I feel I haven’t even made it to adulthood, let alone nearing menopause. My outer woman struggles to have a purpose, but inside I have never felt more capable. I’m panicked. I feel trapped in my body.
Like any young teenager, I was passionate about the things I loved and the things I hated. What I loved were my pets, which came in all varieties (dogs, cats, ducks, guinea pigs, birds), my funny storybooks that featured dorky kids like me (too tall, clumsy, self-conscious), and my writing, especially the comical stories I composed with my best friend Izzi (which we crammed full of wordplay) […]
I have never felt like I belonged to a group of people. As a kid, I spent half my time with the white kids and the other half with the Asian kids. And through it all, I never felt like I truly fit. […]
What I came to see was that all my prayers are answered. Every time. I don’t always hear it, and I’m not always willing to do what I feel directed to, but that Love is always present…
Last week I was scrolling through Instagram and saw an image of a boxy apartment building on the corner of Greenwich and Laguna in San Francisco describing it as having a “pop-up book feel” and I felt instantly drawn to it. It led me to the account Hood Century – a page devoted to images of mid-century design from the “hood” in cities all over America.
What I experience goes beyond merely seeking excellence and having high standards. I compare myself to others and become easily discouraged when I can’t match their success. Individual events and conversations haunt me for days, and I ruminate on what was said, playing out alternate scenarios until I’m so upset my heart races and my cheeks flush…I am a perfectionist.
Two blue lines. “Are you sure?” I asked my husband, Tom. One line on the white, plastic stick looked kind of faded. I peed on another stick. Same result: Two blue lines, this time, more defined.[…]
When I have children, I don’t want to let them down. I also don’t want to let myself down. I’ve got a lot of career goals and life ambitions, outside of having kids. Life is a constant game of juggling, but will I manage to keep all of the balls in the air without dropping one? Can I manage to be an attentive, loving parent as well as a dedicated writer and journalist?
As someone with decades of professional divorce-related experience, a child of a “broken home,” and a thrice divorced person myself, I have come to some conclusions about divorce. Mainly this: Divorce is good.
I’m sitting in a stiff blue chair, reclined as if I should be relaxing. I’m scrolling through my phone to pass the time. There’s a TV in here, playing daytime television I didn’t consent to watch. Everything around me is metal. I’m trying not to look too closely at the shiny tools beside me; I don’t want to guess what they do. My heart beats in my throat; maybe the dentist will be able to see it when he forces my mouth open and insists he isn’t hurting me.
This is the fourth time that I can remember ever sitting in a dentist chair. Growing up, we never had insurance. It was just assumed we would never go to the dentist — or the doctor. I never took doctor’s notes to school to excuse my absences. I learned to take NyQuil when I was sick, to sleep through the discomfort.
I learned how to hide my dental issues from the rest of the world when I was a kid. My experiences in elementary school taught me that I should, in fact, hide them. I was the smelly kid, and kids teased me relentlessly. I came home crying almost every day. My mom had severe depression and a sleeping disorder, so she left things up to me: Did I want to take a shower? Did I want to brush my teeth? Whatever I needed to do to get out the door to get on the bus in time for school — that was fine with her. I had a friend on the bus who told me not to open my mouth next to her; it was that bad. So, my only real motivation to brush my teeth, ever, was to keep my friends. Which meant I only developed the habit of brushing my teeth in the morning.
Now, I’m sitting in the dentist chair, waiting for someone to appear. There are about four rooms back here, all occupied, but there’s only one dentist on duty, so we patients will have to share. It’s not the same dentist who saw me for my first exam a few weeks ago, but even if it had been the same person, he still would have felt like a stranger. This is one of those chain dental offices that targets poor people — the kind with great branding but shitty customer service. At my first appointment, they told me I had zero cavities but awful gums with deep pockets between my teeth, and I absolutely needed to have my wisdom teeth taken out. Cavities were the only evil I learned to fear concerning dental hygiene, and while I was relieved to hear that I somehow sidestepped this common fate (despite not going to the dentist in nearly seven years), I was horrified to learn that my loose gums could mean losing my teeth. This brought to life the nearly monthly nightmares I’ve had since childhood, where my teeth fall out, one by one. In one dream, my teeth were Scrabble pieces, brown little squares with fuzzy letters I couldn’t read; they came out so smoothly, it didn’t even hurt.
At 26, my wisdom teeth didn’t hurt anymore either. I had heard about wisdom-teeth removal, but I knew at a young age it was too expensive to even consider. Growing up, my gums were perpetually sore, especially toward the back of my mouth. I’d get these lingering headaches. Now that pain is a distant memory. My wisdom teeth are fully grown in, nearly straight, but not quite. I’d noticed some crowding in my bottom teeth, which were pretty straight, even though I’d never worn braces. The attendant at my first appointment had helped me get a credit card with the exact limit I needed to cover the expense of the wisdom-teeth removal, but this didn’t include the cost of laughing gas, so I’d be awake during the procedure. The dental reps assured me that I wouldn’t feel anything because of the local anesthetics. I didn’t even need anyone to come with me because I would be completely lucid after my wisdom teeth were removed.
