Monday, December 28, 2009

The Velvet Bag

I drew this word in a Scrabble game last night. I came this close to finally, finally winning and beating my verbally superior but incredibly graceful fiance. His defense always thwarts me.

It came out of the bag like this, people. A word worth 25 points, not including the double word score I had my eye on. I wouldn't have gotten the 50-point Bonus for using all my letters, (there was already an "N" on the board) but still.

We purchased a Peanuts Monopoly game over Christmas, and called the first game due to fatigue. But believe you me, I'm coming for his ass. It's cute and all, but I'm takin' it down...

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

my favorite memory from my freshman year roommate:

The Christmas Song by Dave Matthews: blaring out of my speakers as my car winds through Southeast Indiana and Southwest Ohio. *sigh*

She was his girl; he was her boyfriend
She be his wife; take him as her husband
A surprise on the way, any day, any day
One healthy little giggling, dribbling baby boy
The wise men came three made their way
To shower him with love, while he lay in the hay
Shower him with love love love
Love love love
Love love is all around

Not very much of his childhood was known
Kept his mother Mary worried Always out on his own
He met another Mary, who for a reasonable fee,
Less than Reputable as known to be
His heart was full of love love love
Love love love
Love, love is all around

When Jesus Christ was nailed to the his tree,
Said "oh, Daddy-o I can see how it all soon will be.
I came to she'd a little light on this darkening scene,
Instead I fear I spill the blood of my children all around"
The blood of our children all around
The blood of our children all around
The blood of our children all around

So I'm told, so the story goes,
The people he knew were less than golden hearted:
Gamblers and robbers,
Drinkers and jokers, all soul searchers
Like you and me, like you and me.

Rumors insisited he soon would be
For his deviations, taken into custody
by the authorities less informed than he.
Drinkers and jokers, All soul searchers
Searching for love love love
Love love love
Love, love is all around

Preparations were made for a celebration day.
He said, "Eat this bread and think of it as me.
Drink this wine and dream it will be
The blood of our children all around."
The blood of our children's all around,
The blood of our children all around.

Father up above, why with all this hatred do you fill Me up with love?
Fill me love love love
Love love love
Love, love
And the blood of our children all around.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Under the sofa between the dust bunnies

I was determined to go to church on this Sunday, the Sunday before Christmas. I am an absolute sucker for ritual, and my sweetheart and I have been attending several worship houses intermittently. I have a MOUNTAIN of student work to sort through before turning in my grades, our apartment is a wreck, I just started Christmas shopping--that I can't afford-- and my partner, the guy who makes all this bearable, well he just got on a plane bound for his family. So I'm tackling all this by myself, on top of which missing him makes me achy.

But I love the Sunday before Christmas, the Sunday around that holiday. It always feels especially holy, as if it kind of twinkles with sacred mystery. It gives me goosebumps and makes it hard for me to breathe. The winter I find pretty bleak, but Christmastime is positively electric. The days are so short; the magic of darkness at four in the afternoon is wild to me. It's playing havoc with my body clock certainly: I've taken to falling asleep at nine, sometimes seven thirty, depending on when I've eaten dinner. It's not so good. But now that I have the time to begin to think about Christmastime, I'm stunned.

I don't mean to be cheesy. I am absolutely sincere when I say that the wonder, the mystery, the magic of Christmas blows my mind. It doesn't matter to me at all that we observe in December a birth that probably took place in April. It doesn't matter that Israel looks nothing like the Midwest, and all the other reasons people give to pale and temper this holiday. It's still pretty amazing. The birth of one man to a newlywed who'd as yet not lost her virginity in the middle of a pretty fierce tax audit, in the desert. A birth that brought shepherds out of the fields and three strangers from corners of the world to gaze on a whiny, wrinkled baby. The greatest revolutionary the world has ever known born more than two thousand years ago, and the world still celebrates his birth. That means something. The dark and the cold of the season, it makes me want to hole up in a candlelit stone chapel and bathe in the angelic voices echoing off the walls. On my knees, the wooden kneeler biting through the worn denim of my jeans, I can see my breath in cloudy devoted wisps around my head, reverently observing rituals that are meaningful to me, even though I'm not catholic.

So the church we've been worshipping at is nothing like this, nothing whatever, but nevertheless, I wanted to be there. It was the Sunday before Christmas. This desire for worship, combined with the absence of My Favorite, it makes me thirsty: a thirst I can feel under my right lung, insistent, muscular. I wanted to feed it.

But there was so much to do. Tires needed rotating, presents had to be bought and baked and constructed, not to mention an interesting book serving as a brilliant distraction. A cherished guest for dinner tonight that I had to prepare for: all these things stood between me and the front door of church, and ultimately they were effective. I didn't go. And yet I was still thirsty.

So what did I do? I put on a Nat King Cole Christmas album and cleaned my apartment, in preparation of guest and my forthcoming departure for family. Nat King Cole is the clearest and most resonant Christmas memory I have. His sacred music is full of that wonder and mystery that this time holds for me. O Holy Night makes me want to cry every single time I hear it.

Of course, the dangerous thing about putting Nat King Cole on, is that once the supernatural infatuation wears off, I'm left enjoying his voice and wanting to hear more of it. "Stardust" is a wonderful song, but lacks some of what I'm talking about.

At any rate, I'm learning this holiday season that God is hiding in a number of places, and not just the places where I always thought. In the faces of dead plants, and between the petals of orchids. Behind my toilet. I'm grateful for this, his ability to be both large and small enough to find me.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

How does your garden grow?

Yesterday, my sweetheart took me to the Chicago Botanic Gardens to walk around and look at the Christmas lights and decorations. It was a big surprise, to spend the afternoon and evening wandering around in below freezing temperatures looking mostly and sprawling gardens that--obvious by the overwhelming number of yellow, brown, drooping dead things--was dormant for the winter. But I'd been well prepped, and so was bundled to the teeth, literally, and was as warm as I could be.

Arm in arm, we walked under trellises, covered with twiggy, bare vines, and over bridges, stretching over still water, resting under a rime of crisp, warped ice. We dropped a leaf over the edge, wondering what would happen, and watched, nonplussed, as the leaf rested gently on top, without fanfare or impact.

"We need something heavier," he said. "Here, gimme your boot."

I was able to keep both boots, and we snuck into a greenhouse in the fruit and veggie garden that was still growing a few fruit trees and some edible herbs. After which, we went into the Regenstein Center and looked at three different greenhouses: a temperate one, suitable for houseplants; an arid one, chock-a-block with succulents and cacti; and a tropical one, boasting banana trees (yes, they did, about the length of your finger, and still very green) and orchids.

Overhead there were these giant balls suspended from the ceiling, burgeoning with phaleanopsis orchids. They didn't have much in the way of smell, but were incredibly striking to see. The greenhouse was peopled with insects really good at not being seen, that chirped and cricketed away to one another. Evidently, the tropical greenhouse is overrun by one kind of bug, so the horticulturalists have introduced its predator into the greenhouse to fight the infestation. Chatty little guys.

By the time we got out of the greenhouse, the sun had fairly well gone down, but we continued to walk. We discovered that the park wasn't quite as well lit as we'd expected. We walked down a gravel path, flanked on either side by large sculpted trees, arms ever stretching to the sky, yet utterly naked, and managed to climb stairs, up, up, up, to another section of the Gardens. We discovered it to be the Dwarf Conifer Garden, thanks to the flashlighting powers of his cell phone. After a short time whispering and joking in the dark, we came down again, walked back down this path. It was dreamy, walking this path, surrounded by bare branches. This time at its end sat the body of one of the greenhouses, white and red and green and blurry, cut by the lines of panes and the lines of branches, like a giant stained glass window. We went out to the car to get our picnic dinner, ate in the Garden's cafe, and then drove home, lapsing into large bouts of silence, considering the coming holiday.

Winter is such a difficult time for me. The winding down of fall makes me genuinely sad, the time of indoor activities and harvesting what's grown so it doesn't waste, the time of rain and gray and cold and snow. I've never enjoyed the autumn. My sweetheart loves the bright days, crisp like the first bite of raw apple with colors as sharp and sweet, but I know that the sunless sleep of winter is coming, so I always enjoy with a heavy heart. It was a real treat to walk among things that were growing, in warm steamy rooms and know that even in the winter we can make green and fertile and beauty, too.

More than that, though, I have recently found myself frustrated, to the point of pervasive irritation, with what I perceive to be a decided lack of growth in my life. I feel recently like I am in the same place where I was a year ago: like my writing process, despite its greater mass of material, bigger bank of words written, continues to lack the structure and focus I will need to sustain any kind of writing career. My teaching career is a continual, desperate clawing at the industry, one that wants teachers desperately, but will only employ them after a certain level of critical validation. Even my yoga practice, despite my newly-found-but-seldom-practiced headstand, feels in the same place: I'm more aware of the imbalance in my body, but this hip and that shoulder are as tight as they ever were, and are content to remain there.

I'm not ignoring perhaps one of the most significant changes in my life: I'm engaged to a man this year that I wasn't last year. I'm a committed partner this year. I have this relationship stretching before me, its track running parallel to that of my own, and last year none of that was certain. It's not for nothing; it's amazing growth. But it's not the sole thing I can hang my hat on. I'm more than my honey's partner: I'm also an artistic being, and a physical being and a spiritual one, and my sweetheart can do a lot, but encompass all of these things, he cannot. (And thank God for that.)

