Broke Bodies: A Personal Narrative on Femme Desire and Class (Part III)

“Poor students would be welcome at the best institutions of higher learning if they were willing to surrender memory, to forget the past and claim the assimilated present as the only worthwhile and meaningful reality” —bell hooks (36-37, Where We Stand: Class Matters).

I may have left you all with quite a romantic image of my childhood. One in which I nobly channeled the insecurity and dysfunction of my life into a determined quest for knowledge. This is the narrative we know of poor people who “make it out.” It is the neatly structured escape narrative we, as denizens of a society built on the teleology of the self-made man, all secretly, or not so secretly, expect. And yet, here, I must challenge us all to face the jagged edges. Despite my childhood yearnings for education, despite my straight A’s and walls full of awards marking various accomplishments, there is only so much desire can do in the face of unrelenting poverty and tumult. Ultimately, the stories of poor or working-class people cannot always be as uplifting and triumphant-against-the-odds as Hollywood would have us think. The truth is, when social and familial situations escalated during my teen years, I coped in the way I had seen modeled for me my entire life: I ran. I dropped out of high school at 15 and found myself homeless only months later. For about a year, I stayed with a series of extended family, friends, boyfriends, and sometimes, complete strangers. When those situations failed, I slept in gardening sheds and under bridges. During this time, my love of language quickly obsoleted itself. What use were words when action was the order of the day? It’s funny how quickly the essential parts of us may atrophy when denied the blood pumped from our passionate hearts. Without my books, without school, without a home and family to nourish me, I became emotionally desiccated. I learned to live as the most rudimentary of reactionary organisms. I responded to light, to hunger, and to cold, but I did not stop to analyze, to delight in sensations, to marvel.

I was entirely untethered for a year. During that year I felt as if I had become a different, much more dispassionate person. I had taken a graveyard job at the local cannery and the wet working conditions, combined with my precarious living situations, resulted in me contracting pneumonia. For the first time in months, I called my mother for help. I barely remember what happened in the coming days because I was feverish and delirious, but I know she took me to the hospital for medication, brought me home, nestled me back in my old bed, and took care of me by bringing out some of my beloved paperbacks and feeding me chicken noodle soup. As sick as I was, there was a part of me, the part of me that was still obviously a child unprepared for the bleakness of her forced adulthood, that wanted to stay sick forever. Yet, I recovered, and the turbulent arguments between my mother and I were quick to resume. Therefore, at 16, I began to study for my GED, obtained my first nearly full-time job at a fast food restaurant, and got my mom to co-sign on an apartment for me to live by myself.

For the first six months in that apartment I slept each night in the living room, curled like a parenthesis on my tiny love seat, with all the lights and television on. I was terrified at how alone and soundless my apartment felt. I even longed for my little sister to come and invade my privacy, as she had done her entire life, because I felt too young to have so much private space in the world. At a time when most of my friends still lived with their parents, went to prom, and learned to drive, I took on a second full-time job and taught myself how to grocery shop. I felt caught in a netherworld in which I had to be an adult in order to survive, but wanted so badly to feel taken care of and nurtured. Out of necessity, I bracketed my dreams and need for others to care for me. I worked 12-16 hour days and quickly realized the inevitable cycle of poverty and exhaustion that I had entered. I became complacent, not because I was lazy, but because when your life is devoid of joy, pleasure, and leisure, you are forced to become an automaton just to make it. Perhaps the most inextricable lesson I took away from this time period was a sense that my daily bravado must become my identity—that to survive meant I had to be endlessly tough and unreliant on others. As you may imagine, it has taken me years to pull myself out of this suspended state of mere existence and survival.

Recently, as I’ve explored my femme trajectory, I’ve noticed that I’ve concurrently begun to excavate my self-buried class history. What my femme desire and class trespassing share is a sense of coming out and coming to terms. To identify as femme is often to set yourself up for a continual state of elaboration in order to avoid being simplified. Similarly, disclosing that I have been, and remain, without a financial safety net, opens my life’s story up for all sorts of interpretations, many of which are beyond my control. The interpretation I most dread is the one that elicits pity or a swelling sense that I am some sort of highly capable avatar for the poor and downtrodden. To be specific, telling the narrative of my escape (I hesitate over even this word choice) from a below working-class family has long since struck me as problematic.  I worry about engaging what gay and lesbian historian, Allan Bérubé, calls the “‘rhetoric of hardship'” (178, My Desire for History: Essays in Gay, Community, and Labor History). The difficulty in the rhetoric of hardship is that a narrative may persuade only by virtue of its ability to tug at the heartstrings of the reader. As such, the meaning and import may be evacuated in favor of sheer appeals to the pathos of the audience. I fear this dynamic in the telling of my own story. Specifically, I worry it may become at once emblematic of the impoverished or working-class experience—in a definitive way I do not seek to assert—but also a possible vehicle for others to indulge their middle or upper-class guilt.

To illustrate, I offer you the following anecdote: In my senior year of college, I received a highly coveted McNair fellowship for first generation, low-income college students who had demonstrated academic excellence and a desire for a PhD. I remember, at the time, I had a partner who responded to the news of my fellowship by saying, “I’m happy for you, but wouldn’t you like to know that you received something based solely on your merit and not the fact that you have this really sad childhood story?” I wish I could say that I was strong enough in my accomplishments to have rebuked her her obvious middle-class bile, but instead, I took her words to heart. She had articulated my darkest fear: that people’s desire to assuage their class guilt would result in me becoming some sort of redemptive symbol for the pluck of the poor. I wanted to be appreciated for my talents, not rewarded and pitied for my hardships. That moment marked my resolution to keep my story to myself, as a way of testing that the things that came my way were earned and not dispensed out of some tokenizing guilt.

Put simply, these are my own experiences and I have no agenda to reinscribe a hierarchy of the noble poor at one level and the villainous people with money on yet another, higher level. Further, I do not need others to feel guilty, because it recreates, although subtly, the idea that I, and other poor people, remain below or less than, and somehow need pitied for our experiences. At root, this is what bothered me, although I had no vernacular for it at the time, about the knowing tone of the social workers in my childhood. Their measured language implied they had studied poverty and were coerced to intellectualize, and reduce to a statistical average, the plight of the poor. This dynamic created a lacuna, albeit one that I’m sure many of them well-meaningly sought to close through their advocacy, between my family on one end of the power structure and themselves on the other. It was as if we had been reduced, by the structure of State services we were dependent on, to merely a profile whose story could be tidily placed within a textbook.

