One Day, One Thing More

Everyday observations

Common Ground?

So there’s this idea going around right now, that it’s incumbent on white people to reach out to Trump supporters, take seriously their concerns, meet them on their own terms and try to find some kind of common ground–and hopefully in doing so, help them confront the fact of white supremacy and undo it. Derek Black, former scion of the White Power movement, is perhaps the best example of the dream of this effort. He was ostracized by his classmates when they realized who he was (the poster child of StormFront, a white power recruitment site), and then a group of Orthodox Jewish students reached out to him and were willing to engage him in conversation. Over the course of time, he woke up to the effects of his previous actions and is now, at great personal cost, testifying to the danger and seductive lure of white supremacy.

It’s inspiring stuff, and it appeals to my desire for emotional generosity. If people really understood the effects of their actions, the real impact of their commitments to certain beliefs, they’d change, right?

But here’s the thing: as with most things post-election, I have a sick feeling that I’ve been here before. In high school and college, all I did was chase down people who mistreated me. If I could just make it clear to them, if I could just use all the powers of my mind and my body to convince them to stop, of course they would. I’d be safe and the world would be better–I just had to find a way to convince them. And so I’d invite abuser after abuser into my heart and my bed, hoping that this time I’d find the trick. If I were kind enough, smart enough, sexy enough, good enough, they would see my value and treat me with respect. You can guess how successful I was.

Among my friends, I’m seeing this dynamic play out in family relationships over and over again. People who’ve spent their whole lives getting out from under the repressive, conformist, unforgiving atmosphere of their childhoods find out their parents voted for Trump, and then try to have one of these recommended “honest conversations” with them about it. But instead of being met with understanding, it’s just more of the same bullying and intolerance that they’ve been busy trying to undo the effects of for their whole adult lives. Maureen Dowd’s Thanksgiving column probably captures this the best. She’s with her rich, conservative family, and they’re positively gleeful at Trump’s victory, basically telling everyone who is terrified for their human rights to stop being such babies, with all the kindness and sensitivity of a lacrosse-playing douchebag giving you a swirlie. (Honestly, the only message I took away from that is that Maureen Dowd should break up with her terrible family, ASAP.)

Margaret Atwood, of course, nails it with a poem. In “Tricks with Mirrors,” she narrates a conversation between a couple in which the woman in the couple attempts the metaphor of a woman as a mirror in lots of different registers. I suppose “conversation” isn’t really the right word, since it’s just the woman talking, trying again and again to explain herself to the man, to show him the truth of their dynamic. In the final section, she changes gears: “You don’t like these metaphors./ All right:/ Perhaps I am not a mirror./ Perhaps I am a pool./ Think about pools.” As a reader, I get this sinking feeling of the endlessness of the exchange. There’s always another metaphor, another story, but none of them sink in. If she’s a mirror, then so is he, in that her words bounce back to her without ever making an impact. I spent so much of my life in these kinds of echo chambers–only by seeing that I was in a monologue, not a call-and-response structure, was I able to break free.

So my strategy is this: honestly assess my safety before I go into a conversation. Am I putting myself in physical or emotional danger? Has this person indicated that they’ll meet my honesty with love, even if they disagree? If so, then I’m honest and also willing to listen myself. So I start with a reminder of the truth of our relationship, talking to my loved ones like we were in a TV pilot, where people say things like “you’re my brother, and even though we’ve always fought, I love you and I appreciate the way you’ve stood by me and stood up for me” so the audience can understand the plot. It’s a reminder that this is just one act in an ongoing drama, that the relationship can continue past this point. Then I’m as honest as I can be, refusing to grant myself the easy out of pulling punches to protect them or myself. I am willing to explain things that I think should go without saying (people have different experiences of the world, actions have different consequences when they come from different positions), and take seriously the logic that motivates their thinking and behavior, even when I disagree. I ask questions. I admit when I’m being smug or rude and try to stop.

I’ve had a few of these conversations since the election, and they’ve felt powerful. I don’t know if I’ve changed anyone’s mind, but I feel better, and my relationships, while still sometimes difficult, feel more authentic. I have to be willing to risk a break, even if that seems unthinkable. Experience has shown me that if the relationship is one I’m meant to be in, then it will find its way back to me.

For instance, I never thought my parents would be okay with my being queer. And they weren’t, for a really long time. And it was even longer before they went from tooth-grittted “support” to being real allies. When I came out to my mom in high school, her response was “that’s ridiculous, you can’t be gay. You always played with dolls, you never played with trucks.” And her refusal of the possibility ran so deep that, to this day, she doesn’t remember the conversation. Twenty years later, though, the story has changed. When we were talking together about different ways to try to deal with this new world and all the scary shit in it, she told me that her daily action toward justice was to insist on telling her conservative friends about my lesbian sister and me, without closeting us. It’s a small thing, but it’s one she wasn’t willing to take not that long ago, and it’s because I refused to remain silent about the truth of my life and because we both refused to give up on the relationship.

But, of course, the other side is also true. Bullies don’t soften, rakes don’t reform. In those cases, I’m using the logic of nonviolent resistance. I’m boycotting holiday parties where I don’t feel safe–the ones where my wife and I are met with homophobic jokes or anti-Semitic ribbing every year. “What a fairy!””Are you sure you don’t want some ham? Just have some ham!” (Note: not all Jews keep Kosher. Also: you’re a dick.) I went in today to start the process of adopting my son–answering questions I was humiliated to answer, and even more humiliated by my relief that I had the “right” answer (How long have you been together? Were you married when your son was born? Do you own your own home? Would I deserve to be his mother less if we rented? If we weren’t married?).

