Tuesday, February 10, 2015

A Letter from Exile

Dear God,

Yeah, it's me again. 

It's quarter to twelve, and as is usual in late winter, I can't sleep. We've met each other hereabouts before. It's just you, me, a blanket, the rush of central heating, the stars. Hey, how's it going, good to see you. Where have you been?

God, I don't know if I should be talking to you. It's late, and I'm scared, and so many times I've sworn off you for good. I've tried praying to everything else - a Goddess, a patron saint, my Grandpere. I think I'm done with you, because I'm a rational person with critical thinking skills and a solid grasp on all the science I believe in but don't fully understand. I'm done with you because I left my church and my martini afternoons behind. 

I tell people - by the way, this is how I phrase it - I tell people that believing in you was a hell of a lot harder after seeing my Grandpere's illness and death. If I'm in a slightly more honest mood, I tell people that my connection with you was mostly severed through my diagnosis and medications. No mixed mania, no conversations with the divine. 

But at the root of it all is me at eighteen. I was young. I didn't know if I could really afford college - hell, I had no idea how to handle living on my own. I needed to get away from the way I'd been brought up and my incredible loneliness. I was just a kid, and there was affection and there was incredible loss. And in all of that you decided to back out and let me handle this stuff without your spider webbing of grace. I was stupid and bipolar and I wanted something I had never felt before. 

Love. 

Maybe your love. 

Maybe not. 

I don't know how to believe in you, anymore. And it hurts me and it terrifies me that I still ask you for help when I'm in bed and feel eighteen and so completely lost. It's been ten years, and in those ten years life has unfolded - death, births, marriages, separations, reunions. I know there's a lot more to come. I'm twenty-eight and all I can think is God damn, I'm still a kid. 

What questions should I be asking you? What should I be praying about?

If I could imagine or believe in what your grace, your true presence, would do for me, it wouldn't be lying in bed, sleepless and furious. It would be so much more than that. Because I've felt you most in impossible situations, like standing on a mountain or singing in a pub in Ireland, or holding my baby sister, or making love, or dancing in a nightclub, or reading Shakespeare. I've felt you in the bitter dregs of my coffee and in the way light catches the crystal on my dining room table. You are the smell of pine in the fireplace and the pounding rain of Baltimore in the spring. You are the promise of life which begins, ends, and begins again. 

Where have you been all this time? Please, just answer back. I keep looking for you, even though I say I'm not. 

I see you in all the ugly parts of life, too, but I keep being told that all you are is beautiful. 

I want to escape the prison of your perfection. 

I just want you to hold me. 

I am angry with you, God, and I grind my teeth and I try to make things work. I try not to be too young, eighteen and lonely, and I try not to be too old, resigned. And I just keep being here, in bed, or on the couch, under blankets, naked, and I keep asking for you to tell me one damned thing you like about me. I keep hoping you'll give me your grace. Even if, most of the time, I'm not sure I can bring myself to really believe in you again. 

Oh, God. Just say something. Don't leave me here like this. 

It's a February morning, and as usual, I'm going to crawl back into bed and will probably fall asleep within an hour. If you're real, you'll be there while I'm awake and while I dream, and if you're not, I won't necessarily know the difference. But I do long for you, and in the frightened-child center of me I believe that you're there, here, somewhere. 

Because as angry as I am, I have the quick breath of summer on my neck. I have jazz and glam rock and I have buffalo mozzarella and basil. I have ridiculous recipes and I have all the damned rules for every board game there's ever been. I have a black and white cat who sleeps on my porch when it's raining and I have bonfires in my back yard. And I really, really hate you sometimes, but I see you within the beats of Yeats's poetry and Mozart's genius, precise madness. 

If you have any grace to give, just help me to see all that, appreciate it. Just let me live in love and never be numbed to it. Just hold me in your hand and cradle me at night and whisper, it's all good. 

Dear God, I'm still here. I'm twenty eight and I don't always know how to live without you. 

I'm doing my best. 


Monday, January 26, 2015

Loving

I've been in love so many times. 

I was in love with an adorable thin boy in first grade, and I was in love for far too long with a pre-teen crush, and I've loved my sister ever since her purple eyes opened and she gave me a reason to live. 

