Happy Summer. Made Holy is now available for pre-order from the University of Georgia Press.
Pub date: September 1, 2019
I hope you’ll consider ordering yourself a copy! Happy reading.
Happy Summer. Made Holy is now available for pre-order from the University of Georgia Press.
Pub date: September 1, 2019
I hope you’ll consider ordering yourself a copy! Happy reading.
I’m filled with it. It’s a tension in my spine. A desire to pummel. I sick echo in the belly. A longing to turn away. A desperate sadness that women are dehumanized, that my body is not considered my own in this country.
The white female governor of Alabama is now signing a law that criminalizes not only abortion but women who choose to go out of this state to have an abortion. So, one can easily imagine how this terrorism will play out. How women will be hunted down and locked away in the institution of deep trauma, abuse, rape, and torture AKA our prison system. They will take these mothers away from their real children to lock them away if indeed this law is allowed to stand. Of course, the grand master plan is to get this to the supreme court where keg party Kavanaugh sits making it a ruling conservative majority.
Please, women, run.
Sometimes it doesn’t feel worth the effort it takes to keep on trying to say the same thing over and over again in a million different ways, hoping to be heard. Abortion is not murder. My body is my own. I have the right to own my own body and to make my own medical decisions.
Growing into middle age, there are moments now, I glance down the long hallway of my knowing –the long education of coming to know– what it is to be woman in this world. I hold on to the acute awareness, the visceral sensation, of knowing that my body is only tentatively my own. That my life is secondary to the lives of men. That because I fit into categories of privilege I am somewhat safe or safer for now. But if one, as a woman, remains vigilant in her looking, does not turn away into illusion, blow the candle light out, she maintains the knowing truth that her body is no safer than those brutalized, murdered, locked away and beaten bodies of the others who share her gender but not her class, color, status, sexual orientation and cis-bodied-identity. Or those others who have not been so lucky.
Run for office.
Please, women, run for office. Hundreds of us must run and continue running if we are to make this change possible. The white men in suits from the ruling class minority are not going to change. They work for the boss and the boss is not you.
I think of women’s art and how so much of it is called craft though the skill and expertise of say, making a quilt, goes well beyond most paintings we decide to call art.
I think of the way women tell stories—of the lyric, of the body—and how close, how intimate we draw up to our readers.
I think of the back-handed obsession with denouncing certain ways that women write—just a journal entry, a mess of self, navel-gazing.
We are not hiding behind the walls of high art or the institution of such and such,
we are teaching you a new way of knowing.
Listen. Learn how to listen.
For a few weeks now I have been working with some fabulous writers on a panel proposal for next year’s AWP Conference in San Antonio. Before this, in preparation for a job interview lesson I was to teach, I had returned to Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen: An American Lyric and while I re-read it I began to think about how I could create a panel on the White Imagination, which is what I have been working on. In many ways, whites do not understand what this constitutes because we can’t always see it. It is the water we swim in as fish. The struggle for even well-meaning, white allies who want to address racism in our nation, is the internal discomfort and fear that our whiteness, when called forth for examination, creates in us. We want to wiggle out of it. We want to “but” our way through it. We want to point our finger at other “bad” whites. But not ourselves. We don’t want to be white anymore, not during this examination.
This array of emotions–shame, guilt, fear, humiliation, mild discomfort–leads to and perpetuates our blindness. Our unwillingness to sit silently and listen. The irony, of course, is that people of color have to live in this feeling of discomfort every day. A woman of color never knows who might consciously or unconsciously judge her, misrepresent her, slight her in hopes of creating intimacy, ask her to join as a representation of her “race,” expect her to be certain ways, speak a certain way, and so on. The irony is that as white people we can’t tolerate discomfort and yet we not only perpetuate discomfort, but we–our very whiteness–uphold the institution of white supremacy in our country that has determined it’s okay to kill, cage, and destroy bodies of color. This is the hard truth of our whiteness. The truth we keep pushing away because it feels bad, it really does. We don’t want it to be this way. And yet it is.
