We F**king Exist: Seven Writers on Seven Words

(do not erase)

based-                                                          (on the)

-evidence

transgender                          (adults)            (children)

(are)                           vulnerable
(under this regime)

Diversity         (is our)           entitlement.

(Censorship is the)     fetus    (of fascism).

(This statement is)                                          based-

(on the)                       -science
(of history).

~Melissa Benton Barker

*     *     *

Caravaggio: Saint Jerome Writing

When I (Meredith) conceptualized this collaborative essay, I was excited for the Lunch Ticket blog team to seize an opportunity and participate in current critical dialogues. The news about the seven supposedly banned words at the CDC had taken center stage and it seemed that in addition to being relevant to our mission, as writers, we could engage with this topic from a craft perspective. Language is how we understand the world, and in this country, right now, we need to position ourselves as protectors of language.

Note: The word “engage” will appear too many times in this writing. Engage can mean to promise, like to your sweetie; to connect with, participate in or get involved in. To engage is to bring something into position like parts of a machine, gears. We also use “engage” to talk about doing battle; we engage in combat. I asked the blog team at Lunch Ticket to collaborate, to engage with the following seven words: diversity, entitlement, evidence-based, fetus, science-based, transgender, vulnerable. The writers included here­­—Melissa Benton Barker, Shaneka Jones Cook, Tim Cummings, Jordan Nakamura, Jerry Parent, and Nikki San Pedro­­—got involved with, repositioned, and did battle with these words in prose and poetry.

*     *     *

Alt facts set to rule 2018
Who knows wtf they mean?
Titles meant entitlement
CEO, JD, landed gent

~Nikki San Pedro

*     *     *

The issue of the banned words surfaced as I thought deeply about my use of social media and how I allow it to shape my perspective. In a seminar at Antioch University Los Angeles (December 11, 2017), Eula Biss discussed protecting the “vulnerable state of the thinker” during the writing process. Biss doesn’t use social media and prefers to work out her thoughts about language through lengthy writing/thinking processes. As I planned this piece, I worried if my writing might be falling prey to the superficial, trend-driven media blitzing.

Fake news is an evidence-based fact
~Shaneka Jones Cook

Jordan Nakamura posed some questions about when it is best to listen and when to speak. He wanted to make sure I was aware of the layers of complication around the reported banning of the seven words: that they may or may not have been banned, that probably the Trump administration suggested they not be used, or maybe the CDC has been metering its use of those words so as not to incite the administration. Reading Jordan’s email, I felt flushed. Had I fallen into the social media trap? Responded to fake news? Reflecting upon this now, I know that the instinct to react to this news was a desire to protect myself and my communities.

What needs to be said, for this time?
What needs to or would best be left unsaid, for this time?
Whom do I serve?
~Jordan Nakamura

As a Buddhist, I think often about whether something needs to be said and the many ways there are to understand a thing. But that same Buddhist practice urges me to protect the vulnerable and to use language as a tool in that struggle. It is not always clear when to speak and when to listen. Is anyone else afraid that we will listen ourselves right into total silence?

Here is a piece of Jordan’s assessment, sent to me after he had some time to think about it: “Outrage and mobilization against the administration’s anti-intellectualism, misogyny and transphobia are necessary efforts. Real effectiveness seems to only come from improvising in a dedicated relation to reality, to things we know or have every right to believe really happened. It’s true that whatever happened, if this was censorship or self-censorship or strategizing in response to the administration or a shifting toward the administration’s ideals or anything else, those ideals should be met with resistance.”

*     *     *

(Transgender) Blender, splendor, offender.
~Jerry Parent

This week, during one of many holiday gatherings, a good friend asked me: “Do you ever think you are too progressive?” “No way!” I yelled. I have circulated in progressive circles since my teen years and have often felt sort of moderate. My friend was questioning if our allegiance to certain language causes us to shut down dialogues with people who disagree with us. I’ve heard this claim frequently in the space left (but not that far left) of center over the past few years—that we go tit-for-tat about words and pronouns and we shut people down.

The idea that language is used to exclude people has earned a place on the mantle of American culture. We saw it flaunt its ugly head when Trump and his supporters complained about “political correctness.” What I hear in those complaints is this country’s trouble with inclusivity and its vision of itself. I hear old bias surfacing. I hear language fed to people by right-wing politicians to counter neoliberal language (that was itself coopted from movements on the left being reduced to a few angry words). For many, civil rights, Black liberation, feminism, Black feminism, Latinx feminism, multiculturalism, queer organizing, identity politics—the struggles that have existed in my lifetime of forty-one years—merely boiled down to language enforcement.

We never changed our understanding of ourselves as subjects of history. We don’t know how to do this.

(Science-based) Defiance-based
~Jerry Parent

When we decide, compassionately, not to shut someone down, but to explain why we use the language we use, we might have a transformative conversation. At the very least, if both parties engage earnestly, there will be an exchange that leaves a trace. If we are dismissive, we leave a different trace. Sometimes we say nothing because we know the other human is so defensive that they can’t hear.

I have done all three.

While linguists attempt
The impossible
~Jerry Parent

The power of language was epitomized by people’s reaction to Black Lives Matter. The massive reactions to that affirmative statement, those three words, in that order showed where we each stood as Americans. People felt enraged and excluded or powerfully motivated. I was in awe of those words. By affirming that Black lives matter, the fact that our society acts otherwise became immediately apparent. Those words are so simple, so true, yet they require constant defense in our culture.

*     *     *

The big thing on media in the days leading up to Christmas was a supposed feud between Cornel West and Ta-Nehisi Coates. One morning, as I cuddled my phone, I read an article in The Boston Review by Robin D. G. Kelley on the West/Coates issue. Kelley asks us to engage more deeply in the conversation between the two writers rather than to make sport of it. He encourages debate. The word “debate” keeps coming up this week. But debate in our culture often means that I have to debate my right to exist as a queer person and for the right for so many others to exist.

