You say you love pussy
Yet only when it
Makes you cum
When its purpose
Fulfills a deep-seated need
For physical pleasure
You say you love pussy
But what you mean
Is you only tolerate it
When its lips aren’t moving
Unless your mouth
Is creating the action
You say you love pussy
Unless it gets too loud
Has an opinion
Is smarter than you
Or makes you feel inferior
You say you love pussy
Still, you hate
When it talks back
Challenges your authority
Or tells you ‘No’
When that’s not what you want to hear
You say you love pussy
Until it surpasses you
Or rejects you
And then you curl your lips
to whisper ‘cunt’
you pull out hidden, cold steel
To silence it for good
While visiting Pittsburgh, I’ve been captivated and controlled by the overwhelming pull of nostalgia. Everywhere I turn, every corner I round, recollections lie in wait, surfacing as the opportunities present. History lies in every nook and cranny of this town for me, and I confront the specters of my past no matter where I look.
Driving through my old neighborhood hit me hard, the houses cloistered together, less space than I recall between them, crowded in by the flora and fauna that have overtaken the gaps, the green almost overpowering everything. No matter where my eyes wandered, they soaked in crumbling houses, years of poverty and neglect taking their toll on the worn, dusty siding and slowly weakening wooden porches, the steps sloping and buckled. This place tells a story of people who work too hard for entirely too little, those who spent their lives in one place, only dreaming as far as their next paycheck could carry them. My parents were hard workers, but they were also fortunate to be in professions other than manual labor, and as soon as they had the means, when I was a college student, they escaped to a borough five minutes away with larger, well maintained homes and better schools.
I gazed at the curve and angle of the streets where they converged, remembering the sensation of rounding those bends on my bicycle, tires swishing along the concrete, or how familiar landmarks would present themselves as I turned a corner walking these streets, signaling my approximate distance from home. In my mind’s eye, the softball field sitting tall on the hill was lit in the dusk for an evening game, and the candy store on the main road above was no longer a boarded storefront, but bustling with neighborhood kids buying penny candy and cans of pop. I remembered the descent and ascent along the steep hill to and from my Catholic school, where I first discovered the existence of religion, and that people take it seriously.
The asphalt of the basketball court at the abandoned school above my street sat silent, the wire of its fence twisted and tortured. This was the spot where I spent most of my summer nights watching boys I crushed on dribble and shoot, its floor marbled with cracks, tiny green weeds struggling to survive in its divisions. It’s amazing anything can grow there at all, with the scorching power of the sun soaked by the black top, yet tufts of vibrant shoots manage, and the irony is not lost on me that I am one of them.
My former home looked tired, its white siding dirty and grey in patches, the wood frame around the windows decaying and splintered, the black paint now faded and chipped. I looked at the tiny back porch roof, where I would climb outside and sit on hot summer nights, hoping for a breeze and relief. I drove by the houses of my childhood friends, heard their voices echoing in the alleyways and in the wind, calling my name, as if I were pedaling too fast for them to catch up.
Earlier in the day, I had driven to the campus of my former high school campus, which was an imposing convent where my education was doled out in the basement. Wandering along the outside of the gigantic mansion, compact windows cut into the stone to let in blocks of light, I realized how much of my becoming was predicated on not having enough sunlight to grow and become. Standing there on the hillside, overlooking the dilapidated town below, I felt the same energy I had when I was an anxious teenager: a persistent desire to venture beyond those walls and the constraints that held me back. There was so much that was kept in shadows, and that I never felt comfortable about inside myself, until I left that dungeon, and left home.
Most of the people who grow up here stay here, and don’t venture beyond the city, let alone the neighborhoods where they grow. And while I feel there is an intimacy that can be established with a lifetime of depth established and explored in one location, that has never been my path. I have always been too hungry for different experiences and for the world outside my door and beyond. Everything is a constant reminder that I am an anomaly.
At the same time, I love the familiarity here, like discovering an old lover in the dark and knowing where every curve and slope leads, being able to feel my way around with comfort. So much more stays the same despite superficial changes. Rather, it is me that returns evolved, memories intact…welcoming every ghost.
The nurse complains:
‘She’s a princess. Her sister does everything.’
In the room,
mesh blinds watering down sunlight
her legs in malleable air casts,
tubes and air latched to her body,
unable to stretch,
the bloody line across her
pelvic bone aching from
The mother handles
her perfect baby
like sweet, fragile perfection,
as if she might dissolve
back into her blood
with a wayward glance
She frets over the diaper,
trembles changing a shirt,
worries she’s isn’t doing something,
The sister commands the corner,
her hands experienced
from four little mouths
over the years
splashed across her face
when the mother
for a second of assistance.
Sister leaves the room to walk,
the silent father follows,
and the mother
curls her handfuls of joy
into a ball upon
Mother beams in the dim room
placing her lips upon the
butter soft top of her daughter’s hair,
then pours out her heartbreak
in a monologue to the room
How her last baby
ran out of her body
and fell through her fingers
in a torrential, bloody flood
Clumps of lifeless tissue
and water named Rosa,
after her great-aunt
How her joy
gave way to hopelessness,
her body a tomb
of childless despair
This was her miracle,
the tiny yolk sac that grew
and lived to be
placed in the nook of her arm
She holds her like glass
afraid she will disappear
or melt to the floor
molten, and untouchable
She worships her existence
exalts what she thought
could never be created
in the canvas of
She touches her with grace
and the deepest affection
earned by those
who have suffered the
annihilation of lost promises
To the nurse I want to reply:
‘She’s the bravest princess I’ve ever known…
and that makes her a warrior.’
This April wind howls,
fierce and unrelenting,
Scratching dust from the earth,
Stripping the asphalt blank
from woeful memories
I wish it could do the same
for my heart
That I could breathe in its
keen edges and
exhale, feeling polished-
That I could inhale such
force and magnitude
it would render
Frequently now, I hear comments from co-workers or friends about how I seem to be ‘melting’ away, or I am becoming ‘skinnier’. I always politely thank people for their compliments, which I am not great at taking, and if pressed, will share what my routine is that seems to be working for me. Occasionally I have written about how instrumental movement has been for my mental and physical health this past year while navigating divorce, custody issues, rebellious teenagers, graduate school, a full-time job, and the absolute nightmare that dating has become in modern day. With this has come disciplined dietary shifts that have had a great influence on my universal well-being, but that I inwardly battle, at times, to maintain. Let’s be real: changing habits is fucking hard.
But while these things work for me, I recognize that what I do may not be for everyone, and I’m not into shouting my ‘truth’ off the rooftop, or insisting others should replicate my routine to attempt the same results. There’s an awful lot of preaching that seems to happen when people begin to lose their physical mass, and while I get the excitement, and why a person would want others to share in that feeling, that’s just not my style. Of course, it might be because this isn’t my first time at the weight loss rodeo, and I understand how tenuous the relationship we have with our bodies can be when we are battling the scars of former wounds.
When I started working out, it was the only way I could see myself navigating through the collapse of my marriage without driving myself into complete despair, and I wanted desperately to be healthier to be around for my children if I was flying solo: if it weren’t for them, this journey might have never come to be, as they have been a huge motivator, and now serve as my ‘encouragers’. I was extremely fortunate to win some private fitness lessons at an auction, and working out at home has been my saving grace. I don’t have time for gyms or group things with the reality of a heavy schedule and the ambitions I am determined to see to fruition. I had to recognize that I needed to meet myself where I was, and realize that what works for many other people just doesn’t work for me.
I also think there are dirty secrets that no one talks about regarding weight loss, such as: if you have been heavy a majority of your life (as I have), there is a mental construct of weight that never leaves your mind. In other words, no matter how much my body changes, I carry with me the constant notion that I am a bigger girl in a smaller world. It’s a specific way of thinking where I am constantly navigating as if I am still physically larger: I get nervous having to squeeze by people, I worry if my ass will knock something over when I pass a table, I must mentally pep talk myself into clothes that I know will look good on me now but wouldn’t have a year ago, and it has taken me forever to be sexually comfortable with positions where my body is more exposed. Despite losing a quarter of my weight, I still ‘feel’ myself as fat. I wouldn’t call it body dysmorphia, because at the age of forty-one, I’ve grown comfortable in my skin and have learned to accept and love many of its imperfect parts more than I did when I was previously at my smallest size two decades ago. Rather, it’s a reminder that the weight I have born is carried in more than just my body, and even with therapy, there is a notion that I will always be that bigger girl, because of all the big ‘things’ I have endured.
Another secret no one talks about is how hard it is to tell where you stand with people when you lose weight. It’s difficult to distinguish those who get ‘you’ and those who are now attracted to the shiny outer packaging of a thinner form. Despite enjoying the health benefits of a smaller body, there I times that I miss being a bigger woman. There was no pretense about who accepted you are versus wondering if they merely want something else, such as affection or sex. When men introduce themselves to me in online dating apps and call me beautiful, it doesn’t feel authentic. And not that I don’t believe that I am beautiful, because I’m finally hitting a stride where I understand exactly what my worth is, but it often sounds hollow ringing from their mouths. I often wonder if I put photos of myself when I was heavier into my profile if the response would be the same, or if there would be as many suitors. Other words that create the same ingenuity: sexy, hot, gorgeous, pretty. There is a part of me that will never be content to be boiled down to my physical aspects, and that will always insist that my intellect, creativity, and intelligence be the most notable aspects. And if I can’t be seen through those lenses, I prefer not to be noticed at all.
The last secret I’ve noticed is the guilt I feel in my success. I know that for every pound I lose there is someone trying just as hard that can’t shed the weight they want. And I know that this can happen for numerous reasons, because I’ve been there many a time myself, starting a routine only to self-sabotage, or fall off the ‘healthier you’ wagon. Discipline is fucking hard, and exercise can be grueling. It’s not fun for everyone, and not everyone eventually finds that it brings them everlasting joy and happiness. Emotional baggage can be a bitch to discard. Trauma often lingers in the body, and I’ve found that I can’t see physical changes without confronting those parts of myself that feel tossed and broken. After all, a larger body is weaved from a construct of necessity: it is literally creating a buffer from the harshness of the world we have experienced, a soft suit of armor so to speak. I believe we hold psychic damage in every cell, and the process that comes with releasing that heartache can be enormous work, and until our minds and hearts can let go, the body often clings to its protection, as it should. I’ve also had to learn to cut myself slack: if I am exhausted from a day that felt like a mental lobotomy at work, my body internalizes that, and it may need to do nothing more than park itself and allow me to get lost in a book or television show. Sometimes I fight through those moments, and sometimes I give myself permission to just be a damn sloth. I have a set number of days a week for exercise that I rigidly maintain, but on the days I can take a breather, I no longer allow guilt to creep into my mind. I’ve come to terms that I am not a superhero, and do not need to always exercise like one either.
It’s an odd thing, to undergo such an enormous change and still feel the same, to carry many identical insecurities while discovering new confidences. I like to think of it as a form of metaphysical growth. While many picture the chrysalis of a butterfly, emerging new and dissimilar from its original self, my metamorphosis feels closer to that of a snake, shedding old scales for new. Underneath, I haven’t really changed, and the best parts of me never will. Rather, I emerge ridding myself of the things I no longer need to carry body and soul, the physical weight being just one.
