Friday, December 24, 2010

loss of yuletide innocence.

I wish I had some lovely picture to attach to this blog, something that was stunning in its composition and was the perfect blend of joy and nostalgia and confusion and sadness that I feel. But all that's on my camera are pics of the intersection of Western and Pratt Avenues, and a couple pictures of my husband poking himself in the nose.

I'm writing this from San Jose, California. Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite has been set to animation of Tom and Jerry, and my mother-in-law is slouching in a fashion reminiscent of my husband's watching it silently, rapt. Northern Cali is temperate for December; I am without my family, a family that would be trying their best to enjoy the holiday with me but I'd be struggling with our special brand of dysfunction. Instead I'm struggling with the Chang brand of dysfunction.

As a child I used to love Christmas. I was so excited by the darkness and the lights, the joy of opening amazingly gorgeously wrapped presents, the moving mystery of celebrating the birth of Christ. I used to get so excited about Christmas cookies and crackers and fresh fir trees. There was just so much magic in the season.

Now, all the magic is gone. I reminisced today about the day I found out there was no Santa Claus. There are no cookies, there are few around me who feel the way I do about the mysterious, spiritual nature of this holiday.

Tonight my Favorite and I are going to a late-night Christmas service. It's the first time I've done something like that. I pray for candles and carols and contemplation, and a remembrance of Christ. I pray that He still has the power to remind me of what I love about Christmas.

Monday, December 6, 2010

from the journal.

So twenty minutes ago my husband and I were talking. He was, oh-so-graciously warming my feet with his hands, and I was reading to him something I'd jotted down in a recently-taught workshop. Nice work if you can get it, I know. I read it to him because I thought I'd put it here. It's an incomplete telling of a malevolent stepmother who gives her teenage stepson a blow job in pursuit of a superpower that he doesn't know he has. It can only be transmitted genitally, evidently.

"Sexy," he says, when I've finished reading. "I told you about this website, clean$heet$dotcom, yeah?"

"No, what is that?"

"Something like this would be perfect here."

Turns out it's a website for "literary erotica"=mediocre storytelling meets mediocre sex.

I sigh and grumble: turns out sex is still too hard and vulnerable-making for me to write well, at least in the ten minutes I gave myself in the last workshop.

So, instead.

Mom never let her do her homework on the table, so she was splayed out in the living room floor. Her math book was open, a sheet of paper under her hand, between her fingers a dull nub of a pencil.

Will's footfalls thudded against the floorboards, and she felt the vibration against her ribcage, even through the braided rag furg on the floor. He clomped through the living room to the kitchen where her mother was sweating over several pots on the stove. All was silent, then she heard, "Get the hell off me, you see me tryin' to fix dinner."

Will came out of the kitchen, his hands on his hips. Bea could see his body, tall, angry, in the dining room. The light above the dining room table was on: Will's eyes were in darkness but Bea watched his lips move as he said, "Damnit Annette, all a man wants when he get through workin' is a cold beer and a little sugar. is that to much to ask, Annette? Is you to good to give me that?" He said her name, Annette, in two syllables, hitting the first just as hard as the second. Ann-nette. It sounded so hard and heavy in Bea's ear, and she winced, rubbing her ear against her shoulder, to rub the sound of his voice out of her head. She couldn't feel it, but the corners of her mouth were turned down in a frown, two commas creasing her cheeks;she couldn't see it, but in the kitchen, hovering over the stove, the same frown dug into her mother's face.

From far away she heard her mother's voice continuing the argument. "Yeah, it ain't to much to ask if I ask for help with the cleaning or the washing up after dinner."

"Get onea them kids to do it. Ain't that what you had all them kids for? Besides, I worked too hard all day just to come home and clean up after your black ass."

"If my ass so black, what you doin reachin for it all the time?"

He laughed a laugh like a dirty car engine. "'Cause black is how I like 'em."

Bea hated it when her parents were like this. The way they act, she could never tell if they were fighting or flirting. They go from friendly to mean so fast. And they were always shouting.

Annette's head popped out of the kitchen and peered into the shadow of the living room. "Bea! Get in here and set this table."

She scrambled up from the rug, all knees and elbows, and went through the dining room into the kitchen. She hoisted a stack of plates out of an overhead cabinet, feeling her father's eyes measure and examine her body. He was standing in the doorway, and when she passed between them with the plates, he pinched her ass, right underneath where it was fullest. God, she thought, he's always doing that. I wish he'd just keep his hands to himself.

Monday, November 22, 2010

frog boiling slowly.

I was at work the other day listening to the BBC News Hour, and I heard a story about how great it is living in Singapore. It's an incredibly international place, with myriad Asian and Indian populations, and attracts businessmen and ex-pats from all over the world. It's clean, prosperous, cultured, crime-free, and its citizens are happy with their wonderful quality of life.

But it has these rules. Rules about things like spitting and littering and vandalism that get American teenagers caned, yes. But rules also about things like saying what you want to say about the government. According to this story--which I haven't found yet, google your heart out--speaking out against government leadership can get you publicly ostracized and economically blackballed by the government and anyone else who wants to save their skin and protect their interests. Not only can the government fine and/or imprison you, but anyone you know has to turn their backs on you. What baffled this reporter (and me too) is that so many of the citizens in Singapore seem just fine with this kind of censorship. The prevalent attitude seemed to be, "Yeah, okay, so we don't have your 'free speech' or whatever, but who needs it? We're clean and well-fed, we're educated and employed: our needs are met. What do we really have to complain about?"

Now there is a small community of people who believe this system of government is out of line, who are resisting this willful ignorance and are fighting for their right to speak their minds. But it is small, and what they're doing is dangerous.

What scares me about it so much is that it seems to be happening in so many places.

I've been hearing lots of stories on NPR about Chinese citizens who leave their villages and go to county seats, or even to the capital, Beijing, to complain about corruption, deceit, and destitution perpetrated by the local government on its citizens. These people, who complain, are imprisoned without any trial or cause. They lock their own citizens up in hotels that double as prisons, torturing them, barely feeding them. For months, even years. One girl, a twelve year old, is living on the streets; she went to Beijing with her mother, who was taken away for filing a complaint. She didn't want to stay home in her village. If she were still home, though, she could have been in school; now she's homeless, without any family. There are hundreds of these people, being denied their own humanity, because they are speaking out against their own government.

I'm not so naive as to believe that this kind of thing hasn't, or doesn't still, happen in our country. I know about people who lost their jobs in the Fifties because of one man's paranoia that he couched as vigilance against Communism. And I'm sure that I'd be sickened by the things my government does to its citizens in the name of protecting American Democracy. But are we so gripped by fear that we're willing to allow our basic human rights to be taken from us, just so we can live more comfortably?

This weekend an Ohioan raised a ruckus because she was allegedly violated by a TSA agent in a pat-down while flying. Someone wrote in to comment on the story and said, "if you don't like it, don't fly. I feel safer knowing my fellow passengers have been searched." This person's in good company, too. But I'm not sure: I'm not willing to let some security agent stick a latex-fingered glove between my legs just so that I know that everyone else on the plane has been subjected to as much scrutiny. When does good security cross the line and become sexual assault? Can we ensure the safety of our citizens without debasing them by subjecting them to such intimate and harsh scrutiny? And don't we have the right to protest if we feel we're being taken advantage of in the name of security?

My husband and I are getting on a plane in a few weeks. I don't know what to expect, I don't know who's going to touch me where, and I don't know what profile they're going to use when they look at me. But I know I can feel the temperature rising. And I don't like it.

Friday, November 12, 2010

a window into the work.

Poor—adjective, noun plural. What your parents work tirelessly to avoid being now that your family has moved to The Suburbs. Poor is delineated by: buying and wearing used clothing; having cooked rice for breakfast (because it is cheaper and more available than designer cold cereals) (ironically, as an adult you do both of these things by choice, not out of economic necessity); poor hygiene and mediocre grooming habits (a fact your mother would NEVER allow to be true about you, see also nappy); infestation of vermin and or insects; irregular bedtime patterns; inability to speak with proper verb tenses or subject-verb agreement; malnutrition; ashy skin and bare feet.
Both your parents were plagued with the concrete reality of being poor growing up. Your parents work for years at jobs they don’t like, in order to make the money that allows them to forget that they know what poor feels like: the rub against the skin, the emptiness in the stomach, the burning sadness and frustration churning in the heart of poor. They have survived it like warfare. They have toiled diligently, desperately, incessantly, to prevent the stench and infection of poor from touching their adulthood or your life. You are not poor and you do not know poor.

Monday, November 1, 2010


I feel the spirit of a wanderer on me today. I think it's been here for quite some time.

On the mat this morning, I realized that I've been torn between feeling the need to move and the reality of staying. It might be easier if there was something compelling me to set down roots and make something here, something steady and permanent. I whined to my Favorite the other day that maybe I should be more like the people we know, people with "real", steady jobs who want to make babies and knit doilies and invest in 401K's.

