Thursday, November 26, 2009

there's blood on my chest/oh yes, i've been carrying bricks

I was at a wedding last weekend--yes, another one! But a Quaker one this time, which was actually quite nice, as you mostly sit in silence and either contemplate divine light and how happy you are for the couple or, if you are vaguely sacrilegious and also flighty of brain (as I am), how happy you are for them and whatever else happens to comes to mind, which in my case on this particular day was breasts. My own breasts; I'm not quite that tactless. And I had a reason for focusing my inner thoughts on them, because I had just that very morning had my very first ever positive bra experience.

This sounds trivial, perhaps, but it's not. Like many if not most female-bodied people (and not a few male-bodied people, I'd guess), I have basically always had a contentious relationship with my own breasts. My mother raised me to be terribly, terribly polite, which means that I like to open doors for people and treat others respectfully, but unfortunately I also took politeness to mean that the topic of bodies and especially their decoration was somehow uncouth, too vulgar to actually pay attention to or, god forbid, discuss. (I think perhaps I was influenced by the large amount of nineteenth-century "nice girl" literature I read when I was younger, because this didn't start until I was about six and discovered Laura Ingalls Wilder; don't even get me started on the possible side effects of the concept of "seen and not heard.") When I was very young this wasn't much of an issue; I wasn't old enough to really argue for makeup even if I'd wanted it, and I think there's a tendency among adults to consider the vast majority of little girls "cute" no matter how they are dressed simply by virtue of their size and femaleness so clothing wasn't too difficult to deal with. The most urgent attention my body needed was the occasional band-aid because I was rather clumsy and spent a lot of time on roller skates. But then, inevitably (and very, very slowly) I hit my mid-teens and breasts, periods, hips, all the hallmarks of female adolescence, took me by surprise and turned my body into something I was both fascinated by and terrified to discuss.

Consequently, my first bra shopping adventure, at roughly the age of thirteen, was absolutely mortifying; I didn't want my mother to see me even partially naked, forcing her to peek at me over the doors of dressing rooms while I wrapped my arms around me and avoided her eyes. Also, I didn't actually have any breasts to speak of (I'm fairly sure we were just acting on principle), meaning that essentially I was trying on a series of tank tops, but I insisted that I wanted lace and she insisted on absolutely no padding whatsoever and basically between the two of us we made it absolutely impossible to find anything that matched all of our criteria and the search took hours and multiple stores and frayed nerves and oh my GOD I just wanted something pretty to make me feel better about being flat as a freaking board. What I ended up with was a tank-style bralet with extremely scratchy lace around the bottom that did nothing for either my self-esteem or my lack of burgeoning bosom. And so it began.

I don't think that part of the story is particularly unusual. The thing is, it never really got any better. I've always had small breasts, and finding bras that fit my personal desires as well as my anatomy has generally been very difficult. My criteria: no underwire, no padding, a smooth fit over the actual breast, a wide enough band around my chest. That's it. Sounds easy, doesn't it? A bra that fits and doesn't blow my breasts up by two sizes--large enough that I suspect I'd probably run into things--shouldn't be some sort of undergarment holy grail, always enticing me but never quite revealing itself, but that's more or less exactly what it is. I spent years and years searching department store lingerie sections, looking for the one or two bras which I thought might work but which inevitably had flaps of loose material over my nipples or itched or gave me a uniboob or were just ugly as sin, and when I occasionally found one that fit I wore it until it was so stretched out of shape that it didn't even resemble a piece of clothing anymore. I have a vivid memory of either a journal entry or a letter to my high school boyfriend wherein I ranted about how the lack of bras in my size made me feel like my female-ness was being negated, like my breasts were being rejected by the lingerie department. I stopped thinking about it too much because why the hell would I, but internally I cursed my body, my tiny breasts that were too small to actually shop for, and I approached bra shopping with equal measures of resentment and anger.

