I’ve been afraid of changing because I build my life around you

It happens in the night. The moment you wake up and are unsure if you are still in your dream or in your bed. You reach for your person. They are next to you. You know you are in the waking world. You know you are safe.

It happens on your way home. You begin to think about what you need to do, what needs to be done, the maintenance of life that can sometimes seem crushing when your mind, body, or soul is exhausted. You think of your person. The weight of the uncertainty fades. You will go home to your person. You will be held in their arms for a moment. You will be able to carry on.

It happens when you talk to the people that love you. In their voice over the phone you can hear their earnestness. They want you to be happy. You want to prove that you’re happy. Your person is proof that you’re happy. You illustrate the ways you and your person’s lives are entwined to prove to them that you’ve found solid ground. To prove to yourself you’ve found solid ground.

 

The comforts of a life lived in tandem can sedate you for years. Like the right amount of good weed or a warm bath before bed, the air around you envelops you. You don’t notice that the source of its comfort is also the weight that makes it suffocating.

have as much self love as a mediocre white man

I want that authentic self kind of self love.

I want that white dude kind of self love.

I want that Song of Myself kind of self love.

 

I know that we are all aware of how much white dudes seem to love themselves. A solid 1/3 of the lets-try-and-understand-Trump articles revolve around how much he loves himself. White dudes still hold 2/3rds of all board seats in Fortune 500 companies. Most of western literature is just sympathizing with a dude struggling with his one problem: impotence. We envy their lack of reserve and their ability to just be who they are, because who they are is mostly accepted as the norm.

Can you imagine if you could love yourself as freely as a white dude does? Listen to Walt Whitman’s cover of Feelin’ Myself

And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own,

Translation: I am a gift to the people from God. My spirit is kindred to the spirit of God.

I am the mate and companion of people, all just as immortal
and fathomless as myself,
(They do not know how immortal, but I know.)

Translation: Poor plebeians don’t know how amazing it is to be alive! If only they knew, like I know.

What is commonest, cheapest, nearest, easiest, is Me,
Me going in for my chances, spending for vast returns,
Adorning myself to bestow myself on the first that will take
me,
Not asking the sky to come down to my good will,
Scattering it freely forever.

Translation: Now she want a photo. You already know though. You only live once ‒ that’s the motto baby YOLO. And we ’bout it every day, every day, every day. Like we sittin’ on the bench, baby we don’t really play. Every day, every day, fuck what anybody say.

 

 

So I’m resolving to love myself like Walt Whitman loved himself. Fuck what anybody say.

What growing can a grown woman do?

“There are a lot of things that I have come to terms with leaving behind, but my Monday nights are not one of them.” My yoga instructor’s voice began to break as she lie supine on her mat. Through the mic she revealed to us, her Monday night class, that “You don’t know how much you have helped me. I began teaching during a dark time in my life and now I’m moving on to work on my Phd, and I couldn’t have done it without you all.”

As I lie on my mat, I thought about my own journey. At the moment of her litany, I stood at the beginning of a journey out of the town I grew up in, away from my family, from a teaching job, and on to try and make it in New York. I had two more weeks to go as a teacher and Kelly’s emotions were someone closed off to me. She was moving off to grow and expand. I felt that my move was something much different, something that didn’t fit with the growth vocabulary and metaphors we like to use for change. All I felt was guilty.

In the middle of the school year, I had become discontent. The pressures and stakes of teaching were too much. How could anyone expect me to be responsible for the education of 100 freshman? How could anyone expect me to do this without completely giving my life to the task? I began spending more time writing and less time thinking about teaching. I thought of it as investing in myself, and it was. I felt like teaching was taking more that I was willing to give. I felt like I had to find a way to reanimate my creative life, and the only way I knew how to do that was to disengage my emotional energies from teaching and reorient them to myself.

