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Saturday, October 27, 2018

Monsters



It's been Pride week on our campus all week - lots of activities, and small rainbow flags planted along the walkways in various places. On Thursday I noticed that a bunch of them had been torn up and thrown onto the ground, some of them into bushes, and the "poles" (plastic straws) ground into the bricks and splintered. Angry, I wrote a short blog about it, and online, challenged faculty and students to repair the damage. The good news? A few people did.

It's also been the week of pipe bombs mailed to high-profile Democrats. Every day. Wave after wave. 

And a Black man, a Black woman, shot outside a grocery store while a white man is given a pass.

Friday, the KKK came onto our campus and dropped a bunch of their fun flyers, this time including graphics of exactly who is human and who isn't, along with a recruitment offer and contact info for anyone interested.

Today, Pittsburgh. Shabbat services, a baby boy's bris (circumcision), and 11 dead by a hate-filled man with way too much firepower. 

All week I've been coming home wiped out from some bug I've had, and sleeping a lot. 

Today I alternated doing laundry, errands, cleaning out closets. I felt like I had to keep moving. Finally I lay down with Margo and we napped. I'd been awake till 3 a.m. the night before, wondering (among other things) how long it would be before we get targeted, personally. 

Tomorrow evening there will be a gathering at W&L in support of, well, everyone.  I'll go.  I'll go for the students who are hurting, and because I know it will do me good to be with other people. But at the same time, the University always does this - a vigil, a gathering, and then - continues the same bizarre traditions that encourage all kinds of bias and violence.

I've never felt safe holding Margo's hand in town, but since we returned from Provincetown this summer, where we reveled in that luxury, we've tried to keep it up whenever we walk together. As lesbians, as a Jew and an Indigenous woman, I've always felt like we have targets on our backs. I'm thinking about whether or not we'll continue trying that, and find myself shaking my head. 

Here's the really creepy thing I haven't told anyone.  I think I saw those guys, the KKK guys, on campus on Friday. I was walking back from my morning class to Payne Hall, and I saw two men holding plastic baggies with paper inside, walking around Payne. They saw me, and just kept looking up at the roofline and eaves, as if they were studying architecture.  I thought maybe they were contractors, there to do some work. Maybe they were. Maybe they had just found the flyers and were trying to figure out where they came from. The flyers (inside ziploc bags with birdseed, to keep them from blowing away), were distributed during the day, during classes.  I didn't hear about it until I'd been home a few hours. 

Nothing comes without a fight. I know that. Jews, Indians, lgbtq, immigrants.  We don't get to quit just because it's hard. We can't not be who we are -- although the stress has driven many to pass as Christian, white, straight. That path comes with its own burdens. I know.

My Literature of Poverty course spent this week reading Stephen Graham Jones' book Mongrels.  Jones is Blackfeet, and his genre is horror.  Mongrels is an allegorical story about contemporary werewolves, who are Indians, of course.  My students are fascinated. They love peeling away the layers of allegory, explaining "this means this, this stands for that."  Some of it, you'd have to be Indian to understand; some is clear. My Black and Asian students smile when I explain the scene in which the school janitor looks up, gives the narrator and his aunt "the nod." 

Then my students get to the one unmovable fact that they think cannot be unpacked: the fact that the werewolves can pass as human most of the time, but have the ability - sometimes the need - to transform into something inhuman, something hungry, something untamable. Something with super powers of strength, speed, and the power to slash. The students don't know what to do with that information. They are on the werewolves' side, you see. They are Team Werewolf. But they can't abide or come to terms with this core part of werewolf identity.

Most of the time, SGJ's contemporary werewolves only kill humans in self-defence, or because they are starving. Flat-out hunting humans for meat is one of those things they can't do like they did in the old days, the grandpa says. So they hold minimum wage jobs, work under the table, steal social security numbers, live in trailers or their cars, hunt deer and small animals, buy a lot of cheap meat. They move around a lot, because invariably, something goes wrong and they have to flee.  Sometimes there are clashes with law enforcement that don't end well for the officer. Sometimes, a werewolf ends up roadkill on a freeway, or just another naked drifter's remains found in a ditch. 

