Tag Archives: feminism

Women of the Resistance

img_1197Jehan is a scary feminist. If you don’t believe me, ask her. She’ll be happy to explain why.

An athlete, artist and producer, Jehan Izhar, 32, owns a studio called Jypsy’s Performing Arts, where she teaches exotic forms of yoga, dance and healing arts. Her stage name is Modern Jypsy, but most of her friends and clients call her J.

J was raised Muslim with her older sister in a nuclear family of mixed heritage: her late mother was from England and her father is from Pakistan. She identifies as a business owner, performer, feminist and Muslim-American. Jypsy’s caters to women of all ages and backgrounds and is a safe space where you can “better your body and express yourself creatively.”

Below is the first half of our recorded conversation on August 3, 2018:

https://www.michelledowd.org/selected-works/2018/8/4/women-of-the-resistance-jehan-izhar

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The Personal is Political, Part II

Betty Reid Soskin is the oldest national park ranger in the United States. She began her career as a national park ranger about 10 years ago, when she was 85. When Lisa Congdon asked her what keeps her going to work every day, Betty replied, “My first eight decades were spent collecting dots, and now I’m connecting dots. I’m in what I assume to be my final decade, and so everything I’ve ever learned, I’m using now. I’m still having first time experiences at 95. I feel like an evolving person in an evolving person in an evolving nation in an evolving universe.”

https://www.michelledowd.org/selected-works/2018/7/27/the-personal-is-political-part-ii

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The Personal is Political (Part 1)

 

When asked why she is still working, 79-year-old photojournalist Paola Gianturco replied, “It never occurred to me to stop. What for? I can’t imagine not using what I know and what I can do to try to change the world. It would be a waste. I just can’t imagine, if you still do important work, why would you stop?”

https://www.michelledowd.org/selected-works/2018/7/23/the-personal-is-political-part-1

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Toward Integration, Part I

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–Sculpture at Sam Maloof’s house, photo by Michelle Dowd

Shame is a bad thing, you know. It keeps you down. You want to know why I quit school? Because I didn’t have nice clothes. No clothes, but I had brains. — Sandra Cisneros

Most of my women friends are over-scheduled, frazzled, frustrated and nearly always at their wits’ ends. Scheduling time to hang-out can be months in the making. The men in our lives go with the flow and call us crazy. We call ourselves crazy. When I suggest perhaps we have taken on too many asymmetrical moral support roles (which Kate Manne defines as performing giving, caring, loving and attentive roles to those around us–including students–who do not reciprocate this emotional labor), my friends agree, but imply that patriarchal social structures are so embedded in our system, they can’t rely on anyone else to do what needs to be done.

Even though I understand the implications of systemic patriarchy, and even though I know I’m clearly not alone in navigating this chaos, sometimes I feel like I’m falling apart, that I can’t breathe, that I’m drowning, that I’ve taken on too much, that I’m dizzy with the intermittent demands of hundreds of people I’ve nurtured over the years.

But I still participate in this world, as does every working woman I know.

I am grateful for the myriad choices I now have as a woman, but being able to have it all usually means doing it all, and I no longer want to shoulder that burden. Part of the reason we take on so many asymmetrical roles is because we’re conditioned to think that’s what good women do. We police ourselves. We have thoroughly internalized the ideological apparatus that keeps us working so hard, we unconsciously accept that these social relations are just the way things are.

I think it’s time we redefine our gender.

The woman I strive to be is not integrated with the woman I am. In my professional life, I teach young women to value  themselves and their labor. I tell them they teach others how to love them by the way they treat themselves, that they get to decide their own boundaries, and that they should pursue excellence in their fields of interest and prioritize their own goals.

And yet, in my personal life, I continue to uphold the expectation that I should nurture and buoy the emotional life of everyone in my world, and put their needs above my own.

Sometimes, I feel like I’m disintegrating.

Dis-integration.

This work we do is referred to as emotional (or invisible) labor, and includes, but is not limited to, the organizational work we do to keep our homes and workspaces running smoothly, and the time and attention we give to regulate the emotions of the dominant men in our various social spheres. Even when we have earned professional success, even when we outrank colleagues or are the larger wage-earner at home, the men in our shared spaces feel entitled to (and often receive) our care and attention, without having the skills, experience or expectation to offer us what we most need in return. And when we do ask for it, they can’t hear us. They have been socialized to see our needs as irrational (crazy), and we have been complicit in this.

I don’t blame men. Most of them have no inherent knowledge of their bastions of privilege. Why would they willingly give up a system that serves them?

