since day one, she’s already had everything

she needs within herself. it’s the world that

convinced her she did not.

Women have gained access to education and jobs, but our bodies are often colonized by patriarchal values. Here are just a few cultural myths about the gender we assign to female bodies:

  1. Our primary cultural myth, taken from the Judeo-Christian Bible is that Eve was created for Adam, out of his rib, as a helpmate. When she gave Adam the apple, her punishment (from God) is to have pain in all things related to childbirth and to accept her husband as her master.
  2. The voice of authority is male, from the voice of God, to the majority of our current political and economic leaders, to nearly every figure we have ever learned about in history.
  3. The ideological apparatus sanctifying women for their motherhood, for nurturing, and for their role as caregivers, encourages women to see themselves in the role of the Other, and put herself last.
  4. Penetration is the only “real sex.”

Dominance is not always gendered, and people of any gender can pleasure one another and hurt one another. But men are disproportionately the perpetrators of violence and women are disproportionately the victims of sexual assault. In her novel Power, Naomi Alderman explores what a society would look like if women had an advantage in physical strength men didn’t have, creating a world in which women’s superior strength catapults into wealth, world leadership, and gendered violence. She suggests that the nurturing role women play has less to do with the biology of reproduction and more to do with power. In the world as we know it, men’s physical power evolved into social power and then to economic power. And women have been socialized to accept this as natural. Even though physical strength is no longer the way most of us earn a living, chances are, if you’re a woman, you have less economic power than the men in your immediate social sphere.

If you’re hungry, you’ll accept crumbs.

Today, I want to address why women accept crumbs. I want to talk about equality of affection as an alternative plan to our current sexual paradigm. I don’t want to focus on where the line is on rape or assault. Like so much of this movement today, I’m not calling for legal action or restitution, but rather asking for social accountability. As women, I think it’s time we set the bar higher in our sexual experiences than being relieved or grateful we weren’t raped.

I want to address how women see themselves, their bodies and their value. Much has been written on why women don’t say no, and on the array of socialization we receive to be accommodating, nurturing, smiley and nice. In fact, we have had this conversation enough times that affirmative consent is now California Law in public colleges. A woman doesn’t have to say no. She has to say yes.

In 2014, Senate Bill 967 added Section 67386 to the Education Code relating to student safety. California has created a standard that requires affirmative consent — affirmative, conscious and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity — throughout the encounter, removing ambiguity for both parties. The law protects both partners by ensuring a mutual understanding. A person who is incapacitated by drugs or alcohol cannot give consent. And California colleges are being held more accountable for prevention, evaluation and a consistent protocol surrounding sexual assault. It could come in the form of a smile, a nod or a verbal yes, as long as it’s unambiguous, “enthusiastic” and ongoing.

This may seem radical, but discussions of what constitutes consent aren’t new. Sexual Consent policies at Antioch College were presented in 1991 as follows:

Consent is defined as the act of willingly and verbally agreeing to engage in specific sexual conduct. The following are clarifying points:

  • Consent is required each and every time there is sexual activity.
  • All parties must have a clear and accurate understanding of the sexual activity.
  • The person(s) who initiate(s) the sexual activity is responsible for asking for consent.
  • The person(s) who are asked are responsible for verbally responding.
  • Each new level of sexual activity requires consent.
  • Use of agreed upon forms of communication such as gestures or safe words is acceptable, but must be discussed and verbally agreed to by all parties before sexual activity occurs.
  • Consent is required regardless of the parties’ relationship, prior sexual history, or current activity (e.g. grinding on the dance floor is not consent for further sexual activity).
  • At any and all times when consent is withdrawn or not verbally agreed to, the sexual activity must stop immediately.
  • Silence is not consent.
  • Body movements and non-verbal responses such as moans are not consent.
  • A person can not give consent while sleeping.
  • All parties must have unimpaired judgement (examples that may cause impairment include but are not limited to alcohol, drugs, mental health conditions, physical health conditions).
  • All parties must use safer sex practices.
  • All parties must disclose personal risk factors and any known STIs. Individuals are responsible for maintaining awareness of their sexual health.

These requirements for consent do not restrict with whom the sexual activity may occur, the type of sexual activity that occurs, the props/toys/tools that are used, the number of persons involved, the gender(s) or gender expressions of persons involved.