I've loved my mother, and my step-father, and I've loved my father in impossible, painful ways. I've loved my stepmother in her brilliant vulnerabilities, and I am coming to love my second stepmother and her son in their authenticity. I've loved my grandmother and all the ways I fear to tell her my weaknesses. I've loved the way she taught me to hear music and see light through blue glass. 

I loved my grandfather and the way he made me afraid to be anything other than the best version of myself. 

I've loved my country and the idea of equality. The idea of freedom. 

The most quoted phrase from my favorite novels is, "Love as thou wilt." Those few words have taken me from ages fifteen to twenty-eight, and they've taken me from high school crushes to adult relationships fraught with social norms and religious expectations. Jacqueline Carey, in writing a blend of fantasy and romance and historical whimsy, shaped a girl whose only purpose is to love. Love, unconditionally. Painfully, wholly, unreservedly, divinely. 

I don't know how to be, how to do anything else. I just love. 

Our world is massively complex. We've got, in the United States, a battle between liberal and conservative, democrat and republican, middle class and upper class, minimum wage and incredible wealth. We've got the narrative of economic opportunity and hard work and, to put it frankly, capitalist rubbish. We've got poor people and rich people and the people who might be rich and the people who will always be poor. We've got unequal access to education and we have the palliative of religion which makes our inequality easier to swallow. We have meanness, selfishness, guilt, racism, violence, apathy. 

So little of what we have is love. 

When did we lose it?

I woke up early this past Saturday to serve breakfast. My mother and I were setting up yogurt and bagels for a group of teenagers doing a sleepover for the Unitarian Univeralist youth group. We loosened the caps on the orange juice and opened boxes of doughnuts. It was mundane. It was quite early. It was raining. My mother and I sat at a distance from the kids and we talked about faith. 

It's very difficult to believe in anything when the world is this ugly and this divided. It's hard to have faith when the world seems so faithless. 

My mother taught me that God was love. I learned many, many lessons from her - we celebrated Advent, we sang in the bath, we discussed sermons. But she always drilled into me that God was love. Even saying, Amen, was an affirmation of love and compassion and acceptance. If I learned anything about the divine it was that divinity only existed if we approached it with love. 

It's difficult. Sometimes it seems obscene, to love in the face of pain, of agony, of human suffering. How can we say, Amen, when we know the world is full of strife and hatred? How can we do it? 

Again, I turn back to Jacqueline Carey and the words, "Love as thou wilt." Those words imply choice, agency, freedom. And they also imply that love is immutable - not in who or how we choose to love, but that love is. Love is who we are. All we can do is be human, and be loving. The words don't just say, Love. Because we do. Her words say, Love as we choose. Love as we are. Love, freely. 

Somehow, we've forgotten that. 

Love isn't just a marriage, or a religion, or a political party. Love is a way of living. Most of the people I know now aren't bound by the rules of monogamy or gender - and that can be difficult, of course, but it's built on the idea that love is boundless. It is not possessive, or selfish; it is not about ownership or about being right. Love is not a commodity to be traded or valued. It is a gift. 

Imagine if our country worked like that. Just think - we share in this together. We are loving. We are kind. 

Imagine if our faiths were so giving. If all our gods were what they purported to be. 

I've loved every sort of man and every sort of woman. I've loved history lessons and literature. I've swooned over good writing and over unscripted anger. I've got that clenching in my chest which is passion and compassion and platonic affection. I've loved as I have chosen to love, and I have been swept away by surprising glimpses of faith and patriotism. 

I'm not an example. I'm not perfect. I can be selfish. I can we wrong. 

But all I have ever done, all I ever want to do, is to love. Fully, foolishly, alarmingly. 

To give of oneself can be incredibly painful. I think about my conversations with my mother and the fear that faith cannot stand up to the suffering in the world. Where is God when so many people are hurt? Where is faith when we feel alone or when we feel we cannot help others? Where is our patriotism when all we can do is count the dollars in our wallets and realize we just don't have enough? Where, really, is love, when we consider affection to be an item to be traded and priced like an antique on the auction block? 