Here's what I learned yesterday, walking through this dead garden: Nature moves in cycles. There are times when things rise, burst and blossom, times when they ripen and mellow and seduce, times when they harvest, and times when they rest. The hibernation of a plant is critical to that plant's ability to be able to grow. It must have the winter so that the spring can again be beautiful. I was put in mind of how 150 years ago, our lives were governed by the sun, by the turning of the world and the seasons of the year. How modern we've become to be able to fight the elements, to bring sun indoors in order to work when we should be resting. But is this the thing we need, is it what's good for us? I am fighting the idea that there is something happening inside me that is utterly unmeasurable: I want results. But now may be the time of the work happening on such a deep, imperceptible level that I can't measure it. This work is as important as the work of what can be seen. If I don't do it, maybe the blossom in the spring won't be, or won't be as genuine, or as fantastic as it could be otherwise. I have to let myself look static and dead on the outside for this season, regardless of what's happening around me, regardless of how I feel inside. Without the stillness and the rest, there can be no movement.

None of this makes the stasis of where I feel now easier to bear. But it makes it meaningful. I don't know if it's particularly Christmas-y, what I'm saying. I know that at this time of year I get really reflective, and January holds this giant upsweep of forward moving energy for me. But for now, I just have to try and be comfortable with the stasis.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Treadmill or Footpath?

I'm making this list because my fiance told me to, in order to snatch my ass out of a quiet but powerful bout of self-pity.

Ten things I have improved upon, grown in, or gotten better at in the last year:

  1. I have learned to do salamba sirsasana in a way that makes me feel both safer and in the pursuit of an advanced pose.
  2. I have learned that list-making is an integral part of my writing process, that it is for me evocative, humorous, and even poignant.
  3. I have moved deeper into a storytelling cycle in the face of the myriad discomfort it would hold for me.
  4. I have learned (and am still in process of learning) how to feed myself in such a way that I look and feel healthier and happier.
  5. I have learned to listen to my fiance even when we disagree, and to argue with him without robbing him of any humanity. (Right, honey?)
  6. I have learned that it is always appropriate to give my students what they need, even if that means I have to throw the beloved pedagogy out the window.
  7. I have learned (I think) to honor and protect my artist self, and not just try to shove her in the direction of the task-master self. I have learned not to consider the artist that I am to be too flaky or too self-absorbed. (This one's probably still in process, too.)
  8. I have learned that despite the fact that I grew up with both parents in my home who loved me, that I never wanted for food, clothing or shelter, and that I have a good education, common sense and relentless ambition, that I still have powerful, unique and compelling stories to tell about my life and my upbringing.
  9. I have learned that I am a woman who treasures high heels and short skirts as much as she does a dogged pursuit of gender equality.
  10. I have learned that, like many things in my life, my pursuit of the Divine is a good deal less structured, regimented and official than I used to consider it, and that God still cares for me, seeks me and wants to engage with me outside of a paradigm I've known all my life.


11. I've learned that I have the strength to withstand being hurt over and over again. The sun still keeps coming up, my heart continues to beat, and despite my impatience and confusion with the world, I can and will continue to do what I can to live, thrive and figure it all out. Even if I'm hurt. I won't just collapse into a pile of dust.

Friday, December 11, 2009


More of my own, soon, I promise, but today, weeks after I've been back here, I can only muster up this.

Inertia oozed like molasses through Elaine's limbs. That's what it must feel like to have malaria, she thought.

At any rate, I'd be lucky if I wrote a page a day.

Then I knew what the trouble was.

I needed experience.

How could I write about life when I'd never had a love affair or a baby or even seen anybody die? A girl I knew had just won a prize for a short story about her adventures amonth the pygmies in Africa. How could I compete with that sort of thing?

--from The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Sunday, November 29, 2009


You ever feel like when you are in the middle of big and significant things in your life, that everything you see, everything you hear, that the Universe itself is conspiring to move you in a certain direction?

This Thanksgiving weekend, while alternating between a table of gluten-free vegan bounty, time on my yoga mat in poses to aid digestion, and cuddling with my honey, I've read a book, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. It's an interesting and generally pretty competent novel, a first person account of a woman's life told in reflection about her experience with family, footbinding, marriage and children, and love and betrayal in 19th century China. Sounds like it ought to be a movie soon, right? And if The Joy Luck Club and Memoirs of a Geisha have taught us anything, Hollywood loves these old China stories of women, and it soon will be. (My sweetheart asks, partly out of artist's frustration and partly out of the absence of his voice, why it is always Chinese women who are telling these stories, and telling stories of only Chinese women? Evidently the only stories to be told by Chinese men are restricted the form of the graphic novel or the kung fu movie; where is the place for the Asian American experience as told through the eyes and heart of a man, without the requisite nunchucks and 9mm auto? My answer, they are lurking in the tip of his pen, waiting only to hit the page.)

I bring up this book for a couple of reasons: it came to me as a gift from a friend of his, the feminine half of a couple in an interracial relationship who thought I might enjoy reading it; and I have. While it is not the novel that exoticizes the Old China experience, it is replete with imagery and behavior of what someone like me (ie, ignorant) imagines Old China to certainly have been capable of. It is intriguing to consider that women in China who considered their lives, as the writer says, "as useless branches", whose lives consisted only of having their bodies broken in pursuit of beauty; of the mundaneity of domestic life--hauling water, making food, serving and cleaning after men and making and raising babies--and in their free time, learning calligraphy, embroidery, and staying cloistered/protected within a space that is just for women; these women were able to create and foster a secret language that only women read and understood for thousands of years. That's pretty cool.

I don't know how much I really get into the sisterhood phenomenon; I haven't tended toward being that kind of woman, the woman who values all that sisterhood time. The other day I sat beside a woman on the train who was reading The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Lucky for me, she was too engrossed in it to see me rolling my eyes in pretentious disgust. Sure, I joined a sorority in college, but my experience in it was about identifying with the black community and the greek community in a big way, and while I love my sorors, I just haven't cultivated that kind of sisterhood in my life. I see it's value objectively, but not practically.

But something of this book makes me feel differently, taps me into a desire I have that I'm just beginning to understand. Only child, right? I have a number of times in my life found myself lamenting my absence of sisters. But in this novel I read of these rituals which seem to me both alien and vital: the storyteller is getting ready to marry, and this kind of thing requires all sorts of complicated cultural gesture and behavior for her that require the close company of women. She and women of her family and friends and neighbors have a day where they all sit around worrying and feeling sad that she's leaving her father's house, and about to marry. She spends months making clothes and embroidering what she will wear once she is taken as her husband's wife, and making binding bandages and tiny shoes for her perfect tiny feet, the feet that she has broken and misshapen so her husband will love her. She fasts for ten days before her wedding, and must attend countless banquets as part of the celebration, all where she is not permitted to eat. There's "the talk" wherein all the non-virgins scare the shit out of the poor girl and tell her what is coming, "bed business" the storyteller calls it.

(Incidentally, that sounds really distant and ancient, but I know for certain that it still happens. I have heard stories of women in this time and place who locked themselves in the hotel bathroom sobbing in terror of what would come when their husbands touched them, or who climbed into the tub and whispered on their cellies to girlfriends about what he was trying to do.)

What I'm driving at is despite the archaic quality of the observance and celebration of this rite, I am observing within me an ardent desire--and have been since I got engaged--to gather the uterines around me and prep for my wedding. And for my marriage. I mean, let's be real, I'm not going to be wearing new clothes once I get married, so it's not like I have to spend my time sewing jackets and pants and whatnot. There is no arrangement or matchmaker, no gift of pig from his family to mine to show wealth, no gift of eggs and rice from mine to his to show fertility. And as for bed business, please. Nevertheless, I want women around me to ponder with me the passing of my singlehood into my past. I want them to both celebrate the woman I am becoming and mourn the woman I am shedding. Have I said this before--I'm sure I have--that an old girlfriend of mine considered her wedding day as a time where she would walk to the altar and crucify her single woman there. (Please note the religious, masochistic overtone.) Afterward she would be reborn in married life as a wife. (Insert angelic music here.) Yes, I am being incredibly sarcastic. But there's a part of me, and a large part, that is thinking that some of this is real, some of this women who cluck around you and weep as you leave your father's house for your husband's is real.

For instance, I want a shower. I mean, I want a shower in a big way, one of those single sex, high heel optional mixed drink affairs that everybody hates going to. I wouldn't want them to hate going to mine, but I sure would want to "pink out". I am blessed to have three women who have agreed to stand up with and for me, to steward me into this next season of my life, and I know they're willing to take up this party planning mantle, and make manifest whatever monstrosity I hope for. I'm frankly a little stunned by this all: I'm social, and I love to party, but I didn't quite think I'd be that excited about sitting around opening box after box of lace teddy and silk robe (later for all that housewares shit) feeling like some icon on a lily pad. But I am. I want it because I want to create that sisterhood of joy and excitement and delight in the life I am making with a man who I cherish and admire, whom I can work with and fight with in a healthy way, who helps me and respects me. That's something to celebrate, and I want to do it girly-style.