I am frequently retrospectively shocked by how willing I am to place blame on myself instead of on outside sources. Because really, it's not my breasts' fault that there were no bras for them; they are guiltless. The fault lies in the marketing industry, which promote the standard of an "average" size that many women do not fit into; the lingerie industry, which responds by making smaller-sized bras with extra padding and reducing styles for larger-sized bras (as well as charging vastly more for them); the world at large, which places breasts front and center in our visual imagery but refuses to actually discuss them in any sort of practical way. One of the biggest realizations I had during my Good Bra Experience was that I actually didn't know how to put on a bra. I've been wearing bras for nearly fifteen years, and nobody ever told me that there is, in fact, a right way to go about putting one on. (In case you were wondering: fasten the hooks behind your back (fastening in front and pulling around warps the band), slip your arms through the straps, lean forward slightly and reach into first one cup and then the other, pulling your breasts slightly up and inward, then grab the top of each cup and jiggle it so that your breast settles into the cup but is also supported and lifted correctly. There are other methods if you have larger breasts but I don't know them; I suggest looking them up, though.) Maybe some of those department store bras would have fit better if anybody had ever bothered to actually talk to me about breasts and bras and how they work together. God forbid.

It is exceedingly likely that I would have lived on in ignorance, bitter and jaded and lacking in pretty underwear, if not for my friend Mugsie. Mugsie wants to take Victoria's Secret down, to make beautiful and functional and flattering bras and corsets and (hopefully, eventually) binders for the people of the world, to spread the gospel of lingerie via a feminist consciousness. (Check out her website here.) She wants your body to be happy, and she wants you to look good. Mugsie is doing her senior thesis on bras and breasts and feminism, and it was from talking to her that I discovered that my complaints are typical of many smaller-breasted women, that the industry regulates visible breast size, that many female-bodied people, when you really talk to them, don't know much about bras at all, often to our own detriment. I learned, most importantly, that it is not my fault that I had a hard time finding bras, and even though I would never have admitted that that was what I had been feeling, subconsciously or not, hearing it said was a huge relief.

She's been telling me for months that none of my bras fit correctly, and finally this past weekend we arranged to meet up at a specialty lingerie store so that I could be professionally fitted and purchase a decent bra for myself. In preparation for the trip I read the bra sections of The Lingerie Handbook, learning about sizing and care and styles and all sorts of other useful information, and as the shopping expedition approached I felt something suspiciously like excitement flutter in my chest. (Ahem.) When we got to the store I was whisked away to a dressing room by a smiling salesperson; I admitted immediately that I had never been fitted before and voiced my suspicion--based on some preliminary home measurements--that I was a 32AA, but after about two seconds with a tape measure she smiled at me and proclaimed me a 32B, or even a 30C, singing out "No double A's for you!" in a joyful voice as she pushed through the curtains. What? I was shocked, but as she brought me bra after bra (this is after the "how to put a bra on" lecture) I had to admit she was right.

She seemed so happy for me, this salesperson, to be helping me discover the world of bras, that I was oddly filled with simultaneous joy at being in the hands of somebody who cared about my body and who wanted good things for me and my breasts and anger that this was not an experience I'd ever had before. My bra experiences had been filled with shame and frustration and resentment and demeaning salespeople who didn't even seem to comprehend what I was looking for; I had to spend what amounts in my current life to a small fortune (especially relative to most of my clothing, which generally costs two dollars at the Village Thrift) on a bra before somebody treated me with any sort of care and respect and knowledge. Your ability to buy important clothing items that comfort and flatter your body instead of harming it should not be determined by a paycheck. We all deserve to be accorded that kind of respect, to wear clothing that fits us, to feel good about ourselves instead of belittled when we leave a store. I'm not just talking about fancy lingerie, pieces you have to spend seventy or eighty or a hundred dollars on, silks and handmade lace. And I understand that bras are complicated items and that there is a certain amount of care and expertise and hence expense that has to go into their production before they will truly support your body as they are supposed to. This isn't like a t-shirt; it would be difficult to make a good supportive bra that only cost a few dollars. I'm saying that, even if you can only spend twenty or thirty dollars on a bra (a relatively small and fairly standard amount, although I realize that for many people even this is out of reach; that's a larger issue), you shouldn't be made to feel bad about yourself while you do it.