The narrator, a young werewolf boy who has not yet had his first "transformation," says wouldn't it be easier if people just hung a live chicken from their mailbox once a week, so the werewolves could simply scoop them up and be off, rather than having to hunt down domesticated animals, or people?  Help us out, he thinks, and then we could be who we are without resorting to stealing and violence in the name of self-defense.

"It's like the world wants us to be monsters," he thinks at one point, "like it won't let us live the way normal citizens do."

It's that core identity that can't be changed.  We cannot not be who we are: Werewolves. Indians. Queers.  Jews.  And to be clear, who we are is not a curse.  The curse is those who hunt us, fear us, see us as zombies, monsters, the manifestation of whatever is actually threatening their lives.

We must keep repeating that to ourselves. I am not the curse. I have been trying to believe that for a long time. The pressure of self-loathing becomes real when that is what surrounds us day after day.

What do you do when the thing about yourself that you cannot change is the very thing that the world around you hates?

Go mad, I think.  For many people, madness; or else a permanent state of rage (and that rage is different from righteous anger, the kind "loaded with information and energy" which Audre Lorde highlights as one of our strengths). Or self-hatred.

We always have a choice to choose love, too.

Even a queer Jew-Indian Werewolf.

I send my love to all who hurt tonight, all who mourn, all who feel unsafe, frightened, pushed into that corner. Who you are is not wrong.  Who you are is not a mistake. We are not monsters. 

The monsters in the world are fear, greed, hate.  Sometimes these forces possess the bodies of human beings. What are we to do?

"Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hateonly love can do that." - Martin Luther King, Jr.

I'm going to keep giving love a try.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Fallen




Yesterday I sat on a bench and counted the number of mini rainbow flags torn out of the ground and tossed onto red bricks, ground under foot traffic of students, ignored by passersby. 

I wondered how many of those busy folks might be lesbian, or gay, how many might one day seek their true bodies, how many averted their eyes so as not to be identified.  

Wondered how many of them call themselves compassionate, kind; how many came from homes with a plaque reading, "Do unto others..."

I wondered how many of them might have already kicked a flag over. 

I sat on a bench in late October sun while administrators and faculty walked past, eyes and minds on other important things. 

Light from the sun, I know, boosts serotonin in the brain, feeds the body vitamin D, strengthens bones, heals the skin of eczema, cures jaundice. But all I felt was anger, unfolding like a fall crocus, like a field of fall crocuses whose bulbs were planted years ago and multiply each season, crowded and lovely in their yellow fire. 

I wrote my anger down, sent it out into the world, where many responded with angry faces, but only a few from my own university.

And then, I tucked my anger away into the appropriate corner of my soul, walked home to my wife.

Last night, I dreamt this: not having received an invitation to a party, I planned to sneak in, wearing a disguise. Searching through dozens of drawers and cupboards filled with foundation, scarlet lipsticks, false eye lashes and the paraphernalia of beauty, I imagined how fine and anonymous I would look, but I couldn’t find it and I couldn’t find it and I couldn’t find it: that fat silver tube of privilege, a little dented from use, but still filled with the slick power to transform. 

It was a long dream, but I never put my hand on it, that tube with the designer label in a font called American Typewriter:  “Whiteface.”

Something there is that doesn't love a disguise.


Thursday, October 11, 2018

"Crackerasssuckafool" and the Quotidian Triumph of Walking onto Campus





This week, my colleague Ricardo Wilson's story "Crackerasssuckafool" went up at stirringlit.com.  It's been the talk of the university. Here's my take on it.

I teach at Washington and Lee University, a predominantly white, private institution in Virginia. I was hired in 2004, along with Professor Asali Solomon, to teach literature and creative writing. We were the first people of color in the long history of the English department.  We told each other, "Some days, just walking onto campus is our biggest accomplishment." She dealt with students writing stories about the mammies that raised them. I dealt with students who mostly thought Indigenous Literature was non-existent, or consisted of petroglyphs and treaties. Asali lit out for more colorful territories after 3 years (I still miss her!), and I hung on as the only person of color for 7 long years, until we hired Wan-Chuan Kao as our brilliant medievalist. Then, two years ago, the department had the chance to hire two more professors of color, Ricardo Wilson and Diego Millan. Wow! Having four people of color in the English department is changing our dynamics, and that’s a good thing. It gets people out of their comfort zone, makes us consider our actions and choices, and definitely provides students with the diversity of perspective so desperately needed.