My Dating Brochure Has the Following Sponsorship Levels and Packages:
There’s only one,
and it’s platinum,
because I have come
to the conclusion
in my life
of 41 years that
settling is a form
of living death
where you are
your own existence
The numbness that
coats the heart
from inauthentic love
is no longer an option
as the minuscule
amount of time
gets eaten by
ticking in my mind
Here are my requirements:
brains, beauty, fire, ambition
It means that you:
Can hold a conversation that spans
from dusk to dawn,
Are easy on the eyes and have a
voice that soothes my soul,
Have the drive to get what
you want while enjoying the pursuit,
Know how to love women-
truly understand how to nurture
her soul with the heat of your touch-
and grasp that feminism
isn’t a dirty word
I desire dates that feel
like we are on miniature
adventures from the world,
where it’s just two people
orbiting each other in
their own private universe,
and all those around us
are nothing more than ghosts
in the background of
our private, vivid, macrocosm
I crave words that are kind,
softly spoken, caressing my soul,
syllables that excite me,
that tell me you listen,
hear, adapt, or
meet me in the middle
I hunger for hands that know
how to move across
the slopes of a woman,
a body that moves in time
to my own,
a syncopated rhythm
build from confidence
Someone who gets
that just because I asked
you to pull my hair
it doesn’t mean I want
the same on Sunday
Someone who knows
the value of an ask,
where consent isn’t a
but a living practice
we worship in
And if you prove so worthy
I offer my heart,
it comes with a pure devotion
to body, mind, and soul,
and I will not hand that
over for anything less
So I can
everything I am
If you don’t meet
all these requirements
save us both the time
so that I can
cut through the endless
noise to find
the one sweet track
I want to play
over and over and over and over…
If you feel you may be
that rare individual
I am seeking (but
not needing-there is
a firm difference
between those two
you know what to do
1. Noun: the process of renovating and improving a house or district so that it conforms to middle-class taste.
But what happens when the middle class
has shrunk to
and you are being told
over and over again
that it is YOU, never them
YOU must do better
so you can
be just like US
So that you can have
custom cabinets with
and a numbered
parking space by
the center of town
You can be
in walking distance
to the city
that your ancestors built
with bloody, calloused hands,
the family home on
sold for a fraction of
what it was worth
You look around
the people in your neighborhood
aren’t you anymore
The light skin and
upon their bodies as
they walk without a care in
because they do not walk
through this world invisible
They will always say
it’s not intentional
but their actions
will always speak
their lips know
they shouldn’t mouth
The privilege they
carry sits in the
cells of their flesh
and it is indivisible
from who they are
They will look through
the specially colored
glasses that have been
crafted by their identity,
the ones that tell them
that others should
bend in discomfort
to meet where they stand
the advantages they
stand upon don’t
lift them to a warped vista,
one where their shoes
don’t have to sink
into dirt and dust
How beautiful it
must be to only
see the world
when it’s clean
and in one’s favor
They will tell you the
only way to their path
is to follow who they are,
their supposed self-sacrifice
that has been bought and
paid by the generations who
came before them
so that their tab
was already clear
They will look at you
as they invade,
slowly, and make you feel
that you are the one
who does not belong
in your skin
in your culture
in the center of your own gravity
You will begin to
wonder why you are here
and if you truly
have a place in the
world you once knew as
You will ask for
a seat at the table
except the chairs
were already reserved
a long time ago
before you ever
had the freedom to
They will echo the
same things like a
record with a stuck
YOU must do better
so you can
be just like US
They will tell you
how they think
you should put
the small bit of security
you have managed to
carve for yourself
on the line
They will tell you
that it is never them:
it’s the economy
it’s never the fistful
of dollars being
shoved into the
pockets of modern day
from the last connection
you have to your
roots, the land
It’s never the decimation
for hands that want
to build them up,
construction on the bones
of all you ever knew,
sold for a profit
It’s never THEM
First of all, I’m going to ask you to check your privilege at the door when reading, whatever it may be, because this will not a discussion based on comfort. This is a conversation based on truth, and the narratives we spin to allow ourselves to feel good about change aimed at benefiting the few over the many, and generally, those 'white' over everyone else.
I always have my heart split between two places: my hometown of Pittsburgh, PA, and Santa Fe, NM, where I currently live. This week, I watched as an art installation in Pittsburgh was taken down for making people ‘uncomfortable’ in East Liberty. It was a black billboard with white letters that stated, “There Are Black People In The Future”. There are multiple ways you could interpret this statement. We could talk about what will hopefully be the return of black culture and presence to a segment, and specifically corner, of the city that has been lost to redevelopment and chasing money. It could be argued that it is a bold reminder that black people aren’t going anywhere, and no amount of new, shiny housing and boutique restaurants are going to erase them from the existence as a force in the city. For me, the most poignant element of this installation was its physical presence upon a building where I was a silent partner in a business that brought diversity and vibrancy to the city for years, Shadow Lounge. It was a black owned business that opened the door to black culture for so many in beautiful, unrepentant ways, and it was lost in 2014 to the gradually increasing cost of existing on a corner that it essentially created. To me, it felt like a beacon, a bat symbol of sorts, to remind people that the return must be inevitable, and that one day, that corner may again belong to the history and culture of those who cultivated it.
Fast forward to my life in Santa Fe, where I am beginning to see the same. A new set of apartments close to our downtown area recently went on the market for rent, with studios starting at $900 a month up to two bedrooms at $2200 a month. New Mexico ranks 48th among the states. Our economy, education, and opportunity are in the bottom ten. We have families here with strong roots and ties to their heritages and the land, and who should be able to afford to sustain themselves to stay in the homes and hometown of their origin. Yet, many of those who work within the city cannot afford to live within its limits.
As a single mother of four, housing has been a tense issue for me. I absolutely lucked into the space I rent now, but at the cost of more than a third of my income, which I work my ass off to bring home, often putting in weeks well above 40 hours by serving our community and one of our most vulnerable populations, new families. And I am not alone. There are so many parents I have met here who are just one catastrophe or incident away from their life becoming irrevocably changed for the worse. Saving small amounts of money feels like a luxury, let alone enough to cover a $2000 housing deposit.
One argument I hear is that employers should pay more, and absolutely, they should. I’ve been advocating for myself to receive a raise for 9 MONTHS. But who is going to mandate that? And who is going to put their job on the line to make it happen when trying to take care of your expenses month to month? How do you ask people who are already under-resourced and struggling to fight against a system that is inherently set up against their benefit?
There is a consistent argument made that just having more housing will alleviate the issue of affordability. Except when it is only made to serve certain populations, and particularly those who are economically stable and sound. I watched this happen slowly in East Liberty, when they demolished two towers of low income housing, promising a place for citizens to return. Many could not, and still can’t. Instead, many of the empty buildings in the area were bought and revitalized to suit upper and upper middle class whites who want to live close to a Whole Foods and the convenience of walking to upscale restaurants. Never mind that when the neighborhood thrived as a black community, there was an entire walking plaza where a road now cuts the center, and its paved presence essentially undermined the black economic marketplace that once allowed for a community to sustain and care for its own.
I believe that change can be a vital, positive force that can have a huge impact on allowing communities to survive and thrive. But it can’t be at the expense of those who put in the most work and effort in that space. It takes consciousness, thought, and a commitment to culture, tradition, and meeting people where they are, rather than telling a population that they should just ‘demand’ more, to fit in the vision of a developer whose main goal is to be as financially successful as they can.
There is a tone deafness to such statements that smacks of privilege, and not truly understanding what it means to be impoverished, under-educated, or discriminated against. I, for one, am tired of the middle and lower class being blamed for our inability to have ‘better’ simply because we do not keep up with the ask of those who are in positions of financial power.
It’s so easy to label development that benefits only a few as ‘progress’. We like the concept of shiny things, cleaner spaces, and convenience. But often projects sold as a boon to the surrounding community only serve to be a boon to themselves financially, and in the case of Santa Fe, we should be demanding to have honest, gritty talks about the kind of housing needed to serve this community, rather than focusing on luring young professionals and families. There is something to be said for taking care of your own, first. Are locals being sourced first for our higher paying jobs, or it is an effort to attract imports who we believe will bring something that doesn’t already, or doesn’t need, to exist here?
I’m not a Santa Fe ‘local’, but Pittsburgh is as blue collar, and just as working class, which is part of why I love it here so much. People are warm, genuine, and real, and there is an inherent goodness that I haven’t found in many places. And they are deserving. They deserve an education system that helps rather than hinders, economic prosperity, and to cultivate their culture. They deserve to be part of the factor in the decisions made by those who are often removed from the salt of the earth. They deserve to live in the city in which they work.
We may not be comfortable calling it gentrification, yet. But when it looks like, talks like it, and builds like it…it is. And take it from someone who has already had a front row seat to its devastation: Santa Fe has everything that makes it ‘Santa’ to lose.
I’m going to say some things in this piece that may deviate from what I believe we are conditioned in society to believe what parenting should be, but seeing how I’m not in the habit of silencing my voice, this should be no surprise to anyone who reads this blog.
First, as I documented in a previous piece (here), my elder children and I have had a rough go at it lately due to some poor choices on their part, a breakdown of communication, and a refusal to follow rules. I offered them a contract, which pretty much was just a commitment to responsibilities I have been repeatedly asking them to follow through with, and I gave them a weekend to decide. They declined to sign it.
So, for the week of their spring break, my kids were on their own, and I was with my younger two children for the earlier part, before heading to Texas for a conference generously sponsored by my employer. It was devastating to hear my kids say aloud that they didn’t want to come home. The twins and I have always been close, and I have been the one mark of stability in their entire lives. We have muddled through some very dirty waters and always managed to come out on the other side unscathed. And I am incredibly protective of them, and their hearts, because I have been their ‘person’.
The weekend they were gone prior to their decision (because they just opted not to come home, which is part of the pattern of behavior that I was hoping to cease) I spent a lot of time by myself. Doing things for myself I don’t feel I get to do as often as I should. I cleaned my entire house. I read. I spent time with friends. I wrote. And the quiet that descended, which I felt would mark their absence with profound desolation, surprised me. For the first time in ages, I felt such bliss and peace that I didn’t know how to process it.
We are taught to revel in the ‘joy’ of our children and parenting. What we aren’t taught is how to cope when parenting feels like it may drown you. How when you are waddling in so much emotion of your own while simultaneously worrying about how to manage the emotions of others, it’s a miracle that our ships aren’t collapsing and sinking. Or maybe they just are, more than we realize, and many of us spend more time underwater, holding our breath, than we feel we can admit without receiving scrutiny and judgement from others.
I was able, for the first time in months, to enjoy quiet. When my younger children were with me at the beginning of the week, I could engage in their presence in a way that I haven’t for a while, because I wasn’t worried about interfacing with the twins, and the tension surrounding our relationship. It gave me time to think, examine, and critically evaluate what elements of our relationship I was okay with and what I was not. It also gave me time to address the situation with my younger kids and have some deeply difficult conversations. My son asked me outright if his siblings were using drugs, and we had an open talk about the choice to use substances, and what that means for someone still in the throes of development versus an adult, and the consequences that can come of that. It also created an enormous amount of anxiety for my younger kids who were genuinely concerned for the safety of their brother and sister, and who vocalized it often. Both I, and their father, addressed this with honest conversation and additional counseling. As my six-year old told me, “I can’t get through this without my therapist.”
This is not to say that I abandoned my older kids entirely. Even without phone service, I was in touch with my daughter via messenger, and asked her daily if they were safe, and if they had a place to stay. But I didn’t spend all my time mentally fussing over what they were doing, or where they were. They returned the Monday after deciding to leave, looking worse for the wear from the weekend, packing up new clothes and gathering what they might need for the week ahead. I hugged them, told them that I loved them and that when they were ready to sign the contract, they could come home, and then I wished them well as they left.
By that point, I had three days of peace behind me, and I felt much stronger about my decision, which was an excruciatingly hard one to make. But what I am realizing more and more post-divorce is how essential and necessary boundaries are for me to thrive, and how intolerant I have become of toxicity in any form. Our relationship had become a cesspool where I felt walked on and over, and I am done, as a human, and particularly a woman, with accepting those situations for myself in the name of keeping peace. To me, it feels like a form of suppression that women constantly receive the message that they must be the ones who must hold the fabrics of family and society together, as if men can’t grab some corners of the cloth rather than focus on tearing off the pieces that no longer suit them. So, I decided that I am finished with relationships where healthy boundaries don’t exist, and that must be a full-blown effort in every aspect of my life, including with my children. And truth be told, I feel I am making the best parenting choice I could ever make by showing them how to advocate for what they need emotionally, and by modeling what it means to decide for yourself how you feel you should be treated and what you deserve.
When I came home on Wednesday, my daughter was in the house, doing laundry and eating cookies her siblings had baked. I informed her that I would have someone staying with the dog when I was out of town, so they couldn’t come and go as they pleased. She sounded slightly unsure of where they would be staying past that evening. As I approached leaving the next day for my conference, I had a strong moment where I freaked over the interstate travel and distance, and I worried if they would be okay in my absence. The thought of canceling crossed my mind, because I felt guilt at the thought of leaving. But I also reminded myself that I worked diligently to receive a grant to attend, and that my professional career, as well as my other passions, were just as important for me as my children. Despite things being rocky and uncertain, I could not put my life on hold while my kids were struggling with their own discovery and journey. They will be graduating high school in a year, and leaving as legal adults to really be on their own, and I am not doing them any justice by putting myself in a position of being ‘on-call’ only when they feel they need me. I, too, have a life that deserves tending and love.
I was very thankful to receive a great deal of emotional support from many of my fellow conference friends, who encouraged me that I was being the best parent I felt I could. The physical separation was exactly what I needed. It felt good to be in a space where I could take time for myself outside of feeling responsible to a job, child, or dog, and it was sorely needed to give me strength and perspective, especially as I pondered that my kids may not choose to come home at all. One of my favorite moments came when I engaged an older couple in the hotel lobby in conversation over the woman’s unique wooden watch, and we got thick into a discussion of parenting. She turned to me and said, “I think it’s bullshit when people say you can’t divorce your kids. We certainly did with one of ours. Sometimes you just need to say I can’t do this anymore.”
On the way back, I received a message from my daughter as my plane prepared to take off, that she and her brother were ready to sign the contract, and wanted to come back. I told them I would in later that night, and would meet them at home. We were all exhausted, and agreed to discuss the contract the next night.
When I woke Monday, I began to feel some of my original stressors creeping. They had left dishes everywhere although I had asked them to place them in the dishwasher. My daughter had been in my room the night before without permission and took my phone charger cord. The couch was askew, and their items were scattered all over the living room I had scrubbed clean. That night, we talked over the contract, negotiating a few items, but I was annoyed that they kept turning to watch television rather than giving their full focus. I asked my son to take out the garbage, and for them to load the dishwasher.