And so it is that bringing my experiences to such a public and often disconnected forum as the Internet has been a challenge. I have kept these stories inside of me for a lifetime. Some of my dearest friends will know of these things for the first time when they read my blog. I have long since been reluctant to share my hardship narrative because of my aforementioned fears of being tokenized. I’ve also internalized a lot of the class repression that occurred when I finally began to work on my Bachelors at the age of 25. Although I had spent a lifetime lovingly engaging with language, I had no idea, until I began college at a four-year institution, how base my reading materials were considered. I had never heard of the literary Canon; and I balked at the idea that some dwellers of an ivory tower had created an arbitrary list of reputable works worthy of advanced study. But, I kept this rebellion to myself, and tried my hardest to keep up with the students around me. It is only now that I can see that the Canon is hugely symbolic for the class structure that dictates what sorts of stories are valid and deserving of an audience. It says to students that your personal narrative is worthless unless spoken in the smooth tongue of a mastered language. It further speaks to the idea that the stories of the poor are best told by rich, white men. And underneath all of these messages is the imperative that if you are poor and privileged enough to speak the language of the middle-class, you should exploit and sap your story for every bit of its gut-wrenching tales of woe. There is no room for empowerment nor claims to happiness in this line of thinking.

As a friend of mine pointed out to me recently, talking about class has become somewhat passé in the queer community. As more and more of my friends begin to buy houses, start small businesses, adopt children, it becomes abundantly clear to me that we may feel we have surpassed this issue. I have begun to feel as if class is something younger activists, with their sometimes false sense of poverty and almost fashionable entitlement to Foodstamps, may talk more openly about—even if they are abstracting and romanticising the experiences of the poor. It’s as if we are supposed to outgrow talking about class with unabashed honesty and inquiry. When someone in my friend circle does begin to talk about their lack of money, everyone around them almost visibly seizes inward, as if that person’s poverty is an affront to their own iPhones, hybrid cars, and daily dining out budget. I know that I have personally tamped down on my class discussions in such a way that sometimes I forget that not only did I spring from an infernally impoverished family, but as someone who has chosen to adjunct and write independently, I remain situated in a contingent and precarious earning bracket. I think it is necessary that we pick at this wound. We should not sit on our class histories in a way that seeks to pretend we have arrived fully formed at the contemporary moment. Where we were raised, how secure our futures, our ability to go to college with or without a debt that will loom for years to come, these things are important. They are indicative of our levels of anxiety, our personalities, the risks we choose or cannot choose to take. Class is important. To paraphrase hooks, class still matters.

In conclusion, I have worked in my lifetime. I have put myself on hold for many, many years because I was racked with anxiety about things like a 401k and health benefits, and these are valid concerns to have in a culture that makes it abundantly clear it won’t have your back in old age and sickness. I have tried to succeed in the way Hollywood true grit films have taught me I should. But I have ultimately come to a place in which I choose the instability of an artist’s life. I choose to spend my mornings writing, my days and nights shuttling from one teaching gig to another, so that I may feel passion in my days. I wake now and write. Do you realize how unbelievable that seems? I wake in the morning and surround myself with the words I love, and now I try to take those words and arrange them in a way in which I can create meaning for myself and others. But I know, and would be remiss not to recognize, that I can make this choice because my body is healthy and I have no family to support. If my teen years taught me anything, it’s that life can change at a moment’s notice, knocking even the most linear of plans off course. But right now, in this moment: I have this love of language, I have this fight, but most of all, I desire with every aching and pulsing limb. I want to touch and be touched; I want to nurture and be nurtured; I want to be appreciated for my hard-won femininity; I want to be a powerful role model for the next generation of women in my family; I want to greet each day with a hunger that I spend my hours feeding. I am losing my fear of wanting and even gaining an ability to need. I want so many things, and this time around, I won’t deny myself the absolute joy and excitement of the pursuit.

Published in: on June 24, 2013 at 11:16 am  Comments (13)  

Broke Bodies: A Personal Narrative on Femme Desire and Class (Part II)

“The ‘demand for an impossible desire’ can condemn women to silence even when their entry to education and the professions seems to have permitted them utterance” —Carolyn G. Heilbrun (40, Writing a Woman’s Life)

Perhaps the most shaping desire of my childhood was my unrelenting love for reading and language acquisition. My mother often tells the story of me crying at 3 years old to be taught how to read. In my mind, I have romanticized this as the moment in which I first knew that knowledge unlocked something. In the years to come, I grew to realize, with an even greater clarity, that the power of knowing was undeniable. I observed the frustration my mother encountered when trying to advocate for herself with the team of caseworkers who constantly monitored and controlled our lives. The housing coordinator; the mandatory family therapists; the Welfare casemanager who doled out our money and Foodstamps; the 20-something, recent college grads who ran the Women’s Crisis Center and helped us when my mother fled my abusive stepfather; all of these women spoke to my mother in a language that resembled our own, but was fancier, more assertive, and ultimately, beyond us. I resolved to learn this language, a language I would come to know in my adult life as one of middle-class, of privilege, of education. I gleaned early that a mastery over language was not a luxury. We lived under the unyeilding threat that if my mother could not capably and articulately convey herself to the network of social workers managing our family, my sister and I would be ripped from her and placed in foster care.

One of the more symbolic of these threats were the biannual housing inspections we were required to submit to in order to keep our home. In preparation, my mother thundered through the apartment, using a toothbrush in the window sills, hand scrubbing every square inch of our strictly linoleum-covered floors, and barking orders to my sister and I to clean everything with a matching fervor. Our home and familial structure were at stake. Our security was directly tied to proving that we could be clean, that we could maintain a very middle-class ideal of order, and the underlying message: that we could express, through our domestic labor, our gratitude and respect for the home that had been lent us. On the day of the inspection, my mother was always a nervous wreck. Two social workers would determinedly nose through every corner, peering under beds and flinging open closet doors. There were no private nooks. We had no sense that this house was our own or permanent, because we were constantly reminded of our indebtedness to the city housing authority and the ephemereality in our tenancy. It makes sense, then, that I learned to bury things within myself—I was all too aware that if you are a poor and uneducated woman you will not be privileged with even the most basic of privacies.