At the time, men like Rush Limbaugh made fun of every aspect of this policy. Talk show hosts ridiculed it on nearly every station.

But just for a moment, imagine: what if these conversations were baseline expectations? What if it were common practice between new partners to ask for what you want and wait for a reply? What if developing a shared sexual language was the norm? What if equality of affection was as common as the right to vote?

Equality of affection is when there is a balance of support and respect between two people where each person’s needs, desires and expressions of affection are considered equally.  

If we want both affirmative consent and equality of affection, do we know what that looks like? The old saying that “no means yes and yes means faster” is no longer applicable or defendable. So what does yes look like from a woman? What does mutual pleasure look like between men and women? How can your partner please you if you don’t know how to please yourself? How can you enthusiastically consent to pleasure you haven’t come to expect or require?

We know that women have been socialized to be nice, to be deferential, and to be of service. Studies verify that it’s far more difficult for women to say no than for men to say no. But when we don’t have affirmative models, it’s also difficult to say yes. It’s difficult to know what we desire, to identify what feels good in our bodies, and to know what we want, let alone ask for it. How do we say yes when we don’t know our own minds? When we don’t know how to listen to ourselves? Most women have no female voice of authority in their heads. Who do we listen to when the voice of God is male, and the version of God we’ve been handed down has taught us to see ourselves as a helpmate rather than the protagonist of our own story? As Sally Kempton says: “It’s hard to fight an enemy that has outposts in your head.”

To explore and experience sexual pleasure, we must first recognize our own desires and our right to explore them. It’s an act of resistance for a woman to recognize that her body exists primarily to serve herself rather than other people. And this is particularly challenging in a culture that is uncomfortable with people talking about their own pleasure.

Jocelyn Elders, appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1993, was asked if she thought teaching children about masturbation might reduce unsafe sex. Yes, she replied, “I think that is something that is a part of human sexuality, and it’s a part of something that perhaps should be taught. But we’ve not even taught our children the very basics.” Conservative outrage erupted, and Bill Clinton asked her to resign.

How can anyone know what they want if we shame them for safely exploring what that might be.

Recently, I’ve been asking nearly every woman I know how frequently she experiences pleasure during partner sex. Not necessarily orgasm, but consistent pleasure and a feeling of well-being throughout the entire sexual encounter. This is an unscientific sample, but over half the women admitted the majority of sex they have had hasn’t been physically pleasurable to them–even though they often felt emotional pleasure through pleasing their partners. That most women enjoy pleasing someone they care for isn’t a problem. The question is, why is it so difficult for women to seek mutual pleasure for themselves during these encounters, and to ask their partners to facilitate their pleasure. And why don’t we socialize men to ask?

Maybe because many women don’t even ask themselves what they desire, in or out of the bedroom. Most women aren’t accustomed to seeing pleasure as necessary, and in the process of earning a living and caring for the needs of our families and communities, it often drops low on our priority lists. Sex-positive language that affirms women’s desire is not a sociocultural norm in The United States. To develop one, we will have to envision a new paradigm.

I think it’s no coincidence that Dr. Elders was dismissed for promoting self-pleasure. It’s a radical statement and a radical act for women to take their pleasure into their own hands.

Audre Lorde says, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” As part of a feminist consciousness, I want to end this presentation with proposing practices for a path to pleasure.

It starts with listening to our bodies.

Think about a situation you are looking for clarity around and play a simple game of what if. Ask yourself, what if I said yes to this…pause…breathe…notice what sensations you experience in your body, and feel out what a yes brings up for you. Feel it in your body, not as intellectual analysis. What does it feel like to say yes in this situation? And then do the same for the no. Compare notes. Compare sensations in your body – tightness, strain, pains or lightness, relaxed shoulders, an ease to your breathing a calm sensation. Notice how your body reacts when you imagine a yes versus imagining a no.

  1. Show up for yourself. 
  2. Know what kind of touch feels safe to you. Start there.
  3. Court what it feels like to be safe in your body. Practice feeling this. Whether it’s through yoga or meditation, know how to be alone with and in your body, what if feels like to be fully present.
  4. Shame can’t stay alive inside of you unless you believe the story you’ve been told. Write a new story.
  5. Take time to check in with yourself and ask yourself, what do I need right now? Practice self-care.
  6. Know your body. Know what feels good to you. Know your pleasure points.
  7. Notice what lights you up. What makes you feel light, spacious, tingly.
  8. Do more of that.

