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. 






Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Callousness and Compassion

Hello, world - 

You know I usually write long form pieces (long, loooong form pieces) on one topic, but with all the stuff going on in the world, I feel like I only have the energy to tackle little bits of things. So here goes. 

1) Ray Rice and internet nastiness:

I am absolutely disgusted by the abuse we have now seen for sure and which, if we are honest, we all knew took place. I am disgusted that it took this long for the Ravens and for the NFL in general to firmly respond to a clear case of domestic violence. And I am disgusted, above everything else, that fans and others on the internet feel like this is a good time to judge Janay - again, a victim of abuse. 

She wrote this morning about what she and Rice are going through, and the callous words of internet commenters (on both sides of the issue) are playing a huge part in her victimization. It's not enough that she's been abused by her husband, no - everybody feels like they need to pile on her and judge her for the way she's responding to her own abuse. Whether or not we feel like she should leave Rice, we must not strip her of every ounce of privacy and dignity she might have left. We are players in her abuse because we think we have a right to be backseat drivers in her life. 

What should we offer women who have been victims of domestic violence? Compassion. A statement of support. An opportunity to find a way out, if necessary. And just because she was viciously knocked out by her partner and decided to stay with him doesn't mean we shouldn't give her what every woman deserves at any time and without any need for justification - respect. Respect for her bodily autonomy, her choices, and her privacy. 

2) The reality of race in America:

It's so simple and so complicated, so I'll try to keep this brief - mostly because there have been so many amazing pieces on this issue already, and my two cents just can't compete. And I will be direct - 

If you think we live in a post-racial America, you are highly privileged not to have been on the receiving end of discrimination. If you think that America is a place of true equality for everyone, count your blessings, because that opinion is rooted in not having been a victim of horrific institutional practices (read, most obviously: police brutality) or of daily micro-aggressions which so many minorities are forced to accept, ignore, brush off. 

If you can't put yourself in the shoes of men, women, and children who are routinely oppressed - through inequitable access to education, or the ridiculously and painfully obvious imbalance of our justice system, or the mythologies of "welfare queens" and "thugs," or any of the numerous ways in which our society is utter madness - you, quite plainly, lack compassion, or at least some pretty important critical thinking skills. The way America functions just doesn't work. It doesn't work if you're poor; it doesn't work if, because of your poverty, you live in areas without quality education; it doesn't work if police officers feel justified in stopping you because of the color of your skin. 

One might think that after the minute-by-minute coverage of Ferguson, people would wake up and see what's really happening. One might think that yes, finally, we would be able to talk about this. And some people have, and some people have not. So let's all make a better effort - let's stretch those critical thinking skills and let's show compassion and let's not forget that what happened in Ferguson stemmed from what happens every single day in every single city in America. 

3) Sexual assault, and #yesallwomen:

Yup, if you've gotten this far, you probably know where I stand on this issue. But I'm going to say it anyway - 

One in five - one in five! - women are sexually assaulted in their lifetimes. You think rape culture isn't a thing? Tell that to the college student who is carrying her mattress to class, every day, because she is forced to go to college with her rapist. Because her school doesn't recognize her rape. Because he is still welcomed in an institution of higher learning, and because his victim is given no recourse. 

Tell that to a brave, amazing group of students at my alma mater, Johns Hopkins University, who are working to address the cover up of multiple sexual assaults as well as a gang rape at Pike, a fraternity long known for sexual assault (I knew not to go there within the first week of college, back in 2005). Tell that to certain people in the JHU administration who were so worried about covering their butts that they refused to protect their students. 

Tell that to the boys I knew in the first few weeks of my freshman year who somehow assumed that because I went to their room - to talk about music! - that I would be totally okay with their tongues down my throat. Tell that to the boy in my dorm who would grab me in the hallway, of whom I was terribly afraid, and tell that to eighteen-year-old me who didn't know if she had any right to report the hell out of him, who didn't think anything would come of it, anyway. 