Now, as an adult, going to the dentist feels like I’m taking a test rather than receiving medical treatment. It is an exercise in deep-rooted shame: I see that you haven’t been flossing. Flossing? I thought people only did that in the movies — you know, the same ones where kids have two parents, who make a show of checking closets for monsters. They wear warm-looking bathrobes and house slippers when their children awake from nightmares. These are the kind of parents who never think twice about taking their kids to the doctor.
My diet consisted mostly of sugar and cheap, processed foods, and I guzzled any soda I could get my hands on. Each night that I fell asleep, the ghosts of my meals haunted my mouth, hiding in the shadows between my teeth. At just 10 years old, I could press my tongue behind my front teeth and see a hint of pink through them when I looked in the mirror.
Anxiety forced my jaw shut as I slept. Friends woke me up in the middle of the night at sleepovers to tell me to stop grinding; I was keeping them awake. I was an adult before I learned that teeth shouldn’t be clamped shut from moment to moment.
Later, during my own depressive bouts, brushing my teeth seemed too much to ask of myself. No one said anything, so I thought I was getting away with it. I dissociated from my mouth, but the fear caught up with me. When I ran a finger over the sides of my molars, I could feel how rough they were. When I opened my mouth in front of the mirror, the beds of my molars were black. Could it be that my silver fillings from the eighth grade had darkened? Or were my teeth disintegrating from the inside out?
Since I moved out at 19, I rarely talked to or saw my mom, but each time I did, I noticed a new dark spot in her smile. Over the years, her teeth have gotten blacker and sharper; bits of them would chip off when she ate. I could tell when a fresh piece broke away in her mouth by the face she’d make: a sudden furrowing of her brow, her forehead crinkled in dulled disappointment, her mouth squished to one side as her tongue swished around the chewed food to find part of what had chewed it. My sister, only four years older than me, had started suffering the same fate.
Running my finger obsessively over my teeth, I wondered if I had finally gone too far in neglecting my mouth. The biting texture against my soft fingertip propelled me to schedule a dental exam for the first time since I was 19.
“OK!” a woman shouts from behind me as she enters the room. “How are we doing? Are we ready to get started?” The dentist of the day rushes in behind her. They surround my chair, and I stare up at them from this vulnerable position.
“Hi,” I manage. “I don’t want to sound like a baby here, but I’m pretty freaked out.”
“Oh, you’ll be totally fine!” the woman insists. The dentist’s demeanor, on the other hand, gives away his annoyance.
“Open up,” he orders.
I do. He takes a look around, shoving gloved fingers into my mouth, telling me to move my tongue out of the way. Removing his hands briefly, he fills a syringe with some nameless anesthetic — or perhaps, they do tell me what it’s called, but I forget in my panic. I’m not afraid of needles, so the process of him pricking my gums and rubbing my face to numb the injection site doesn’t bother me.
What bothers me is how quickly he starts picking up other tools — which look like honest-to-God pliers and drills.
“Hokay,” I say, sitting up and nervously laughing. I am really trying to be strong. I feel like a little kid — and in a way, I am. I’d only been to the doctor a handful of times in my life, most of them in adulthood, when I didn’t have a parent to sit beside me and reassure me that the specialist wasn’t actually trying to make me feel like a bad person and hurt me. The dentist and assistant, not knowing this, give me concerned looks over their masks and press me gently back down into the chair.
“Everything’s going to be OK,” the dentist assures me impatiently. “Now, don’t move your tongue, or I may accidentally slice into it.”
Using the pencil-thin drill, the dentist saws into my wisdom teeth. A snowstorm of tooth dust coats my tongue, so I can taste my wounded mouth. Using pliers, the dentist and assistant work as a team. They turn each tooth back and forth, wrenching it free from my gums. The snap of each one echoes throughout my entire body.
I resist. I grip the chair, so I don’t instinctively rise with each pull. I want to spare my tongue, which hasn’t been numbed at all. The dental assistant holds me down.
I squint my eyes shut, so I don’t have to watch them. I know this is something I’ll dream about later. I don’t want the visuals to go along with the other horrors. As involuntary tears stream down my face, the dental assistant suctions pooled blood from my cheeks.
To their credit, it doesn’t “hurt.” I’m not groaning out in pain, but still, they are separating parts of my body from one another and expecting me to stay calm. My tongue wants to poke at the spaces where the teeth are now missing, offering my gums its condolences. I coil it as far back into my throat as I can to protect it. I fight my natural instinct to flee the danger for nearly an hour.
“That’s it!” the assistant says cheerfully. “That was the last one. It’s over.”
I’ve been pushed into the chair for so long that my body feels heavy when I rise, like the gravity in the room was turned down. Who can lift themselves up in this atmosphere? With shaky hands, I grab my phone and purse. At the counter, a rep gives me a prescription for Tylenol III. I’m quivering still as I take it. I sit in the parking lot for a few minutes, just staring into space with a gauze-stuffed, swollen mouth. When I lean to start the car, I have to catch drops of blood in my hands. They stain my shirt.
I feel cheated. I know other people are offered laughing gas when their wisdom teeth are removed. I know other people don’t have to deal with this pain, people who can afford to numb themselves against it. Growing up poor, I already feared the dentist. I feared their judgment. Their disappointed glances at one another on my behalf. Poor, dirty girl. Now, I feared the dentist because the actual process of treating my teeth was callous and threatening. In what other circumstances am I forced open? Where else does someone feel justified in holding me down?