By Tuesday, I was feeling tense as similar behavior continued. When I woke Wednesday morning to find the garbage had still not been removed, I sent a message warning them that they would lose the privileges of technology for 24 hours, per our signed agreement. I returned home that evening and nothing I had asked to have completed was done. My younger children assisted me with cleaning up, but I was also clear that it was not their responsibility. The other side of the coin is trying to make sure that they do not overcompensate to make everything feel more stable, because that’s not healthy either. When they got home, I asked my older son to hand over his phone, and he aggressively refused. He asked me why I didn’t just take the garbage out myself, and why must he, since he was tired from dancing, worry about any of these requests? And then he told me to fuck off, and that I was crazy. My younger son, still awake upstairs, after I left to go to my room, was lying in bed crying himself to sleep, and my heart just cracked.
Once more, I was DONE. So, I calmly told them if they did not want to participate in following the contract, they could not stay with me and would find another place to stay, again. The next day, they informed me that would be choosing to leave. This time, I took their keys, and repeating myself, told them I would prefer they live with me, but I understood if they felt they couldn’t live by my rules and boundaries and needed to be elsewhere. It was clear to me that living on their own and finding places to stay was probably harder than they expected, and they came home expecting us to just fall back into our previous routine without them having to make a solid effort to change or shoulder the responsibilities I was asking. I believe they felt I would just be grateful they decided to return, and would let the same negative patterns slide in exchange for their presence.
So, I found myself living without them once again. I informed their school guidance counselor, whom I have been consistently in touch with since this started, to make sure they are getting support in school, as I had received notice that grades were dropping. This being round two, I took solace in the silence left behind, and felt my own anxiety and stress begin to dissipate at a much faster rate. Over the weekend, my daughter was in touch to let me know they needed to get clothes, and I gave them windows of time when I would be available, but they never appeared. At one point, she said that she would just call my friend she had previously asked to help her get a key from me, and I made it clear that would not be happening. On Sunday, I sent them a message that I would be home with their siblings and I had Easter baskets for them, if they wanted to stop by.
They got there in the afternoon, looking ragged and exhausted when I pulled into my parking lot. Instantly, my son began picking a fight about his longboard I have stashed in my trunk, which I confiscated a month ago, and I almost asked them to leave, except my daughter interceded calmly. We got inside and I asked how they were, and my son made a snarky comment about his failing grades. While living on his own, he also missed submitting a scholarship video for a dance program he hopes to attend this summer, and a deadline for another application. My daughter was also behind in submitting paperwork for the overseas trip she hopes to attend. Real life consequences were beginning to catch up. I asked if they were staying, but they weren’t sure.
The kids all sat to watch a movie, and it felt good to have them all in one place. The twins left after a bit to try to get my son’s computer, which he left with a friend and needs for school, and my daughter came in a couple hours later, saying my son was having an anxiety attack about coming home. She took him some ashwagandha, and they returned in the evening, informing me that they were not staying but would be back the next day, maybe. As I must think of not just them, but all my kids, and the effect of this situation on each of them, I told the twins that the back and forth wasn’t working. They were going to need, soon, to make a solid decision about what their plans were. Either they were stay and follow the rules/boundaries, or they were going to need to be on their own, without vacillating for convenience. My son again told me I was crazy for kicking my own kids out, and they grabbed their bags and left to stay at a friend’s house.
I settled in to watch a movie with my dog, and just try to unwind and shut my mind off from the continuous tug of war. About half an hour later, I heard a knock at the door. The twins stood in the door frame with their bags, and said they decided they wanted to stay. I stepped back to allow them in.
We’re three days in, and while things aren’t as blissful as when I was on my own, I’m not seeking perfect peace, or a perfect home. I will have time enough for that when they leave next year, and I now have a taste of what I can look forward to. But I am asking for a healthy dose of respect, and recognition of boundaries, which I will be the first to acknowledge I have failed to provide at times when they were younger. I was raised to believe that self-sacrifice was the ultimate hallmark of womanhood, especially when it came to being a ‘good’ mother, and with the end of my marriage, struggling on my own, I can now see what a huge disservice I, and others, have been given. This is not to say that parenting doesn’t require giving up certain aspects of who you are or were that should be surrendered, but it also doesn’t mean that we exempt our children from the list of toxic contributors simply because they were born. Or that we allow the notion of ‘family’ to override our abilities to feel healthy in our relationships.
I’ve been told by well-meaning people that I shouldn’t be writing about this with such openness, and I’ve had to tell them that I am tired of following a model where we pretend that parenting is an endless joy that we should all just revel in 24/7. I couldn’t survive if I sat with all of this and had nowhere to put it into the world. As someone who comes from a family wrought with substance abuse and enabling, I feel that the best gift I can offer myself and others is the power to be public about my struggles rather than hide it behind a veil of ‘doing fine’. There is no greater way to continue an unhealthy cycle of denial than to just sweep it under the rug of ‘not airing our business’.
I’m also tired of people putting parents on a pedestal, as if our relationships with our children are any different than those we engage in the real world. Yes, raising children is meaningful, and chock full of beautiful moments. But parents need to have permission to feel imperfect, without feeling judged and criticized for needing the basic things that all humans should be asking for and giving in our love based relationships: respect, kindness, compassion, and joy. And if you are childless and judging, I am going to tell you straight up to fuck off, because unless you are in the thick of raising independent humans that you are required to keep alive for 18 years, you don’t get to say a fucking word about what I should be doing, how I do it, or when I do it.
What makes putting these words on paper worthwhile are the people who have approached me about their own stories, and connected with words of support. About substance abuse in their own families that they don’t feel they can discuss openly, how they were horrible, shitty teenagers but now love their parents, or how they are struggling with similar issues with their own children. We live in a world that is more connected than ever but where people seem to feel more and more loneliness as the pressure to maintain public perfection bears down greater and greater. It’s not worth the effort to preserve the façade, and it only drives us further apart from recognizing our own imperfect humanity in others.
I’m optimistic my kids are planning to stay, because I know that we all love each other an enormous amount, but just need to learn where our borders lie. It’s putting in the work to figure out how we navigate where we do not intrude on each other too much, allowing us to live in healthy, individual spaces that still touch. Yesterday, I only had to ask once for my daughter to empty the dishwasher, and for my son to take out the garbage. That’s a damn good start from where we were a week ago, and I’ll take it. Here’s hoping we’re learning to tread water where we were once drowning, with enough love to keep us all afloat.
San Antonio turns out to be warmer than I expected, even though I previewed the weather on the internet and intentionally ditched my winter coat in my trunk at the park n ride by the airport. I can see The Alamo from my hotel room, one block away. It appears through the veils of trees, the golden stone popping out amidst the green, and looks like a small, squat block in the midst of skyscrapers.
I'm here for a conference, and during my lunch hour, I stealthy sneak out and stroll over to my destination. I pass a cantina, the same one I hear music drifting from until the wee hours of the morning, situated in a small, recessed valley with intentional waterfalls, the water glowing a soothing, Caribbean blue. Now, it is quiet, and the only noise escaping is the water loudly hushing me as it falls upon itself.
I approach the road leading to the Alamo, a wide stretch of cobblestone, where a horse pulls a cinderella buggy festooned with lights for when the sun drops and couples want to pretend they are living the unattainable fairy tale. After I cross the street, I explore a statue to my left, large and imposing, made from granite or marble, etched with words babbling something about fire, heroes, and the state.
The main building of the Alamo proves itself as small as I imagined from the floor to ceiling view in my hotel, the rough exterior cobbled from cut rocks, with carvings and ornate detail surrounding the arched, double wood doors that feel out of place next to its ruggedness. It looks like a short, fat man against the grey sky, whipping his Texan flag around with fervor to distract from the imposition he's missing.
To my surprise, the main attraction is merely one part of a compound, and I venture into a miniature plaza hidden by a rock wall with a huge, gorgeous tree sitting in the middle of the stone walkways, its branches reaching out in all directions, the arms thick and inviting. What I wouldn't give to curl up on one of its biceps and daydream the afternoon away.
Under a portal is a long house, filled with a variety of historical objects and placards that dole out the history leading to, and describing, the battle of the Alamo. In the first room, it describes how the building was built by Native hands, ones eventually bound as prisoners as other colonists arrived and claimed what no one really owns as theirs. I lose my appetite and merely drift through the remaining spaces, watching the throngs of people, noses pressed to glass, intently absorbing narratives that were written from a centrist view that likely excludes someone’s truth. I am glad I haven't eaten.
I escape the long house, peeking in an end room partitioned by a glass wall, so you can see the makeshift hospital but cannot explore it. Closing my eyes for a few seconds, I try to imagine how many died or developed infection from the rudimentary tools and not yet known methods of medicine that might have preserved their lives. The beds are narrow, wooden frames lined with simple, white cotton sheets, and there are only two. 'How did anyone survive', I question internally.
I emerge back into the plaza, and detour through the gift shop. Instantly, I find candy cleverly fashioned after buckshot and musket balls, and grab two for my younger children. The thick crowd envelopes me as children run everywhere, screeching and playing with fake weapons and raccoon caps. I saunter to the book section, finding Davy Crockett's autobiography for my son, and an easier reader about the same for my daughter. The line to check out snakes around three sides of a square, and as I patiently wait, I watch the father in front of me as he continually removes the faux rifle his three year old keeps hitting his brother with, threatening to remove and return it, but the kids know, as I, that his promise is nothing but empty air. Finally, I reach the counter, and they try to get me to buy a tote bag, but I politely decline, paying for my gifts and escaping back to the soft heat.
I've had enough at this point: of jostling crowds, group photographs, skewed history, the boom of muskets, the screech of children that remind me of those from whom I am estranged. My boots smack the stone as I quicken my pace, clenching my bag, finally coming full circle to the front of this monument representing our thirst for conquering. I throw a glance toward my right shoulder, catching one last glimpse of the tree with its arms thrown open to the world, and I wonder how something so gorgeous can emerge from earth soaked with fear and violence. How closely it resembles this country, one arisen from feeding on the bloodshed of so many, thriving best in its own oblivion.
I want you to close your eyes and imagine that your words are physical objects based on their properties. If they are words of kindness and consideration, what would they feel and look like? Soft and squishy? How would they change or effect the person you sling them towards? If they are harsh and cruel, how do they appear? Heavier, sharp? What kind of damage would they do when they made contact?
I was recently at a conference where the importance of language was discussed, and it was mentioned that we now know that words can affect a person’s DNA. I want that to fully sink in: what you say, how you say it, who you say it to, and how it is delivered, has the potential to alter someone on a level that creates cellular changes. At the conference, the presenter* discussed how certain words used in the context of describing specific populations should no longer be applicable: vulnerable, empower, under-served, and non-white. Take a moment, say each word out loud, and think about what you associate with it. Do you associate vulnerability with weakness, as many do? Who has the right to give or take away power? Why must ‘white’ be the core measure of description, and what does it say if it is?
As a writer, I like to think that I am conscious of language and choices around words, but when specific words are embedded in the net of a society, we don’t often stop to meditate on what we are using, the context in which they arrived, and why we say what we say. More important, we don’t frequently ask, ‘what is the longstanding effect that your words carry with the intense power they hold to alter gene expression,’ especially when ‘we’ are people who have the upper hand in the dynamics of existence.
The conference I was attending was referring more specifically to nomenclature around childbirth, and how varying populations are often labeled, yet simultaneously ignored. But while I was away, I had a fascinating text conversation with someone regarding my children, and the parallel between the two struck me deeply.
I always refer to my children as biracial, because according to society, that is the technical term we consistently use to describe children who have parents who have come from distinct ‘races’. Except, as my exquisite, lovely texting company challenged, what does it mean to people as biracial? If race itself doesn’t exist except as a social construct, which I am fully aware of, what is the purpose of such a term? And beyond that, why I am utilizing a word that continues to perpetuate separation and difference, and in the process, delivers inequity, based on something that is imaginary?
To say that something resonated for me would be an understatement, and in later reflection, along with just feeling icky for using a word that has the potential to create such unrecognized harm, I had to confront the amount of privilege I carry to use such words without thinking about them. And that I have taught them to my children, without putting in the mental and emotional work to determine the effect, hit me square in the heart.
My thoughtful texting companion asked me how my children knew they were African American, and the discussion veered in the direction of self-identity, which fascinates me. Even though my son sports my fairer skin and wider, more manageable curls, he solely identifies as African American. On the other hand, my daughter, with her richer tone and tighter, darker hair, verbalizes her identity as white and black. As a parent, I realized a long time ago that I wanted my children to decide who they are and how they want to be addressed. They each have their own distinct path in this world which will partly be shaped by how they choose to identify, and in reaction to the lens in which others see them. While I can offer what has created ‘me’, who they determine they want to be is (as it should be) solely up to them.
This now means, for me, altering the language I reference regarding how they journey through this world. If my son has determined he is African American, I can call him just that. It may confuse other people, but it’s not my place to take up their discomfort and soothe it. We all could do better if we sat in discomfiture and took the time to do the emotional and intellectual work required to be more unbiased, rather than just continue with what is easy and familiar. For my daughter, I feel ‘dual-identity’, since that is how she speaks to how she sees herself, could be appropriate, although I am waiting to have a conversation with her to get her input first about what language she prefers.