It felt like that on Facebook with my mother’s former coworker, Deb. After the Trump win, Deb engaged in battle with the same slippery weapons used by Donald Trump and his supporters. She stated falsehoods as facts, completely dismissed marginalized populations and progressive social movements and insisted that this year has been “great.” She bragged about having written Paul Ryan in on the ballot. She never entertained the idea that the goal of policy could be that all humans are treated with kindness. She blocked people who did not agree with her and she almost never responded directly to questions. My mother’s friends, my family, and my partner engaged her in “debate” regularly. My mother finally blocked her due to her mean-spiritedness towards our family and friends. One woman lamented that this would be an end to debate. Like my friend had suggested, this commenter thought we were “too progressive.”

What I said to my friend, that night, after switching from wine to whiskey, was that there are some folks with whom I can’t debate because we have no common language. I lied. I just don’t have the energy to get there.

And then you’ve got a lot to say
But better use it carefully
~Tim Cummings

Progressives have lost some of the spirit of debate. Among ourselves we tend to shut one another down when someone uses the wrong word. And we need to work on that. But I want to acknowledge here that it is difficult work when the words are actual signifiers of our existence, like pronouns, like “transgender.” Like the basic idea that marginalized identities need to matter. It feels we are engaging in battle on all sides and perhaps gaining no new territory. Nikki San Pedro’s words ring in my ears:

Trading diversity for adversity
Pity. A gritty city by committee
Neverending fender bender
Engendering transgender return-to-sender
Making a fetus meet us
prior to the treatise

Vulnerable is honorable
Pieces in the rubble
Coming together to weather the whips, the leather
Whether or not science-based

What does it mean for me and my community when the United States Department of Health and Human Services removes the page with support services for LGBT families? It certainly feels like a “neverending fender bender,” or some eternal gridlock when those in power refuse to acknowledge particular identities. How can we budge an inch when you won’t allow us to exist? Sometimes it feels like “dialogue” means I must convince someone that I or other, more marginalized folks, exist.

(Vulnerable) Venerable
~Jerry Parent

When I was fifteen, I had an abortion. A fetus was aborted and evidence shows that I would have struggled more if I had chosen to have that baby because single mothers are more vulnerable. The guy who got me pregnant, got at least two other women pregnant in the span of three years. He might have benefitted from science-based sex education. I wish we had all held him more accountable to use protection. I wish he had placed more value on our bodies.

Oh, Splendor;
You blend and render,
Sweet, white burgundy.
While your manifest-based
Physiology is the same,
Others shout out their defiance-
Based solely in their god
Filled science.

~Jerry Parent

I thought about Eula Biss and the “vulnerable state of the thinker.” If we took more advantage of this, would we have an easier time talking to one another? Would we come to similar conclusions about freedom and simply disagree about how to get there? I need to admit that I am frustrated with the “we have to talk to the other side” approach. Even if it is true, it is so often reduced to a trite mandate, something much less than having to say over and over again, “I fucking exist!” Followed by an eloquent, easy to understand story that perfectly incites the listener into deep compassion. And what if they don’t have any compassion?

*     *     *

Entitlement: Resentment, entrapment; your right to something after you were spent; commitment, bride & lent, tide & bent, side-eye sent. …
~Meredith Arena

*     *     *

In his poem, Jerry Parent rhymed fetus with Cetus. Cetus is the constellation that depicts the Greek Sea Monster who was slain by Perseus before it could kill Andromeda, who had been chained to a rock by her parents to appease a wrathful Poseidon. Poseidon had been enraged at their boastful descriptions of Andromeda’s beauty. Perhaps Cetus can remind us that women—especially poor and working class women, especially brown and black women—are often the victims of wrathful male thinking; of gods we feel we should appease, before we care for the lives right here in front of us.

Jordan writes: “How many times has ‘fetus’ really been a stand-in for a buried discussion on the definition and the limits of humanity, property, power, and what (if any) is the seam between life and choice, and what are the manifold dimensions in between them that explode a binary?”

We often call the Cetus constellation a whale. Whales have a much more sophisticated way of communicating than humans. Their song is in accordance with the physics of water, can travel vast distances. Perhaps this is a fanciful stretch. We know language matters. It is how we view ourselves. Do we know that words belong to us? The way we belong to history. The way we belong to ourselves and each other?

Whether or not science-based
is laughed at in the face
Evidence-based: a disgrace?
Are we misplaced?
Mistimed?
Did we lose the race?

~Nikki San Pedro

 

Contributors:

Meredith Arena, Blog Editor
Melissa Benton Barker, Managing Editor
Shaneka Jones Cook, Interview Team and Guest Blogger
Tim Cummings, YA Assistant Editor and Blogger
Jordan Nakamura, Poetry & Visual Art Assistant Editor and Graphic Design Team
Jerry Parent, Flash Prose Editor and Blogger
Nikki San Pedro, Creative Nonfiction Editor and Blogger

 

Editor’s note: 

Dear Lunch Ticket Readers,

We publish original essays each Friday. Occasionally we bring you a collaboration, like in the aftermath of the 2017 election, in which former blog editor Mary Birnbaum wrote: “What we have always known is more true than ever: that there is no single story. … Writing, like all communication, is a way forward. So we proceed together. One word after another. After another. After another.” It is in that spirit that we publish this collaborative piece today. As the journal welcomes a new editor and staff for 2018, this is the final piece I will proudly publish here. I’m thrilled to share the voices of these writers and activists with you one more time as we find our way forward, together.

