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. 


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.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

To Thine Own Self

Being a girl is hard. 

Being a boy is hard, too, as is being a woman or being a man. But I was reminded today of how much the world is stacked against girls and young women - it wasn't anything big, not some momentous event, but it was commonplace and constant. 

I went clothes shopping with my sister. 

All of the wonderful moms I know who are raising daughters seem to be imparting to them a wildness and a confidence. Be yourself, they say - and it's a classic bit of advice, made seemingly meaningless for its ubiquity. But being yourself for young girls is both necessary and a significantly packed term. It can mean painting and drawing, digging in the dirt, wearing comfortable clothes, speaking and moving fiercely. It can mean being one with nature, and it can mean taking a yoga class. It's not easy, but there is something as yet unburdened in those first years when girls have no other thought than to truly be themselves. 

My sister was like that. Once she started talking she told us absolutely everything. Her laughter was unfettered and her hugs were tight. Her body was a vehicle for her fearless personality. 

Why does that have to change? 

I remember being my sister's age, thirteen, and hating my body. Part of that was family stress, part was mental illness, and part of it was going to a school and being of the age when thin was in, when Abercrombie models were perfection, when I was in daily competition with my best friend as to how little we could eat. It was an unspoken rule: be like the other girls. Be pretty. Be perfect. Starve. 

Fortunately, my sister has a lot more sense than I did. I can't tell you how miraculous it is for me to see her eat. She has a good core of strength and a solid sense of reality. But I'm afraid of the world around her. 

Going clothes shopping for a teenaged girl is a joke. Girls' - and women's - sizing is absolutely arbitrary. There's no standard, no universal measurements, and each brand will use a different measuring tape. Sure, you might come close to some consensus if all you buy is Target brand, but most of the time each item is different, and your top is a different size than your bottom, and your bottom might as well be the last sacred mystery facing mankind. It's ridiculous, plain and simple. 

Helping my sister pick out shorts? Laughable in its inconsistency. She now wears sizes I wore when I was ten and sizes I wore when I was twenty. Four pairs of shorts, three different sizes, many different misconceptions about the female form. I'm so glad that my sister has better sense than I did - I absolutely would have died, if it were I trying on clothes - because she knew she looked great and felt great in those shorts, and that was all that mattered. 

But the deck, as they say, is stacked against us. How can we think of ourselves, and what box do we check off, when it comes to how we measure our bodies? How can we overcome the stigma of size? Of weight? Of shape?

Little girls don't think that way. When I see pictures of my mom friends' girls, there is no indication that they care about the size of their pants. It only matters if they are dirty or clean - actually, it probably matters a lot more that they are comfortable and good to move in. 

When did our bodies become a battleground?  

I'm not saying that the size of our jeans is the only way we understand ourselves. We are more complex than that. But why is it that we have to endure the uncertainty and possible shame which comes with something so basic as clothes shopping? Is it not enough that we are bombarded with fat free, low carb, high protein food advertisements? Are we too jaded, too used to accepting the picture perfect actresses on television? Is the message not clear enough - over size six need not apply? Have we not been shamed enough? 

Do we really think our girls need to be shamed that way, too? 

And beyond that - what is this power, this female body, which needs to be vanquished? Not only does my sister need to find shorts in three different sizes, no; she needs to make sure she isn't inappropriate, distracting, tempting. I understand that clothes should address utilitarian needs (so delicate bits hanging out would probably be a problem) but what is so worrisome about legs? I really do get that her clothes should serve a purpose - warmth, comfort, ease of movement - but, for me, any hint of the word "modesty" makes me clutch at my hair and moan. I find nothing offensive about my sister's body. Again, in the situation of her school making rules about the usefulness of clothes, I'm all for it - but once the line is crossed, once it becomes about covering up a woman's body because of "distraction" or "modesty" or "what's appropriate," then I think we all must wonder -

What is inappropriate now, on a girl, which wasn't when she was three or four? 