I ask that we all continue to reflect on the words we distribute, and that we attempt to do so with as much respect and love as we can with an eye to humanity as a collective. When people remind us, and challenge us, to do better, to reflect internally despite our own discomfort, show up and do the difficult work. Sit in dis-ease and consider how to change, and why it is important to do so. Recognize when you have done wrong, and apologize when appropriate for what you have been perpetuating. The only separation that stands in the way of understanding are our self-imposed barriers and prejudices to others. I would rather work toward a world where we strive for equity and egalitarianism, with language that reflects that consciousness, than simply preserve unnecessary difference. More so, I hope to eventually live in a world where I won’t have to explain my children’s identity at all, and they can just be.
*Natalie S. Burke was the conference presenter I refer to.
Please check out her terrific work here.
On my flight to Houston today, I sat next to an older, black gentleman, a Baby Boomer, who introduced himself as we waited for the plane to lift off. I’m reserved when I travel, protective of the quiet it affords, and I politely turned to the window I was sitting next to and admired the landscape as he took a nap. About 20 minutes later, we fell into a conversation after ordering our beverages, and I found that you can cover a lot of ground in 90 minutes up in the air.
My new friend, I learned, was ex-military, a paratrooper who had been injured and retired. He had been prepared to serve in Vietnam, stationed in Thailand, but never saw the combat zone as he was the only male child his parents had, and the military, at the time, was consciously sparing them. He moved to Albuquerque from Southern California on request of his first wife, who was from the state, and said that when he woke after driving into the valley for the first time the night before, his first thought was, “where did the city go?”
I learned that his son was born using Lamaze, which is how we start chatting, as he asked me what I was traveling for, on my way to the Lamaze annual conference. He was in the room when his son was born, and caught his child, which is a pretty radical practice for 1975. He told me about being stationed in Shreveport, Louisiana when he was in his 20s, his first wife 3 months pregnant, and being told they couldn’t provide housing because they were an interracial couple, and the General telling him they just “don’t allow that here.”
We discussed the war machine, and how I disagree with continuing unnecessary military operations when we cannot take of the people of our own country. Domestic terrorism, and particularly school terrorism was a topic we batted about, and he told me how he grew up surfing with white boys in Santa Monica, and doesn’t feel he endured the same discrimination that so many black people face now, particularly encountering police. I told him I moved away from my home of Pittsburgh intentionally because of the racism I knew my children would encounter. And he told me that he feels his generation dropped the ball, allowing us to be in the political quagmire we are currently sinking into, the days following only seemingly finding us deeper and deeper in a self-created pit of despair.
As I said, a lot of ground.
But the most interesting element of conversation to me was the relationship between men and women that went deep. He told me he grew up in an era where he felt “no was just no” and that his parents taught him that you only use your hands for women in a loving manner. I told him that I felt men are confused, and lost, because the toxic masculinity that weaves the narrative of male culture is becoming an unwanted and recognized poison, and that men seem to be struggling for how to be. I said that I felt that women grasp the work that needs to be done, but that men are the ones who must put in the hours of emotional labor. He countered that maybe ‘men are just pigs’ (he said this 8 times, I counted), placing the responsibility on the shoulders of how men are raised and taught to value women. I shared the story of my son being suspended for sexual harassment, and the countless times we have discussed consent. We discussed my feeling that women are often taught they should say yes, even when they mean no, as a cultural conditioning that emphasizes self-preservation, something I have experienced myself. He told me he believed that it ultimately falls on a man’s shoulders to ‘know’ if he is wanted emotionally or sexually.
I told him about a movement of men who are not only opposed to the concept of marriage, particularly regarding what they as an imbalance due to alimony, but also take umbrage with issues such as the wage gap, declaring that men often do the dangerous, structural work that builds society, whereas women, as nurturers, have their own distinct place. Of course, this doesn’t account for women who do not wish to nurture, and those who often bang on the door of wanting to do the more complex work that men tout they provide, but are often told no for a variety of reasons. It also doesn’t balance out that yes, men may be providers, but not every woman wants to be dependent on a man.
This led us to get into the nitty gritty of inequity versus inequality. I told him that I felt we may never find ‘equality’ and that I am not sure that we should strive for that, as women and men each bring different things to the table, intellectually and emotionally. However, inequity is an issue that needs attention, as it constantly puts women at a disadvantage financially and regarding positions of power. We discussed equity in the military, and how women may be able to perform the same duties, but he didn’t feel that they should necessarily do the same work. He told me how they have done studies that show that men react differently to watching women fall in combat than they do men. The gist is that men struggle with watching women injured, and want to hover, which can be dangerous in the field. He told me that he would prefer women be nurses and accountants in the military, and I asked him about women having the right to determine their own way. “But if she understands the potential danger, and is capable, isn’t it her choice?”
That was the roadblock right there. He didn’t want to see women hurt, didn’t want to see them damaged in the field, treated as if expendable. I asked him if he felt that his urge to protect was biological, and he told me yes. I then asked him, if his role was no longer to protect women, what was his role as a man? And didn’t that come full circle to men being ‘lost’?
I believe that women and men carry both potentials and possibilities for protection and nurturing. Part of what we can accomplish, I feel, is a soup of genetics and ambition. But another larger aspect is what society tells us we can do, how to do it, and why. It means we shouldn’t judge others for those choices. It also means that we should allow enough malleable freedom for both sexes to wander back and forth, straddling the line between protector and nurturer. More than ever before, we are seeing fluidity in gender and sexuality, which I believe is an evolutionary development. If we are to understand each other better, wouldn’t it make sense that we need to inhabit and adopt aspects of each other to better understand who we are and what we want? Someone recently told me that he felt women were secretly in search of alpha men, that they didn’t want men who are as emotionally vulnerable. Not only do I feel that is untrue, but I believe that men can’t really handle alpha women, who challenge their views of themselves and who they are by holding up a mirror of their values and saying, “but I don’t need this from you anymore, I can do it myself.”
As we landed, my companion told me that he felt that change, if it were to happen, was going to come from moments like ours. Individual conversations. Fleshing things out. Hearing both perspectives and finding common ground. I can’t agree more. As much as I love solidarity and a good women's march, I believe that real change is more likely to occur when we talk to our fathers, brothers, uncles, cousins, friends, and strangers, sharing our perspectives and experiences, hearing each other on a human level. There is something about one to one interaction that cuts through pretense, bullshit, and the layers of defense we weave around ourselves to preserve our beliefs. It is much easier to hate a concept than a person. It is much simpler to generalize a group, than ignore the pain of the individual before you who is sharing a personal experience. So, I challenge women, men, and all those in various stages of one, the other, or both, to have a conversation today. Pick one person, family or friend. Talk about what it means to be feminine and masculine. Try to see where the other comes from, put yourself in his or her shoes.
Preparing to get off the plane, my new friend looked at me and chuckled. “How about that? I learned something new today. I learned that I am lost.”
Here’s to us, one by one, human to human, slowly being found with the help of each other.
Your absent smile is a void that cannot be filled, despite the volume of laughter. You were always the happiest baby, carefree, and content to enjoy every waking moment. Now as you approach adulthood, I can see that a bit of that shiny sheen has worn off, but you still retain some much childlike beauty and joy that is contagious.
Our home is quiet without your wit, sarcasm, and jokes. I miss hearing you call me ‘ma-ma’ in your formal tone when you think I’m not listening. And I miss those moments when you try so hard not to laugh, forcing yourself to look oh-so-serious, but the corners of your mouth turn upward in defiance, and your face can’t help but erupt into a sliver of laughter. It’s always been my lie detector, that smile, and it never fails.
You used to giggle at nothing when you were little. Just for the sheer pleasure of enjoying whatever life would bring, and that sound would life on the air like musical balloons, filling us all with wonder and happiness. Although you have lost your chubby esthetic, you haven’t lost that sing song lilt to your laughter that feels like pieces of metal tinkling in the wind at dusk. It reminds me of the silver baby rattle your grandmother bought for you, the ones enameled with a dark sky and stars, that when shaken produces a rich melody like bubbled rain meeting a tin roof.
You dance in a similar fashion, all lightness and presence. I didn’t get to tell you, but in your last performance, there was a moment in your duet when lifted off the earth and I could swear you defined time and space, landing as softly as a feather. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything so beautiful as you when you reach for the stars.
I just want you to know I love you, and when you are ready, the walls in our home are ready to ring and bounce with your laughter once more.
This isn’t the first time I thought I lost you, even though it doesn’t diminish the pain.
When you were barely two weeks old, you almost died. It single-handed was the most frightening moment of my life, which, in contrast with its scope, should tell you how terrifying it was. We were staying in your grandmother’s room on the Malecon in Puerto Vallarta, catching respite from the overheated apartment I shared with your father. I had just fed you. One minute you were awake in my arms, eyes roving, and the next, you weren’t breathing, something stuck in your esophagus, blocking oxygen from reaching your brain. You turned a vicious shade of fuchsia, then became to tint blue. I flipped you upside down by instinct, patting your back and trying to help air get through. Nothing.
I remember calling the front desk and demanding a doctor, or emergency services, and thinking, ‘Are there emergency services, there have to be, right?’. I felt fortunate the operator spoke English well, as I constantly felt at a deficit not being fluid in Spanish.
I continued to go back and forth, between holding you upside down, and turning you back upright, as if you were an hourglass that I was trying to manipulate to buy more time as the minutes stood still. I said a thousand prayers in the minutes that passed, each one flying haphazard into the universe with offerings to do anything, simply anything, if you would gasp.
And then, suddenly, you did. I heard an intake of air, you gulping it with a whistle, and the adrenaline in my body crashed, arms shaking, and I held you as close as I could without you becoming part of my skin again. I realized I had been holding my own breath, and air ferociously filled my lungs. I kissed your tiny head and never felt more grateful for anything in my entire life than your life.
A minute later, the doctor finally arrived, examined your petite, preterm body and gave you a stamp of good health. It might have been really bad reflux, he said, and encouraged me to see the pediatrician as soon as possible.
After that, I was constantly vigilant. When I returned home, you slept in my room, your crib completely pulled next to my bed, and I woke frequently throughout the night for months just to check that you were breathing, and here.
I felt something similar as I woke several times last night, wondering where you are, and hoping you were safe. I believe that we are still connected, that there is an invisible umbilical cord of energy that allows me to feel when you are filling a living space in this world, pulsing between us, letting me know that you are hurting, but okay.
As excruciating as it is to lose you right now, I know it is temporary pain to get to a place of healing. I know that soon enough I will see you sleeping in your bed again, your chest rising and falling, bringing me, still, an innate sense of peace that didn’t exist before having children.
I can’t wait until I can hold you again, on your terms, when you are ready.
Until then, a part of me will be waiting with bated breath.
This is by far going to be the hardest blog entry I’ve ever written, mostly because it feels vulnerable in ways I can’t describe. But I also know that when something begging to be put into words has the rumblings of shame, and makes me feel completely exposed, I am likely voicing exactly what I should be. It is that gut wrenching sensation of allowing people into my private world and life, a sacred space, my heart sitting in my throat, that tells me I am writing what needs to be said.
My life as a parent has been a shitshow as of late, and I’ve been feeling like a pretty epic failure where my teenagers are concerned. I have to say out loud that parenting can be the most thankless, bullshit undertaking when it is bad. It can suck in the most draining and awful ways. There are days that I absolutely hate being responsible for the lives of others, but I am slowly learning to be okay with that feeling of discontent, even though society seems to project a never-ending image of parenting associated with fulfillment, which just isn’t true. Some days, sure, there is a lot of joy, and what can seem like an endless bounty of love. But a lot of time is spent reminding people not to be assholes, and that can slurp the life force out of anyone in five seconds flat.
I can’t really pinpoint where it began, but I know the basic elements that have created a backward slide, where my older children and I have been at odds now for weeks: divorce, issues of abandonment, and a healthy dose of illegal substances mixed in for good measure. It’s like living the nightmare you fret about and fear as a parent: what if one day my kids lose themselves so completely that I can no longer effectively support them, and I must let them tough it out alone?
For me, that day came last weekend, after a banner week where my son was suspended for sexual harassment, my kids decided to start ditching school, and they just decided that they didn’t need or want boundaries or rules at home. This was on the heels of them already being grounded from the previous weekend for just not coming home when expected, nor communicating where they were at the time. It has caused me an enormous amount of anxiety stress, and misery, and while I understand that this is an age when children push for freedom as they face a segue into adulthood, it is a very different thing when you know your kids are into things that could have legal consequences while they suffer from the disease of, ‘it will never happen to me’.
Everything came to a climax when my kids just decided not to come home last Friday, and didn’t communicate all day Saturday until they came home and realized they were locked out, when I was at a formal event with a friend. They contacted an adult friend of mine who picked them up and got in touch with me, but I told him they needed to figure it out on their own, as I had been asking them to find their keys for over a week now. He was insistent that I do something, and I finally agreed they could come pick up my key, if he would bring it back. I understand he was frustrated and wanted to help, but after he brought them and left, then texted me that he left my key at the house with them, I was furious. It wasn’t up to him to decide how I parent my children, or what consequences they should or shouldn’t have to deal with, and I felt wholly unsupported in that moment. I really felt they should have dealt with the consequences on their own in that situation, and they learned nothing.