My bra is teal. It's beautiful, and like nothing I would have ever picked out for myself before. There is an underwire. I have actual cleavage, something that has never seemed even vaguely in the realm of possibility before. I still want to get some good, supportive bras that are more like the ones I've been trying to find all of my life--I don't always want to have that much in the way of boobs, although it's nice to discover that I have the option--but I can't deny that I'm somewhat in love with this one; I feel like, with its excess and detail and uplift, this bra is some sort of reclamation, a redemptive bit of silk to make up for all those years of unflattering, ugly, and ill-fitting bras in my past. The phrase that keeps popping up is that I feel as if my body has been given to me, not because I have a fancy french bra now, but because I understand more fully that my body is not to blame for the past. I love my breasts, and now I feel like they have more reason to love me back.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

remember, remember

Every November people around the world participate in the Transgender Day of Remembrance, or TDOR; if you are like me, disconnected as I was from my community until recently, this has likely entered your consciousness peripherally if at all. This day, this remembrance, is a very visceral reminder that silence, yes, it equals death, and not always just metaphorically. Trans people face levels of violence which I, being who I am and looking how I look, can't begin to understand, mentally and emotionally and physically, from physical harassment to glances and comments on the train to death. I don't want to talk knowingly about something I haven't experienced personally, but I feel this deep in my chest and I know that the very very least I can do is to be aware, be vocal, make clear where my loyalties lie and and what kind of vision I have for the future. That would be, perhaps, a day where everybody knows about TDOR but where we hold vigils for far fewer of the lost.

I want to think of this as I think of the Day of the Dead, where I can both mourn and release, contemplate passage and presence, cry but also say goddammit, you are beautiful and I am beautiful and life is beautiful and what we should all be doing is to try and make that more true for every single person every single day. There are no exceptions. You could die tomorrow. I could die tomorrow too, but it's far less likely. Such things cannot be allowed to rule our lives, and I know that's easier to say from where I stand but I want to be there with you, to love you and stand with you and say that we are not so different, despite what other people might think. Your life is not the same as mine, but that doesn't have to make you Other; it just makes you a person, alive and variable and lovely in your flux and flow just as I am, and I want to learn from you and love the world more because of it. I want kinship, offered and received on both sides.

Go learn something, ask somebody if you can give them a hug, light a candle and raise your voice and don't forget what has happened, but don't lose the vision of something better. Please, because this is important; it could mean our lives. We are so much more than just a day to commemorate loss. There are so many ways to remember. There are so many ways to celebrate. There are so many ways to fight.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

a short digression

So here's a question: if you did a google image search for "naked girls and me" what do you think you would find?
The answer is this. My blog about my blog about Naked Girls Reading. It's moved from the first to the third result for that particular search, and I've been getting upwards of forty or fifty hits a day from all over the world for it ever since the post went up. Which was cute for a while, I'll admit, and is kind of a funny story, but it's becoming increasingly perplexing to me; what are these people looking for? The word "me" in that phrase is the kicker, because obviously you aren't going to end up with pictures of yourself and naked girls if you use such a nonspecific pronoun. (And even if you used your name, I'd hope you knew where the pictures of yourself and naked women on the internet were already.) I did some regular google searching to see if maybe there was a movie or something that I hadn't heard of that was the source of the phrase, but I didn't find anything in any way noteworthy. And so it's a mystery. All I can imagine is that these people are vastly disappointed when they realize that they've only found a picture of me and a naked woman's back, with a link to an earnest essay about nudity and honesty.

Monday, November 16, 2009

and it's also true that i lost the map

Kansas was one of the places we drove across when A and I moved here from Arizona at the end of the summer of 2005, and although all I remember is flatness and a larger-than-life tableau set up to honor the Wizard of Oz, I didn’t have anything in particular against it as a state. Flatness isn’t a huge sin in the Midwest and there were plenty of places to dislike more, like the Texas panhandle, which smelled of cowshit and was hot and flat in a completely different and far less tolerable way than Kansas was. Frankly, I didn’t give the state much more thought until I started my present job, two years ago; my co-worker Martha, a sweet redhead, and her boyfriend Ben, were from Kansas, and I was soon schooled in some of the finer points of the state’s geography, history, random facts, and general goodness as a place. It turns out that Kansas people love their state, and that there are a great many more of them in Chicago than I was expecting somehow; for awhile, it seemed like every other person I met was from Kansas. (Now, it seems like they all work in sex toy stores or whatever. I don’t know what that says about the trajectory of my life.) But at any rate, I spent this past weekend in Kansas, helping Ben and Martha get married. Or rather, I spent most of my weekend in the process of getting to and from Kansas with a little subsequent time for eating and drinking too much coffee, and Ben and Martha got themselves married with considerable help from friends and family.