What on her body is shameful? What must be covered - not for her sake, but for our own? 

The deck is stacked. A woman's body is an object to be randomly categorized, to be judged, to be covered up in case of someone else's discomfort. Is it any wonder, then, that I at thirteen years old reviled my body, that I starved it, that I both flaunted my too-thin abdomen and did five hundred crunches a day? That I thought of my physical form as both an object and as a manifestation of my internal flaws? That I laughed at diets - not eating was easier - and that I, at the same time, took diet pills? 

I wasn't born that way. We weren't born that way. 

My sister is probably the coolest person ever (though I admit, I am biased) and she uses her body to do things like eat and jump, curl up with a good story, walk around the neighborhood with her friends, go clothes shopping and be, against all odds, okay. But I hazard a guess that her attitude is not common. She's a fantastic young woman who doesn't really give a darn. But how many of our girls look in the mirror and see something both undesirable and inappropriately desired? Sizes and school dress codes. Shaming, coveting, covering. 

This is another topic for which I have no answer. It's taken me - oh, I have no real estimate, because it has been quite a journey - it's been only in the last year that I have come to terms with my own body. And, as much as I am embarrassed to say it, a lot of my own acceptance comes from the praise of others. A year ago I was trying to stop eating to fit into a bridesmaid dress. Less than a year ago I met an amazing group of friends who love every body type. I've internalized the external, and I think that is the legacy of shaming and approval-seeking which is the hallmark of our society. 

And no one wants that for our girls. I'd spit in the face of anyone who would put that burden on my sister. 

For a positive spin on this topic - I, a recovering anorexic, and my amazing mother and father, have managed to teach my sister that her true worth is in her head and not in her pants. That's not only a legacy - it's a promise. We will not judge, will not burden, will not shame. We will go clothes shopping and pick what fits. We will not bestow upon her our society's obsession with weight nor our culture's obsession with modesty. And knowing that I can be a part of that, I feel better able to assert that all of our girls deserve the same education, the same respect, the same love. 

It is possible. Because we were not born hating our bodies, objectifying our bodies. 

All we need to do is help girls be themselves. 

Sunday, April 13, 2014


I've written here, frequently, about my experiences in Columbia - about the differences between my childhood in the city and my adulthood in the suburbs. I've mourned the lack of nightlife and culture, and I have celebrated the benefits of living in a safe environment with good schools, close family, and a growing community. I explored these topics from the perspective of apartment living, which, all in all, was not that far removed from how I grew up. We didn't know the people who lived across the hall, we had little responsibility in the upkeep of the building, and we lived on the third floor without a garden and with no expectation of limited privacy. So, though we had been living in Columbia, there were many similarities to the indifference and anonymity of an apartment in the city. 

I had no idea how much things would change. 

Buying a house in my parents' village of Oakland Mills was a dream come true for me. I couldn't wait - living within walking distance to the grocery and the Second Chance, to my mom's house and my sister's school? Perfect, and just what I had wanted. I thought of walking in my own neighborhood, with sidewalks and crosswalks and flower-edged tree lines, as a slice of the city in the quiet of the suburbs. And I have a deep attachment to Oakland Mills - my mom has thrown herself into the community, both through participation and through her writing, and that passion has been passed on to me because I have seen her fight for what is good, what is changing, what could happen. And through her I have met many other Oakland Mills residents who are equally invested in life here, who are now my neighbors, and who I hope will come to be my friends. When we found this house, this oddly shaped Pacesetter in my desired village, I thought yes, yes! This is my home.

And it is my home, much beloved, but it definitely comes with a steep learning curve. 

For one thing, people are really friendly. 