I can't help feeling like this is an inherently female struggle. I'm sure that's not the case, but it seems to me that the men I know just aren't beset by the question of life choices that make them happy and life choices that make them comfortable. I'm not saying men have it easier because they don't have to make these kinds of choices; I'm saying that I don't know how many men think like this, what they should do versus what they want to do. I don't know how many of them feel this tension.

My Favorite and I are looking at ways to make plans: immediate, middle distance and long term. I get skittish about the things that I want to be true about my life and how they accommodate--or don't--those plans. Is it reasonable to plan for a life abroad for a month? Three? Six? Is it reasonable to consider completing a PhD program in the next ten years? Do I even want a PhD? Is it even reasonable to hope that this book I'm working on will actually get me any of the things I want (namely, a wider scope of recognition as a writer and enough leverage to contend for a teaching position on which I can earn a decent living)?

I feel plagued by uncertainty. I'm not depressed about it, but I feel very much like I'm walking through fog, and that it's quite difficult for me to tell what it is that I want, which is rare. Even in all of this, I don't want to send my roots deeper into the ground; I want to fly. But I just don't know how the skies are, or if I'm strong enough.

Blame it on the falling leaves.

Monday, October 4, 2010


It has been so hard for me to write here within the last couple of months. I've been spending a lot of energy writing in other places, as of yet, places that are simply not as public as this one is, and that makes it hard to share. It isn't that I'm not reflecting, not thinking or speaking or engaged with the world. It's that I'm doing so much of that other places, that trying to do it here also feels somehow a little forced. I think, "what can I write about on my blog today/this week?" which feels a lot less genuine than the things that I have to scribble down urgently at night, or for hours while the sun is still high.

I've been reading lots of others' papers. Diane Arbus, an American photographer I didn't know until a dear friend exposed me to her work. Her photos make me think of what we know as our American experience, and what we show or hide from the camera, from the world. Sylvia Plath. I suppose it's no accident that I happen to be reading these women at the same time, reading the prose of a poet who struggled with things that were and still are challenging for me: identity, commitment, vulnerability, discovery and the ever moving beast that is making art. A Moveable Feast, a book that languished on my shelf for years until I recently picked it up; I am kicking myself for not having read it sooner, despite my Hemingway bias, but now is better than never--better for my writing, for certain. Francine Prose and her discussion of books and writing, that I want to use both as a writing and teaching tool.

I am thinking, sometimes with lust, sometimes with fear, always with intensity, about travel. Movement, and work and relationship, and how to see and do and know more of the world in a safe and risky way that will invest in my private life and my shared life.

I am teaching, and off to a rip-roaring and quite fun start.

I am working, writing, so hard.

On top of which, I've been processing, slowly, like chewing cabbage, a lot of history that is locked in my body and mind, some recent, some long past, and it makes touching and engaging the real world--being present and meeting the demands of others--at times quite difficult.

It's hard to shed light on what's on my mind these days. It'd look rather like a mind map or a bulletin board of some kind: snippets of quotes and images, some of things I never thought I'd look at, and receipts with phrases jotted down on the back of them and a map of Paris and a found red mitten.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

593 Gilbert Street, Christmas 2007

what is it that you really find, when you begin to excavate in your past, peeling back paint and promises and stories told over and over? what waits for you there, showing itself to be the truth?

Monday, September 13, 2010

On consideration of the artist's process

Thank you, Paul Edwards.

From a letter from Diane Arbus to Marvin Israel:

A parable: yesterday on the Fifth Ave bus Amy found a little padlock and a key on the end of a knotty chain. She played with it delightedly locking and unlocking it, and then decided it would be better without the chain so she undid the key from the chain, and very pleased, like she'd solved everything, she slid the hook of the padlock through the hole in the key and locked the padlock. Now the key cannot be lost but it cannot be used either.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

what I did with my summer vacation

September dawned wet and gray here; it felt like a giant middle finger from Mother Nature. I know, I know, everything that grows dies, without the decay and slumber of autumn and winter there would be no blossom and ripe of spring and summer. I know that we haven't seen the last of warmth or sun for a while yet. But while my honey wished me a Happy September, veritably vibrating with pleasure at the turning season and his imminent birthday, I grumbled about the temp dip that approaches and dreaded this afternoon's faculty meeting.
So in the spirit of the first assignment back to school,
What I did on my Summer Vacation:

  • I wrote. And wrote. More than I was prepared for, and in quite a satisfying way.
  • I taught writing workshops to a bright, dynamic group of Chicago teens for After School Matters at Gallery 37.
  • I taught a writing intensive for the Albany Park Theatre Project, one of my most beloved ensembles here in the city. I love what they do.
  • I stood on the top of a dormant volcano, more than ten thousand feet above sea level.
  • I married my best friend.
  • I had a kick-ass wedding.
  • I spent time with old friends I hadn't seen in years, and new friends I'd just met, although not nearly enough time with any of them.
  • I broke up with two women, one of whom was a close friend, the other whom I thought was a close friend, but just turned out to be a whiter, younger version of my mother.
  • I flew halfway around the world to spend a week in paradise with my husband. I giggled, I broke out in a rash (stupid sunblock), I kayaked, I luaued.
  • I ate meat for the first time in nearly three years.
  • I read books.
  • I saw movies.
  • I did Marychiasana II.
  • I met some family that were warm and kind and really sweet to me.
  • I rode in a hot air balloon over rolling hills and plains of northwestern Illinois and southwestern Wisconsin.
  • I began apprenticing at a yoga studio in Rogers Park.
  • I had breakfast with a writer friend I hadn't seen in several years, and rejoiced in the truth that sometimes relationships are easier than you think they are.
  • I almost beat my husband at Scrabble.
  • I gave this blog a face lift.
  • I grieved.
  • I laughed.
  • I connected.
  • I learned a ton about myself as a teacher, about my strengths and weaknesses, and ways I can grow in order to provide the best experience for my students and myself.
  • I had a five elements acupuncture treatment.
  • I rested. I rode bikes. I spent a fair amount of cozy-cozy time with my Favorite and I showed more discipline than I thought I had in my own life.
  • I learned that the thing to do is what is set in front of you, fully and wholly, without attachment to the outcome.

So if every summer is as full as this one, then who needs fall or winter? This season felt full, burgeoning. I'm not looking forward to the slowing down and scaling back and piling on and the sluggish, moody, dark that is the back half of the year. I know a few people for whom autumn and winter are the best season, the time when they grow into luscious fullness, and hey, it has to be good for somebody. But summer, I just know it, is super good for me; I gotta find somewhere I can stand to live where it lasts longer than it does here.

Monday, August 30, 2010

radio silence?

Today's reason why I love this woman so much is because she shamelessly cites National Public Radio programs on her blog. Terry Gross is my hero. Someone needs to teach me how to air interview so I can be the kind of rock star that woman is.

Lately I've been feeling really, really lukewarm about this whole blogging scene. I've been thinking a lot about what we say and why we put our voices into the world in the first place, Andy Warhol, Langston Hughes... my mind's a mash-up right now. I haven't lost any confidence in my voice, just perhaps some confidence in this space as a medium for it.

I suspect though, that there is something beautiful and good about the reality of speaking in hopes of an audience, and of listening in hopes of connection; some days we're not just yacking to hear the sounds of our voices, or listening to be entertained. Some days we're actually connecting.

... sigh.

Monday, August 23, 2010

I'd like a baby now, please

No, not me. My heart pounds and my ovaries scream in panic at the very thought.

But, I know a woman on this fantastic journey; she and her husband have just started trying to conceive. I am so glad I know her, so glad I still know her, so glad that she's chronicling her journey, and so SO glad I get to share it with you. Read her stuff at I'd like a baby now, please.

Lately I've been ricocheting about my thoughts about this blogging thing: not always sure how I feel about it from one day to the next, given some of the things I read, or write (or don't write). But this one, this makes me glad that there are people who do this.

Monday, August 16, 2010

silent does not mean static

"Consider Van Gogh. Among his many problems was... the cost of pigments. He couldn't afford the pigments he wanted and turned the lemons of poverty into lemonade by adding the sugar of precedent. He wrote to his brother Theo, who paid for his supplies, 'In case you should be a bit hard up, I could manage perfectly without the expensive blues and the carmine. One tube of Prussian blue yields as much as six of ultramarine or cobalt and costs six times less. Delacroix swore by that vulgar blue and used it often.' This is a prayer to Maya, the Hindu goddess whose name translates as illusion.

"Maya is a necessary god. We must maintain illusions. We must maintain the illusion that what we create matters and that we are not pointless, discardable energy packets but creatures every bit as valuable as our best sentences seduce us into believing that we are. We must create these adaptive illusions and then believe them, even though we know that we ourselves have created them. If you want to know why Existentialists call life absurd, this is why...

"Every honest, intelligent person will see through her adaptive illusions often enough. That isn't the main problem. Suddenly writing poetry or stage plays may seem meaningless and ridiculous to you. All right. That realization isn't the danger. The danger is that you will forget that you must maintain your illusions by force of will and that this moment must be met with a hearty Of course! I always knew that about poetry! Nothing new here! You must quickly argue yourself back into the belief that poetry matters--at least to you--or face a meaning crisis in proportions you do not want to contemplate."