Necessary tangent: "Student Health 101" is a flyer series put out by, you guessed it, student health. It goes up in bathroom stalls around campus on a regular basis, with advice about how to deal with sex, alcohol, eating disorders, study skills, anxiety -- the kind of stuff students deal with on a regular basis. There's a women's bathroom near my office where I see these flyers. Check out the flyer posted in there this week (above). The topic is “How to feel like you belong here” followed by a quote from an “expert” who says, “If you want to stop feeling like an imposter you need to stop thinking like an imposter.” I’ve almost ripped that flyer down, or graffitied it, a dozen times. To me, that’s the kind of “by your bootstraps/I did it, you can do it” propaganda that women and POC have had to listen to forever. How do you stop “thinking” like an imposter when you are either a statistical minority who is ignored or mistreated, or when you are paid less, given less credit, and asked to do ten times as much? How do you stop “thinking” like an imposter when those in power treat you like an imposter? In other words, this is a poorly worded flyer, and the ignorance it shows, the privilege it encourages, is one of those microaggressions that drives me, personally, crazy.

I read Ricardo Wilson's story as a fantasy about what a person of color would do in response to a lifetime of these microaggressions (and macro). Sometimes, the line between sanity and despair is thin. Sometimes, on that thin line, creativity is the saving grace that reminds us we aren’t actually crazy; the world around us is crazy. Creativity allows us to be crazy like a fox, rather than just insane.

To give you a full picture, let me add that this week, the W&L board of trustees voted to do three important things: change the name of Robinson Hall (named for the man who "donated" a large group of enslaved people to W&L, which then used their labor, and later sold them literally down the river to Mississippi) to Chavis Hall, after the first black man to receive a degree here; Lee-Jackson House will also undergo a name change, becoming Simpson House, named after brilliant and beloved Professor Pamela Simpson, first woman to receive tenure at W&L, who passed away a few years ago. Finally, the doors in front of the recumbent statue of R.E. Lee in Lee Chapel will now be closed during student body meetings (up until now, students of color have been forced to look at the statue glorifying a man who both owned enslaved black people and went to war to maintain the laws upholding enslavement, throughout those meetings).

People of color and our allies are happy about those changes. But hey. It's 2018. That's a long time to wait for small changes. And longer still for other, more quotidian, changes in faculty, student body, administrative and trustee make-up. And some will not forgive us our fantasies, even though it is the creativity and hope which allows us to survive. Perhaps "fantasy" is the wrong word, after all. Perhaps "dream," with all of its history, connotations, and hope, is a better choice. And we do not ask to be forgiven for dreaming.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Scars





I know now that I can never go back to my “untraumatized” self. I will never not have scars. 

Perhaps that’s the key to trauma survival – not aiming so much at a cure as adaptation, bearing whatever remains of that trauma, carrying it forward with us, for as long as we live. 

“I want to suggest that we can rethink our relation to scars, including emotional and physical scars," Sara Ahmed writes. She reminds us that we have normalized what a "good" scar is; it is one that is hard to see, preferably invisible; after all, isn't that the goal of a good surgeon? Yet this kind of "good" scar "does not remind us of the wounding."

Ahmed says that as if being reminded of the wounding were a good thing. As if it were a kind of writing, a teaching, that we must pay attention to.  All this time, I've thought that if I could erase my scars, make them invisible to myself and everyone else, that would be "healing." That would be the end of shame, fear and despair.

Nope.

Ahmed continues, "A good scar is one that sticks out, a lumpy sign on the skin.  It’s not that the wound is exposed or that the skin is bleeding.  But the scar is a sign of the injury: a good scar allows healing, it even covers over, but the covering always exposes the injury, reminding us of how it shapes the body ….”