~Katelyn Keating, Editor in Chief of Issues 11 & 12

John Chang,Untitled_1, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 60x60x2 in

Spotlight: Untitled Mixed Media Portfolio

I was born and raised in Shanghai. By the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping initiated a more open-door policy, but I still had a deep desire to experience America as well as Western culture. Immigrating to Boston to study art in graduate school, I discovered a more complex society than I had imagined. Longing for a democratic system, I wasn’t prepared for the magnitude of consumption […]

Phantom

The radiology department lies deep in a basement of the Chao Cancer Center in Orange County. A nurse told me to arrive two hours early for my CAT Scan, so that I would have time to drink a liter of contrast, one cupful at a time. Once imbibed, the liquid would make my insides vivid and luminescent, so that when my body passed through the ring of the scan, I would be converted into light. A cylinder called a Phantom would revolve around me as I moved through that space. There is a Head Phantom and a Body Phantom.

Photo Credit: Mary Birnbaum

I’ve had night sweats for years, which are an odd symptom in that they can indicate a benign problem like “too many blankets,” but also Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I’ve had hormone panels done; I am not premenopausal. I’ve had biopsies and blood tests to rule out various other cancers and diseases. So now, through the CAT scan, a doctor would look for cancer in my neon lymphocytes. Where I entered the hospital fortress, a large banner proclaimed the Chao Center was proudly ANTI-CANCER, which alarmed me because I had really hoped that would go without saying.

Once I’d checked in, a nurse brought out a bottle of clear liquid so large that she had to pass it over with both hands. She gave me the drinking instructions, saying that I could stay in the waiting room or leave, they just needed me back in two hours. I received the bottle and cup and for about five seconds considered spending the next two hours in that basement. I took the elevator up to the main lobby and exited the building, back into the light of an astonishingly fine day. Doctors and nurses bustled around the grassy quad. The tails of their coats fluttered in the breeze. Birds swooped through air; the sky was full of their coo and call. At my feet, the sun made shaky lace of the tree shadows.

In the shadow of the building I took a picture of myself with the huge bottle of contrast. I had a heady, silly feeling. My chest was full of un-expelled laughter.  The amount of suspicious liquid I was meant to drink and the beauty of the day, the strangers around me in varying stages of living and dying, mostly dying. The clouds and trees and the towering hospital in Maxfield Parrish light. Everything was ridiculous, everything was precious. I would be very sad to die.

In general I don’t have a good sense of how to address God, on a one-to-one basis, but earlier that morning, desperate and dizzy with fear, I’d texted my friend Emily, who has a special relationship with Jesus. I’d said “Can I prevail on your relationship with the big guy? I have to get a CT scan and I’m scared.” Mere seconds passed before I got a text back. She said, “Thank you for letting me know. Tell me your fears. Write them all down.”

This made me cry for two reasons. First, I was relieved to say my fear. The second reason was gratitude that I had a friend who could respond in such a way.

So I texted, “I don’t want to die and orphan my kids.”

“Haha,” I added. This is how bad I am at being solemn. This is why I rely on a religious surrogate.

I said, “I’m scared of the machine and the radiation and the poison I have to drink.”

“What else?” she said.

“I’m scared of my body dying too soon.”

“Yeah,” she said. “The unknown. All those things are unknowns. Unknowns are really hard, Mary. What are the knowns? What do we know?”

I said, “I think there are no knowns, except for being afraid.” And then because I wanted to stop crying, I said “We’re starting to sound like Donald Rumsfeld.”

She said she thought that was funny. Then she said that if I died she’d write a beautiful story about me, but that she would be the hero of the story. And I thought that was funny. Then she said, “Okay, I’m going to write you a prayer.” And she did, and sent it to me, and in her prayer, which was a long stream of words, I felt her holding my whole life. So I sunk down onto my kitchen floor and cried again.

*     *     *

Photo Credit: Mary Birnbaum

At the Cancer Center, not knowing what else to do, I tucked the contrast under my arm and crossed the street away from the hospital into the adjacent outlet mall. I walked around there for a while, drinking the liquid by the suggested increments. It occurred to me that, disheveled as I tend to be, in my hospital bracelet, chugging clear liquid from a handle, I resembled nothing so much as a mental patient on the lam. But I was adequately bloated by contrast when I returned to radiology for my scan. I lay on a table and I passed through the ring. The Phantom’s cylinder gyrated over me. It was very quick. The nurses were kind. I could expect results from my hematologist the following week.

That night, my husband went to a basketball game in a taxi. We live close to the arena. I baked cookies. I made three kinds and many batches. My daughters watched a movie. Afterward I put them to bed. I continued loading and unloading trays of cookies from the oven until about 9 p.m., at which point I put myself to bed.

At 2:30 a.m. I got up to pee and saw my husband was not in bed with me. On the way to the bathroom I checked the living room, where I expected to find him snoring in an armchair. He wasn’t. Sometimes if one of the children wakes up from a nightmare he will go in to comfort them and end up nodding off beside them. He wasn’t in the girls’ room. I checked my phone and saw a text from 11:30 p.m.—three hours earlier—saying that he was on his way home.

I called him several times, each time getting voicemail. I left a message asking where he was. I tried texting, but received no reply. I went to my laptop in the dining room and tried to log into his bank account to see where he last used his card, but couldn’t remember the password. We have separate checking accounts. I got the tax paperwork out to find his social security number so that I could break into his account by changing the password, but I was missing some additional security answer. I walked the circle from the dark dining room to the lit kitchen to the dark living room. From the dark, into the light, back to dark. On I walked and after a while the phone rang. I said “Hello?” I heard my husband’s voice, but he formed no words, only gibberish. “Where are you?” I said. He returned with more nonsense. Relief that he yet lived morphed quickly into rage. “Where are you?” The call ended.

