Saturday, December 29, 2012

The ocean's salt water just like my tears are.

"He had some feelings."
This is what my friend, the painter, said about Aguste Rodin, the sculptor. I spend the afternoon wandering through the Cantor Center for Visual Arts and looking at the largest collection of Rodin bronzes in the world.
While on campus I saw a blooming peony plant--you know, 'cause plants bloom all year round. It was on the edge of a walking path, but it was far away from where I was standing. The plant beckoned to me. It waved in a gentle breeze, kissed by a soft sunbeam. I found myself striding across the lawn to the bush, and when I got there, something electric happened. I stood before this plant buzzing--it was as if there was something there calling me to it. I thrust my face into a bloom and took a deep breath. It didn't smell the way you imagine peonies smell: no sweet floral heady perfume. It smelled green and vegetal, like a cross between tilled earth and cucumber. It smelled like something growing.
"Thank you," I said to the plant. I felt like it was sharing with me, like some part of it was a part of me, like we were made of the same thing. And we are, aren't we? I feel like it's absolutely true that some part of my being a human being is connected to other humans, and to animals and plants and bugs and dirts and whatnot. It felt so nice to be so close to something made of light and rain and dirt and time, and to feel so deeply connected to it.
But I don't have any shots of it.

I do have shots of the Rodin. It was so deep to see. I'd never seen so much in one place, and it stunned me how emotional the work is. The pathos is so strong. I felt like I could cry looking at some of it. The work feels like it's fairly vibrating with humanity. It was trembling, which is not an easy feat to accomplish if you're made of bronze. I've never seen anything that was so solid that seemed so positively fleshy. I kept expecting to reach out and touch warm skin and muscle instead of cold, hard metal. Kind of amazing to think of the possible connection that I might share even with this sculpture, cast hundreds of years before my birth, but somehow still a part of my molecular identity.

Friday, December 28, 2012


I'm not dead! I'm just traveling and working like a madman and trying to stay grounded amid complicated relationships and having trouble getting back to this space! I'll be back soon! In the meantime, this is better than anything I'd have to say right now.

took while volunteering for my favorite reproductive rights organization

I might have doubled up on this one, but it looks so good, I couldn't resist.

I ripped this from a natural hair blog I read--maybe Urban Bush Babes? Much respect.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Onea Dem Days

The market where I shop always plays the greatest music. I like to go early in the morning because they play Motown, and I find myself dancing in the produce section singing along to the Temptations as I pick out the best looking zucchini. The other night, I was standing in the check-out line and this song came on.

Instantly I was a teenager again, singing along with the radio, thinking about some imaginary boyfriend I was trying to console for my wicked mood. Without even trying, I sang along with the music, as I loaded a bunch of celery, handful of carrots, container of kalamata olives onto the conveyer belt.

"This place always plays the best music," I remarked to the cashier and bagger.

"I can't even hear it," the bagger responded. "Stephanie was singing along too, but I can't hear it."
The music swelled and a woman, a sista who was also bagging groceries in the next aisle, and I intoned together: "Baby, baby, baby, baby, baby."

"Oooh," said the blond bagger. "I'm getting it in stereo."

"That's right," said the sista. "That's the jam."

This warm feeling bloomed in my chest. I felt bonded with this woman in the next aisle, a perfect stranger, because we both knew some R&B hit from the '90s.

I took a lot of crap growing up for not being "black enough": from the kids in high school, from women in college I thought I was friends with, from my own family at times, all because the person I was didn't fit into their narrow perception of what someone with my skin color should be. It was painful. It was damaging; but it also helped me to realize that a) race is a social construct and b) I can and should be who I want, with no thought at all for the narrow perceptions of others. Still, I can't deny that I somehow felt legitimized as black, when this other black woman and I shared a mutual love of and intimacy with this song.

I don't know how it makes me feel now. Is it possible to feel kinship with another member of your community and still know that your identity transcends your race?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

when even the practice is far away

I write about yoga a lot in this space. Most recently, a meditation on my mat. But recently my practice isn't the brilliant, transformational part of my life it so often is. Lately I feel--estranged.

I was cruising along for months, practicing a truncated version of the primary series six out of every seven days, and when I wasn't looking and an injury knocked me down. I hate it when I'm hurt and can't practice yoga. It's like being prohibited from doing one of the things I love most in my life, the thing that makes the rest of life easier to understand, makes things make more sense. But the injury this time was what was most interesting. It wasn't something I'm accustomed to--like a tight hamstring or an achy shoulder--it was... well it was heartache. Heartache that manifested itself in some wicked tightness in my neck.

Sounds hippy-flakey, right?

But I believe--I think I have to, or I wouldn't be where I am in my practice--that our physical bodies are connected to our mental and energetic bodies. I don't know if every time we twist an ankle or overstretch a muscle that we're also (not) dealing with our anger or frustration, our loneliness or self-loathing. I haven't studied enough yet to know how it all works. I also know that there are plenty of things our bodies do biologically without asking; ovulation cramps happen because women ovulate, because hormones tell organs in our body to behave in certain fashions, not because we're lonely or estatic. But I know there's some connection between the body and the mind, the heart, the self.
a chest opener called ustrasana--camel pose. Good for when the melancholy descends like autumn fog

The last two weeks I've been drowning in a kind of sadness. A friend asked me if it was brought on by any thing, and I felt so foolish telling her No, it was more the accumulation of lots of little things. A disagreement here, challenges at work, tasks that fall through the cracks, thereby highlighting my inability to do it all, several miscommunications, and time apart from my favorite people, and suddenly here I am: stranded in the muck, feeling both like I must get out and like I don't want to be anywhere else. I feel often like life is like driving or hiking along a great mountain road: there are lovely views, I'm often climbing, sometimes resting, but I'm always aware that just a few feet away there's a drop-off. Sometimes it's sheer, sometimes it's gentle, sometimes it's covered with giant rocks and prickly cacti, but there the drop-off is, and someone like me, I guess I just fall off edges more easily than some others.

So for more than a week, my injury kept me off my mat. Just like with anything else, yoga became something else I should do, and often couldn't do, because I was in too much pain. After a few days went by, I would unroll the mat and take a downward dog or two, sit in supported Virasana, try to lengthen my spine and reawaken my hip sockets, but it was all tentative. I can barely call it practice. I read an article on about how a relationship with yoga can be like a love affair: at some point the bloom falls from the rose, and it's just you and your self on your mat, working a constant back-and-forth of trying to improve and accepting where you are. Maybe the bloom's finally off my rose; but that doesn't mean I'll be quitting any time soon. For the first time in days, I unrolled my mat this morning and really stuck to a practice, from beginning to end, complete with some chanting at the end. It was interesting: creaky, a little strange, and I always want to be cautious with myself after time off, after an injury. Injury is good because it forces me to let go of any desire to achieve anything in my practice. It makes the practice less about goals and more about awareness. I can't help lamenting all the progress I'd made before the heart-/neck-ache had me grounded, but it's okay. I move slowly, attentively, one pose at a time, paying less attention to the road, and how to get back to where I was. Instead, I tune into where I am on a given day, my limbs, my breath, what my body has to tell me, and how I can treat it well.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

See, what had happened was...

UPDATE: Want to include the work of Takeshi Moro in this post. Referenced in this post, but check out his website.

Over the weekend, there was this installation of Post-Its on 1104 South Wabash. I really wish I'd taken a picture of it now: a kind of multi-colored wave of paper-movement on the giant windows of the 1st floor, these little squares, some blank, some written on, flapping in a chilly autumn breeze. The instructions were to write on two and take one. The Post-It I took has a lovely sentence about meeting someone who is able to "hold the space" when the writer was vulnerable--a skill we all need more of in ourselves and our communities, but which is precious hard to find these days. The Post-Its I left are hard to remember: the first was a line about how every day I grow a little more into blah blah blah; the second was an apology.

Yeah, I've used this photo before. The installation was across the street.

I was working with some young people at Gallery 37 a few years ago and we went to WBEZ and at the end of the tour, a bunch of them volunteered their voices for an apology. Anonymous, hopefully (but not always) sincere. It struck me as really compelling, a kind of sound scape of saying you're sorry. I never heard the results. But ever since then, I've been thinking about the kinds of apology we offer: when, why, how, and for what and so what? Since then, I've wanted to write a post here that was all apology. I've been thinking about it for, well, years I guess. All those nameless expressions of remorse, stacked up like a monument of regret and a desire for reconciliation. The danger is making an apology that isn't really apology. You know, like, "I'm sorry you're an asshole," or , "I'm sorry you couldn't have been a more thoughtful and compassionate human being." These aren't apologies; they're insults cloaked in conciliatory language.