It hurts. It hurts us to our very core. It is an old pain like an ache in our joints. It is our faith and it is our curse. 

Love as thou wilt. 

I don't know how to do anything but love, and God knows, it hurts sometimes like a dagger to my heart. I've loved too many people and too many times, and I've loved the idea of God, and I've loved the ideals of my country. As much as that has hurt, apathy would hurt more. The concept of turning away love - looking down on my neighbor, or being angry about my tax bill, or degrading a faith other than my own - is far, far more painful than accepting the suffering of caring too much. I could be cold and removed; I could protect myself from compassion; I could pretend my callousness was not a black mark on my soul. 

But I love - I love everything, and I love too completely. And I choose that, again and again. 

It doesn't matter if we are talking about sex or God or country; about possession or righteousness or patriotism; about generosity or respect or the general welfare. At the end of the day we are talking about love. 

Love is a gift. Love is a choice. And love is what we will it to be. 

And as much as it hurts, I can't imagine anything better. 



Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Luxury of Lies

I've been trying to write. I've been trying to speak. I've been trying to think. 

All I have is anger, and horrible grief, and the knowledge that those emotions - coming from me, a privileged white woman - are nothing compared to what people of color feel every damn day. 

I want to be eloquent, but I'm cussing a blue streak in my head, over and over. What words are adequate right now? Many people have written well on the institutional persecution, torture, and murder of Black Americans - people who actually face the horror show, the farce, of American Justice. What good are my tears right now, what good are my curses? 

I'm not going to be killed by the police. If I smoked pot I wouldn't be demonized. If I carried a gun I'd be hailed as a normal, red-blooded American. I could eat Skittles and wear a hoodie, I could jaywalk, I could even sell a couple cigarettes. 

My child could play cops and robbers with a toy gun in an open carry state and be thought of as young. Innocent. Sweet, typical, adventurous, strong. That child wouldn't be gunned down in two seconds by a member of the biggest gang - state sanctioned and untouchable - in America: the police. 

My child wouldn't be considered a threat, because my child would have the mantle of power, his whiteness. 

Last night at the tree lighting event in New York, glittering singers performed as throngs of protestors shouted I can't breathe, I can't breathe. Just typing out those words has me in tears, frustrated tears, angry tears, helpless tears. And it took this long, it took high profile murders, for me to really acknowledge the truth - 

This is America. 

And we were lied to in school, because the lesson was always that racism was over in this country. The happy lies we were taught - that Martin Luther King fixed this all for us, that Rosa Parks changed public transportation forever in one brave moment of fatigue, that broken Black bodies were a thing of the past and nobly martyred for the cause of a post-racial America - are just that. They are lies. 

My little blonde head was filled with this complete and utter bullshit. I never thought to turn to my Black classmates and ask, is this true? Is this your experience? Are we all really considered equal, now? I never thought about talking to the Black men still sitting at the back of the bus, asking them why they wouldn't sit next to me, a white girl. It never occurred to me to question the pleasant narrative of equality and the same narrative which made me lock my car door as I passed the light rail stop populated by my Black neighbors. 

I am so damned ashamed. I've been a part of our racist culture my whole life. And I'm angry at myself. 

I'm angry that I was fed lies and I'm angry that we still lie, that we think of the police force as our protector and the Justice system as our salvation. I am angry that a murderer like Darren Wilson can call his victim a demon on national television and get away with it - that's not just an act of othering, but a clear statement on how so many white people see Black men all the time. 

I'm angry at how easy my life has been in comparison to the countless victims of mandatory minimums and random police searches and beatings and murders and mothers left without their children. I'm angry at my blindness. 

I'm angry that a major network prioritized a goddamned Christmas tree over the desperate pleas for dignity, I can't breathe. Hands up, don't shoot!

I don't know what to do. This is America. 

This is America. 

It is an America where I am free and others are very clearly not. It is an America which enslaves all of us in the blank smiles of mythology, Martin Luther King made it all better, and the police are just doing their jobs, and people should just obey the law or lie down or be polite or not talk back because if they do they won't be killed in cold blood and left to rot in the street. 

