One Day, One Thing More

Everyday observations

Month: February, 2017

The darkness of the womb/tomb

One of the few silver linings in this new world has been my relationships with my students. They’re. Just. So. Great. Especially since my job is helping them find ways to abandon the siren song of high-paying corporate work for academia or service, I get all the good ones. Right now, we’ve just wrapped up applications for the Truman Scholarship, a super-prestigious national service award, and these kids are fucking amazing. Like, delivering speeches on the floor of the UN while also organizing a #noDAPL rally on campus and getting straight As amazing. Like, rewriting the curriculum for a mentoring program so that it doesn’t assume that the Black girls need to be saved, and then teaching that curriculum to the white girls who are cluelessly, good-heartedly working as saviors mentors, all with an open heart. Seriously–they’re so fucking good.

So I guess I believe the children are our future? However you slice it, it’s amazing to get spend time with young people who are just at the brink of starting their adult lives–they see the world stretched out before them, and they have a lot of faith in their ability to change it (too much, sometimes, but even that is beautiful in its own way).

As with everything post-election, my conversations with my students have gotten way more intense and real. And I see them grappling with how to maintain the optimism and faith that has so far structured their approach to the world. Like so many of us Good Liberals, most of them bought into a narrative of progress, and–more dangerously–the inevitability of progress. How do they step into a world that seems so broken, perhaps irreparably?

One of them shared this speech with me that she said she watches whenever she needs a boost. It was at an event called “National Moral Revival,” which the student (meaningfully) misread as “National Morale Revival.” And as you can see at 4:30, her central metaphor works as a major morale booster. “What if?” she asks, “What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?” The crowd can’t take it, and explodes in applause.

It’s an incredibly powerful metaphor. But my response was unexpected–I felt inspired, but mostly had a resurgence of the grief that’s shadowing me all the time these days. Maybe part of this is because of the way the speaker frames her story as building toward a moment of revelation and improvement. The factual details of her story outline the relentlessness of American racism and fascism: her grandfather was incarcerated as a terrorist immediately upon arriving on U.S. soil; he watched his Japanese-American neighbors and friends get rounded up and sent to internment camps; her uncle was murdered in a post-9/11 hate crime. The more things change, the more they stay the same, and she’s terrified of what will happen for her son as he makes his way into this broken, violent world.

I feel this. I’m scared of how the world will meet my daughter, of the moment when she realizes that she’s seen as property because of her gender, of the way that toxic masculinity threatens to one day warp my infant son. And, more than that, even, I’m terrified that they’ll be seduced by the siren song of toxic whiteness (is there any other kind? I don’t know, I hope so): that they’ll see possibility of power without accountability and move toward it, that all my attempts to steer them otherwise will fail.

But when I got to the end of the video, to her idea that “our America is not dead but waiting to be born. What if this is our nation’s great transition?” I just couldn’t get on board. Maybe this is a failing on my part? A failure of hope, or of imagination? But this story: that the better times are coming, that we just have to push through and they’re right around the bend, feels dangerous to me. As we watch long-fought for advances getting thrown out the window, history seems to be shaped more like a wheel than an arc, and I’m worried that the next thing I’ll see is my loved ones getting run over.

Maybe it’s because I have a different relationship with her central metaphor. As a feminist with a non-functioning uterus, I find the symbol of the womb both powerful and fraught with grief. In my experience, the womb is a space of loss, of failure, of a confrontation with an inescapable truth: that my life wasn’t going to look the way I always thought it would.

But maybe grief is a kind of hope? Because one thing I’ve found is that grief is about honesty. I’m heartbroken because I’m forced to face a piece of truth that feels impossible: I will have to make it through the world without a loved one; this baby I’d felt so certain would come into our lives isn’t; my family loves me, but they also mistreated me terribly, usually both at the same time; America was built to sustain white supremacy and violence. The older I get, the more the world feels full of impossible truths. And so when Valerie Kuar compares the “magic we will show our children” with the magic of Santa, I have to pause. I don’t want to sell my kids a version of hope that depends on me constructing a world for them that is counter to reality.

Maybe this is the difference between hope and optimism, and why the former appeals to me so much more these days. Optimism is based on the assumption of a specific outcome: things will get better, everything will turn out okay. And since Nov. 9, we’ve had a powerful reckoning with optimism–those of us who believed that we were coming into the long-promised dawn (slowly, but making our way there) were baffled by the power of the forces pulling us back. Assuring ourselves anew that it is all moving toward a happy ending seems like another setup.

Throughout most of human history, after all, a womb has also been a tomb for women, in that most of us died in childbirth. And in some ways this still stands–having or being perceived to have a uterus marks you for a specific kind of violence. That’s an unacceptable truth.

Hope, though. Hope is a different thing from optimism. It lives in the moment, and while it holds the possibility of specific outcomes, it doesn’t depend on them. The focus isn’t on some wished-for future, but on the fact that we’re alive right now, in this moment. That my beautiful students and children and the things they do right now make me able to bear these unbearable truths. My son took his first steps yesterday. My daughter’s favorite movie is the one that is running all the time in her head–it’s called Black Bruise.

Maybe the simultaneity of the tomb and the womb is the way that grief and hope coexist? A womb is a way that we can bear things, now. Even if the bearing ultimately kills us, this moment–the bearing of it–is beautiful, sacred, and true.