So this idea of drafting apologies got me thinking about two things:
  • the first is the etymology of the word apology. Obviously it's Greek, yes? But a quick visit to the Online Etymology Dictionary reveals that apologia is "a speech in one's defense", from apologos-, "a story, an account." There's a bit more context, but I wanted to save you looking it up. So what's interesting is that the old root is "an explanation, a speech in defense." It's not my fault I don't have my paper, the dog ate my homework, my hand slipped, the devil made me do it. Apology as we commonly know it--but seldom use it--to express regret for one's actions, didn't come into play until the 18th century. A speech in one's defense seldom makes the pained feel better. It might supply more information, but it rarely mitigates pain, I think.
  • It also makes me think of Jesus. "Be reconciled"; I used to be in a community where this kind of language was standard. Jesus gave lots of models for confrontation. There's lots of language about turning cheeks and forgiving seventy times seven; about going to someone alone, then with your brother, then before the whole community; about taking the 2x4 out of your own eye before you check your brother (gendered language, anyone?) for a splinter. But when he was confronted, his confronters just became the bad guys of the narrative; when someone calls you Pharisaical it isn't a compliment. Maybe this is a comment on the biased and (dare I say it?) unreliable narrator(s) of the New Testament. I think I only mean that I can't remember seeing Jesus ask for forgiveness. I mean, for his crucifiers, yes, but for himself? He seems above above the explanation/contrition/remorse part of relationships. Whenever anyone spoke to him about his behavior, he'd respond in parables that seemed utterly off topic, or he was content to squat in the dirt and draw pictures with his fingers: like a total hippie--which is lovely. I wonder if Jesus lived now he might be a vegan or drive a Prius; but the hippie conflict avoidance isn't a great model of how to apologize. (As an aside, was it Jesus' destiny to be crucified? Did he "let them" (so that he could say, "Father, forgive them") or did he have any choice in the matter? I know, that's the garden scene with the prayer and the sweat like blood running down his skin, so of course it was his destiny. I just wonder, even in that apology on the cross, is that contrition or compassion? Both are good, don't get me wrong; but I'm not sure even there that Jesus was apologizing: asking for forgiveness, yes, but apologizing? It may have been humanity's greatest sacrifice, but is there any apology even in this?)
Christians like to hold up Jesus as a model for living, a model for relationship, but did Jesus ever have to go to someone and say, "Man, I am so sorry, I totally messed that up. I have a deep and full understanding of how I hurt you, and I regret it. How can I begin to make this right?" He told us we have to forgive each other--is that because forgiving is harder than apologizing? I don't think so. I think people have a really hard time holding the fact that their actions, words, behavior, have caused another person harm. We want to dash off apologies that don't hold the other person's pain, and then we require, even demand, that they forgive us. We feel and show guilt as a means of distancing ourselves from the pain, rather than just feeling the pain with our member of community, and we self-flagellate in order to demonstrate remorse, but do we really feel it? Or do we just embody it so that the burden of feeling pain is off us, and on the other? What would an apology from Jesus look like? He lived a humble enough life, sure. But would it be useful to see him be a total jerk? Would it enhance his humanity, and our ability to connect to him? Would it give us the chance to see how to really apologize to someone, so that we had a better model of apology, and not just of forgiveness?

I didn't learn to apologize well. I know of a lot of people who suck at it. Maybe it's because a sincere apology, the ability to lay bare before someone else--to give them the chance to take shots at you because you both know that they are hurting because of something you did, regardless of your consciousness or your intentions--is just too eff-ing scary for us, so we won't do it. Maybe it's because being regretful will require us to consider our flaws, and we don't want to believe we are flawed. I like to pretend I'm flawed in ways that make me cute and charming, but not in ways that make me deaf to others or pushy, insensitive and demanding. When someone comes to me and says, hey, you did this, and it hurt me, it is WORK for me not to defend myself against that or to rush to an explanation, but instead to take in that person's pain and sit with them and with them in it. This ability, to sit with someone in the midst of something uncomfortable, even painful, is a skill that so few of us have, or know how to practice. We want to MOVE ON and LET IT GO, and all of that can happen and should; but it comes after the acknowledgment, after the ability for us to bear witness, to say, "Yes. I see the thing that you see. I see how it affects you, personally, relationally, professionally, artistically. I see my role in it." I think this is the hardest part. The apology is one more way that we try to hide from who we really are, even as we are being required to be the smallest, lowest, truest and most sincere of ourselves, in relationship with others.

Anyway, enough meditation, onto the real work:

I'm sorry I didn't tell you the truth more often.
I'm sorry I told you you looked like a cake in your wedding dress.
I'm sorry I made you cry.
I'm sorry I was rude to you.
I'm sorry I didn't speak up when I should have.
I'm sorry I took you so seriously.
I'm sorry that I let you believe that about me.
I'm sorry I'm not in better touch.
I'm sorry every time our conversations are too much about me.
I'm sorry I said your mom was a bitch.
I'm sorry I put my foot in my mouth.
I'm sorry I accidentally touched your boob.
I'm sorry I told you to shut up.
I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry.
I'm sorry I wasn't more direct with you.
I'm sorry I was so bossy.
I'm sorry I wasn't more sensitive, and easier for you to talk to.
I'm sorry I expected more than you could give.
I'm sorry I had those thoughts about you.
I'm sorry I was so angry.
I'm sorry I said no.
I'm sorry I said yes.
I'm sorry I wasn't listening.
I'm sorry I didn't act faster.
I'm sorry I can't always give you the thing you want from me.
I'm sorry I didn't tell you to stop.
I'm sorry I didn't set a better boundary with you.
I'm sorry I never told you how much that hurt me.
There are explanations I could make, accounts I could share, of what I was thinking, of what motivated my behavior, consciously or otherwise. But at the end of the day one (or both of us) got hurt, and I'm sorry. I'm sorry.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

A meditation on family

It's easy for me to fall into romantic, maudlin moods when I can't sleep. The mood is why I find myself at my computer at almost 1 am, thinking (and writing) about my family, instead of dead to the world, beside my husband in our warm bed, where I should, and would rather, be after such a long work week.

I seem to think of my family a lot these days, now that they seem so far away. My parents recently emigrated to a small, wealthy nation on the other side of the planet. It makes the--what's the right noun?--the estrangement of our relationship easier to bear, knowing that there's an ocean and 1.5 continents between us, depending on which way the transcontinental jet flies. I wonder about them; until it happened, I never thought my parents, two people staid in their Midwestern, middle-American cautious and unadventurous lives, would ever have the courage or the willingness to relocate so profoundly and so thoroughly. As impossible as it is right now for us to treat each other in a way that is healthy and positive for all of us, I wonder about them. I dream about my parents a lot. I've been dreaming about them for months, years it feels like. They show up as themselves now; before they were archetypes: raccoons that were trying to destroy a puppy; disembodied voices; locked in the bodies of other authority figures. But I guess at this point I've done enough processing that when they show up, they look the way I remember them. My mother: large, surprisingly (to some, although she never sees it herself) attractive, profoundly impenetrable in her portrayal of a woman who has it all together. My father: stoic and silent, enigmatic; the same glasses and mustache; a voice that is both soft and terrifying when full of anger. I wonder what will become of the three of us.

I think about my cousin, a woman in her early twenties serving her country and stationed somewhere she shouldn't be. A stunner with an education who was raised in a military family: I admire her courage and commitment to serving. She is doing something I cannot conceive of doing, something I wouldn't have thought of at her age, and something I could not do at my age. I wonder about what made her decide to serve. I remember buying her a swanky black purse after she graduated from college, and now I imagine what a crummy gift it must have been: did she open it and think, "Jeez, Jess, you really don't know me at all?" I wonder what it is like to stand on a wall; I wonder what it is like to fire a weapon, and to practice so that if and when you have to, you can take someone's life with your shot. How does she do that? I am proud of her discipline and dedication. I'm also scared of what she has had to become to serve in the military. I wonder if she has ever had to ward off any unwelcome advances from senior officers; I wonder if she has succeeded.

I think about my grandmothers, one of whom seems to lose touch a little every day, the other who has buried two husbands and now lives alone downstate. She has a boyfriend, they keep good company. Do they think of their kids, grandkids, great-grandkids? Are they lonely? Are they scared? What does aging feel like, and does it have any dignity, or is it as undignified and shameful as it seems?