Tell that to all the women who couldn't get away. 

Tell that to girls who are shamed in school because they wear tank tops and shorts, and to the boys who aren't. Tell that to school administrators who want to control women's bodies and not men's behavior. 

Tell that to a woman in Indiana who was missing for two months and was found locked in a cage wearing a dog collar and a leash. Her captors wanted to get her pregnant, and they thought that showing her off to a friend would be a-okay. That no one would care about this woman who was nothing more than a thing to them, a vessel, a sick entertainment. 

Tell that to the women who say they don't need feminism and then, after reading all this and so so much more, tell them yes. you. do.



I could go on, and I would - but this is what I am talking about. This is how sometimes I can't write just one post because there are too many things wrong. I have to make a list, bullet points of this is the world we live in. 

My little corner of the world is pretty great, I have to say. Every morning I get to have coffee and look at the morning glories climbing my back fence, and I hear birdsong. Every night I get to be with my amazing husband, and at least once a day I get to talk to my mom or my sister. I paint and I play the piano. I craft, I write, I watch Xena: Warrior Princess. I have the best friend in the world who listens to me talk and with whom I often giggle uncontrollably. I get to spend time with my grandmother. 

And sometimes it is so much easier to shy away from the epic tons of wrong, the rules which made it possible for me to succeed but not for others, the way we victimize women, the backseat driving of the internet. But the thread of all of these topics is something we must not ignore - 

We need way more compassion. We need to give voice to values of kindness and respect, and we need to speak up to make the world as pleasant for others as it may be for us. We need to acknowledge our privilege and we need to be good people. We can't shy away from that responsibility. 

Maybe, some days, all I have are bullet points. And maybe - no, definitely - bullet points aren't nearly enough. But I can't ignore what's wrong with the world. Not if I benefit from what's right with my own. 

Despite my privilege, I care about these issues. I care about being compassionate, respectful, thoughtful. 

Please tell me that you do, too. 




Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Pan the Man

I honest to God don't know what to say about it. 

When Philip Seymour Hoffman died earlier this year, there was a common thread to online commentary - that he was selfish, stupid, weak. A drug overdose wasn't an acceptable death, somehow; addiction was seen as a character flaw and a choice, a self-centered idiocy, a cruelty inflicted upon others. 

Robin Williams's death, however, is discussed differently. I'm sure there are people (cold, unthinking people) out there who would call his suicide selfish, a decision made on purpose and with complete, unbroken thoughts. But the overwhelming tone of our discussion of his passing is the tragedy of it. He is a sympathetic character - Philip Seymour Hoffman, somehow, was not. 

And it tears me up. 

Those of us with mental illness find ways to harm ourselves - sometimes all at once, and sometimes slowly over the entirety of our lives. Some of us drink too much, because it's the only thing which shuts up the bad parts and gives us the good parts of living. Some of us do drugs, for much the same reason. Some of us engage in what my psychiatrist dubbed "risk-taking behaviors" - frequent, anonymous, unprotected sex; disregard for personal safety; a burning and unstoppable desire to engage in pain, engage in terrifying beauty. 

Living with mental illness is a life interspersed with self harm. And some of that is considered sympathetic, and some of that is considered unforgivably selfish. Depression, it seems, is only okay if it doesn't contradict some abstract morality. It's only okay if we keep it under control long enough to convince other people that we aren't self-absorbed, lazy, and ethically unattractive. 

Sometimes, though, that control is impossible, and we can't keep pretending to be like other people. But we are not selfish. 

The disorders are selfish. The addictions. The depression and the mania and the disassociation and the inability to break through into what other people know as normal life. 

We are not bad, or stupid, or lazy. We are not stubborn. We do not choose to be like this. 

What are we, then?

We are funny. We are talented. We are creative, and compassionate, and inspirational. We are, very often, artistic. 