--Eric Maisel, A Writer's Paris

Saturday, July 17, 2010

8 July 2010 Thank you, Lawrence Weiner


Tuesday, June 22, 2010

one year later

It's been a year since I began using this space as a place to write, to make noise about race and art and relationship. I haven't given much thought to units of time measurement. As a girl, days were all I had, weeks were too long, months seemed unbearable and years, unknowable. When I graduated from college I spent three months feeling like I was skating through a vacuous white space, unsure of where I was, because all my life's efforts had been building to that date in 2002--which, incidentally, was my birthday.

But now a year seems reasonable. A year ago I was eager to get done some of the stuff that was on my "stuff to do before I turn 30 list" (sadly, no progress whatever, but not for lack of trying), and to push myself ambitiously and artistically. It's been a year, and things have happened. People have revolved in and out of my life, the nature of several relationships has changed--namely, I'm a married lady--and I've grown a lot into the fullness of myself. But some things have stayed the same: our apartment is as it was, with perhaps more appliances working than before; my job is both in the most satisfying and nauseating of ways, still the same.

But I wonder if change is the way to measure growth. It is with something. If a plant doesn't go to seed, in order to propagate, it's going to die, right? It has to grow taller and fuller, to be fed and to respond to that food, in order to grow. So it is with people: if anything stops moving it begins to atrophy.

But people are more nuanced. A person keeps growing regardless of the fact that they may not get any taller. While the major majority of things around me look the same as they were a year ago, I know that they're not.

I turned 30 on the 22nd. He took me to dinner at a sushi restaurant where he'd taken me for my birthday the year we began dating each other, three years ago. It was nice to be in a place we'd been in before, to remember the newness of our relationship--which at that point wasn't even a relationship, was just two people dating and enjoying--in our present newlywed context. The food was amazing (a hamachi carpaccio I won't soon forget), and there was a lot of looking back. These days I feel an energy to look forward, to move toward what's next with his hand in mine. I find marriage, and turning 30, to be freeing acts; they make me want to fly instead of nest.

I don't know what's coming. He thinks 30 is going to be a good year. There's definitely some 29 shit to leave behind me, and some things to be tidied up. But maybe it will be.

Monday, June 21, 2010

you're glowing.

The sky outside my kitchen window turned an astonishing cloudy cool periwinkle blue tonight, and I stopped in the middle of doing dishes and making egg salad for lunch, to run out into it. Once outside, on the back porch, I discovered that the sky was the kind of color that makes everything under it the same color: sometimes the sky is an unreachable palette of color, sometimes it is a color that brings every other color into its fullest expression, but sometimes, it dyes the world beneath it. This night, the concrete, the untreated wood of my porch, the cars below, my arms and legs and my beloved's torn shorts on my legs, everything glowed, vibrated with this periwinkle blue.

I thrust myself into it, sitting down on the porch steps to let the blue soak into and glow off my skin. It was marvelous. I listened to birds, and bugs, and sirens and whines of planes arriving and departing, slicing their metal noses through the low clouds above.

And then, silent as grass growing, one at a time, the fireflies went off. Green: beep, beep.... beep,......... beep, beep. Their little rumps glowed one after another, each looking for her partner, hoping to find his mate.

I ran into the kitchen, and dragged my mate out of it, whose hands were still wet with soapy water. We sat, nearly silently, letting the sky turn our skin blue, whispering at the fireflies.

Summer is so perfect, and complicated and fleeting. I wish every day that I had more of it, that I lived in a place with summer six months out of the year, instead of three or less. I know I'd never take all that for granted.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

stoicism is for pussies.

Two weeks ago, my sweetheart sent me a New York Times article about stoicism as a principle of philosophy and what it costs American soldiers to employ stoicism in their practices protecting our nation and its interests. I reread this paragraph several times.

The Stoic doctrine is essentially about reducing vulnerability. And it
starts off where Aristotle leaves off. Aristotle insists that happiness depends
to some degree on chance and prosperity. Though the primary component of
happiness is virtue — and that, a matter of one’s own discipline and effort —
realizing virtue in the world goes beyond one’s effort. Actions that succeed and
relationships that endure and are reciprocal depend upon more than one’s own
goodness. For the Stoics, this makes happiness far too dicey a matter. And so in
their revision, virtue, and virtue alone, is sufficient for happiness. Virtue
itself becomes purified, based on reason only, and shorn of ordinary emotions,
like fear and grief that cling to objects beyond our control.

When he and I first got serious about each other. I'd tell him he was stoic. While it's true that beside my passion and energy even a Big 10 cheerleader is, at times, bound to seem stoic, he struck me as the kind of guy who was unflappable. He took everything in stride, and when he spoke about emotional extremes, he did so in a measured and rational way. This way of life is completely foreign to me. I feel everything so deeply, sometimes more than I wish I did. (And today is probably not the best day for me to be writing about stoicism and vulnerability. There's nothing like launching yourself into the stratosphere to marry your favorite person in the world to dilate you emotionally, only to crash back to the rocky surface of the earth and deal with the complicated detritus of your everyday existence.) So watching this man deal with things in a way that I didn't understand was at times fascinating, frustrating, confusing and maybe even scary.

One of his best friends, Frank Crist, died not long into our relationship. It was a strange and tenuous time for me; I knew Frank, and was sorry to lose him, but we weren't close. I didn't know how to respond to my sweetheart in the midst of his grief. He had a number of people around him grieving deeply over the loss of such a good man and a gifted writer and teacher, and they held each other in the best way they knew how and nursed their wounds. People aren't always good at dealing with emotions that scare them, but they did what they could.

I don't know how or what he was feeling when he was with me, after having lost Frank. I know that he was feeling something. I remember the morning that he woke up in my bed from a dream, sure that Frank had said goodbye to him. I remember the quiet, and the stillness, the feelings that masqueraded as stoicism, and the lightly tapping fingertips with which we touched each other around that time, confirming our presence, gently touching to accommodate tenderness.

And people change each other, right? They say that women in relationship are always trying to change men, and so men are loath to commit because they want to be free to be themselves and women are bending over backward not to come off as rigid, tyrant shrews who want to nag or manipulate our men into being someone else.

So my man isn't any Iraqi or Afghan veteran. He's someone with more than his fair share of sorrow and pain, but also with some pretty amazing blessings and talents. (Who isn't?) I don't know if he would describe himself as stoic, or as vulnerable. I think I know that he gets to be more vulnerable with me than maybe with anyone else he knows.

What a gift that is, to have someone in your life that you can be so vulnerable with. It isn't something that each of us have, it isn't something that it's easy to have and we shouldn't take it for granted.

We were standing underneath a chandelier, in front of a mantle, in what constitutes an altar in an antique warehouse, and I listened as he pledged himself, his life and his efforts to me and mine. Then I got to say this:

My Favorite, my ai-ren,
You are the man who loves me. You are the only man I have ever known who has not been too afraid to love me as I am. You are the most thoughtful, wisest and humblest person I know. You are a student of the world, and you teach me to listen, and to seek lessons in surprising places. You are a human who cares about humanity, and who seeks to make small but indelible marks on the hearts of others. You are Bear, my playmate, you are my best friend; you are the one who makes me feel held and safe and loved in this world.
I choose you as my husband and my partner. I promise to love, honor and respect you. I promise to be faithful to you, and to walk beside you in all things. I promise to support and encourage the artist in you, in whatever shape or form your artist’s life takes. I promise to love you even when you hurt me. I promise to try to speak with honesty and tenderness, and to listen with an open heart. I promise that whenever I am scared or angry, I will always try to move toward you, and not away from you.
I want to reflect back to you the humor, the beauty and the joy I see in you. I want to be the woman who provides room and safety enough for you to take the risks that will help you grow into the truest expression of your self. I wish for us a marriage that learns to balance togetherness and intimacy with individuality and solitude; I wish for us a life of growth and discovery, full of affection and sharing.
I am a better woman for loving you. I hold you in my heart as my favorite today and forever.

I wasn't a mess: I knew I'd be crying through the entire thing, and I did, so I had an antique lace-trimmed hankie to wipe at my face. But I was awash, I mean, I can't feel the bottom of the ocean floor awash, in my emotions. It felt great. I felt like standing there with him, feeling all that stuff that made me so knocked out, I was the safest I've ever been. Later, people came to me and told them how emotional our vows had made them, or how they were worried for me and what I was feeling. But not me; for all the lip trembling and the heavy breathing and the pausing I had to do, I felt so safe in my vulnerability with that man. My husband.

So of the two of us, I guess he's still the one who operates on a more even keel. But he's touchable; he's vulnerable; he feels things, and I'm better able to tell sometimes that he's feeling something.

Vulnerability absolutely comes at a high cost. It means that you spend a fair amount of your time feeling like crap, because not every feeling can be good. But I'm glad I have a partner who can touch and be touched.