I think about another cousin, a man in his twenties, on an aircraft carrier somewhere. He has a wife. A child on the way. Another cousin in Michigan with a med school wife and a son he is determined to make a carbon copy of himself. I wonder about that boy, Junior, and I pray that he can be a version of himself that will make him happy, and not just satisfy his parents' wishes. Uncles and aunts cast to the wind like seeds, living their own lives, people with whom I share name, bloodline, genetic makeup. It all seems so remote now. Relationships are difficult (for me) to maintain even in the best of circumstances. Putting hundreds of miles, states, time zones, nations, between us makes it even harder. What do I not know about life there, or there?

What is this word, family? Is it people with whom you share blood? People who were there when you started your period, or graduated from high school, who held you, shaking, after your first car accident? Is it people who sit up with you when you can't sleep? People who respect your boundaries? People who tell you what  you want to hear, or people who fault you for not telling them what they want to hear?

I don't know what the word means right now. I know it's loaded. I'm in communities that use it, and frankly, it doesn't make me feel safe. It makes me feel primed to be used and taken advantage of. It makes me feel needed in a gross, phlegmy way. I know it is a word that means people who have your back, who you can count on, who insert positive platitude here. But sometimes that just feels like bullshit. It's hard to accept it from people who've known you three years or less, just like it's hard to accept it from people who've known you all your life.

I think I need family to mean listening. If there were anything I could ask for, if there is one thing I long for from those who call me family, it is listening. I feel so often our tiny brains and short attention spans and our need for things to just feel okay, drive us to fill up the space with noise, so that we can drown out the silence, or the wail of anguish. Just listen. Listen.

On a silent night in the center of Chicago, I know there is much to be grateful for: at the top of the list is the fact that in the other room there is someone who, through his love, made me feel like a real and valued human being. He never asked me to do better, to clean up, to act right or to hurry up. His love was like light, like a great warm light that shined on a shadow of myself that was covered in ash and soot. There is something in me that is beginning to grow again, and his love is the reason why. I'm grateful that he is my family.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Urbaness

I've recently had the great fortune to begin working on a new creative project. It's called The Urbaness: it's a lifestyle guide for pursuing a rich, balanced and sweet life here in Chicago. A dear friend, great writer, lovely woman and Columbia College alumna Lizzie Duszynski is the editor-in-chief, and she's collected a posse of artists, designers, photographers and writers who explore Chicago and share its wonders, secrets and precious (and not-so-precious) offerings with the reading public. It's an online magazine designed to help us all make the most of this fantastic city, and enjoy it the best we can.

The website is officially live, so make your way to The Urbaness to visit and to share. If you like it, tell your friends.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Remember what apples smell like?

This week I heard an interview with one of my former professors (and Tony-Award winning director) Mary Zimmerman, who was talking with Steve Edwards about remounting The Metamorphoses at the Lookingglass Theatre this fall. I remember Mary fondly: I was always astonished that she always wore skirts to class, even in the winter time, which seemed inconceivable to me because the winter was So Cold. I liked listening to her talk about art, and I liked making art in her class. I liked listening to her and Steve Edwards have so much fun with each other, and I liked the line she offered from Ovid, a kind of grounding in the natural world, when so much around us feels far from the seasons, the planets, the dirt and the bugs.

Every now and then I pick up this book and read some of it to students or friends as a way to stoke the writing. Coupled the assignment I gave one of my classes this week, with Zimmerman and remmebering the apples, I thought I would do this again.

I remember the burgundy jars of perfumed cream my mother would buy from her church lady friends, who also sold Avon.
I remember thinking Campbell's canned tomato soup was gross.
I remember Cap'n Crunch.
I remember Garbage Pail Kids.
I remember jellies.
I remember Chinese jump rope.
I remember the one year (third grade) I learned how to double dutch. It was maybe the first time I felt like a black girl.
I remember when I cut off my perm and wore my natural hair short. It was among the first times I felt like a black woman.
I remember the tremor in my husband's voice when he made his vow during our wedding.
I remember the last time a man asked me to marry him.
I remember the first time a man asked me to marry him. I didn't think he was serious, but he thought he was.
I remember the first time a boy touched me sexually and I didn't want him to (also third grade). We were both in trouble for something, and sitting in the time out chairs near the teacher. He reached across me, shoved his hands between my thighs and said, "Nice la-gitis!" and laughed. I pushed his hand away and told him, "It's Va-GI-NA, not la-gitis." Somehow, his mispronunciation of the word was a bigger deal to me than the fact that he'd just touched my privates. We were probably in trouble for talking about privates in the first place.
I remember hyperventilating after I came out of the anesthesia after having my wisdom teeth out.
I remember my first rock concert.
I remember my first cigarette.
I remember how often my mother had to tell me to stand still, and not to dance to the music they piped into the supermarket sound system. I still can't do it, but I don't have to stand still anymore.
I remember learning about the civil rights movement.
I remember being the first black family on my street.
I remember when the next door neighbors egged our house.
I remember my first car accident.
I remember my cousin. I don't know where she is anymore.
I remember how beautiful I thought my mother was.
I remember how tired I got of other people telling me how beautiful my mother was.
I remember my father's absence.
I remember wishing for a brother.
I remember wishing for a dog.
I remember the smell of my clarinet's mouthpiece.
I remember how much I loved to play the clarinet.
I remember how large the football field seemed when you were standing on the goal line waiting to march onto it.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

I Forget (hopefully.)

After I graduated from college, I went on a Kundera bender: I read everything of his I could get my hands on, and probably in the span of a year or two. I'd started reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being at the behest of a friend from high school (who went to Smith College and wrote her thesis on Kundera and Rushdie, which made her super-smart and super-cool as far as I was concerned, and whom I've since--sadly--lost touch with), and that one book was enough to get me hooked. I bought some cheaply, I checked some out from the library, I found every book he'd written that I could get my hands on. In one of them, I remember him writing: "Memory is not the opposite of forgetting; memory is a kind of forgetting." I don't know what book this is in. You'd think it'd be in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, right? But I can't find it. For years, I've been doing searches online for this quote, and while I can find plenty of other people quoting Kundera (which makes us sound erudite and considered, but also, frankly a bit like a pompous douche), I can't find which book it's in. I've reread The Book of Laughter and Forgetting trying to find it, as well as Unbearable Lightness, and I keep coming up empty.

I remember reading in The Black Notebooks about the luxury of forgetting: how nice it is that some people can forget things--in this case it was race--because others of us cannot forget. It was a book written by a black poet who can pass for white and struggles to integrate her racial identity in a world where white people treat her like she's not black and black people treat her like she's white. (As an aside, it's an amazing book, and that really mediocre description I just offered is, well, really mediocre. Go look.) Anyway, she was talking about the luxury of forgetting, and how some of us--who've experienced neglect or abuse, who've witnessed atrocities, who are daily confronted with relationships or institutions that rob us of our humanity--lack that luxury. We can't all forget. So when I hold this beside the phantom Kundera quote, I wonder what it really means to remember. Experiencing is one thing: when you walk down the street and a man hollers at you something gross and offensive, or even something that sounds innocuous but still objectifies you, you experience your feelings, you don't remember them. But remembering is different. The process we go through of sorting out our feelings on losing our virginity to That Guy, or the first time we read That Book and finally felt like someone understood us, or the last time we saw That Person alive: these feelings color our memory of the guy, the book, the person. So they exist in our memory not in a factual state, but a fictional one, or maybe a creatively nonfictional one: this really happened, but the truth of it is wholly subjective, bound by our own experience and reflective only of our own thoughts.

I sat on my mat this morning, post-yoga, thinking of forgetting and remembering, and thinking how much I dislike remembering September 11, 2001. Not so much my truth of the experience, as much as the posture of remembering. I dislike the flag posters that state dogmatically, We Will Never Forget, and bear Stars and Stripes whipping poetically in wind. I dislike looking at square-jawed individuals in dress military uniforms shoot bullets into the air as a kind of salute. I dislike hearing Amazing Grace or the Star Spangled Banner. I intensely dislike the camouflaged, target-sign, right-wing bullshit I can't even conceive of, that I know is a part of how some people remember. Part of the reason I don't like remembering is because it was a really sad day, a really difficult experience for all of us to witnessed, and because, without exaggerating, it changed our world. But the larger reason I don't like remembering is because it pulls out everyone's jingoistic baggage and turns our American spotlights on and I have a low tolerance for that.