If we are unhappy with the status quo, we are responsible for changing the terms of our relationships.

As a recovering codependent, I have been guilty of over-giving as a negotiation for love. I am aware, even now, of how often I feel guilty for not giving enough, how obligated I feel to say yes to random requests for my time.

Sometimes, I feel resentful.

I observe the men in my life benefitting from the women in their social spheres who nurture them.

And I wonder if we have become our own worst enemy.

How do I change the terms of engagement?

I don’t know where this starts or ends. Am I so accustomed to playing this nurturing role, that I’ve created a wall of expectation that isolates me from the generosity of those who could care for me?

In their professional lives, men are often surrounded by women who serve in support roles. They benefit from their kindness, their attention to detail, their nurturing energy, their compliments and their emotional care. I get why women are an asset.

When I communicate with men professionally, I often find myself caregiving, as well. Just because I don’t want the paradigm we have been handed, doesn’t mean I don’t feel obligated to play the part. But then I am ashamed of myself for internalizing social codes that no longer resonate with me.

Where does that shame come from?

I am ashamed partly because, as Kate Manne puts it, I have inherited the system of misogyny, which punishes me socially if I’m not compliant.

And I am no longer compliant. As Michele Wolf says, I am not a nice lady. Part of the beauty of growing older is, I no longer want to be.

I have been shamed my whole life. Shamed for my breasts, my legs, my smile, my girly laugh. Shamed for dressing unconventionally, for having too many children, for working full-time while raising said children, for putting my work first, for putting my children first, for not putting a man first, for having desire. Even when I don’t have to, I continue to push myself mentally and physically. I have dared to want more and I have been shamed for this, over and over. As Ariel Gore says, “My public shaming is not merely designed for my own benefit, but rather serves as a sermon and a warning to other girls and other women who may hope to escapes the confines of a system designed to support and enable the white-supremacist capitalist war machine.”

I don’t think Ariel is being hyperbolic.

I don’t have the answers. I have no ability to change the system under which we live. My men friends work with women who adore them, who vie for the privilege of serving them. I can’t change this, or even judge them for accepting this attention.

I will never perform the female gender role as fully as I used to. 

If I want to change the world as we know it, I can’t participate in the system. As Anne Lamott says, “Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.”

The parts of me I’m ashamed of are the parts I most need to embrace. The only way out of the shame is to name it and hold it up to the light.

I am ashamed that I no longer want to be a wife or girlfriend by the standard definition of helpmate, but I am not ashamed of my light. I am proud of the work I do. I have invested in the security of my future and I will happily pay more than half of a partner’s living expenditures, both in and out of the home. I love hard and will continue to love hard–with passion, purpose and commitment–supporting and defending a partner’s right to live his life on his own terms, whether or not those terms directly benefit me. I will support his choice to travel where work or friendship or spirituality lead him, with or without me. I will love openly, enthusiastically, loyally and even defiantly. But I no longer want to be a woman who walks on eggshells to protect a man from the vicissitudes of his own habits, or bolster his ego when he has earned the right to be humbled.

I am a woman committed to nurturing myself and my work as a human being on this planet. Let the envious gods take back what they can.

 

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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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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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what we want

*Spoiler alert:

This post will give away the ending to O, Pioneers!. It was originally published in 1913, so let’s be honest, you weren’t planning on reading it anyway.

I would never generally read a book with the word “pioneer” in the title. Pioneer just isn’t a sexy word to me. In any case, I took a Willa Cather class as an undergrad and read O Pioneers!. Which I dreaded. Because it was old and because of the word pioneers. I am here to tell you that I was wrong, that books with pioneer in the title may sometimes but not always be solely about wagon wheel spokes and fox fur trading, that I loved the book, and I’ve thought of it often over the years.

Alexandra, the main character, is strong and independent. I identified with her initially. When things fall apart, when the people she loves are destroyed, she forges forward, ever more capable and strong. The price she pays for this is high: her business, her land, flourishes, but she is alone at the end of the book, and lonely. She has a vivid, recurring dream “of being lifted and carried lightly by some one very strong. He was with her a long while this time, and carried her very far, and in his arms she felt free from pain…[he was] the mightiest of all lovers.”

We talked a lot in my class about what this dream meant, of course. At first the class was like, wait, Alexandra’s not a lesbian? Is she bisexual? Is Willa Cather a lesbian? (Answers, respectively: No; probably not; pretty sure.) And then we were like what the fuck, Alexandra. You’re a strong, capable woman. Now you want some man to carry you across the fucking wheat field and, like, go down on you? Come on, Alexandra. Get it together. Be a Feminist.