I battled this sense of powerlessness by forming a secret desire for education. I tended this desire in the dark of night, feeding it books filled with words I had never seen. I read dictionaries with a flashlight in bed, my fingers delicately tracing the shapes of the letters on the page; my senses electrified by the musty perfume and feel of the smooth paper under my touch. My mother, though she didn’t entirely relate, did what she could to feed my voracious appetite. Although we were dirt poor, she would routinely come home with a used paperback to add to my growing collection. She commissioned one of her boyfriends to use wood scraps found around town to build me a bookcase so large it spanned an entire wall in my tiny bedroom. I sat for hours memorizing every worn and cracked spine on those shelves. On the nights my mother didn’t make it home from the bar and I found myself inconsolable with worry, I would pull dozens of books out and pile them like walls around me in my bed. I felt safe under their weight. My entire body cocooned, surrounded and embraced. I imbued my books with life, and, as such, they became my familiars capable of building a mystical circle around me to keep me safe. Each night I did this, flanked on all sides by the pages I loved, I would fall into wordless dreams in which my body could sing my story. There was a certain sensuality in my love of language and of books, and little did I know at the time, but this love would be the first step in reclaiming desire for myself. If nothing else—beyond the tactile sensations in holding the books, turning the pages, and feeling the rush of beautifully articulated thoughts come over me—I could want for the characters in my books. I could imagine their lives better and full of potential; I could channel all of the lack in my life into making them whole. They could do things I never could, and I wanted the best for them.

(Part III to be posted soon)

Published in: on June 24, 2013 at 11:15 am  Comments (5)  

Broke Bodies: A Personal Narrative on Femme Desire and Class (Part I)

“Femme girls dance on razors every day of their lives, and some days it is only bravado that keeps us upright.” —Dorothy Allison (xv, My Dangerous Desires)

A lifetime of sustained poverty pounds and transforms the body in much the same way as relentless waves whose force can erode even the most formidable of monoliths. At this point, we are all too familiar with the idea that scars tell the stories of where we have been, but so too do our pristine or damaged teeth, our marked or unmarked faces, our smooth or battered hands. These bodies carry us from place to place, all the while signaling to others our unspoken histories. I imagine that my body betrays my privacy everyday—perhaps my posture signals I slouched through my childhood to avoid catching the disapproving looks of people with money; my teeth and proclivity for illness may hint that I went years without regular dental or medical attention; and the size of my body might suggest that my family buries their financial and cultural powerlessness with food. All of these messages are beyond my control; they are imposed and inscribed on my flesh as testimony of my life’s story.

I learned early to approach each day with my body like a tightened fist; a fist that proved ineffectual in fighting off neglect, hunger, violence or inappropriate attention. In many ways, I disconnected so that I may persist. I hid myself under the surface, overwhelmed by the want of things: I wanted to be wickedly smart and pretty like the heroines in my favorite novels; I wanted a mother who did not seem so close to me in age; I wanted to live in a beautiful house in a safe neighborhood, not the bleak and perilous housing projects; hidden away under all of these desires, I wanted to know why my close friendships with girls were so intense and charged, and why I dreamt of kissing them. I wanted. And wanting is dangerous folly in a life filled with deprivation. I resolved early on to whittle away at my desires, slowly carving them out of me so that I may be left barren and steeled against disappointment.

But even more so than a fear of disappointment, I grew to understand that a desire for any sort of exceptionalism bred attention, and attention made one vulnerable. So I formed calluses over the delicate parts of myself. I learned to avoid unwanted male attention by being at once tough-as-nails and a slip of a girl they would hopefully never notice as a sexual being. I cultivated vitriol and eschewed tenderness. I became, much like my mother and her mother before her, an acid-tongued girl ready to burn before being burned. In the hardscrabble existence of my youth, women, as much as possible, had to be faster and stronger than the men around them in order to outpace and anticipate their rage. The double bind of this toughness was that, by virtue of our poverty, any strength we possessed translated as brazenness, and any sense of sexual independence read as whorish. Still, I emulated the women around me by smoking cigarettes pinched between my thumb and forefinger, by practicing my guttural laugh and talking crudely about sex acts I did not yet understand.

In my prepubescent years, I listened to heavy metal with teenage boys, alone in the dark of their rooms, and let things go farther than I ever wanted. They pawed at me and never looked me in the eye, but if they had looked closer they may have glimpsed the poison in my stare. Perhaps they would have seen that I resented their unbridled desire—open and gaping as the maw of a fish. There were times I was surprised they did not feel my body clench under their touch, as the tension of self-denial pulled my skin taut against my bones. Because I was afraid to want, because I sublimated my queer longings, because I was so far under the surface of myself, I let the slip of a girl take over, and she ruled my body for many, many years.

(Part II to be posted soon)

Published in: on June 24, 2013 at 11:13 am  Comments (4)  

Femmedagger Volume II Now Available

Cover Image for Femmedagger Vol. 2

Click on cover image to be redirected to Etsy page

Femmedagger Volume II is ready for purchase on my Etsy page. Much like Volume I, the Femmedagger zine is a new collection of essays I’ve written on topics ranging from scarcity to exposing yourself on the Internet. Some of the essays are previously posted from this website and others are unposted. I’ve created three prices for this volume; you are free to choose the one that is right for you. Thank you

Published in: on December 20, 2012 at 11:42 am  Leave a Comment  

Connecticut Begins with Connect: On Grieving and Laying Down Arms

That we can be injured, that others can be injured, that we are subject to death at the whim of another, are all reasons for both fear and grief. What is less certain, however, is whether the experiences of vulnerability and loss have to lead straightaway to…retribution. There are other passages. If we are interested in arresting cycles of violence to produce less vigilant outcomes, it is no doubt important to ask what, politically, might be made of grief besides a cry for war” —Judith Butler (Precarious Life xii)

I don’t check the news.

I will just be honest with you. I find it depressing and sometimes self-indulgent. I am of the opinion that we sometimes mistake being well informed for understanding the suffering of others, being worldly for being of the world. Mine is not a perfect logic, but it’s the only one I have.

Like many people, I presume, I get most of my news from social networks. It’s not very sophisticated but it alerts me to many of the biggest headlines. That’s how I first knew of today’s shooting.

I followed a link to a news article.

There I read it.


The headline: Over twenty, mostly children, were slain in a small-town Connecticut elementary school.

I was sitting in my car, that piece of shit Volkswagen with the standing inch of water on the passenger side floor and growing smell of mold in the air. My chitty-chitty bang bang engine made its normal burping and farting noises, which suddenly struck me as distasteful.

I wanted silence.


Some sort of quiet to help me re-read the words.

My boyfriend, K, reemerged from his house. I was taking him to the airport so that he can visit family on the east coast for three weeks. Ours is a new love and is in that delicate tissue paper stage in which our connection is fragile and beautiful all at once. Three weeks is a long time for a new love.

So my heart was already drenched and swollen.

When I first read the headline, I thought of how I learned to spell Connecticut. I cannot even see the word without remembering the mnemonic, “Connecticut begins with ‘connect.’” I learned this in second grade. I learned this in school. I learned this because a teacher taught me. I am not one of those people who can remember every teacher they’ve ever had, partially because I was a child with the typical Swiss cheese memory and partially because these aren’t always times I want to remember. Yet, the lessons of these ambiguous teachers remain, indelibly.


Connecticut begins with connect.