Monday, June 14, 2010


So I have a story that's being run on Cellstories, a website that allows you to get short fiction on your smart phone on a daily basis. It's going up tomorrow, Tuesday June 15, in conjunction with 2nd Story, a cycle of oral storytellers I'm involved with here in Chicago. On June 15, even if you don't have a smart phone (like me, I don't have one) you can read it, just for the day at

Check it out.


returned. feeling a bit buried under the mountain of what piles up while you're in paradise, being all blissed out. lots to tell, but today, this is all I can offer to do the talking.

we are so happy.

Friday, May 28, 2010


the roller coaster begins. wish i had some tidy, pithy, stunning photos to provide you with what's around me and what's coming, but alas, the only one is below, taken last fall.

it's been getting steadily, incrementally more real as days go by. and now it's here.

i'm just trying to keep my eyes open and my feet on the ground. it helps when we can touch each other; makes me feel myself more.

right now, beneath me, the clack-clack-clack of the climbing car. my stomach's already dropping, in excitement, in fear, in anticipation.

lucky me, what an amazing person I have to fall with.

photo courtesy of grayscale photography

Monday, May 24, 2010

take the hit.

This morning I felt amazing. Literally brilliant. Supernatural. I stepped onto my mat, and one salutation in, I felt like light was shining out of my pores. I felt strong and graceful and competent, and very grounded.

Sadly, that feeling is pretty transient. Less than an hour later, while trying to iron out a detail or two of the remaining week, I suddenly became vulnerable again, made of flesh, not light or granite, human, pliable, and able to be hurt.

I'm getting married in seven days, six, if you don't count today. I've been quite quiet on this space because my wedding and marriage have been ruling the majority of my brain space for some time now, and this is not a wedding blog. I didn't want to log on here and use more of my time to think about centerpieces, or organizational skills, or conflict with loved ones. This is a space about questions and identity and discovery and joy and struggle. Weddings and marriages encase both of those, of course, but some of my life has felt so pedestrian lately, that I just couldn't bear spreading it all out here.

Things I've been meaning to think about instead of my wedding:

  • my upcoming 30th birthday
  • my long-form writing project, and what decisive direction I can take it in to continue trying to reach my goals as an artist
  • how to get a better teaching job, or a better job of any kind
  • how much longer my sweetheart and I want to live here in Chicago
  • how to get health insurance, now that my health insurance company has dropped me--or will, within the next 30 days
  • how to increase discipline into my life
  • how to make strides in my yoga practice, without actively wanting to be stronger or more flexible
  • his writing
  • his life as an artist

All these things I have run my fingers over, and then left behind on a shelf, to think about seating charts and bars and shoes and jobs for my hideously large family to do.

I am so looking forward to this coming day, to all of the people who will be there, who will be happy to be there, to have some of the magic and the beauty and the dedication that exists between me and mine rub off on them. I am equally looking forward to the time where we can sigh and sleep and tangle our limbs together and eat tasty food off our fingers and get up and go to bed when we want to. Rest.

I believe that something good happens when I am vulnerable, instead of indestructible. I believe that I am better able to feel, to feel myself, to feel the world around me, to feel loved ones, when I am soft and touchable, instead of invincible. It doesn't mean I don't get hurt; it's not even noon yet and I've already gotten hurt. I can't say something trite like it's worth it. I can only say that I want to be able to feel his fingertips, and all the hugs (good lord all the hugs) and the bubbles in my mouth, and that means taking the hit. Not bracing against it, just taking it.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

journal entry: notes on Manifest May 14, 2010

"Pickering reveals our predilection to deflect fear by trying to anticipate and plan for it--and our tendency to process it by turning it into narrative."

What marks do you use to show that people have been in a space? How do you see objects, footprints, detritus, fingerprints, smears on a place to reveal something about who lives here and the lives they lead?
a magazine shrine to Paris Hilton on a slanted wall--hiding a stairwell on the next floor--painted lavender. models. one leg in front of the other, blue water, palms.

(If I were going to go back to school, I'd want an interdisciplinary degree. I think theory is useful, but it's only useful to academics. I don't want to cut teeth and earn chops on it.)

"I am going because it is worthwhile, it is my particular challenge, it will most likely bring benefits, but that is not why--I am going because I would have no peace if I stayed."
The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst Sara Andrews

So many women in the BFA exhibit are white. An overwhelming number. Is it because so many of the photographers are white? Or is it because of the fashion industry's homogeneity? What does the industry say to a changing world? Does it say, give us more women of color we can put on the cover of our fashion mags? in movies?
and what do we say? loosen your grip on what's attractive, sexy, striking about women? How do you define pretty?

There's a lot of the white story being told. White women. White men. White families. Who's telling my story? Who's telling our story?

How much training in a thing does one need to practice it?

the s-word=should

"everyone had a drink in their hand to help them keep their balance"

"in a congregation, gossip moves on good intentions"

30 lines with my new name in memory of absent partner

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Project US

So occasionally I've lent my space to others who are doing things that I think people should know about, and today I wanted to share something that my friend Johanna Middleton is working on.
I met Johanna about a year ago, when we worked together on a stage play produced at Northwestern and directed by my good friend and Performance Studies professor Paul Edwards. She's an incredibly talented and focused woman, and she's recently shared with me a project that she's working on, that creates a forum wherein young people can talk about sexual health. Often this topic seems a bit radioactive, as evidenced by the woefully inadequate education in our school systems, and the blanketing of abstinence education from religious organizations as the only way of talking with young people about their sexuality. That's the reason I'm so excited about this project; it sounds empowering for young people, like it meets them as individuals and agents in their own destiny. I'm so excited about what Johanna's doing. She's hoping to take this project to a conference in Austin, and to continue her work in Chicago. If you're interested in how you can help further what she's doing, she can be reached at

Project US recently developed through collaboration between myself and a thoughtful and talented team of Northwestern alumni and students.
I am very proud of this program, which has toured to schools and youth conferences throughout Chicago over the past several months. Recently, Project US received an exciting honor. We have been invited to present and perform our play at the internationally acclaimed Theatre of the Oppressed Conference in Austin, Texas in June 2010. This is the worldwide hub of socially-engaged arts and education!
Project US is an original, participatory performance that works to initiate conversations around young people's sexual health. We created the project in response to the lack of comprehensive sexual health education in Illinois public schools. We strongly believe that it is necessary to create a space for productive and meaningful conversations around health and well-being for youth, using performance as a framework.
Devised in partnership with Chicago youth from schools and youth groups, Project US combines performance, improvisation, and participatory actions to actively engage young audiences in personal dialogue. It is designed so that young people steer the play’s direction; each performance is specific to the individuals in our audience. Students partake in a series of activities and games that actively engage them and challenge them to think and respond critically.
The response has been incredible! Young people tell us repeatedly how much they want more programming like this. When given the opportunity to take personal responsibility, a space to practice tools for healthy communication, and armed with accurate, comprehensive information, students are asking important questions. They are taking charge of their lives and developing the self-confidence and self-esteem to make healthy, informed decisions about their health and futures.
We partnered with Sisters Empowering Sisters (SES), the social justice and leadership youth group of the Chicago Girls' Coalition, on initial project planning and they have been on tour with us. They provide peer-led sex education trainings that supplement the performance. We also partner with the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health (ICAH), which serves as our umbrella organization.

Friday, May 7, 2010


I've been tearing through books lately--I go through fazes where I don't read much for months, and then for months I devour almost anything, really amuses my sweetheart--and I just this morning put one down that has been messing with me ever since I picked it up.

James Frey's Bright Shiny Morning.

I could write about my opinion about A Million Little Pieces, and the state of the American memoir, or I could write a review of the book, which is crafted artfully and thoughtfully and is a sprawling tale of an enormous community told well (sometimes alarmingly, viscerally, achingly well).

But I'm going to write about feelings.

Last week I read a book my Janice Y. K. Lee called The Piano Teacher, about interracial relationships separated by decades in Hong Kong. It was interesting, and I'm sure Ang Lee would make a beautiful film of it, with Ming-Na and Ralph Fiennes and Tony Leung and other Asian American actors, and mouth-wateringly gorgeous costumes and sweaty jungle air, and it would do well in the box office. But it made me think of relationships, and prioritization, and how you choose to love someone and how you give to them.

This James Frey book, it makes me think about Los Angeles, California (the book is set there) and why I've been in love with it for so long, and how, in a very real way, I've been longing to engineer my life and the life of my sweetheart to wind up there. And it makes me wonder if all that desire isn't absolutely misplaced, isn't me trying to make a mistake, make a choice I would later regret.

The last book that made me cry, really sob, was called The Bone People, about three New Zealanders--one white, two Maori--who made a misfit and at at times utterly dysfunctional family. It was painful and brutal in places, and I was profoundly affected by it. Lee's novel puts me in a place of wondering about the mashing of two different cultures, and if it's ever possible to succeed at loving across lines of that kind of demarcation. Frey's novel makes me think that the jewel I've been dreaming of on the west coast is really just a cesspool of damaged, deeply wounded people left to bake and congeal in the sunshine with really good PR.