Feeling anxious and pissed, I had to bow out of the event and venture home. Once there, I unleashed and told my kids that I was finished with providing logistical and emotional support, because they were consistently taking advantage of me, and I was done. This meant they would be provided shelter, food and other basic needs, but I would not be showing up for them in anywhere near the same capacity they were used to. They presented their typical arguments of how they had done nothing wrong, and how other parents would be okay with their shitty behavior (I don’t know who those parents are, but I feel like we need to meet and hash some shit out, because this is NOT OKAY). They also consistently blame me for their poor communication because I have confiscated my son’s phone and turned off service for both of them as they haven’t been following my rules, and I am the one footing the bill. Yet it’s amazing how when phones are working, but if the battery dies, they find a friend’s phone to use and get in touch. I don’t buy into selective communication. I was just over the endless parade of excuses, so I left to cool off. I decided that evening that I would draw up a contract regarding the behavior I expected, and they would be required to sign it if they wanted to stay under my roof, which felt extreme, but necessary.
The next day, my younger son came across his older brother’s paraphernalia in his room, and it was the straw that truly broke my back. I had found out my kids had been into substances months ago, when they willingly told me in a lighthearted conversation, which they now say they regret, because I was, and still am, disappointed. As dancers, their bodies are a vessel for their work, and to me, vaping and smoking pot only serve to desecrate their own personal temples. I also have been incredibly transparent about whatever substances I have tried in the past, in the hopes that they would be smarter than me and not waste their time with such nonsense. However, I also didn’t get into such things until I was a legal adult, and the concept of responsibility has been one that they are not grasping well. Over the past month, I had been steadily finding paraphernalia in all forms left throughout my house, and we had continuous arguments about my insistence that they stop using in my house, and that their friends were no longer welcome, as my kids were allowing them to do whatever they wanted in my home when I wasn’t there. My favorite arguments are the ones when they tried to convince me to return said items to their friends, because, ‘they cost money and were expensive’. If it wasn’t so surreal, it would almost be funny that they even have the gall to suggest such ridiculousness. At the end of the day, though, with two younger children under our roof, tolerating such behavior is completely out of the question, because they deserve to feel safe in our home too.
By midweek, things were incredibly toxic between us, and I sat in a meeting with my daughter, her counselor and her guidance counselor, watching my daughter stare at me with empty disdain. The basic gist from her was that she saw nothing in her behavior that was negative, since it is ‘harmless’ and that she planned to continue to use. She told me that she initially began smoking to self-medicate due to feeling abandoned by her stepfather, but now it was just something she was choosing to do for fun, despite taking an anti-depressant where she had been warned by her psychiatrist that it is was akin to double dosing and could have intense side effects. There was a moment when my daughter asked me point blank if I thought she was an addict, and despite wanting to scream out “YES”, I sat mumbling, “I don’t know”. After she stormed out for a second time, one of the counselors asked me why I didn’t tell her how I truly felt, and I responded that I was nervous she would leave and be angry, to which she replied that I should let her do exactly that. They also encouraged me to do what I need to do as a parent, period. Internally, hearing that, something inside me broke and unwound, and it infused me with a sense of sorely needed strength. It was validating to hear someone say that I could, and should, stand my ground.
Prior to the meeting, I wrote up the contract that they would be required to sign to continue living with me: a basic outline of having a curfew, expectations for communication, rules regarding guests, a list of chores they would be responsible for, etc. Aside from instituting a formal curfew, there was nothing in the contract that I already hadn’t been asking them to live by for months. My daughter initially refused, then seemed open, with some prodding, to negotiating the curfew and a couple of other points. I felt like maybe common ground could be found.
Then, I discovered my son didn’t show up for school for the third time in the past week, and when I went home, he was sitting in bed, blaming me for him not having an alarm because I took his phone. He refused to get dressed so I could take him to school. So, on advice from one of the school administrators, I called the police after I left to do a wellness check, just so he would understand that I was THAT serious. The result was that he and his sister decided to skip their afternoon dance classes to get popsicles since he was upset, which my daughter mockingly told me she would do again in a heartbeat. So, it wasn’t a great surprise when they told me that evening they had decided that they didn’t want to sign the contract, and would be moving out to live with friends, after insisting that I was crazy and that they no longer wanted to deal with me.
It hit me in the heart, their coldness and determination to run away from me. But I know for myself, after exiting a marriage where I felt emotionally unsafe for years, that my tolerance for being taking advantage of, and used, is zero. I also know that much of what may be coming from their mouths may not be themselves talking in their truest form, and recognizing that my kids are lost right now has given me the courage to determine that this is what is best for all of us.
When I became pregnant with the them, it wasn’t planned. Although I had plotted having six kids when I was a young girl (3 boys and 3 girls), by the time I was in my mid-twenties, I just wasn’t feeling the call to motherhood. I had been told that I would likely have difficulty with fertility due to the shape of my uterus, and was prepared to be childless. And then I became a mother, and was thrown into the thick of the most chaotic and challenging existence I’ve ever known.
I almost died giving birth to them, my blood pressure dropped precipitously during surgery, and I blacked out after I saw them carried from my body. I woke up in the elevator in the worst pain of my life, and I all I could think about was if they were okay. They were in the small NICU, and I was told I couldn’t hold them for five days. It was excruciating, that separation, and I remember being so taken with how these small creatures that I never met suddenly ruled my existence and heart. They also saved my life, when I was battling severe postpartum depression, and the only thing that kept me jumping off our balcony one night was the sound of my daughter crying out for me as I was swinging my leg over the banister. I have loved them fiercely for both surviving, and saving me at a moment in time when no one else could.
As frustrated and sad as I am with their behavior, the care and concern doesn’t ever dissipate. My younger kids, who are struggling with understanding all that has transpired, asked me if I still loved them. We had a long conversation about how you can love someone endlessly but not agree with their choices and behavior. As a good friend, who has been a rock for me during this entire whirlwind, told me: it’s your job to love your kids, but you don’t have to like them. I also found myself initially uncomfortable with the fact that in their absence, I am feeling a profound sense of comfort, and (do I dare say it out loud) peace. It doesn’t feel right to not want your kids around, but when it feels like an endless war zone of stress and anger, it’s not doing anyone any favors to be in each other’s company. No one deserves to live like they are under siege constantly.
I think it would be life changing if we could all be more vulnerable as parents, and drop the façade of ‘perfect’ parenting. Let’s acknowledge that parenting can be miserable, lonely, and exhausting. It is not for the faint of heart, and many of us, if we are being real, had no idea what the hell we were getting into when we rose to meet that pathway. More than anything, if you can do one thing to help another parent out today, don’t fucking judge them. No one raising people to become independent adults deserves that kind of scrutiny, because I promise you that what they are enduring is so mind-blowingly difficult and painful at times that it feels like you are eating your own heart over and over and over again. And it is horrifically bitter and raw.
I see and hear my kids crying out now via their actions and choices, and I feel that they are both in terrific emotional pain. I want to be there for them, but they have made it clear that I am not welcome in that space, and I must be okay with them, as near adults, figuring out how to navigate some of this on their own, no matter how much I would prefer they lean on me for support. They aren’t mere children anymore, and eventually they will be 100% responsible for the consequences of their actions, as much as it may pain me to watch them suffer. I, alone, can’t magically erase their suffering, as they, too, must put in the work and make choices that will allow for healing. As we can’t see eye to eye on behavior that I feel is detrimental to their goals and health, and the well-being of their siblings, then I will have to be satisfied with allowing them to figure it out, which has been one of the most difficult decisions of my life. It is my hope that they know how much I love them, and that letting them go their own way, eventually, will help them find their way back home.
There’s a feeling that comes from loving art that I always experience in galleries: a certain catch in my throat, a new way of visualizing the world, a color given a different personality. When I think back to childhood, I have a hard time remembering how this aesthetic arose. The closest we came to having art in our house was a horrible, oil paint knock-off of a ship on the rocky ocean that hung above my parents’ dead weight waterbed frame. It was frightening, and the last thing I would want above me while having sex. Yet, it has lasted over 25 years in my parents’ home, even if romance has waned.
My mother was an artist in her youth, something she tucked away in the attic where her paintings and sketchbooks lay in disheveled boxes we were meant to keep shut. At one point, she gave up her dream of becoming an interior designer for a more “practical” life that included marrying my alcoholic, high school educated father, and eventually a career in business. After they divorced, my mother remarried a man with scant interest in pictures, design or museums, hence the ugly oil floating above the bed. Since my father lived in a trailer park, art was nothing more than a rich man’s elusive hobby in his eyes, and a frivolous interest at best. He was an outdoorsman, and had no use for the complex visual language and material conquests of the art world.
During college, I ‘borrowed’ some of my mother’s work to hang in my dorm room, alongside my Uncle Steve’s pieces. He is the closest my family came to having an artist who followed his passion. Although my grandparents loved and often lifted their house with arias on their turntable, or attended an occasional musical theater production, they, too, were not big art lovers. My grandfather made furniture for a time but his clinical depression and alcoholism guaranteed eventual failure. He, too, gave up his dream to take a steady paycheck working, ironically, for the liquor control board. His loyal wife, following her husband’s dream, lay down her own aspiration to finishing nursing school, becoming a school secretary, although she always kept a blood pressure cuff and stethoscope in her nightstand drawer.
Stevie was different. He was the middle child between my control determined mother and his younger brother who lived in fear of his shadow and the world. Stevie recognized his love of art in high school, after ending his football prospects breaking his arm from a tree fall. He attended Columbia University, studying in the school of architecture. Oils, paint, and ink scribed his new language across specifically detailed scale drawings and abstract interpretations. In his later years at Columbia, he won a fellowship to travel across Eastern Europe, where he photographed some of the most amazing places I may never see. He was the self-appointed shining star of the family, the one who followed his art without being weighed down by addiction, regret, or failure.
One weekend Stevie borrowed his brother’s Jeep to take his girlfriend camping. During the trip, they got into an accident and the jeep flipped, totaling the car and completely pissing off my uncle, erupting into a fistfight on my grandparents’ lawn. Stevie was banged up for a while after, and he did not seem to be healing the way he should, his gait now slower and crooked. Almost thirty, we were stunned when he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS) and he plummeted back to earth. He left the life he had always wanted in New York City to move back to Pittsburgh, my grandmother finally realizing her now unwanted desire to care for the sick as her son slowly wasted away: crutches to wheelchair to electric wheelchair to an iron lung. Home to hospital to a nursing home in Youngstown where my mother served once a month in the Navy reserves. He literally melted away day by day until he was a stick figure draped in thin skin who could no longer talk, eat or breathe, and who fought the nursing home staff at every turn by pulling out tubes while he was able, in frequent attempts to end his life.
The day he died, we visited him, making the two-hour schlep to Ohio. I fought with my mom that morning because I wanted to stay home and make homemade playdoh. Visiting Stevie was frightening as a preteen; on one occasion, I stood by the foot of the bed in the corner of the room as they moved adjusted his gown and bedding, and accidentally spied his limp penis poking out from under the cotton. I met his eyes, and with anger that I now understand to be directed more toward the disease than my twelve-year-old self, he mouthed, “fuck you.” At that point, he was pissed at everything, especially the outcome of his own life.
We spent an unceremonious visit, talking to Stevie, who now had a hole in his throat and the turtle shaped machine that kept him alive breath by breath. We all kissed him goodbye, leaving him with my grandparents, and he seemed more subdued than usual, his eyes carrying a deep well of sadness. At some point as we drove back across state lines, Stevie began to expire, vomiting blood and finally being given the gift of letting go.
When I went to college, my grandmother gave me a collection of his architecture prints to hang on my walls, some as thin as skin, with deep, lead lines forming his dream images. I also packed my belongings into his college trunk, determined that I, too, would pursue my artistic dream of studying theater and becoming an actress. Although I found I like being backstage more than front and center, when I graduated, I thought of Stevie. I recalled his nurturing presence when I was young, and how he would play the guitar to my infant self, singing lullabies and filling my baby brain with big dreams.
It’s a huge burden to pursue your dreams. During college, I fell in love with writing and film, but after two graduate schools rejected me, I turned my back on my dreams to work. Then came two children and a husband, and more jobs, always places that didn’t quite fit. And then two more children, and a second marriage. I became passionate about childbirth advocacy and became a birth worker, using my theater skills to teach. When I returned to school to pursue my nursing degree on my path to midwifery, I returned for the practicality of a secure career. For fun amidst my science heavy load, I took a fiction class, and my path veered in a way that I never expected, and I still find myself surprised that I am pursuing my MFA in Creative Writing at the age of 41.
I see Stevie in my son, with his tight, curly hair and finesse for engineering. I sense him when my children dance, or we watch and edgy film, or someone plays Spanish guitar. He is everywhere I look for him.
As Stevie’s light extinguished, so did a little of all those around him who hoped for more, as if it were a punishment to live an authentic life. I often worry and wonder if I pursue this magical, wonderful, writing passion if I will also find myself the unfortunate victim of life circumstance. A random illness. A desire left by the side of the road where a Jeep flipped in the woods. An un-lived potential.
Yet, I worry more that if I let the world breathe for me rather than taking it in for myself, will I truly be living? If I leave my dream behind, will the best parts of me wither with it, to compensate for what I have offered to forget its existence?