But I’ll use the resources I have available to me to remind the world that I have a family, that we’ve put in time and energy to become one, that we respect ourselves even if that respect is unmet. I know the adoption won’t mean anything if Trump actually passes his First Amendment Defense Act. In that nightmare scenario, I can still be barred from seeing my wife or children if they are hospitalized while we travel. A born-again hotel clerk isn’t going to change their mind and give us a room after all if I produce Massachusetts adoption papers. But I’m taking the action, making the speech act, calling out into the darkness anyway. The difference is that I’m not doing it in the hopes of changing minds–except, perhaps my own.

Survival is a kind of resistance, in moments like these. I will protect my survival, and announce it, wherever I can, in solidarity with all those who are threatened.

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The Long Haul

I don’t know about you, but I’m already tired. I feel like a different person than I was two weeks ago–less optimistic, more hectoring, depressive instead of just anxious. Most of the time, I’m hyper-activated, scanning the crowds I walk through for people who might pose a physical threat. I’m afraid to walk across campus alone at night, and my conversations keep turning into long rants in which I Cassandra on about the effects of authorizing hatred, how Trump will change the face of the Supreme Court in a way that will ruin countless lives, how even if Trump is incompetent, the people he’s hiring aren’t, they’re just evil. And we don’t even know what it will be like until the next San Bernadino, at which point we are all seriously fucked in a way that there’s no coming back from. And the scary thing is that most people don’t try to talk me down–the conversations often just end with us staring off into space in terrified silence.

We’re in DC for Thanksgiving, which is so, so strange. Everyone here seems to be either clad in camo hunting gear and a Make America Great Again hat or swimming in the oceans of grief behind their eyes. The memorabilia store in our hotel is full of Trump bobbleheads, next to the Clinton ones they’d foolishly bought ahead of time, jinxing us all.

We arrived on Monday, and I discovered the next day that we just missed the big White Power rally over the weekend. For all I knew, our hotel was full of people who’d stayed to sight-see for the holiday after zeig heiling our president-elect. I was in our room putting Teddy into bed when I read the news, and I felt like I could never leave. I’d looked forward to running while we were here, but now that seemed idiotic–I would just be asking for trouble. Even going down to the pool to watch my daughter swim with her cousins felt naive and foolish. A swimsuit might as well be a target. Et cetera.

I’m in this funny spot, because my experience of violence gives me first-hand insight into this whole process, but just those same experiences put me in a place where I’m so activated that my responses are simultaneously less reliable than others. Or–not less reliable, but so noisy that they get in the way of action. And what we need right now is action.

The strategy that worked the best came to me a few nights ago. I woke up at 1 AM, and immediately started my usual Roll Call for the Apocalypse: queer teenagers driven to suicide by federally funded ex-gay ministries, rising sea levels, racist cops armed with tanks and machine guns against peaceful protesters, beloved friends fleeing the country, and on and on.

I realized that the other time I felt most like this was when I was in the hospital ten years ago, after I had my colon removed. I couldn’t leave, and there was a situation completely out of my control that was progressing despite my best actions, seemingly inevitably toward destruction. One of the many things I tried to calm down was hypnosis, a strategy I’d used to sleep since I was a kid.

I had terrible insomnia as a little girl, and my parents got me this hypnosis tape, which I listened to nearly every night. A kind, avuncular voice would drone through a progressive relaxation script: “picture the muscles in the ball of your left foot, like a handful of loose rubber bands. Let everything go loose and lazy.” One side of the tape changed gears at the end to more general self-esteem and anti-anxiety stuff. “You are a good person. People enjoy your company.” It didn’t really work–I was rarely asleep by the end, and remained unconvinced by his kindness (after all, for all the disembodied voice knew, I was drowning puppies in my spare time). But all that practice made me simultaneously susceptible to hypnosis and resistant to its lure. At fairs and stage shows, I listen along and am calmed, but am never tempted to quack like a duck or forget my name.

So I tried another script in the hopes that I could recapture some of its calming effect. In this one, I’m walking down stairs, and I get deeper into hypnosis with every step. When I get to the bottom, there’s a dial, and I can physically dial down my own anxiety. In my mind, the dial was huge and steel, like the knob on an industrial oven. I paused at three–it seemed stupid to relax any further–but ultimately turned the dial all the way down to one, since I did need to sleep. And I could feel it working. Maybe this is the upside of all my PTSD magical thinking right now? If my negative thoughts have this kind of power over my world-view, maybe my positive ones do too?

I looked up from the dial, and I was in a white room with green carpeting–one that looked vaguely familiar in the way of all dream-spaces. This one was a vacation-space–a lake house or something along those lines. Close to something beautiful, set aside from the rest of the world. There was another version of me there, waiting, dressed all in white (apparently hypnosis-me is not only better at calming down, but she doesn’t spill food on herself all the time). I can’t remember if she said anything, as I was close to sleep at this point, but I knew that she could take care of me. That she was a grown up, ready to face what’s next, whatever that may be.

Here’s the thing: I’m pretty sure my apocalyptic thinking is right. Things are on the verge of getting very, very bad, and when they start to go south, I think that will happen quickly. But in all the noise of my fear, it’s easy to forget that I don’t just have experience suffering from trauma–I also have experience recovering from trauma, and building a life that I love and want to protect. If I want to show up for the long haul (which this is), I need to have the energy to keep going for it.

What that means for me today is that I’m trying to take one concrete action every day to beat back the darkness, and to take at least one action every day to remind myself I’m not alone. So I’ll write something, or give money, or have a hard conversation with a loved one, or make a political phone call. And I’ll make a list each morning of things I’m grateful for, in the here and now. Today it’s my in-laws, who have taken my daughter for touristy adventures so I could exercise and write.