The truth is that these books are good, really good, but not great. Not transformative for me as a writer, at least not yet. The truth is I lately feel like a cup of hot dark liquid filled to the brim, perched on top of a car or clutched in the hand of someone distracted, that is threatening to turn over and stain whatever I land on. I feel tender and emotional. My mom used to tell me, "Jessica, you feel things more deeply than anyone I've ever known." There are all kinds of theories about why people are excessively sensitive, right? It doesn't help that I'm three weeks away from a major life change.

Today I am looking at a gray sky, wishing it were blue, and thinking about what it is to be someone who feels so deeply, who, despite a fair amount of damage from a number of sources, still has skin the thickness of rice paper. Does it mean that a career as a writer is a colossally bad idea, and instead I should choose something with less public interface, like work in a warehouse? Does it mean that sensitivity is an endangered quality of the human condition, and it makes me a better artist, and that I should treasure and preserve it, despite the fact that that means a painful life?

Or is this just how everyone feels when they're about to get married?

p.s. Big thank you to my good friend, and great writer, Andrew. I don't think he reads this, but he's the reason I'm reading all these books.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

inside looking out

I've been listening to a lot of public radio lately. Recently, I heard a story on Worldview about the future of the niqab in France. It's been haunting me for days; Nicolas Sarkozy, that mispronouncing folksy tool with the insanely hot wife, said that the niqab was "not welcome on French soil." This, after it Belgium took steps to ban the niqab and the burqa in public places. It popped off a series of fireworks about who defines what it means to be French and how and why. I was hooked, listening to this series of men and women argue about the nature of their identity, of French identity and nationalism, of exposition and privacy.

But what do these things mean? They seem like issues that people don't think about very often. When I get dressed in the morning, I am almost always considering what I wear because I don't want to be cold at some point in the day, and the weather here is so unpredictable. With the onset of spring, I regret to say that I consider what kind of comments I might incur, and it sometimes affects what I wear. But not since I was living with my parents did I ever consider what I was wearing in terms of what kind of religious statement I might be making with it. Nor have I ever looked at a pair of jeans, a turtleneck sweater, a miniskirt or boots, and thought, well I can't wear this, it's just utterly un-American.

I bring up the issue of national identity, because in the course of the story, several people, including one of France's beloved poets, argues that wearing a garment like this--whether in pursuit of religious expression or not--is a decidedly un-French thing to do. It violates the tenets of the French Republic, some say, liberty, equality, fraternity. If one of us is plain and out for all to see, and the other is hidden and covered up, how can their be equality between we two? You must consider yourself better than be, in order to be veiled. You are permitted to see all of me, but you will show me only your eyes. This makes us unequal.

I think it's a valid argument, though not without its flaws. But I get stuck on the idea that someone exercising their right to choose how they practice their religion is an un-French thing to do. When identifying as French and identifying as Muslim go head to head, one of them must lose; the government will not allow you to be both, at least not in public.

Is it true that wearing a veil is a sign of female repression, perpetrated by a patriarchal religion that is misogynistic at its core? Is this kind of question akin to the question of hymen replacement surgery? Or is it just something that those of us who are not followers, with our western ideals, that only masquerade as open-minded, can never hope to understand? I don't know. This is such a land mine issue; there are some things about a culture that you just don't get if you don't know, and sweeping in to change it because it contradicts what we're comfortable with reeks of white missionaries converting natives. But the thing is, maybe I have unrealistic expectations of France. Maybe France does not promise its citizens the freedom to choose how to worship, and so it can legislate how you can and can't observe your religious practice.

But how many of these women, women who, like the women in this story, elect to wear the naqib as a gesture of empowerment and devotion, how many of them are light-skinned? How many of them "look French"? If such a thing even exists. Would people be making such a big deal out of this if those women desiring to wear this floor length veil that reveals only the eyes of its wearer, if these women had the eyes and skin of women whose families have been in France for centuries, instead of the eyes and skin of first generation French citizens?
In a few days, the UK is going to elect its next Prime Minister, and the coverage of this election tells me that English citizens are worked up over the issue of immigration. They struggle with people who aren't English, who come into their country and take their jobs and change their national identity. They sound alarmingly like some Americans. I suppose it's just my naivete, but I'd assumed that abroad, in Europe, the Old World, that ideas like this were anachronistic and anathema to what Europeans knew themselves to be, especially in the world culture. But the nature of the world is changing; immigration, which has been happening since forever, is perhaps easier or at least more prevalent, than maybe its ever been. It seems to me that white people who've known their national identity tied to their racial one are running scared.
I'm really grieved by this. The world isn't going to grow less diverse, only more. The sands are shifting. This kind of ignorance and fear based solely on white privilege doesn't bode well for the global community that's being created.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

i never promised you good poetry.

"That's not the kind of poetry I mean. What I mean is that you take a lot of words, put them together, and they tell you something. The whole point is that if you don't know where you are, the best thing to do is write a poem. All adventurers do that sort of thing. It's part of the job."
--from The End of the Beginning by Avi

"Can you see me?" he asked.
"I'm not sure," I said.
I touched his arms, his shoulders,
cradled the soft black of his head.
"Who are you?"
"I'm the man who loves you."
His voice trembled,
the ripple of which I saw in his eyes.
"Can you see me?" I asked.
He nodded.
"Who am I?"
"You're the woman that loves me," he said,
and a thing in me dissolved, and was swept away on the torrent.
For the moment, I was content to remain blinded,
and to trust his vision.

It is a hard thing to walk,
to trust that the ground is beneath your feet,
when the fog is so thick
that you can't see your feet.
A plane fell out of the sky yesterday, and a head of state lost his life.
So did his wife, a sculptor,
and ninety-four other important people; they,
distracted by their own mourning,
by the familiar pomp and ritual of remembrance,
couldn't see the ground rushing up to meet them through the fog.
Light bends, the eye flutters:
when I was six I swore I saw an ant
the size of a cat
crawl through my parents' laundry room.
What was it? A shadow? A ghost? A fear of ants?
Or was it the fog, crawling toward me, that scared me so?

Saturday, April 10, 2010

in praise of the fishmonger

The guy who sells me fish at Whole Foods Market is always so nice to me.

It's not always the same guy. It's not always at the same market. At the WF around the corner from my folks house in Cincinnati, I asked the guy about the quality of a fish, and he gave me a free sample to take home and cook, and said if I liked it that I should come back and buy enough for the family. Once, the guy behind the counter at the market in my 'hood--he had a kind of french accent?--told me I had beautiful hands, really long fingers.

This morning, I was standing in front of the case, gazing at the fish and feeling sorry for myself because my honey's away, and thinking maybe it might be nice to make something tasty for me, so that dinner for one isn't such a grim proposition. The guy walked up. Tall, white, in glasses and a hat, and overalls that looked like they might have been hip-waders for what I could see. He asked me a question, but it took me a good ten seconds or so to realize that he was looking at and talking to me.

I asked for a half pound of 16-20 count shrimp.

"You got big plans for the weekend?"

"No, my fiance just left town so it's just me. Probably just stay close to home, clean, take it easy."

"Where'd he go?"

"Home to see his family?"

"Where's home?"
"Ohio... no place special."

He paused, grabbing shrimp with a plastic bag. "I've had a couple of good meals in Ohio. When are you getting married?"

There was more small talk and after he'd wrapped my purchases, I continued on my way. But I was genuinely astonished that the guy behind the fish counter would take any interest in me, as a person, even just to chat to about the weather or what's new.

This isn't about being flirted with by some strange guy. It's about... my roommate used to say that sometimes she'd forget that people could actually see her and would be surprised when someone would speak to her, would chisel through the reality she was living in. Lately my world has been about shadows in the room transforming themselves into things that may not be there; I don't trust my own perception of very much right now. It was just nice for someone to chisel through the reality I'm living in, to speak to me like he sees what I see.

I don't know what WF does for their employees, but the people who sell me fish are always the kindest and most engaged grocers I've encountered. It's a real pleasure.

Friday, April 9, 2010

spring dream: 8 april 2010

I dreamt of a soldier who gave me a kite.

I was arguing with my mother. I'd recently been in Brooklyn, in a building that was enormous, that had four floors that were two units, plus a floor that was one flat. The entire building was being turned into a single family home: which meant 4-5 floors, 4-6 bathrooms and bedrooms, an obscene amount of space for 3-5 people. I'd been really blown away by the tour of this building, and was telling my parents that what was most astonishing was that the mortgage payment for the place was $1500.

"That's impossible, Jessica!" my mom was shouting at me.

"Why does it have to be so impossible?" I asked.

"Nobody gets that much space on just fifteen hundred dollars a month."
"That's what the woman said."

"What woman?"

"The woman giving the tour. She said that the family was able to live in the space and paid only 1500 a month."

"That's impossible, you must be wrong, you must have misunderstood her."

I was really frustrated. I knew I was saying something outlandish, but that didn't make it false. I was sitting down, facing my mother, who had her back to a window which opened out onto the street. My father stood between us and off to the side, kind of wondering what he should do, if there was something for him to do.

I sighed and shook my head.