But there was an inherent problem I had with this. I had been told to “grow where you’re planted.” To many, this is a virtue. One should combat the dissolution with daily life by growing to love their daily life. It is an essential mind-fuck that women across generations know well. Women have always been less mobile. Their roles were in the home, with the babies, in the castle. To grow where one is planted often appears in the form of literal growth: Rapunzel’s hair, pregnancy, a garden. These were the avenues of achievement and fulfillment.

I felt this pressure. I stood in front of my students on the days that I felt I would rather be anywhere else and did the dance. I mimicked what I had done in the past when my heart was there. I would go home and try stave off the guilt of what I had just done. I knew as well as anyone that every day, every minute of class time is immeasurably valuable. My dad (who is also a teacher) tells his students that he never has a day off, that every day in his class he will show up, he will be giving his best, and he expects the same. But I couldn’t conjure the kind of energy it takes to do this. In the framework of growth, I felt my roots searching for water, becoming ingrown and tangled in themselves. I felt my senses dulling and my thoughts becoming recursive. I had to uproot. To imagine it this way was not only traumatic but also not exactly correct.

The idea of growth often pairs with taking up space. The older the tree the bigger it gets. I could imagine a life where I could achieve this. I could stay in front of the class and stretch my arms in care everyday until, out of sheer will, I grew the muscles to sustain this kind of care. I could become a large presence in my community, serving on boards, making a name for myself, etc. I have seen people do this. I have witness the beginnings of this in my peers. But these were not my goals.To grow in this way didn’t strike me as progress. I thought: I am a grown-ass woman. What growing could a grown woman do? 

My goal was more like alchemy. I moved because I want to change some of the dull and malleable elements of what I am to something more precious, refined, tested and enduring. It isn’t an attempt to leave behind any of the life I experienced in my hometown.  I didn’t want to leave my family, my students, my progress behind, but it is not the soil that is precious, it is the thing it grows. I didn’t uproot, I excavated, taking the raw materials needed to create a better self. 

I believe in the idea that things can change without shifting form. They can achieve progress without expanding. The most precious things are often made that way by melting, distilling, shaping. My success in this city will not be based on the amount of space I take up (in an apartment, in the minds of people, in the records of history). My success in this city will be based on the success of transformation.

Moralistic Meandering: Book Review

A few months ago, I read Behaving Badly: The New Morality in Politics, Sex,and Business and wrote a review for a website. The website didn’t run it for reasons I’ll simply describe as conflict of interest related.

I did some further research on this book and found a number of positive features. These articles interviewed the author or ran an article by the author as a tie in to the book or featured this book on a “best of” list.

And I don’t get it.

I don’t think those other sources read the same book I did. As you will see below, I think the book has some serious issues that, if left to be some kind of touchstone for morality in the modern age, could be pretty damaging. This got me thinking, how do books run press? How does the review/book press determine what is actually a good book? How many of us, when using the internet to direct us to our next read, think critically about the motivations of the sources of the recommendations?

These are questions I am exploring on my own. For now, here’s the review.

xoxo

an unimpressed reader


BEHAVING BADLY: THE NEW MORALITY IN POLITICS, SEX, AND BUSINESS

By Eden Collinsworth

Morality is as complicated a subject as it is relevant. The reasoning that creates arbitrary rules about intimate partnerships is the same reasoning that ensures communities condemn theft and murder. The creed that aligns an individual’s life with what they believe is right is also the same creed that elects officials and causes widespread fear. The topic of morality is incredibly nuanced and has been discussed by philosophers, theologians, and psychologists at length. In an age where discussions on morality are growing thornier, thinkers on the subject have their work cut out for them.

Morality is the subject of Eden Collinsworth’s new book, BEHAVING BADLY: THE NEW MORALITY IN POLITICS, SEX, AND BUSINESS. Following her success instructing Chinese businessmen in Western manners, Collinsworth attempts to construct a rulebook of modern morality through interviews and anecdotes.