Since I moved to Chicago, I don’t drive much. I left my car behind and flew here when I began grad school and I’ve been exploring public and personal transportation ever since, spending hours on buses, trains, bicycles, and my own two feet in order to navigate this city I live in. I almost forget that I used to spend a significant amount of time inside one of the metal machines whose presence I generally only register for as long as it takes me to swear at them when they come close to running me down. But it’s true: I spent my childhood driving around the western half of the country as my dad moved from job to job, I spent two years of college driving across Arizona—approximately seven hours round trip—every other week for music lessons, and in the summer of 2005 I drove first from Tucson to Alaska and then from Flagstaff to Chicago. At this point I feel like I can consider myself an experienced road tripper; I’ve driven through extreme weather conditions sans windshield wipers (out of necessity, of course, not out of a need to show off my road skillz), I’ve driven through sunrises and sunsets and alpenglow and darkness, and I can cook a veggie burger on my engine block while in transit and eat it using condiments I’ve stolen from the food courts of strip malls. I have favorite driving music that I can scream along with until I’m hoarse even when I haven’t heard it in years; I have detoured hours out of my way to see the world’s largest frying pan. I have repeatedly push-started a van on streets and highways across Poland, and my only regret is that I didn’t get any pictures.

The trip back to Kansas, however, nearly killed me. First off, I don’t recommend sleeping a mere three hours before a ten-hour road trip, even if you mostly didn’t sleep because you were making podcast cds for the trip that will eventually save your sanity as you head towards Topeka. (Also, there was cookie baking. Naturally.) I also don’t recommend assuming that, just because you once drove to Alaska more than four years ago, you can power through a six-hundred-mile trip without physical and mental side effects that range from unpleasant to downright painful. Last and not least, let it be noted that the engine blocks of Toyota Corollas are not well set up for cooking. This made me very sad.

But I made it through, largely due to The Moth and sheer willpower, and I’m glad I did. In addition to road trips I’m also experienced in regards to weddings, although most of the time I’m just making your boutonnieres or playing in your ceremony, wearing black and snarking behind the backs of the guests when the officiate says something unintentionally funny. I did those things this weekend (I am a killer wedding guest, albeit a sometimes tactless one; I can’t deny I snorted when the person leading the ceremony told us that both the bride and groom would be giving and receiving in their marriage. I know what he meant, but I have an incorrigibly dirty mind and hell, I made some nice boutonnieres to balance it out), but the difference was that this time I actually knew the people I was doing these things for. I go to a lot of weddings, presumably way more than the average person, but they are nearly always for strangers and I am there in a purely functionary way; I have been to exactly four weddings where I actually knew the people involved. Marriage is something I don’t feel inclined towards—I could get into this, into the gay rights movement’s emphasis on marriage as a way to somehow end homophobia and such, but I’m not going to—but I don’t particularly begrudge people who desire it as long as they aren’t using it for nefarious purposes. Weddings are one of those times when I let my theory go and allow practice to take over; I’m simply not mean-spirited enough to let my politics get in the way of my friends’ happiness when what is being celebrated (at least in the moment—I’m not talking long-term import here) is emotional connection. I am, in point of fact, happy for people I know who get married, because it is a joyful thing for them and because I want my loved ones to be as joyful as possible.

Ben and Martha are people I love dearly. They have helped me through the beginnings and endings of relationships, listened to me blabber about the wide variety of things that come into my head, spent evenings eating soup and watching funny internet videos while they pet my cats. I saw the last Batman movie at midnight with them, after a frantic and unfulfilled search for Red Vines; we’ve gotten drunk at work parties and hugged each other way too much. (Or maybe that last one was just me.) They are my friends. And their wedding was an affair of friends and family in a way that I wholeheartedly approve of. My manager’s mother made Martha’s dress, out of material she got from a vintage lace dress; my boss’ husband, a rabbi (neither Ben nor Martha is Jewish) led the ceremony; they had friends planting the succulents they used as centerpieces, videotaping wedding confessionals in the entryway, and even baking the cakes. And yes, I did help with the flowers, and I played some Bach for the processional and Moon River for the bride, and I shed my first ever wedding tear, although it really was mostly just because other people were crying and that gets me every time. Really. But truly, it was such a pleasure to feel happy for my friends, to appreciate their relationship and see how their bonds to the people around them had brought us all together.