Stevie’s life was short, but it had nobility. Strength. Passion. As my flame grows, I’ve asked him to look over me. My children need to hope for more, need to have the courage to light their own torches and find the authenticity of their hearts. It is my dream and gift to them, even if my own flame burns like wildfire, even if I turn to ash before I’ve truly begun.
There is no parenting book in the world (although I contemplate writing one) that can prepare you for moments that make you question if you are resilient and able enough to continue to care for someone who utterly pisses you off to the core of your molten being. No manual on how to deal with another human being whose behavior you despise while simultaneously loving the shit out of them because they came from your body. It’s the private moments that we shy away from discussing out of shame and embarrassment that feel as though they can devastate us when they come to fruition.
This was the intersection I found myself at 6:30am the other morning, swiftly knocking on my son’s door and curtly reminding him that he would be accompanying me to work that day. I opened the door to see him balled up in blankets like a fermenting chrysalis, and upped my voice a notch. He heard me, lifted his messy head, and told me no. I stated once more that it wasn’t his option. He again refused, asking me why I was torturing him, and proceeded to go back to bed. We soft footed this dance for the next half hour, where eventually my parental self-control withered into yelling, and he became more and more aggressively defiant. And then I did what any self-respecting parent should do, and broke down into a sobbing mess in the middle of my kitchen. My son came downstairs and remarked that he didn’t want our relationship to be this way, but when I asked him to please just put on some fucking clothes and get ready to leave, the iron wall of teenage resistance locked around him once more, he again refused, and it left me seething. Despite having no desire to leave him home alone, because both he and his twin sister had not shown themselves to be trustworthy recently, I outlined what the consequences would be and gave him a clear choice. Then, giving him a last chance, I left for work alone.
Both of my older children had already been on my shit list two days prior, when they went to spend the night at a friend’s house and left my house a terrific disaster from having a sleep over the previous evening. Then they just decided they weren’t going to come home until 10:00pm, after being expected in the afternoon, and despite everyone around them having cell phones these days, they didn’t take the time to inform me where they were and when they would return. I was livid when they walked through the door like everything was grits and gravy, and threw down their stuff as if I hadn’t just cleaned for an hour and a half, nor had been worried sick about where they had been.
Yet, it was the next day that the air was sucked out of me, when I was asked to meet the vice principal of his high school and guidance counselor to discuss a matter that wasn’t presented over the phone, which usually means something of a higher grade fuck up. I ruminated for hours over what in the world one of my children could have possibly done, and when I finally got to the school, I was a neurotic mess. She sat me down, and began talking about an incident being reported, and I steeled myself for what was coming. And suddenly, the cards were on the table, and my son was being suspended for violating the sexual harassment policy of the school. The vice principal politely handed me Kleenex as she explained it would be two days of out of school suspension, provided he agreed to counseling, which I had been practically begging him to participate in all year, due to our family transition post-divorce. I asked if it would go on his record for college, and yes, it was explained, suspension might need to be listed and explained. I have never felt such an utter feeling of failure as a parent as I did in that moment.
In addition to beating myself up mentally for his behavior, I was furious in a thousand different ways, because I talk to my son about consent ALL THE TIME. Consent and feminism are featured themes throughout my writing, in addition to being a huge advocate for #metoo and Time’s Up. I am a poster child for female advocacy. When my son came home after spending the summer at Ballet Chicago, he couldn’t hold it in to even let me get his suitcase in the trunk before blurting out that he lost his virginity, and we had multiple discussions over the next few months about his experience and how he was processing it. We discussed how it happened, his relationship with the girl that he had sex with, the pleasure they both experienced, and how it felt to date someone afterward whom he felt a much greater affection for but wasn’t intimate with. My favorite moment in our talks was when he shared, “Mom, sex is such hard work though. It was exhausting. I don’t know how people do this all the time.” I also died laughing on the inside when he told me, “She said I made her orgasm, like, 6 times,” knowing all too well that she was likely exaggerating greatly, if not lying outright. Amidst these conversations, I was proud that he opened up to me, and that we spoke with unabashed emotion and truth.
Carrying the weight of my own traumas and experiences with harassment and assault, and having shared these openly with my children, it felt like a slap in the face to suddenly be confronted with this situation. For the rest of the day, I mulled over what was presented, and when I finally got home to discuss the issue with him, I was surprised to find him defensive, and seemingly unwilling to accept accountability for his role in what transpired, which had been described as physical touch that made a girl feel uncomfortable, as well as a sexual request made through a social media app in a separate incident. In addition, his twin sister sat staunchly in his defense, which created a frustrating 2 on 1 scenario where I wasn’t truly able to talk to him and get to the root of what had led to this mess in the first place. It quickly devolved into an argument, where he was then informed he would be hanging out in my workplace for the next two days.
And then came morning, and with it came the staunch refusal to cooperate. I went to work shaken and angry, and more disappointed than my heart could bear to manage. And I began mulling over some of things we had discussed at the meeting. The one aspect that bothered me the most was when I had asked if this was something that would go on his record. I thought of all the men recently who have had the bones of their past actions shaken from their closets, the ones that they intentionally hid and covered up. And I thought of how often women become complicit in covering up their actions, including mothers intent on protecting their sons, and I felt an intense wave of disgust rise up through me. I knew then and there that it wasn’t going to be enough for him to have to just live with the experience of being accused, but I wanted him to take full ownership. I also knew I could never be that parent that sacrifices the discomfort of others for the protection of my own. So, I emailed the authorities at school, explained that I wasn’t sure my son really had enough time to self-reflect, asked for an additional day of suspension, and asked that he produce some sort of educational presentation on consent.
That evening, when I arrived home, my son was very unhappy when I told him what I had asked for. But he also seemed to finally understand how deadly serious I was that he must take complete responsibility for what had transpired, and he finally agreed to accompany me to work, in part because we had been asked to return for another meeting at the school the following afternoon. So, the next day, I woke his reluctant soul and forced him to sit in my office without either a phone or his computer, just solid reflection time. Initially, sitting together, we found ourselves falling down a rabbit hole into a sniping argument that was not going to be a win for either of us. And then, I couldn’t hold back the emotion slowly building inside, and I just burst into tears. I wept for having to be immersed in that conversation, and for my son, and having to guide him on foreign territory while feeling like I had no idea what the hell I was doing. Suddenly my son was hugging me, apologizing, and then we began to talk in earnest. We broke down consent even more. I shared my experience of unintentionally sexually harassing someone in college, and how the discomfort I caused is something I carry with me, always, and how it could have affected my life with a much more negative outcome if it weren’t for the educators who cared for me. I explained that it wasn’t that I felt he was a bad person, because for him, the age and timing to make these grand mistakes is when you are cushioned and supported by those who care for you and can steer you in another direction. We discussed how he may have hurt the individual involved, and how a more formal letter apology was necessary. We discussed how differently this would be affecting him if he were already a legal adult, and it had happened in a work or college environment. And most importantly, we discussed ownership versus shame, and how being the one to set the narrative would allow him to display maturation, growth, and repentance.
By the time we walked into the second meeting, my son was a different man. He talked about how he had never intended to hurt another, and felt horrific for it. The vice principal and counselor, also women, along with myself, reiterated how women often minimize their discomfort in these situations as a method of self-preservation. Even though the girl who reported the action had mentioned not wanting to get my son in ‘trouble’, we talked through why that message might not actually mean what she said on the surface. We discussed the educational piece, and he very willingly agreed, and offered, if it was appropriate, to teach his peers. He completely owned up to using social media to proposition someone, and we discussed how gray and blurry the world of technology is when it comes to sex. And we talked about how often the actions of men have been suppressed and ignored, and that particularly during this intersection in time, his willingness to openly own his mistake was the appropriate course.
After listening to my son, and winding our way through the topic thoroughly, the vice principal decided therapy would be sufficient, and that he could return the next day without adding additional suspension. I was satisfied with that. But mostly, despite the circumstances, I was proud of him, and his ability and willingness to deepen his own perspective and to evaluate himself with a critical eye.
Parenting is by far the most difficult, and rewarding, aspect of my life. I love my children with such fervor, and yet they often challenge me to the brink of emotional despair. We can forget to communicate with each other with heart and empathy. But sometimes, if you’re lucky, you find a middle ground, and it’s there that you open a door to understanding one another, and find respect for each other as human people. Most importantly, listening and finding empathy go a tremendously long way to cultivating mutual trust, and with that, a sense of respect and compassion for an opposite perspective.
One reason for sharing this is to let other parents know, especially single mothers, that you are not alone in navigating the extreme challenges that parenting can present. It’s okay for us to go through events such as this, but shame has no place at the table. Don’t agonize over mistakes and moments that feel so overwhelming you want to dig a hole and bury yourself. As one friend put it brilliantly, “We aren’t required to like, just love…They know everything, it’s amazing. And then they figure out they did not in fact know shit. Your job is to keep them alive long enough for that lesson.”
With that, I also want to reinforce how important accountability is for men in the here and now, and how the shifting narrative of culture around consent and behavior has created murky waters where our children need us to help them from drowning as they become adults. We need to be having consistent conversations with our kids, because as society continues to work through an age of women claiming greater power over their bodies, sexuality, and power, the dynamic is constantly morphing, and more than ever, they need us to be the adults they look up to answer their tough questions. This also forces us to examine our own biases and feelings, and to invite necessary change into our own perspectives, and behavior.
All I can say is hang in there. Hug your kids as much as they allow. Listen, and share deeply. Don’t be afraid of judgments or making mistakes. Make accountability an expectation for them always, as well as yourself. Know that sometimes things arise that you can’t control, despite your best efforts to offer your own transparency and wisdom. Keeping them alive, sometimes, is more than enough.
“Tomorrow was created yesterday.......And by the day before yesterday, too. TO IGNORE HISTORY IS TO IGNORE THE WOLF AT THE DOOR.”
― John le Carré, A Most Wanted Man
When I was younger, I was raised to have an instinctual fear of firearms, because they killed women we knew. I was three or four when my mother was tapped to be the executive director of a tri-county domestic violence center in rural Pennsylvania. As her child, I often accompanied her as she grew into her role, one often fraught with fear and anxiety. My mother received death threats for trying to better the lives of battered women, and needing the partnership of the authorities in each county, the men from whom she was often asking cooperation were very often perpetrators. She would travel to colleges and give presentations, showing slides of women no longer recognizable to themselves: puffy and purple, with the confidence literally beaten out of them. I can still move through the images in my mind, they are so ingrained.
Guns also lingered freely in the hands of my grandfather, father, and uncle, all of whom were hunters and alcoholics. My father, a self-proclaimed sportsman, had rifles in his clear, glass gun cabinet, standing tall and intimidating, shiny and dark next to the sinewy, curved bow and razor sharp arrows. They spoke to me of the times when they spit out their bullets into the muscular flesh of deer, piercing their hearts, the pulsating blood eventually slowing to a trickle, the reflection of their eyes fading to a dull sheen. He kept the stuffed head of one of them, its glass eyes empty, the horns brittle, the fur coarse and golden. Examining its massive skull, I understood from a young age that the spirit departs and leaves behind its temporary home, a mere shell. I also understood that the deer’s soul had not parted with its temple willingly, and that cold, molded steel played a role in surrendering the breath of the living. My father at least had the decency to lock the frail cabinet doors, the molten sand quivering when shut, providing a tiny speck of comfort that the cold barrels were under lock and key, however false.
With my grandfather and uncle, guns were a more constant threat. They were located throughout my grandparents’ house, and often trotted out when one of them had been imbibing, upping the ante on the nervousness already surrounding their tumultuous relationship. Every time we went camping as a family, weapons were the undesired members who always managed to show up. I was taught by my grandfather to shoot a B.B. gun, to hold the long barrel balanced in my palm, my eye trained to gauge the distance and line up my potential target, an empty can of generic soda. My finger learned to pull the trigger, listening for soft ‘pfop’ as the b.b. would tear through the surface of the frail aluminum, marring its colorful skin. I would do this over and over, moving down a line of cans perched on ragged tree stumps, each slightly off center, and only made less even by the constant impact that warped their bodies. I can remember the rush when I would hit the target exactly where I had aimed, feeling a sense of accomplishment for my steady hands. And then one trip, I accidentally hit a bird, forever silencing its song, and I recognized that my hands had no right to hold such life detracting power. After that, I put the gun down for good. I still dream of the shatter of its voice, how its notes perfumed the air, and then evaporated into quietude with the pull of my finger.
While my grandfather was a philosophical drunk who mostly wanted to talk about god, Montaigne, and existentialism after swigging his forbidden, hidden vodka, he consistently picked at my uncle when intoxicated. As my uncle grew older and began drinking himself, this often ended in savage eruptions, harsh words thrown at each other across the small kitchen, the anger then flowing over and out into the backyard, where I witnessed the violence grown men were truly capable of as they pummeled their meaty fists into each other’s face. To this day, boxing makes my stomach churn, a constant reminder of their bruised and bloodied knuckles, lips doubled in size, and purple splotches that eventually faded, taking evidence of their bloodshed into invisibility.