It is a place where white people feel good about themselves when they think, hey, I'm sitting next to a Black man at a lunch counter. I must not be racist. My third grade teacher told me so. 

How can any of us breathe through those lies? How can we bear it? 

We've been practicing our blindness for too long. It's a habit and it's our lifestyle - casual, effortless, every day racism. Not thinking about how our country still enslaves young Black men through our prisons. Not thinking about how we clutch our purses a little tighter when we pass a group of Black children. Going shopping and not getting searched. Knocking on a neighbor's door in a moment of need. Playing. Walking. Breathing. Living. 

If it is painful to acknowledge the suffering our fellow Americans endure - and I think it really is, for compassionate human beings - just imagine what it is like to suffer. To live a life where that dream is still deferred. To be strangled by injustice and by white hands. 

This is America. It has always been America. 

I don't want to lie anymore. 





Thursday, October 30, 2014

Non-Standard

So, as usual, I need to fold the laundry. 

I have a lot of tops. Women's clothing is, I believe, designed to fall apart from season to season - especially if you're shopping at mid-range retailers like Target or Old Navy. Trends change every year, and stores are pushing us to adapt to what's trendy - from advertisements to lazy stitching, our culture wants us to buy, buy, buy. 

What this means for me is that I get a couple new tops every season so I can have a greater rotation of clothing, and possibly extend the life of my existing shirts. And, you know, there's the other stuff - occasionally I need a new winter coat, for example. I'm a pretty thrifty shopper - I never buy anything that isn't on sale in some way. I use sites like Ideel and Rue La La to grab nicer pieces at half the price, and I always look out for deals on clearance at stores like Forever 21. 

The issue is, of course, that none of the sizing is standardized, and very little of the sizing options actually fit me. So I'm left with all this laundry to fold, and most of it doesn't totally flatter my shape. I've got tops that are okay in the chest but woefully baggy in the waist - and then there are the shirts which flatter my waist and make my chest look like I'm about to star in my very own burlesque revue. 

Oh, and jeans! My God, if they fit my hips, they're almost always too big in the waist. So I spend my days constantly pulling up my pants. Not very dignified, and certainly not confidence-boosting. 

So I shop. I read size charts on every website and for every brand. But no matter how closely I study those charts, I never see a size which fits every part of me. 

I'm not saying this is just an Alice issue. I have a hunch that most women don't see themselves reflected at Macy's or Lord and Taylor. Part of this is just because every woman has a unique, wonderful shape. We can't all be lumped in together. Every woman is different. 

But non-standard sizing doesn't do us any favors. Who knows what a size fourteen - which I think is now the average size in America - actually looks like? It's different in every single shop. I touched on this a while ago when writing about going clothes shopping with my sister, but it bears repeating: a lack of standard sizes, as well as a misunderstanding of different body shapes, probably doesn't help women feel good about themselves. 

How can we feel confident when none of our clothes really fit?

How can we actually enjoy shopping, the gauntlet of the dressing room, when it's a total crapshoot? 

I think everyone - men and women - want to look presentable. I also think that women are held to a higher standard in that regard. Women are supposed to look good - not just professional, but attractive. Well fitting clothing, in some work environments, is a must. I have serious issues with the idea that women, in general, are required to be pretty or appealing or whatever the heck it is that society wants from us; I have issues with the fact that retailers make that unfair obligation even more troubling with random sizing and shoddy products. 

Sometimes I feel like women just can't win. 

I've got all this laundry to fold, and I've been procrastinating by googling around for a nice, new winter coat. I found one I really like, and it's on sale - and by the size chart, I am a large-extra extra small-medium. 

Yeah, you read that correctly. I wish I were making that up. I'm not. 

This isn't a particularly deep or long post. It's just a bit of a rant, I guess. It seems horribly unfair that the bodies we inhabit are usually rejected by retailers and clothiers. It seems unfair that we are supposed to be attractive at all times, and that ill-fitting clothes are another stumbling block in our search for bodily autonomy and respect. 

And I'm just tired of it. 

Can't a girl just buy a winter coat?

Can't women, every once in a while, win?