All this energy in me feels like a fire, burning through the lies I’ve told myself over the years. I need to be cleaned out and renewed, not consumed by it.

 

Waking into Darkness

When I was seventeen, I was sick with ulcerative colitis, but I never told anyone, not even when I went to the doctor because I was so sick that I started missing my period. I’d been shitting blood for over a year. I never got a direct question about it, so I was able to keep it cordoned away in my mind, sealed off from the rest of my life. Once, I was at a friend’s house and the toilet was broken, but I didn’t realize this until after I’d filled it with bloody diarrhea. I stayed in the room with my hand on the flusher, watching the water spiral and slowly, slowly dissipate for at least 15 minutes. My heart was beating too fast to think anything; I just knew I couldn’t leave that room until all the evidence was gone.

Like most other white people I know, the strongest feeling I had on Tuesday night into Wednesday morning was shock. How could this have happened? How could we all (even Trump himself) have been so wrong? But my teenaged experience of disease should have been my guide. The consequences of having an illness that deep were unthinkable to me at the time, and I didn’t have the emotional resources to deal with the possibility, so my mind just shut it down. Along the same lines, the truth of how the American experiment is predicated on human suffering was too much. I’ve spent much of my life and my career working on the presumption that if I listen compassionately to people in power, they’ll do the same for me. This election has exposed that strategy as misguided, and based in my own refusal to admit not just how endangered I am by white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, but how implicated I am by and in it.

My grandfather on my mom’s side was head legal counsel for Southeastern Drilling Company in Texas. On my dad’s side I’m directly descended from the people who first brought the cotton trade–and thus slavery on a grand scale–to Texas. My life–my particular life, here in this condo in Arlington, MA–was made possible by human suffering and environmental pillage.

In the past, whenever I’ve tried to look at my heritage, it’s been hard to see it clearly. It’s like the weight of the past changes the laws of physics, and the light around these facts gets bendy and distorted. I become overwhelmed by guilt, unable to see my way through it. It’s too much dirt for just one person to undo, and it’s infected everything.

On Wednesday morning, the first person I saw was a former professor, Christina Sharpe, who’d just gotten the first copies of her new book, which focuses on the idea of the “wake”–both how history works like the wake of the slave ships of the Middle Passage and the process of coming to consciousness. She was so kind to me–hugged me while I wept, and responded with patient honesty when I keened of how I had been “so sure” it would go the other way.

“I wasn’t surprised,” she told me. “Other people underestimated white supremacy, but not me.” Listen to Nina Simone, Gil Scott-Heron, she told me. Don’t worry about whether speaking out will get put my name on a list–it probably will, but being ruled by fear doesn’t actually increase one’s chances for survival. This is the same fight which has been underway since this country started. Later that week, one of my Black students put it differently. “That feeling you’re having?” he said, “That’s how I feel all the time.”

I’ve been up since 3, gripped by fear. The first thing I did once I resigned myself to being awake was read my favorite pop culture website, figuring I’d give myself a break before approaching the news–but I’m not even safe there. Sharon Jones is dead. Adam Yauch Park in Brooklyn was defaced by swastikas and pro-Trump graffiti.This feels like end times, I can’t lie.

But it’s felt like end times for lots of people in this country for ages, that’s the thing I’m only realizing now. And maybe it is–Trump’s relationship with the EPA certainly doesn’t make me feel confident for the future of this little planet. But people have made art and raised kids and been kind and made meaning out of their lives even from the darkest points in history.

So here’s my pledge: I’m done lying. I’m done covering up the effects of abuse and violence in my personal life, and I’m done playing nice with systems of power–even, especially the ones that I benefit from.

So I’m telling the truth to my students–that I’m terrified, that I’m committed to social justice, that I want to help them find tools to speak truth to power. I’m being frank with my family about the small violences that made growing up queer so hard. I’m here, writing.

And I’m doing my best to divest from whiteness. We’re giving away more money than we ever have, by an order of magnitude. I’m keeping race central to discussions about the election with other white people. I’m using the phrase white supremacy with other white people–even ones in whom I’ve observed subtle racism in the past. I’m wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt and hanging an Unafraid Educator sign on my office door, because these are the signs that come from within the communities they’re meant to support (unlike safety pins, which white people came up with).

There’s so much work to be done. Too much, maybe. I can see the ways that hatred and fear shape human behavior–and Steve Bannon assures me that this isn’t going away anytime soon. But I’m done lying–my commitment (and that of other nice white people like me) to covering over uncomfortable truths is part of what got us into this mess.

My life has been shaped by violence, and this is something I never wanted to be true. The weight of it felt unbearable. But if I tell the truth, I think I can bear it. When I was finally willing to tell the truth about my illness, I nearly died. I had to have emergency surgery to have my colon removed, and my life changed permanently. But I didn’t die, and the only reason that’s true is because I faced up to what all that blood really meant, and dealt with the consequences as best I could. So no more lying.