This is not a bad thing, not at all! But it is a surprise. It seemed like we had lived here for five mintutes but we had been welcomed by so many of our neighbors, whether it was at the Second Chance or in our front yard. The family across the street came over and offered their help - and they had made us a cake! A cake! My husband laughed at me because I eyed it with a good dose of suspicion (this was, after all, a kind of friendliness I had never experienced), but the cake was delicious, and a week later that same family helped us unload our new deck furniture - they're not only friendly neighbors, but genuine. 

Another thing - people are really curious. 

Those same neighbors joked that it was our turn, now, to be the new family on the block. I didn't quite get what that meant, but I do now! Earlier this week I was sitting on my deck - and it was morning, so I was still in my jimjams - when I heard someone greet me from behind the bushes. Now if this had happened in the city I probably would've gotten my butt out of there, but the fellow was quite nice and made chit chat with me as his dog sniffed around and my heart raced in my chest (I was also without my glasses, and I still have no idea what this gentleman looks like). I know he was being nice, giving me a quick welcome, but it further proved to me that friendliness and curiosity go hand in hand. And while there is a level of privacy afforded to us - trees, bushes, a fence in the front yard - there is still some guy out there who saw me in my pink kitty nightgown. Oh boy. 

And it's not just people who are curious - it's the wildlife. I am pretty sure that there's a groundhog living in my courtyard. Now, I definitely prefer groundhogs to rats, but I started googling and oh my gosh, they have claws! And we've got a very frisky cardinal doing his mating dance and chirping at passing females with an impertinent joie de vivre (he announced his presence by pooping on my head within the first week). Bunnies are everywhere. There's a cat which likes to cry at my front door at dawn. It's one part hysterical and one part mystifying. Apartment living did not come with quite this level of local life. 

Now, I'm still a city girl in many ways. While I joke about things like safety and indifference, I know that I'm not painting the whole picture and not being entirely fair. When I told my Grandmere about the fellow in the bushes, she said, I can see Grandpere doing that. My mom said the same thing - that he used to check out his neighbor's houses through their windows. And it wasn't totally unsafe where we lived, of course. But I do feel a difference between Bolton Hill and Oakland Mills - it's a combination of factors, the groundhog, the homemade cake, the omnipresent avians looking for a hot date, the kids playing in the streets, the nosiness I'm taking up like a treasured community pastime as I peer out of my kitchen window. 

There are many, many other things I am learning. Having a house involves commitment - maintenance, vigilance, gardening, cleaning. It's both satisfying and terrifying, because even as I learn how to put screens in the windows and clean out the gutters I'm thinking, what if the furnace breaks? What if a tree falls through my roof? What if that darn groundhog messes with our foundation? All of these things enrich my life as a housewife - I certainly have a lot more to do, and a lot more pride to take in my living space. And these were expected changes, for the most part. 

But it's the funny little surprises, the friendliness, the curiosity, which make home ownership into something wholly different than apartment living. My world is different, now. My world has wildlife and neighbors who have seen me in my nightgown. 

I will probably keep writing about Columbia - but to me, it's a whole new place. All of my previous judgements are, if not invalid, very much altered, in a very pleasant way. I have my afternoon walks to the corner store, just as I did in Bolton Hill, and I have neighbors who are curious and helpful, just like Grandpere. And I think I am coming to realize that there are fewer differences between city life and suburban life than I had thought, and far more differences between apartment life and house life. Sometimes it's the simplest things which change our worldview. A cake, a cat, a bit of harmless nosiness. 

I have looked at this house as a fresh start. Sometimes changing location can change who we are, and I think I've needed that. I'm getting another opportunity to consider Columbia, and a better chance to understand the community. I might have to work on catching critters; I will have to work on being a member of an awesome village. Tomorrow I will be making truffles for our cake bearing neighbors. Today I'm sitting on my deck - with real clothes on! - and wondering if the groundhog will pop his head out of his burrow. 

I'm an Oakland Mills citizen, a handy housewife, and what I lack in privacy I've gained in genuine friendliness. 

I think, even though I miss Bolton Hill and Baltimore, that I'm okay with that.