For several minutes I tried calling him back. I didn’t know what else to do. I wondered whether I should call the police. Or his mom. Then the phone rang, bright and startling. The voice on the line said he was from the Orange County Sheriff’s department and asked if I was married to ____. I conceded that I was. He said that he’d found my husband in a gutter and that he seemed pretty intoxicated and didn’t know where he was. I asked where they were and the sheriff named a street I didn’t recognize. He said he didn’t really want to take my husband to the station and asked whether I could come there if I was given an address. I replied that I could whilst shoving my feet into flip flops and groping around for car keys. I entered the address into my phone and discovered that my husband was in a gutter just three blocks away. So I could leave the kids asleep in their beds while I retrieved him.

There is a sort of comical context for this situation, which is that for about thirteen years, maybe from the moment I started to date him, I had been telling my husband that I knew some day someone would call and say they’d found him in a gutter. A literal gutter. Maybe these are the ways we find out that God is listening.

I drove to the address that the Sheriff had given. On the way I thought, we are being given this chance because ____ is white. I also thought, this is the beginning or the end.

I reached him in under a minute. The street was a discotheque of cruiser lights. Three giant policemen stood with arms folded, leaning on their cars. My spouse sat at their feet. One of the gigantic cops took my information and asked if I would be able to care for my husband at home, since he seemed “pretty out of it.” I said I would. I didn’t say, “He’s a pretty docile drunk.” I didn’t say, my husband loves me and he loves our kids and he loves booze. He loves us all desperately, in a kind of self-erosion.

When we got home he refused to get out of the car and looked like he would curl up to sleep, so I left him in the driveway and went into my children’s room. I curled into bed next to my five-year-old daughter. And as I lay there, willing my body into unconsciousness, feeling ill from everything, but in particular all the contrast still in my system and the fact that my husband was pickling in a tiny Prius outside, I felt a sudden warm gush around my body’s edges. My daughter was peeing on us, rather torrentially.

When I told my husband I thought I was sick, he said “Every two years you think you’re dying.” I told him he was wrong, but I did not say he was wrong because really I’ve thought I was dying every day.

*     *     *

The next day Emily texted me to check in. She asked how I was holding up. I said fine, the CT scan was quick and painless. She asked if I had any super powers yet. I said no, haha, but guess what did happen. I told her about ____ and the cops. She said she guessed she forgot to pray that ____ wouldn’t wind up in the gutter.

The following week I returned to the Chao Center. My hematologist told me there is no intrathoracic neoplastic or infectious process; I don’t have any lymphoma. I wanted to write about it, about the relief or the lingering question of my body, but I was stuck. My giddy fear in the CT scan, the stress of collecting my spouse from the cops, these were unpleasant, especially as experienced within a twelve-hour span, but a spate of shitty events does not an essay make. Yet I couldn’t avoid that the miserable weekend felt like a closed event, a complete picture. I went around and around about it but didn’t know how to lay it down.

I formed a little answer, not precisely a known known, but I think it approaches truth. And like most of what makes sense here, it comes from Emily. While I was waiting to have my scan I sent her a picture of ____ being absurd, preening in a Disney necklace. I meant it to poke fun of him. She said, “You love your life and maybe you don’t know that yet. You adore it.”

I think it’s possible I fabricate illness and go to the doctor as a way of creating and controlling chaos. I love my spouse but like most drunks, he will not be managed or convinced, so instead I convince myself I’m sick and I go to the doctor over and over. For years, for an astonishing array of maladies, I go to be tested and controlled. I present my body on clinic tables, asking that doctors to solve my Self. I check myself in and out, trying to save our lives. Still, he drinks and drinks.

I requested that a copy of my scans be sent to my house, and when they arrived I looked at the images, enthralled by my unknown forms—the lit tree of veiny lungs, the darkness of huddled organs, the brightness of bone—everything suspended there by God or cascade of chance. Sicknesses erode us, invisible though they may be. Beautiful and breakable, a body is a ridiculous thing.

Emily says that when I texted her she sank to her knees and started to pray, which seems dramatic, but I know she did because in my mind I can vividly imagine it. I can almost feel my own knees touch Earth, like I am in her body, caring for me. I feel us say, Mercy. Mercy.

 

Mary Birnbaum is the editor of the Diana Woods Memorial Award in creative nonfiction. She has served as Lunch Ticket blog editor and on the Gabo Prize and translation teams. She earned an MFA in creative nonfiction from Antioch University Los Angeles. She resides in San Diego, California. You can find her on Twitter @ailishbirnbaum

Normal Behavior

I had forgotten how completely ubiquitous sexual harassment was in my youth. So common place on the streets and transport systems in a city like New York that young girls and women took it in their stride, assuming the abuse to be the price paid for a sense of autonomy, for the freedom of movement. But were we free? Are we free in the ways that Americans think of themselves as free? Or were we simply absorbing sexually aggressive behavior as normal.

When I could, I stood up for myself in public spaces, often responding with rudeness. I’d shout in a crowded subway car, where an assailant hoped he was being discreetly repugnant—hey, nobody wants to see your dick—my assailant moving along as quickly as possible, leaving nearby commuters to wonder what had just happened. I was lucky. But under certain circumstances, I simply froze. Again I was lucky.

The sense that sexual aggression was or is normal took root early in my psyche. As a child, I witnessed the harassment, cat calls and leers, endured by my mother while she negotiated  the streets, her children in tow. We never spoke of it, of how it made her feel, but I believe this is when I began to absorb the idea that power-based shaming behavior was normal.

*      *     *

In Sherman Alexie’s new memoir You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me, he writes of the prevalence of sexual assault on the Indian Reservation of his childhood. He speaks of generations of degradation, writing that the abused often become the abusers.