Maybe if women practiced self-pleasure, there would be more enthusiasm in their consent. Maybe once we know what feels good to us and feel we deserve it, we will know how to tell our partners what brings us pleasure, and expect our encounters to reflect our mutual needs.  

rupi kaur:

i will not have you

walk in and out of me

like an open doorway when

i have too many miracles

happening inside me to be

your convenient option

not your hobby

I realize that both genders are victims of abuse–emotional, psychological, sexual and physical–but recognizing and penalizing abuses of power is only half the solution. We need a paradigm that recognizes women’s experience and pleasure as equally relevant in all sexual encounters. Until recently, sex from a woman’s perspective has been so marginalized and obscured, it hasn’t even entered the common discourse. For patriarchal hegemony to come to an end, women must overcome their internalized feelings of mental and spiritual inferiority and speak up. A woman must be encouraged to know her own body, her own pleasure and her own story–and then learn to tell it. Only then can she know what yes means, and enthusiastically consent to mutually pleasurable sexual play.


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The Bible: Part II

“I needed words because unhappy families are conspiracies of silence. The one who breaks the silence is never forgiven. He or she has to learn to forgive him or herself.” –Jeanette Winterson

I am eight years old and I lie on my back on the narrow cot at the rear of my grandparents’ Winnebago and watch the string of the pulley to the cabinet door swish back and forth like a pendulum. I gaze hypnotically and I pray rhythmically, softly, a prayer as a mantra I have come to believe will elicit a miracle.  Our Father who art in Heaven, Lord God Above, Ruler of all Things, please give me a sign.  If you are listening to me, if my life is of any significance to you, if you have a plan, please stop the swinging. Make the tassel stop.  Make it stand still, like the Red Sea, with the walls of water still like unsung statues, like the sun, how you made it stand still in the sky until the nation of Israel defeated its enemies.  Since you can make still the water, and stop the sun, and you can bring your son back from the dead, make this little string stop.  Show me you are listening.  Show me I matter.  Please still the tassel.

I pray this every day.  I am eight years old and I pray this every day in my grandfather’s Winnebago, as we traverse the southern states, performing circus acts as a pre-show before the proselytizing plays we offer for a pittance at Kampgrounds of America.  As I march in these campgrounds, hand out tracts, sing Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep in a little white nightgown every night to crowds in these KOAs, I come back nightly to the cot behind the curtain at the back of the Winnebago. I come back nightly to stare at the ceiling and pray. Please God, give me a sign.

It may be that the Lord wants to test my patience, like he did Job’s.  Maybe I’m not in tune with his words.  Maybe that’s the problem.  I’m not a precious stone, not a precious metal because I haven’t been tested.  I think of what I know of Jehovah, what my grandfather has personified for me, as he sits like a refiner and purifier of silver, burning away the dross.  So I pray, dear God, I will show my allegiance to you and read your book, every word of your book, starting now.  I will read your Holy Book cover to cover.  In the beginning there was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word became flesh.

You are the word.  I am the flesh.  Let your word become my flesh.  Let my flesh become your word.

And so I begin at the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth.  And the earth was without form, and void: and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God Said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good.  And as I begin, I know I will continue, that I will pass this test, that I won’t skip a word no matter how tired I am, no matter how much motion sickness projects vomit into the bag I keep hanging next to the plank bed that nestles against the rear of the Winnebago, where my grandparents Orrick and Ruth snore each on one side of me in their matching nightgowns.  I keep vigil.  When they sleep, I turn on the tiny pinpoint light and I read. I keep reading His words, through the iconic stories in the books of Moses, through the books of laws and judges and chronicles, on into the prophets and the Psalms and Proverbs and Solomon, who the Bible says came from Bathsheba. Her story breaks my heart, that her child died as punishment because the King commanded her presence. Bathsheba lost both her husband and her child because of David, who said he loved her. It seems to me that what he really did was worship her beauty, found her a Muse he couldn’t resist, and God punished him for coveting her, like worshipping a golden calf. The baby dies to punish David and Uriah dies for his loyalty to David. Nobody, not even God, has pity on Bathsheba.