No wonder my mother never went to the dentist.
About a year after my nightmare procedure, Mom and I meet at the Chili’s next to my office. It’s a place I go sometimes for lunch, if my team is feeling up to it. For my mom, it’s a chance to eat at a sit-down restaurant. She never gets to do that. This time it’s my treat. Every time I see her, rage swells inside me. She doesn’t even do much to incite it. At Chili’s, she’s just being cute and excited about everything, from the bottomless chips to the sweet tea. To her, these are luxuries — blessings, she says. I hate that only one of us has experienced social mobility, that only I have come to take these simple pleasures for granted.
At 56, Mom is sitting across from me, flashing her new dentures. It’s strange to see her with a mouthful of straight, white teeth. It makes her smile more — the real kind of smile with pulled-back lips. She doesn’t have anything to hide anymore.
Medicaid covered the cost of general anesthesia for her, so she doesn’t remember being wrenched open and ripped apart. Like me, she also had frequent dreams of losing her teeth, which began to feel more and more real as she lost pieces of them in her waking life. Now, she’ll never again wake from a dream where she laughed and her smile fell in her hand. She doesn’t have to hold that fear anymore.
When the food comes, she tells the server in her southern drawl, “Thank ya, sir!” then turns away to take out her dentures. She wraps them in a napkin and stores them in her purse.
She might as well have stored her silverware and dug her fingers into the soft meat on her plate. Finally, I say, “What are you doing? Don’t you need those?”
She gives me a puzzled look, a bite of food poised on her fork. “It’s easier without them. They don’t stay put.”
As she talks, I’m already softening. Without her teeth, she looks exactly like my grandma, who passed away when I was eleven. She was only in her sixties. There’s something sweet about my mom now, this face that typically evokes the rage of my entire childhood — all the times I ever felt unsafe, all the times I was ever hurting and she couldn’t take care of me.
She sees my expression change and smiles with all her shining gums. “What?” she says.
I flash her my own smile made of thin enamel and nearly imperceptible chips at the bottoms of my front teeth. A front tooth partially eclipses the one beside it. My canines have been ground down to nubs, while my molars have been sharpened to fangs. She can’t see those behind my lifted cheeks. She can’t see that I’ve discovered we’re more alike than I thought. Like my “smelly kid” past self, my mom has only changed the parts of herself other people can see.
“Nothing,” I say. “Nothing.”
Amanda Woodard is a freelance poet, essayist and ghostwriter, and an MFA candidate at Antioch University. She studied Social Science and Journalism at the University of North Texas and attended writing workshops at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference and Writing Workshops Dallas. Her work has been performed in Oral Fixation and published in Ten Spurs, eris & eros, Cathexis Northwest Press and Button Eye Review.
My mom gave me my first record player when I was in college. I had been eyeing it for some time: a gray and navy Crosley suitcase player, one of the many that became popular at Urban Outfitters at the beginning of the new vinyl boom. I lived at home, commuting to the university I attended in Fort Worth, and I mainly listened to music through my iPod and headphones or in my car. I had never heard music on a record player, so I had no way of knowing if it sounded better, despite what vinyl purists might say.
I hadn’t made it far when I heard a train-sized roar coming from the ocean behind me. I hung from my arms and glanced over my shoulder. A wave hit me, and I slammed into the rock and cut my chest on the mussels. I recovered, but the next hump of water was so tall, it would strike above my head. I had to jump.
Do you remember when I called you late one night? I needed someone to confide in and you offered to listen. A scary event had happened to me a few days prior. I was having a hard time processing it because I couldn’t believe something like this actually happened to me.
I admit I’m a worrywart. That’s what my mom always said, “We’re a family of worrywarts.” In reality, we’re a family riddled with anxiety of varying degrees, from mild uneasiness to extreme panic attacks.
When I was a little girl, I climbed into my mother’s bed in the early mornings and snuggled up against her back. I remember feeling such a desperate love for her and also how that love was tinged with fear and sadness, as if she were somehow an evanescent, non-renewable resource.
I could feel the rubbery, nimble necks of the dead pheasants underneath my fingertips as I carried them to the sink to be plucked and gutted. My grip on their bodies was loose, making it easy to drop them quickly. I wanted to drop them, but I resisted.
In my first year of teaching, an entire family came to meet me at our school’s first parent night: mother, father, daughter, and son. They were strikingly tall, both mom and dad my height, and the daughter swiftly approaching. The Samsons (names changed) dressed as if they might be headed to church, or coming from it. In my jeans and school spirit shirt, I felt underdressed. Tamryn, who was a seventh grader at the time, was in my Reading class. Their son was in the second grade.
“If you stick around,” their mother beamed, “you’ll get to teach Zeke.”
I was twenty-two then, and the idea of teaching middle school for another five years seemed distant, a stretch. I had not planned to be a teacher, and my position here was not so much a career choice as a placeholder, a way of putting off grad school and figuring out what I wanted from life. I committed to two years with a teaching program, but beyond that was anyone’s guess. I laughed along with the family, and I brushed the comment aside with a gentle, “We’ll see about that!”
Five years after my first parent night, I did not teach Zeke, but I had Tamryn again. I became the senior English teacher, teaching my first students from the seventh grade. It was a fairytale ending to a five year journey, seeing my kids grow up as I had grown alongside them. They invited me to their homes for graduation parties, where their parents told me I was family.