So this is thing one that Lisa See, in her literary wisdom reveals to me. Thus, the second:

As in most marriages, the most important person for me to build a relationship with was my mother-in-law. Everything Snow Flower had told me about Lady Lu following the usual conventions was true. She watched over me as I did the same chores that I did in my natal home--making tea and breakfast, washing clothes and bedding, preparing lunch, sewing, emboridering, and weaving in the afternoon, and finally cooking dinner. My mother-in-law ordered me about freely. "Slice the melon into smaller cubes," she might say, as I made winter melon soup. "The pieces you have cut are fit only for our pigs." Or "My monthly bleeding escaped onto my bedding. You must scrub hard to get out the stains." As for the food I brought from home, she would sniff and say, "Next time bring something less smelly. The odors of your meal ruin the appetites of my husband and sons." As soon as the visit was over, I was sent back home with no thank you or goodbye.

Oh, yes, this the most important relationship to be cultivated. The text seems to make this relationship seem like the best of it is what you can read above, and the worst of it is your mother-in-law calling you a dog, a useless worthless nothing, a hole that she and her son must feed but who brings nothing but shame and bad fortune to the family. Again, the pesky fact of the 21st century make this reality different for me. My future husband and I will not be living in his parents' home (God willing, protect us from the circumstance that would drive us there.) There is no laundry that needs to be boiled or water to be hauled from a well, no animals to be slaughtered, and shi fan, while it still takes hours to prepare, can be done so on the modern convenience of a stove. Sigh.

And yet. I can't help wondering if the taciturn civility that sometimes feels like it borders on brusqueness with me is born out of a frank and legitimate disdain for the woman I am who is marrying their son. Perhaps they feel I am not a good match for their son. I hesitate to say this: I know my sweetheart's dad is able to see the softer parts of his son, is proud of the man who is a writer and not just a software consultant. He said to his son while he was home recently that he is glad his boy has someone like me in his life, glad we have each other to take care of each other (and note the egalitarian language). But his mom: it is as if she has had all of the sensitivity and thoughtfulness, any instinct that would have any interest in anything different than a tiny square of the world bred right out of her. I wonder what hardships she has had to endure which have given her such thick skin and such a hard head, that she cannot receive and share kindness, but can only think and act with a stubborn, practical brain. She is focused to the point of tunnel vision, and would rather do the thing she wants to do regardless of how it makes someone else feel. I don't think she's heartless--she cares for her sons--but she doesn't listen. If she wants to buy them a plasma screen tv, well, she's gonna do it regardless of how much they protest. (Who would protest a plasma screen tv? My future husband, before we met. She returned it. Our tv is ancient, without a working remote, and we like it that way.)

I spend a lot of energy trying to figure out how my in-laws function. I talk to a number of my girlfriends and ask about their in-law experience. I read everything that flows past my eyes even remotely connected to Asian American family experience. This weekend, I am not ashamed to say that I watched a movie called Red Doors, in part for entertainment, in larger part as a cultural study of the kind of family my betrothed comes from. (It's good: Eat Drink Man Woman is better. Check it out.) Is watching movies as an attempt to understand my fiance's culture as racist as him watching Tyler Perry movies to understand mine? Maybe. Do I think it's permissible? Sure: Ang Lee is a far superior filmmaker to Tyler Perry. But I do these things to try to figure out my future in-laws' culture. Hanging out with them costs me too much relational capital.

I am not the future-daughter-in-law who is considered a useless branch by her fiance's family. But like the women in this novel, I function as largely invisible within the context of his family. It may be because the needs of the men are paramount to all else; sometimes this is true in my sweetheart's family, whether my sweetheart can see it or not. It may be because the matriarch's tunnel vision simply excludes me with her blinders. Why I am invisible doesn't really matter: it doesn't change how often I am hurt by feeling this invisibility. It still hurts. I read an incredible post about forgiveness today, about the nature of keeping a wound and healing it on your own, instead of spreading it around or giving it back. I don't want to say anything pious or holy about God's purpose for putting me in a family like this one; I'll just try to grope my way into a place that is a decent reflection of who He, and if I'm lucky, it might spare me some pain.

But probably not.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Faith, Family, and Nidal Hasan

I've been thinking a lot lately about Nidal Hasan. Last I heard (and I've been behind on the goings on in his situation) he was being charged with 13 counts of premeditated murder, a charge that, in the army code, carries death as its sentence. His attorney said in an interview that he was concerned that Hasasn would be unable to get a fair trial without a change of venue.

I'm of the opinion that there isn't a venue far enough that could get this man a fair military trial.

I don't really want to debate whether the man is insane or is a terrorist. It seems to me the media is foaming all over itself doing that. I read a headline today that asked, "Nidal Hasan: American or Muslim?" as if in this country it is impossible to be both. In a discussion of an HBO documentary called Terror in Mumbai, my new favorite political writer Fareed Zakaria had a really interesting thing to say about the role of faith in the life of the terrorist. You should check it out: there's a transcript here. (p.s. the doc's airing tonight. If you have HBO, you should watch it, and then tell me all about it, or tape it, and then I can watch it too. No cable here.)

But I've been thinking about Nidal Hasan because he's eventually going to be held accountable for the 13 lives he took, and if he is convicted of his charges, he will forfeit his life. I'm thinking about the death penalty. About forgiveness and vengeance and the human and the Divine.

My heart aches for the people who lost loved ones at Fort Hood. There was a Reservist who was killed, a woman, who got into the Armed Forces for maybe the noblest of reasons, not anticipating that the world would take her so firmly and decidedly into war. I can't pretend to know what a Reservist does, if it's still the two weeks a month or two weeks a year or two months a year, or whatever the tidy little ratio was, but I'm betting she had no idea that a despotic man of faith who was desperately unhappy was going to kill her.

Yes, allegedly.

Thirteen families are angry. Grief-stricken. Inconsolable, and hungry for this man's blood. I'm assuming; and I think it's a reasonable response to having your loved one snatched from you in such a violent and untimely manner. I hope I never have to know the searing, all-consuming pain of losing a loved one this way. When I think of the vengeance that people seek after their loved ones have been killed, I think of my mom, who didn't know or lose anyone on the flights that were hijacked on September 11, 2001, but who all the same was hungry for the lives of the terrorists who committed this act. I've never seen her so blind with rage, and I've pissed her off plenty. But on that day, and the days and weeks and months afterward, my mother was furious. Language of turning cheeks be damned, this was a time at which my mother wanted a fiery, judgmental Old Testament God on her side; she wanted to smite the hell outta some folks. And she was in good company.

And so the families of victims of senseless violent crime want justice. They want retribution. They want payback. This is a human need, right? When one can plainly see what is right and what is wrong, we want to make manifest what is right, especially if that means punishing the wrongdoers in a way that will cause them to suffer as we have suffered. Eye for an eye and all that--that's the reason we have capital crimes, right? Except for sometimes, the families of victims see the perpetrator killed, see justice meted out appropriately, and then must return to their lives, the lives in which the sun still rises in the east, where rain falls down and not up, and where their loved one is still absent. Sometimes they realize they've been throwing things into this hole, the hole created by the absence of their son/wife/daughter/father thinking that something would fill it up, and certain that when the person who took their honey from them is executed, that would surely be enough to fill the hole. And yet, that life falls on top of all the other efforts, and the hole still remains, as large and dark and lonely and cold as it ever was.

Where is there room for Christ in the question of vengeance and punishment? Are we so myopic as to consider our side as The Right Side, the side God would choose to back if he were a betting man? (Imagine, pencil-thin mustache, pinstripe suit, "Go baby, Go!" kind of gambler.) Answer: probably. It messes a lot of people up to think that God is static and allows suffering and pain in our world. But that's a sticky wicket, and I don't want to get stuck there. I'm saying this: God is love. Christ was the incarnation of that love on the planet for a while, and now God moves in and through and with ways often misunderstood by humans. While Christ was on earth, he preached about love, about doing right, about giving and reaching and working and building. He preached about boundless forgiveness, forgiveness that can only come from the Divine, because it is simply and obviously not in the nature of humanity to be so excessively forgiving. He excessively forgave on a regular basis, up to and including at his execution. How do we, mired in the trappings of our humanity, access the Divine power to excessively forgive? Is it possible for any one of these families to forgive Nidal Hasan for having allegedly murdered their family member or friend? Is it possible not to want the man hanging by a rope, despite the fact that he killed so many people? Is it possible to fill up that dark, damp, lonely hole with forgiveness?

Let's lower the stakes a little bit. My mom recently invited my sweetheart and me, and his whole family, over to celebrate Christmas dinner. His parents said No. They begged off with some kind of health request that was vague and terse, and because I don't understand it, I'm struggling to take it at face value. I was stunned. Shocked. Incredibly hurt: it felt to me like another instance in which I was (and in this case, I and my family were) being rejected by his family. I am trying to talk myself into the place where I accept that this isn't about my race, that I acknowledge that this has to do with the fact that my future husband comes from a family that is incredibly different from me: I'm a chatty, warm, bubbly outgoing individual, and his family is stoic, even taciturn at times, brusque, and frankly made ridiculously uncomfortable by someone like me.

(Sidebar: That's right, more people who find me intimidating! Jesus Christ, if I meet one more person for whom I am too big, I might just reach over and bite their fucking head right off their shoulders, give them something to be intimidated by. Last night I was venting to him that it seemed that I was too big a person for everybody in the whole world. I got "the look" from him, and amended my statement. "Everybody except you," I said.
("That's right," he said. "Thank you."
(No, sweetie. Thank you. The only man I've ever met in my whole life who loved me despite my emotional and relational size. Thank you.)