And I read on through Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin, which I memorize and use like a chant, the writing on the wall Daniel interpreted for King Belshazzar, that moves me more than Joseph and his dreams and his colorful coat ever could.  In that year before I turned nine, I read through every he begat in the Old Testament, the lineage of Jesus our Christ, and I note any time a girl is named, because it is so seldom, and this is evident, even to my child-self.  And as I continue on into the New Testament, I wonder why the only central females are both named Mary.  I stare at the names of the sixty-six books I am reading and ask myself why only two books of this tome are named after girls, and I try to justify why these girls are named, why others aren’t, what role they play in the world of men, the only world I know, and I beat myself up for this, but I keep going back to these girls, to these two books, and even though I have to keep reading every other word chronologically,  I also go back.  I mark passages.  This is not what I have been taught.  I have been taught not to question.  I use a highlighter. I don’t write the questions because I can’t talk back to God, but Ruth makes me question.  Esther makes me question.  Hagar and Rahab and Hannah and Bathsheba all make me quiver and I have no idea why. I have been taught that they saved the Jewish nation, and I don’t question that, but it is more than that, what they do, how they do it, their grace and style and this is what I absorb:

Yes, Ruth was the great-grandmother of David and thus worthy of patriarchal mention, but the long line of he-begats informs me that most women in the line of Jesus are unnamed. Do not urge me to leave you or turn back from following you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me. Ruth was not following tradition.  She didn’t remarry among her own family.  She followed the mother of her dead husband, and who can say why. The Bible doesn’t say why. My grandfather says Ruth is a woman of principle who is true to her husband even after death, that she is true to his spirit and he lives on because of her loyalty. But her dead husband doesn’t procreate with her and doesn’t end up in the line of Christ.  Yes, she stays loyal to his people, but what does that have to do with either him or his God? Is it loyalty to her late husband, or is her love for this woman thick with the love of self, heavy with the knowledge that women are their own people, that our people are the true outliers, the underdogs, the forgotten ones.  She sticks with Naomi and lies on the floor near the bed of Boaz because she knows she has no inherent value.  Her value lies in the comfort her body will provide for a man, and the fruit of a masterful performance can perhaps yield quality food and shelter for the offspring she will undoubtedly bear.  But her pride? Her strength? The triumph of her will is in her loyalty to her true people. And Naomi is her girl, her road-dog, with whom she will live and die.  People say these words at wedding ceremonies and I want to use my voice like a red pen and correct them for taking poetry out of context, for mixing metaphors, for misrepresenting a proclamation of independence as ordinary romance.  

I don’t trust romance.

Like Ruth, and like Esther, who knew the King forbade her questioning and yet, who knows but that she came to kingdom for such a time as this.  She says if she perishes, she perishes.  But she cooks him a meal and invites his friends and wins his heart, and this isn’t romantic, but pragmatic.  At eight, I know this.

Esther doesn’t choose the King.  The King chooses Esther because she is beautiful, and Esther manipulates the King into saving her people. He does this willingly, defensively, protectively, for her.

The King chooses Esther.  He protects her people. She is his family of choice.

I will collect a family of choice.  I will leave my people and find new ones, and my path will not be a clear one, but I don’t know this yet.

Because I know the Lord will come back like a thief in the night,  I keep reading, through Nehemiah and Lamentations, Obadiah and Habakkuk and Zephaniah and I don’t stop reading, through every single word of his book, the blessed King James Bible, my grandfather’s chosen tome.  I read the letters to the churches they call epistles and the crowning glory of Revelations, which almost chokes me with its numbers and symbols and I draw diagrams to imbibe the vitriol of the Whore of Babylon and to quell my fear of the Beast and the four horses of the Apocalypse. That year before I turn nine, I read the first book I will ever read cover to cover, and I unwittingly set the tone for my life. Every single word.  I read every single word.  

And in the end, after all those words, God did not have mercy upon me.  God did not make that tassel stand still.  We traveled through Texas and Alabama and Florida, through Virginia and Maryland and back through Michigan and into the Dakotas and I sang in my high sweet voice night after night and conducted a poodle on the piano to laughter and applause and the tassel swung side to side every day, obeying the laws of physics.  And God in his infinite wisdom did not send me a sign.


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The Bible – Part I

“I learned to make my mind large, as the universe is large, so that there is room for paradoxes. Pearls are bone marrow; pearls come from oysters. The dragon lives in the sky, ocean, marshes and mountains; and the mountains are also its cranium.” Maxine Hong Kingston

When I was eight years old, I read the King James Bible cover to cover. I did this in secret, at night with a pen light, cross-referencing, marking up passages I felt were contradictions, as if constructing a map for a prison escape.