Continue reading

A Family Tree

Grandma is holding a ballpoint pen that lost it’s cap a long time ago. She is doing the crossword, like she does everyday. She flips through the grey battered dictionary on the coffee table. The packing tape holds the front cover on. She swiftly adjusts the pen so she can use the same hand to point her index finger and scan the page. She taps the page twice with a satisfying twip twips. She writes TRITIUM in permanent ink on 14 down. I wait until she is finished to ask what it means.

As I watch my Papa slide a worm onto the business end of a fish hook, the worm wiggles slightly. The baiting is a practiced, muscle memory movement. I think the man has baited more hooks than buttered bread. My shoes are stained with the red-dirt mud of the pond we fish in. When we arrived yesterday, he told us about the 3 pound bass he caught without any bait. Now he says, “this is the worm that will get you Big Wally.” His hand shakes, a tiny tremor. I imagine blood and the slow way a not-so-sharp point breaks skin. This is why he baits my hook for me. Papa hands the rod back to me, fingers unscathed.

Grandma’s small hands always seem to be doing some kind of important patting. This morning she formed biscuits like she’s burping a newborn. Across the living room she sits, making tight short stitches in in the quilt she’s working on. This is the part that binds the “guts,” as she calls it, to the pretty parts. When she’s finished, she will fold it just so it will fit inside a pillowcase. She will pat it twice and add it to the stack. Though she’s shown me a dozen times, I am never able to crease the corners just so.

Papa holds his right hand straight to show me the progress of his middle finger. His surgery was successful and now all four fingers line up. On his left, the middle finger creeps toward his palm. He looks like a reluctant yogi with his hand on the side of his armchair instead of in his lap. His hands almost coming together in an om. You can see the tendon dragging it down. “It’s from working all those years at Cotton Electric.” He takes the imaginary wrench into his hand, the only explanation for his condition, and tells me again about how he ran electricity to all the houses in the county.

My dad does this thing with his hands when he’s done eating. After throwing his napkin on his plate, he extends his arms and holds the palms of his hands up directly above his plate. Then he flips them a few times like a magician showing that he’s not holding your card under his palm. What he says changes, always something with the message of “all done,” but the hand gesture doesn’t. He pats his belly a few times and waits for the table to be cleared. Sometimes it is my job. Sometimes it is my mothers.

My brother’s fist pounds into his palm. I imagine if you zoomed in far enough you could see the small reverberation in the fatty part of his hand. He is pacing, telling me how his salary doesn’t actually cover his rent. I venture to say something like “if you stopped golfing on the weekends, you could have more money.” He know, he knows. But that’s not the point. He pounds his fist harder.

My dad is making a point. He alternates between the single-fingered point and the four-fingered point. I’ll know he’s winding down when he starts to turn his palms upward. When he lifts one up to the ceiling as if to say “what the hell?” I’ll know to give an emphatic apology. I think this time I forgot to pull my car into the driveway.

My brother’s hand is hot as we line up the heels of our palms. In this moment, his hands are still. Typically they are pointing at some invisible figure that illustrates his point. They are punctuating his joke with a clap. His fingers curl over my nails. I snap a karate chop at his exposed armpit. He is by baby brother.

This one’s for the girls

This one’s for the girls who cover their mouths when they ask for something.

For the ones who believe their inheritance is approval.

For the ones who took Jesus’s words to heart that you must lose your life to gain it.

For the ones who never had it to lose.

For the ones who iron shirts that aren’t their own.

For the ones who know that their monthly pain is their penance for Eve’s sin.

For the ones who drown out the sound of silence with scrubbing.

For the ones who love what hurts them for fear of being unloved.

For the ones who build palaces out of promises.

 

This one’s for the girls who the world says are women before they ever become grown.

10 quick things on immigrants, refugees, and non-native English speakers

There is a discourse going on in our country about immigrants, refugees, and non-native speakers. This discourse is heated and emotional but somehow incredibly detached from the individuals that are most affected.

My mom has been teaching ESL for over a decade in a city that, despite its desolate surroundings and relative isolation, is relatively diverse for Texas. She has taught English as a second language to native speakers of a dozen languages she does not know. (She doesn’t even know Spanish somehow.) What she does is an act of wit and witchcraft. And she’s damn good at her job.