I have spent a significant part of the last few years of my life working hard at remembering. Remembering who I was when I was a girl, remembering the happy moments I had, moments when I felt like a real person, and how those might differ from moments I remember when I felt like someone's puppet or doll, or wastebasket. The writing helps; therapy helps; my friends often (but not always) help. These days I remember a lot, and because I remember and want to talk about it, I have estranged myself, and been estranged from, two people with whom I had the most formative relationships in my life, my parents, because they would rather would rather forget. Some of these things I can't forget; I have to take them out of myself and run my hands over them, examine and understand them, so that ultimately I can set these aside and forget them. Once the sting has been pulled out of these memories, they can achieve a kind of balance.

Let me be clear: I'm not advocating the kind of return to the past that I hear coming out of the Republicans, where things were good if you were a white man, where women were under the control of their husbands and people of color were servants and degenerates who were thankful for the charity benevolent white men offered them. I just mean I have the chance to feel less bitterness about some of these memories if I can actually remember them, and not just forget so fast.

So there are two ways to remember: remembering to acknowledge as much of the objective truth (if it exists), to own mistakes we make, to feel emotions we haven't yet processed, and to bear witness; or remembering to reiterate the narrative we tell ourselves over and over, to throw ourselves further out of balance and to heighten the subjective experience we have about a thing, which actually seeks to hide it more, rather than to uncover it.

So I am remembering sitting in my pajamas in the house I grew up in watching on TV as planes flew into buildings, as they collapsed. I am remember how empty the house felt. I am remembering being home trying to work on my senior thesis and driving out to a Starbucks in a neighboring suburb, trying to focus on the writing, and not on the attack that scared me, but that I also understood. I am remembering the hug my father gave me that day. I am remembering how glad I was that he was home, and not traveling for work, like he did so often. I am remembering my mother's lust for blood in the weeks that came afterward, and how I thought she was a Republican, much as she tried to argue she was an Independent. I am remembering the ways in which, for years, we all tried to comfort ourselves, even when it meant using each other, or hurting each other. I am remembering my father, and my mother in all of their earnest and desperate hard work, and I am remembering all of the pain that has passed between us. I am remembering so that one day I can forget.

Sunday, September 9, 2012


It's that time again. Fall approaches. It's consistent as ever, much to my chagrin. With it come classes, new students and awesome opportunities. It makes me sad that every time my work gets going I find it harder to write here, but I'm nothing if not a writer of pattern.
I'll be back soon. I have so much on my mind.
I love this photo, because it makes my neighborhood look like some corner of Tehran, and not the flipping student-populated city center that it is. Also, I think public art meets street art meets vandalism is FASCINATING. I don't know any theory, but I still love it.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

WBEZ: The Cultural Oddness of Yellow Cake

I've been holding off on writing this post here because instead it's been posted here. Another post I'm proud and humbled to share with WBEZ's summer series, Race Out Loud. Enjoy.

And please, try not to judge me too harshly. I'm being vulnerable. It isn't easy, and people love to pick at it.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Los Angeles, Part Two

Lest I be perceived as hating on the City of Angels, a bevy of photos from my most recent trip.

you know your friends love you when they make you beautiful food like this!

surprise mariachi band at wedding reception.

Previous three at LACMA. I raced through it, so didn't see nearly as much as I wanted, but what a great museum.

Clyfford Still

vegan bi bim bop @ M Cafe


Thursday, August 23, 2012

I Love LA. Um, sort of.

Stairs from Sunset to Micheltorena, in Silver Lake, where I was staying with two wonderful friends. Thanks D & KSoo!

I started drafting this post days ago while I was in LA, but couldn't find the time to finish it until I arrived back home. In the first few days of being in LA I celebrated the marriage of some dear friends, I did some intense Anusara (?) yoga, walked up and down Sunset (boulevard), had a smoothie at a juice bar, eaten feasts of vegan gluten-free delight, bought some fashion that feels authentically LA (even if it isn't), and most importantly, spent some lovely time with dear friends who've been the most generous and gracious hosts.

I've also been auditioning LA as a city I might be able to call home.

I can't help it. I do this every place I go: Maui, Columbus or San Francisco. I wonder what it would be like to live there--where do people shop for groceries, what do they do for work, how much is a gallon of gas or a pack of cigarettes. (FYI, I don't know about the smokes, but gas is 5-10 cents cheaper there than here.) I've been wanting to try to make a life in LA for years. The first time I went out there it was 2006: I was in grad school and I'd taken my first trip to California ever. It was a tremendous trip.
I went to the Getty Museum and the Hollywood Bowl and the Santa Monica pier (see photo above)and the Huntington National Library. I had a snack at the In n' Out Burger. I ate a coconut cupcake the size of my head at the Brite Spot Family Restaurant and I walked through Los Felis with a close friend--the same friend who just got hitched. I was astonished by the kind of grimy, mountainous beauty of LA. I fell in love with the city. Since then I've been back several times, and each time I wonder, why don't I live here?

This time it's a little different. I have a full life now, a life more full and more demanding than I did the first time I visited here. I feel like there is more happening with me, to me and for me in my home city of Chicago than there was six years ago. I have a family, I have a home. Los Angeles doesn't feel like it sparkles and beckons the way it used to. But somehow that doesn't keep me from feeling, still, like LA might not be a right move for me.

One of the things I noticed this time around is that people are really thin here. Not anorexic-thin, or junkie-thin, but 14-year-old-who's-late-to-puberty thin. I wonder if they're hungry--I used to know someone who went to Chapman University in LA, and she said all she remembers is being hungry all the time. I've been feeling really old and Midwestern and obvious, like I don't blend at all. I looked closely at the people around (Silver Lake, Los Felis, West Hollywood) and they all seemed to have this sharp, edgy, superCool fashion sense that feels unattainable.
Brought to you by Fergie. While I never saw anyone in eggshell blue snakeskin stilettos, I saw too many women in barely wearable shoes.

Another thing I noticed is the longing. It feels like it's in the air in a city like Los Angeles: this quality of everyone pulsing with a kind of thirst. (Insert desert joke here.) It isn't the same kind of bald ambition that I feel teeming the streets in New York, or the who-do-you-know hunger in DC. It's a kind of dusky orange, shimmering, breezy longing. It is so hard for me to put my finger on what it is, but I felt it so many places. I saw it on the faces of strangers and acquaintances, I heard it in the words spoken at parties and restaurants, I saw it in the walk of strangers, I eyed it nestled between the breasts on display in a stranger's wide-open shirt; longing was on every--and there were a lot of 'em--billboard, on the side of every bus, even tucked into the bill of Edward Norton's cute straw hat. (An old friend and I saw him come in for takeout at M Cafe, a hip macrobiotic spot on Melrose and LaBrea. I'm avoiding using the phrase WeHo--like the locals--because I can't bear it; it is too hip for me. Don't be fooled though, the food was great--so nice to have half a menu devoted to gluten-free vegan. I went twice.) Everyone is reaching, grasping somehow. There's no shame in it, and I certainly don't want to instill or provoke any by pointing it out. But I could see it, I could feel it, positively everywhere.

Or was that the smog?

So years ago, seven, even five, I would have eaten this longing up. Not that I thought I could or would "make it" in LA, or even had the ambition to. But I loved the fantasy. I loved that LA was a place of crazy, dirty make believe, that it didn't want or pretend to be anything other than what it was--a locus where money buys satisfaction, where pretty is better than substantive, where the fake is absolutely real. But today all of this longing felt... overwhelming. I've been spending lots of energy trying to give up my fantasies, and to be deluged in the land of fantasy was, at times, fatiguing. I found myself asking, "Where are all the fat people?" (answer: in Chicago.) "Where are all the black people?" (South Central? Compton? isn't that just a stereotype?) "What does anyone do here who isn't trying to get into The Industry?" (um, I guess the same things others do in other places--fight fires, teach children, crunch numbers, splint broken limbs, oh, and write screenplays in their spare time.) I had a really tough time imagining a life in LA like the one I had now.