I told K in the car. I just bumbled it out, almost selfishly. I knew he was nervous and anxious to travel, but I needed someone else to be in this with me. I needed him to be in this with me.

Last night we were at the mall and there were at least six cop cars by the side entrance. Inside of the mall, security guards and police in uniform were at almost every turn. “They’re here because of the shooting,” I said in a paranoid fashion to K. A couple of days ago, a gunman walked into a nearby mall and opened fire. Our city is still reeling from this. We are still imagining this terror and the sound of these gunshots.

There is a certain vulnerability in remembering how exposed our bodies are to the world. The social contract that says, “I don’t kill you, you don’t kill me” is a tenuous one at best.

“I am scared to be in the mall right now,” I admitted to K. “There always seem to be copycats after one of these mass murders.”

In the car home, I brought it up again, the fear of mass shootings that I’ve carried with me since Columbine. “At the college I teach at, we are required to tell students about the emergency plan in case of a school shooting. I am supposed to lock the door, turn off the lights and keep everyone in the room and away from the windows.” I took a deep breath when I say this because I am grappling with my role in the classroom and my duty to my students, even in the face of total terror. K is an elementary school teacher, so he nodded in understanding.

K then told me that in elementary schools they have drills in which they get the students under the desks and have them practice being quiet.

My whole body cringed at the thought of children being forced to learn how to duck and cover in case someone with a gun decides to shoot them.

When I was a kid in the 80s, I told K, we were taught to fear AIDS. As early as second grade, we learned that our bodies could be deadly. I knew to use a condom for sex long before I knew what sex really was. So I can relate to being taught to fear what you do not understand. But this, this teaching young children how to protect themselves against murder, this is too much for me.

When I drove away from K at the airport, I didn’t remember this conversation from the night before. I don’t even know if I was able to think about anything coherently.

Connecticut begins with connect.

I have not felt this exact same way since Sept. 11th 2001—this almost primal tie to people I’ve never met. We all know what happened that day. Most of us remember what it was like in those days following the attacks. We were all New Yorkers. The injury against them was an injury against us all. We had a moment in which we could actually see the lines stitching us to New York, even if we had never been. We were all New Yorkers.

Back then, we had a vengeful president. He called for war. He called for violence. He called for blood. The tone he set for the nation was one of anger and retribution. Our president told us to buck up. To not give into the terrorists. He told us to shop, to keep the economy strong. Much like a stoic football coach, he told us to walk it off. He told us not to show weakness. And he, essentially, told us not to grieve.

And to be fair, in the days and years following the attacks, it seems North Americans didn’t know quite what to grieve. Should we grieve our loss of security? The loss of lives? The loss of freedoms?

Days after the attacks, Slavoj Zizek wrote,

“Now, in the days immediately following the bombings, it is as if we dwell in the unique time between a traumatic event and its symbolic impact – like in those brief moments after we are deeply cut, and before the full extent of the pain strikes us – it is open how the events will be symbolized, what their symbolic efficiency will be, what acts they will be evoked to justify” (Welcome to the Desert of the Real).

 Here, Zizek emphasizes the significance of that time between the shock of trauma and the symbolic meaning we will come to apply to it. This “unique” moment may inspire us towards anger and attack or it could encourage us to grieve and mourn.

This idea of mourning was carried on by Judith Butler in her post-Sept. 11th text, Precarious Lives.

“When grieving is something to be feared, our fears can give rise to the impulse to resolve it quickly, to banish it in the name of an action…Is there something to be gained,” Butler asks, “from grieving, from tarrying with grief, from remaining exposed to its unbearability and not endeavoring to seek a resolution from grief with violence?” (29-30).

Butler is concerned with the idea of national grief and she posits that it is the lack of mourning in North America coloring our inability to withstand our emotions. Instead, she argues, we go to war. We wage violence and turn to anger.

In a speech delivered one year after the North American Sept. 11th attacks, Arundahti Roy decried,

“It’s not a clever-enough subject to speak of from a public platform, but what I would really love to talk to you about is Loss. Loss and losing. Grief, failure, brokenness, numbness, uncertainty, fear, the death of feeling, the death of dreaming. The absolute relentless, endless, habitual, unfairness of the world. What does loss mean to individuals? What does it mean to whole cultures, whole people who have learned to live with it as a constant companion?” (Come September, 3).

In this speech, Roy presented the view of global suffering—of 9-11s across the world and decades. She reminded North Americans that we are not alone in our terror, but also nudged us for thinking solely about ourselves. “This historical dredging,” (of events ranging from General Pinochet’s Sept. 11th, 1973 overthrow of the Chilean government to 1990 Sept. 11th decision of George Bush Sr. to go to war with Iraq), “is not offered as an accusation or provocation,” she warned, “but just to share the grief of history…to say to the citizens of America, in the gentlest, most human way, ‘Welcome to the world’” (3).

Connecticut begins with connect.

Over a decade later, things appear ostensibly different, following the reign of a president who declared, merely 11 days after the attacks, that the time for grieving was over and the time for war had begun. In contrast, our current president noticeably teared up in a press release in which he spoke about the victims of today’s shooting ranging from 5-10 years of age. “We’ve endured too many of these tragedies in the past few years,” Obama lamented. “And each time I learn the news I react not as a President, but as anybody else would — as a parent. And that was especially true today.  I know there’s not a parent in America who doesn’t feel the same overwhelming grief that I do,” (emphasis my own).

And although we have a president who openly weeps and invokes the notion of “grief,” he, too, moved quickly into a call for “meaningful action.” It seems that a bad habit is hard to break and we are too often prepared to act rather than grieve.

Today, as the posts about the Connecticut shootings piled up, I quickly noticed that many talked of mental illness and access to care. Still others spoke of gun reform. But a few, perhaps not coincidentally mostly my friends who have children, reminded us to grieve. These were children, they beseeched. These were the teachers who devoted and perhaps gave their lives for these children, they appealed. We must mourn this too, they reminded.

A couple of days ago, a man entered a shopping mall and let loose his semi-automatic fury on a crowd of strangers, killing two of them. On this day a young man reportedly killed his mother and then entered an elementary school and killed more than 20 children. A man in China waited outside a primary school and stabbed more than 20 children with a knife. These things are the same and not the same.

The shooting in the mall, the violence against children in Connecticut and China, they each expose us the vulnerability of our bodies, to the selfishness of the few, to the illness of the world.