By body, I think she also means identity, spirit, soul, being. How multi-faceted scars are! To simultaneously heal, cover, expose, remind; aren’t these the actions of a teacher?

“This kind of good scar reminds us that recovering from injustice cannot be about covering over injuries, which are effects of that injustice, signs of an unjust contact between our bodies and others," Ahmed insists. I am drawn to that phrase, “unjust contact” – contact we did not want or ask for; contact that is invasive, appropriative, criminal.  Yes, scars do so much work: they remind us that even as we recover from those wounds of unjust contact, we must not forget what caused them, we must remember in order to protect ourselves and others against future wounding.  We are holey beings, stitched together by our scars, by which I mean our experiences, our knowledges, a kind of testimony that is literally written on our bodies.

Carry your scars like witnesses on your skin. Your skin is your witness.


Did I mention how impatient I am with this excruciating process of reading my scars? Did I mention how many times I have limped into therapy swearing that I cannot keep going, do not have the endurance for reawakening pain I have heaped a lifetime of shit on to hide from myself? Did I mention how I go to work utterly ransacked by grief, face a classroom of students with body and soul ragged as an empty sack of promises?

My therapist reminds me that "we make the scars. Wounds are inflicted on us, originally, from outside ourselves - by experiences that traumatize our bodies, brains, spirits. But wounds in and of themselves do not make scars; we construct the scars in order to close up the wounds so we don't keep bleeding."

I sit there, seeing myself covered in a skin made of scars, thin tender skin that shrinks from touch, yet craves the comfort of touch.

"Sometimes," he continues, "those scars that saved our lives ages ago cease being useful. Sometimes, those scars begin to cause more damage, growing excess scar tissue where none is needed, causing problems. Eventually, we may feel safe enough to go back and start removing that excess scar tissue because it's impeding our progress or our ability to move freely, be flexible.  We go back and start pulling a thread ..."

Sometimes, we have to save ourselves from our scars, I whisper.

" ... this can cause memories or even real sensations of the original wounding. Removing the scar, real or metaphorical, is painful, time-consuming, makes you put aside other goals, requires dedication and attention and tenderness towards yourself,” he says softly, “it’s not an easy process. You have to constantly gauge how far you are willing to go vs. how much you might gain from the work. I think you are doing an excellent job making those decisions for yourself. I think you are very brave.”

He tells me a story about massaging a scar with oil, softening it, encouraging it to stretch … I translate this as paying attention to the scar’s edges, its need for touch, acknowledging what it has endured … while at the same time, asking more of it. The scar cannot actually disappear, but it can be coaxed into flexibility so that it won’t tear, or limit movement.

“Maybe …” I say, reaching for the image I can see in my mind’s eye, “… the scar has to be there – We need that scar – it holds us together … but if it becomes too knotty, too complex, too tight, then it holds us back.”

Maybe the danger of letting our scars grow too large is that, instead of bearing our testimony, all we bear is our grief.

Trauma sits there in our bodies, our memories, like a monster, stalking us, jumping out to attack us in unexpected moments.  Trauma doesn’t wait for you to go down to the basement in your nightgown on a dark night; trauma is an intruder.  We do not invite it in to wound us. 

Trauma derails us, makes us more complex beings, perhaps more sensitive to contact; sometimes we cannot bear the tenderest of touches. Other times we cannot get enough touch; nothing and no one can wash away the awful scrawl of violation. Trauma is brutal, unpredictable, unjust, unfair, and completely out of our control.  There is nothing, nothing, about Trauma that we can control.  

But we can make scars to protect ourselves when that is the only defense we have. We can be unashamed of the scars that become a part of who we are, claim them as our unique fingerprint, our own DNA.

We wear our scars as testimony that we have survived, learned, and are not ashamed of telling.

And we can stretch and release those overgrown scars that have knit us into cramped, restricted lives.

I am going to be 58 years old this October. I am a map of scars, a manuscript of scars, a constellation of scars. I am a testimony of scars.  Listen: this is how my body speaks.