I will say this. My ignorance is vast but I continue to work on the issue of whiteness and to work towards dismantling the white imagination because it’s unacceptable. It’s unacceptable that one and three black men will be imprisoned in this country while only one in eighteen white men will go to jail; it’s unacceptable that our police are legally allowed to kill/ lynch Americans of color; it’s unacceptable that every week we have new shootings aimed at minority groups in our country because radicalized white supremacists continue to terrorize our nation, their power unchecked, their crimes not considered a reflection of all whites but an anomaly of concentrated hatred.
But all of this should be obvious. What isn’t obvious is that whiteness and white supremacy is upheld and proliferated by the white imagination, which limits the identity and the narratives of people of color to only those in relation to whiteness and stereotypes — always in relation to the dominance of whiteness. For example, the story of a woman of color overcoming/ coping with racism, the story of a Begali woman in relation to her cultural identity, the story of a Native American as living on a reservation, in poverty, drunk, and so on. These narratives are prized over narratives that might go in other directions, say, discussing an interest in sculpture, a novel about a haunted swimming pool, a collection of interviews of women artists or a history of farming, and so on. That’s not what white publishers want (that’s not what sells?). They want a story in which the identity of oppression is held up and examined and we get to see that despite all this terrible hardship the individual is able to find the beauty in their life and the good in people, or whatever. (This is not to say that those narratives aren’t important, but they are not the only narratives.)
Why do we want these narratives? I suspect that they make whites feel better about their whiteness and the consequences of oppression. We think, see, they’re okay, they overcame so much. What a victory! I suspect too, that we want to examine the “other” under the microscope of oppression. There is something thrilling in the voyeurism of hardship and pain.
Aisha Sabatini Sloan, in her keynote at NonfictionNOW, Iceland 2017, titled “The Dangerous Lure of Writing for White Readers in an MFA,” discusses the way her MFA program pushed her away from her original scholarly and creative interests into writing narratives that fit the white imagination. She didn’t feel like she could write for black readers. She explains what happened to her writing:
All of the overtures that are made to “explain” the experience of being a minority are tiny coded signals that the reader is presumably unfamiliar with this experience. And the reader who doesn’t have to guess at that reality can feel those signals as a distancing. In some cases, these are teeny, tiny gestures. But the reality is, even the smallest of those gestures can feel huge.
These words carry a certain sorrow, perhaps, that she was pushed to write in a way that would distance a reader like herself. Sloan wondered where her work might have gone if she hadn’t felt this pressure to conform and had been able to pursue her passion projects. If she had not been forced into the small box of the white imaginaire. Luckily, she has returned to that former self and is pursing the projects and work that she feels inspired by.
What I return to as a white woman, an American, a writer and activist, is the need to sit in discomfort and not attempt to slough it off on other white people. To point a finger at the actual racist. To deny my part in it. I say this because just as people of color are forced to represent their otherness, white people represent the life of racism in this country. There is no way around this in our current moment.
The fact of the white body is supremacy. The fact of the white body is oppression. The fact of the white body is violence and death. The fact of the white body is erasure of all others that don’t bare sameness.
because white men can’t/ police their imagination/ black people are dying
What imagination does she mean? The one that fears the black body his culture has created as a figure onto which the white imagination has projected all it’s ugliness. Just think for one moment about the way black men were turned into rapists to be feared by white women (and lynched by white men) when in fact it was white men, slave owners, with the most egregious history of rape of Black female slaves.
But that isn’t what this is about. This is about learning to listen, to absorb, to feel, to hear, to read about, to know with great familiarity the legacy of whiteness that a white body carries. And then, brick by brick, to dismantle your own imagination. To find your own way through this history that unless we come to recognize, to know with great intimacy and vulnerability, we will continue to pass on. Trust me, when I tell you (with great love) that it is your own work to do.