I mention Alexie because of the horrific allegation of sexual aggression currently tearing through media, entertainment and politics. I can only imagine the depth of crime perpetrated against the most vulnerable, those who exist within the darkest corners of American society. If elite women in media are not safe in their workplaces and if major Hollywood starlets are not safe, what help is there for the housekeeper, the factory and hospitality worker, the farm laborer or a young woman making her way in public housing?

Here are some of my recollections.

I began music lessons early, moving quickly from recorder to viola between the third and fourth grades. My very first music teacher, Mr. Rosen, was my Maestro. He was dedicated to teaching children. At St. Marks Lutheran Church in Bushwick, I took piano lessons from Mr. Mineri, the organist and choir director. These two men set the standard for teacher student interaction during my childhood. I was safe in their presence and I learned my lessons. Mr. Rosen’s—repetition, repetition, repetition—is an ethos I follow to this day when attempting to master a skill.

As I grew into early adolescence there were other music teachers. A young male college student came to our home during my teens. Tall and studious, I studied piano with him through junior high and into high school. Later, during my freshman year in college one of my professors taught private lessons on the side. I visited his New York apartment. I worked on Chopin Études and Bach Inventions. He, like the others, was a caring nurturing teacher. Because of the examples set by these men I developed certain expectations, and thought nothing of following up on an ad in the Village Voice that read Jazz Piano Lessons with Professional Jazz Pianist.

It was the seventies and I had just started attending Hunter College, part of CUNY, the sprawling City University of New York system. Already in the Hunter madrigal choir, I began singing standards with the college’s jazz ensemble. I knew little of jazz chording and wanted to learn, so I called the teacher. I was nineteen or twenty. Used to dodging trouble on the streets, working in a dress shop on Lexington Avenue and paying for my own piano lessons. I didn’t tell anyone I was going. I had nothing to fear.

The first lesson went well. My new teacher taught me the circle of fifths, a new concept for me. I left excited and practiced all week. During the second lesson however, as we sat side by side on the piano bench, my music teacher’s hands began to move up my thighs and over my body. I froze, the behavior not computing in my nervous system. I stopped playing as my shoulders and back stiffened, as my jaw tightened. My music teacher stopped as well. Perhaps he noticed my shock and confusion. Whatever he noticed it caused him to remove his hands.

I didn’t look at him. I don’t know why I didn’t look at him, why I found myself suddenly mute. I thought I knew what to expect when in the presence of a music teacher and I was taught to be respectful and polite to authority figures. My nervous system tried to make sense of what had just happened. For a few seconds, as my stomach churned I sat, confused. Hadn’t I met his big tabby cat? Didn’t he tell me that he shared this sprawling West Village apartment with his wife who was at work? It was the middle of a work day. And I was in the apartment of my new music teacher.

I closed my music book on the circle of fifths and jazz chording and said—I have to go. I remember holding the music book close to my chest as I grabbed for my bag beside the piano. He said—alright—and stood up. He walked me to the door. I remember looking down. I believe I whispered—thank you. I still could not look at him. Was I feeling shame? This was not some random guy on the street or a boy from my neighborhood. This was an older man. This was my music teacher.

As he opened the door to his apartment, I stepped over the threshold into the hallway. I still could not look at him. Did I say goodbye? Did he? I don’t recall. My music teacher closed the door behind me and I never took another jazz piano lesson.

*     *     *

In a November interview the feminist writer bell hooks states that the roots of male aggression can be found in their childhood experiences, that the primary form of child abuse is shaming and that she would not be surprised to learn that men like Harvey Weinstein were abused as children.

Hooks reminds us that sexual aggression is so normalized the only real solution is to address its ubiquity within the family structure. She states the problem and its remedy can be found in “how we parent children.”

*     *     *

During high school my friends and I travelled in packs. And though the underground transit system could be a dangerous place, ripe with opportunities for sexual predation, there was always safety in numbers. It was my college years (the off hours, part time jobs and changeable class schedules) that led to my being on the streets, underground and alone among the crowds with ever increasing frequency. I enjoyed a growing sense of autonomy, comfortable in my status as a free American girl, confident in the knowledge that New York was my city, and that I could come and go as I pleased. This is a privilege women in many parts of the world still lack.

Unaware of my privileged status I began to cultivate a veneer of toughness: keeping my eyes straight ahead, refusing to acknowledge the presence of a man unless his unwanted attention forced me to. I began to notice where a man kept his hands in relation to his garments, in relation to me.

There was a neighborhood man, tall and lanky, who ran, as I did. I knew him, I liked him. We talked sometimes. And sometimes we ran together. But often while on the track he sped up, out running me. When that happened, he slapped my butt each time he passed by. This didn’t happen every day. I didn’t see him every day. But when our schedules aligned he would come up behind me, slap me across my buttocks and keep going. Whenever I asked him to stop he chuckled and said—Hey, I’m a man. It was a clear sense of entitlement to him and it got to a point where if I saw him I learned to run on the street or stop for the day. It made me angry but I felt powerless to change his behavior so I altered my own.

There is something about culturally systemic behavior that we absorb and accept. During the years in which I came of age, phrases like—men are men—and—hey, I’m a man—were commonplace. I suppose they still are.

Once after finishing a run I entered the lobby of the building within the housing project where I lived. I was greeted by a young man dressed as a housing groundskeeper. He announced that due to a smoke condition, the elevator was unavailable and that I should use the stairs. I saw and smelled the smoke so I took the stairs.

Living on the twelfth floor I used the stairs often. I wasn’t afraid. I lived in the building. At about the sixth floor I heard the door downstairs close. By the time I reached the tenth or eleventh floor the same young man from downstairs was standing behind me. He cornered me, pushed me up against the wall and asked for a kiss. Winded, my reaction was anger and I began to scream bloody murder. He froze. I kept screaming and probably cursing. He, now startled by my reaction, ran off. I ran all the way to my family’s apartment crying.