 

Listen up

It’s late to talk about the Women’s March (after all, there’s already been another (amazing) march, the world is actively falling apart, Jeff Sessions is about to delegitimize my family), but I want to write about it, if only to keep the energy of the moment going.

Because it was beautiful.

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Even the ride down felt exciting–as we got closer to the city, the rest stops started to feel like the parking lot of an Indigo Girls concert, with hipsters in pink hats and aging lesbians outnumbering the glassy-eyed families of four that usually people those way stations. I’d give these other women sly smiles, much like the nod I give when someone sets off my gaydar.

These moments of solidarity in transit were actually the highlight of the weekend. For instance, the whole experience of getting from our hotel in Beltsville, MD to downtown DC was beautiful from start to finish. We arrived at the train station (the end of the line) at 8 AM, and the line to get into the station was already hundreds of people deep. By the time we moved to the front, they’d closed the station for the day, and the line of fellow marchers stretched behind us for 10 city blocks, if not more. 2017-01-21-08-46-46

People had come from all over–our own hotel was full to capacity with protesters, including two busloads of people who had driven 35 hours from New Mexico to attend. The folks standing in line around us were from New York and Arizona. It took forever to get onto the train, of course, and even longer for the train to make it downtown, but every time we stopped to let on more people, we cheered as they boarded, despite finding ourselves crammed even more tightly into the limited space of the subway car. Even the Metro announcers sounded ecscatic as they announced the names of the approaching stations (a miracle if there ever was one).

My traveling companion/bestie and I were sitting near a mom who stood next to her teenaged daughter as she slept for the whole ride. The daughter’s lips were parted just enough to see her braces, and she was drooling a little. Maybe it was the presence of her doting mom, but this seemed more adorable than gross. We listened as the mom talked through college choices, explaining to the rest of their party why the daughter should go to Sarah Lawrence. They had brought one of those clear backpacks that the organizers recommended, and it was crammed with peanut butter sandwiches, granola bars, and maxipads.

When we arrived at the National Archives stop, we were part of what felt like an ocean of people, and the Metro had stopped charging people for the day. Watching everyone stream out of the train and up from the station into the light as the station attendant welcomed us through a bullhorn calling “Walk on through! The Metro’s got you today!”, I couldn’t help but weep. It wasn’t until that moment that I realized how defeated I’d felt, but not anymore.

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I had to quit Facebook a few weeks ago, in the interest of protecting my beleaguered little brain, and I don’t regret it one bit, but this means I have missed the critiques of the march, except as filtered through my students. The main critique–raised by my students on the train on the way back, as well as later in the press, is that the march was overwhelmingly white. The official message, which was reflected by the choices they made about speakers and their official mission, was deeply intersectional, but the people in attendance were largely white and the vibe of the crowd was even whiter. It was quieter than any protest I’ve ever attended, without the perfomativity, righteous anger, and grief that characterize a Dyke March or a Black Lives Matter demonstration. The signs were amazing, but the march itself was weirdly silent; we blocked the streets, but somehow still managed to seem obedient while doing so.

Case in point: Bestie and I were trying to make our way from the relative calm of Independence Ave., where we had been standing about 10 Jumbotrons back from the stage to the Mall where we could do yoga stretches and try to help our aching middle-aged backs. There was endless apologizing as we did our best to snake our way through the bottlenecked crowd to get through the tiny gate that divided one section from another. There was a woman near us with long brown hair and bangs doing a lot of the passive-aggressive complaining that is the mark of my ethnos. She’d declaim to the crowd: “If people would just let us out, there would be more room for them to get in” or “Does no one see that person carrying a baby? The baby needs to get through!” It’s in moments like these where I can see why solidarity with white women as a group is a tough nut to crack. We’re sort of the worst.

As we slowly edged forward, apologizing all the while, we heard someone calling out “security, coming through!” and a single-file line of four Black guys who looked to be in their fifties or sixties  cut purposefully through the crowd. The were dressed in natty suits and fedoras, and one of them had a yellow arm band on which he had Sharpie’d “SECURITY” in capital letters. Even my passive-aggressive line mate couldn’t find it in her to be snarky in the face of their gorgeous confidence and commitment to play.

It’s this kind of guerrilla performance art that has always characterized protests for me–and it was there in the content of people’s signs and the visual of solidarity that was a million pussyhats, but that energy–that commitment to playfulness as part of resistance–felt less present than I’m used to.

If it sounds like I’m complaining, I’m not (not really, anyway). One thing that struck me about the march was its insistence on officially centering the intersectionality of the movement. The majority of the speakers on stage were women of color, and one of the most moving I heard was a representative from the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women, talking about the challenges she faced after being released from a 27-year prison sentence These are stories I’d previously only heard second-hand, mediated by fiction or film, and I wanted to stay quiet, to hear what these women had to tell me about their experiences and their takes on the world. The signs, too, consistently pointed to the interrelated nature of oppression, including one that simply read “53% of white women voted for Trump.” A helpful–and necessary–reminder, always.

I got the impression from my Instagram feed that the national marches were a little rowdier, and I’m glad, since the fun of protest is part of what drew me to Left politics in the first place, but the silence of the Washington march itself felt (to me) mournful and attentive. That seems like the right position for white women in this historical moment. We’re standing still, letting others speak for once, trying our best to listen and learn.