Over the years, she taught me much of what I know about a population that is under attack more than ever. Her wisdom deserves more words, but most of the words on refugees and immigrants should be written and spoken by refugees and immigrants themselves. So here is a short list of things I think are worth noting.

  1. A person’s ability to speak a language does not correlate to their intelligence.
  2. Speaking very loud and very slow doesn’t usually help a person understand what you’re saying. This is especially relevant if you don’t have any intention of listening to their response.
  3. The circumstances of a person becoming a refugee are always out of their control.
  4. Many, many people who find themselves in this country did not choose to come to this country. (see #3) But many also know that part of assimilating in the United States means buying into American exceptionalism.
  5. School systems often only give a student a couple of years before they are tested on grade level and in English. There is not a translated test.
  6. Some people come to the states from refugee camps. Some students who are refugees have never been in a formal school setting. Some find the basics of a developed world terrifying. (One of my mom’s student’s was scared to tears at the flush of a toilet.)
  7. Some people come to the states from refugee camps. Some students who are refugees excelled in their school before circumstances out of their control took their school away. Some had lives that were way more comfortable than their life is in America.
  8. Sometimes people don’t want to learn English. This doesn’t mean that they can’t (see #1 and #4)
  9. Any official government process is incredibly difficult to navigate for a native speaker. (Think about all the things you had to read, gather, and do to get your driver’s license.) For non-native English speakers, this can be enough to go without things like government ID and aid. (Have you ever let your driver’s license expire because you didn’t want to bother with the DMV? I have. And I understand everything they’re saying.)
  10. The ability to speak a language shouldn’t determine your livelihood.

a recipe for self confidence

 

Her body was always a marvel to me. Like the diagrams of adult anatomy, I always saw her body as the finished product of what my growing body was. She used to lay in the backyard on her faded rainbow towel covered in a sheen of tanning oil. This moment of sun was only after she’d spent the morning tending to the breakfasts, the laundry, the vacuuming. She was a vision in a decade-old, black two-piece.

I’d watch her bake quietly in the sun. Sometimes she’d fall into a light sleep, the only kind of sleep my mother knows, and I’d poke her to ask if I could have another popsicle. She would wake startled and confused, but only for a second. Once her consciousness focused on my face she’d soften with a sigh. Not of relief or exasperation, but something in between. She was unconcerned with the way her body looked. Unconcerned with the neighbors. Unconcerned with the ways the world presses in the mind of women.

My mom doesn’t wear a lot of makeup, but an entire drawer in her bathroom is dedicated to multicolor tubes and bright cakes of powder. As a kid, this was my favorite toy box. I would carefully pluck out my prize, wiggle off the cap, gently touch the rouge with the tiniest tip of my index finger, just enough to get a dot of color transferred.  I’d scrub it onto the back of my hand to watch a thin line of red turn darker with the friction. To me it didn’t matter their intended use. These compacts, tubes, and wands were the stuff of make believe. I don’t remember ever watching my mom put it on.

People say I look like my mother. I think they’d say that even if we didn’t share any of our features. Today I chose my outfit because it was the most comfortable shell for my hungover self. I didn’t think about it longer than 30 seconds. When I walked home from work I smiled at the sun in my face. Before I take a bath, I’m going to wipe off the smudge of mascara and tinted moisturizer I put on this morning that is now nonexistent from the day’s wear.

I am my mother’s daughter.

Volume: on taking up space

All elementary school science teachers introduce the concept volume the same way. They fill plastic cylinders halfway with water and instruct their students to record the measurement of the water. Then they ask, “how would we find the volume of something that isn’t liquid?” Because their students haven’t mastered the finer points of multiplication and dimension, their goal isn’t a complicated equation but a simpler method. The students wonder, theorize, and attempt to answer until the teacher brings out the piece de resistance: the objects.