You see, there is a connection here between these events, between you and I, between the deaths of school children in America and the stabbing of those in China. The connection is not one that is easy to name. It’s not just that we are all humans, because today’s shooter was a human as well. But it could be that we are all vulnerable to death. And, at the end of the day, today too many parents lost their children, too many students their teachers. Doubly sad to me is that fact that too many of us have lost the realization that our nation handled Sept. 11th grief abysmally, if at all. We remain too quick to act and too slow to mourn. How, we may ask ourselves, is our lack of grief today, or about the 17 year Chilean massacres, or Sept. 11th related? How are we turning to anger and action before we’ve even had the chance to mourn the lives truncated as they barely began.

After I read the news and dropped K off at the airport, I drove almost thoughtlessly to the store. I walked through the aisles with tears openly coursing down my face. My whole body felt as if it were under a lead blanket. I imagined that the bodies of my fellow shoppers felt the same. I went to the store because I wanted a project. I wanted to throw myself into something that would take me out of my sadness. I knew I wanted a puzzle—a big one. I didn’t just pick a puzzle off the shelf—I treated the decision with seriousness. I wanted to spend the next couple of days with this puzzle, just meditating over it. Finally, after visiting two stores, I found the right one, or it found me. It is a nature painting with three deer near a river. There is a gentle sunset dappling over the water and the orange-red leaves of fall on the trees. The eyes of the deer are aimed straight at the painter. There is no fear in their eyes, but they look interrupted, caught. When it comes to capturing their expression, there is, I realize now, only the thinnest difference between the vantage point from a rifle’s crosshairs and that of the artist at her easel. Yet, one view is designed to kill and the other to merely memorialize.


Today, instead of thinking about gun legislation or mental healthcare reform, admittedly truly significant political concerns, I must memorialize these children. In my mind, I must remember their faces, even though I’ve never seen them.

Connecticut begins with Connect.

And because I once was a school child, because I do not want to alchemize my mourning into immediate action, because I may someday have children of my own and will fear this for them, I must acknowledge this connection between us. Because today, with this sadness, with this heaviness, this connection is the only thing I’ve got.

But tomorrow, tomorrow, we can pick up our axes to grind, our phones, our emails to lobbyists. We can fight; we can make change.

But today, I grieve.

I ugly cry in the bathtub and in the aisles of the supermarket.

I acknowledge the loss.

And I admit that I am terrified to lose any more of you.

I want to hold you each to my chest, safe.

I want to tell you bedtime stories and watch you grow up.

I want to be your favorite aunt, the one who takes you to your first punk show.

I want to earn your trust.

I want to love you.

I want to keep this connection alive.

And so, like a painter, I will set up my easel in front of you. I will paint all night and in the morning, your face will be there too, interrupted, caught, but connected with mine forever.

Published in: on December 15, 2012 at 2:17 am  Comments (2)  

Femme Conference Redux: Scarcity and Femme Fashion (Part II)

“The belief in scarcity is contrary to a truly universal compassion in that to believe in scarcity is to believe that for one person or one group to have their needs met and desires fulfilled, others must necessarily do without having their needs met and desires fulfilled” —Joel Federman, Politics of Universal Compassion (forthcoming)

“Modern bourgeois society, with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells”—Karl Marx, Capital

“But this atmosphere of malediction presupposes anguish, and anguish for its part signifies the absence (or weakness) of the pres­sure exerted by the exuberance of life. Anguish arises when the anxious individual is not himself stretched tight by the feeling of superabundance” —Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share

There is this thing that happens to me in dressing rooms; I can only liken it to the feeling I used to have as a child lording over my Halloween candy—a mix of the manic glee that comes from acquiring a “superabundance” of things with the mournful, already-gone feeling resulting from this type of consumption. When I shop, as a fat, poor femme, I often find myself grabbing things off the rack simply because they are in my size. I am too accustomed to a sense of scarcity in clothing for fat people, let alone affordable options; therefore, I heap items upon my arm and march to the dressing room. All the way to the dressing room, through each article of clothing I take off, and up to the point in which I cram the too-tight clothing over my shoulders, I say a prayer begging the universe to “let it fit.” The guilt for misusing prayer for something so petty quickly follows. When the universe, or let’s be real, the “fine” clothiers at Forever 21, heed my prayers and let the item move easily over my body, I almost instantly determine to buy it. This decision is immediate and usually not contingent on basic elements such as whether or not it is a color I prefer, the cut is flattering, or even, most pathetically, if I like the damn thing. This, my friends, is the scarcity model at its finest. I believe that nothing else exists in my size, or that if it does it is extremely rare, and this false sense of rarity allows me to walk up the register, with handfuls of clothes I feel, at best, ambivalent about. (For another perspective on this, I just stumbled across this blog post from a fellow FemCon attendee Lazy Femme).

It is with this mindset, following the Nomy Lamm speech on the first day of Femme Conference 2012, that I went to my friend, Colleen Siviter’s workshop entitled “Femmes and Fashion: Issues, Industry and Strategies for Social Change.” From the outset, Colleen let us know that some of the things we learned in her workshop may be upsetting or depressing. I don’t know why, but my first response to this was an internally flippant, “I study holocausts and genocides for a living; how hard can it be to learn where my t-shirt came from?” Well, as her workshop unfolded, it turned out it is really damn hard because taking part in the industry of clothing is to take part in the holocaust of the earth’s resources and the genocide of lives, both animal and human, all along the chain of production. She walked us through key phases of production and distribution and explained how each aspect worked together. Although I learned a great deal in the presentation, one of the more disconcerting facts from her workshop was that dye effluent from cotton producers in China is responsible for the destruction of many rivers in the country. Rivers that were once a source of nourishment, sustenance and spiritual practice in China are now an unnatural purple hue and toxic to the touch. Colleen’s workshop encouraged a healthy dialogue about the state of the fashion industry and I was happy to hear from attendees who were also highly educated on the dangers of clothing manufacturing. Colleen was careful to pass along the advice given to her from a former professor that we should not entirely despair and, in fact, the most helpful response would be to pick one or two things you can choose to focus on in your own path towards sustainability. Although I am not doing a service to the breadth of her advice, some of the highlights included: repairing and preserving your existing clothes so that they last longer; buying clothes from manufacturers who are doing inventive work with sustainable fabrics; and having a heightened awareness of the clothing you buy. (for more on this, check out Colleen’s expansive resource list).

Colleen Siviter during her workshop on “Femmes and Fashion: Issues, Industry and Strategies for Social Change.”

This awareness, for me, takes the form of checking in with myself about why I am shopping. To go back to my opening anecdote, if I am at the store, piling clothes I don’t particularly like into my basket, and then settling for whatever remotely fits, am I even shopping out of necessity? Or is it more likely that I am shopping to stave off the pit of anguish that dwells in my chest as a result of a lifetime of feeling I don’t have enough or as much as someone else? I have gotten better about shopping over the years as I adopt a buy nice or buy twice attitude about clothes, but I still often go shopping for all the wrong reasons. I would hasten that the right reasons to go shopping are because you need something that you do not already have or that you are replacing something because it is no longer useful. But, I don’t happen to live in that particular post-scarcity utopia (to take on the critique of Marx’s post-scarcity utopia that asserts if we simply increase production and dispense things more freely, the abundance model would replace that of scarcity) in which I have so much of everything that I no longer feel anguish over not having something else.