I was traveling with my maternal grandparents, my biological father, and 70 young men across the country for 10 weeks, performing in a play called Penniless. My mother wasn’t with us, but I was held tight under the umbrella of the rules under which she had been born. She believed in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth, and in Jesus Christ his only son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, and ordered by his own father to suffer under Pontius Pilate, be crucified, dead and buried. She believed, like Abraham, she was called to sacrifice her children as a testament to her devotion to our Lord. In exchange, God would bless her, and multiply her seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the seashore; and her seed shall possess the gate of his enemies.

My mother considered her children lilies of the field, which God would provide for, in his own way and time.

I didn’t have formal schooling past the second grade, and I travelled in the margins of mainstream culture for the rest of my childhood. When I was a young adult, in college and graduate school, I often felt like I was digging myself out of an insurmountable hole. I had no context for pop culture references, had missed the songs and sounds and trends of my youth, the films and albums and actors and musicians upon which generational identities are formed. I didn’t know basic U.S. history, had never memorized the names of presidents, the years of wars, or the capitals of countries or states. All I really had was the word of God inside me. In the beginning there was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word became flesh.

Ruth, my maternal grandmother, spoke often of the seven seals of the apocalypse, so we would be prepared for the end of times. She taught me about the sixth seal, the great earthquake, the sun black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon as blood. She made me repeat to her about how “the stars of the heavens fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind.” And she asked me, when the great day of his wrath is come, how I would be able to stand. I would describe to her how “the heavens departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places. And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bondman, and every free man, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains, and said to the mountains and rocks, fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb.”

I don’t know if I have escaped his wrath. Leaving still feels like the greatest betrayal I have ever committed.

I was taught loyalty to our clan, that my commitment should always be to my people, that “where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.”

When I was a young adult and left my familial community and religion behind, all these words and images felt like useless knowledge, an esoteric burden strapped to me like a mule.

But lately, I have reconsidered the value of being raised with the Bible as the only book readily available to me. After cultivating a career, a home and a family, I recognize that reading the Bible, memorizing verses, studying the various translations, cross-referencing the gospels with a pen and a concordance, gave me a foundation for the work I do, both in and out of the classroom. 

Eventually, I left my family, but the word hasn’t left me. I carry the cadence of old English inside me. I have an ear for poetry, storytelling, psychology, metaphor, history and Judeo-Christian culture, and I have the discipline to search for slow answers in semiotics. But perhaps most importantly, the Bible taught me “to make my mind large, as the universe is large, so that there is room for paradoxes.”

A former student approached me this week, earnest and intense. “I’m an atheist,” he said, “but I haven’t read the Bible. Do you think that makes me a hypocrite?” I looked at him, assessed what I knew of his academic and career goals, and told him no, I don’t think a belief system is tied to a manuscript, one way or another.

He looked noticeably relieved.

“Nevertheless,” I added, “you’re a philosophy major, with a strong interest in history, politics and literature, and a Biblical context is deeply useful. I recommend you read it.”

“The whole thing?”

“Yes,” I said. “Bits and pieces won’t give you the same perspective.”

“Challenge accepted,” he replied. 


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Like Water

“The river is everywhere at once, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the rapids, in the sea, in the mountains, everywhere at once, and there is only the present time for it, not the shadow of the past, not the shadow of the future….” –Siddhartha

Years ago, I spent a few December days in Laguna Beach, diving through winter waves, immersed in what felt like the beginning of everything. I was full of energy, and I would wake up early to walk down and watch the sunrise on the beach. It was always dark and always cold, and I carried a blanket and coffee, snuggling into a little indented sand nest to watch the water as the first light reflected like an hallucination on the horizon. On the second morning, as I was watching the sun hover, I saw something leap from the water. I got up to get a closer look, and several more creatures surfaced from the sea line, cavorting through the waves. When I saw flippers and flukes, I knew these were dolphins at play, plunging and rising, breaching and striking, looping like a dream, or an omen.

A couple months ago, I invited a shamanic healer into my home. She brought flowers and herbs, branches and twigs, and she chanted through ritual movement in a Limpia ceremony, releasing whatever block impedes change. When she left, I followed her instructions to bury the remains and wait for growth.