Template for a letter to your family re: Steve Bannon

I did a thing this morning that I’ve never done before in my whole life–opened up a line of political dialogue with my socially conservative family. I saw the news about Bannon, and I am FUCKING TERRIFIED. The climate-change denying EPA guy Myron Ebell is awful, Ben Carson is the worst, Newt Gingrich is a human trash fire, etc etc. But Reagan and Bush made terrible appointments like this and we made it through that–we can still move forward with established grassroots strategies and try to stave off our own desctruction. But Steve Bannon is professionally hateful, and his energy is both contaigous and deeply dangerous.
So I’m calling my Senators and Representatives later today, and I composed the letter below to my family. I’m scared to have done it, but I have to do something. I put in bold the parts that only apply to me–replace them with instances from your own life. Or (even better) rewrite the whole thing in your own voice. I looked up all the contact info for the senators and reps for my family in the hope that this would make them actually take action–and I think it’s a good way to signal to them how serious I am. Feel free to cut and paste.
Hi family,

I’m writing with a political plea, which I normally wouldn’t do, but I’m really scared. In just the last week, I’ve already heard–from people I know personally–about moments of aggression and intimidation, even in deep blue places like Massachusetts and Maryland. At Winchester High School (the next town over from ours) on Thursday, a white student walked into the classroom of his Indian-American science teacher 20 minutes late with a “Make America Great Again” baseball hat on, wrapped in a flag, blaring music which he refused to turn off. A group of white male students from Babson College in Wellesley drove in a pickup truck to Wellesley College, where they verbally harassed a group of black students. At Ariel’s cousin’s son’s middle school in Bethesda, the bathroom was covered in swastika graffiti on Wednesday morning. And those aren’t even among the more than 300 hate crimes reported since Tuesday

As a gay mom with two young kids, I’m scared. As a woman, I’m scared. As a friend to Muslims and African Americans and immigrants, I’m scared.

I know that people are saying that we should give Trump a chance, and that sounds like a nice idea, but the moment (of many) that gives me the most pause is his appointment of Steve Bannon of Breitbart News to his cabinet. This guy has made a career out of hate-mongering, and if he is in a position of real power, the consequences would be dire. The next time something like the tragedy at San Bernadino happens, things will get very bad for a lot of innocent people in this country really quickly.

I’m willing to buckle down and try to work with or around economic and policy decisions I disagree with–as a person with a lot of opinions, I’m used to doing that. I’m hoping that I’m wrong about Trump, and that the promises of moderation he’s making now will pan out. But Bannon will bring out the very worst in Donald Trump, and in the country, and I will do whatever I can to try to stop his appointment.

I’m calling my representative and Senators to plea with them to do whatever they can to stop Bannon’s appointment. I’ve made a list below of contact information for your Representatives and Senators. I’ve actually never called my representative before–too afraid of conflict, I guess–but I’m motivated to action by what I’ve seen so far, and what I anticipate is down the line. Please, please call–especially those of you in states that went for Trump. ESPECIALLY those of you in Texas. Your representatives need to know that the vitriol which was so central to his campaign cannot be normalized in our culture. You can support Trump’s policies without co-signing open hatred. Tell them you’re voting, tell them you’ll remember next cycle–and especially tell them if you voted for Trump. Politicians are cynical, I know, and calling the office directly is actually a way to get them to pay attention. If you can convince your friends to do the same, even better.

Thanks for listening. I’m happy to talk about this more if you want. I’m sending you this letter because I love you and I know that you want what’s best for me and my family.

Lots of love,

Anne

Classic signs

I was at an AA dance one time, and a guy there got into a huge screaming match with his girlfriend, and pulled her out by her arm. The community intervened and separated them, restraining him and gathering, amoeba-like, around her, but the ugly truth of their relationship was now unavoidably clear to all of us. I don’t remember if the event ended right after that or not, but I went home deeply shaken. He’d seemed like a great guy–funny, handsome, warm–and I was flabbergasted by how mistaken my judgment had been.

He was at the meeting I went to the next morning, which was the biggest group in town, so pretty much everyone who had been at the party was there. At the end of the meeting, during the announcements, he stood up. “I just want to make an amends to the whole group,” he said. He’d had issues with anger his entire life, he explained, and he was working really hard to use the program to get past them, but things got out of control that night in a way he hadn’t expected, and he knew now that he needed to put renewed energy into his own personal process to try to deal with this.

I felt reassured–my initial ideas of him didn’t seem so off base now, and his contrition seemed real. We’re all trying to get better, I thought, and here’s an example of someone who’s really willing to do that work. When I told my best friend, she said “you watch, he’s going to fucking kill her someday.” Apologies are just part of the dance, and a public apology of that kind worked to ensure that he got back the trust of the larger community.

Ultimately, the woman in the couple left. Maybe he did change, but I doubt it. My dad changed, so anything is possible, but he only did so after my mom left and THEN after at least a decade of really hard internal work. Like I said yesterday, I believe people’s actions, and Trump’s appointment of Bannon is a much clearer declaration of his relationship to organized violence and misinformation than any contrite 60 minutes horseshit.

The worst part of all this, for me, is this nightmarish feeling like I’ve gone back in time. I’ve spent my whole adult life ensuring that I didn’t get pulled back into abusive relationships like the ones that shaped my childhood, but here I am again, subject to the will of an unpredictable abuser. And unlike my mom, I can’t leave. For fuck’s sake, even if we do all move to Canada, he’ll still be here with his finger on the button, belching coal into our atmosphere and arming racist cops with tanks and M-16s.

But here’s one difference: I’m done apologizing, and I’m done thinking there’s something wrong with me. I do think we got ourselves into this situation–as I did every time I actively pursued a guy who mistreated me, which I did many, many times. Even us nice white folks in Pantsuit Nation need to take a hard look at our own culpability here, and the way that our privilege blinded us to the reality of this threat. But abusers don’t come after me because I’m too fat, or because I’m weird, or because I’m a lesbian, or because I’m a woman. They come after me because they’re hateful, and there’s no way I change myself to keep that vitriol from coming my way.

What I can do is prepare. So I’m giving monthly donations to Planned Parenthood, 350.org, the ACLU, Lambda Legal Defense Fund, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, and I urge you to do the same. I’m taking a self-defense class at my work, and I’m running my ass off. I’m upping my meds–not because I think I’m crazy, but because I need to be able to sleep and I want to be present for my kids so that they’ll have the emotional resilience to make it through whatever the future holds.