In March, with few confirmed COVID-19 cases in Texas, our schools closed as we prepared to slow the spread, moving classes entirely online for two months. While this was a necessary precaution, the relational aspect that defines much of teaching for me all but disappeared. Federal and state officials sent directives: continue to educate students online, or risk losing funding. I directed a capstone project where students learn about potential future careers with field experience. How could they complete this when everything closed? Instead of our government having grace, districts—from teachers to students, principals to coordinators—were told to do our best, or else. Having never prepared for this kind of emergency, we were not so much educating students at the highest level as we were scrambling to contain a fire.
After two years of work to prepare my AP students for their exam, I still wanted them to have a fair chance at passing the test, which had been reduced from three essays and many multiple choice questions to a single essay, one attempt at earning college credit. From home, students would have exactly forty-five minutes to read and analyze a passage. I saw teachers on Facebook saying this was too easy, and I logged off, angry. In our school’s history, only one student previously passed the exam: the year before, one of my original kids. My classes worked tirelessly to prove that we could be a school with a rigorous honors English program. But now I knew some were sharing computers with their siblings, on the same Internet connection as their parents, also working from home. Students worked to not lose the gains they had made, even as they emailed me about their anxiety and fear of fumbling the exam. Each message reminded me that this test carried both hope and dread for students, and I responded with encouraging emails, telling them that I was proud of them regardless of the results. They had one shot to prove themselves, in a narrow window. Two of them passed—another landmark for our campus—but I knew more would have in different circumstances.
In the midst of all of this, I sent encouraging comments to my kids, apologetic for asking them to be productive during a pandemic. “I am here to celebrate you and cheer you on, no matter what,” I wrote. “Please know that I am not docking you for making an effort. I see it.” They did what was necessary to pass their final high school courses, as prom, senior week, and graduation were all eventually and inevitably canceled or postponed. “This is unfair,” they said. I agreed, but we had to move forward and check boxes, as if time was not standing still. I spent most of my time filling out a spreadsheet with information on learning engagement, trying to contact students who seemed unreachable. Both students and teachers were ready to check out for the year, and I wondered what the point was in finishing haphazardly. Whatever this was, it was not really learning.
* * *
Then, in September, educators across various states were deemed essential workers, putting their and their families’ health at risk to be present for students. It is hard to know what is right: our students’ education is suffering in this environment, but how are we to keep people safe while helping our kids grow? Instead of prioritizing children, we spent the summer watching state governments allow businesses to reopen too soon instead of providing financial relief. Conservative protesters, backed by the president, raged against the lockdowns as if their personal freedoms were at stake. I worried about my students, who would endure another year of trying to learn through a pandemic.
As COVID-19 spreads and numbers spike again in over forty states, there is a renewed push to send remote learners back to schools amidst rising numbers of failing students. Several districts announced that they now only offer in-person learning, forcing families to send their students to campus or enroll in a different school. The choice as presented to us is this: either students learn in person, or they fail. In the false dichotomy created by a lack of moral leadership, students can either risk contracting and spreading the virus while passing their classes at school, or stay relatively safe from the virus while failing at home. Touting low transmission rates in schools, state and local officials ignore that the spread may currently be low because more than half of 5.5 million Texas public school students are currently learning from home, allowing some measure of distancing in classrooms and hallways. Send everyone back, and those rates could explode. Not to mention that every time a student or teacher contracts the virus, those they expose must quarantine for at least fourteen days, meaning that many children will have to learn from home at some point, by choice or force.
I am not saying that learning from home is ideal or best. But this? Watching the number of deaths in the nation creep over 230,000 while Texas reopens restaurants and bars? While people refuse to wear masks? There is a difference between wanting businesses to make it and demanding more from our leaders. There is a difference between wanting our students to learn and demanding more from people who do not have to bother themselves with creating safe learning environments. In the rush to shuffle students and teachers back to the way things were, we are forgoing conversations about how things could be. Those who quit teaching do not do so lightly, and their reasons for quitting could be prevented under better conditions. Without those difficult and necessary conversations, good teachers who care about students leave the classroom because our hands feel tied instead of freed to do our work well. I am now one of them.
This summer, I decided that I still wanted to serve students, but I needed to take steps to protect my mental and physical health. I left the classroom, but pangs of guilt hit me at various times throughout the summer. I felt like I was abandoning my post, surrendering my station, saving myself while the ship sank. But there is more to me than my job. There is a person to care for, who can only care for others by doing the same for himself.
Not only that, but I could read the writing on the whiteboard: forty-four percent of teachers leave the classroom within five years. I had taught for five, with two years of grad school in between. Ask any teacher who quits and you’ll hear similar answers: low pay, high workload, unjust conditions for vulnerable populations, the seeming lack of connection between state standards and true learning. Those frustrations have only grown with new expectations for teachers who must toggle between teaching in-person and remote learners. As the nation struggles to get and keep teachers in classrooms, and experts predict major backslides in student learning, we keep trying to plug a wound instead of finding a cure, preventing the initial injury. Education is in an emergency state, but COVID-19 did not start that: it is only exacerbating problems that were always there.
