The mirror may be a simple tool of glass and metal, but its simplicity belies its true magic: reflection. That reflection has the power to project, distort, and reveal multiple realities. And it is only through reflection that I came to understand that power lies not only […]
I recently read an article about Itaru Sasaki, a citizen of Japan, whose cousin died in 2010. A designer by trade, Sasaki erected a glass-paneled phone booth on his hilltop garden, and placed a disconnected black rotary phone inside. Every time Sasaki missed his deceased cousin, he went to the phone booth and called him.
But soon the frustration congealed around my ignorance starts to melt, giving way to hope. An education about my body and the proper care of it—one I’ve always wanted and never known how to access—has suddenly appeared before me in the shape of a big-hearted personal trainer.
It made me giddy to think that sixteen-year-old me was furious by the time I got home. I wish I could remember that drive, the transition from fear to fury. I wish I could see my face transform as the new me was born, the one who would insist on seeing only female doctors, and who would imagine the violence I’d perpetrate against anyone who touched me without my permission.
The idea that good and great writing is somehow innate pushes those who had the potential but aren’t properly trained to the sidelines. Everyone has potential, nobody is ever just born being great at the arts.
It means I have to willingly pull back the curtain and expose the ugly parts of me. The part that ugly cries in my car, the part that stokes my deepest darkest fears, the me I work hard not to let the world see. And maybe I just feel ugly in those moments, weak and bare revealing the parts I don’t want seen, because then I’d have to truly admit they’re mine. I’m supposed to turn a cheek to those hurtful moments, to prove how strong a woman I am in the face of pain.
It could have been easy to forget that I got out of breath walking the few feet from my car to my job every day, or that I was already in the largest size clothing my local plus size store sold. Then I discovered J. Cole—”I hope one day you hear me…you ain’t never gon’ be happy til you love yourz.” I let his lyrics run on repeat in my mind instead of doing what I always do: quitting on myself.
Moving can be daunting. Relocation anxiety is real, especially if you’re hoofing it alone. But, fear not, we’re here to help with a few simple steps. Let’s get started.
Ten writers on what they love about their bodies.
Often I wondered how food could let him forget himself and when I asked him, he said it was probably because they grew up together, in a three-story house on Brooklyn’s Avenue J, in the midst of the Great Depression. The circumstances of his upbringing didn’t allow him to think about what he wanted, to eat or to become, he had simply: to eat and to become.
At twenty, I should have been educated on how to avoid this road, but instead I dove into the forbidden territory, eyes as bright and wide as my eager grin, expecting my skull not to ricochet against the asphalt. When the rest of my graduating class was having the time of their lives, I was tangled so deep into this web that I became a cocoon of drugs, control, and misery. What kind of butterfly could possibly emerge out of that? […]
Moving to a better school district would mean leaving behind a community where seeing Black leaders, business owners, and even law enforcement, is commonplace for my child. And in the current political climate, it means exposing her to a much higher likelihood of overt racism, on top of the well-documented racial disparities that have long plagued Black students. […]
Silence was a luxury I couldn’t afford as a little girl. It’s a luxury that no little Black girl can afford, really. I learned quickly that I either fought with my words or fought with my hands. Sometimes, if called for, I fought with both. Being loud was an act of reclamation, saying, “You’re going to look and listen to me. You’re going to hear […]
The day your mother has a stroke, you have to admit you know almost nothing.It starts when you receive a text from your sister that lights up your phone in the darkness of a movie theater: Mom is in the hospital. […]
My words held up a mirror and exhibited the same qualities she’d always instilled in me, one last time. Two weeks later, she let go. She found that bravery I’d asked her to, our bravery. Her last lesson to me was how to love myself again […]
This whole situation was like trying to find all the hidden items of Zelda. Can’t you enjoy the game without discovering all the secrets? Not for me. To truly know myself, to be able to successfully walk through my life, I had to understand my parents’ programming.
I was 16. It was fall of my senior year, and I was applying to colleges. But I knew where I wanted to go. For most of my life, I’d lived down the street from my dream school, an ivy-covered university that loomed large in my consciousness. My father was affiliated with it, and it played a central role in my family’s life—we went there for plays, exhibits, sports events. I’d even dressed up on Halloween as the school’s star football player when I was a kid. I was sure this university was my destiny […]
Shame defined my womanhood, then motherhood when I gave birth to my first son two years later. The vessel in me expanded and shrunk, carved and bubbled, carrying the scars, my past becoming my present: a hysterectomy.