Life in Chicago is, on almost every day, beautifully livable. When the sun shines, it's a special treat. I can get to a market and back again with some ease. I have a community that is both challenging and supportive and a job that, for all of its insecurity, is still a great way to earn a wage at the end of the day. Yet I've wanted to move to a different place for a long time. I've been in the Midwest for almost my entire life, and I'm tired of it. I want to try something new, I want to get out of the magnetic pull of the bread belt or rust belt, or Bible belt, or whatever the hell belt keeps me tethered to Ohio-Indiana-Illinois. For years LA has been at the #1 spot of cities to move to, for the seedy delight and the reliably sunny and beautiful weather, and the vibe. But moving out of Chicago would mean sacrificing all of the livability that my life has here. I don't know how willing I am to do it, and I can say with certainty that if I moved to LA, I might be swept under by all the longing, and wind up erasing all of the self that I'm discovering and caring for these days. I might just give into the great clothes and shoes (not you, Fergie) and status and image, and I'd forget that I'm a person, and not just another facet of cool.

Don't misunderstand me. LA and I aren't breaking up; the ubiquitous yoga, the volume of healthy food, the weather alone is enough to keep me interested in life there. What I think I mean is that I saw the real underbelly of LA this time around. I saw some quality of desire that felt like it had the potential to shift me into a place that isn't healthy for me, and I'm not grounded enough not to want or need all the image for sale. I'd buy into all of that too easily and suddenly, and without thinking or trying, I'd become someone I didn't like or recognize.

So someday, LA, someday we'll have our moment. But not today. Right now we both have growing to do.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

WBEZ's Race Out Loud

A few months ago my favorite NPR affiliate started this great summer series called "Race Out Loud", and exploration of race in Chicago. It's been stellar: from stories about the segregated late-night seen in Chi-town to the ways that race can be funny, from family narratives to compelling interviews, it's been a thorough and real digging in of an issue that is still a huge part of the fabric of America, and of Chicago.

And they asked me to participate!

Check out the essay I wrote here. Many thanks to Natalie Moore and the good folks at BEZ. I'm humbled and honored to have my voice be a part of this conversation.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

a morning prayer post-ashtanga workshop

Crack me open like a geode, for all the world to see, that I may shine and sparkle in the sun, and so others may know what is possible in the bodies, hearts and minds of people all over the world.

It will not be easy, nor will it feel good, but here I am, ready, asking, determined, surrendering.

Open me.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Joy of Being Ordinary

My mom used to tell me to work smart, not hard. (She used to tell me a lot of things, if you haven't heard it from me yet: stay off your knees or else they'll turn black; boys don't like girls with short hair; you don't think, you're such a bright girl, but you don't think... I could go on, but that isn't the point of this post.) This didn't make a lot of sense to me, because I thought that I might not be very smart. I didn't think on my feet, I wasn't witty and clever with words, so I didn't always have the bright, brilliant ideas that she thought her daughter should have. She also told me I was special. Only years after moving away from her have I learned that I'm not special, I'm ordinary. I consider the people around me, gifted, convicted, well-intentioned artists and professionals who are moving mountains to make their professional and artistic dreams come true.
I don't think I'm one of these people. I like to think of myself not as a hanger-on, relative to these people, but more as someone who's orbiting or floating beside them, doing my own thing. Finally. I spent a lot of energy berating myself for not being better, more able, more worthy, not being super(wo)man.

I have to tell you, I'm delighted by the idea of being ordinary. It feels like such a relief. I don't have to be so attached to my work, because I'm learning to detach from it. I can just be a regular person, and do my best to make my life successful--that is, full of health and joy and challenge and growth--and I don't have to walk around with the burden of being exceptional.

I'm currently teaching a group of young people whose world spends its energy telling them they are special. There are a lot of pedagogical and developmental realities they live with that I find difficult. I want to take each of them by the shoulders and say, "Kid, it is a wonderful thing to be ordinary. Have ambition, want to succeed. But cultivate some compassion for yourself right now, because when you fail, you will need it. It is okay not to be the best at something. I promise you. The likelihood that you'll be happier because you went to that ivy-league school or because you managed those eight extra-curriculars is really low."

But I have to temper that instinct with what I'm there to do, which is provide them the opportunity to earn advanced credit for their study, and teach them how to write. So each day, I try to challenge them; I try to provide them with skills and opportunities that will help them grow, perhaps even beyond their young years dictate. But I also want to show them that the rabid ambition they live with is only one way to live, and it may not even be the best way. They can be beautiful and special and lovely, and also be ordinary. I am, and I feel much better this way.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

What my dreams are telling me...

Last night I dreamt that there were secret passageways in the house I grew up in that were suddenly open to me. The bathroom that was "mine", a pea green-and-white tiled monstrosity from the '70s, suddenly had a door in the shower that opened into an entirely different room. I peered into the bathroom, which was dark, and could see that beyond the bathroom that I knew, through a carefully crafted door that looked like a puzzle piece (from all the tile pieces that were a part of the door), there was an expansive shower room. Steaming water--no threat of high temp, the perfect kind of hot--flowed through a ditch in the floor. I could see water falling from the ceiling from a rain shower head. I was astonished. It seemed to me this room had been there the whole time I'd been living in this house, but no one had told me. My mother was there, and seemed nonplussed by it; she'd known about it the whole time. It seemed like a gift, the discovery of the room, but it was a gift I couldn't really use anymore because I didn't live in the house.

There was another secret passageway in our basement (which didn't exist in the house). It was the office of a therapist, a kindly, balding white man who seemed to know me from a young age. After talking with him I came to remember him, and wondered why it is that I hadn't been permitted to spend more time with him, to use him as a therapeutic resource, to have him help me make discoveries about my mental and emotional health, as a child and young woman; why instead had he only been introduced to me as a friend of the family. I could see that the basement had an exit to the street, and was near a park with a playground. My husband appeared in this part of the dream, as well as a good friend of mine, and we all seemed happy to see this man, to reconnect with him, and to finally know the truth of my house, which had heretofore had all these pieces of itself locked and ferreted away, which had, until this time, been holding secrets.

I count myself lucky that my dreams, these days, are less and cryptic and more general. My parents are less active agents in my dreams (and in my life, and I am often thankful for that, too, albeit a bit sad abut it), and the metaphors for the family that I am trying to understand are less hidden, less cryptic: which is good for me, because I've never been great at puzzles.

As I continue to dream this way, I want to tune in to my dreams, to listen carefully. There's so much in the world competing for our attention, and there's a lot our bodies and minds are trying to tell us. I hope for listening, for a better sense of what's coming through, so that if the dream is a guide, and not just a reflection, I'll follow it.

Monday, July 16, 2012

help wanted.

this isn't a post about Chicago storms, it's a post about what's ugly and scary and real.

I don't know if I can say what I want to say about this in five minutes (because I just started a new job and have to continue working for that), but here goes:

I read this article about what went down at Penn State today, and I thought it was really compelling. I'm sure this has been happening to boys and young men all over the country, like the filmmaker being interviewed posits. I'm deeply saddened by the fact that educators and coaches have been taking advantage of students, and have been prioritizing the money they make at colleges (evidenced by the covering up) over taking care of young men who were victims. But I also can't and won't demonize the men who take advantage of them. The speaker in the article makes the point that no one is above reproach, and if that's really true, that means that someday, after a trail of unfortunate experiences, I could become someone who would sexually prey upon those weaker than me. So could you. If this is true, if it really is, then we can't crucify men like Jerry Sandusky. We have to get him help.

It makes us feel better to label him, pedophile, monster, predator, disgusting, atrocious, inhuman. But the truth is, he was somebody's kid, too; sadly, maybe he was somebody's victim. People aren't born this way. For us to label him and thereby distance him from ourselves, from our tidy, "normal" humanity, is just one of the many lies we tell ourselves to feel better, to sleep at night.
It's time for a little more truth. Even if it keeps us up. Everyone deserves our help. Even the Jerry Sanduskys.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

On My Yoga Mat, Humility and The Fire of Cleansing

for Cristina Correa, because she asked me to

I'm one of those people. You know, those men and women you see on the street with the yoga mats in a bag slung over their shoulder or across their chest? That's me. I heard someone (an stand-up comic? an angry friend?) say once that if he saw another person with the movement clothes and the yoga mat bag, he was going to punch them in the face. I guess we are pretty ubiquitous, and if you think it's serious here, try LA or NYC. You can't swing a Hanuman without hitting a yogi in those cities.