These are typically the same hard plastic objects they used to learn to add and subtract, differing combinations of tiny blue cubes, (the kind that come in single cubes, fused until of ten or a hundred) the rainbow of tangrams, and colorful little bears. They instruct their students to drop their chosen object into the water in front of them. The students do so with glee. Then with grubby hands and fat pencils, they measure the water again. To their surprise, the water has risen. Their teacher assures them, this is the measurement of the volume of the object. The goal of this lesson is simple but effective: to understand that objects take up space and that that space is measurable.

The boy who sat across from me in science class when I did the volume experiment had a history of kicking kids under his desk. He was a terror who left the knees of his victims bruised.  The teacher knew it, the students knew it, and I knew it from experience. After being kicked multiple times and having my complaints brushed off by Mrs. Klein, I solved my problem by folding my legs in configurations that made them untouchable. I’d wrap them around the legs of my desk. I’d hike them up into my book holder. I’d sit cross-legged in my chair. I didn’t complain anymore.

I doubt Mrs. Klein knew she was starting a process of folding and compacting when she half-heartedly scolded the desk-kicker. The way we learn about how to behave is never in the ways that mature people, adults would like us to. But by the time we have the words to describe the real problem we are already trained to find the comfortable spot sitting on our heels.

I often envy the people who seem to unapologetically take up space. I have a coworker who is somehow always in the way and somehow always unapologetic. He stands in the door way of a busy kitchen and forces you to ask him to get out of your way. Then, if you’re ever caught in his path, he gives you about a half second warning before he puts his hand on your back and directs you out of his way.

The thing about this guy is that the world just molds around him. I avoid him and being in his way. I change where I stand so that he can’t run into me. I’d rather change than to deal with is obtuseness. He is the hard plastic bear and the rest of the world is the water.

As an adult I am having to learn that I deserve to take up space. I have a body and this is it’s size. I try not to think too much about having to push past people to get off a crowed subway. I try not to take my coworkers herding personally. I have to force myself to move around my tiny kitchen when one of my roommates is also there. I am slowly, slowly unfolding the neat creases I’ve put in myself.

To take up space is to believe that you matter, that you matter enough for your matter to be measured. But a lot of us are not hard, plastic toys. While we are learning how to measure how much a person matters, we are so soft and moldable. It is much easier to fold yourself inward so much that you’re untouchable rather than suffer perpetually bruised knees.

Pure Poetry

Along with changing everything about my life and doing a lot of yoga, I’ve been caught by a number of poems lately. They find me in the strangest places. It’s almost a serendipity.

This one caught me in the subway. They have these poems stuck between the adds to straighten your teeth and find addiction counseling. I’ve been thinking and writing about Eve a lot lately. She is caught between mother and temptress, sage and sinner. More than just the apple and all that.

Limon-Sears-m

A Name

When Eve walked among
the animals and named them–
nightingale, red-shouldered hawk,
fiddler crab, fallow deer–
I wonder if she ever wanted
them to speak back, looked into
their wide wonderful eyes and
whispered Name me, name me. 

Ada Limón

 

 

This one came to me on my twitter feed. I printed it and put it on my wall. I am a lucky, lucky girl. And I promise I’m not losing too much weight. (lbs to date: +3)

 

This one is from this morning. Read an article because I recognized Sherman Alexie from ~somewhere~. After I read the poem, I googled it. I remember him from a book list my students had last year.

http://lithub.com/eulogy-a-poem-by-sherman-alexie/

 

It’s weird the things you need the most are often not the ones you find after looking doggedly for. There is something to be said for letting go of the anxious tracking of emotional comfort. We are bloodhounds of this sort, sniffing out new situations and people for how much affirmation, affection, attention they can give us, all to avoid whatever kind of pain we are encountering at the moment. It seems to me that as soon as you let yourself slip under the tide of feeling for a moment, hold your breath and relax to the bottom, you find that the tide goes out and you can stand again.

These poems are the pull of tide going back out.