So his parents, while doing something that may feel to me and mine like they are being thoughtless and rude, are perhaps--and absolutely unconsciously--trying to protect themselves from people who are interested in getting to know them. This doesn't really make me feel any better. It just means I have to keep putting myself in situations that make me want to climb the walls, or be content to avoid seeing his family as much as possible. Every time I spend time with these people, reach out to them, or make myself vulnerable to them, I wind up feeling bad. I can dig that despite the fact that I keep trying to lower my expectations of them that they are still too high, and the fact that I can't reach these people at all with my warmth and charm and interest seems to touch something really deeply in me: I am working really hard at examining what is mine in all this.

But how often do you kick a dog before it stops greeting you at the door?

The human part of me is saying enough of this. I am so over putting myself in situations that are bound to fail, with only heartache as the end result. I am loving these people the best way I know how, and that clearly isn't working, and I have no earthly or heavenly idea how to love them the way they need to be loved and they are wrapped so tight that they can't tell me. This is too hard: it's exhausting and excruciating and I am fed. the fuck. up.

But that's my flesh talking. That isn't the thing that Christ called me to. The thing I love the most about Jesus, the thing that saves me every day, is the fact that He is willing to meet me where I am. That is what He asks me to do.

Meet these people where they are.

Oh, great. Another fucking growth opportunity.

I don't know how to do it. This is a process for which I have no guidance. I suppose the only things I can do are pray for that divine forgiveness, that divine grace that allows me to give without expectation of reciprocity, that divine love that will teach me how to show these people that I value and treasure them in a way that will matter to them, instead of to me and not to them. I have to try to stay grounded in what this junk--God I hate this junk-- can teach me about the baggage I'm toting around the planet. My sweetheart would remind me that I have to remember that I'm marrying him, and not his family. I cannot solve the problem of his family: they are who they are, and will always be who they are. I have to solve the problem of who I am relative to his family.

How glad I am that I'm not faced with the question of how to forgive someone who's killed someone I love. The pain I would feel around makes this pain less than nothing.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Fiction: Boys and Their Toys

(borne from an in-class activity yesterday) person object adjective verb man remote sharp fondle a pleasant surprise what can happen sometimes, when you take the coaching you're giving your students: The remote was pink, smaller than his cell phone, and incredibly discrete. He fondled it in his pocket, gently feeling the button and the lever. He pulled it out and palmed it. Across the room, buzzing with the bubbly conversation of cocktail party talk, Sophia had a vodka rocks in one hand and was talking animatedly with an older balding gentleman who kept staring at her cleavage, and his wife. Malcom still couldn't tell yet whether she was sincerely listening or just being polite--she had this polite streak that he found both naive and endearing--but her eyes were wide open and she was smiling at the man. She was wearing that black silk sheath he liked so much, the dress she'd worn on their second date. That night he'd noticed that in a stiff breeze he could make out her nipples through the fabric, it was so thin and light. No such luck tonight: he couldn't even make out her panty line, and the things had looked rather cumbersome. He was impressed. He took a sip of bourbon and looked down at the remote in his hand. On, Off, Vibrate, Swirl, it read, analogous to different buttons and switches. He threw the power lever with his thumb and watched her as he tapped the vibrate button. Sophia had chosen that unfortunate moment to take a drink from her glass, and she started with a twitch that momentarily buckled her knees and caused her to gasp into her glass. She narrowly avoided spilling down the front of her dress, but looking down to consider herself, she could see vodka beading on the sharp toes of her shoes. "Are you alright dear?" Malcom heard the bald man's wife ask Sophia. "Oh yes, of course," she responded. "It was just a shiver, it certainly is cold in here." The older woman's eyelids fluttered and one hand clutched at the busy red and purple scarf she was wearing, held around her neck by a gold brooch in the shape of a flame. "Yes, it is, I was just saying to George it was like a meat locker in this room, wasn't I dear?" She nudged her husband, who momentarily broke his gaze at Sophia's decolletage and glanced at his wife. "Right right, a meat locker." Sophia took another drink from her glass and looked across the space of the gallery. A jazz trio played unobtrusively and a little off key in the far corner nearest to the windows, and cater waiters in black slithered between the guests like hors-oeuvres-bearing ninjas. One zoomed through her field of vision, revealing the back of a black suit. The jacket hung well on the shoulders, and was fitted through the back for a modern cut. The legs were planted wide, one foot supporting most of the body weight, the other foot turned a bit out, revealing a gleaming black leather shoe. The wearer of the suit stood in front of a sculpture made of driftwood, plastic refuse and rubber tire, but Sophia could tell by the bend in his neck, that he was examining an object in his hand, and not the artwork before him. She braced for another pulse between her legs and cleared her throat. Malcom turned his head and could feel her gaze on him like a hand on his shoulders. He turned to face her fully now, smiling like a four-year-old who's just found his favorite new toy; and indeed, he had. He eyed the remote in his hand and pressed firmly on the button. "So, Sophia, what have you heard about this newest show? Sensation or flop?" The man's voice slithered lasciviously around her, and if she'd been listening at all, she would have found him incredibly offensive. Instead she was concentrating on not crying out, biting her lower lip and bracing herself with one hand against the bar where they stood. "I'm sorry, I've no idea. Would you excuse me?" she begged breathlessly and stalked as calmly as she could to the man in the black suit near the sculpture. He's since slipped the remote back into his pocket and was now eyeing the sculpture in mock curiosity. She stood beside him in silence for a few moments, then said, her voice just two shades above a whisper,"I thought we were saving that for dinner later." "Yes, that is what we discussed, isn't it?" "So what are you trying to do to me?" "I'm sorry, I got bored. All these pretentious arty types make me uncomfortable. One guy actually asked me if I'd perceived the strong menstrual undertone in the artist's painting's what the hell does that even mean?" She sighed and looked at his profile. He was lucky that he was pretty. "It means related to her period." Malcom snorted and took a big gulp of bourbon. "Disgusting." He turned to look at her now. "Besides, I guess I just wanted to see you jump a little." "You're a pig," she said. "Yes." "And you can't always get what you want. Those two may be pretentious and dull, but last year they bought eighty thousand dollars worth of art, and that was on their first go. I'm working tonight, okay? Think you can entertain yourself without doing too much damage to my body or my career?" "I suppose." "Can I trust you? Or do I need to take the remote from you?" He pulled the pink rectangle from his pocket and flipped the lever to off. "Satisfied?" "Not yet. But I expect you'll be up to the challenge later." She turned on her heel and returned to the couple, gesturing at the painting in front of them, leaving Malcom to watch her walk away.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Open Letter to Lou Jing

Dearest Lou Jing,

I recently heard about your troubles on National Public Radio here in America, and I am so sincerely sorry for the scrutiny, cruelty and ignorance you and your mother have had to endure. It's absolutely awful to think hear that people can be so hateful and judgmental, can have such narrow minds. Frankly, I was surprised to learn that such things happen in China. I naively tend to think that this kind of racism is a uniquely American sensibility. Given the history of my country, what race means, how race relates to what defines an American, and how people of various races and ethnicities engage each other here is complicated to say the least. But evidently people in Asian countries have a huge identity crisis of how their nationality is defined, and how that relates to race.

My fiancé’s parents are from Taiwan. I imagine that Taiwanese citizens have a kind of identity crisis on their own, having been the original Chinese government that was ousted with the rise of communism. So while my fiancé considers himself Chinese, he also considers himself American, and to a much greater extent. I know little about how his parents identify: I know they grew up speaking dialects different from each other, and so in their home they speak Mandarin or English, the two languages they have in common. I know they came to the states to study, wound up marrying each other and raised a family here. They are naturalized citizens, and while they may also still consider themselves Taiwanese, or even Chinese, they can call themselves Americans in the truest sense of the word.

However I know that my country is full of people who would not treat them as such. There are people who will hear their accented speech and notice the difference in their eyes, hair and skin, and would make racist, hateful remarks, would pepper them with insults and epithets, and try to ensnare them with cleverly worded, sarcastic jokes about racist stereotypes. That kind of thing happens in this country all the time.

My own ancestors came to this country from Africa. I think; I don't really know: for all I know, they may have come from Haiti or Jamaica or some other country. But I know I am descended from slaves, which grants me the label African American in the States. Despite the fact that my ancestors helped build this country, that I was born here and have lived her all my life, there are still those who would shout at me, "Go back to Africa!" as if some country in Africa were my home. It may be true that Africa is in an ancestral sense my home; but America is my home. I am a product of America, made in the U.S.A., and consider myself an American. I reject the idea some might subconsciously hold that Americans are all fair-skinned or light-eyed, and anyone who looks different is an import. White Americans forget that they too were imports in this country.

I have heard tell of the kind of racism that causes Frenchmen to ghettoize Arabs in Paris; the kind of racism that causes European imperialists to prefer one African tribe over another, creating the genocide of millions; of Germans purporting a Master race and exterminating all whom they decide are "the other". So I suppose I shouldn't have been at all surprised to hear about your misfortune at the hands and mouths of your fellow citizens; it was just an example of the people displaying the worst part of themselves. Nevertheless I was. When I learned about how your countrymen treated you so poorly for looking different than they do, despite the fact that you are all citizens of the same country, I was saddened, and it made me wonder if this kind of xenophobia is more common among Asian countries than I knew. I suppose you have a lot to be proud of as a nation; but no country is without its secrets and its flaws, and this kind of behavior is among them.