(That's a bad yoga joke. See, Hanuman is a Hindu deity also known as the Monkey god who has a yoga pose named after him for his . You know, because monkeys have tails. The original phrase is you can't swing a dead cat without...? okay, I'm letting it go.)
A pen-and-ink drawing of Hanuman in Hanumanasana, aka the splits, by artist Emanuele. I swiped this picture from Heidi's blog, Chai Yoga. Image can be found in art book Metamorphosis. Click here. I SO cannot do this pose. Yet.
Anyway, for a while I took these words to heart: I shrank into myself whenever I had to run the streets with my yoga bag--to and from school, when catching a class after work, or even commuting to studios on my bike. I felt like I was one of those insufferable yogis that people who don't practice yoga come to hate. I guess my saving grace is that I don't have 90-dollar yoga pants that can post special vented comfort or sweat wicking; I don't have the standing mani-pedi appointment at Bliss to keep my toes looking all sweet and tidy when I'm in wide legged forward fold (although, candidly, I covet those pedicures. My feet, while not hideous, bear the marks of someone who works them hard, and I would love to have tidy, pretty red toenails to admire during my practice. But wishing for this feels decadent; having cute toes might get in the way of all of my super-holy prana being moved around).

But I am one of those insufferable yogis who will talk too much about her practice, about what she's learned on her mat, about where she feels her energy blocked and I do have the fancy-pants mat. Years ago, when I realized that yoga was becoming a real, significant part of my life, I made an investment. I looked at Manduka, the popular black mat that one often sees at classes, that teachers are always unrolling in studios. They have a great ad campaign, rooted in the idea of what you and your mat do together: that inversion workshop across town, the two weeks you broke up with your girlfriend and couldn't stop doing sun salutations to get her out of your body, the workshop in Costa Rica, like that. It's cute, and the mats seem nice, but I went a different direction. I bought a Jade mat, not swayed the ads featuring yoga rock stars (Shiva Rea, Dharma Mittra, Duncan Wong, Faith Hunter, Nikki Myers, etc.) who pose in provocative or blissful positions with theirs, but because the mat's made of natural, sustainable rubber, because reviewers said it has great grip (and enough down dogs that ended with me face first on the floor taught me to seek good grip) and because they work with a charity that plants trees, and for every mat purchased, they plant a tree.
I love this mat. I love how thick it is; whenever I do kneeling poses, I never have to double up. I love the color, the website calls it "Sedona Red"; "Tibetan Orange" is nice too, although perhaps a bit too bright for someone with my temperament. I love that my hands stay put even when they're sweaty. When it came, it smelled strongly of rubber, and I loved the smell that would waft up to me from the floor.

It's heavy. Taking it with me is a commitment; I better do some yoga if I'm hauling around a mat that weighs, like five pounds. It barely fits into my cross-body yoga bag. For the record, I have other yoga bags (people never know what to buy you when they find out you're into yoga, like the standard journal gift to a writer), but I make it fit anyway, because it's my favorite bag. When I wear that bag, with my mat inside, heavy and certain, bouncing against my hip occasionally as I walk, I feel powerful, I feel strong. I feel like a warrior, like an archer with a quiver of arrows ready to take aim and fire.

On top of this, it is one of a scarce few spaces in my life right now where I feel like I can connect with the Divine. It is a place where prostration feels normal, but also like more than just a way to warm up my spine. Every morning lately, I've been fortunate enough and able to roll out my mat and spend some time on it. It is a place where physical movement can connect with what's inside my mind and soul. It's a place where what's been troubling me begins to make sense.

I have solved some serious writing (and teaching) problems on my mat--or at least brainstormed solid solutions. I have felt the joy of understanding drench me in stillness. I have NOT, as I hear so many other yogis say, had a spiritual experience in pigeon pose: no sobbing or giggling or transformative discoveries. I feel my hips opening something fierce, but that's about it. I did my first headstand on this mat, I do occasional 2-second bakasanas on this mat, and I remind myself as often as I can to detach from the consequences and the results on this mat.
This is Natasha Rizopoulos. She has a beautiful practice, and is an Ashtanga yogi. I took a workshop with her in 2008. But I know she's just like me, because sometimes she can't spell so well.
from The Green Yogi
The top is crane. The bottom is crow. They both have the same Sanskrit name. Can you tell the difference?
 Lest I give you the completely wrong impression of my practice, let me say that recently, my yoga mat has been a place of ass-kicking and humility. Several weeks ago I started practicing Ashtanga yoga, which, like many things yoga, has a hillion jillion different definitions*; I mean this kind of Ashtanga. The primary series is known for organ cleansing and muscular-skeletal alignment. It's called yoga chikitsa. Yoga therapy. (I know, right?) I'm working as far as janusirsasana A, which is to say, not that far into the primary series at all, if you know it. Every morning for the last two or three weeks, instead of scribing out a practice on a scrap of paper (as I'd been doing the last several months) or going with the flow, I commit to a strict series of poses. They're all familiar: sun salutation A and B; forward folds--standing and seated--that test my ability to surrender; hip openers for which I have such narrow range of motion that I wonder what is locked in my pelvis; balancing poses that have me appearing a broken-limbed flamingo and make me want to cry with frustration; and more vinyasas than I can do. This doesn't feel like worship! I think as I am soaking a hand towel with my foul smelling sweat, and trying (and failing) to soften my jaw. This feels like torture. I am so locked out of this practice. I can't do this! Why can't I do this?

I am wholly unaccustomed to feeling like I can't do yoga. I started practicing when I was 19. Yoga came along right before a descent into a pretty dark time in my life, and it was one of the tools I used to climb out of there. It's one of the longest relationships I've ever had. You might not know it to look at my practice; oh, there are SO many poses I can't do. What I mean is that yoga, and especially my yoga practice, is a place where I rarely encounter--well, failure, as it were. I take the modifications that I choose, but even that doesn't feel like failure; it feels like attentive listening to my muscles and joints. I like yoga because it makes me feel whole, it feels challenging but sustainable. The classes I take, especially my home practice, it all feels within my grasp. But Ashtanga is just wiping up the mat with me. I really do feel locked out.

Is this what worship is? I've read plenty of literature about the ability of a practice like yoga to help you create a spiritual awakening, connect to and release trauma stored in your tissues, about asana as a part of the path to enlightenment and oneness with the Divine. Maybe there is a kind of worship in such wrestling and flailing and struggle that feels like anything other than me looking and feeling like a crazy, wheezing fool will never be. I suppose that even now as I feel humbled by the limits within myself I am confronted with every morning, I can acknowledge that each limit is an opportunity to release any desire for growth, achievement, result (which does not come easy to our Western minds--we've got that brass-ring/American dream/goal-oriented perception of life locked and loaded). Do your work, says the sage Patanjali, and don't think about the results. Practice, and all is coming, says the late Patthabi Jois, the father of Ashtanga vinyasa. So I do. With all of my trembling hamstrings and erratic breathing and daydreams of upward bow or full lotus or a headstand that is neck-happy, I do my work. I do my practice, safely but still as locked out as ever, and I think less of the fact that I can't hold my leg straight, waist-high by my big toe. I try not to think of anything. I breathe, and I listen and I try not to think.

Every morning before the sweating and puffing, before the invocation, I light a candle. Just one for now, another comes later, but I light it and see it and take it into me. I consider the fire, and what fire does, as an agent of destruction and creation, and at its best perhaps, transformation. I breathe that flame into me, hoping that the yoga will burn off the junk I don't want or need anymore, hoping that the therapy, that all the hip opening and forward bending, and even the occasional twist, will help me be free and stay humble. If not, I guess the practice will have given me another chance to detach from expectations and results.

*please don't mistake my goodnatured exaggeration for a lack of devotion to yoga. I know the eight limbs, they matter to me and I take them all seriously. But not too much so.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Hi! My name is...

I've been thinking about labels a lot lately. What we name ourselves, what others name us that we believe is true. I'm about to move into a new opportunity where labels are really important.
I'll say more about this soon.
But today I'm busy celebrating turning 32. Which I realize, sounds like I'm saying I'm busy celebrating having my teeth cleaned.
Eventually I'll grow out of thinking birthdays are a big deal. But today I have cupcakes to frost.