Just then a man ran by with a string wound on a spool. My face lit up. I was suddenly so happy about this man and the kite he was flying on the sidewalk. I ran outside to him.

He was a handsome man, in a khaki uniform with brown skin and a small, well-trimmed mustache and a wide, unburdened smile.

"Can I fly your kite?" I asked breathlessly.

With an exhale of delight, he handed me the string and the spool, and I looked up into the sky, to see what was captured on the other end of the string.

It was a great black kite, sort of like a box kite, but it had wings, and on the wings were flags of red, blue, green and purple. It was beautiful. I was thrilled.

Then the kite was much closer to me, not flying very high at all, threatening to get stuck in the tops of trees, and I was running the sidewalk trying to find a gust for the kite to rise on. As my feet hit the pavement and I panted, I could hear the gentle voice of the handsome brown man coaching me. It was soft, and right in my ear. But despite how hard I tried, nothing happened. I vainly ran the city sidewalks, trying to get this kite to soar above the tops of the trees. I was sad, but somehow I would not stop hoping, stop trying.

Saturday, April 3, 2010


The sap is rising.

On a morning walk to the el a few days ago, I saw two squirrels mating on the side of the tree. I exclaimed, and instinctively averted my eyes, to protect their--or my own--modesty. The heard/saw me coming, and carefully scuttled around the tree, never too far from the other, a few inches at a time. "Don't let him take it from you unless you want him to take it from you, sista," I said to the lady squirrel. I'm not sure why I looked away in such surprise. The squirrels have nothing to protect, no reason to try and preserve their copulation from the accidental glance of humans or anything else. They have to get theirs sometime, somewhere. It reminds me of that Pablo Neruda poem* that ends with a man and his girl going at it full tilt on a bicycle. That experience knows something I hope I may never have to know. Unless sex on a bicycle is good sex--but I don't see how: sounds awkward and distracting.

Once I arrived at the train station, I fended off a number of comments from the Peanut Gallery, from "Good Morning, beautiful"--charming but also a bit smarmy--to a gibberish mouthful of rastafarian prayers and salutations hollered at my back, presumably in praise of my locs.

Many things I love about spring: more sunshine, blossoming, milder temperatures, birds in the morning. But I hate, HATE the fact that spring gives men permission to catcall women. All of a sudden, a woman goes from master of her own fate to object for ogling and making lascivious overtures to. Can't we wear short and gauzy and sleeveless without being subjected to the overactive libidos of strange men? Most recently I walked through this crowd of guys and they all ogled me and then began loudly babbling more of these Rasta chants in shitty Jamaican accents. It gets so in just trying to get into the Howard Street station and get on the train, I can't hold my chin up. It makes me so mad that the harassment of strangers causes me to lower my head, as if I am ashamed of my own beauty. I hate that strange men think it is their right as possessors of penis to treat my body in such a way. If each of us is born in the image of God, then my physicality is an extension of Christ; I am the body of Christ. I feel like I'm being pissed on when this kind of thing happens.

It is unacceptable to me that this is just the ways of men, that I should take this as a compliment, that I have this coming because I can fill out my jeans well. I am not even trying to give this away, and already they are taking it from me.

* Poor Fellows by Pablo Neruda

What it takes, on this planet,

to make love to each other in peace:

everyone pries under your sheets,

everyone interferes with your loving.

They say terrible things

about a man and a woman

who, after much milling about,

all sorts of compunctions,

do something unique--

they both lie with each other in one bed.

I ask myself whether frogs

are so furtive, or sneeze as they please,

whether they whisper to each other in

swamps about illegitimate frogs

or the joys of amphibious living.

I ask myself if birds

single out enemy birds

or bulls gossip with bullocks before

they go out in public with cows.

Even the roads have eyes,

and the parks their police,

hotels spy on their guests,

windows name names,

cannons and squadrons debark

on missions to liquidate love--

all those ears and those jaws

working incessantly,

till a man and his girl

have to race to their climax

full-tilt on a bicycle.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

secret listener.

One thing I like about Chicago is that when the weather warms up, people hang out of their houses while on the phone.

On my way home tonight I walked past a man sitting on his patio with a white plastic cup in one hand and his phone in the other. I smiled at him and he waved two fingers at me, while saying, "You gotta eat your vegetables... no, but vegetables are important, fruits too, at least three servings a day, okay?" He must be talking to his kid, I thought. A divorced man telling his daughter to eat what her mother puts in front of her so she can grow big and strong. Or maybe talking to his dad, who won't eat the canned green beans at the home because he thinks they're trying to poison him. I wouldn't eat that stuff either, have you seen what canned green beans look like? Yech.

I overheard a man several stories up saying, "Now you know, she gonna be her own woman, there ain't nothin you can say to her..." about a daughter? A sister? An old flame?

Perhaps cell phones have made the snippets of one-sided conversations ubiquitous. But tonight was an interesting night, to walk past people and let their words float down to me, as they tarried in the warm falling night, to welcome spring, in the midst of their talk.

Friday, March 26, 2010

You eat yet?

There is a hunger that you feel when you are young, and lunchtime won't come fast enough, and you know you have in your lunchbox an egg salad sandwich, or smoked turkey and Swiss, or even a Thermos full of macaroni and cheese or Spaghetti-Os, and a pudding cup, and all you want is for Mrs. Fletcher to stop talking about Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea or whoever, and dismiss you to the cafeteria.

There is a hunger of shirt thin at the elbows and shoulders, and denim dungarees with the cuffs achingly too short, that cruelly expose your ankles. You feel this hunger right before you eat your breakfast, a small bowl of rice with milk and sugar, but no butter because there is no money for butter, and you know that lunch is a baloney sandwich and dinner will be soup. Again.

There is a hunger that makes your stomach cramp the way it does when its hot outside, that distracts you from what's being said to you, that takes small whiffs of fresh bread and contorts your body with pain when you smell them, that makes you mean and ignorant and always irritable.

There is a hunger when you know that if you have dinner tonight it means you won't be able to fit into that gorgeous black silk dress. So you make this your "ballerina's buffet" night: two wheat thins--saltines are too salty, and you might retain the water--a cup of regular coffee, black, and three cigarettes.

There is a hunger when you sit down at a table and peruse the menu, and choose the dish you've been looking forward to all day. You forgo appetizers, even the salad, so that your appetite will be as machete-sharp as it is when the warm humid air and acid jazz of the restaurant enveloped you when the wind of the street blew you inside. When your server sets that plate of food down in front of you--a steaming white pizza with fresh herbs, or a pulled pork sandwich with black-eyed peas and collards, or a bamboo platter adorned with slabs of fish and a tidy rosette of fresh wasabi--your eyes tear and your mouth waters, and you know that as good as the food really is, it will be made even better by the fact that you are so hungry.

There is a hunger when you sit across from someone on your third date, and you can't listen to what he is saying because you are too distracted thinking about the taste of his mouth.

There is a hunger of after having spent the day sweaty and silent, sunning at the beach, sipping iced tea with mint and reading and writing and listening to the sound of the surf, you are clean and changed and sitting in a patio ready to devour a plate of black bean dip and fresh tortilla chips that are still warm and smell like lime and salt.

On Sunday I was hungry for Corn Tings. On Tuesday I was hungry for potatoes. Yesterday I was hungry for protein, and even surprised myself with the occasional craving for animal flesh, which these days, is pretty few and far between.

But today. Ah, today. Today, I am hungry for the feel of comfortable and supportive flip-flops between my toes, and a comfortable skirt, and skin that is warm from having been in the sun and breeze, and the quiet stillness of vacation, and the feel of the ring on his finger, and the smell of the ocean, and the having done it already and resting together, and wrapping our legs around each other, and licking poi off my fingers, or off his fingers, and having the freshest fish I've ever eaten in my life.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Please put your name on your paper.

I read a really interesting article in this week's Newsweek about literary mash-ups, a review of a book called Reality Hunger: A Manifesto by David Shields. The book is an amalgam of quotations from various sources, split into chapters dealing with various subjects, including art, doubt, even reality TV. The reviewer has a really interesting experience with the book, and with the giant footnote section at its back that was included at the behest of the publishers' attorneys. The review ends by citing the words of Helene Hegemann, who recently published her first novel at 17, and evidently lifted sections of it from another source without crediting the previous author. I imagine a lily-white young woman with high cheekbones, straight hair cut into an austere, blunt angle at her chin, and piercing blue eyes. She shrugs pointy shoulders that jut out of the collar of a black sweater and sighs. "There's no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity."

Aside from parroting Ecclesiastes, the idea really gave me something to think about. I think I'd be furious if someone lifted segments, or the entirety, of my work, and then passed it off as her own. We throw students out of my school for that kind of behavior. The creative process has real significance, and to absorb the fruits of someone's creativity just because it suits your own purpose seems deeply disrespectful.

But really? I mean, I'm also thinking of visual artists who've taken that which has already been created and cut and pasted and thrown so many things into a blender and made things new. Of course, I can't think of any artists who do this, but that's just because I'm woefully undereducated about art history. I do know that collage is a hugely popular form.