It’s that time of year. Time for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference and this year it’s in Portland, Oregon. Come see me talk about writing and find out what the game Neon Daycare, which I played with my sisters and cousins as a young girl, has to do with writing.
Saturday 1:30 – 2:45 pm D139-140, Oregon Convention Center, Level 1
S228. The Landscape of Memory: Writing Places That Don’t Exist. (Kelly McMasters, Miranda Weiss, Emily Casey, Jericho Parms) While setting is often seen as the purview of fiction writers, place has become its own sub-genre in the creative nonfiction community. Whether tracking breaking stories in situ or casting generations into the past, the writer’s job is often to create the landscape of memory out of the ether. How, aside from Proust’s madeleine, can we gain access to places to which we no longer have access, and landscapes that are essentially make-believe? How do writers render a remembered landscape real?
We talk about the weather here. All. The. Time. It shifts and changes and plays tricks. It’s March and the cedar waxwings have returned, or so they say. The robins must be on their way. Wild turkeys stalk our woods like soldiers. I follow their tracks up the mountain. I have been ill and then not ill and then ill again. But I cannot stay inside another day. So I have put on snowshoes and clomped across the field to the road that leads out to the pond and the mountain, which is perhaps more of a hill. My head spins all the way across the field until my breath slows into it’s rhythmic hum. Just walk and you’ll be changed, I tell myself, and everything about these woods changes me. Any woods, any nature, any body of water gives me reprieve. So here I go out into the awful March of endless winter hoping for relief from my sick brain and cooped up body.
I would like to spend hours here in the woods. But my anxious mind lurches from lists and tasks to plans and hopes and fears. I can only stay so long. Though I wish I could live in this solace always, I haven’t quite figured that out.
The other day I learned while listening to a podcast, attempting to fall asleep, that people with higher anxiety dislike neutral scents because of the way they trigger fear in the brain. If it is not a good smell it must be a bad smell, the anxious, fear-triggered brain reasons. I found this amusing because my father and I seem to have highly sensitive olfactory receptors, and we are also the most anxious neurotics of the family. It is true that I have a certain animosity towards potentially harmless smells when I was feeling particularly anxious. I shout out to my husband, “What is that awful smell?!” And he rolls his eyes and shakes his head at me. I am keenly aware of his various scents, which tend to be strong, and yet my children always smell right to me.
While listening to NPR, another nervous tick outlet for me, I heard a story on workers that monitor Facebook posts, which is a job Facebook contracts to another company. The workers aren’t well paid and they’re forced to look at horrific shit all day, including, reportedly, live feeds of murder and sexual assault. The workers must raise their hand and log out to use the bathroom. They are given a nine minute processing period, which they can use once a shift if they need a break after viewing disturbing content. I cannot, as hard as I try, seem to locate this story online. Nor can I stop thinking about it.
Though I care for these workers, I am more obsessed with the concept at play. I keep thinking about how we would never have been able to creatively predict such employment decades ago, but, had we, it would have made for excellent dystopian lit.
Much of what is happening in our world feels dystopian to me. And yet I’m convinced we continue to evolve as creatures–our brains shifting and rewiring towards what MLK has called “the moral arch of the universe.” Its tiresome to hear certain grownups talk about how well behaved children used to be–you mean, well manipulated, I think, well threatened?
Yet, these monitors of Facebook are real people who are suffering from exposure to traumatic content, and they are not well-cared for and their working conditions are abominable. They have an increasingly important role in the shaping our political and social landscape. But we often seem to overlook the most important jobs in our society. And, in terms of social media, as my friend, the Historian Jill Mudgett has said, we are like babies in the social media universe, we are bound to make endless mistakes; we have no idea what we’re dealing with.
Hibernacula means “tent for winters” and refers to the spaces in which animals hibernate. Frogs partially freeze in winter and their hearts stop. They form ice crystals in their lungs and body cavities but a high source of glucose keeps them from completely freezing or dying. When the hibernacualum around the frog warms up they unthaw and their heart and lungs begin working again. Some frogs just climb into cracks to hibernate for the winter. I have often hoped to find one. This trick of nature fascinates me. If I could find a frog hibernating I could bring it home and watch it come to life. This seems like the ultimate party trick.