I’m running the risk of cheesing out completely here--wait, who am I kidding? I always cheese out--but it’s nice to see the heartfelt side of weddings. I spend so much time playing for strangers, people who I don’t know and who furthermore cause me stress and anxiety in exchange for never-ending repetitions of Pachelbel’s Canon so that their Special Day can be just like nearly everyone else’s. It makes me bitter and jaded. And even though I’m still skeptical of marriage on many levels, I’m all about love, and that was ultimately what I was there to witness--not only between Ben and Martha but between them and their many, many loved ones, the people who helped them to get there and brought us all along with them. There are so many types of journeys; some of them end with twelve hundred more miles added to your lifetime driving record and muscle aches and an excess of snack food, and some of them end with wedding rings. Some of them end solitary and happy, curled up with lonely cats and stuffed animals in your tiny studio apartment, writing about love. All are worth celebrating, in some form or another. I guess what I’m trying to say is this: weddings aren’t always so bad.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

this isn't precise, but very vaguely right

I was an only child for the first six years of my life, and one of the many in-my-head games I played with myself when we were on the road--which was often, as I lived in at least twenty different places before I was five--was to pick one little spot, on the pavement or a passing tree or whatever, and tell myself that I was the only person in the whole world that was looking at that particular speck of birdshit or streak of rain discoloration. I presume I did this either to make myself feel special or because I was incredibly bored, although it's hard to remember exactly. Kids are kind of weird. But whatever my childhood reasoning might have been, I think the actual unspoken desire was to connect myself to what was going on around me, to establish a sense of place in a world where I was constantly being displaced.

What I think of as my adult version of this game is neither particularly original or quite as pointless; every few weeks, I find myself engaged in some activity and I think to myself, "Every previous moment of my life has led directly up to this one." Depending on what I'm doing, this thought is either comforting or depressing. If I'm involved in something like playing a really amazing concert or having a personal breakthrough or even just reading a good book I feel like I'm heading in the right direction, but if I'm doing something like cleaning up cat puke or I'm at work unpacking a zillion Christmas ornaments for the third year running it's distinctly less thrilling. But whatever I'm feeling like at the moment I have the thought, I'm still comforted by the connectivity of my life, by the fact that I am someplace and I got here somehow and that I'm alive and mostly happy. It means that even bad things can lead somewhere good, and even if I'm not doing something pleasant right this second it won't matter in the long run; it's just part of the process of life and time, growing older and learning things. I have to be here in order to reach what happens next.

When I was still a student it often seemed like everything was connected. I'd be in a general-education linguistics class when suddenly we'd be talking about the same philosophical theory I was discussing in my second semester music history class earlier that day, and I'd sit and marvel at how the same ideas applied to both fields. It seemed uncanny how often it happened, but since I graduated it's been interesting to see that that particular phenomenon hasn't ended but has instead merely reasserted itself in a wider variety of ways. Right now, for instance, I'm reading two radically different books: Michael Warner's The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life, a book about sexual shame and its impact on politics and life, and my own journals from high school, which I unearthed from a box in my closet over the weekend. Both are terrifying in different ways--Michael Warner's in terms of systematic oppression and the impact of the politics of fear and shame and censorship, and my journals in terms of acute embarrassment and late adolescent awkwardness--but there are surprising corollaries between them that I wasn't entirely expecting.

I started thinking about reading my own journals over the summer when I was in Alaska and spent a few evenings watching old episodes of My So-Called Life, but in reality I'd brought them back to Chicago almost a year before as the result of a bad dream in which my diaries were stolen and somehow used against me in some unremembered but totally unexpected way. I saved room for them in my suitcase the next time I went home, but after I brought them here they proceeded to sit unread in my closet because, in all honesty, I afraid to read them. I think most high schoolers experience various degrees of low self-esteem, and even though I realize that my own youthful pangs have been mostly harmless in the long run, I also remember how deeply I had felt self-hatred and I wasn't quite ready to read it in my own hand.