My uncle, especially, made me nervous as he aged, and it became clear that he likely suffered from some form of mental illness that seemed largely ignored by those closest to him, or perhaps I was just shielded by secrecy. His world began to crumble in high school when he discovered that a woman he loved had suffered a horribly traumatic past, and she left him, his heart in tatters. He attempted to go to college but had trust issues with his roommates, who didn’t recognize boundaries and consistently robbed him of his food and possessions, and he returned after one semester. Eventually, he enlisted in the Marines, but walked away during a field exercise, going AWOL. I remember the sheriff’s car speeding down the road to my grandparents’ house to pick him up after he had found his way home from South Carolina as I stood outside playing in the garden. He was removed in handcuffs, head down, defeated. Somehow, he was given an honorable discharge, but spent the rest of his life living at home, with hardly any friends save my grandmother, seemingly a brutal byproduct of PTSD, addiction, and trauma that remained unresolved. Yet, he had his guns to keep him company. He quit drinking for a long spell and seemed to improve. He found employment where his loyalty seemed to pay off, and he finally seemed to be creeping from his self-imposed shell. He made a couple of friends. Still, there would be awkward moments when he would laugh to himself for no reason, or, when feeling anxious, he would snap his fingers over and over, often increasing the frenetic rhythm. It instilled a fear in me that I could never shake, and there was always, and still lingers, a sense that he should never be angered. When he again took up alcohol later in life, he slowly began retreating once more into himself.
When my grandmother died suddenly from an aneurysm, my uncle was devastated, and I remember my mother’s anxious concern that he was staying at the house, alone, surrounded by firepower and the ability to join his mother with a mere twitch of his finger. It was the first time I can remember anyone in my family vocalizing what I had always felt: he should not be someone trusted with weapons. My family, always good at burying the darkness, never uttered these unspoken fears, maybe never wanting to believe that he might be capable of any destruction, despite signs to the contrary. Although he has never injured anyone, the mere possibility feels too real for me to assuage my fears and pretend it didn’t (or doesn't) exist.
I am stymied by how little has changed, as I have grown, when it comes to our fallacy that guns are merely innocent bystanders. That they don’t infuse the hands that cradle them with a godlike, drunken power that enables men to communicate their fury in death. When mixed with rage, and a select sense of white, male injustice, that sense of authority and control becomes deadly, and the metal machinery accompanying becomes no less than a direct accomplice. It feels unreal that we continue to treat these horrific moments of bloodshed and violence as if they should be weaved into our collective narrative, another trauma to bury alongside other denials, such as slavery and native genocide. By ignoring historical travesties, by continuing to shun the crisis of domestic violence, and refusing to deal with the mental health plight we have created, we have now set the stage whereby younger, white, men, modeling what our society has repeatedly both glorified and suppressed, have turned their sights onto our most innocent. It is no secret that many domestic abusers suffer from mental illness, and that mass shootings are often linked to offenders with a history of domestic or family violence. They are not isolated incidents of single, affected men who have merely gone over the edge. It is a clear case of us now reaping what we have sown by disregarding the historical roots of these increased incidents of savagery.
When I taught in documentary film program with AmeriCorps in Pittsburgh ten years ago, I worked with adjudicated youth who often had gang affiliations and lived in some of the more desolate, and brutal, sections of the city. My first group did a film about African American homicide, which was framed by police brutality and gang violence. We filmed in sections of the city that, a decade later, are still rife with nightly shootings and extreme violence, exacerbated by unresolved poverty and racism, such as Homewood. Often my students would come in after school and talk about the shootings in the neighborhoods they lived in, the sound of bullets echoing through the deserted streets at night, the repetitive trauma building a callousness to the shock. Yet, it wasn’t until I worked in the public school system in Santa Fe that I learned about keeping a bucket in my classroom in case my students had to urinate or defecate during a lock-down, and I while I felt uneasy in certain situations in my previous role, I never had a moment where I outright felt unsafe.
Working in a middle school here, we were taught to prepare for the worst in all scenarios, but never has it seemed a more real possibility. The immature suggestion of conservatives that teachers carry responsibility as a first line of defense by packing firearms in the classroom does nothing to stem the cultural bleed that implies that our children are not as worthy as the metal so many long to carry in their hands. It is horrendous to recognize that many teachers go to work daily, saying good bye to their own families, knowing they might need to choose between being a human shield casualty that leaves their own kin devastated, or allowing innocent children to perish at the hands of reckless, violent, and white men.
My heart feels waves of desolation and the ache of helplessness. When my ten-year-old comes home, somber, and asks me when he can expect someone to come and shoot at his school, and I am left speechless in how to reply, because I now know it is a possibility. When my five-year-old daughter details step by step what actions are taken during a lock-down. When I drop my children off at school and take as many extra seconds as I can to linger on their faces as I drive away, the heart restless and uncomfortable, because you just never know if it’s for the last time. For all those parents, whose babies will never come home again, the ghost children who became mere memories after leaving their homes in the morning, and especially for those who had the audacity to believe their children would be safe and didn’t have the chance to say goodbye.
Like the brave, student survivors who have risen to the occasion, fueled by righteous fury, we should all be called to act. Support students walking out of classrooms and protesting, or let’s do one better, and encourage the entire country to strike until those in power, who have financially bartered in the currency of innocent blood, get the message that we will no longer tolerate the anguish, fear, and loss that their greed has wrought. Strike until concrete changes are made that strive to end domestic violence, treat mental illness, and gun control is enacted that prevents the horrendous cycle of mass shootings in our schools that are becoming as commonplace and comfortable in our psyche as our other historical moments of shame.
I can’t believe that we are allowing the slaughter of our future, body by body.
I can’t believe my uncle still has his guns.
February 14, 2018
Dear Phenomenal You,
This love letter to my inner goddess, the brilliant and beautiful soul that inhabits my brilliant and beautiful body, is long overdue.
I don’t say it near enough, but I love you. I mean, I really fucking love YOU.
You have survived so much during your time here on earth, the tiny blip that it may be in view of the lifespan of the universe. There has been so much to overcome, and heal. The scars that litter your soul are tattoed reminders that life often brings us challenges of endurance that test our capacity for love and its limitations. Yet, despite so many trials and tribulations you are still standing, and our heart wants to give the ovation you deserve. For remaining open. For never sacrificing your ability to love in the face of adversity.
For all the times you have felt like the world could not hold you, with your dreams and ambition so large, or the moments when you have felt as though you were a mere imposter. In reality, you are a mystical, magical, gorgeous, energetic wave of triumph and joy that not everyone can handle. As you settle into these bones, feeling more and more at home with who you are rather than what people expect you to be, you have become more at peace with letting those who don’t recognize your awesomeness go their own way. That process has been long and arduous, fret with misgivings, insecurity, and dread. But I am proud of how you stand now like a woman who has come into her own, sans apology, and holds the sacred ground she’s grown from with strength, dignity, and confidence. You have become adept at showing those without reverence for all you are how to find the door and walk themselves out, without regret.
I’m proud that you have found value in learning to give to yourself, and that you are not afraid to be alone (in fact, you seem to embrace it). You have learned to recognize that independence and self-dedication are incredible gifts, and that loneliness is mostly contrived from social expectation. After two marriages and countless relationships where your giving heart couldn’t help but put your significant other in the spotlight, it feels wonderful to bask in the glow of your own attention. You have learned that anyone who wants to be invited into your heart or bed must be nothing less spectacular than yourself, and just as generous. And now you discern that companionship, romance, and partnership are not a goal, but merely something to augment everything beautiful that is already there, and if it happens, how lovely. But if not, you are just as content to enjoy life on your own terms, on your own. There is nothing that can complete you when you are already the entire package wrapped in silver lame, and more.
If I had one wish for you, it would be for greater gentility when you fail. Understand the growth that comes from not always getting what you want, and how it can form and shape you in a direction you may have never considered. How failure can be your best friend because it means you aren’t afraid to gamble and risk, and the achievement of picking yourself up time, and time again, is an act of the highest form of love. It means you give yourself undying permission to be imperfect, and that you have come to a place where you believe in yourself so much that you can’t imagine not betting on your own house. You’ve become a high roller in the spirit of your own existence. Stop being so hard on yourself. The only expectations you should strive to meet in this life are your own.
Enjoy the body you work so hard to maintain and keep well. Let the sweat that burns from the inside out be the heat that fans your desire and motivation. Have the most incredible sex you could dream of, explore your sensuality to its utmost, and experience orgasms that quake you from head to toe. Don’t give time or attention to those who can’t, or won’t, put the same time and effort into making you feel good that you would put into yourself. And enjoy traversing your body on your own time and terms, so you know intimately what makes your tick, and exactly what you want and crave.
You are full of laughter, and joy. Dreamy. Intelligent. Funny. You are kind, brilliant, and carry a vibrant lust for life that is contagious. You are light, and love, and all things you always hoped you would become, because you always were.
May you always rock fishnets like it’s nobody’s business until you die.
May you know you are the phantasmagoric brought to life.
that I am unlovable.
the throat clenching gasp that who i am may never feel enough, as if i am an unglazed, clay vase that cannot hold enough water to quench the flowers, freshly cut and thirsty, because so much evaporates into the sunset.
the creeping dread that who i feel i am is not how you see me. that my strength is invisible and unwanted, that the passion that dwells below the surface, pulsing and radiating, goes ignored.
or i go beyond enough. too much. too vocal, too direct, too honest, too focused. feeling that i must dial myself back, make myself smaller for the comfort of others, shrinking the best parts of me so that i will not seem like more than what they can manage.
this vibrancy of my being, the range of my mind, the sea of all that is mine and beautiful is not a place where people feel they can swim without drowning.
the angst that despite all that i encompass, all the beauty I know flourishes, i will feel empty without the reflection of myself in the eyes of another to feel complete.
the scars of two divorces i cannot erase, hanging in the ethos, haunting…the ghosts of failure circling, longing for company.
It’s a date. It’s not a date. You’ve known them for seven years. You just met them five minutes ago. You met on Tinder. In a coffee shop. At school. In the library. In line at CVS.
You’re unsure she wants what you want.
You’re single. Taken. Married. Divorced. An ethical non-monogamist. Woman. Man. Trans. All the various spectrums in between.
You want to wrap your arms around her, feel the soft flesh connect with your own.
Her lips-plump, skinny, fat, soft, moist- are all you can stare at, and you fantasize the feeling of them setting fire to your own.
Her hand, strong but feminine, sits empty and you imagine your fingers grasping it tight.
Your fingers long to graze or stroke the plane of her body, mapping muscles and flesh.
Her voice trembles, shakes, or seems unsure. She says nothing at all. She speaks with authority.
You want to touch her right there _________. Her body screams say ‘yes’, but her actions and eyes yell ‘no’. She smiles, seems relaxed. Or she moves your hand without a word.
The aroma of her perfume clouds your head in desire, and you feel stirred.
Her skin is butter soft, and your fingertips long to explore every inch. Slowly. With ferocity. Delicate. Sweet. Starved.
You want her to touch right here _______. She keeps moving your hand away from where you want to place her. She moves her hand or mouth there by telepathy. Or she just holds your hand.
She wears fishnets and you want to draw the circles on her thighs with your hand. She wears jeans and you want to trace the seam of her calf with your fingertip. She wears shorts and you want to rub the crest of her knees. She wears nothing at all, and you want your hands everywhere.
You are 99.9% sure she wants what you want.
Dear Audre Lorde,
I have been reading your essay The Uses of the Erotic repeatedly lately, hoping to find it, perhaps, a salve to the burning wound that so many women, such as myself, continue to suffer and endure in society today. On the heels of nationwide women’s marches, your words feel ever more relevant today, and yet I can’t help but feel the disappointment you would share with me if you were still walking this earth, knowing that despite our forward movement in so many spheres, where the erotic is concerned, in some areas, little seems to have changed.
One of tenants you speak of regards the erotic as an element of joy, the sense of finding such happiness in the acts of living and being. I am not sure that women are any happier since your essay first appeared in 1981. Certainly, we have created for ourselves, through persistence and advocacy, more opportunity, albeit some of it afforded by men as a pacifier, yet we still seem to struggle with the power of the erotic as a form of existence. Instead, we become stretched thinner and thinner by the multitude of responsibilities and expectations placed upon our shoulders from the various roles we are called to engage: daughter, sister, lover, mother, friend. All these hats, none interchangeable, perch precariously upon our psyche, as the depth of requirements to be successful at each has widened.
In addition to being pulled in a multitude of personal directions, we also have not yet reached equilibrium in the workforce. As the economy sits stagnant, women bear the brunt, continuing to make less than their male counterparts, creating a vicious cycle of feeling that we must work harder just to be considered as capable as those who do the same job. It feels surreal to know these things, and yet watch nothing being done, even as we continue to ask for fairness.
Another you speak of is the erotic as a source of feminine power, not just sexual, although that too continues to feel taboo in a world where it is considered indecent to watch a woman bare a breast to feed her child, even as we drive down highways with plastered billboards of 90 foot women scantily clad in lingerie. This disconnect feels as powerful as ever. Our divine right to our feminine continues to suffer from oppression, as men insist on claiming a majority share of power for themselves, occasionally opening the door to throw us a bone, thinking this will pacify the simmering desire, quietly building, to regain what is rightfully ours. Their fear of the feminine overtaking the hyper-testosterone laden society we have endured for so long overshadows any capacity to witness how healing and inclusive feminism strives to be.