* * *
Now it has been seven years since meeting Tamryn’s family, and I am almost thirty. I am still at the same school, and I am entering my eighth year of education in a role where I oversee several special programs, including acting as the liaison between our campus and the local college where our students take dual credit courses. Zeke, now a freshman, is one of those students. I called his mother to ask how he was doing.
“Oh, Mr. Taylor, I am so glad to hear your voice,” she said.
I blushed, though she could not see my face. “Do you remember when you said that if I stuck around I would have Zeke?” I asked.
“I do,” Mrs. Samson said. “You have no idea what it means to see a person be there for our children for this long.”
It was true, I thought, humbled by her kindness. I was just a kid when I started here.
“How’s Zeke?” I asked.
“This has been hard,” she said, her tone dipping. “He’s always been a good student, but this is all too much.”
My heart ached. Students—still children, even if we have known them forever—are expected to charge ahead, to navigate their difficult teenage years while a pandemic rages. Seniors feel cheated, a time in their lives when they should be able to reflect and feel proud of making it this far instead of struggling to get by. Freshmen feel like their transition to high school is starting all wrong. A mother told me that her daughter struggles to focus at home but is afraid to leave the house for fear of contracting or spreading the virus. While the nation seems to be giving up on slowing the spread, our kids are still trying to do their homework, learning how to navigate their emotional and mental development through an unprecedented situation. While they should be given space to learn how to just be, they feel they cannot become themselves until this finally passes.
“I agree, Mrs. Samson,” I replied. “This is all very overwhelming.”
“It kind of feels like we’re underwater,” she said, “and we have to keep swimming and praying that we will reach the surface again.”
Her image was especially apt. We swim in anticipation of breathing the air again. We don’t know when that day will be. We swim to keep from drowning, even if we don’t know when the surface will reappear. I am still learning that. Mrs. Samson is still learning that. Zeke will have to learn it, time and again. In the meantime we help him, give him the skills to stay afloat and reach shore. What if more people invested in Zeke’s safe arrival?
After thirty minutes, Mrs. Samson realized how long we had been talking. “Oh, I’m so sorry,” she apologized. “I know you have more pressing things to do than listen to me vent.”
It was the middle of a school day. I looked at my to-do list, the different tasks that I needed to accomplish before 4pm. I had not noticed how much time had passed, but it did not matter. My role is to serve families, in or out of the classroom. “No, Mrs. Samson,” I countered. “I am here to support you in any way that I can, even if I don’t have all of the answers.”
“Oh, you do, you do support us,” she said. “I want you to know that I appreciate that you are there for both of our children, and I pray for you daily, that you may have the strength and wisdom to do your job, and that you will be blessed in life.”
I was on the verge of tears, and I remembered the day that I met the Samsons, how young Zeke and Tamryn were. Yes, how young I was, and still am. I’m still here, I thought. I’m really still here. Was it Mrs. Samson’s prayers that carried me all along? “Thank you,” I said. “Your prayers mean a lot to me.”
We said goodbye after Mrs. Samson showered me with more blessings. I sat in my office, too quiet now. I picked up the phone and called another family, the only way I knew how to be here, right now, in this moment, while an alarm sounds, just waiting to be heard.
Ben Lewellyn-Taylor lives in Dallas, TX with his spouse Meg. He is an MFA student in Antioch University’s low-residency program, where he also works on the Lunch Ticket staff. Ben co-hosts Book Cult with Cristina Rodriguez. His work appears on The Adroit Journal, New South, No Contact Mag, and FreezeRay Poetry, among others. He can be found on Twitter @blewellyntaylor.
Many years ago, when cops rarely arrested teenagers for trespassing in vacant buildings, I went ghost hunting with my forever friends, Marney and Janine. Our target was a building in an abandoned arsenal not far out of town. It was a moonless, windy night, perfect for a bit of misbehavior and mischief.
The government is researching what your fave ‘spiritual guru’ on instagram has been trying to sell you? And the CIA studied this in the eighties?!
A few years ago, I worked with a girl who said she ate ramen noodles in college so she didn’t have to ask her parents for money. “I struggled too,” she said, and I wanted to scream at her because what she failed to realize was that her parents had money to lend her.
I’ve been thinking about death a lot lately. Not from a macabre fascination, but more because we’ve been confronted with it on a daily basis thanks to the COVID pandemic.
Perhaps nothing provides as much fulfillment in life as finding and sustaining a successful love relationship and pursuing what you believe you were meant to do. For me this happened simultaneously; it all began with re-finding myself, or what I call becoming real.
My husband called my name. He usually calls me “Honey” or “Baby” or “Hey, You,” but this time, he used my given name. I felt an unexpected wave of anger wash over me, and I stomped into the living room to confront him. “Don’t call me Karen!”
Maybe, it’s human instinct to look for someone or something to blame instead of accepting sometimes bad things just happen. It’s not easy to just accept that sometimes things just happen; humans almost always have a reason behind their actions, why not the world. Even if we are creatures of science now we can only find where the virus came from but not the cause but religion and superstitions can.
Dear White Moderate,
I grew up well below the poverty line; I was homeless, for a time, in high school; I’m not a Christian; I’m pansexual; I’m a woman; I’m a feminist. These parts of my identity mean that my rights in the U.S. are theoretically in danger. However, I didn’t vote in the 2016 election because it didn’t matter much to me who became president. The laws and enactments brought on by former presidents had almost never affected me personally.