And I'm thinking of old Sister Sledge licks that got sampled by Will Smith, and the scads of other musicians who've bitten from those before them to make the next dance single, pop album, Grammy-winning album of the year. Sampling is practically par for the course in so many other forms, so why is it so outrageous on the page?

I'm thinking that maybe it's not. I read that David Shields didn't want to footnote his sources and the lawyers made him; according to the reviewer, the book is better for their addition. It allows the reader to have a deeper, richer experience, knowing both the originality of these words as well as experiencing their innovation in Shields's hands. I think this might be okay with me. I think it is the right thing to say, "This brilliant piece I made wouldn't exist without these pieces I took from the following artists." I know that that's kind of impossible to do on the radio. You'll never hear a Kanye West song start, "The bass line for this song came from a James Brown song, and the melody was artfully borrowed from Diana Ross and the Supremes." It's just not possible. But there are always liner notes, right? People still read liner notes, and what gets written there still has some value.

I'm also thinking of a performance I saw while I was in undergrad, a performance two men did of a mashup between Naked Lunch and John Barth's The End of the Road. (Anyone who reads this in edwdoyle's Performing the 50's class with me? You remember this performance?) In the context of the class, I was having an awful time with Naked Lunch. I found it to be foul, gratuitous and incomprehensible. And John Barth was just kind of bland. Flavorless. But this performance, part of which was given in the dark, leaving me only to listen to the actors and imagine what they were doing, cracked both texts wide open for me. The kind of mashup that happened in that class was the thing I needed to know what kind of art I was experiencing.

No one, as far as I know, has ever taken something I made and tried to assert that it was theirs, and if they did I'd be fighting mad. But I'd have to look at the thing that they made with what was mine too. Maybe all art has the magic of theatre, in that once you create it, it ceases to exist, or at least, ceases to exist as YOURS, and now it belongs to the cast, the class, the reader, the people. There are plenty of legalists who would argue otherwise. But I don't know.

What do you think?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Chicago Public School Story

This video features one of my students this semester, Mary Reid, and her two sons. Mary's a strong leader and a strong writer, and when she sent this video to our class, I thought it would be of interest to those of you who read this, whether in Chicago or elsewhere. Enjoy. Discuss. Comment on youtube. Do what you can to change The System.

Monday, March 8, 2010

do you promise?

Last night my sweetheart and I sat down to write our vows. We decided to write a common one, a vow that we both create, but that is singular, so that what we promise to each other is more or less identical. This isn't the first time we've written anything together. About a month and a half ago we wrote a story together that we recently performed about our coming wedding and our continuing relationship, and what role, if any, past lovers have in both those things. It was a fun story to tell, and it was at times, incredibly difficult to write. But I enjoyed it. Based on that experience, I thought that while writing a vow would certainly be emotionally charged, it would also be fun. So fun is not the word to describe our experience last night.

I think I'm learning some really interesting things based on last night's experience. It was important to both of us to discuss the nature of the artist's life in our vow. As we discussed what we needed the other to promise us, what we needed to hear and what we needed to say, I discovered something. I'm pretty puzzled still, doing quite a bit of sorting.

So the conversation dissolved into one of what it means to be an artist. When is someone an artist, when are they not, and what role does this shifting (if it shifts) identity have in our marriage?

Okay. So I knew I was a girl at an early age. I knew that I had a vagina and I liked it, and I learned that some of the social behaviors of girl I was really fond of (skirts, cooking, the occasional lipstick and pair of high heels) and others I could toss aside. (always being on the bottom, having babies--I almost never had cheerleader or gymnastics fantasies. I did however, fantasize about being a model. And an astronaut.) There are still plenty of "woman" behaviors and ideas I have to sort through, but I'm working on it. I also knew at an early age that I was black too, although wrestling with what that means is a continual process. I learned that I was straight, and I believe that I was born that way.

But I didn't know that I was an artist, didn't know that that is who I was, until maybe seven or eight years ago. I had always gravitated toward creative things--elementary forensics, music, dance, theatre--but never thought of myself as an artist until I considered that the absence of these things, of a demonstration of creativity, in my life made me unhappy. I believe that I was born an artist as much as I was born black or female (despite the shifting sands of these labels), and while I am just beginning to learn what it means, I believe it is as permanent and indelible a part of me as a blood type or a finger print.

But what if you don't believe that? What if you believe that you're only an artist when you're making a thing? Or thinking of making a thing? What if you're an artist when you're working on bringing story into the world, but when you're working on making the health care system a bit tidier and easier to navigate, you're just a software consultant? What if you're an artist when you consider the way the sky is reflected in Lake Michigan when the sun is setting in the west, but when you're doing your taxes you're just a motorist on Lakeshore Drive? Do you have to earn your artist's self by performing as one? Is it you that measures yourself as an artist? Is it others? Is it the world?

These questions don't go too far for me, because, like I said, I believe the quality of artist is indelible. I believe that when I am too busy teaching to write I am still an artist, and I believe that when my sweetheart is too busy trying to earn a living to write he is still an artist. But he does not believe this. To tell it true, for as long as I have known him he has struggled to identify as an artist. He introduces himself, most recently, as a software consultant and not as a writer. I've never understood why; his mind considers the most esoteric and nuanced qualities of expression, communication, identity and engagement. While it's true that he works slowly, I do not think that his pace is what dictates his identity. I don't know why he doesn't own this part of himself as keenly as others; and keenly is a bit of a misnomer, because he gets twitchy about claiming most parts of himself. He doesn't like to be tied down into claims of who he is and is not, and he really doesn't like to be lumped in with others.

I say all of these things to say that last night he asked me to promise him that I would love him even if he chose never to be an artist again. Now, an artist according to whom? If I define artist as he does, as someone making things and thinking about art, and he chooses never to make another thing in his life, can I promise to keep loving him, certainly. But it gets trickier if I use my own definition of artist. His self as an artist is as real and permanent as his self as an Asian man: can I promise to love him even if he's not an artist is like asking can I promise to love him if he suddenly becomes white. Or black. It is wholly inconceivable to me; I don't know what my sweetheart looks like as a white man, and I don't know what he looks like as a non-artist. If he never made a thing again with any ambition, I'd love him just as fully and powerfully as I do today. But if he walked away from his artist's life and was happy with it... well, frankly I don't know how those two things can exist in the same sentence. I don't know how he can depart from his artist's life and be happy.

It occurs to me today that maybe this is the business of marriage. Here's what I mean: I think that I am genuinely scared of what it means to promise this man, whom I know with my whole self is the right one for me, that I will promise to love him if he denies his artist's self, whether it makes him happy or not. It scares me because I don't know who that man will be; I never met this man when he was in denial of his artist's self, and I don't know how hold he was, because he's known that he's an artist for a loooooong time. I see him struggle with his process now, and I see that it makes him unhappy: I see how badly he wants to quit working for a while so he can focus on projects which have been left unattended for months, even years. I see the quiet envy in his eyes when people write the books and tell the stories he wants to be telling. I see how hungry the artist in him is, and I cannot imagine what will have to come true in our lives, for him to abandon that part of himself entirely, and be happy with that choice. Can that thing be good, that thing that brings him the absence of artist in himself, and still makes him happy? How is it even possible?

On top of which, and this is the part where I get to sound like a selfish prat, what will happen to me if this is the man he becomes? What if while he has left the artist behind, I am still a teacher/writer? What if I am the one who's into the flaky ethereal business of making things, and I'm married to my father, or my cousin, or any of the pre-med-pre-law-consultant-type boys that my alma mater was clogged with, and my husband doesn't think I'm the creative shit anymore? If, in walking away from his own artist's self, will he continue to love my artist's self? Will he support how badly I need to tell story if he suddenly doesn't need to tell story anymore? I fear feeling permission to be myself, my writer/teacher/yoga enthusiast-with-ambitions-of-learning-to-teach self, if I one day wind up married to a software consultant/VP of Information Systems/CIO who just doesn't have time for the part of himself that used to create, and thus won't love the part of me that creates.

So maybe this is the business of marriage. Maybe this is why it's so fucking scary. Marrying someone isn't scary, or isn't just scary, because you could get soaked and lose half your shit if you divorce, or because you risk looking like a fool to your friends and family if it doesn't work out. It's because you're promising to love someone who will change. And I'm not talking about saddlebag change or Rogaine change. Inevitably, they'll be different in a year than they are today, and in ten years different than they were a year ago. And you're promising to love and live with and do life with them, regardless of who they become. Yes, there are limits: if your honey suddenly becomes someone who needs to steal from you to feed a gambling debt, or decides they like abusing their partner, or worse, your children, then all bets are off. But in marrying someone you're promising to love what they have carted to your table on their back, and you're promising to do your part to walk beside them if the path of their life takes them off the path they're on.

I am not locked in a crisis of relationship. But this is scary, and it's scary for a lot of reasons. I want to promise my sweetheart whatever he needs me to, in order to walk into life with me without hesitation or reservation; and I want him to be able to do the same for me. Maybe I need him to promise me that no matter who he becomes, (to say nothing of who I become, because I'll be changing as he is changing) that he will choose to grow closer to me, and that even if he denies his future artist that is clearly, CLEARLY so elemental to his current self, that he will still love my future artist, such as she is.