I think you would be pleased to see that the sands of politics seem to be slowly drifting in our favor, but we will likely only reach this untapped potential when we recognize that we can no longer uplift and perpetuate the current male models of leadership that are divisive, only hoping to break in and swim with the sharks. Rather, we need our own paradigm, one that embraces the strength of the erotic and brings into the fold diverse voices that are being marginalized, particularly in communities of color. We need women who want to run for office with compassion and inclusiveness, not merely mimicking the male successors she is striving to overcome. Instead, we should be backing women who understand these principles and shun the notion that politics, or any arena, must be a continuation of the male influence that came before, and pave a new path that allows for shared ideas, knowledge, and compassion for our communities. The old ways employed to break ground can no longer sustain the weight of the challenges that we face, and it is time to move to sturdier pastures.
I long to touch the depths of such passion that the erotic brings, affording the knowledge and grace that who we currently are as women is but a fraction of our potential. That for all the for five steps into the future, we often still find ourselves gradually, and often invisibly, guided back three, only to begin again believing we are gaining momentum when we still often concede in our ‘best interests’. Many women continue to support the same structure of power built by men, for men, in the hopes that they will recognize us on their own as equals, when we should be consolidating to burn down their faulty towers and rebuild our own, based on all that the erotic offers: balanced power, happiness, and pleasured derived from all areas of our lives, not just snippets and scraps.
It is my hope for women that I am not reflecting on this topic again, in another 37 years, and longing for the same eroticism to enter our lives and allow us to reach our full promise, or that we continue to struggle with conveying our deepest desires and needs, and still find areas of our life unfulfilled and lagging. I dream of a world where women are placid in every possible realm: we have careers where our immeasurable talents are esteemed, and we are truly recognized by those fortunate enough to be in our orbits. I fantasize that our society acknowledges the pillars of humanity we are, and builds upon those by providing more than adequate supports that allow us to be our best mothers, lovers, sisters, friends, and selves. That we are revered, rather than rebuked, abused, oppressed or negated. I aspire for us to have our moment of reckoning, drawing the force within us to counteract and overcome all that we have suffered and endured.
Mostly, Audre, I yearn for all that I know I am to be in the light of day, and for that awakening and naked truth be a source of comfort and peace, rather than fear and intimidation. And of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t say I have my heart set on incredible, consensual, ethereal sex, and the reverence of my feminine spirit in its act. Yet that is but a drop in the bucket of what eroticism envelops and what we deserve. I hope, just as you did, for so much.
May I get all we have both desired.
I’ve been asking myself that very question for several months now, as I debate whether to keep my ‘married’ name or return to my ‘maiden’ name. I feel at a loss, because the connection to either is bittersweet at best, and disgruntled at worst. My maiden name, Wyble (why-bl) was handed to me via my birth certificate, my father laying claim to me as his seed. I’ve never loved it, suffering through years of elementary and middle school where it was mispronounced on accident and on purpose, or where it was skewed into a form of teasing torment. My relationship with my father is just as complicated, including an almost ten year stretch where we didn’t speak, and very little (once yearly) communication now. There is not much we see eye to eye on: him, a born-again conservative that shuns evolution, and me, the-progressive-as you-can-get, socialist agnostic. The thought of the weight of his name, and our relationship, feels too heavy to return to that appellation.
When I met my second husband, and we decided to get married, I was delighted to take his name, mostly to escape the former. Baldwin. Simple and easy to pronounce, and it flowed with my first name. It’s the name of my younger children, and connects me to them. But it is also a permanent, invisible tie to my now ex-husband, and the thought of sharing anything with him, including his name, is highly unappetizing. It makes me feel like a part of myself still belongs to him, while I am working to reestablish myself as my own person. As if, as I evolve, he hangs precariously above, reminding me how little I gave to myself during our marriage. It is a constant symbol of broken promises, heartache, and disappointment that leaves a lingering, bitter taste in my mouth when I say it out loud, as if I gargled lemons and vinegar.
Women seem to get the short end of the stick when it comes to names, and the expectations of legacy. Many of us are indoctrinated with our father’s names, only to surrender it in the future for marriage, with another man laying claim through his moniker. I admire women who consider that possibility when pondering their nuptials, and say no. But it still doesn’t diminish the rights many of our fathers lay on our heads by extending us their names, and the baggage that comes with them.
Names inform who we are, who we are meant to be. We develop kinship with our names, attachments to what they represent and how we self-identify. I find it repulsive that the practice of women taking their husband’s last name was originated with the concept of erasing the wife: only the husband was recognized, so women melted into the background by taking a given name, marking them as property. It wasn’t until 1972 that women could even legally use their ‘maiden’ names.
So for us women who have been marked by our fathers, and then excised through marriage: if we prefer neither, where does that leave us? A special name purgatory where we can neither our chosen selves, nor wish to be what others have projected onto to us?
I am contemplating choosing my own last name, something I love, that resonates with me, and me alone, despite the headache the paperwork would bring. A word that defines who I feel I am, and who I hope to become. For me, that would be something bold, and risqué, and larger than life. Or perhaps I could follow in the footsteps of Prince, and just delete the surname, going only by my forename. At the least it would be clear who I put first. It would be clear to whom, exactly, I belong, and whom I answer to: no one except my dynamic, warrior self.
The world is full of grey, hues and distinctions that we aren’t always taught to navigate with poise and ease. Perspective is a huge part of how we regard the encounters that we negotiate, and how we gain such viewpoints comes largely from what we see and hear, what is modeled for us day in and out by our families, friends, and the media that engulfs us in the present day. It is a tricky business to watch the world around you project certain images and notions, yet then be told that you are responsible for ignoring what they teach. Yet, I feel like this is what we ask women to do over, and over, and over, again.
We are surrounded by films and books that show romance and love as almost violent forces that we may or may not be able to control: the man sweeping a woman into his arms, then leaning forward to kiss her, because she didn’t know that she wanted THIS. I feel like much of what we are indoctrinated to believe sex should be carries elements of this model. I believe that men have been taught that women may not know what they want, and so it is their job to lead us to the possibilities, even if they must do so with an element of force. On the other hand, women seem to be taught that we don’t know what is best for ourselves and our physical forms, which is perpetuated not just through the barrage of media and art forms that reinforce this code, but also through decades of medical practices, particularly around birth, that leave us without truly having a say over what happens to our bodies.
But this post is about Aziz Ansari, and the muddled actions that have hotly been debated, because of a controversial article posted on Babe that has outed him as a guilty party in sexual assault. I have read the original article several times, a few rebuttals, and a few that have taken a wider view of introspection to discuss the culture around sexual norms. My favorite twitter post this week captured the heart of how I feel:
If we are talking about perception, which seems to be the main issue, and if we are going to be real with ourselves, then we are talking about centuries of ingrained misogyny that tells men they do not have to be responsible for not only the pleasure of their partners, but for their comfort and safety. One article talked about Ansari only being guilty of not reading minds, and how this was just a bad ‘date’. I think any date where someone gives a name to a physical maneuver that another is continually attempting to use on one’s body in a fondling attempt (‘the claw’) goes beyond ‘bad’. There is a disconnect that goes larger than just missing ‘cues’. And it goes beyond women being taught to say no, or excuse themselves, or have ‘cab’ money at the ready, as another article suggested, along with claiming that women are ‘dangerous’ at this moment in #metoo for discussing such messy conditions. We have ignored for too long the emotional burdens and responsibilities that women have shouldered that require us to learn the cues of others, because that is the hallmark of nurturing. You cannot take care of people if you cannot read into the things they don’t say (parenthood is rife with these puzzles). Men, I feel, have abdicated much of this to their female counterparts, to their detriment. So if we can recognize that our perceptions are not matched, why are we not talking about it, rather than assigning blame to women?
What this article brought was a revelation to women that we have been living with assault and categorizing it as other things we ‘just need to live with’. ‘Bad’ dates are just something we should power through as we search for whatever it is we are seeking. It revealed that women feel that it’s not only okay for a woman to be subjected to treatment where she felt uncomfortable and gave uncomfortable signs with her body, and felt obligated to perform acts that she wasn’t really into, but that it’s seemingly a rite of passage. And even worse, not only should we just accept these awful realities as something ‘normal’, but we should defend the men who perpetuate them.
For me, #metoo is supposed to do exactly what it is doing right now: calling into question practices and beliefs around sex, harassment, assault, and gender inequalities that we are not comfortable admitting, never mind discussing. The fact that the woman in the article felt doubt as to whether she was assaulted and had to seek outside validation tells us an enormous amount about how the confidence women feel in society believing them. And the articles that defend Ansari are a testimony to such distrust, and I applaud Babe for sticking to its guns and publishing what they felt was right.
But where do we go from here, now that the water is murky, and we are in areas that no longer display strict polarities?
First, I want to hear from men, who have been auspiciously silent on this topic. Every article I have read dissecting this issue has been written by a woman. I feel that silence has a lot to do with fear that they have participated in such behavior themselves, and don’t want to reflect and/or admit such things. In addition, the leadership they need to have conversations among themselves seems lacking right now. But someone needs to step up, because SILENCE IS COMPLICITY. Men need to be vocal, and we need to hear from you what you can, and want, to do to help change the dynamic. It isn’t just about poor behavior that men might not have been aware of, but its perpetuation. What are your responsibilities? If you don’t feel you can read signals, how about a conversation around consent, and checking in? I personally am growing tired of the argument that consent removes romance and spontaneity from the sexual narrative. What it eliminates is ambiguity and confusion. Consent can be the sexiest move a partner can make. A partner who has enough forethought and consideration to ask me permission to kiss me, or touch me, or check in to make sure I am feeling comfortable, while creating a safe space where I can be honest about what I want, is completely alluring. Consent is hot and titillating, and if women feel they are losing something by giving up such autonomy over their bodies, and men feel they are losing something because they relinquish a certain element of sexual control, then I feel some self-reflection is long overdue on both sides. Where did we get the notion that our bodies are not our own? Where did you learn that women want a man who ‘takes control’? When did you become aware that sex is for the 'taking'? Where have these ideals sprung from? What has been modeled? What have you seen or heard?
Second, please stop shaming women for coming forward with stories that challenge the narratives we have woven for ourselves. Stop telling women they must do more than they are already doing. We have enough on our plates from all the other roles society has handed down to us that we shouldn’t have to worry that men can’t be responsible enough to cultivate an atmosphere of respect and comfort when it comes to intimacy. Stop victim shaming and blaming acts that women have experienced that cause you discomfort because of a permissiveness you displayed that you might have been conditioned to believe was a ‘norm’. Let go of the notion that women should have to accept such behavior, or that women are not worthy of being heard and supported because they acted differently in a moment that you might have considered acting. If you are vocalizing that you do not want to participate in something sexual, and you are physically indicating such, and you go home crying and feeling like you need to seek refuge in a shower, there has been an element of assault. What we need to start talking about are the invisible ways we are assaulted: the mental, verbal, spiritual, and societal ways we are sometimes coerced into doing things that we want to say ‘no’ to but lack the language and confidence to navigate. It is not always so simple as to state that a man did not physically force himself, and so there was no ‘harm’. There other ways of intimidation and abuse in our society that we continually ignore, and we need to begin to hear each other and discuss how to rebuild our sexual landscapes in ways that we feel heard and listened, and feel safe.
Third, to my artist friends, literary writers, dramatic writers, and all those who have a direct influence on the images we create and place in this world for others to soak in and digest: we need to begin to create the stories and images that shape what we want our sexual topography to look like. Write bold, female characters that embrace sex scenes where consent is a part of the narrative, and men that support those women. Envision the ideal of how both men, women, and those who identify in the spaces between, should be treated, and create THAT. We need new media, art, and literature that emboldens us to strive for what we should want, not what we have been conditioned to believe.
Lastly, please reflect on how you learned what romance, love, and sex should be. What did you grow up witnessing in adult relationships? On television? Movie posters? Music? How have you been taught to react to those you attracted to, and how you been taught to approach intimacy with them? What can you change? What is your responsibility to your sexual self, those you engage with sexually, and the community at large? How would you like things changed for your own children or future generations? How can we create dialogues? Who can be the leaders to bring others together for constructive dialogue? What are the disparities faced across economic, racial, and gender lines that may need more support and more action? How can we work to uplift everyone so that we can all feel sexually safe?
I understand things aren’t going to change overnight, because changing an entire culture takes the energy and participation of a majority, and often one that is sometimes slow and unwilling to join the cause. While there definitely seems to be generational differences in what women should feel they should tolerate or not, and what men may feel they should be responsible for or not, change is inevitable, and once the dragon is woke, we can no longer pretend that we are unaware of the ways that we have been influenced by our environments and the detrimental effects of their impact. Instead, we should strive for creation of terrain that serves us equally, and allows us to utilize communication and respect over force and blame. The grey should not frighten us, or have us begging for dichotomy. Rather, we should we welcome what it is allowing us to uncover, and its provocation to redefine what sex and gender equality means in our relationships. It is an invitation to expose ALL the ways we have been hurt and traumatized, not just the obvious forms, and with that, a way to seek healing and justice, both long overdue.