It was after eight a.m. With my younger sisters in school and my mother at work, there was no one to tell. Showered and changed I walked directly to the Housing Police station in order to report the incident. I remember that I was wearing a skirt, a white tee shirt and sandals. The police officer suggested that we take a ride around the neighborhood in the patrol car to see if we could find the guy. When I reached for the back door of the patrol car the officer said—you can sit up front. So I did. I sat in the passenger seat in the front of the patrol car. Again, I had no reason to fear. He was a cop. Older, friendly. We drove around. We couldn’t find the guy, but at some point, the officer’s hand was on my thigh, squeezing it. Again I froze.

It’s funny, that freeze. It’s the nervous system going wacky. For a few seconds, nothing computes. You think you’re in a safe place, that the person you’re with is there to protect you, not violate you, so the body simply doesn’t know how to handle the information it’s receiving. The physical response, the freeze, is a shock of sorts.

I say I was lucky because each time I was confronted by unwanted attention, I was either able to get away or somehow give off a signal that the attention was unwanted, inappropriate. The aggression I experienced, though opportunistic, was in its way exploratory. It was as if each man was testing the waters, seeing how far he could go. I was lucky.

I’ve never been raped, but I know women who have and I can only imagine how the quiet shame of being so violated must last a lifetime. But the persistent, omnipresent occurrence of the uninvited touch, boundary crossing leer and crude remark… that I know about. I know what it’s like, to live with frequent sexual harassment. Most American women know. It is normal behavior. YES it is.

The police officer, clocking my reaction, said nothing. He simply pulled over and stopped the patrol car. I got out. He drove off and the original assailant was never seen again. I never reported the cop. I never mentioned the incident. I had learned to shrug it off as normal.

*      *     *

No longer that woman who gets hit on in the street, I think about the prevalence of the harassment I withstood and how it affected my younger self. It made me cautious, my inner antennae always active. Though the actual physical and verbal assaults have receded into the past, it is because of recent events that I have begun to recall my own experiences—the lewd comments, frisky hands, and exposed penises in crowded subway cars meant for my eyes only. The behavior inspired different emotions in me, sometimes fear, sometimes shame, sometimes anger and defiance.

In the wake of Harvey Weinstein and subsequent revelations, and with an admitted sexual predator in the White House, I can’t help but be reminded of my own past experiences and I know in my gut that this behavior is accepted as normal.

Some men feel entitled to comment and leer, grope or worse. Other men’s daughters, wives, sisters and mothers are fair game because running through our culture is an unspoken view that women are on the planet to serve the needs of men, for the pleasure of men. The behavior this view encourages, ranging from unwanted verbal attention to violent assault, is omnipresent.

Perhaps the only respite is aging out. Donning that “cloak of invisibility” earned with advancing birthdays as suggested by Katelyn Keating in her essay Not Fade Away. However, I believe sexual harassment—like racism—is about power, a power dynamic that is learned while young, a learned phenomenon that can also be unlearned. It’s time to change the culture.

*      *     *

A favorite activity during my high school and college years was attending the New York Auto Show. It was fun for the young bridge and tunnel crowd, sitting behind the wheels of cars we would never own but dreaming our big dreams all the same. Promotional giveaways were common—buttons, caps, mugs etc. This time there was a large vat filled with rolled posters of some luxury product I currently can’t recall. I remember converging on that vat with my friends, reaching one arm into the large container and grabbing a poster for myself while feeling a hand squeeze my rear end. I didn’t freeze. This time I kept my wits about me. But I didn’t turn around. While the unknown person enjoyed himself (I assume it was a he), I took my free hand and placed it on top of his and before he could pull it away I dug my thumb nail into the top of the hand while holding on as long as I could. As my unknown assailant struggled to pull free, I dug that thumb nail into his hand as hard as I could. Finally, he broke free. I didn’t turn around. I have no idea who my assailant was. But I have never forgotten the feeling of satisfaction.

 

Angela BullockAngela Bullock is an actor/writer with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Antioch University LA. She has been published in Annotation Nation and Lunch Ticket.

 

À La Carte: To All the Daughters

[creative nonfiction]

To My Daughter, and All the Daughters,

This is the letter I should have gotten from my mother, and that she should have gotten from her mother, and that should have been passed down through the ages like baking cloths, or photo albums, or funeral cards. It is the letter that tells you, young beauty, how miraculous your body is, and how you were built for gratification and yearning.

Do not shame yourself into thinking that purity comes from abstention, or goodness from depravity. Your body harbors a lava core, fluid and burning, that hungers for touch, release, and all the pleasure your days can hold. Yes, you were made to bloom babies, angled soft and wide to be a vessel for life. But you were also molded for indulgence, to allow yourself to climb pinnacle after pinnacle and savor the sweet, golden taste of your own flesh as it shivers and shakes with glee.

Since you were little you have been bombarded by images of clean, crisp women in ball gowns or dresses waiting for the moment when a man would recognize her beauty and choose her. Well, soft heart, I am here to tell you that you are the one you are waiting for. You don’t need the dress, or the heels, or the coiffed hair. But if you want them, wear them big and bold. Own your lavish spectacle. Wear whatever the fuck you want. Be clean, or get dirty. Just know that they are merely a window dressing and have no bearing on your soul.

Everywhere you look, women are expected to swim in duality, Madonna in light and Eve when dusk. I am here to tell you that Eve does not need to be hidden. She needs to blow the doors off the hinges and walk proudly into day. Eve is your sister, your guide, the bitch who will whisper in your ear that you don’t need to take that shit from anyone. She’s the one who won’t fake an orgasm to give someone else the satisfaction denied her. She’s the one who pushes you from behind when you don’t know how to step forward to get what you want.