Friday, October 24, 2014

Chicness and Privilege

If I were I child, now, in Baltimore, I still wouldn't be able to afford it. 

The groundbreaking restaurants which were new ten or twenty years ago were only in my reach as a child because of my Grandpere and Grandmere, whose generosity often took the form of candlelit dinners and the brown sugar burn of a creme brûlée. The Inner Harbor - no Harbor East, yet - was within walking or bus distance, and every once in a while we'd make the trek down for Christmas shopping or a glance at the water. I remember that taking a cab home when it got dark was another ten, thirteen dollars on top of money we should not have spent. 

But we lived in Bolton Hill, we were able to call a taxi, we benefited from our private and college educations and no one, despite our level of income, doubted our worth. 

We were educated and white in Baltimore. We had access. We were poor, but we had that golden ticket to the sweet excesses of privilege. 

I've just read a piece in The Baltimore Sun, "When did Baltimore become so chic?" At first, I was nodding along with descriptions of success. Oh yes, you can come here and use your arts degree and find a better chance at fame and recognition. You can see Maryland in Town and Country. You can go to Lululemon; you can be one of the "attractive young people."

If you have a golden ticket. 

I don't want anybody to rag on Baltimore. This is my place, the history, the water, the filth, the dank smell of those deep sensory experiences and more. So when I see pieces in the news about my great city, I feel pleased, and proud - we're from here. Everyone should know how great this beautiful town on the bay really is. 

And it is great. It's great if you have access - even the limited access I had as a child. You've got museums, cafés, concerts at Peabody; you've got artscape and the sour sweat smell of the summer; you've got the ducks in the harbor and the water taxi motoring in the wind. 

You've got the Sip and Bite, and Trinacria, and church bells, and that silly restaurant in Canton in the shape of a cruise ship. You've got Thai food in Federal Hill, and Grand Central in Mt. Vernon, and Patisserie Poupon with its mural as you get onto the Jones Falls. There's the shot tower, and the Maryland Historical Society, and the streets whimpering nevermore. 

It's true - it's all true. Baltimore is a wild, odorous, manic place. 

A place that is, apparently, chic. 

But for whom?

The fast encroachment of land deals, government tax breaks, my alma mater Johns Hopkins eating up whole neighborhoods - gentrification - is pushing out those people who don't have a golden ticket. Reading the Sun article, you'd think that we're all suddenly yogis, or people who buy high quality produce at Whole Foods, beer geeks and gourmands who wait in line for a taste of the unique, people who do those things and think this town is still "affordable." 

It's not. 

It's not when you live in one of Baltimore's many "food deserts" - places with almost zero access to food. No adequate grocery stores, no adequate produce or health food but ample access to processed foods, higher rates of obesity and illness amongst those who don't have proper health care. No gym memberships to deal with high calorie carbohydrates, no trips to the yoga studio, no crossfit. Emergency room visits instead of a preventative checkup at the doctor's office. 

It's not affordable when you live in a city with great academic institutions, and you don't qualify, because the schools you've been to never had enough money for textbooks and couldn't always keep on teachers because of a high rate of burnout. Hopkins isn't affordable if no one was there to make sure, make really sure, that you achieved everything you could - if the educational infrastructure didn't let you, a student with the ability to learn and a capacity for creativity, learn or create. 

It isn't affordable if your parents were working far too hard for far too little, and didn't have any time to help with homework. 

It's not affordable when big companies come in and steal your neighborhoods, pushing you further away from your work place. Pushing out your culture. Pushing you from your roots. 

These aren't my experiences, but they are real Baltimore experiences. As I said, I had the privilege of my whiteness, my easily obtained education, my family members, my friends. And, again, even with all of those things, I couldn't afford this glimmering, chic Baltimore twenty years ago. 

I was lucky. Not Lululemon lucky. But I know I was really, really lucky. 

In the Sun piece, the one mention of anything other than economic and racial privilege was about The Wire. Paired with that reference is the word, ghetto. 

I have no doubt that the author of this piece is an intelligent, well-intentioned young woman. She put together an interesting article for people who might be contemplating moving to the city. And yeah, if you have enough money to pick up and move, and if a Whole Foods and popular bars are within your reach, go for it! If you can move here and overcome that dreaded word, ghetto, Baltimore business and government and the police force will be very happy to have you. 