And it's true: my journals have made me cry. But more--or at least equally--often, they have made me laugh hysterically. The underlinings and extraneous capitalization are enough to bring me to tears, and I'm not even ready to get into the song lyrics I felt a need to copy into the blank pages between rambling entries. (A funnier post will follow later, if I can find enough excerpts that don't make me cringe uncontrollably.) My fifteen-year-old self was incredibly melodramatic, and also neglected to either date her entries (at least in volumes one and two) or mention much in the way of specific incidents, and as a result I am usually left guessing about what exactly I may have been ranting about. There's a lot of grey area, which can be irritating, but partially because I was so damn vague there's also an awful lot of what could have been subtext that is very much in the foreground and considerably more interesting to read now than a laundry list of my daily life would be. In fact, I find it somewhat fascinating that I kept a journal without calling it such; I think that the lack of dates is possibly related to a subconscious rejection of the narrative-driven structure that I associated with diaries, a format I had never succeeded in mastering. Instead of blocking myself into "writing in my diary," I chose to ramble, free-form, about existential crises and feelings and reactions. I placed emphasis not on what was happening, but on what I was feeling.

Which was, basically, angsty and uncertain alternating with moments of joy and even, very occasionally, insight. My first cursory readings made me laugh and wonder how that teenager ever became who I am now, but when I go back and look more closely I can sometimes see the very vague ghost of my current self, hidden deep inside of a phrase or word or thought that transcends the miscellany that comprises most of my journals. These moments make me feel better about the rest of it, which mostly horrifies and alarms me: Did I really think those things? Was I ever really this person, who was so uneducated about race and class, sex and sexuality, gender roles? I seemingly desired nothing more at fifteen and sixteen than to be a good girl, to embrace the worst stereotypes of femaleness and conservative values and keep my mouth shut, my legs tight together, to completely reject and even rail against the idea that I might be as smart and lovely and proactive within my own life as I almost certainly was. I also wanted, more than anything, to be "normal", a word that I began using obsessively partway through volume one, perhaps tellingly around the time I turned sixteen and began dating, confronting my own sexualness for the first time.

Normal is a strange word, because its meanings are varied and often misunderstood. As Michael Warner, the author of my other current reading material, notes, nobody is completely normal; if they were, that itself would be somewhat abnormal. Just before I reached the point in my journals where I began consistently referencing a desire to be seen as normal, I read a section of Warner's book that dealt specifically with the origins and cultural constructions of the term and idea, and the way that I consequently saw my own writing reflected through that lens brought things into a new type of focus. The concept of "normal" was influenced by the rise of statistics as a form of social analysis; before we were bombarded with numbers that seemed to represent an ideal way of being, there wasn't such pressure to conform to some sort of standard. Part of the problem is that we often confuse statistical norms, which contain no value judgement and take the form of numerical values, with evaluative norms, which propose to define things in terms of moral or ethical worth. When these two ideas blend together, it's easy to mistake normative behavior as good and anything aberrant as less valuable.

I think the real meaning (or one of the real meanings) of my journals, filled with adolescent blood and guts and tears and desperate attempts to sound like I wanted nothing from life except the Cult of True Womanhood, is that I didn't feel normal and so I considered myself bad. I wanted to be smart, to run wild in the streets like the boys and "bad girls" I knew, to have sex, to read everything in the world and go to college and transcend my life, and none of those things fit into what I had somehow decided was average--thanks, TV, or maybe just Laura Ingalls Wilder and those Little House books that I read obsessively; I think you played a role in that one--and the conflict nearly brought me to my knees.

Connectivity is not a linear thing, as I believe I've been envisioning it. It is a web, a knot, with curves and lines that connect multiple points and ideas that float around waiting to find the spot or spots that they will eventually illuminate. I grew up deeply fearing the potential of my own abnormality. Now, years later, I read and I am comforted by these lines from Warner: "...normal and pathological are not the only options. One of the reasons why so many people have started using the word "queer" is that it is a way of saying: "We're not pathological, but don't think for that reason that we want to be normal." People who are defined by a variant set of norms commit a kind of social suicide when they begin to measure the worth of their relations and their way of life by the yardstick of normalcy. The history of the [gay rights] movement should have taught us to ask: whose norm?"