Robin Williams, the man and his many masks, was a huge part of my childhood - and from what I've seen on Facebook, a huge part of many people's childhoods. Maybe that's because he seemed like a kid, almost, like one of us, and like your favorite uncle who still knew how to laugh, how to be silly, how to goof around; he was the kind of adult who took children seriously and engaged in their play. His performance in the film, "Hook," was a perfect example of the kind of man who could travel between childhood and adulthood and maintain the best properties of both. 

There was something about him which was so familiar. 

He was a grownup who would laugh with you, and not at you - which seems really rare when you're a kid. Some kindness in his eyes was the kindness which all children seek, which we all, from time to time, needed desperately. The stories which have come out in the past twenty-four hours are not just about that time when Williams was funny in some movie, but about the times when young children were facing difficult realities - abuse, neglect, depression, illness, death, and later, sexual identity - and a bit of laughter and that soft kindness was the bright spot amongst the struggle and pain of growing up. 

For me - though only the past day has finally, competely revealed this to me - his familiarity wasn't just his childlike joy but the reason for it. Because, even though I didn't know it, I could turn on the TV and look into the eyes of someone like me. 

We are not selfish. Our illnesses are. 

Robin Williams, from what I've read, had bipolar disorder. It's a horrible thing to add him to the list of great artists who drew inspiration from it and were, eventually, killed by it. I used to go on Wikipedia and look at the catalogue of famous people who most likely suffered from bipolar disorder - it comforted me a little, and made me think that yeah, there's something worthwhile, some reason why we are this way. We can look at the world through a fractured lense and see rainbows. 

But it's a bitter, bitter thing to have to look at that list and think, hey, not you, not you, too. 

I didn't know Van Gogh, and even then, the Doctor Who episode, "Vincent and the Doctor," makes me sob every damn time I watch it. So what am I supposed to do, now - now that some of my favorite movies, some of the films which kept me company when I was so alone and so vulnerable, are shuffled into the pile marked, "bipolar trigger," "in case of cathartic emergency," "Alice, this is your life?"

Robin Williams and his kindness, his humor and his empathy, his mania and his depression, have left such a tangible mark on the world. We have records and films, cartoons, dramas, comedies, and we have the knowledge, more than usual, that mental illness is real. And he's a sympathetic character because we grew up with him, because Peter Pan grew up with us; he defeated bad guys and protected children and the whole time he made us laugh. 

I guess the thing, then, is this - we should take this moment, take this tragedy, take our compassion for this one man plagued by mental illness, and we should be able to give that to others. We can't keep looking at addiction - a health condition, a real mental illness - as an immoral choice. We can't pick and choose who we are supposed to care about and which disorders are acceptable and which are just selfish. 

We didn't choose to be this way. We don't want to end up on any list of great people who did great things and then died because there's something messed up in our brains. 

I started this post by writing that I don't know what to say about this, and despite my above verbosity it's still true - I'm finding it difficult to write about. I keep thinking that it's so bloody unfair. It's just not okay. I feel like my illness is gradually eating up my life, and even my childhood comforts aren't safe. It seems - it seems almost inevitable, sometimes, and I guess that's what I keep coming back to. Art isn't enough, laughter isn't enough, kindness isn't enough. 

And that's mental illness, a lot of the time. 

The illnesses are so selfish. 

We are not. 

Bangarang, my friend. We may have fractured lenses, but when we needed it most, you helped us see rainbows. 






Thursday, June 12, 2014

Not Only

Sometimes I delight in being wrong.

A lot of the best conversations come from two places: FaceBook, and the Second Chance Saloon in Oakland Mills. FaceBook is always a source (albeit, according to my teenage sister, one quite uncool) of debate, from following the comments on the Property Brother's fan page to reading reposts of daily words of wisdom, articles on parenting, feminist treatises, and the yoga pose of the day. People are on FaceBook all day - sharing, tagging, arguing, and talking.