This week, I sat in a women’s moon circle, and I attended my first private session with a spiritual adviser.

I sound like a woman in crisis.

My documentary filmmaker friend says that erotic thrillers are about women in crisis. He says Americans are uncomfortable watching women on screen unless they’re sexualized, but that’s not really what these films are really about.

Americans are uncomfortable with a lot of things.

I like to think I’m a person who is comfortable with discomfort, likely because I’ve lived long enough to know all sensations pass. When I run a trail near my house in the early mornings, particularly when its cold out, or on days I haven’t slept, or when the voices in my head are angry and unkind about my decision to get up early to run in the dark, I close my eyes on the trail, deliberately slow down my breathing and repeat in my head over and over, “flow like water.”

I picture myself immersed, flowing downstream.

I like thinking about water.

Lately, I’ve been studying the symbolism of the second chakra, located in our lower abdomen, about two inches below the navel and two inches in. Even when you interpret chakras as metaphor, I think it’s useful to find a place in your body to feel the seed of energy you want to explore. The main functions of the second chakra are related to pleasure, emotion, and creativity. When this chakra is healthy, it is the pathway through which we experience a sense of abundance, well-being, and delight in sexuality. When our energy is flowing freely through this channel, we generate authentic human connection and an ability to welcome others and new experiences. When our second chakra is blocked, we feel cold, disconnected and apathetic, afraid to take risks, afraid to trust, afraid to change.

I remind myself that change is the only constant, that change is chemically necessary to life, that passion arises from engagement and that we can’t engage if we aren’t open. But that doesn’t quell my discomfort with change.

Vicki was a student of mine many years ago, in many classes. When I met her, she was bright, vibrant, charismatic, hard-working, beautiful and pregnant. I adored her and she soaked up everything I offered. After graduating from our college, she asked me to meet her for coffee, and she continued to pick my brain throughout graduate school, and then over many lunches where we talked about the publication process, her decision to teach or not to teach, how to get hired, how to juggle children and partners, how to compete as a woman in a man’s world. We emerged from these exchanges without hierarchy. We rose to the surface as friends. Vicki is now my colleague, and does many of the things I do or used to do, with grace and charm that exceed mine. Sometimes after she has orchestrated a public program, male colleagues will say to me, “you better watch out!” or they ask how it feels to have competition, or whether I feel “threatened” or “sickened” by her success. I look at them, puzzled, as if I don’t understand the question. But if they seem genuinely open to hearing my feelings, I tell them the truth: “Every time she shines, I feel so full of pride, I can barely contain it. This is why I do what I do. This is how the river flows. Only a poor teacher has students who don’t surpass her.”

Yogi Seane Corn has a deal she makes with women who ask to pick her brain. She says she will answer anything they ask her, as authentically and generously as she can, but only if the mentee promises to do the same for a younger women who approaches her some day, particularly if she is intimidated or insecure by this rising woman’s intelligence or beauty or charm. She says when we recognize a contraction of fear in our body–that a younger woman will usurp or outshine us–that is when we know we must open ourselves further, that are bodies are telling us to give her more. She says that being generous takes away the power of lack. The moment you stop being generous, you stop the flow of energy and you begin to die.

The truth is, I love to watch Vicki dive in head first. I love to watch her swim in warm waters. And I let her know, as often as possible, that if she’s tired or wants a break or needs an extra oar to row, I’m here, in whatever capacity she requires. I want my students to surpass me, just as I want my children to. And when I operate from this place of abundance, I can feel my second chakra open, the energy flowing toward new experiences, toward openness, toward change.

I think of Gloria Steinem’s prayer for “the courage to walk naked at any age, to wear red and purple, to be unladylike, inappropriate, scandalous and incorrect, to the very end.”

Over the years, I have watched dolphins from the shore, and have looked down or across at them from various boats, but I haven’t yet found the right moment to dive in. I have been many places, danced in many waters, but I have not yet swum with dolphins.


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About Art

“Be the person you needed when you were younger.”

― Ayesha Siddiqi

When I was 13, circuitous circumstances led me to seek a bathroom in The National Gallery of Art. Following the guard’s directions, I rushed through the modern wing, when without thinking, I pivoted in front of an oil on canvas. The painting was a monochrome sea of black. I knew nothing about art, had no idea what or who made art, had never known art was even a thing, but in that moment, I couldn’t move. I stood in front of Ad Reinhardt “Abstract Painting, No. 34” for a full 10 minutes, transfixed, lost in the subtle gradations of shadows, while tears dripped into the creases of my mouth, unexpectedly warm and salty. I had no idea why.