Alexandra writes Carl, then waits a long time for him to show up, and when he does, he says, “You’ve always been a triumphant kind of person…but you do need me now, Alexandra.” Like, he shows up because she’s finally sort of weak and needs him. And she’s like, yes, I do need you Carl. And he kisses her gently and she leans into him and she says, “I am tired…I have been very lonely, Carl.” And off they go together. And there’s no way Carl is the strong, amazing lover who can lift her across a field. He’s just Carl. Her choices are to die alone or settle for Carl, and she goes with him. Which, Carl is decent, I guess.

I was kind of harsh on Alexandra when I was a 19-year-old who knew everything.

In the past few months, I had a surgery that removed 30% of my reproductive organs (and some bonus cysts), I won a big award at work, I moved twice, I broke up with my long-term boyfriend, I got my tires slashed (not ex-boyfriend-related), and I broke my glasses. I’m moving to somewhere permanent this week. My son is graduating from elementary school the day after I move. In three weeks, I begin a major work project for which I’m not quite prepared.
It’s a lot. I’m not running a farm solo, but I am alone. And I am tired. I’m also much less harsh on Alexandra.

I have been thinking a lot about what it means to be strong. People always tell me I am strong. I think I am, for the most part. But two nights ago, just as I was falling asleep, I thought about the prospect of dating again, of putting my photo on an online dating site, next to some paragraphs that are supposed to be charming but not too real that they would scare someone away. Look, I’m unique and funny and cute and I like reading and hiking, I have kids I won’t mention yet but definitely no dark sad stories to tell you, let’s keep it fun! I think about a man scrolling through photos and “liking” mine, and of me scrolling through their lonely faces, “liking” theirs. And then how we will meet and click or not click and fuck or not fuck and then what. And then try a relationship and invest all of that energy and hope and hope it wasn’t a mistake when it very well might be, it probably is. It’s all so depressing. I started crying. I don’t want to wake up alone forever. I’m going to be alone, I told myself. It’s certain. I cried myself to sleep and it was incredibly lame.

I just finished this book called That Thing You Do with Your Mouth, which had some pretty moments, but feels incomplete. You can borrow it if you want. It’s a sexual memoir sort of thing. It begins with the quote “Intimacy is for strangers.” David Shields rearranges interview material from his friend, (pseudonym) Samantha Matthews. She talks about how when you’re married you stop seeing each other, you stop noticing things. She even states that infidelity can bizarrely correct this because it forces you to see the marriage with fresh eyes again. She’s not condoning infidelity, I don’t think. She’s just saying that we, sadly, stop seeing the person we committed our lives to, which I think is true. Is there a solution to this? The book doesn’t offer any. Intimacy between strangers, then, may be more rational than the alternative, but that doesn’t feel like a solution.

This is probably tangential, but she also says she is an “intimacy-junkie,” which is why she says she is sharing her highly personal story. She strives for authenticity, connection. That requires being direct and raw and real, rather than ignoring the thoughts and emotions and things around us that are disconcerting. You dive right into all of that and look at it, let it wash painfully over you, and you report back, avoiding cliches. If you lose a baby, if a friend dies, if you are desperate or lonely or sad, you confront it without the barrier of poetry or religion. I can relate to the need to do this. It is exhausting. It is a compulsion. But I also feel as though everyone would be less lonely if we owned up to these difficult feelings, the sad, hard things that happen to us. One alternative is to impose an artificial structure around it all, and convince oneself those deep dark things aren’t there. If you’re in a romantic relationship, you can collude with a partner to convince each other. Or maybe, and I think this is much more rare, you can find someone who wants to wade through this deep shit with you and then maybe drink a beer and laugh and cry at how absurd it is. I’m lucky to at least have a couple of best friends who can do that with me. And I try to do it when I write.

Everyone thought I was a lesbian in school because I am big and strong and good at sports. (Also, my haircut and clothes and being on the basketball team didn’t help.) It scares a lot of boys away to be direct, or bold, or strong. Or it attracts the boys that just want you to take care of them and give and give and give and give. I have mostly only been loved for what I can do, not for who I am. And so I will do and do and do and give and give and give and apologize when I am not everything to everyone. I always feel wrong and not enough. Then I get disappointed I can’t truly rely on anyone, when I helped construct that very building we were both living inside. See, I am to blame for this, too.