Going to the Second Chance can be like that, though it's easy and lazy the way social media can never be. Nobody is going to butt in on your conversation, but you might find yourself sharing a few words with a neighboring table or cheering over a sporting event, forming a community of food and drink and commonality, life.

I found those two worlds intersecting this evening.

First, at the Second Chance, my husband and I were sharing a meal and watching the World Cup.

Second, at home, I was scrolling through FaceBook and saw the following image:


                                   

While I was at the Second Chance, inspired by the excitement surrounding the World Cup, I engaged my husband in conversation about his history in sports. He has a few under his belt: baseball and soccer at a young age, wrestling and football in high school. I, growing up in a highly musical and highly uncoordinated household, have had no such experience. In fact, my years at a private, all-girls school in Baltimore did quite a lot - by forcing me to play sports for I had no talent and just as little inclination - to reinforce the anti-sports sentiment with which I grew up.

My husband grew up with an ethos of teamwork - teamwork earned in the sun and the snow, with muscle, with dedication, with contributing skills to benefit all, with sharing wins and losses as an emotional education inherent to and necessary for young adulthood.

I grew up with an ethos of teamwork - listening to the people next to and around me, taking direction and then and blending voices within my section, complementing other singers through tone or intention or volume, performing under hot lights and being one part of a whole.

My husband learned individuality through wrestling - yes, being a part of a team, but having a close, personal encounter with his own skill and with his education. Narrowing focus in order to get better. To know more. To do more.

I learned individuality through my years in piano - yes, hearing the delicate touch and the fiery passion of my teacher, but also listening closely from one week to the next to see how I might improve, to understand, a little bit, the coughing release of Chopin and the spiderwebs and glass of Ravel. To hear more. To feel more.

Growing up, I had no idea - would have, in fact, roundly rejected the concept - that anything I learned in music could be learned in sports. Hell, I held fast to those ideas for a long time, for too long. I've been snobbish about music and the arts and derisive about sports and athleticism. And I have come to realize that my stubborn clinging to the arts - to the arts only - made me just as narrow minded and as shallow as the private school curriculum which made me play lacrosse when I wanted to dance.

The above graphic from FaceBook is great, and when I saw it I immediately thought, yes. And then I thought, not only. 

Look, you are never, ever going to be able to convince me that the arts aren't equally important for everyone. And quality art education should be accessible to all, with all students able and encouraged to experience the arts in their own way and to their own benefit. You know me - I am never going to say, oh that kid can't sing, let's throw her into sports. It's not about that.

It's about recognizing that a good, sound education includes everything - an excellent PE program and a helpful, passionate, informative music program. An opportunity for field hockey; a chance to play guitar. A role in the play, a place on the team - an education.

Life isn't about simple dichotomy, it isn't about yes or no, this or that. That would be far, far too easy and that would mean that humanity was far, far too simple. So let's stop thinking that sports has a monopoly on teamwork, and let's stop insisting that the arts have a monopoly on passion.

Because passion is what it's all about. That's where teamwork comes from, and individual study, and harmony, and the perfectly executed play, and every other darn thing we can nurture in ourselves and in our children. Passion is the yes, and the not only. Passion is the opportunity we should give every child to be themselves - kicking a ball or fingering the keys, running and breathing or singing with perfect breath control. Every kid deserves all of that.

I delight in being wrong. I was wrong about sports. If I could put up a billboard somewhere to apologize for being a snob, I might. Being wrong is great, because then I get to learn. Watching sports at the Second Chance is great, because I learn there, too, and I cheer, and I commiserate, and I am human in my casual connections. Being on FaceBook links me up to so many people with so much to say, and I find myself inspired by the sheer amount of communication and closeness available from a distance.

Sometimes it takes a long time for terribly obvious things to become apparent. The yes, and the not only. I am quite grateful for those moments of realization nonetheless.

I find, at the end of the day, that I am a happier person for it. And that the world seems a better place if all things are possible, and if we all talk to each other, and if every child is given a chance to truly be themselves.