When asked, I almost always give up and offer the term “a nonsexual orgy.” People enter a dance studio in a leafy Boston suburb and commence to touch, play, and move with each other’s bodies. What else should I call it? The people who come here often know it by its technical name: A Contact Improv Workshop. The people who […]
I wondered what it must be like to live every day looking death so directly in the face. I stepped closer. The marble he was cleaning had long ago lost its sheen, but he cleaned with a vigor that defied all skepticism as if he would only stop working when at last he could look down and see the reflection of the sky […]
A recent DNA analysis told me I’m “less likely to freckle,” “more susceptible to male pattern baldness,” and have “a stronger tendency to be agreeable.” Coincidentally, I do have very few freckles, am shedding hair by the fistful, and when in the right mood, I can be as congenial as Sandra Bullock in a rom-com flick […]
Nesting Matryoshka dolls were originally created as an homage to family, each doll at home inside a loving matriarch. Now an important part of Russian culture, the first sets were designed as toys. Traditional sets consisted of eight hand-painted pieces: the largest a Babushka, holding a rooster with a headscarf tied […]
Two years after being hospitalized, I’m still not 100% certain if I’m bipolar or not. I mean I’ve had two different psychologists tell me that they think so. That I “exhibit” the key characteristics. They’ve said so after sessions where I’ve talked too much, but felt like I was only starting to describe how I felt every day. How it started as depressive episodes in High School when sat on the corner of my bed without moving for hours. I used to blame it on the music I listened to. Elliott Smith…Daniel Johnson. I used to think I was just a moody teenager that needed Lexapro. I was labeled as manic depressive and hurried along my merry way. The first time I recognized my mood swings was through the daily fights I engaged in with my mom. We’d both circle each other like angry bulls until something caused us both to explode. I’d lock myself in my room and punch the walls. My little brother was the first to ask if I thought I was bipolar. I took it as an insult. How would he know that about me without me knowing it myself? He hasn’t said anything to me that honest since. The chemistry in my head darkened as I transitioned into college. While all of my friends explored and found themselves, I could only see myself make choices and act from some distant prison inside my chest. I started hearing my mouth spewing words I didn’t recognize and didn’t mean. Even as I asked my body not to scream, not to feel so panicked I couldn’t breathe, not to hurt itself, my body did as it pleased. In a way, it was like walking away from a good friend after seeing burn your bridge on purpose. The more control I lost the more impulsive I got, too. While my mood shifts were brief, their consequences stretched on like scar that refuses to forget. At least I started to learn more about myself. Then came the insomnia. Around that time my eyes started to refuse any rest.
I’ve always been able to stay up until three or four at night and wake up the next day without an alarm before the sun comes back. The truth is both sides of me need each other. That is the half that is overwhelmed with love and warmth for the people and things I care about and the other half which tries to inflict as much pain as possible onto myself and all those around me. I’ve never gotten a formal diagnosis. I’ve tried. But not really. A work schedule that required my attention twelve hours a day didn’t help and I’ve always been bad at talking to anybody about these things. At complaining. Not knowing my diagnosis all the way is like walking through a pitch-dark room and then realizing you’re standing in a tunnel instead. The goal posts running away from you. When I told my parents about the first time the psychologists said they thought I was bipolar, they said I was just stressed. Underneath the tug of war between my mind and my body lay my being, urgently needing to be liked and loved by everybody I came into contact with. It’s more than a little pathetic. At times I feel like my personality is just a combination of performances meant to seduce and entertain while I cringe inside. Sometimes when I can’t sleep I wonder if I am actually sick or if this is just actually doing all the heavy lifting for the rest of my personality? My game of avoidance came to an end one night after my band played a show in Somerville. That night throughout our set, I drank my favorite emotional trigger. Towards the end I stopped playing some songs halfway through and fell on top of the drumset. My bandmates’ fury outweighed their concern so I snuck away after the final song to another bar next door. I don’t really remember getting home, but I know that it took multiple people to restrain me from running into my bathroom or locking my door. They thought I was a danger to myself and called for an ambulance. Am I just a piece of shit looking for an excuse not to blame myself for all the things I’ve done? Are my feelings just another easy way out? I question this and then remember there’s nothing easy about this.
Esteban Cajigas is a writer, musician, and MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles. His short stories and poems have been featured in publications such as Venture Magazine, Foliate Oak, and others. Esteban also previously wrote for The Boston Globe as a correspondent and The Suffolk Voice as Editor-in-Chief.
- the practicing of an activity, especially a sport, on an unpaid rather than a professional basis.
- the fact or quality of being incompetent at a particular activity.
A friend of mine took up ballet at forty. It’s been ten years of chassés and ballonés and wobbly pirouettes. There are some moves she will never do well, and even more that she’ll never do at all. A whipped throw, anyone? But that hardly matters. Where one pair of eyes might see blundering futility in tights tottering across the wooden boards, my friend, she experiences a moment of grace.
I know how she feels.
Three, five, maybe seven seconds on a wave, is enough to carry me through the day. When I’m up on my surfboard, gliding along the wave’s shifting face, the whole world hushes for an instant. There is just the energy of the ocean pushing me forward, while my body calibrates to balance and steer for the ride. It is a place beyond thinking, a pure immersion in the Now.