In Beijing, in my twenties, I once took a one-block cab ride for which I paid, up front, ten dollars. I had missed a flight to Siberia and had no idea how to navigate the city. My anxiety then was extremely high. Luckily I found a hostel, booked a room, and hit the lounge where I downed three beers and turned in for the night.
I am convinced my anxiety would disappear if I quit coffee. But, alas, that shall never come to pass. In the evening I think longingly of coffee before bed. In the morning I do not get up until my husband has made the coffee and brings me a cup. Yes, I know, I hit the husband jackpot. But all my luck went into that.
Long distance running is the only effective way I’ve been able to manage anxiety. But sometimes I get tired and quit. I’m training for a half marathon in May, in which I hope to beat my PR. Competition has always motivated me until it doesn’t, and then I’m paralyzed. At the gym, where I go to run on the treadmill, which is extremely boring, I like to watch the others. There is one woman who seems to have disappeared inside herself–her choice in clothing and obsessive reading on the treadmill makes me think this. When I tell my husband about her he is uninterested. I want to explain the way her face personifies this concept of self erasure but my husband finds me cruel.
The other night I returned from the gym and he was sleeping and I was outraged because I had wanted to tell him all about how I ran into our friend Sigrid and she taught me to hula, which I’ve never been able to do. Instead I ate a bowl of rice and beans in the kitchen and thought about how my baby sister was about to turn thirty.
The passing of time has been the most disturbing part of my life. I dislike stasis, so I am unsure of the alternative. While it is clear from mere observance, that we will grow old and die, we do not believe it.
On the evening of my snowshoe in the woods, as I was clomping up the hill-mount, I saw a fluff of fur in the snow and stopped. It looked beautiful and alive but also dead. I could not see the entire body. I bent down with a stick and poked it, then lifted it up and flopped it around. A possum. It was not stiff and it bore no marks of injury. Yet I did not remember the thing about possums — playing possum.
I am a person stunned by wild animals. Despite having grown up in the woods, whenever I see a real live wild animal, especially up close, I feel excited. Here, in our cabin in the woods, whenever we spot deer in the field or rabbits in the yard we call out to each other to come and look. I couldn’t decide what to do about the possum in the snow. Leave it there and let it become another creature’s dinner or burry it beneath the snow. I laid my bare hand on it’s back and tried to feel for a heart beat. I did not think it was alive though, so I didn’t spend much time doing this.
The paws of a possum are particularly delicate; they have long slender fingers with elaborate padding and sharp nails. I pressed my index finger to this possum’s palm to feel the grooves and curves there.
When I finally shooed the children outside into frigid temperatures, I spy on them from my bedroom window. They are attempting to slide down a small hill along the side of the house on broken parts of a sled. Later I hear the younger one yapping like a wolf. Everything about this child surprises me.
The silence of this house is a kind of warmth. Not every house offers such delicious silence. But every empty house after children has given me this. To know I am alone gives me immense relief.
I decided to bury the possum beneath the snow. It wasn’t deep, just a layer to keep it safe. I’m not sure why I wanted to do this or why I feel a need to engage in sacred acts–or at least acts imagined as such. I said goodbye and climbed on. I passed the turkey tracks, deer, and wolf or coyotes. I stood at the peak and looked out for a moment into the trees and setting sun before I returned to the lower ground near the pond. I have been told that once a person falls through frozen ice into frigid waters, they only have around eight seconds before their body shuts down.
Later, I looked up the possum online when I realized that it could have been playing dead–something I had not recalled in the woods. Playing dead is involuntary for them. When facing danger, their body goes into a coma-like state that can last from between forty minutes and four hours. They are conscious but they cannot move. When I think about this odd evolutionary trick, I’m slightly horrified to imagine a comatose possum with consciousness, unable to move as it becomes prey. Or, in my case, unable to move or run away while a woman buried her in snow.