I live in a society based on consumerism. A society that says to me and to others, “If you have not acquired the newest or latest or most fashionable of something, you are signaling to everyone that you either cannot or do not participate in the economy of fashion.” And it would be great if not participating in the economy of fashion had only to do with my aesthetic appearance, but the truth is, to have that judgment levied at me strikes down into the marrow of my impoverished sense of self—it can truly diminish my self-worth and esteem. When you know deprivation on an intimate level, when you are outcasted and ignored because you do not possess the right things, you begin to see that acquisition is power. And yes, power is bullshit. But, to paraphrase Oprah, money isn’t everything, but not having it is. And since money is power in our culture, the two things are inextricably linked.

And if we take this idea to the concept of femme, we begin to see just why Colleen’s presentation was so aptly placed within the conference. Although many of us approach the idea of femme as being something that simultaneously nods to our exterior and interior selves, the truth is, femme is often defined, at least initially, by its appearance. Now, there are arguments to be made, and I wholly agree, that femme moves beyond just the clothes, shoes or the makeup we do or don’t wear. But those arguments must acknowledge that very few of us, in even fewer situations, are able to convey our interior selves to others without them first seeing, surmising, and judging us based on our appearance. In very plain terms, other queers judge me to be femme most likely based on the way I dress and look rather than on my hobbies, how I like to fuck or be fucked, or my nurturing energy. Although I don’t want to reinforce the idea of butch on one end and femme on the either (dear god, how bored with the binary can one person get?), I will say that people are far more inclined to assume that someone is butch instead of femme and vice versa based on what clothes they wear than on any host of other aspects of gender.

Although I will touch on this more in my future post in which I discuss my own workshop “Failing at Femme,” my colloquial approach to the superficiality of gender, similar to my approach to power, is to call bullshit. To perpetuate the idea of femme as this ideal of femininity is to part and parcel accept the capitalistic model of acquiring. Femme, as it is most often depicted, is linked up with problematic notions of trends, of buying, of being fashionable. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love fashion. I get great pleasure out of the performance and costumery of femme. But what I’m questioning is how selfish am I in my pursuit of feeling better about myself through clothes? To return to one of my opening epigraphs, scarcity is defined as believing that the only way for some to have their desires and needs met is for someone else not to have theirs met. So, for me to buy cheap clothes at Forever 21, which allows me to continually find worth in consumerism, is to say to the persons laboring and dying over the production of said clothes must inevitably suffer. Here we have it: the real life application of the scarcity model.

Because I am a believer in language, it occurs to me entirely practical that to name femme as closely associated with consumerism is to have the opportunity to begin to corrode that connection. I am realistic and don’t think that many of us are going to walk around in busted shoes, just because it’s the right thing to do. But I do think more of us could go to the cobbler, buy things at consignment shops, and just overall practice more informed purchasing. For me, that takes the form of also not going shopping just because I feel bad, or because I don’t like to wear the same outfit dancing more than once (sad, but true). It also means that I need to reconceptualize my femme performance in terms of abundance over scarcity. If I begin to see that all of the clothes I need are already in existence, I can also begin to feel that all of the clothes I want can be sustainably obtained. I am speaking in ideals here, but it’s a start.

I believe it was Theodor Adorno who once said something to the extent that there is no produced thing that does not contain some trace of suffering, and he used the idea of the artist’s materials: the paint brush, the canvas, the oils, although arguably used for some great good, as all taking part in an intricate system of suffering. When I first heard this, I despaired. I felt like sitting very still in a small, dark space and using even oxygen sparingly. But I quickly threw out this dramatic ideology in favor of an approach to life that looks for the suffering in things and is forced to make eye contact with it. Sometimes, it really takes that close look, that undeniable acknowledgement of deep oppression, to wrest me from my compulsory consumerism, force me to put all of those ill-fitting dresses back on the rack and determinedly walk out of the store— until the next time.

Published in: on September 5, 2012 at 2:31 pm  Comments (2)  

Femme Conference Redux: The First Day (Part I)

There is a famous scene from the film version of The Wizard of Oz that has long since spoken to me. We all know that moment when Dorothy Gale opens her door to discover, after her house being whipped and whirled through the grayscale skies of Kansas, that the world beyond her door is in bright, garish Technicolor. This was always one of my favorite moments because the contrast of her sepia-washed existence in Kansas with the overwhelmingly bright and colorful Oz gave me hope in transformation. As if you really could just get plucked up by a powerful storm and be moved into some magical realm of color and possibility. I run the risk of hyperbole, if I haven’t already, when I say that when the elevator doors opened on the first morning of Femme Conference 2012, exposing a lobby ringed with color, clatter and the din of femme voices, I felt a little like Dorothy opening her door to the promise and magic of Oz.

I hesitated in the elevator for just a moment, drawing my breath and strength into my shoulders before inserting myself in the incandescent cacophony. You see, even though my heart raced with the pure excitement of being in such close quarters with hundreds of femmes and allies, I would be lying if I didn’t say that I also fought back some other deep down feeling. In a word: insecurity. It is still terrifying for me to enter a room full of femme-identified folks and know that they may be judging me, they may outcast me, and even worse, that I will do the same to them.

But this feeling was no surprise to me. I had anticipated that being in a space committed to and defined by femme solidarity would challenge me on many fronts. To this end, months earlier, I submit a proposal to the conference for a workshop entitled, “Failing at Femme.” I felt drawn to this subject because I have often felt as if I were coming up short at being femme. I realized, through my own work on these feelings, that my sense of failure was a result of a tacit comparison that myself and the culture around me makes between ourselves and some ideal of feminine beauty. This ideal has been fed me my entire life and it eroded my sense of self. But perhaps worse than just the personal implications of this compare/contrast model, were the ways in which success at femme is coded as being thin, rich, white, able-bodied, cis-gendered and seemingly without flaw. For me, femme then came to represent one nexus in which multivariate oppressions met and overlapped. Interpreting femme as one locus for oppressions helped me to see how essential it is for me, and I hoped others, to name and dismantle standards of femme.