My fiancé recently sent me this article about mixed race young people--who are part Korean, part something else--and how they cope with their identity in the face of others who judge and alienate them so harshly. These young people have faced similar struggle in their home country of South Korea. It must not give you any comfort at all, but let it remind you that you are not alone in your struggle to create a life for yourself, while being able to be yourself without being ashamed of who you are.

I like thinking of your desire to study abroad, and your hope to study journalism in New York. New York is an amazing city, incredibly sophisticated and cosmopolitan, full of opportunity and diversity. But please do not be deceived. There are a growing number of people in this country who are multi-racial, much to my delight, and if my fiancé and I choose to have a family our kids, like you, will be among them, a few of the amazing group that help to diversify the fabric of America. But do not think that the kind of intolerance you have faced in China does not exist here; it does. It is perhaps more subtle than the discrimination you have faced of late, but it is here, and it is as much a part of our American fabric as our diversity is.

Let me end by saying, finally, that I think you are beautiful. You have a young, sweet face, and skin that absolutely belies your age: you won't show your age for years, I think. Lucky girl ;) You are beautiful. You look absolutely like the face of China. Be strong and be encouraged.

Much love,
Jessica M. Young

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Fifty Percenters

If you're lucky, you make friends with people who are both humorous and serious, who support you when you feel weak and deflated, who challenge you when you can't hear yourself, to make sure you know what you're saying, who occasionally convict you when they see you about to stumble, and who rely on you for prayer, thought, warmth, fellowship and the occasional fashion tip.
Such is the nature of my friendship with Rebecca.
She recently committed her life to an amazing man with whom she's every day a little more in love.
She also recently launched a blog with a number of other interesting people that you can read here. It's a blog about people engaging Judiasm through a number of different ways, including interfaith relationships; Rebecca is writing tenderly and candidly about the nature of her interfaith marriage. It's compelling, often funny and provocative. Dig it.

Half n Half--dedicated to Lou Jing and the Fifty Percenters

(doesn't that just have the great ring of, like, a rock band? "Now coming to the stage, Lou Jing and the Fifty Percenters!")

At work the other day talking to my mother, who has, in a big way, gotten excited about my upcoming nuptials. She said to me, "The other day, I met my granddaughter."

Pause. "What?"

"The other day, I met my granddaughter."

I am so careful about my body, and I have a pretty good sense of what does and doesn't live in my uterus, so I knew she wasn't talking about me. I braced for some story of a half brother who had a kid somewhere, which would have been earth-shattering news. She continued. "I was in a meeting, and I met this young woman, whose father was Chinese, and her mother was African-American. Her name was Vivian, and she was so sweet, and I thought to myself, 'this is what my granddaughter will look like.' Isn't that cool?"

Insert bemused exhale of awkward laughter here. "Oh, Mom, that's funny. I was confused for a minute. Wow. That's funny."

The other day she sent me an article about how interracial couples can celebrate their Thanksgiving. She is oh, so excited about the interracial nature of my marriage (less so about its interfaith nature), and she's hosting Christmas dinner this year, wherein she's invited my future in-laws. Who knows whether or not they'll accept her invitation, or if they've even gotten it yet, but it's curious.

I have lost count of the amount of white people who smile at my fiance and me and tell us how beautiful our children will be. My mother, who is not white, has also said such things, but I know she just can't wait to run her fingers through the good hair she hopes our kids will have. I had a friend in college who swore that interracial kids were crazy as loons because the world is the kind of place that makes a person choose who he will be, makes him identify one way or another, and because they couldn't or didn't, it made them all "fucked up" on the inside. Her logic had echoes of the One Drop Rule about it. I used to think maybe she was onto something, in my bleaker, less tolerant days of viewing the world, but I don't know about that anymore. It was ten years ago she said this to me, and maybe her view has changed, but I like to think (and have lots of evidence to support it) that maybe the world has changed. But I could be wrong. Maybe the world is still the kind of place that makes people choose what piece of themselves they will signify. I've been hearing/reading really interesting things about Asian countries that aren't so tolerant of the shrinking world and the fact that it requires their bloodline to blend with others. Economic success does not always instantly create a modern nation with modern ideas. Lou Jing would be the first to testify that the world is as narrow minded and racist as I think it could be, as it used to be. But maybe that's not true, or is becoming less true, at least here in the States. There might be more pioneering people than I think who are in relationship with someone racially or religiously different than themselves, and they may be making the country a different kind of place. Maybe it's some weird cognitive need in the brain to put people into little categories, and any time there's someone who refuses to go, or it freaks us out. But maybe our cognition is changing; I don't know.

But this community of people who are dialoging about the piece of them that is Jewish and the piece of them that's not, and how those two pieces fit together, it interests me. While there are absolutely no pieces of me that are Jewish, I'm jumping in, in a big way, to a culturally blended life. It's not always an easy thing to get on board with, and let's be real, it's just as hard for me to wrestle with sometimes as it is for others to wrestle with. My sweetheart has told hundreds of folks about how challenging it can be, blending his Asian-American culture with my African-American one, and despite how well-written and hilarious it is, it's just his side. He'll be the first person to tell you that when I try to connect with him over what and how he identifies as Chinese or Asian American, he freaks out like a poodle in a thunderstorm. (Well, he might not put it like that, but trust me, he gets really touchy.)

I am convinced that whether or not he is able to recognize it, part of who he is and who he comes from is defined by his race, by his ethnicity, and by the experience he had being the first generation American in his family born in this country. I am convinced that there are parts of him that are Asian, and he simply doesn't know that because he didn't grow up in an Asian country, where everyone else was just like him. I begin to believe that part of our struggle as an interracial couple is the hyper-awareness either of us feels when we engage in each other's community and feel, either by the nature of the group or by something happening inside ourselves, like the outsider.

I know children who are bi-racial. If I have children they will be bi-racial, and the fact that more of the world than I'm comfortable with still hasn't learned yet how to cope with the growing nature of multi-racial individuals that are our citizens, our teachers and doctors, our world leaders. They don't seem "fucked up", to quote my girlfriend. Maybe the ability to rear children who can acknowledge and understand themselves doesn't lie on them, but lies with us. It's on us to teach our children where they come from. It's on us to help equip them with such a solid identity that when the world tries to make the choose to go one direction or the other, they can reject that narrow mindedness and know that they get to be whoever they are, without having to pigeonhole themselves, or be pigeonholed by the rest of the world. They can love their Christian and their Jewish. They can wear locks and qipao without a hint of irony. They can celebrate Cinco de Mayo, pray to the east five times a day, and get a tattoo of an Irish crest because they are honoring all parts of themselves.

I have no idea how my sweetheart and I will feel about our hypothetical, theoretical multi-culti kids. I have a few ideas of how we might raise them, if we have them, to know and love and be proud of and identify with, all parts of themselves, the Ohio State parts and the artistic parts and the math science and tech parts and the soul food parts and the vegetarian parts and the yogic parts and the Mandarin parts and all the little parts that he and I will pour into them. I have even less awareness of what parts of them will be present already in their play-dough soft psyches. Right now, I'm not in a hurry to have a kid as a cultural ethnographic experiment. I'm more interested in just observing and participating in the dialogue of what it means to be yourself, and how you identify yourself in a world that is both shrinking and growing more frightened of difference every day.

Sunday, November 8, 2009


I'm frequently choking on wedding porn these days--having a hard time with the wedding world, the marriage world, and the world inside my head--but I saw these two this afternoon and wanted to celebrate them.

Something in these photos reminds me that amid all of the bustle and the where's-my-bouquet and have-you-met-this-person and the fuss and problem solving, that there are sweet, silent moments that are of paramount importance. I look forward to finding and relishing those moments on my own day.

The bride and groom in this photo, Leah and Evan, are an interracial interfaith couple (ahem), and their daughter was born a few months ago. Photography by Whitney Lee Photography.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Bombs over Bucktown

Originally published (?) on the WBEZ blog.

I recently went to the Harold Washington Library: spending time there makes me feel like I’m surrounding myself with the best words, the most current information, and the most well-informed Chicagoans in the city. After poring over books, magazines and even a roll or two of microfiche, I got in line to check out my items. The woman behind the counter seemed in an unusually good mood; she smiled at patrons as she scanned their books and wished them good day as they departed. Even the security guard seemed happy to be checking people’s bags as they exited.

As I stood there, I noticed a young man walk through the electronic gates. He walked slowly into the lobby and then stopped. He wore a heavy green coat closed up to his neck, he carried a large black duffel bag, and wore a crocheted topi atop his closely shorn head. I watched him as he set the bag down beside his sneakered feet and bowed his head. He was silent: then he shouted something in a language I didn’t understand and threw his arms wide apart. His voice echoed off the marble floor and high ceilings. For a moment he disappeared, replaced by a blinding, instantaneous shock of white light. Then his bag and body became a ball fire; an eardrum-shattering shock wave shook the room, bringing with it a cloud of fire that engulfed us all. Shards of computer became dangerous shrapnel, lodging in the faces, throats and limbs of internet users; fiber arts, sculptures and paintings were ruined by ashes and fire; books and magazines were swallowed by the flames, and more than half the library’s magazine collection was ruined. By the end of it all, he’d killed 37 people, including himself, and wounded dozens more.

If you haven’t heard about the Harold Washington suicide bomber I’m not surprised; I made him up. I made him a Muslim to highlight the stereotypical perception of Islam as a religion of intolerant, violent fundamentalism. It seems like people are blowing themselves up all the time. I feel like I can’t turn on NPR without hearing about someone in Pakistan who has killed and wounded people because of a well-placed bomb. What is happening in that corner of the world that motivates people to strap C-4 to their chests and blow themselves to Paradise, along with dozens of their closest strangers?