I could still go to college, using grants and high-interest loans, and change my major every semester. I could speed down the highway, buzzing from a few Not Your Father’s Root Beers, with an expired registration sticker without fearing the consequences. I could laugh at memes and Vines, expertly avoiding online conversations about politics and injustice.
Although I was pro-choice, I had never personally needed an abortion. Although I believed in marriage equality, I wasn’t currently dating a woman, so I could hide behind the veil of heteronormativity. Although I believed that people should use whatever restroom they felt comfortable in, I was cisgender and did not have to personally endure transphobia.
And I am white.
I didn’t have to worry about getting deported or arrested or killed for having a skin color that was perceived as threatening.
I made other excuses for not voting too (like that I didn’t like choosing between “the lesser of two evils” and that voting was inconvenient), but ultimately, I didn’t vote because I knew the president’s actions would just be news buzzing around in the background of my life, things I could easily avoid. I could continue to curate my social media in ways that made me feel like a good person, without being one.
On Martin Luther King Day in 2017, one of my good friends posted something on Instagram, a quote from Dr. King I had never seen before:
“I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. The negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the Ku Klux Klan, but the white moderate, who prefers a negative peace (the absence of tension) to a positive peace (the presence of justice).”
I realized with a jolt that this quote was about me. I was the white moderate. I was sitting back and reaping the benefits of white privilege while my friends and their loved ones struggled to keep their rights. Would they have access to healthcare? Would they or their family members be deported or allowed in this country in the first place? Would their children have equal access to education?
For an assignment in my Psychology of Race class in early 2017, I ended an op-ed with these words:
As atonement for not voting in 2016, I not only plan to be more attuned to political news – news from a myriad of sources, ones that challenge my opinions – but I’ll also engage in the hard, political conversations I had been shying away from.
I promise to vote in 2020 for issues that expand beyond myself and encourage others to do that same.
I promise not to turn away from issues that are ugly and hard to take in.
I promise I will no longer be the white moderate.
Making this commitment, even in writing, didn’t have the power to change a lifetime of bad habits, it turned out. I have always been the kind of person to cut people out of my life if they breach a boundary. In my family, you only brought up a grievance with someone if you were ready to cut ties, and I trained myself to dismiss other people before they got the chance to abandon me.
I continued to avoid conversations about race. Even after reading all the books from my Psych of Race class, I didn’t feel equipped to change people’s minds about racism, so I opted to give my attention only to people who already agreed with me, like a sunflower turning to face the sunlight.
When avoidance wasn’t possible, I let people in my life who were above a certain age “think the way they were going to think.” I grimaced but ultimately kept my mouth shut when my dad used racial slurs at family gatherings. I blocked people who posted homophobic statuses on social media. I scrolled past any president-related news.
In other words, I let myself become even more siloed than I had been during the 2016 presidential election.
Since my commitment to vote in 2020, I have knowingly accepted more money than my Black coworkers for performing the same duties. I have shaken my head at this injustice and done nothing to fix it. I have wondered, “What can I do?” but not for too long. Because in asking the question, I was ultimately telling myself, “There’s nothing I can do.” I was soothing myself and saying, “I don’t need to do anything.”
I thought that voting was the only way I could actively fight inequality, and to me, the elections that really mattered only came every four years. What could I do between elections? I was just one person, not very well-versed in political or government matters.
I knew that people went to protests, but they didn’t make sense to me: How did holding a sign ever change a policy for the better? Publicity goes a long way, but it seemed to me that many people, mostly white, went to protests to ask someone to snap a picture of them holding their cleverly phrased signs on Walmart posters, so they could post them on social media and be labeled as “Not the Bad Kind of White Person” by their white peers.
I had no idea how petitions worked.
I was skeptical about donating to nonprofit organizations after learning that national programs use donations to pad the pockets of executive team members.
I had always scoffed at those John Mayer lyrics — “It’s not that we don’t care; we just know that the fight ain’t fair, so we keep on waiting, waiting, waiting on the world to change” — but it was starting to seem like he had been right. It seemed like we were powerless to make real change. Even those of us with privilege.
It wasn’t until the death of George Floyd in May 2020 that I started to seriously ask how I could be a better ally. It wasn’t until a few months ago that I first heard the phrase “anti-racism.” I really thought it was enough to just be “not racist” and to listen with compassion and understanding when my friends of color voiced their upset about systemic prejudice.
But after George Floyd was murdered on camera by a police officer, I couldn’t feign surprise anymore. I couldn’t ask, “How could this happen?” It had been happening, but I stopped noticing because I had become desensitized to abuse against Black bodies.
Because of my poor allyship to the Black community, I had been, in large part, letting it happen.
As much as I had rolled my eyes at seemingly performative protests, petitions and fundraisers, I was starting to see that they could actually make change. I was seeing that these “unprecedented times” we’ve been living in for the past several months could be a window into a vastly different — and better — future. Thanks to Twitter threads with petition links and Instagram stories encouraging donations to nonprofits with local missions, I have been able to be a better ally.
I still need to work on having enough compassion for others to stay with them and have hard conversations about racism and other forms of prejudice. I still need to educate myself about systemic racism, learning enough about our complicated government to navigate it and enact change to the best of my personal ability. I have a long way to go. But I’m learning that my commitment to anti-racism and to ending my own white moderacy means accepting that I have so much more to learn. It means being open to learning more and admitting when I’m wrong.