Come at me. I’ve been waiting my whole life for this fight.

Trust

My mom will be the first to say that she’s not very smart about relationships, but she’s given me one piece of really good advice on that front, passed down from the minister she and my dad went to for marriage counseling when they were reconciling in my teens: Trust is earned. I want to believe the best of people, and I want to believe they have my best interests at heart. Often people rise to this belief, but when they don’t, the consequences can be really, really dire.

I haven’t been able to even look at the news in the last few days–I’m too hunkered down, and I just can’t bring myself to hear or read someone in power say “President-elect Trump.” I do hear, however, that there have been many calls for conciliation and cooperation with the new administration. I watched Clinton’s concession speech, and I admired her willingness to put her ego to the side. I’m trying to do something along these lines with Izzy–keep things as normal as possible for her, help her feel safe, help her believe that things will be okay, even though I’m sure in my heart that I’m lying to her. And this is what Obama’s and Clinton’s gestures felt like to me: the action of good parents, reassuring their children that they will make it through this famine, even though they probably won’t.

And there’s a selflessness that I appreciate and admire–putting the needs of others before your own is the definition of public service, right? But here’s the thing: Donald Trump is the first president in history who has never done a day of public service in his life. I see no information indicating he has ever seriously considered the experience of someone other than himself. The tone of his concession speech was magnanimous, and I know he’s dialing back on some of the crazier claims of his campaign, but I see nothing that makes me think he won’t move forward with them once he has the power. I’m looking, instead, to these rules for survival in an autocracy.

Because here’s the thing about trust: I had a series of experiences, all in a row, when I was in my early teens that should have made me see this coming. When my dad’s mistress sent a letter to our house, I picked up on what was happening, but I thought “that can’t possibly be true, you’re being ridiculous.” When I picked up on the leering vibe of the eighteen-year-old who would go on to grope me in my sleep the weekend before my thirteenth birthday, I thought “He seems nice, and he likes you!”  When I started to realize that my thirty-two-year-old neighbor was about to make out with me, I thought “get over yourself–you’re thirteen and he’s a grown man. Nothing is going to happen.” I’m done trusting that abusers will listen to their better selves.

And it’s funny–it’s this delusion (“he couldn’t possibly…”) that probably led many people to vote for Trump. Maybe that’s the difference between white supremacy and open bigotry. Open bigotry is easy to spot (and, sadly, certainly easier to spot these days): it’s hateful, grabbing at power and causing pain. But white supremacy is the conviction that power will undo itself unaided by work from below. White supremacy is trusting that a system which has only ever fucked everyone will suddenly become kind. That they didn’t really mean it. That they couldn’t possibly.

Here’s what I trust: I trust my community, who has shown up in ways both small and large each day for us. I trust my experience, which informs me that my fear is grounded in reality. I trust my resilience: I grew up surrounded by men like Trump, who knew they could say terrible things about women, POC, queers, and whomever else without consequence, men who took and took from the world. But I made it out, into an adult life where I’m no longer powerless. And people have been doing that forever: coming up out of pain and powerlessness into a new life. I may be in danger, but I’m not powerless anymore.

Write my way out

Ages ago, when I was stuck with my dissertation, I got a great piece of writing advice from a friend, and I still use it every time I sit down to write. Begin by making a list of five things you observe, one for each of your senses. It’s a great way to ground yourself before you get going, and I think that search for sensory detail makes me a better writer to boot.

What I noticed this morning was the smell of fear. I’ve had it upon awakening for two days now, and I fear that it will be my companion for much longer. The world looks different to me today, and the worst part is that I feel like I’m seeing more clearly than I was–and what I see is that things are much, much worse.

But I’m solution-oriented, if nothing else. And this whole process is as clear a reminder as I could get that my cozy suburban life is precarious at best, that I never stopped being seen as less than, both for the fact that I have a vagina and for what I do with it. So the upside (if you can call it that) is that solidarity is real right now, and I really, really felt it yesterday.

I also know that anti-racist solidarity is something I have to earn, that I haven’t yet. Because Trump is on us. White people overwhelmingly voted to elect Trump. Even nearly half of college-educated white women voted for him. I’m part of this group, and I’ve done the same thing of deprioritizing the concerns of POC because other concerns seemed more pressing. If this election has made anything clear to me, it’s that this is my struggle, and that we, the dispossessed, are all in this shit together.

Here’s what I’ve been telling my students, and what I’m trying to tell myself. Ages ago, when Izzy was having a lot of behavior problems, Ariel and I went to a child psychologist for advice on how to deal with it, and how to keep our own reactions from clouding our behavior with her. She told us to sit down and determine what the central values of our family were, in clear terms that Izzy could understand, and then bring the conversation back to those ideas when she was acting out. So if she hits Teddy, we say “you can’t hit your brother because he’s just a baby and he’s powerless. Our family protects people who are powerless–that’s part of who we are.” So here’s my set of family values (take that, Mike Pence):

Be kind. Help others. Say thanks. Protect the powerless. Share. Listen. Have fun. Make art.

I can do that no matter where I am. If the economy falls apart, if my family is no longer recognized by the state, if I’m threatened by violence–I can still find people to help, I can still share, I can still say thanks, I can still be kind, I can still stick up for those who have less power than I do, I can still connect with other people, I can still dance. And I can still write. So here goes.

Doubly Bound

Here’s the third of four promised posts to raise money for 826 Boston. Please donate, and help young writers find their way.

My mom had insisted we take pictures on the Pont Neuf Bridge, assuring us that it was a famous spot, especially renowned for Vogue Magazine fashion shoots. In the pictures, we’re hamming it up for the camera, sucking in our cheeks and bending our heads back at angles so unnatural they must be glamorous.