Still, I am scared to be alone forever. I don’t want Carl, and I hope I don’t settle for him. He wants Alexandra to be diminished, less triumphant than she has always been. He returns because he wants her only if she needs him. But I don’t judge you anymore, Alexandra.

Sometimes I am tired. Sometimes I am lonely. I want connection, real connection. Mostly I’m strong enough to lift myself. But when I’m broken down, I admit I want a strong, capable man to lift me across that wheat field, too. And that’s not about being heterosexual or being feminist or being a woman. It’s about being human. We all want someone to carry us sometimes. Don’t we?

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Big Butts Are The New Black

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Limits of My Pacifism

Image

A couple of weeks ago I was involved in a bar dispute. I wanted to tell my mom but I knew she would judge me for being at a bar in general. I was fairly proud at the way I handled it. However, there was a split second where I looked at the beer glasses in front of me and clenched my fist and thought about throwing one of those glasses against the face of the woman who was testing my patience.

I’m not the type to fight. I always say that if someone wants to hit me, let them. I’ll press charges because that would be my ultimate revenge and lesson against them. I’ll ruin their record, hindering them from getting a decent job or at least making it harder for them to do so. They’ll remember me every time they apply for some aid and are denied and I’ll faintly in a ghost like way say “Was it worth it?” That’s my ultimate revenge. But if they end up murdering me then I’ll just haunt them and that’s just as good a lesson.

So this woman drops her drink on my back. Complete accident but I’m on my third or fourth drink so I’m annoyed. She keeps apologizing to me and I accept it, still annoyed. Her friend tells her “Don’t apologize. She’s making a big deal” I’m not but I say “Uh, yeah it’s a big deal” so she looks at me and says “Don’t apologize, maybe that way she’ll lose some weight”

HOLD THE FUCK UP. WHAT.  I’m trying to internalize what she just said. “What did you say?”

“You heard me. Maybe you’ll lose some weight” Oh yeah, because getting beer spilled on my back somehow will change my eating and exercise habits. It was that moment when cheap Bud Light beer started to run down my back and onto my butt crack that I said, “Oh man, I’m going to lose some weight. If I were 20-30 pounds lighter, this would have never happened”

I stood there for a few seconds deciding to either cry or retaliate.

I was teased horribly throughout my elementary and junior high years. These are scars that are still fresh and I revert back to when I’m feeling singled out, rejected or talked about. I was teased over my weight, my skin color (even though we were all brownies. Kids always justify their dumbass logic. “Yeah but I’m not as brown as YOU,”) my hairy arms and my looks. Basically, I was teased for just being ME. For years I never knew how to defend myself. I never knew what to say back. I never learned how to stand up for myself. Then I worked in fast food, retail and at a public library and now at 27 my skin is a reinforced steel tank with grenade launchers. Kind of.

So I turn to her and say “That is a rude fucking thing to say.” It wasn’t the most earth shattering thing to say to someone who feels this pointless superiority over you. I’m a smart lady and I know that these people just want a reaction. They want to feel better about themselves by putting other people down. I won’t give them that satisfaction.

Other things were said and I can’t remember all of it due to the level of alcohol but I do remember feeling the bar around me going deaf because as she spoke non sense and pointed out her husband to me, “I don’t give a fuck who your husband is. You’re a rude bitch,” I felt this anger boil in me. This anger that has been boiling up inside of me for 20-23 years. I kept looking at the glasses feeling ready to just throw one for the satisfaction of my impulse and to shut her face up.

In those moments, my friends stood up for me. My co-worker called her a Cunt. Her husband came over, “Hey bro, this is between the ladies. You hurt my girl’s feelings you know?” WHAT ABOUT MY FEELINGS! I did manage to yell that over to him. Her husband seeing they were severely outnumbered grabbed her by her arm and left.

I still wanted to cry. I felt incredibly embarrassed in front of my friends. Someone had called me fat in front of them. It made me feel insignificant. It made me feel like I was 7 again and these two girls came up to me and kicked me in my legs for being ugly. I ended up crying on the way home. But I wasn’t crying because she made me feel fat or because I believed it. I thought of Mindy Kaling in that moment. “I’m not overweight. I fluctuate between chubby and curvy.” It’s one of my favorite quotes from her show. I was crying because I let some dumb stranger get the best of me. I wasn’t proud of calling her a bitch. I vowed not to use that kind of insult against anyone because it’s cheap and ignorant. In hindsight, calling her a bitch was probably a better decision than hurling a glass at her face. I had to choose the lesser of two evils and I daydream of working at The Huntington Library so I value my clean record for that reason.

I started crying because I was crying. It makes sense when you’re drunk.