For those of you who may have never heard of the conference, and don’t beat yourselves up because this is my first year hearing about it as well, the Femme Conference, according to the official website, is a “a bi-annual project by the Conference Steering Committee of the Femme Collective.” The theme of this year’s conference was “Pulling the Pieces Together,” which the organizers define as:

“(the) hope that together we can create a space to explore many of the complexities of Femme identity, including (but not limited to) questions of privilege, invisibility, intersecting identities, class mobility, aging, and the differences between femininity and Femme identity. We hope to contribute to giving voice to queer Femme identity, and to building unity, coalition, and solidarity in and among genderqueer communities.”

With all of this in mind, I resolved to approach the spaces at the conference with openness, vulnerability, and the feeling that many of us would be in a similar space of grappling with insecurities. That first morning I had breakfast with my friend, Colleen, at the nearby One World Café. Both of us sat in near silence for the first few minutes, our eyes constantly darting to the door to see yet another femme enter the café. You could tell that we were each a bit overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of femmes walking the streets. Colleen was presenting later in the day and we spoke about how amazing it was to be at a function like this and know that we would have some platform to reach out to others. I told her how terrified I was to present to my community, even after years of teaching college students the idea of standing before an audience with such nuanced and complicated understandings of femme intimidated me. I imagined a room with femmes staring me down with arms crossed as if to say, “We know this already.” But, I told her, I realized that the fact is we do know these things, but we are obviously not done working them out because they are still raw and relevant.

Colleen before her presentation, “Femmes and Fashion: Issues, Industry and Strategies for Social Change”

We left the café and headed to our first formal event, keynote Nomy Lamm’s speech held in the nearby Scottish Rite Temple. Way back in 2001, at Olympia, Washington’s Yo Yo A Go Go (a weeklong music festival), I had seen Nomy perform. She was part of the Jody Bleyle project (of Team Dresch fame) “Dr. Frockrocket’s Re-Animitronic Menagerie and Medicine Show.” At that performance she sang “Amazing Grace,” her haunting and powerful voice filling the room. As part of her finale, she removed her prosthetic leg and stood on one leg in a bra and tulle skirt. The impact on me was undeniable. Not only was her voice other-wordly, but this was my first real experience seeing someone fat standing half naked in a room full of people. I was heady with the experience and have since been an immense fan of her work.

From my zine, “Razor Mouth,” copyright 2001

The instant I walked into the auditorium, Nomy’s voice seemed to stretch into every corner of the room and I was immediately transported to that long ago feeling I had at first seeing her perform. The lighting in the Temple cast a rosy glow over everything and lulled me into an instantaneous calm. The silence and reverence with with each person entered the room expanded my lungs and created a sense of the sacred. All the while, Nomy, who sat atop a plush velvet chair in front of a mystical starry-night backdrop, recorded and looped her operatic chants. By the time she began to speak, I was already crying. At first I had been confused by the solemn procession of folks who made their way to the stage, briefly touching the staircase and returning to their seats, but I was soon to discover that Nomy had asked people to bring something to add to a femme, non-denominational altar. The altar, which was later on display, consisted of items that somehow represented different peoples’ relationship to femme.

A great deal of Nomy’s speech is a blur for me, as I felt imbued and transported by the energy in the room, an energy of emotions over words. But I remember that she asked us to create a choral wave in which the front row repeated a note she sang, with the effect that the note rippled from row-to-row until the whole room pulsed with voices. The first time it didn’t really work, as only the people in the first rows sang. You could tell that many of us would just let it go, rather than calling it to her attention, but suddenly overwhelmed with the desire to hear the exercise as she intended, I called out, “It didn’t reach us and we WANT it to reach us.” She laughed and the second try caused the room to explode in vibrations. She later asked us to popcorn our voices with words we think of when describing femme. Words like “Fierce, Sassy, Strong, Vulnerable, Genderfuck and Tender,” rang out in varying pitches across the crowd. The words themselves were relatively unsurprising, but the power lay in the spontaneity and courage it took to shoot your voice into the hallowed space she had created. She spoke of being flawed, of anticipating that we would all judge her, and she added that in all fairness she would be harshly judging anyone else who spoke to the crowd. She read to us from a fictional piece she wrote and the highlight for me was the part in which the young character attempted to show off for the girl she liked by letting her touch, and even lick, the Torah. It was a hilarious and brilliantly suggestive piece in which the sacred text functioned as an avatar for her own fat body that was to be untouched and protected.

I left the auditorium feeling fortified and emotionally calibrated for the events to come. It was a poignant note on which I could enter the realm of the conference. The circle that formed between my experiences of the past—primarily, the reclamation and pride I learned to take in my body some 11 years ago and my ever-forming articulation of my femme experience in the current moment—reached into my heart and laid it bare and vulnerable for the emotional and transformative days to follow.

Part II of First Day to come

Published in: on August 31, 2012 at 1:12 pm  Comments (3)  
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New Femmedagger Book and Femme Conference News

Hi everyone,

I am packing up my bags and headed to Baltimore for the 2012 Femme Conference. I will be presenting a workshop entitled “Failing at Femme: Insecurity, Competition and the Language of Femme Exclusion.” Here’s a bit about it:

The queer femme continuum, with its marked categories of low-femme on one end and high-femme on the other, reproduces a standard and familiar ranking system. Tied into this ranking system is an implied level of failure and success. That we may have worked so hard on rejecting certain body type ideals and yet reinscribe the oppressive notions that there is one type of successful femme, does not show that we are unsophisticated as a community, but rather, that we as femmes must do more work to interrogate our own insecurities. Our insecurities about how well we perform what I call “the femme artifice” reflect the insidious nature of a culture defined by youth, whiteness, thinness, and one, quite narrow, definition of beauty. To put it all in clearer terms, I believe we are all aware of people who do not identify as femme because they don’t wear heels or makeup, or perhaps because they think they aren’t “girly enough” and to this I will argue that we must broaden our notion of femme to allow for myriad presentations. Femme as a radical gender identity must hold space for masculine femmes, for genderqueer femmes, for femmes who do not identify as women, for femmes who do not or cannot uphold one particular notion of femininity and so on. And it must do all of these things if it is to distinguish itself as an identity of openness and acceptance. We all bear the potential to see ourselves as failing at gender performance. In this workshop, I hope to create an environment in which myself and others can be honest about both the exclusionary language and practices of a femme identity built upon impossible and oppressive ideals.

I’ve also released a new zine form of my blog, featuring published and previously unpublished work, a preface and coming in at a whopping 92 pages!

You can purchase it here:

Published in: on August 14, 2012 at 12:12 pm  Comments (1)  

Help Getting to Femme Conference to 2012

In the spirit of asking for help, my workshop proposal got accepted to Femme Conference 2012!

I am so incredibly excited, but may have to say ‘no’ due to not having funds to travel to Baltimore. I’ve started this ChipIn page to see if I can raise some money. I’ve never publicly asked for money for anything, but I have worked incredibly hard on both this proposal and workshop and would love the opportunity to share it with femme-identified folks and allies. Anything helps, even just reposting and spreading the word.