If you've made it this far, pat yourself on the back, because this feels complicated. I want to hear from people about this, similar struggle, questions, comments. Marrying readers, married readers, partnered readers, single readers, artist readers. Holla back.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Insert Friend Request Here

I used to know this woman. Let's call her Jean. Jean and I carried on as friends do; when one of us wanted to see or speak to the other, we'd ring on the phone, and have a conversation. Usually, I would try and steer this convo toward face time: phone is just not my favorite medium to engage with people. I so often interrupt, or don't accurately express what I'm thinking. I can't see the other person's body language, and know what they're communicating underneath their words. So, when our schedule's permitted, we'd sit for coffee or a meal, or bring our loved ones with it and have a couple date or two.

Then, not so long ago, I learned a lot about Jean, chiefly, that we have fundamentally different ways of perceiving and engaging in friendship. I believe in a certain level of honesty that can and should exist among friends with whom I am safe. I believe I should be able to, and I would like to be able to, tell my closest friends when they've said something off-color, out of line, out of character, even downright hurtful, and probe at it, to discover if there's an element of discord between the two of us, or within her, or within me. (Pronouns are no accident here. Let it be known that in my friendships with men, I seldom enjoy the safety that permits me this kind of honesty. Let it also be known that my friendships with men are considerably less prone to miscommunication, maybe because the stakes are lower. I've never pulled at that thread.) This is how I believe friendship between two old and dear and close friends should be. This is what I hope and expect from my friends, and this is what I deliver to them.

It has recently occurred to me that not everyone wants this kind of "conscious friendship." For instance, Jean does not ever, ever want to be told that she's hurt or offended someone, not even by her friend and in a spirit of love. She would rather that her friends assume the best about her, that whatever misstep, or even transgression, she made, was wholly unintentional, and to blow it off and let it go. She would rather assume the best of her friends, and have them assume the best of her, and when they fail to deliver, she'd like not to know about it.

This was a fundamental change in the fabric of our relationship for me, and no small one at that, because it felt in direct opposition to the natural way that I treated people that I loved. But I told her I would take that context and apply it to our friendship, such as it was.

I say "was" and not "is" because I learned this in what I think is accurately described as a knock-down drag out. In the course of ten rounds, I learned that Jean had been holding on to some pretty serious anger toward me, anger that hadn't allowed her to let go of some of my behavior that had really hurt her. Evidently, she couldn't treat me the way she wanted me to treat her. We left each other knowing where the other stood; her inhumanly busy schedule wouldn't permit her to make plans with me, but when she freed up time, she'd call and we'd connect for a cuppa.

We had this conversation six months ago, and we haven't spoken since.

I've never been the kind of person who actively cut people out of her life, who has said to someone, "don't call me," or "leave me alone," or "I'd rather not know you anymore." It always seemed like such a negatively final gesture, and what if you need something from that person in the future? Then there's the bridge you burned that you have to build from scratch all over. It probably also lies in the idea that I think I can change everyone, that if I'm enough of something that I can win them over or convince them that I'm right, and the discord is incredibly stressful for me. But for whatever reason, I don't just hang up on people, relationally. I know when I've been dumped, but I am rarely, if ever, the dumper. I prefer to let things drift into a nebulous state of unknowing that isn't actively detached but is situationally detached.

And yet, this drifty business with Jean grieves me.

I think this was a long time coming. We haven't had a lot in common for a long time, and we have distinctly different ideas of how to live, how to treat each other, what to prioritize. If friendship is about what you can give to other people, I was phoning it in with this broad for months. If friendship is about what other people give to you, I got squat from her. So I'm not at all surprised that this didn't work out.

But I find myself thinking a lot about Facebook lately, specifically as it relates to this human. Am I the only person alive without a Facebook page? Maybe in my ZIP code, eh? There is a whole facet of engagement I miss out on for not having plugged into that social networking site. Something that I learned about Jean when last we spoke, is that everyone else seemed to know what was happening in her life because she posted her life on Facebook. The absence we felt from each other, she didn't feel with others because she communicated with them through this tool. But somehow, I didn't know all the things they knew.

I don't feel bad about this at all. It's true that I'm missing out, but I'm really comfortable with that, and frankly, I like it better when my friends email or call me and say, "Hey Jess, I've been thinking of you. I want to see you. Do you want to see me? When can we get together?" I struggle with feeling like one of the gaggle who know the snapshot of your life that you post online.

(Yes, I am totally aware of the irony of saying that on a blog. I'm funny.)

But I wonder about what this woman's Facebook page looks like. I wonder who knows what about her life via photos and comments ("Jess is... glad that February is finally over... wondering how she'd look in a bikini after so many months in the gym...sorting herself out after a weekend of viewpoints and theatre games..."). I wonder if I'd engage her through this medium if I could, if I'd do the stealth thing that some people do and check blogs and pages, or block her and delete all her comments or whatever. Most of all, I wonder if this is the chief medium through which this woman, or my uncles, or my cousins, or you, maintains relationship, and not being a part of it means I don't get to know people.

Screw that. Maybe abstinence from social networking puts me at arm's length or farther from a number of people. Maybe wanting and choosing relationship with people who might "friend me", but who also call me, and take me for drinks, listen to my writing and tell me when it sucks, and let me come sit in their house and help them craft, and who visit me when I'm sick and who take yoga classes with me, maybe wanting and pursuing these things from my friends means my circle is small. I like active, engaged, conscious relationship. It's the way I like life. So seldom is it easy, but it's what I can do. It means the people who have really friended me are absolutely for real.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

best birth control in the world

Lately I've been ping-ponging. Some days I feel like a smart, steady, engaged and engaging woman who knows what she wants, who is completely unafraid of her own life and its trajectory, who is able to be a good partner to a good man. Other days my brain is replaced by the gelatinous, conservative terror that two artists co-habitating and making a go of this thing called life is utterly ridiculous, and at least one of us has to get a job she loathes so the other can make art, because if we don't do life the way the old generation modeled it for us then we'll never be able to do things like have kids, but maybe we don't want to have kids, but it'd be nice to be able to if we want to and with the economy looking as shitty as it does what kind of bright idea is it being a writer in the first place, oh god my parents were right, I'm a total failure.

sigh. crazy, right?

But I've been kind of living there, in Crazyville. My honey and I netflixed (oh, the nouns you can turn into verbs) the first dvd of the first season of Mad Men, and have been watching it, and at the end of every episode I'm seized with a fear that one or both of us is going to make a series of choices that we think will manifest the other's happiness, and that we'll blink and wind up ten years deep in a life we hate, being a person we hate who's married to a person we hate. Thankfully, he's not frightened of this, and able to talk me down from this place. (I can't imagine what I'd feel if we checked out Revolutionary Road; I'm crazy about that time period for all its repressed and tidy beauty, but that shit is just kinda bad for me right now.) But this kind of fear can feel really binding, in terms of what kinds of choices we make now, and how those choices will affect our future. Child rearing isn't something we spend a lot of time talking about these days, but I'm spending more time than I expected thinking about how what I do now will or won't enable me to have theoretical kids in the future.

This weekend, I spent the day in charge of a six year old girl of whom I am ridiculously fond, known as the Only Child. I picked her up at a friend's house and took her to my place where she reunited with my honey. (Incidentally, as soon as she saw me she asked where he was: she wanted her friends, Johnny and Steven, to meet him. Almost as crazy about him as I am.) We did some arts and crafts and watched A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving--the only kid friendly stuff I have in the house are books, and she read all of them in the car--and then bought her some lunch and took her to a swim class, then home for the remainder of the afternoon.

I have written about my ambivalence about being a child care provider here and here, and I recently crossed it off my list of ways to earn money. But her mother came to me and asked "if I needed to make extra bucks for the wedding" and shit yes, do I, so I took the job, despite it's deplorably bad timing.

I learned something that I never knew about having kids around: when she was there, my honey and I spoke pretty much to her only, and snatched teeny bits of conversation around her. It was like we spent the whole night orbiting her, and would high five or say hello only as we passed each other by. At the end of the night I returned home tired, irritated, and feeling like I hadn't seen my fiance all day, and missing him for his absence. I was surprised by how little I felt like I could be myself, who I am with him, with a kid around too.

"Oh, that's just 'cause it's someone else's kid," he said confidently, "it'll be different with ours."

I'm not so sure. I can say right now that while I'm fencing with the identity question of what it means to be a wife, I haven't at all begun to battle what it means to be a mom, and society wins that fight right now. That child, as much as I love her, made me certain that I can stop, like full-stop STOP, worrying about when and how to have kids and what we'll need to do it. After one day with her I was reminded that one of the biggest reason not to, is because I don't want to share my honey with a child.

Yeah. Okay so looking at that in print, it sounds like a sick reason not to become a mother. But there it is. That's who I am today, and denying it won't change it.