“She’s not worth it. She is dumb. You’re beautiful”

“I know I am! I am smart. I am awesome. I am way smarter than her. Her life is over. She has saggy boobs, that other lady told me so. She hates me because I am obviously cute and awesome. But what’s the only thing wrong with me? I’m “fat.” I’m not fat. I am but I’m not. I don’t care. I like being thick but that’s the only thing ignorant people can attack me with. And I hate that and I’m crying for that”

I know I’ll never see this woman again. She has three kids and an obvious inferiority complex. She probably doesn’t have a very good life or didn’t have a good life. Someone who is secure with themselves and happy with themselves does not verbally attack strangers. Normal people do not do that. Everyone commended me at the way I handled it. The lady who originally dropped her drink on me told me “No you’re beautiful. I’m way fatter than you and she has saggy boobs and you don’t!” Bras are really awesome at making boobs look great. I told her she didn’t need to say that. She didn’t need to put herself down. It wasn’t about being fat.

When I got home, I woke up my sister and started crying to her. It wasn’t about being fat. I kept crying because I just thought, why do people need to be that way? It’s a rhetorical question. Why do women need to be that way? I know why. Millions of psychological issues. Not knowing how to control impulses and passions. Not being able to internalize the differences between people. Not knowing how to let go of petty thoughts and insecurity. I’m a fucking nice person and I really just wanted to go back and ask that woman, “Hey, chill out. Why are you so insecure? It’s ok. We can talk about it” Call me a sissy or a little bitch, because I’ve have been, but if people talked about their problems and had a healthy outlet for their thoughts, the world would be a better place. That’s some hippy utopian shit but I know a lot of people that quote John Lennon’s Imagine but would never actually practice peace, understanding or pacifism in altercations.

I almost didn’t. I don’t think I would ever actually hit someone or throw a glass at them. But it’s scary to think that I contemplated it for that second. I don’t want to be that type of person. I also don’t want to be the type of person who hurls cheap insults. It’s a reflection of your character. But it’s also hard to keep a stoic temperament when you’ve had three or four drinks.

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david

David and I slide down the steepest side of a dirt and gravel hill. Our bodies rattle, plumes of dust rocket from our sneakers, we scream out in terror and joy. There is dust in our teeth, dust in our lungs. We have scraped our legs. Everything is blue sky and orange groves. Our stucco tract home is no more than a couple of miles away, but it might as well be gone. Our sister Sally is still there, neatly tucked into the sofa, reading, or playing Solitaire. She prefers to stay inside.

*

David tells me he sees visions of our dead mother all of the time. God inserts these images into his brain. God talks to him, too. He tells him to stop listening to Supergrass and Radiohead. I ask David, “If God told you to injure yourself, would you?” He hesitates before he says he doesn’t know. David was too young when she died. He doesn’t remember her.

*

David asks me if I have thought about my long distance phone service provider. I have not. He wears dark, shiny shirts now. Ties. Slacks. There is gel in his hair. He says “sweet” all of the time, like punctuation. He is a member of a pyramid scheme that has been banned in several states. I tell him I am not interested. I use very few words. I know I am hurting him.

*

David brings a Franciscan monk with him to Thanksgiving. The monk is a stereotype. He looks like Friar Tuck from that 1970s Robinhood cartoon. He wears a brown robe, tied at the waist with a rope. He is cheerful and round. He eats two slices of pie. I want to make fun of him, to shout to everyone, “There’s a monk at our table!” But he is kind and we take a photo together. I rest my arm on his shoulder and smile.

*

My friend Betony posts an Instagram of her brother on Facebook. His hair is brown, wind-whipped and frozen in place, and he wears a button-up denim shirt. He’s smiling. He looks like Betony, especially around the eyes. His fingers are curled around a tiny plastic figure. The caption says, “Love means making your brother pose with a Twilight doll.” I laugh when I realize her brother looks exactly like the miniature Robert Pattinson. They are wearing the same clothes. The hair, the complexion, it is all the same. Then, suddenly, I feel like crying.

*

David will propose to a girl this year. There will be a ceremony at the Catholic church where she lives and teaches. I am not invited. The news I receive about David never comes from David. I heard she has an extraordinary amount of siblings. 16? 17? Aren’t they all girls? That can’t be true. David holds signs outside of abortion clinics. He tells me he is praying for my children. David believes I should stay at home, but I can’t stay there. I can’t believe in God. We seldom speak, there’s too much to avoid. David will marry this girl and move back east, and there is nothing left to recover.

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