Ten years ago this kind of violent demonstration in the name of religion seemed a far cry from the American experience. Eight years ago, on a Tuesday morning in September, the consciousness of our nation was changed forever when a handful of men enacted the ultimate suicide bombing. What happens now? Travel security has gotten tighter, countries are strengthening their borders, governments are testing bombs in deserts and oceans, and out of fear and misunderstanding, conservative politicians the world over are trending toward racist nationalism. But people in Pakistan are still jumpy about going to work, to the city center or government buildings, maybe they’re even nervous about having a coffee in a local café; there are people in this country who still won’t fly after 9/11. Given the nature of the world today, it’s not hard for me to fear being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But what am I as one person to do? I cannot change the mind of someone who does not know me, and yet hates everything I am based on the difference of our nations and our gods. If he finds me in the library, or the Daley Center, or Starbucks, I can only hope he thinks twice before hitting the button. I tend to think pursuit of peace begins in my mind, by checking my assumptions of other people, and softening my heart to the difference that makes the world so interesting. Ultimately, I pray: I pray for my leaders, I pray for the soldiers, and I pray for the person whose faith tells her murder is an act of worship, that one day she might discover how to worship from a place of love instead of hate.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

heavy, heavy. you get so heavy on me.

(that song from Showgirls has been rattling around my head all day.)

I'm not sure if I've ever been happier to see the back of October before in my life.

For the last several weeks I've been struggling with a number of things. The first is the ceonsor inside me. There are things I want to write about here, things I want to say about my feelings, about my responses to things, about my opinions, and I'm finding that my self-censor is really kicking in. At this point, I'm not sure how many people who used to read this blog is still reading it, but there's something in me that's feeling "I can't say that online", or "what if that posting follows me into my future?" This morning I read a great post about insecurity that felt like wine in a mouth too used to water. But writing here lately has just been the umpteenth thing that has made me feel part-brittle glass candy window, part-exposed nerve. So I've been hesitating with how transparent I should be about my own process.

But that's not what I believe in, and I know it. I believe in the artist's responsibility and the discovery possible when making one's self vulnerable and all that shit, and so I'm going to ignore the censor inside me, and just be myself. The internet is a strange and complicated place, but the work I'm doing is right now meeting a need of one kind, and hopefully will meet a host of others in the near future.

So I'm plenty accustomed to running up against other people's expectations. Being a Christian means I am exclusive, pro-life and anti-gay, I patently deny the reliable and breathtaking perfection of evolution and I believe the world was created in six 24-hour days; being a woman means I want to have kids, and if there's any other ambition I have with my own life, it's because I'm denying some inherent part of my womanhood; being black means I come from a broken home, I'm lazy, and I can't utter a grammatically correct sentence. Yeah, whatever big deal. It's true that when people come up against the stereotypical mold-breaker that I am, instead of considering their mold, they ask me what's up with me, but I'm over that too. It's just happened so often that I'm by and large tired of considering it. When I stop to think about it, sure, it still frustrates me, but hey, it's a part of life.

But now not only do I consciously or otherwise grapple with the baggage that goes with these labels, I have a whole new set of crap to deal with for being a Bride.


Recently I've been having a really hard time about the place where these pieces of myself that I love intersect with these pieces of myself that the world thinks I must be. I've been knocking into other people's perceptions of what I am and should be by being all parts of myself, including this new part, this intended woman. If I'm a woman getting married, it must mean I'm doing it the old fashioned way, and that I'm planning the whole kit and caboodle--my honey just shows up at the finish line in a tux, right? The ring that I wear that commemorates the promise we'll soon make to each other, that's something that I demanded from him, that I picked myself, and without it I wouldn't have committed my life to his because I don't Take that Walk for less than two carats. Choosing to swallow my maiden (wow) name and use his after we marry means that I am a participant (witting or otherwise) in a narrow-minded, patriarchal system designed to reinforce my nature as chattel property in the world.

These are just a handful of the missiles that I feel like have been zinging right at me, heat-seekers that are just great at finding my weak spots and needling right into them and causing me pain. Friends, family and strangers mean well and are very encouraging, and after it all I walk away feeling kind of knocked around. On a good day I can remember my holy middle, the center of who I am and what I want to be, and take some of these words with less impact than others. But I began all this by saying that October, not so much full of good days.

It gets harder when that stuff that makes you feel like who you are is at odds with who the world wants you to be pops up in your own relationship. My Honey has never intentionally made me feel like there was someone or something he wanted me to be, but lately our positions in our relationship have become roles: based on current confluence of events, we're both struggling with concepts of who's responsible for taking care of our home, and what that actually means, financially, emotionally, physically. Often we can completely blow off traditional roles, and just do the things we need to do to make our lives work, but sometimes we find ourselves neatly squaring off in traditional roles and that makes things really complicated. I'm out of the house working all the time (how I long for the days when taking three hours to write the thing I wanted to was my work for the day; these days just posting here is a luxury I can seldom afford) which makes me feel quite career-oriented, and yet I'm making crap money for all the working I'm doing, especially compared to him. So I'm not really a breadwinner, but I play one on TV. On top of which, there's nothing like building a life together to show two people what they prioritize differently and how they make financial choices. Oh yeah, and then there's the giant-ass commitment they're in the process of making, huge emotionally, relationally, and despite our best efforts, financially. It's getting to be more than I can bear, all these arrows.

This weekend we talked about how we came to establish our ideas of gender and race. I asked him about what kind of employment and financial behavior he saw modeled in his family, and talked about the idea of the man as the primary income generator, a concept which feels like a huge wall I'm trying to scale, down which I am continually sliding. He told me a story of his parents living in grad school housing at a Big Ten college while his father completed his Ph.D., and all the times his dad had been out of work, the one to make them lunch or do laundry or make beds, while his mom worked as a surgical nurse his whole upbringing. My response to him was that despite the cultural or familial egalitarianism he grew up in, that he still bears all the privileges of being a man, and perhaps operates in the paradigm gender roles have set up without knowing it. Male privilege is as imperceptible to men as white privilege is to white people, I said; they spend time swimming in the very thing that keeps them alive without even knowing it.

I suppose his upbringing goes a long way toward denying or ignoring the gender roles I'm chafing against right now, but I've still been having a hard time with the idea that because he out-earns me that he's the one in our relationship who's thoughtful and careful about how we invest, and I'm the one who buys eight pairs of shoes and squeals "Charge it!" in delight once a week. I feel like being the woman in our relationship, underemployed and underpaid makes me the girl who makes thoughtless and careless decisions about our money. He doesn't feel this way. I know it because he says so. But something about the way we're interacting is making me feel like these roles are being laminated into our lives. I know that most of that is coming from my internal struggle; I don't know how to rid myself of it, and I don't know how to cope with what I'm feeling.
There aren't too many people in my life who actively make me feel like who I am is unacceptable; the ones who do are mighty powerful, but I'm blessed to, by and large, be surrounded by folks who like me as I am. But lately all of these intersections of vectors--woman and bride and black woman and wife and writer and lover and partner and indie bride and traditional bride and labels labels labels--they're all just so oppressive right now. I feel really burdened.

I remember the first time I learned that I could decide what I wanted my marriage to be, I felt liberated in a way I'd never known before. The church didn't have to tell me whether or not I could keep my job or give away my last name, my family didn't have input on what my husband did for a living or how he loved me, my friends didn't have to tell me that how we choose to have sex is great or abhorrent, or the world couldn't make me believe that my expression of wife, lover and partner was anything less than perfect because it was what I wanted it to be. But this realization is fleeting. It evaporates. Today it feels so thin that my attempt to wrap myself in it is less like a cozy blanket and more like a layer of Saran wrap. This is a new level of vulnerability for me, and right now I'm feeling pretty wrecked.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

great writers come out of Cincinnati, Ohio.

"I'm not convinced that writers must only write about what they know, but I'm sure we should only deal with that about which we care passionately."
--Michael Cunningham.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


I get a lot out of sharing my life with another human being, and with sharing it with this human being in specific, but the thing I'm most grateful for lately is this:

It's a web comic that I started reading less than a year ago after I spent a week or so reading it over my honey's shoulder. It has been one of the most interesting conversations for me about the nature of good and evil, the forces that walk the earth, and the transformative power of love. Plus, it features devil chicks, a talking pig, Obama, and Jesus Christ as characters. I really enjoy it.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

the world looks different from down here.

Ask me what I did this weekend.

It wasn't easy, and it wasn't for very long, but with the incredible help of a gifted yoga teacher I spent two hours in a workshop and by the end I learned how to invert myself into salamba sirsasana without wanting to burst into tears. I know about proper alignment, and I know that I can do this in my body without killing myself. That was the thing that was stopping me in the first place.

Hooray for bravery, patience and the guiding hand of a wise instructor.

Friday, October 23, 2009

September 28, 2009

Anybody at all know what's significant about this date?