This Pomegranate Vanilla Oolong Latte brought to me by my family, who emailed me a coupon for a free drink this morning. Thanks, cousin!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Abuse of Power: The Family, the Church and the Cycle of Violence

Twitter feed from kicking my ass this morning. First, a survey about Bloomberg and the stop-and-frisk policy of the NYPD. (Sidebar: really, Mr. Mayor? Not racial profiling? NY Times article says 87% of those arrested were black and Latino. Gun violence remains a barrier to racial equality he says--I can't help but think wryly of Trayvon Martin at that remark. Was someone like George Zimmerman ever going to be stopped and frisked? Is it just me, or are the lines between public policy and fascism growing blurrier? It could just be me; I may have a critical misunderstsanding of fascism.) Then a link to about what it means to be black, not African American. But the ass kicker was about Creflo Dollar, domestic violence and black women in the black church.
I took this in Baltimore in '07. No idea what church, but I loved the look of the city.
So Creflo Dollar is this black megachurch pastor who was arrested for assaulting his 15-year-old daughter. I remember watching Creflo Dollar on television, or rather, watching my mother watch him. When I heard this news I was saddened but utterly unsurprised. The church seems so full of hatred, fear and vitriol wrapped in theology, that generally people are doomed to fall short of the exacting standards to which they hold themselves: adultery, pedophilia, closeted gay lifestyle, violence and abuse are just as common within the church as without. On top of which, the black church, while a sometimes pleasant, sometimes enigmatic memory in my upbringing, is generally a place I don't like to spend (mental or physical) time anymore--again, full of rhetoric (silent women, children without rights or needs, evil white folks and gays who burn in hell, etc.) that I find offensive, irrelevant or spiritually unsound. I was so nonplussed, I was content to pay the story no attention.
But then I read this story. title got me, When the Black Church Fails Women. The writer talks about the moment she knew she had to leave her church--for the day at least; maybe in search of a new worship home--was when she heard her pastor express his overwhelming support for Dollar. She catalogued every kind of defense you hear in these situations, about expressing forgiveness and not judging because "we weren't there" and whatnot. She's expressed herself really well here, and while I want to respond, I don't want to repeat her. It was so good, it forced me to pay attention.

Take a look at this police report. What set Dollar off was that after he denied his daughter what she wanted, he asked why are you crying and she said, "I don't want to talk right now." She said no. She said stop. She said leave me alone. She drew a boundary. And he lost his shit.
So have we talked about Alice Miller in this space? The Drama of the Gifted Child or For Your Own Good? I read this and I think about the injury this man must be walking around with if his teenage daughter draws a boundary by saying "not right now" to him, and it provokes him to choke his daughter, knock her to the ground, punch her and beat her with a shoe.

Adults who think it is in any way reasonable, respectful or appropriate to beat children are simply and desperately trying to rationalize the abuse that they suffered as children. Period.

Don't skip that part where his elder daughter wrote two reports, one that matched her father's testimony, and then recanted when the officer asked her about the discrepancy. Adults will always try to maintain the lie that allows them to live with themselves, rather than confronting the truth. They will control whoever they can to help them maintain that lie.
So to connect child abuse with theology: the writer asks,

Why I wonder are Black women so willing, so ready to co-sign theologies that literally support us getting our asses kicked in our own homes?
Why have we bought into the primary premise of white supremacy, that the most effective way to establish authority is through violence? Surely, this situation teaches us that the only thing that kind of parenting does is breed the kind of resentment and contempt that will have your children calling the cops on you at 1 in the morning.
Why is it so hard for us to take a stand against Black men and tell them that there is never a reason to put their hands on us in a violent fashion? Not when homicide is the top killer (after accidental death) of Black women and girls ages 15-24.*

So why do black women seem so content to bear up under abuse, abuse of our own bodies, of our children, in the church--the one place where we ought to be safe from it? Is it because we're "so sad and single" that we think we have to let ourselves be knocked around, that relationships where physical abuse are a matter of course are the best we can do? Is it because we refuse to look outside our own community, to date non-black men, because of some internal or external judgment we fear? Or is it because we've been spoon fed bad theology by men who feel the need to protect their power by preaching abuse as discipline?

Can I just come out in favor of forgiveness? Really. I believe that people should forgive each other for when and how we hurt each other. I am working REALLY hard at forgiving some key people in my life for when and how they've hurt me, and I am working hard at asking for forgiveness when I think I've erred. But a key component in this transaction (because no matter what people try to tell you, it moves several directions, not just one) is a mutual acknowledgment of pain.

I knew someone who said that forgiveness was like getting ready for bed: you brushed your teeth with forgiveness and you put on your forgiveness pjs and you did all the things you did to get ready for forgiveness assuming that when you were done you'd be ready to forgive. I know now she was wrong--not just because she couldn't do it. Forgiveness is hard. You can't just position yourself in the right spot with the right ritual and hope that it descends on you like the sandman. You have to live with the pain of being hurt, of having hurt. You have to want to forgive, and you have to want to be changed by the process of forgiving. That change is certainly going to hurt, and if you aren't game, then you're not talking about forgiveness, you're talking about something else.
So here's what I'm saying: I could judge Dollar up one side and down the other. I could call him a fucked-up, hierarchical, manipulative, moronic asshole without the ability to handle or express his feelings without resorting to violence. I could call him a misunderstood man of God. I might be telling the truth in both cases. But what he really is, is profoundly damaged, and in need of identifying that damage within himself. He is hurting so badly that he can't contain it, that he's raining his injury down on his children, to make his own experience easier to live with. He will never grow, he will never know better, he will never be better, until he can look--without flinching or lying or hedging or excusing-- at his own abusive nature and its roots.

Having said all of that, you can take that "we weren't there, we don't know what happened in that house" line, and shove it. There is nothing that excuses adults subjugating children by beating them. Nothing. When Dollar is able to own his damage and his behavior he can begin to talk about restoration; but we don't get to make excuses that validate this behavior. Because there are none. To use scripture, dogma or theology to defend or excuse beating or brutalizing others, especially those weaker than you, is: SPIRITUAL ABUSE. (For the record, this term needs to be a part of this conversation. This shit is real, and we have to name it so we can understand and dismantle it.)
His daughter has a different journey to make. If it was me, I would make it far, far away from him.

I like that this writer wants to tell the truth and shame the silent acquiescence in the black church, the insidious collusion of partner and family abuse that has become so prevalent in our community. I like that she wants to hold women responsible for what we will tolerate from our fathers, husbands and brothers in the name of God. I like, albeit with less hope, that she seems to want to change the church with her presence--but that's about me; right now I want to change the church, if at all, from the outside. I also like that she talks about all of us believing black girls when they say they've been the victims of violence and she connects it to the strength of our faith in the miracles of Christianity, the divine incarnation of Christ, the virgin birth, etc. "Jesus prioritized listening to women, even when his disciples said they were being a nuisance," she writes. I read this and I wonder, what is this war on women? Our bodies, our birth control: people of power are profoundly threatened that they would do us this way. Why? If Jesus really is our model, why are we making such a cock-up of it?

I believe men like Dollar need help, and it saddens me to say that the church does not help them, especially when it rallies around them blindly, making excuses about sparing rods and imperfection. To require a man not abuse his family is not to require perfection. I hope that he gets help, not (just) in group therapy in a church basement with punch and cookies, but the kind of help that forces him to look plainly, under a naked bulb in front of an unforgiving mirror, at the man he has become, and how he got that way. I hope his daughter gets justice; I don't know, but I think if Dollar winds up doing time for his crime, that this might be vengeance, not justice. Justice is if other women in the black church rally around her, help her to heal her wounds, and require of their black men a better standard for couples and families. I hope a church like that exists for her today, not someday, so that she knows she is not alone, so that she can seek and attain healing, cultivate compassion, and eventually be strong enough to forgive.

*I didn't know this. Damn.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Body Artistic and Politic: or, Badu, Flaming Lips and the Artist's Responsibility

The first time I ever saw someone naked in an artistic forum, it was in a performance studies class with Mary Zimmerman. Performance Art, or it might have been Presentational Aesthetics; either way it was one of those classes that was full of college students who'd heard about Metamorphoses and wanted to take a class with the woman, the myth, the legend, Mary Zimmerman. My own knowledge of her work was smaller; Mary was faculty in my department, and I needed some 300-level classes to graduate. Anyway, the first person I ever saw bare all onstage was a good friend of mine. She adapted "Little Red Riding Hood" into a performance, and it lasted maybe a minute and a half. It was more like the Angela Carter "Company of Wolves", ripping-hymen, loss of innocence kind of thing. I remember her body, slender, small, brown, whirling around the room, attached at the hands or wrists to a swath of red fabric. She was startling and demanding in her nakedness. I wanted to play it cool, but it was a big deal. It highlighted my own immaturity; it forced me to think about nakedness not just as something prosaic, necessary for bathing, or inherently sexual, but political, affecting.