No one is stopping you. Certainly not the people you're displacing. 

Can I say though - don't come here for those things. Don't come here to look at faces or bank accounts or life stories which look like yours. Come here for the whispering alleys, the Constellation, the cheap lunch counters which serve breakfast at three in the morning. Come here to meet new people, different people. Come here to invest in the community as it stands - come to make a difference.

Come to Baltimore because for you it is affordable, and because your choices can fuel a local economy (the corner shop, the dry cleaners, the salon) and not a national economy (Target, Zips, Massage Envy). I'm not kidding - if you want to spend your life here, do it with integrity. Tutor. Be a big brother or big sister. Donate to your local library. 

Don't use that word, ghetto, like it's a death knell. 

Do something about it. 

Give that golden ticket to someone else. 
 
If we want Baltimore to be more than just chic - you know, cool, trendy, slightly overpriced for the typical resident - we need to rethink this process of gentrification. Baltimore will go on - it always does - for people who are privileged in one way or another. But how can we praise chicness above a basic human understanding of who our neighbors are? Of how our choices, from that lucky place of whiteness or money or education, affect the real lives of the real people who live here? 

I don't care one single minute about my city being trendy or cool. I do care about the people who are forced out to cater to my privileged taste. 

When did Baltimore become chic?

Baltimore became chic when it gave up on its people. 


Thursday, October 16, 2014

Learning How to Say Goodbye

Breaking up is hard to do. 

Before anybody gets worried, no, I am definitely not breaking up with my amazing husband! But I am finding myself in the midst of another kind of personal loss -

I'm breaking up with myself. 

I don't know what anyone else's experience with psych medication is like, but for me, taking my medication is like erecting a glass wall between my past self and my present. I understand that everyone grows up and changes - of course, we all do - but my experience is characterized by a sudden jump in perception and memory. And the older I get the more I realize that I am really, really not the same person I used to be. 

Alice at eighteen was a total, brilliant mess. She was thin and sharp and angry, and she was creative in a mad, furious way. She loved too fiercely; she held on to her pain and cherished it. She took too many risks. She balanced on the borders of reality and reveled in ghosts in the corner and the voice of God in her head. 

She didn't realize what was wrong in her life, not completely. She had memories of her childhood but didn't feel their sorrow. She sat in the back garden and lied. 

She fell in love, she made mistakes, she committed herself to all of them. 

Now, through both processes of growing up and managing my bipolar disorder, I'm happier and safer - safer from myself. But I am also mourning myself, in some ways, because that Alice who was so carelessly, recklessly passionate would only be fully accessible if I stopped taking my medication. 

And I will not do that. 

So a part of me seems so lost. 

I wish I didn't have to feel that loss so deeply. Sometimes, when I consider my handful of pills, I think that those false chemicals should cure me of all grief, help me to forget the me who is long gone. They're supposed to fix me, I think, and why aren't they

I just want to be normal. And I suppose that I forget, in that desperate wishing for a sorrow-less self, that even neurotypical people feel sadness, feel grief, feel loss. 

Even people with properly functioning brains might mourn aspects of their childhood and adolescence. It makes sense that we all have things we regret, or things we wish we could reclaim - a good metabolism, for one, and that pain in the chest which comes from loving some girl or boy for the first time. And we all realize bits and pieces of our past, we all see them in a new light as we get older and hopefully wiser. That journey of self-discovery isn't painless. 

Challenges crop up in adult life. And I know that I sometimes find myself reacting to those challenges with emotions I've buried and hidden for far too long. 

We've been getting a new roof on our house - pretty stressful all by itself - and we've gotten a bit of bad news about our furnace. I've been in crisis mode, calmy doing what needs to be done, but in the quiet moments before I fall asleep I am gripped by old fears and uncertainties. Memories of rain, memories of water pouring down through our ceiling when I was little, come to life and haunt me. Memories of deep cold and helpless anger, memories of feeling out of control and too young and scared. And it's hard to tell, sometimes, if the way I feel is normal or if it's heightened by misfiring neurons and stress hormones and the way I relive the past as if I were there, right there, forever. 