I once read War and Peace alone on a half empty train from Prague to Paris and the memory of this remains a kind of myth in my mind.
How’s your writing practice? Have you set writing goals for the year, month, or week? This post offers practical ideas and advice for writers who are working on strengthening their practice or trying to get back into one. Remember, everything takes time; be kind to yourself, relax, and celebrate the work you’ve already done. Happy writing!
There are no rules for having a writing practice. However, I once read the following advice on writing from a very successful novelist: Get to your desk immediately upon waking and begin writing immediately. If you drink coffee, brew it the night before and have it ready in a thermos at your desk. I couldn’t get past the coffee part, which is why I remember the advice at all — I cannot be expected to write without a fresh, hot cup! This famous novelist believed that the closer we were to the liminal state of our dreams, the greater our access to creativity. There’s a lot to be said about getting creative, but most writers understand that it’s simply the act of writing that gets you to the spaces of creative insight and not the other way around. So my first bit of advice about your writing practice is this:
Finally, create the right space. OK, I will admit that I’m writing this at my local coffee shop and that most of my writing occurs in bed; however, we need a space that feels right to us. Writer Dani Shapiro has written that she spent two years in her favorite chair writing her memoir Inheritance. She had an office but she couldn’t bring herself to go there. A former teacher of mine told me he can only write in his bedroom with the blinds drawn. Others seek out beautiful spaces, a room with a view, and so on. But essentially, what you need is a place to be alone (the coffee shop counts!) and feel comfortable.
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Last fall I fell into a clinical depression. Partly, I suspected, it had to do with an abrupt change in my running activity–from training for races to a few short runs a week–and perhaps the change of seasons. In Vermont, the darkness can be crippling. Days are cut off around 4pm in November and the lack of sunlight imposes a sense of doom for some. I suspect others cozy up to the wood stove and find solace in that same darkness. But I found myself frozen in a state of grief and fear that I hadn’t felt in years.
Poet Jenny Xie writes in “On Melancholia” of Freud’s distinction between mourning and melancholia. Here are her words:
In “Mourning and Melancholia” (1917), Freud traces the distinction between the psychological state of mourning, a normal response to loss that is finite, and melancholia, a pathological mourning whose labor is endless. Whereas in mourning, the object of loss is clear and can be released by the mourner with time, in melancholia, what has been lost can remain hidden and becomes internalized—”devoured” by the ego, as Freud writes. The ego absorbs the lost object and feeds on it interminably.
I read Freud as literature as I suspect Xie does as well. I like the idea of thinking of depression as a lost object. Something we’ve misplaced without realizing it. Devoured by the ego, we can’t stop mourning–the labor is endless. In many ways I see my own bouts of depression as moments when I have lost access to my life. By which I mean, I’ve lost touch with the life I want to lead; I have become estranged from myself.
I imagine my estranged self wandering along a forest path, through a city street, stopping for coffee… Romantic, yes. But this is not at all the way depression feels. Depression is a feeling akin to drowning that I imagine would mirror the experience of falling through ice with all your winter clothes on and not being able to get out. You try to kick off the boots but they’re stuck on; you try to climb out, but the ice breaks; you call for help, but no one’s there–or at least that is the way the mind imagines it. The mind imagines a life or death situation.
Even when I’m not in the throws of depression (which is normally) in my mind the voice of doubt is strong. I have talked to her for years and have learned to talk her down as well as to simply detach and observe the workings of the mind. Thoughts are not reality. Repeat after me: thoughts are not reality.