I was very careful about what to bring along in terms of clothes, only choosing those objects which might distance me from my inescapably pedestrian American-ness. In the pictures, I’m spinning in a new dress, bought just for this trip. It was rayon, with a black and white floral print—simple, but not quite geometric, and a full inch above my knee at least. I could pair it with any color I wanted, but that day I kept things really simple, with black opaque tights and flats, cat’s-eye glasses and a slash of burgundy lipstick.

My mother was thrilled to bring me shopping just before we left. “You’ve worked so hard,” she gushed, “it’s nice to be able to show off a little.” Looking at myself in the window of the Métro as we zoomed around Paris, I stood out in monochrome contrast to all the men wearing Easter-Egg-colored suits all around us. The way they looked at me made me feel like I’d been singled out by a director in every frame—the opposite of that music-video trick where only one thing is in color, but with the same effect of my being marked, special, set apart.

xxx

At Jenny Craig, they measured us every Thursday during our Personal Counseling sessions. After weigh-in, my counselor, Ms. Carlson, brisk in her off-brand Talbots jacket, wound a tape measure around my waist, between my shoulder blades, around my hips, unspooling a yellow ribbon for the total inches lost since I had started. By the time we left for Europe, the record of my steady dwindling was as long as my arm.

At the end of this meeting, I got the print-out of my weekly meal plan to review before we stocked up on all the microwave-ready boxes to bring home, then we talked over how I would cover the extra dairy and fat exchanges I got since I was under sixteen.

“Be mindful of these extra exchanges,” Ms. Carlson warned me, “these choices are where you build up your muscles for later, when you’ve reached your Goal and can transition to your Maintenance Plan.” Every day after school I would have a bowl of rolled oats and skim milk and raisins—I could already taste the copper zing of the raisins two block before the bus reached my stop.

Since almost all Jenny Craig food came in boil-in-the-bag pouches, like the MREs you get at sporting-goods stores for camping, I had to go to the teachers’ lounge to cook it almost every day. My English teacher was my sentry, standing next to me as I used the microwave, a visual reminder that I wasn’t out of bounds, not really.

xxx

On the Métro, there was a guy in a yellow suit sitting across from us. He should have looked silly, I suppose, like Dick Tracy or Jim Carrey in The Mask, but Europe lent everything a touch of glamour, even candy-colored menswear. His black hair was slicked back, and he was openly staring at me. At first I felt embarrassed, but then I realized I could just stare back, so I did, challenging him to look away. But he never did, not for two straight stops. I felt giddy, like when I leaned up against the window at my grandmother’s high-rise apartment building and willed myself to gaze down at the concrete twenty-five stories down. And when our stop arrived, leaving was even better. I was heady with the knowledge that I could just get off the train whenever I want, take myself away from him and garner more jewel-toned admirers across this weird city, with its arty subway stops and tiny winding streets.

We alit at a park, with the cathedral we were planning to visit laying just on the other side. I made sure to speed ahead so there were about ten yards between me and my family—I could hear them if I ended up going in the wrong direction or if they wanted to stop for ice cream (my mother assured us that we were on a break from our Plan while on vacation), but maybe the people around us would just think I was an average French lady, in my stylish minidress and ballet flats. Maybe they’d think I was a dancer.

There was a group of men playing some kind of lawn bowling off to the side. I took longer steps, as if I were on my way to an important meeting or other engagement. I could feel my purse sway as I walked. I pretended not to notice them looking at me, except for a quick, weary smile, as if I got this all the time.

But moments later I heard them hooting after me like sirens. I couldn’t understand the content, but the form was familiar enough. My cheeks burned as my pace wavered, and I could hear my dad storming up behind me before feeling the weight of his L. L. Bean barn coat on my shoulders and his hand gripping my upper arm, hard.

“What the fuck were you thinking, dressing like that?” His voice was a low hiss, but anyone looking on could tell what was happening, and the burst of laughter from my boules-playing audience only confirmed my transition from heroine to punch line.

“That skirt is ridiculous—I’m not surprised that this is what people think of you.”

He sped up, leaving me to hang back so my mother and sister could catch up with me. When we got to the church, my dad was taking pictures of flying buttresses. This is the first cathedral where they could build tall stained-glass windows, my mom informed Kate and me as we entered the cool, dark foyer. Before this architectural innovation, churches could barely let in any light at all. The walls had to hold up all the weight of the structure, so the buildings had low ceilings and tiny windows like the kinds in a basement—close to the ceiling and barely big enough for someone to squeeze through if there were a fire or something.

We walked into the chapel while my dad surveyed the outside of the building. A tall window before me reminded me of one in our church at home—it must have been St. Francis, because he was surrounded by animals. The sheep sidled up to his hand, shy and deferential as he scattered grain around them.

In Praise of Smoking

So here’s my second of four promised entries as part of 826 Boston’s Write-a-thon. Please, give what you can to this fantastic organization, and help young writers find their voices.

They say smoking kills, but my family must be the exception that proves the rule, because my father and I can both claim that smoking saved our lives. For my dad, there’s the added drama of history: no shit, he was working at the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, and was on his way to the very wing that got hit to check out the recent renovations when he stepped outside for a cigarette. While he was outside, my brother called from New York to let him know that he was safe. As they were trading shell-shocked analyses of the situation, my dad felt the ground shake under his feet and the call suddenly dropped. He wandered through Rosslyn for over an hour before he could make the outgoing calls that brought him out of limbo and back into the world.