I tend to be pretty ambivalent when it comes to the spread of democracy in the world. I mean, I think it's great to have a system of government that acknowledges the power and importance of each person (despite the fact that people, as large groups, often tend toward stupidity and fear) and allows each of us to select our leaders and have our voice be heard in how our country operates. But lately I've been feeling pretty disgruntled with the job that democracy has done its citizens in this country: I often get discouraged that this idea of our government taking care of its members means our government taking care of a certain subset of peoples. Others are ignored, enslaved or imprisoned, and exterminated. But there are other parts of the world that I think would benefit from a government a bit more focused on the people and their needs, and not the narrow margin of what a military minority needs, or what a dictatorship wants, or how small pods of people will take over a country and use it as a personal bank account.

Enter September 28, 2009. On this date, three weeks from this past Monday, 50,000 people gathered to protest a ban that had been put on a rally for democracy. Soldiers at the soccer stadium where the protest was, opened fire on protesters, killing 157 people (so far) and wounding 1200 more. But this isn't the thing I want to write about. I want to write about the fact that women in Guinea have been raped, on city streets in broad daylight by soldiers as part of this military action to crush this protest.

For the first time I heard about this story Tuesday on NPR, about women in the streets of Conakry, who were stripped, beaten, raped and sodomized by male soldiers and their weapons. You know what I mean. Soldiers were violating women in as many ways as they could think of. There was a story of a woman who was dragged to a villa, stripped and drugged and gang raped by soldiers, some of whom were masked--the whole thing is very Eyes Wide Shut, only desperately more fucked up. She managed to escape her fate because one of the male soldiers who came in on the next shift to have his way with her recognized her, and helped to get her out. (Are you fucking kidding me? What would he have done to her if they hadn't known each other?)

The reporter quoted the words of soldiers: "A woman's place is in the home. If you want political rallies, we'll show you political rallies."

How is it I just heard about this story yesterday? It's true, I don't have cable, but I also don't live under a rock; I work really hard to stay informed. Some dolt who lies about floating his six-year-old away in a balloon makes national headlines, but this manages to skate by me for three weeks.

One in four women in this country is the victim of rape. That's in the quiet of homes and the shadow of empty garages and poorly lit jogging paths, all under some guise or other, that of family, or of marriage, or of breaking and entering, or that never-watching-but-seeing-all eye of night. But on this day, women who'd gone to a soccer stadium to express their desire for a government with the people in mind were taught not only that their country doesn't care for them, it doesn't care about them. They were taught that women should have no voice in expressing their desires for fairness and justice. They were raped in broad daylight, as the odd adage goes, in public.

Imagine that for a moment. Imagine walking down the street, down Addison, in front of Wrigley Field, or down State Street in front of the Harold Washington Library, and imagine a man in a green uniform stops you and holds a gun to your head while his buddy pulls out a knife longer than your hand. He cuts the waistband of your new jeans, the ones that make your ass look so good, without taking care to avoid cutting your skin, and he shreds the legs so that soon you are standing only in your panties. He rips open your oxford shirt and from far away you can hear the buttons skitter on the dirty sidewalk. He slices off your bra, leaving your breasts exposed to the autumn air, and it's cold and you wish your nipples weren't hard, but it's cold and you're scared and he laughs and licks his lips and whispers something with fetid breath in your face about how intelligent sluts like you study too hard and need to lighten up more. He's going to show you what the government can really do for its citizens. With one swipe of a lion-like paw your underwear is in his hand. He doesn't even have the decency to pull you into an alley or doorway, he just rapes you right there on the sidewalk: there's a cigarette butt smoldering less than a foot from your face, you can smell the smoke, and you can hear the el is still coming and going, and all you can think of is the blinding pain you're in and it's wet between your legs, is that blood, and all you wanted to do that day was go to work. Or to school.

Streets of Chicago may not have much in common with the streets of Conakry. I don't know what kind of a country Guinea is. I don't know if anything like this would ever happen in this country: I tend to believe we're not that far off. A few months ago I found out about a documentary called Dream Worlds 3--incredibly disturbing--about sex and power in the music industry that displays how horribly women are treated and objectified in this country, and not just by movie stars, but by anonymous assholes who think its cool to spray women with Colt 45. It's not enough for me to shrug my shoulders at the Evil stalking the surface of the earth and sigh about the fallen state of the world. I can't fly to Guinea and prosecute anyone, I can't even vote on a sanction or condemnation or whatever bureaucratic slap on the wrist the UN has come down with . But it can't be okay that women are treated like this in any part of the world. There must be something to do.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

hold up a mirror.

things I do, have recently done or am preparing to do that I never thought I would/swore I never would:
  • "dressed down" to go to the symphony: ie. jeans and flats.
  • took a spin class.
  • liked the spin class.
  • talked to a perfect stranger about his sexual health and my own, for the purpose of advising his future decisions.
  • allowed a man to put a big honkin' diamond on my finger. And LOVED it.
  • shopped with any degree of regularity at Whole Foods Market.
  • meditate.
  • lived with a man before I was married to him.
  • bought tight jeans because they were tight, instead of jeans that were more comfortable.
  • joined a club--in the membership, dues-y sense of the word.
  • seen an acupuncturist on a regular basis.
  • been the type of person who would consider attending benefits and writing checks over volunteering with my time and talents.
  • been the type of woman who would request that her partner "wear the sexy thing to bed I like."
  • been the type of person seduced into moving into an apartment by the stainless steel appliances.
  • been the type of woman who loves to wear high heels.
  • considered having a kid not to be the worst fucking thing in the world to happen to me.

The thing I'm learning about myself is that I make a lot. A LOT. of snap judgements, and almost every time they blow up in my face. This list just forces me to confront that I'm not the woman I swore I'd be when I was 17, or 21, or even 26. It would seem to me that a lot of the things I am/do have made me less conservative than I used to be, but not all of them. Some of them perhaps are things to be ashamed of: despite the fact that there are some things I just have to buy at Whole Paycheck to stay healthy, I'm still not so keen on spending money there; I miss volunteer work: a good fundraiser is fascinating, fun, and frankly good material, but I miss the pitching in--although nothing is standing in my way but me. And I never thought I'd even consider having children. I suppose the good thing, and one of the most interesting, about life is that it changes you. It allows you to forgive yourself for being too tired to put on another pair of binding tights to go hear Diane Reeves tear it UP at the Symphony Center; it allows you to delight in the choice to build a home with your partner without feeling the pressure of having to commit to something you aren't yet ready to. It allows you to find the different ways to speak to God, to hear His voice and commune without using words that are threatening or challenging or discouraging. Allowing your life choices to surprise you every now and then is freeing, and kind of difficult, but it continues to be worth the thing I learn about myself.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


The National Public Radio affiliate here in Second City has been airing a story that has my attention called Twice as Deadly: The Race Gap in Breast Cancer. Turns out that black women in Chicago are less likely to contract breast cancer as white women, but twice as likely to die from it.
Please, don't believe me. Go listen, and discover for yourself.
This isn't a post about me shaking my fist at the white man for being white and privileged, which I sometimes do here. This isn't about my righteous anger. This is about a disease that is killing women like me in the city where I live.
I don't have a lot of experience with breast cancer. The first women I ever knew who found a lump was in my fifth grade class. She was black, her name was Kari, and she told all of us girls about it though not without her fair share of discomfort about it. It was just a cyst, if I remember, not a tumor, and the body cysts all the time, right? But I was in fifth grade: do you remember fifth grade? Being old enough to wear shorts under your skirt so that when you climbed the jungle gym you could hang upside down without unwittingly showing off your underwear, and your teacher reading A Wrinkle in Time, one chapter a day, and hanging on her every word, and eating tuna salad sandwiches that your dad packed for lunch that got soggy because they'd been smashed up against a bag full of browning apples and a juicebox. Science experiments and spelling quizzes and picture day and band class; all of this ease and satisfaction and entitlement of late elementary school life grossly interrupted by the appearance of something growing in the as-yet-not-fully-developed breast of an 11-year-old girl. I didn't know much, but I knew that things weren't supposed to grow in your breast.
In college I did a lot of volunteer work for to raise money for breast cancer research, but it never really knocked through the bubble that I'd built around myself. It was a noble and necessary good work I could do, but nothing with any significance for me.
Then, last year, my grandmother found a lump.
I was pretty surprised--duh--but I mean, indignantly surprised. Like, how dare this happen in my family? I mean, sure there are a number of health risks that plague black women: heart attacks kill more women than men (or at least used to) because we ignore the signs, thinking something else is wrong with us like indigestion or heartburn, or we don't care enough for ourselves because we're caring for everyone else. Heart disease had claimed family members, hypertension ran in my bloodlines too, even diabetes, yes, okay, but wait, breast cancer? We don't get breast cancer in my family. That's a white woman's disease.
All kinds of blind spots I had about this fact, this fact that had grown in my grandmother's breast, been cut out once before, and had grown back again.
God, was I freaked. It was all I could write about for a while, tethered to my arm like a soggy red balloon, following me into my work, into my art, into the doctor's office with me. It changed the way I filled out paperwork. It changed the way I gave myself a monthly breast exam. It changed the way I thought about my mother's body, my own body.
Cancer is one of the great mysteries of the medical world, right? We have ideas about exposure to chemicals that cause chemicals, and ideas about what fruits and veggies to eat that can lower our risk, but really. We're dealing with the creepiest kind of guerrilla biological warfare inside the body, right? One day a mammary tissue cell or a pancreas tissue cell decides it wants to be something different, and convinces a few friends to make the same change, and then they tell two friends, and so on and so on, and then it's about what your body is doing to itself.
I started writing here in part to talk about my own tumors, fibroid and non cancerous, living in my uterus. Sometimes I hate that they're there, all silent and bulky and not good for much, just taking up space and getting in my way. They make me feel heavy and unhealthy and they make me want to shout at my own viscera for choosing not to do what it should do. But they're nothing compared to the struggle that women go through with cancer that destroys their bodies with an insatiable appetite, warring on the healthy parts of themselves. To learn that the racial and socio-economic segregation that still grips Chicago not only guarantees substandard housing and severely limited access to quality food at an affordable price, but now also means that black women who contract breast cancer are twice as likely to die from it as white women here, it moves me to a deeply sad silence.
(as evidenced here by all these words.)
I'm not a sociologist, or a geo-pathologist or anything even remotely close. But I do think WBEZ's reporting on this matter is thorough. I am a black woman who has been touched by cancer. It hurts me, and frankly, it scares me, to know that in my hometown there's a disease gunning for me and mine. And it's winning.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Lipstick Jungle