I wanted to play it cool because two performances later in class, I took my clothes off, too. Another student and I had been solicited to play seal-women in an adaptation of a bittersweet Icelandic folk tale. I thought I was doing something brave, and all I had to do was sit in a chair and be naked. I was barely on display. Plus, I--the uptight, overly-religious, Midwesterner with absolutely no cool to speak of--was going to disrobe for the sake of art. It's hard to take myself completely seriously now, but back then I was really proud of myself. The story was lovely, the director's request was reasonable, and making myself vulnerable helped me grow.
Since then I have a willingness, to give permission to others to get naked if that's what they think they need to do to make art. But I'm also in touch with the reality that it isn't just a matter of taking your clothes off. There's all this bioenergetic feedback, all this information that our bodies are holding. It isn't easy and it isn't noble.

This week I started following a bit of the Erykah Badu/Flaming Lips kerfuffle: a Lips music video featuring Badu "leaked" last week and has gotten some attention. However it got out there, it features Badu, naked, in a water-filled bathtub singing a reverb-laden cover of "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face". (Notice the absence of link.) The first image in the video is a close up of her eye: brown, gazing upward, laced by strands of her hair, under which there is eye makeup that looks for all the world like a purple bruise. The video is full of slo-mo closeups, of Badu's face, sometimes twitching sometimes snarling, of her lips, of bass strings being plucked and vibrating menacingly, of the faces of white men--the Flaming Lips--their eyes rolling back in rock ecstasy, banging or plucking instruments, whipping a silver swath of cloth around, looking edgy and unshaven in their sunglasses and flaming cigarette, and trasported by the music.

Then there's the body of another woman. It took me a long time to learn who it was, because in many ways it looks like Badu, and for a while I thought it was. She stands up in the tub, also naked, but this tub is full of, and she is covered with, gold glitter. She slapps her ass, her shaved vagina, she showers her cheeks with the stuff. She plays in it, revels in it. As the video continues, Badu continues to sing in the tub, mostly curled up, showing nakedness without revealing herself, and this other black woman revels again, this time in tubs of thick dark red liquid (read: "blood") and thick white liquid (read: "semen").
(Sidebar: I love that in the coverage of this video and the ensuing feud between Badu and Flaming Lips band mate Wayne Coyne, that reporters are calling this stuff "red cornstarch" or "cream colored liquid" as if it doesn't read like blood and come. Gimme a break.)

So come to find out the naked black woman scummy with all these various substances is Badu's sister, Nayrok. She's an artist. To hear the pop-culture blogs tell it, she's got no problem with the video, or her role in it. Not so for Badu; she seemed furious. In a true 21st century version of conflict (ir)resolution, she's taken her beef to Twitter, where she unloaded on Coyne, writing things like
"Our art is a reflection of who we are. I have no connection to those images shot in their raw version. I was interested in seeing an amazing edit that would perhaps change or alter my thoughts. Never happened," she says. "You also did the same thing with the song itself which displays crappy 'rough' vocals by me. I let it go, perhaps I was missing something, I thought."
She used words like "uninspired" and "violated" to describe how she felt about this video. I'm one of those women who always takes a woman seriously when they say they feel violated. Violated is a heavy word, not to fuck around with, like embezzlement or rape or pedophile. I feel like it's a word with teeth. You don't just level it at people; you use it because it has a real, significant meaning and when you use it, it has consequences.

The Flaming Lips issued an apology that says things like, " “The video link that was erroneously posted on Pitchfork by the Flaming Lips of the Music Video 'The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face', which features Erykah Badu, is unedited and unapproved. Sorry!!"

Note: any time you see an apology with multiple exclamation marks, assume it's false.

To hear Clash Music tell it, Coyne isn't really taking Badu's comments seriously. After the "apology", he just goaded her on Twitter, saying what seems to me some really insincere and offensive shit, which is, as he probably wants, generating more attention to this video and his music.

So I don't know anything about the Flaming Lips. I feel like they fall into that category of music made by white people that white people listen to, and I'm probably not interested. Not willfully, just ignorantly. A glance at their Wikipedia page looks like I might like it; I go in for that weird, giant spectacle, and I like good music.

But I don't like the way Wayne Coyne is carrying himself with Badu.

Erykak Badu was a hugely formative part of my young black woman identity. I needed her when I was 14, 16 growing up in the white suburbs of Southern Ohio. I needed her when I was 19, 21, one of too few black students at a private university in the Midwest. I needed her desperately when I was living in Southwest Florida and trying to survive the barrage of narrow minds and conservative views pinging through the swamp-thick air. There is some part of my energetic body that vibrates like a tuning fork when I hear her music. Yep. I have to say hippy, flaky stuff like that. The music was and is that important to me. She says things that I have never been able to say but have often thought. She's provocative and honest and soft in some spaces too. As cruel as celebrity is to people, I think it (like much of the world) is more cruel to women of color, and I think she's managed to navigate that cruelty with honesty and an unflinching integrity to her art.

As you can see, she's no stranger to taking her clothes off to make work, too. So what's different about this time? Do I feel like Badu is a kind of sister to me, and I feel a fierce, if irrational, need to protect her from the Internet trolls and the Coyne's of the music industry? Is this just my conservative upbringing rearing its head? Have I never really gotten over taking your clothes off to make art? Or is it the fact that everyone in the video who's not a naked black woman (everyone else) is a white man, fully dressed?

Yes, maybe, probably and yes.

As saturated as we are with the female body, it has power--POWER--in image, in media. The black female body has been a loaded subject/object/identity in this country for hundreds of years. Our ancestors were enslaved, dehumanized, raped and (here comes) violated as a matter of course. We can see the consequence of this behavior in the lifestyles of how we treat each other today. To quote Zora Neale Hurston in Their Eyes Were Watching God, "De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see." Whether it's Condoleeza Rice or Oprah, Janet Jackson or Michelle Obama, we all seem to have opinions about what black women are wearing, what we're gaining or losing, what we're straightening or letting go natural. Let's not forget about this, either.
Look how happy Swedish culture minister is in this pic, feeding cake to the body of a genital mutilated african cake-woman. Boy, she and all the cohorts around her laughing and snapping pics really look like they're deeply concerned about female circumcision and the toll it takes on women and families around the world.
(Sidebar: I don't know how I feel about it. I believe artists can and should provoke. But to provoke without consideration for what tto do next is just irresponsible: spectacle and emotional vitriol without direction. It does no one good to whip an audience into a tizzy, especially over an issue, if you can't direct them toward a place to get educated and use that tizzy for or against something.)

As immature as I felt in college about nudity in art, I believe in it. I want to make space for it. It can communicate vulnerability, a primal nature, simplicity, purity, bareness, not just shock and sex appeal. So it isn't the nudity in this video that is the hurdle; the hurdle is the disparity, the lack of care, and the power dynamic. Every time a black woman's body occupies the public sphere, it means something, it comments or suggests something. Wish we could be free in our own flesh, but we can't, not yet. So what is Badu suggesting by putting her body in that Flaming Lips video? She's not a victim; she may have been manipulated, or may be disappointed in the final result of the video, and the process might have been crappy, as she says somewhere, but she didn't walk off the set. Is it a commentary on childbirth, as argued in this Washington Post blog? Is it a fetish of the Flaming Lips man-boys, who've only gleefully antagonized Badu since she expressed her (understatement) dissatisfaction with the video? Is it a brilliantly orchestrated puppet show created to generate more buzz for both artists?

It hurt me when I watched it. I thought briefly about Badu and her safety and vulnerability; but I frankly felt my own flesh in a powerful and unpleasant way, more than I was worried about Badu or her sister. I don't know what good the world is done by a video like this. I don't know what is communicated--no, wait, what's communicated is a kind of pornographic fantasy of why black women are/have been fetishised and objectified by men, a kind of bukaki rape fantasy (is this history repeating itself, anybody? any contemporary similarity here to the historical practice of slaves raped by their white masters? anybody?); but what I DON'T know is how the world is improved by this video.

It's likely that I'm naive in believing that the world can and should be improved by the art we put into it. Provocation is great, effective, but not without growth. Otherwise it's just antagonism, and I don't have time for you to act out your fantasies and injuries with me; I'm trying to take care of my own shit. But this may not be the way. Maybe there is so much noise in the world that change doesn't happen in art without shouting louder than anyone else. Maybe to be noticed or respected as an artist you have to get in people's faces, to hurt or disgust them.

But if there was some message that the Flaming Lips, or even Badu, was trying to hand me, I completely missed it. I was too busy feeling hurt and disgusted.