I mourn that childhood, and I mourn that I had forgotten about it. I wish I still could. 

I'm breaking up with the lies I've told myself to survive, and it's like ripping off a bandage and digging into the wounds, half-healed. 

And I'm breaking up with the narrative of Alice, pre-medication, because if the scary parts of my childhood are exposed then it all starts falling to bits - my madness, my fury, my loves. Those are the parts of myself I wish I could keep. 

I was talking to my mother yesterday about all this stuff, and at a certain point I found myself saying that I just can't trust my memories or myself anymore. My deep connection to faith is sundered by the knowledge that it was fueled by delusion, by visions, by an unparalleled and unbalanced intensity. My close relationship with the divine - which, at the time, was tightly knit with my emerging sexuality - has less meaning, because I can't access those feelings with my handful of pills. I'm in the middle of giving up on God, not just because of my diagnosis or the difficult loss of my Grandpere, but because I just can't reach God the way I used to. 

Another thing to mourn. Another thing to put away. 

Growing up - we all do it, we all have to learn more stuff about the world and about ourselves. Broadening our experiences means understanding our past experiences in a new way. Not an easy process, whether you are neurotypical or not. And sometimes, looking at myself from the perspective of the present is like skinning my knees, over and over again, before they are fully scabbed over from the last fall. 

I'm breaking up with myself - with the comforting lies of my childhood, with the way I was dangerous, with a false sense of divinity, with old stories of love and connection, with that too-thin girl who danced on the edge of a knife. And it is a blessing to know that the beauty of my present life is here for me as I grieve - my family, my husband, my neighborhood, my home. I'm not alone as I do this. None of us are. 

That glass wall, somewhere between when I was eighteen and nineteen - it will always be there. But it's getting clearer all the time. I can see the past, and yeah, it hurts, but I can also access the joys of my unmedicated self. I can value my ability to manage water coming through the ceiling. I can remember my frenzied creativity and I can still play the piano, now, in my little music room. I can be deeply in love because I remember what it was like to feel love for the first time. I can pray, sometimes. 

Grief is hard to accept. I don't think anyone wants to grieve, and I don't think anyone finds it easy to mourn parts of ourselves which we cannot get back. I'm telling myself that this is natural, normal, to feel sadness and loss - and of course it is. 

But feeling grief is an active process of healing, too. I've got to grieve in order to move on with my life and come to terms with not only the Alice-that-was, but the Alice-that-is. 

Breaking up is hard to do. Sometimes it is all we can do. 

But every once in a while, I look at my handful of pills, and I wish it were just a little easier. 

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

It's All Borked

I've read quite a lot of Harry Potter fanfiction. 

Like, a lot. 

I was a lonely child, and I quickly figured out that searching for things on the internet lead to a whole new world of romance and humor and words I wasn't supposed to understand, but did. I'm pretty sure that the first word I put into a search engine is unrepeatable here, but quickly after that I learned about fanfiction and 'shipping and slash, and I read Buffy fanfiction and Labyrinth fanfiction and stories about Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy and the ways people touched each other when they weren't supposed to. 

It was a silly time of life. I knew nothing about human interaction other than what my teenage heart told me, and I could read these fics and put myself in them - student, adventurer, lover. When seventeen-by-way-of-time-turner Hermione spent her summer hols in Rome and struck up a juggling game between Draco and Professor Snape, I was like, hell yeah. A smart girl with all the guys and a mystery to solve? You bet I was there, on the edge of my seat, waiting for more.

Now, ten years later, I will go back and read some of my favorite fics. I immerse myself in the things I used to love - big writers who have gone pro, illicit PDFs of writing purged from the internet, old caches of fics nobody really cares about, anymore. And I can enjoy them. 

Sometimes. 

You see, some of my favorite pieces are about two adult characters of roughly the same age who end up together. Some of my former favorites are about two adult characters of vastly different ages who end up together because the writer thought that might be interesting. Exciting. Perhaps taboo. 