I no longer want to be normal by any standards except my own, and I am a happier person for it. My high school self is finally, finally giving up the ghost and letting me see her for who she was; I love her, for all of her insecurities and self-deceptions and oddities, just as I love my lonely five-year-old self with her desire for a sense of place and my self of last year, unpacking the same damn Christmas ornaments that I just dug out of the basement at work yesterday. My own particular form of queerness as I understand it is a process instead of a definition, and it is more valuable to me than True Womanhood or average dreams or statistical norms ever had any hope of being. I love all of me, whether I am considered normal or not. I think that's called growth.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

heaven is right out there

A few years ago I was in Flagstaff, sitting in my favorite coffee shop with my oldest friend, when I picked up one of the new age-y hippie vortex-heavy newspapers that leak all over Northern Arizona from their mystical epicenter in Sedona and began spontaneously flipping through it. As I idly scanned the ads for crystal healing and seminars on channeling your spiritual contact, my eye was caught by the following headline: "Reality Is All The God There Is." And I thought to myself, yes; perhaps out of all the crap in this smudgily copied newsprint, all the things that I don't even remotely believe in, this is the one thing I can lay claim to, the one concept that I will take as my own from this morning full of too much coffee and mountain sunshine.

Some time later a friend of mine, a person who is deeply invested in a type of spirituality far from my own, looked at me and said, gently and slightly sorrowfully, "You just aren't a very spiritual person, are you?" I thought for a moment before answering no, and I still think of her and that particular moment every time my damn horoscope seems full of portent (as it does this week; thanks, Rob Brezsny, for muddying my lack of belief) or something miraculous befalls me seemingly from the ether. It's not that I'm not spiritual, exactly; it's just that almost all of what might be considered spiritual about me comes from my daily life, from reality. There's a border to where my mind, my skin, my sense of self, exist, and I'm coming to the realization lately that what feels holy to me is when that line between myself and other is crossed.

I was recently described as "sensual" and I think it may now be my favorite adjective for myself. I feel like it explains so much. Sensuality doesn't only relate to sex, although that can certainly be part of it; for my own part, I like to use it to describe my body's relationship to the world. When I was in elementary school we had to take a series of really frustrating tests--even at that tender age I resented having to choose inflexible answers to flexible questions--to determine our learning style; I was classified as a kinesthetic learner, somebody who learned by doing, a "hands-on" sort of person. At the time I thought this was faintly ridiculous--I was about the least physically-oriented person I knew, and I spent almost all of my spare time sitting on the couch in my parent's living room reading book after book--and it wasn't until years later that I began to understand that kinesthetic didn't mean shop class necessarily, but rather that I had to be physically involved somehow in the transfer of information in order for it to register fully.

What this means for me in my daily life is becoming clearer. Learning is one of my favorite activities (because I am a giant nerd), and I learn by doing, even if sometimes it's only the act of holding a book between my hands. When I was younger I think I confined my definition of learning to the classroom and the novels that I devoured, although I was always passionate about it; I was the student who read the unabridged versions of novels that we read isolated chapters of for school, who told my baffled fourteen-year-old friends that every book I read, no matter how crappy, contained something to learn, be it a new turn of phrase or a word I'd never heard before or just new possibilities for how to live and be. I believed that deeply and I still do, because I believe that nothing that happens to me is a waste. But I also believed that I was almost purely a creature of the mind, that my body was a grumpy hanger-on, that what was in my head was Life and everything else was more or less incidental. In other words, I was a bit of an egotistical little shit.

I'm expanding my definition of learning as I grow older, allowing myself to understand that I learn from the world that is around me all the time and not just from formalized collections of words or classrooms that smell of pine-sol and dust. The overlap between myself and the outside world teaches me, and learning is as close to god as I'm ever going to get. I learn from hiking alone up a mountain, feeling the sweat build up between my shoulderblades and the blood coursing through the muscles of my thighs, observing the plants and wildlife and weather and sunlight. I learn from walking down a city street and watching how children interact with each other. I learn from reading but also from writing, and from talking to other people and paying attention to what they are actually saying. When I sit on the train and stare out the window and sift through the dreck that floats through my mind to pick out the interesting stuff, I'm learning. When somebody touches me and I feel their skin against mine and I shiver, I'm learning there too.