His own father had died at 64 of emphysema, and the constant game of codependent chicken between him and my mother was the background noise of my childhood, as she tried to hold out new punishments or rewards that might convince him to quit: “I’m going to sign up for this class to learn Spanish, because I know it’s important that I keep up my interests after you die and I’m alone”; “If you quit smoking, I swear I’ll stop bothering you about how much money you spend restoring your motorcycle.” That year at Thanksgiving, though, there was a minor coup during our annual gratitude parlor game in which we write down what we’re grateful for and then everyone has to match the person with the statement. My mother’s lips got thinner as she unfolded piece after piece of creased paper declaring how glad we were that he still smoked. “You shouldn’t encourage him,” my mom huffed, “he already thinks he’s bulletproof, and this certainly isn’t helping.”

For me, it was less dramatic. Following the pattern of idiot teenagers since the beginning of time, I started smoking in high school. My dad bought Marlboro Lights by the case and kept them in a drawer next to the phone in the kitchen. There were never fewer than five packs in the drawer at a time, so it was easy for me to take one. I’d been pretending to smoke pen caps in class since grade school, but the mechanics of actual smoking didn’t come so naturally.

The first time, I snuck out to a stump in the backyard and tried to train myself the rhythm of it. The whole operation was a secret, so I had no mentor to coach me in the art of the drag, how you pull the smoke into your mouth and then inhale. I thought you were supposed to breathe off it like a scuba mask, taking the smoke directly into your lungs–after the first few tries, I found myself doubled over and dizzy.

I never liked the “buzz” from smoking, but I loved every other thing about it–how I suddenly got extra breaks from my jobs at the bagel shop and the movie theater; how it slowed me down and forced me to focus on my breathing; how I made instant friends with my fellow smokers as we huddled together against the cold; how it finally gave me something to do with my hands. I especially loved lighting cigarettes for other people, and trained myself to maintain eye contact with them as I did so rather than fumbling with the flame.

But the greatest benefit was only apparent in retrospect. It turns out that nicotine can put ulcerative colitis into remission—since colitis is an autoimmune disease, the way that smoking shuts down your immune system is actually a boon for people with IBD. When I left home for college and started smoking in earnest, a pack a day, the terrifying physical symptoms that had been picking up speed the entire time I was in high school mysteriously vanished, and I didn’t have to think about them again until I quit eight years later and they almost immediately returned.

***

I don’t actually know when the blood in the toilet started, but by my senior year in high school, it was happening a lot. As with everything my body did, from my first period at age ten to my sixth-grade C-cup, this change seemed to have come out of nowhere to work its dark magic through me. It was four weeks before I left for college when I found myself back in my pediatrician’s office. I’d already gotten all my shots and done my last off-to-the-real-world visit, but I had inexplicably fainted in the shower two days before. I stood up from shaving my legs, like I did every morning, and suddenly found myself flat on my back, blinking water away, the stern eye of the shower head staring down at me. I’d also missed my period the month before, and couldn’t figure it out. Most days I subsided on handfuls of movie theater popcorn and Diet Dr. Pepper, but I seriously binged whenever I was high (which was a lot), so I was still a size 10—hardly thin enough to stop my period.

My mom stood next to me as the nurse practitioner wrapped the blood pressure cuff around my upper arm. “Has anything like this ever happened before?” she asked. She was looking at me, not my mom, so I answered no, feeling the cuff tighten. “She has tons of energy normally,” my mom reassured the nurse, “and she’s never fainted–right, honey?” I nodded.

“Why don’t you wait out in the hall for a moment so we can chat,” the nurse practitioner said to my mom, and after she was gone, the nurse asked me—not unkindly—“Is there any chance you might be pregnant?”

I burst out laughing. “Maybe it’s the second Immaculate Conception! I hear we’re due for one.” And it was true—I was very careful that none of my basement makeout sessions had come even close to anything that would lead to a baby. My mother reminded Kate and me daily, it seemed, that although she had been thrilled by the news that she was pregnant with each of us, that she had been on birth control for every pregnancy—the Sponge for Kate and Sean, the Pill for me. “I just couldn’t remember to take it every day! But thank goodness, because if I had a better memory then I wouldn’t have you.”

So I knew I wasn’t pregnant—that would be impossible.

But, in retrospect, I do know what it must be like for women who don’t know they’re pregnant. Such a thing seems impossible, that your body could undergo such radical changes without your knowing it, but the truth, it turns out, is more complicated than that. Sitting on that cushioned table, talking to this kind lady in a white coat, it just never occurred to me to mention that I’d been shitting blood for over a year. It wasn’t that I was purposely keeping it from her, it just never crossed my mind as worth mentioning.

Every now and then, when it was happening, I’d have a brief moment of bone-deep terror—like when you’re halfway up the ascent of a roller coaster that’s way scarier than you thought it would be, or in a nightmare when you suddenly remember you’ve committed a terrible crime. But I would just flush and wash my hands and immediately forget, a clean slate.

Sweets

So, you might be wondering to yourself: Where has Anne gone? What is she up to? My life is so empty without this intermittently updated blog, what will I doooooo?

Have no fear. Motivated by the incredible work of 826 Boston, I’m starting on another posting pledge! So, for the next month, I’m posting here at least once a week with excerpts from what I’m currently working on (some kind of long-form autobiographicalish thing–the unholy child of a memoir and a novel?). In honor of the teenagers who provide the creative energy to 826 Boston, I’m focusing most of what I’ll be posting (at least four short entries, maybe more) on my own teenaged exploits. So get ready for flat, cold landscapes, because it’s about to be the 90s in Minnesota, baby. This is the period in my life when I first started to understand myself as a writer, and when I first understood that writing might save me. So please, give to 826 Boston, and help awesome teenagers find a way to write themselves through all that angst. Here goes.