It means working to gradually overcome my fear of tension — because I know that the only reason I have the option to escape these hard conversations is because I am white.
Amanda Woodard is an MFA candidate at Antioch University and a freelance copywriter at mediamanda.com. Her work has been performed in Oral Fixation and published in Ten Spurs, eris & eros and FlashFlood. When she’s not reading and writing, she enjoys playing board games, rock climbing and practicing yoga.
Eons ago, when I was seven, I pretended to choke to death when my mother lit up a cigarette near me. I grabbed my throat, made wheezing, chortling sounds, and fell to the floor, writhing and flailing until I expelled a final “ahhhhh” and dropped my head sideways.
In late April, the three sisters who make up HAIM, the L.A. pop rock band, sat in their separate homes and performed the single “I Know Alone” for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. A keyboard, microphone, and various sound equipment surrounds each of them, Danielle, Alana, and Este, in their respective rooms. They sync with one another on their laptops, and in the break between the bridge and the outro, they queue strobe lights in their homes in time with the music. Although they later released an official music video for the song with a choreographed dance, I rewatch their Colbert performance almost weekly. Each of the sisters is alone, yet they reach across the signals and wires for some semblance of togetherness. It reminds me that connection is possible in spite of the circumstances.
I texted the clip to my group chat the day it was posted to YouTube, but no one responded. I wanted to talk, but no one was available. Maybe they were busy, or didn’t care. The day carried on, but I kept checking for a notification, a wave to break the silence. A confirmation that someone else understood the feeling articulated by HAIM. On “I Know Alone,” Danielle sings of isolation in extremes, the kind of loneliness that no one else could possibly relate to. “I know alone like no one else does,” she boasts on the hook, the obvious lie containing a painful truth: when feelings of isolation invade the psyche, there is not another person to relate or refute you. Those who try, no matter how well-intentioned, would be wrong. As if to slap the hand that reaches out, Danielle doubles down in the bridge: “I know alone, and I don’t want to talk about it.” Had any of my friends ever felt this way? I wanted to talk about it, to see them, to be seen.
A few years ago, no one knew these feelings better than me. I quit my job and went back to school, but the stresses of academic life, coupled with multiple part-time jobs that barely covered bills, weighed on me. I had made this choice to advance my career, but I did not anticipate its costs to my mental health. I stopped talking to friends, panicked in classes, and struggled to formulate thoughts. A friend of many years was in the program with me, and I told him I was having a hard time holding a conversation. He said he had noticed, but didn’t know how to bring it up. To notice me like this might be an unwelcome observation. It was a kind of mercy, even as I had hoped it was not obvious. He was reaching out now, but I did not know how to take the hand he was offering me. Being seen, I wished to become invisible again. Thank you for everything, but I must be going.
I eventually took advantage of the university’s free counseling center, where I learned that I live with social anxiety. Finally, a name for a persistent struggle. At its worst, this anxiety builds a case against my relation to others, denying any evidence to the contrary. A text goes unresponded to, and I assume the person hates me, even though I often forget to respond to messages. Misread moments in conversation lead to days and weeks of overthinking interactions already forgotten or never noticed by others. Coupled with seasons of depression, as I was during that time, my sense of isolation locks me away from the people who love me, misinterpreting knocks on the door as meant for someone else.
With “I Know Alone,” HAIM’s lead singer, Danielle, articulates one aspect of her own depression, which speaks both to a personal and now collective sense of solitary life. HAIM wrote the song before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down much of the United States, but its timing was perfect. In an Instagram post on the eve of its release, Danielle wrote that the song came from “feeling like I felt loneliness deeper than anyone ever had.” With many people isolating from others, she acknowledged that alone now “feels like a ritual.” This year pushed everyone into our homes and away from others. As safety measures required that we stay inside and avoid unnecessary interactions, I worried at the ways this might eventually become natural, normal, preferable. On video chats with my friends, we worked against the ritualization of loneliness while I feared its ability to seep into the everyday.
Other 2020 tracks and albums recorded before or during the present moment speak into this shared state. French singer Christine & the Queens released “People, I’ve been sad” in February, a haunting track as direct as its title and possibly in reference to her mother’s passing in 2019. In contrast to HAIM’s singular claim on loneliness, Christine’s chorus welcomes anyone who feels the same isolation as her, layering the line “you know the feeling” on top of promises to disappear alongside her mother, the listener, or both.
Having experienced both depression and grief in my life, sometimes all at once, I don’t see Danielle Haim and Christine in disagreement, but rather articulating the many sides of a kaleidoscope of solitude, one with which we are all now deeply familiar. As we began to experience a collective isolation, doors opened for my friends and I to talk about our struggles with mental health. When I lived through a depressive season in graduate school, my grandmother died, compounding my sadness with mourning. Now, several friends have lost family and other loved ones this year. I can’t fathom someone else’s pain, not exactly, but I know my own: stumbling up a hill that feels like a mountain, straining to fall asleep, losing the plot and not wanting to see it through.
In the midst of this pandemic, my feed is full of an overwhelming sense of global doom, uncertainty, and fear. I turn it off but try not to disconnect from my friends. Teri tells me we should talk soon, and I want to. For now, keep sending me messages, reminding me you are there. In every interaction, we speak into our separation through screens, masks, and at least six feet. Communication becomes strained by signals cutting out, half-hidden expressions, and invisible lines of distance. I fight in the ways I know how or am learning.