Click on image to be redirected to my ChipIn page.


Published in: on May 24, 2012 at 2:40 pm  Leave a Comment  

Help is Not a Four Letter Word

I wanted to begin this article on the pitfalls of asking for help with a quote from the book Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Poor, but, as luck would have it, when I went to reach for the book on my shelf, it was not there. Then I remembered that years ago, fresh from gaining a seemingly useless bachelors in English, I had sold dozens of my precious books to make rent. This book, ironically, was one of them. For those of you unfamiliar, Without a Net includes a wide array of essays depicting various ways in which poor people, females in particular, experience life when they have no financial safety net to catch them. It is one of those types of books that blows your mind simply by articulating what you’ve always felt but have had no language for, which is, quite simply: being poor colors every aspect of your life. Conversely, what the book suggests, without being heavy-handed, is that having financial security similarly hues your life, in ways that are at once incalculable and concrete. I like to imagine that there is a second edition of this book, because the stories we have to share are probably innumerable. The following article is my submission to this imaginary second edition.

My mom and I have this joke that we have been borrowing and lending the same 20 dollars back and forth for years. There are times that money is so tight that one of us calls the other frantic about needing just a few dollars to prevent an overdraft or put gas in the tank or pay for parking for the week. I think about this 20 dollars all of the time, especially because I realize that even in the direst of emergencies, the most money my mother and I can ever afford to lend is less than most people would spend on coffee in a week. When I truly grapple with this, I realize how terrifyingly precarious my life.

But when it comes to borrowing money, 20 dollars is about the limit of my comfort zone, regardless how much the other person has to lend. There have been a few exceptions to this, but mostly with one particular friend. There is something about this friend, maybe because she also grew up poor, maybe it’s because she never shames me or makes me jump through hoops to prove I’m deserving. She unflinchingly writes me a check and knows she will get it back. With this friend, I’ve occasionally borrowed almost an entire month’s rent. This, in my life, is a significant thing. Significant because it’s embarrassing for me to ask for money; significant because when it comes to finances, I typically feel like a penny cast out in the universe—infinitesimal and free floating; significant because it’s nice to know that I have a place in this world I can admit I need help.

Needing help is a humbling thing for poor people. When you grow up dependent on social services for your housing, electricity, clothing, and food, you become acutely aware of how your every need requires you to abase yourself and accept handouts. I have this sharp memory of going with my mom to get a free box of food from the Salvation Army. We waited in line for hours alongside mothers with screaming babies hanging from their arms and peckish toddlers peeking from behind their legs. We arrived at 7 am, hours before the doors even opened. Despite the din of voices and countless languages filling the air, my mom, who, like me, is what you might call a talkative person, didn’t say a word. She looked straight ahead, a slight mustache of sweat forming above her upper lip the only sign of the punishing early morning heat. My sister and I sat on the sidewalk, feeling like ants sizzling under a magnifying glass, each of us taking turns putting our red-hot legs in the sliver of shade cast by the awning overhead.

When the doors finally opened, the raucous sounds of the line seemed to stop for a moment. In my memory, even the unruliest of babies stifled their own cries as we formed a mournful procession towards the door. At the time, I didn’t understand the silence, the solemnity. But now, it seems it was a moment for everyone to take a breath, to channel every ounce of humility into their spines, and steel themselves against the shame of asking for help. This is how I remember it, but it probably never even happened that way. The silence, the embarrassment, the elegiac loping towards the door, are all probably poetic imaginings I’ve added in my adult life.

But what I do know for sure is that the moment we finally made it up to the makeshift distribution table, the woman dispensing our box angled her eyes on my mother. With a saccharine tone as one takes with a naughty child, she admonished my mother, “Now, you make sure these children,” and here she dramatically swept her hand over my sister and I’s heads, “don’t just eat all of the fun stuff like the Combos and Bugles. For their nutrition, make sure to serve this rice and remember, you must soak the beans before you cook them.” With this, she rifled past the unlabeled canned food, boxes of instant potatoes and powdered milk to grab a paper bag from the box with the word “Rice” written in Sharpie across it, as if my mother needed the further visual aid. I wish I had watched my mother’s face in this moment to know if she grimaced or flashed a taut smile. But I was mortified to hear my mother, the source of all authority in my life, being chastised like a child. I looked, instead, at the rubber feet on all but one of the four table legs. I looked, instead, at the cheap indoor-outdoor carpet underneath my beaten and formally white Huaraches. I looked, instead, at the scab on my knee and suppressed an overwhelming desire to rip it clean off and throw it in the woman’s face.

This is a scene I saw played out many times in my childhood: my normally proud and strong mother being castigated and talked down to by the “good samaritans” around us. What I took from these experiences was a sense that nothing comes for free, not even, or maybe even especially, help. In my adult life, this lesson has prevented me from asking for assistance in even the most dire of circumstances. In the past, I have driven myself to the emergency room; lied to dentists about arranging a ride after oral surgery; sold all of my guitars, many of my more valuable books, and pawned anything I could. I have bought and sold my life at least a half dozen times. I have done all of this to avoid the high baby voice people handing out free boxes speak to people with, to avoid the hostility of the burnt-out worker at the food stamp office, to avoid anyone ever thinking I can’t do it on my own.

One of the biggest challenges in my life has been to know when to overcome this striking independence. For me, learning to trust and rely on others is something I have to work on each day. It is never easy. It is never natural. But it is becoming, if nothing else, a relief. Asking for help requires me to ignore the lessons of my youth, but it also allows me to admit that I can’t and don’t do it on my own. Interdependency is a beautiful and undeniable aspect to a life lived within communities, neighborhoods and families.

In many ways, it has been through teaching that I’ve most learned to ask for help. When I come to class as the unassailable authority on everything, students become flabby learners. They expect me to provide them the answers, to do all of the heavy lifting. Alternatively, when I approach various lessons with humility and the grace that comes with knowing you need the viewpoints of everyone in the class in order to grow your own understandings, I can virtually see everyone opening up and seeing their own value.

Life, I have found, is a lot like this. When I ask my friends or community for help, approaching them with the honesty that comes with embracing interdependence, it allows us both to acknowledge the things that we have to share and gain from one another. Asking for help, I am learning, is not a weakness, it is not an opportunity for someone else to feel superior to me, it does not have to be about pity or them losing respect for me. In fact, asking for help requires a fortitude of spirit I had never before known. Asking and giving help is the way we say to one another, “I don’t want to do this alone. I can’t do this alone. And now that you’re here, I don’t have to.”

Published in: on May 22, 2012 at 12:01 pm  Comments (5)