A new idea has always filled me with elation, and if it's something really mindblowing I can feel myself nearly vibrating with the force of it rattling around inside of me; learning and mania are sometimes, often, very close together. It's only recently that I realized that I felt something very similar from my interactions with the world, from people and movement and taste and sensation. And so, for the sake of knowledge, I'm making an effort to finally give both my mind and my body credence. A well-turned phrase or a new way of looking at the world still makes me shudder with joy, but so does the sunlight that shines red through my eyelids and, for a moment, becomes the most important thing in my immediate worldview. If learning is joy, then perhaps joy is also learning.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

we have lost people

Yesterday was Halloween, a day I have not traditionally enjoyed all that much since I moved to Chicago. There have been breakups, aborted parties, snow, and all sorts of other inconveniences, and until last year I don't think I ever even had a "real" costume, only half-assed ones that I had to throw together for children's concerts with my old orchestra. This year I was a librarian, which mostly involved awesome shoes and a glasses chain made of a necklace and some string; I saw my very first ever Rocky Horror Picture Show at a local theater, and then ate incredibly greasy diner food, and then I fell asleep far too late. It was a good night.

Today is the Day of the Dead; every year I try to think of who I want to remember and it always comes back to the same person. L was my high school boyfriend's mother, a more-than-slightly wacky older woman with a sense of logic that often defied my straight-A student mentality at the time. I simply could not wrap my head around someone who would one night take us to a midnight movie and stay talking in the parking lot for hours afterwards (that one got me grounded) and the next would forbid her son to play a booked music gig because he hadn't finished his dinner the night before. She was a former Vegas card dealer, a possible former alcoholic, and a presumably current lesbian, although I never saw her be remotely connected with anybody; many of these things were aspects of her personality that I only understood later, after she had died, and some of them are still only guesses. When I knew her, I simply thought of her as a little crazy, a wild card that was so different from my own mother that it was like a whole different idea of what parenting should be. I loved her but I was also wary of her, because I also knew that she was unpredictable and occasionally irrational.

She's been dead for a little over six years now; she died in a car accident the day before I got back from my first summer teaching in Poland, and my father didn't tell me for the entire ride back from Phoenix. When I got home and hugged my mother, jetlagged out of my mind and excited to share the details of my month-long vacation, she suddenly pulled back and her mouth turned into an O. L was dead, and her son, my ex, was in the hospital, because he had been in the car with her during the crash. He had been thrown free, and she had been crushed and died almost instantly. I had been avoiding her for the entire summer prior to my trip, because the last time I had seen her she had been a little weird and I'd felt uncomfortable; I wasn't used to seeing her without his presence to temper things, and it made me nervous to receiving her undivided attention. During my vacation I'd felt guilty about the avoidance, and so in my bag there was a postcard that I had written to her but not sent, which I'd promised myself that I would give it to her in person when I returned and now it was too late.

I saw her van, dark blue and beat up, for years after that, and I would scan it for her coke-bottle glasses and shaggy hair. I still see it once in a while, but I don't look for her anymore. It's been six years, and that's long enough. I eventually covered the back of the card with paper and wrote a postsecret on it, because I couldn't bear to have it in my keepsake box any longer--it just made me feel guilty. My life has been rather remarkably free of mortality; other than L, the only person close to me who has passed away was my grandfather, and he was so sick with Alzheimer's that we both cried and rejoiced for him when he finally died because really he'd already been gone for a long time. L, though, it took me years to let go of. She had left so suddenly, leaving in her wake an emotionally and physically shattered son and a string of questions and blank spots, and I didn't understand why. I finally let go one winter day; I was back in Flagstaff for Christmas and so was my ex, and he asked me to drive him out to where he had scattered her ashes. I hadn't seen him since the accident, almost two years earlier. We drove, mostly silent, away from the city, until he told me to pull over, and then we walked together out towards the lake and we talked. He talked to me for the first time about what had happened, things that I had never known or even really suspected and that are for once too personal for this public forum, although I've occasionally told some of them to people I've been close to because it wasn't something I could just keep inside myself. We cried together, holding on to each other and resisting the cold wind as we stood in the bright winter sunshine, and I knew that that was the closest we would ever be.

L was my first subversive role model, and she also scared the shit out of me. I wish I had known her later, when her particular form of crazy might have made more sense and we could have talked more about things that mattered, about her life, about being a single dyke mother and radical politics and dealing with rage and shame and fear and poverty. I wish I could have been an adult with her. But I wasn't, and all I can do now is remember her in all her excess and imagine what that would have been like. I don't think of her with sadness exactly anymore, but she's who I come back to every year when I think about who I want to mourn and celebrate. Life is so much more complicated than I gave it credit for when we knew each other. I wish I could tell her that I learned that, in part, from her.