I come from a radically conservative family, and art is not something that’s ever been talked about, let alone explored or celebrated. In fact, where I come from, we are so culturally and socially conservative, even religious iconography is shunned. This was the first time I had ever visited a museum, and it was my first time to see art displayed, let alone showcased in a space where it is named and revered. But there I was that summer (after I’d had my spleen removed, newly healthy, sleeping in group tents, traveling by caravan across the country for eight weeks, performing and proselytizing nightly in an ecclesiastical play), seeking to use a bathroom in a big city. There are stories buried deep in the shells of that long, dense summer, packed with conflicting emotions. But it was Abstract Painting No. 34 that showed me the way home.

I knew enough not to talk about what I saw with the faith-based community with whom I travelled. But I held it within me, the rest of the summer, the smell and taste of black, and I began to notice the gradations of hues in the night skies throughout the regions we travelled, through the thick air of the southern nights and the cool northern evenings that welcomed us as we made our way into Canada. I began to notice the intricacies of blue in the daylight and the browns of the earth we slept on. And all these years later, when I ask myself what that painting did to me, why it propelled me to spend the last three decades at the intersection of my personal and professional life extricating myself from my familial roots, I understand how “art” can be used as a compass.

For the sixteenth time, I am teaching a college course in which students curate, edit and publish a literary journal within the context of a creative collective. We talk about what role art serves in our communities, what it means to support artists, how art is made, distributed, seen. And I offer the students a warning from Toni Morrison in  No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear: “Dictators and tyrants routinely begin their reigns and sustain their power with the deliberate and calculated destruction of art: the censorship and book-burning of unpoliced prose, the harassment and detention of painters, journalists, poets, playwrights, novelists, essayists. This is the first step of a despot…who know very well that their strategy of repression will allow the real tools of oppressive power to flourish.”

What I know now that I didn’t know then, is that as I stood in front of that painting in Washington DC, I was seduced into feeling, not thinking. Curiosity drew me to a canvas vastly different than the classical depictions of realism I passed on my way through the galleries toward the bathroom, but curiosity was only the trigger. I had no idea why someone would paint a canvas black, nor why anyone else would hang it up in a space, heralding it as art, but in that moment, I didn’t even know to ask those questions. In front of that painting, I accepted an invitation to feel.

Art changes us as individuals, and in doing so, changes the outer world we create and share. Inside the intricate dance between artist and viewer, we are invited to feel what we know, and by tasting, hearing, thinking, and seeing in altered ways, we increase our feeling and knowing. It’s not an obvious tool, like a map that clearly shows us where we want to go, but it transports us, nevertheless.

I think about how Abstract No. 34 captured my imagination. Amidst a caravan of followers seeped thick in the mire of original sin, through the darkness of a near-death illness, to a surgery that shifted my life expectancy, to the realization that black absorbs all the colors of the visible spectrum and reflects none of them to the eyes, I let that painting move me. In the weeks after my imagination took hold, I began to compare black to the rigid rules and paradigms of sin and righteousness I had been taught. And I began to envision a way out of my closed compartment, into the hope of a less defined space.

I get it when people say they don’t get art. Sometimes I want to say, getting it isn’t the point. Art enlarges our boundaries, and in doing so, helps us resist oppression, whether internally or externally enforced. Through art, we ask questions too abstract to be quantified within the binary values of capitalism. Reinhardt’s passion and courage inspired me to question my status quo.In the work I now do for a living, I strive to live up to his challenge and become the person I needed when I was young.


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We Will Begin Again

"To hold a pen is to be at war." -Voltaire


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Random bits about libraries, digital culture, life, and writing

glass half full

This is my blog. I write a lot about autism, raising boys, and my own alcohol consumption. I also tend to cover topics like poop and toothpaste. You've been warned.


about all things human

Megan Has OCD

About Mental Health, Daily Struggles, and Whatever Else Pops in My Head

The Belle Jar

"Let me live, love and say it well in good sentences." - Sylvia Plath

Daniel Nester

essayist, poet, college prof, hubby, dad, Queen fan

a publisher of quality chapbooks

James Henry Dufresne

"To hold a pen is to be at war." -Voltaire

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