English singer Charli XCX recorded her new album, how i’m feeling now, entirely during quarantine. In her song, “pink diamond,” Charli insists on still looking good for video chats, taunting the spaces she cannot inhabit: “In real life, could the club even handle us?” Still, she later laments that she cannot see her friends on “c2.0,” repeatedly singing, “I miss them by my side,” the screens of our devices poor substitutes for physicality.
I live in a one-bedroom loft with my partner in Dallas. Meg is in law school, and I am a high school teacher. On March 16, our schools moved online, and we have mostly been in the apartment since then. I have not experienced a bad spell of social anxiety in some years, so I do not often feel alone, especially as Meg and I are spending more time in each other’s presence than ever. Even so, we both long for contact with the people we love who are not in the room.
In the past two years, several of our friends moved into the buildings next to us, in part fulfilling a longtime desire to be neighbors who can pop over for visits and run-ins. While our friends in other states and even neighborhoods feel far away, we meet Lauren and Kate on our shared rooftop every Friday night to eat dinner at separate tables for each of our households. We haven’t crossed each other’s doorsteps in months, but we know we’re lucky to have these small moments of reprieve from the four walls we are confined to otherwise.
Still, I miss my friends and the rhythms we had learned. I miss sitting next to them in a theater, perfectly quiet but together. I miss being in their homes, sharing junk food out of the same bowl. I miss the silence that comes with not worrying if you need to impress someone, not the silence of our apartment when Meg steps out, the quiet intensifying.
Kurt Vonnegut wrote that most marital problems stem from the same place: “You’re not enough people.” Living with another person does not forever cancel out feelings of isolation. You don’t trade in your loneliness the day you find a partner with whom to share your life. Meg and I are happy to have each other through this season, but we know we’re not enough people to make a life feel whole. There are parents and siblings, friends and classmates, coworkers and students. In marriage, we find our lives made larger not just through family, but through everyone who shares in our lives. Meg has helped me work through social insecurities so that I can learn to love the people in my life better. Now we long to see them unpixeled.
Alongside HAIM’s Late Show performance, I return to another video of Phoebe Bridgers performing alone at home on acoustic guitar. “I Know the End” could be a sibling to “I Know Alone,” in both its title as well as its cynical outlook. Bridgers evokes The Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy, one of several songs on her album Punisher where she longs to escape some place that is not home. Wishing to click her heels while an apocalypse looms, she fantasizes about the monotony of laying around, getting up, then laying down again. “There’s no place like my room,” Bridgers sings, undercutting Dorothy’s desperation for dreams of being left to her devices.
As soon as I saw Bridgers debut “I Know the End” on Instagram, I texted friends who are also fans of her: “omg new phoebe song is EVERYTHING.” Like HAIM, like Christine & the Queens, and like so many others, Bridgers gives voice to a particular desire for solitude: “I’ll find a new place to be from / a haunted house with a picket fence / to float around and ghost my friends / no, I’m not afraid to disappear.” I recognized the desire before seeing that Bridgers confirmed the song started as an expression of her own depression.
When I first heard her sing these words, I was struck by the acceptance of impermanence and the longing to be peripheral. How far I am from that feeling now, but how true it often rings. I want to be with the people I love, but sometimes I want to live outside of my brain and body, to live without being seen. I want to not look at my phone and worry about it going off, or staying silent. I want to not overthink interactions, to let them be. Sometimes being a ghost seems easier, preferable. I don’t want to die, but sometimes I want to be free from the anxiety that haunts me.
I did not listen to the recorded version of “I Know the End” until Punisher was released two months after the song’s debut. It closes the album, and in place of Bridgers solo on acoustic guitar, the song builds to a dramatic crescendo featuring horns, guitars, and drums. Eleven people—including frequent collaborators Conor Oberst, Julien Baker, and Lucy Dacus—sing on the outro, their voices joining to sing, “The end is here.” In the midst of an apocalypse, here is some semblance of community standing next to the overwhelming abyss of the self.
Hearing Bridgers perform the song solo, then with friends, is a kind of hope in the face of the otherwise morbid lyrics, a rebuttal of her own solitary fantasies. “I’m looking forward to someday having people sing it back to me in a crowd,” she said.
My friends texted back. We can’t wait to be there.
Ben Lewellyn-Taylor is an educator in Dallas, where he lives with his spouse, Meggie. He is an MFA student in nonfiction at Antioch University, and he works on the Lunch Ticket staff for the Amuse-Bouche, nonfiction, blog, and web teams. Ben co-hosts Deep Vellum Books’ monthly Book Cult with Cristina Rodriguez. His work has previously appeared on the Adroit Journal, New South, and FreezeRay Poetry, among others. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @blewellyntaylor.
The conversation went the same as most of ours do: One of us came at it logically and the other was stuck in pure emotion. It was a warm, May evening, and my fiancé Matt and I were discussing whether we should postpone our wedding set for August, 23 2020.
When I was eight years old, my mother, Lucille Munera Galvez, died from breast cancer. I was coming back from a field trip to the King Tut museum and I looked to the sky and I knew she was gone.[…]
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