Let’s have the conversation we don’t have out loud: let’s talk about how beautiful and sacred sex is to who we are, how its bewitching magic keeps us in touch with our inner pulse and heartbeat. How orgasms are not just a release, but a way for our body to feel in tune with everything else around it. How a good fuck can cleanse the palate and soul, and put us back in proximity with our inner goddess. And yes, I said FUCK because sometimes making love is not an option we want nor need to have. We are just as capable of enjoying pleasure for pleasure’s sake, and more than capable, it should be our inheritance.

What does all this mean? It means you should feel free to do any and everything and whoever you choose. It means that you should be just as concerned about how happy your pussy feels as you are that your lipstick is smeared, or that your hair has strayed. Open yourself up to everything that you want. Don’t be afraid to be the one to initiate. Talk to the cute guy or girl in the bar or library. Ask him or her out, take him or her home, fuck him or her in the backseat of his or her Ford Prius in a public place. It is your domain, your body, and you need to own that shit.

And while we’re on the subject, your sexuality is yours to own. Him, her, he, she, non-binary, whatever works for you is the only thing you need to concern yourself with. Yes, people may judge you, they may even turn their back because your experience is outside the realm of their own comfort zone. With as strong a mother voice as I can muster, I say FUCK THAT NOISE. There is no requirement that when you enter this world that you must make anyone but yourself happy. The peace and contentment of others has nothing to do with your desire and love. Do something for me: sit still. Close your eyes. Breathe in deep through your nose and exhale loudly. Put your hand on your heart, and say this as much as you need to: I am, and I will, always be enough. I am, and I will, always be enough. I am, and I will, always be enough.

With sex, there is no limit to what you can yearn to experience. Go for it all: crack open your body, lie back, and let it be flooded with whatever you desire. Experience hands exploring every inch of your soft, graceful flesh. Allow tongues to wander fiercely across your hills and mounds. Don’t be shy. Put a hand here, then there, then in the places you’re afraid to name because you’ve been drilled that good girls don’t “do that.” Except the best girls do, and they do it better than anyone. They tease, tantalize, and let their fantasies evolve to realities.

You have this one body in this one life. It should feel spectacular, floating, dangerously divine. Yes, this can all be accomplished through love, with a solid partner, and monogamy as the hallmark. But it is my job to say that there is no contract that says you must seek a mate, or marry, or be committed to revel in pleasures of the flesh. Rather, it is up to you, and only you, to decide what you want, where you want it, how you want it, and with whom. Just go get it.

I am telling you this because your body is not a pillar of shame but a statue of perfection. You have every right to feel good, get fucked, and be satisfied in every aspect of your being. Feeling good is the new black. So, wear it proud it and loud. There can be no indignity in anything that was created to make our bodies melt into puddles of ecstatic joy.

Get yours, and get it good.

Love,
Mom

 

By day, Holly Baldwin is a hospital lactation consultant and childbirth advocate who lives in the endless desert of Santa Fe, NM, with her four phenomenal children. At night, and other stolen moments, she is an MFA writing candidate at Spalding University, where her passions include screenwriting, playwriting, and creative nonfiction with a focus on the struggles and triumphs of women. She unabashedly claims the title of Unapologetic Badass and blogs her feminist and single parenting reflections at hollybaldwin.weebly.com.

Litdish: Dana Johnson, Author

Dana Johnson is the writer of the short story collections Break Any Woman Down and In the Not Quite Dark, and the coming-of-age novel Elsewhere, California, which was nominated for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. She is an Associate Professor at the University of Southern California, and her work has appeared in The Iowa Review, Callaloo, and The Paris Review, among others. I sat down with Dana on August 23, 2017 in Downtown Los Angeles where we talked about her novel, identity and race, and teaching the craft of writing. The following is an excerpt from our conversation.

Lily Caraballo: I read Elsewhere, California for the interview. And I looked at your books, too, and I noticed the main character, Avery. You also did a couple of short stories focusing on her in Break Any Woman Down. My question is, what drew you to continue following Avery from short stories to a full-length novel?

Dana Johnson: Break Any Woman Down had Avery when she was little, like in fifth grade or something. That opened the collection and then the last story was Avery when she was much older, I guess mid-thirties or something. So we saw her when she was young and we saw her closer to middle age, and I… want to get in the middle, like connect the childhood to the adulthood and somehow… construct her story and talk more thoroughly or deeply about race in America, assimilation, class. There are all these issues that I wanted to get at that informed Avery’s identity, and so two short stories didn’t seem to be enough.

LC: I was reading, and I remember there were moments when I was getting angry for some reason because I didn’t like what I was seeing.

DJ: At Avery? Because some people were annoyed at her, too.

LC: It was more like… the change in the way she spoke, her dialect, and that angered me, and I didn’t know why, that was the weird thing. And as I was going on, I kept on thinking, “You know, I think I might have been in this situation too,” where I was told to speak properly.

DJ: Well, that’s what I wanted to discuss, because that’s assimilation in America. If you are a black person of a certain place and you move to another place that’s predominantly white, and you’re young, there’s inevitably some kind of… shift of you trying to blend in with the dominant culture.

LC: That also leads into another question. I felt like, especially later on in the novel, I noticed that, it just felt like… growing up, everyone—her friend and her neighbor—they’re telling her how to act, how to dress. And then around college, her father’s telling her that she needs to get a business degree… and there’s this pressure put on her to get the degree, and then when she got an arts degree, her family… didn’t feel that she actually succeeded. They looked at her, sort of like with blame or something. And it just came to me that, as a black woman, we get all these expectations put on us from everywhere. Do you feel that this is something black women face?

You have to figure out who you’re going to be, and I think when you have other layers like gender and race, in addition to all of that stuff, it becomes for some people even more complicated. Racially, what am I supposed to be, what’s authentically black?