Tara Brach, meditation teacher, writer, and speaker, has noted that the ego doesn’t like it’s own training and thus turns on itself. I would equate this notion with her (and the Buddhist) notion of the second arrow. The first arrow is the harm done and the second arrow is the voice that scolds: how did you let this happen, you’re bad, worthless, etc. Thus, the voice of the second arrow is always telling me that I’m failing (it is also the more harmful arrow, the poisonous one, if you will). As in this morning when my four year old was having an epic tantrum and I held him down to brush his teeth before school–fail! I thought, what have we done? We are awful parents, bad bad bad. But my own training popped up (luckily) and said, it’s just a bad day, it’s temporary, he won’t be four forever, he’ll learn to brush his own teeth.
Failure is relative. You decide. You can change your thoughts, I’ve learned. Yet our sense of not being enough (doing, having enough) is a powerful part of our conditioning as human beings. We are locked into this conditioning and unless we see it for what it is we can’t get free. Even when we intellectually understand it, there are powerful triggers in our lives that catch us up again and again. But if we practice noticing and choosing different thoughts, which lead to different feelings and in turn different actions, we can overcome this.
Perhaps, as long as we are walking our path and engaged in what we love and what interests us, we mostly feel content. Do you believe that you deserve this? Do you think you have to suffer? Why? Alienation from our path (our best lives) is when depression and melancholia arise, in my experience. Often the texts go like this: What am I doing with my life?!?
Me: I’m fucked, seriously fucked!
Friend: What’s going on?
I admit to being a little dramatic.
The lost object, then, is not (of course) an object but the action of living our lives in ways that feel meaningful, purposeful, and right for us. A sense of being engaged in our right work, supported by our communities, and well-loved. A belief that we deserve to have all our needs met.
Last fall I began therapy again, which I have done off and on my entire life. I’m a huge fan, but you need to find the right person. I found someone magical, which has felt like a gift. She began by telling me that my expectations were way out of synch and that I was trying to do too much so I was crashing. My body was protesting the expectations I had forced upon myself. I thought of the previous two years, the insane amount of work I’d been doing to form and build our faculty union while revising my book, teaching, parenting, running, editing, and all the other life stuff. I let that sink in and then I said, predictably, but I’m not enough and I listed to her all the ways I was failing as a writer and grown-up person.
Her response: What if you just stop trying to do all that? What if you just write in your journal everyday and see what happens? What if you take a break? Have you ever done that?
No, I thought, I cannot take a break. I have too much to accomplish. I’ve got to start my second book and it needs to be a money-maker, I’ve got to promote my first book, I’ve got to generate shorter pieces for publication, I’ve got to get a new full-time job. Whooeee…. that sounds stressful. I told her I felt behind as a writer, publishing my first book at the tail-end of my thirties instead of my twenties. (Yes, I realize how ridiculous this idea is! But, conditioning!)
What if you aren’t that kind of writer?
What kind? I ask.
The rich and famous kind.
Well, that’s obvious.
We laugh. Then she says, what if your life, what you’ve been given, is the material you have to work with as a writer. What if your life is the material of your work?
I like that. I say, and think of my two children.
And so, I began to write to “X” everyday in my journal, a blue covered wireless notebook. I quit the novel I was working on. I didn’t attempt any essays. I just wrote to X. The Winter Solstice passed into the new year. Slowly I felt myself returning and in my hands a lost object emerged, small and quiet, a well-loved path.
Clinical depression often requires medication, medical attention, and other care. I do not mean to imply that we can simply think or journal our way out. Rather, I believe that depression can be rooted in our life choices and needs, triggered by responses to fear.
I want to be clear that seeking to live your “best life” and be your “best self” are somewhat privileged notions when most of the world is forced to labor in tenuous survival mode. I want to recognize this. And I believe I have a responsibility to use my privilege in service to others to help everyone access opportunities for growth and success. Some of the ways I do this is through teaching at the community college level, mentoring students, activist work, listening to and promoting the ideas (and work) of marginalized individuals/communities, teaching students how oppression functions, and donating money or time. I believe we all want to live our best lives (regardless of our socio- economic status) and there is enough for everyone.
To Read Jenny Xie’s extraordinary poem “Melancholy” click here