“Are you sure they’re asleep?”

“I’m sure. It’s after midnight–they’ve been out for hours.”

Kate and I steal down the stairs, careful not to make too much noise. The carpet in the upstairs hall is good for muffling sound, but the stairs are unreliable, and I don’t know what excuse we could possibly come up with for being in sweatshirts and jeans, carrying our backpacks at 12:30 on a summer night.

The trickiest part is disarming the house alarm before we leave. There’s a telltale beep that sounds on every console, including the one in my parents’ room. We’ve done this loads of times before, so I’m confident we won’t get busted—but not that confident, I guess, since I can feel my heart starting to beat faster already. My mom is always bemoaning her light sleep, the problem must happen closer to dawn than sundown, because this time–between 11:30 and 1AM—is the sweet spot for sneaking out. I’m not worried about my dad waking up on his own–once he quit drinking he stopped snoring like he used to, but he’s still a little deaf, from artillery training, he says. If my mom woke up, though, she’d wake him, and then things would get serious.

We pause for a moment after I enter the code, breath in our throats for an extended beat while we make sure we’re in the clear. How is it that this is both the best and the worst part? I can feel my heart beating in my ears as I wait for thunder of his footsteps down the stairs. What would I do if he found us? Run? Lie? None of these options seem possible, but that just moves the act itself into the realm of the impossible–like we’re superheroes or dragons or something, untouched by human law.

I open the door and am struck by a wave of cool air. It’s May, and my brother will be home from college in a week or so, but the Minnesota winter seems determined to remind us all for as long as possible who’s really in charge here. The first year we lived here, my mother was dumbstruck when it snowed in October, and when it was 19 below on Christmas Day, she became irate. “Why did settlers even stop here? Why would you live somewhere where going outside would kill you?” In the fancy neighborhood in Dallas where she grew up and where her brother was slowly amassing his real estate empire from a house just blocks from her parents, there are horse-drawn carriages that bring people around to look at the Christmas lights. If they tried something like that here, she grimly reminded us the day that school was cancelled because it was “dangerously cold,” the horses would freeze to death before they got to the end of the block.

Kate and I step out into the chill and I quietly shut the door behind us and race up the street. To get to Cub Foods, we walk to the end of our street, head up the brutal hill on Sparrow Road that I still can’t conquer on my bike, and along the frontage road. If it weren’t so swampy behind our house, we could just cut through, but our whole development seems to have been built on a landfill; during the three weeks in April when everything suddenly comes alive again every year, cracks invariably snake through our basement and water seeps up through the floor.

I run down to the end of our block, but I’m out of breath before I get too far, and I stop and wait for Kate to catch up. Since we can be certain we have the streets to ourselves, her stride seems self-assured and easy. Daytime is a whole different story–she’s almost furtive when we’re walking to the bus, wary that Meagan Ward or Stephanie Olson from down the road might come out from behind a tree and ask her where she was able to find jeans that would fit such a fat ass. Or something like that. I’d like to say that I defend her–and maybe I do, some, just by being there as a witness, but I never explicitly step in, except to walk faster and tell her to come on or we’ll be late.

Once we get to the steep, brightly lit incline on Sparrow, there are fewer houses facing us and even a few cars speed by every now and then. We teach each other songs from our language-immersion summer camps (I go to Japanese camp, she to French), and by the time we get to the frontage road, we’ve moved on to the rousing Carly Simon song from Working Girl that is our favorite. I find Melanie Griffith’s transformation in that movie a bit baffling, since the bridge-and-tunnel hairstyle she ditches in her transition to power is the one that the richest, evilest girls at school wear with pride. But I find the idea of an instant and complete change of status intoxicating, as does Kate, judging from the intensity and feeling with which we echo Carly Simon’s call for “all the dreamers to wake the nations.”

After the desolation of the strip-mall parking lot, the blast of air that meets us when we walk through the door makes everything feel shiny and just-for-us. The fluorescent light gleams off the piles of cereal boxes and tuna fish, but Kate and I immediately make a beeline for the candy section. Grocery store candy is weird. You don’t have much selection for individual bars, but your only other choices are bags of a bunch of tiny candy bars–clearly meant for placement in a communal dish for a whole office, not to be hidden in the dusty, airless space behind your headboard. Still, beggars can’t be choosers, and there’s no way we’d even be allowed in the section if Mom were here. She’s always steering us toward the Canfield’s diet chocolate cherry cola and nonfat yogurt. “I just want you girls to be happy,” she keeps telling me, “and I know that being so heavy is making your life harder.”

Kate and I are all business as we sort through our options. We can’t get more than we can realistically store, but it has to be enough to last until our next trip. I settle on a bag of mini Butterfingers, and Kate buys fun sized bags of Skittles. I already know how it will go–I’ll burn through my stash in a day or so, but Kate will successfully hoard hers for weeks, and I’ll have to find progressively more creative ways to get it from her–the most reliable one is to make her pay me in candy to play with her—which, miraculously, she always will.

We concoct elaborate role-playing games together: we’re roommates at boarding school, or wizards from the knockoff Tolkien series we’re both obsessed with. It’s a long negotiation to get started—I’m holding all the cards, and I know it, since our standard older/younger sibling dynamic is scaffolded by Kate’s unmentionable loneliness. Once the games begin, though, I lose track of time almost immediately, entirely bound up in this pocket universe we’ve created together—whether we’re bookish preppies or tormented mages, the evil little shitheads who chant “Chic-moose” at us on the bus every morning are gloriously absent.

We leave the sanctified nighttime brightness of the grocery store, and I dash across the parking lot toward home. “Wait up,” Kate yells. I slow down, but I don’t actually stop—she’ll catch up soon enough.