I read a really interesting essay/book review in last month's Atlantic about the place where Helen Gurley Brown, John Edwards and Rielle Hunter intersect. (Am I the only one out there who doesn't know who Helen Gurley Brown? I'm kind of astonished that I've lived this long and tried to expose myself to as much as possible and missed this, but it's just more testament that I'm poorly read. Mea culpa.) Brown wrote a book called Sex and the Single Girl at the behest of her husband in 1962. The article makes this woman sound like part battle ax-part sex kitten in a humble cardigan and pearls, and I was really drawn into this woman's world. She grew up dirt poor in Arkansas and then moved to Los Angeles with her mom and sister and got a job as a secretary to support her family. Writes essayist Caitlin Flanagan, "At her age, working in an office could have been the prelude to a diamond solitaire and a farewell bridal shower, but the acne and the wagonful of baggage (the widowed mother and the crippled sister) were liabilities she could not overcome. She became, instead, a round-heels, a bawdy creature who was available to be kept, if the price was right--even if the sex was dreary or worse--and who had no problem asking her lovers for cash gifts instead of trinkets."

Helen (if I might call her this ) was one evening abandoned by the other office girls who'd gone to one of many ubiquitous bridal showers, to which Helen had, ahem, not been invited, and, in a fit of revenge, Helen wrote an essay for a Glamour magazine contest that won her a trip to Hawaii. When she returned, she did so with a tan and a new attitude. She worked her way around the office girls who'd scorned her and past some of the men she'd worked for, until she was more highly paid than many of the men in her firm.

What an awesome story, I'm thinking as I read this essay. This has all the makings of the kind of stories we love to hear: humble beginnings, starting at nothing, overcoming adversity of poverty, loss of parent, physical disfigurement, and alienation by coworkers, to become a wildly successful copywriter and to marry a Hollywood producer divorce eight years her senior, a man more interested in companionship and stability, and not so much raucous sex escapades. This woman is getting what she wants, doing it her way, and she's not suffocating underneath a feckless husband and insatiable babies! Jackpot!

Until I read that Helen crafts her book, Sex and the Single Girl, for Marian the Librarian and Miss Moneypenny, as a How-to manual for stealing husbands. She says, "I'm afraid I have a cavalier attitude about wives." Her book seems to be a crystal clear guide to changing your life so that you can catch a man, and what better place to shop than at the office, where the career fellas are already attached but looking for something new?

(Inicdentally, this is where John Edwards begins to show his face, married to what many consider to be an amazing woman, heads and shoulders smarter than himself, who's also conquered many trials, including cancer and the loss of their 15-year-old son. Rielle Hunter is not far behind, painted in the article as an avid follower of Helen Gurley Brown's advice, with the small but fatal mistake of hoping that when you land the married man that you fall in love with him and hope that he will leave his life behind and start a new one with you. Helen warns that for all the painting and changing and trapping you do, that this expectation should never be kept. The wife will always, win, she said, if "she's loving and smart." It's a really provocative article.)

Yes, it's true. I'm sensitive to something like this. I'm about to marry a man and standing on the precipice of a lifetime commitment to another human being in a country where getting a divorce is as common as a getting a latte, well, it makes me a little jumpy. Sure. But I found myself pretty down in the mouth about the idea of empowering women who were heretofore wallflowers and by teaching them how to engage in extra-marital affairs.

This is such a loaded issue. For one thing it presupposes that men are nothing more than brainless bots, ruled only by their hormones and few fleeting emotions, and that they're just looking for the best lay. We women are cunning and insensitive Dionysian she-warriors, who are competing for our favorite man-toy to satisfy us in whatever way we choose, and men are just pretty, entertaining, but ultimately disposable. But that ain't right; that ain't the world we live in. The world we live in is full of flawed, frail men and women who often get confused and make bad choices, who are frightened of what could go well, or what could go really wrong, and who act out because they can't communicate their needs.

So why, in a world where relationships are complicated, where eight out of ten couples is either unhappily married or divorced, where successful monogamy is an endangered species, why would we want to divide each other by being the thing that comes between two committed people?

I don't know. I suppose there's some subset of the straight male world (and perhaps of the gay male world too, although I lack the experience to talk about it) that behaves as if love is a battlefield. Men are absolutely competitive, attempting to lure and impress women from everything from their sexy cars to their knowledge of literature or politics to their ability to perform acts of kindness: whatever they think will get them the score. So I guess it should be just as cutthroat for the straight ladies as Pat Benatar says it is. If men must compete over who is taller, smarter, more sensitive or a better partner and provider, why shouldn't women compete over who is taller, smarter, more sensitive or a better partner and provider? I tend to think the answer is because on a bad day women are capable of the most hateful, bitchy, unkind, judgemental and damaging behavior possible. We women are so kind to each other, and we have practiced our tools of competition and unkindness for a long time. We compete over our looks and cloak this competition in an arty label like "the fashion industry." We compete over who is more authentic in her own sense of beauty based on what she does with her hair, or who is a better partner based on her earning potential, or for crying out loud, how wide her hips are. We compete all the bloody time, and not to our benefit. So it disappoints me to know about Helen Gurley Brown's inception of such a cavalier attitude about commitment and such a willingness to battle over "someone else's man."

I don't like thinking about what makes marriages dissolve, what causes them to fail; I prefer to think about what happens in my own relationship that causes success or struggle. This means I don't feel too threatened by the idea of some spectacled, scotch-drinking, Salman-Rushdie-loving, leggy blond sweeping in and stealing my husband (to-be); I work really hard on my relationship and how to make sure that his needs are met and that we're hearing each other. I just wish that women everywhere thought enough of themselves not to pick at someone else's relationship. Each of us is worth having a love that is ours, just ours, delightedly and fully and for as long as we can take it ours, instead of consoling ourselves by playing fast and loose with someone's borrowed honey. For fuck's sake we're women: we're better than that.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

date night.

Friday evening I was getting dressed to go out with my sweetheart. We'd bout tickets to a jazz concert at the symphony center and were going to have a fine dinner first. I'd been feeling physically out of sorts for days, had come home from work cold and tired, and the idea of getting gussied up didn't make me feel great, so he and I agreed to dress down.

He came into the bedroom where I was putting on finishing touches. My locks are in that fantastic albeit frustrating stage where they make a great sized but irregular bun, and in a fit of going for the shape of the bun, I tied them all up in a black scarf at the nape of my neck. He came in and a torrent of words fell out of me, about how I wasn't sure that this was the right shirt to wear and wearing it meant I had to wear a sweater and I didn't want to wear a sweater because the shirt was so cute but if I didn't I knew I'd be cold and that my hair wasn't cooperating and I couldn't really see it despite holding a hand mirror in front of the bathroom mirror and what do you think how does it look?

He looked at me, hands in his pockets, eyes smiling behind his spectacles, and said, "I think I'm glad I'm marrying you."

It's nice to have a man in my life who, completely spontaneously, can speak his heart, and make all of my tiny irritations not matter as much anymore.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

How's that for a girly instrument?

The first comes from a friend (thank you, Lady of little means!), and reminded me how much woodwinds rule, despite the fact that you can almost never hear them on the marching band field.

The second is for all of you Mamet fans out there.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

I fell down the stairs.

In line to get my vegetarian burrito bowl yesterday, I overheard one woman talking to another about relationships with husbands. Brunette friend was telling blond friend about how much her husband shouts, and blond friend countered with a story about her own husband.

"He threw a stick of cocoa butter at the wall." (I've never heard of cocoa butter coming in sticks, but I'm willing to concede that my eavesdropping skills need improvement.) "When I asked him what was wrong with him he told me he was just mad because he'd had an hour and a half commute home from work." She laughed uneasily and adjusted her purse strap on her shoulder.

"He isn't mean, he just throws things," she said.


Wasn't there some part of her, some little teeny voice that screamed at the top of its little teeny lungs, "hey! Maybe this guy is kind of dangerous and unsafe if he gets so angry that he throws things! This is a bad idea!"?

Guess not. It might be more common than I know that women soothe and silence that part of themselves by saying, it's okay, honey. Instead of throwing that quart of ice cream at the wall, he could be throwing you at the wall, and he's not, so just stay quiet, stay under the radar, and thank your lucky stars that he's not mean, he just throws things.

I don't have much else to say about this. I'm just so disappointed. There are some things that I think with the world shrinking and Americans becoming better informed, that should just fade away as a behavior of antiquity, and domestic abuse is one of them. I thought we women were too smart to continue to allow ourselves to wind up in these situations. But I'm wrong. And I'm sad about it.