DJ: Well, I think… it’s a struggle that everyone is going to have in their lives at some point, no matter male, woman, whatever race. You have to figure out who you’re going to be, and I think when you have other layers like gender and race, in addition to all of that stuff, it becomes for some people even more complicated. Racially, what am I supposed to be, what’s authentically black? As a woman, how am I supposed to be, am I supposed to be some sort of traditional person? What is my place, how do I identify as a woman with other women? There’s so many things.

LC: And it seems to pile up. The expectations, they do seem to pile up if you’re part of a marginalized community. If you’re a woman, you have the expectation to act like a proper woman, but if you’re gay or a person of color… it just starts adding up.

DJ: Absolutely, absolutely. And I think too—much like Avery, I come from a working class family and no one in my family ever did anything that was… traditionally artistic? I mean, I would argue that I’m sure there are many folks in my family who are artistic in other ways, but someone declaring that they wanna be a writer is just a weird thing. So…they’re proud of me now, but at the time there was this attitude of “Don’t you wanna make money?” [laughs].

LC: I’ve had that attitude with my dad’s side of the family. When I told them what I wanted to be, they’re like, “Okay, so what are you gonna do for money?” I always found that off-putting. But my mother’s side of the family, they’ve always been supportive of that fact… My mom, she encouraged both my brother and I to do the things we [liked]. She noticed I was good at drawing and writing, so she pushed that for me. My brother, he loved computer games and he was good with computers, so she pushed him towards that.

DJ: So she saw what your interests were and encouraged them.

LC: And… her parents weren’t like that. My uncle… he was good at drawing, too, and he brought it home to show it to my grandfather and he tore the picture up into pieces.

DJ: Oh my God.

LC: And my mom said that created this rift between her brothers and her father, because he wanted them to grow up… to what they’re not right now, if that makes any sense?

DJ: It’s funny because my dad’s side of the family, they’re these brilliant musicians and singers. I once asked my dad, “If you weren’t a social worker, what would you have wanted to be?” and he said he wanted to be a songwriter. So there’s all this creativity, nevertheless, in my family, but there was this unease, and… concern about actually pursuing something like writing very seriously.

LC: You mentioned that you and Avery share some similarities. Your experiences seem like a source of inspiration for the novel. Is that connected to why you came back to Avery as well?

DJ: For a lot of writers, their first novels are bildungsromans, stories of coming of age… so, yeah, the stories and the novel were inspired by my experiences growing up. But both the novel and the stories are fiction, so there’s always emotional truths and perhaps situations that occurred, but I still had to construct a story that had an arc. And that’s what I had to do with Elsewhere, and I had fun with Elsewhere. I had several things that I was doing: I was changing Avery’s voice, and then the structure was one day in her life in contrast to her coming of age. So there’s one day in her life, but the rest of that’s interspersed with fifth grade, sixth grade, high school, whatever.

LC: The book seems to not only be about Avery navigating her identity, but also about California itself. The diversity in LA seems more complex than I thought it was when I moved here. Would you say that California is searching for its own identity?

DJ: I don’t think California is searching for its own identity; it has its own identity, and it’s complex, that’s what I would say. And that complexity never seems to be revealed or discussed or illustrated or documented in a way that completely satisfies the question of what is California… so that’s what I would say.

LC: One of the fears that I have, personally when I’m writing, [is that] I’m going to be expected to talk about race and how it affects me. And I feel that’s something we have to talk about, but I also don’t want to get pigeon-holed into that… do you ever get moments of that when you write?

…I just write what I want to write. But I do think ethnic writers that don’t necessarily write about their ethnicity or their blackness or whatever it is, do have a harder time getting recognition for what they’re writing, because writing about blackness if you’re black is what people want to see.

DJ: Oh, absolutely. There’s always this sort of expectation as an African-American woman writer that I’ll write about certain things. Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t, I just write what I want to write. But I do think ethnic writers that don’t necessarily write about their ethnicity or their blackness or whatever it is, do have a harder time getting recognition for what they’re writing, because writing about blackness if you’re black is what people want to see. I just write what I want. My first short story collection is nine stories, a lot of them were about black folks but one was about this white punk rocker… I just wrote what I wanted to write. I wanted to write about humans. That’s what I did and that’s what I do.

LC: You’re a professor at USC. What do you hope that your students take away from your classes?

DJ: I really want my students to think about what is important to them. Why do they need to write? That’s the main thing. Lot of times, I get stories that are vague—someone goes to the movies, runs into Joe, and then other vagueness ensues… and I want them always to be thinking, “What’s at stake in your life, before you die, that you think is important to write about?” Think about that. Why are you even doing this? What stories do you need to tell? That’s the main thing that I’m hoping to teach them. And also basic craft stuff. People are always saying, “You can’t teach writing, you can’t teach someone how to be a writer.” You probably can’t, but you can teach them… craft things like anything else, in any other art form, or job or certain things one does, and if one does them well, you might turn into a good writer.

LC: What would you most like your writing to accomplish for your readers, and what would you like them to walk away with after experiencing your work?

DJ: I think it’s what every writer wants, which is the reader before reading what I wrote hadn’t thought about this particular thing either at all or in this other way. Just a kind of… opening of the mind, or at least providing questions, not even answers. My job isn’t to answer any questions, it’s just sometimes to cause the question to be formed while someone’s reading like, “What is that? What is she talking about? Why am I angry while reading this?” I just want people to be struck in some kind of way.

 

Lily Caraballo is an MFA candidate in the Creative Writing Program at Antioch University Los Angeles. She works as a contributing writer for Black Girl Nerds and as a figure model for art classes in her spare time. Her work is expected to appear in the upcoming anthology My Body, My Words, which will be published next spring. She lives in Los Angeles.