When I was seventeen, I have to admit, I had a serious thing for older guys. I don't think that's all too uncommon, but I was reading this stuff where the brilliant student took on the brilliant professor and they were in all sorts of love and I thought yeah, that's totally okay. I was seventeen and I was pretty significantly stupid. I had a crush on a teacher and there was Hermione, seventeen and legal in the Harry Potter universe, taking lessons from Snape in power and seduction. When I was seventeen, that all made sense. 

My sister is turning fourteen in November. Not that far off from a curly haired genius with a penchant for mystery. 

When I try to reread and relive those old stories, I'm disgusted. 

This isn't a post about Harry Potter fanfiction (if you hadn't connected the dots). It's about the ways we need to respect childhood, femininity, and appropriate agency. 

I'm not ragging on fandom, here - but I am seriously objecting to the narratives which allow a student, however legal, to have an equal relationship with an adult. Even more, I have a serious problem with the way we see young women. The sexuality of young adults should be completely untouchable by adult sexuality. And if we continue to see young women's bodies as sexual in the adult eye, we are seriously failing our children, our girls. And we are teaching them the wrong lessons. 

We read in the news, and have experienced in our schools, that young women's bodies are consistently policed. Leggings are wrong, yoga pants a no-no, tank tops a smidge too small, too tight. Those rules purport to restrict sexuality (which is absolute rubbish, for shame!), but the way our society functions absolutely does not. Our society is the narrative of the young, capable (but fragile) woman who is attractive to more powerful, older males. Even our fanfic reinforces this! There's clearly a power dynamic, and all of that is about a woman who has little or no power, a woman less experienced or a woman who's body needs controlling.

I look at my sister and her beautiful body and soul, and I think about the fanfiction I read, written by adults, which would strip her of her agency and of her childhood in the name of sexual titillation. I think about the school dress code, which strips young women of their right to choose their own outfits because God forbid a boy get distracted (because somehow she is responsible for their behavior). I think about her being seventeen and reading stupid garbage fanfiction and living in a world where women are victimized because of their own flesh and budding sexuality as a matter of course. 

It is, as my mother has taken to saying, completely borked. 

Here's the thing - young people have these overwhelming ideas of how capable they are. And they are not in any way aware of the forces outside of themselves which influence their decisions. They are absolutely valid people with valid concerns and wants, and they absolutely should be able to do certain things, like wear whatever they want, read whatever they want, have access to family planning, have parents who love them more than they love their values. We, as adults, have a responsibility to make the world a better, safer, more loving and more equal place for them. Teenagers are going to get a lot of ideas of sexuality and relationships, and that's okay - but we have to plant the seeds of self-respect and autonomy, of pride in sexual identity and gender, of power dynamics and yes, safe sexual relationships. 

Hermione/Snape? Not a safe sexual relationship. Not even close. Why should older women in fandom teach that brand of unsafe sexuality and supposed love to younger women with access to google?

Why should schools teach young women and men that women's bodies need to be restricted? Need to be controlled?

I go back and read this stuff and yeah, I am disgusted. Because it comes out of a broader culture where women, especially young women, have no power. And because young women deserve the opportunity to be young and fool around and mess up on their own terms, not within the male gaze or the adult context. Because I think there are adult women out there who haven't realized this, yet. 

I'm tired of this narrative of powerless women. I'm tired of our schools enforcing powerlessness. I'm tired of looking back on myself at seventeen and thinking, my God, somebody should have protected me from what was not only inappropriate but immensely hurtful. I'm tired of thinking that we have failed our sisters. 

It's a hard thing for me to look back on what was an escape mechanism - fanfiction - and realize that it was completely borked. But it was, and it came out of a culture of young women having no agency and no respect from the adults who are supposed to protect them. It's hard for me to acknowledge that the fics I read at seventeen described highly predatory behavior because, as I've laid out, at seventeen I really didn't know anything other than a narrative of powerlessness. 

Fandom should do better. The schools should do better. Parents should definitely do better. 

Because my sister is turning fourteen, and because really, if you're into a fandom or not, we've all been a part of the story of our sexuality being taken from and used against us. 

And no young woman should think that that is okay.