And then it’s over.
Did you picture someone in the perfect feline crouch or standing tall with a lazy poise, or even better, making delicate cross steps up and down a board? Don’t. I really suck at surfing. And like my friend, who has no delusions of becoming the next Margot Fonteyn, I don’t mind if I tumble off the side, starfish off the back, get rolled in a rush of white churning water. I only want to get better because getting better means catching more waves and catching more waves means catching that brief feeling of being totally in the moment, of feeling one’s incessant inner chatter silenced. The euphoria from a string of those few wave riding seconds can last hours, the sense of calmness, days.
This is not an advertisement for surfing. God knows, there are enough bodies and boards in the water. From Montauk to Malibu, on a sunny weekend with a swell, you can gaze off the cliffs and imagine the D-Day landing, were it not for the joyful whoops echoing through the air. The water below is so carpeted with rubber-suited forms bobbing and flailing about. It’s hectic out there. No, don’t go surfing.
When I first took it up ten years ago, I wasn’t in the best of shape. I still had a lingering sand bag’s worth of the seventy-five pounds I’d gained during pregnancy, but it wasn’t the shape of my bathing suit bod that most urgently needed to rebound. It was the inner me I hardly recognized. Like one of those giant mylar balloons you find half deflated and tangled up in seaweed on the beach, I felt hollowed out and baggy all at once. Joy reached me through my young daughter but otherwise, a sodden emptiness crept in, a sense of disconnection, a low aimless drift. Phone sessions with a therapist on the other coast were of no help.
Melancholia, she is a most unwelcomed and impudent houseguest. Try to cast her out the front door and she’ll go around and sit on your back porch until you let the dog out. You never know if she’ll be followed by Depression. I had been blessed not to have had a protracted visit in years, but there she was pitching her gloom tent over me, settling in. And it was summer. Wasn’t summer supposed to be fun?
I can’t remember who hooked me up with my first lesson. If I did, I’d thank them. But I still remember the morning. I was the only one in the water without a strappingly handsome instructor who looked like he’d cruised out of a Rip Curl catalog. Instead, thank goodness, I was with an elfin, craggy-faced, white-haired man who’d definitely gotten his AARP card years before. His red Toyota pick-up was a tsunami of faded wetsuits, stained towels, wadded up Hawaiian shirts, and foam boards. Before he found me suitable attire and something to ride, he’d opened the passenger door of his truck, pawed through crumpled posters, half-empty bottles of suntan lotion, tangles of surf leashes and miraculously pulled out a perfectly yellow, unbruised banana. “Want one?” I declined. “Suit yourself,” Steve said, peeling it back. “But you might be sorry.”
After shoving myself in a wetsuit like sausage meat in its casing and doing some dorky push-ups and pop-ups on the beach, it was time to hit the water and “paddle out.” Imagine a drunken seal heading into the waves. “I’m not getting anywhere!” I’d shriek as another monster crashed in front of me and sent me careening backwards to the shore or, more often, off my board and into bubbling white foam. Finally, gasping like I’d summitted Everest without oxygen, I made it past the break. I felt totally spent. But I was grinning ear to ear.
If you’re lucky enough to have an instructor the first time you surf, you will paddle toward the shore, but they will give you an extra push to catch the wave. You may wipe out, you may pop up on your knees, or you may ride on your belly all the way to the beach.
I once asked an instructor down in Mexico if there was anyone he’d taught who’d just “got the hang of it” right away. Two, he said. One was a Cirque De Soleil acrobat and the other was Jimmy Chin, the extraordinary skier, climber, Nat Geo photographer and filmmaker – you may have seen his Oscar winning documentary Free Solo? Yeah, that guy.
As for me, I managed to catch a few small waves and get on my feet while we were out there. Maybe I coursed through the water upright for a total of 22 seconds. 22 out of the 3,600 that make up an hour-long session. But those few seconds buoyed me, and I felt a soggy layer of despair lift off me just enough. Better yet, it didn’t collapse over me again when I lost my footing and plunged back in the water nor even later when I was out of the water, dragging my board with rubbery arms up the beach. For Emily Dickinson, hope came as the thing with feathers. For me, it was a nine-foot foam log with a leash. I knew that if I could get a little more of this surfing thing into my life, maybe I would start to feel better.
The word “amateur” comes from the Latin verb amar: to love. You do it not to win nor for profession gain, not for recognition nor for money. You just do it because you love it.
Since that day ten years ago, surfing has not only helped me reconnect with a happiness and peace inside myself, it’s connected me to the many wonderful people I’ve met out on the water, and to organizations committed to protecting our oceans and sharing the healing power of surfing. I’ve also been able to surf with my daughter (who fast outpaced me in the skills department) and watched as she developed a deep and abiding connection to the water. A party wave with your kid, as the sun hangs like a fat orange just above the glassy water, is bliss.
But I didn’t know any of that would happen yet when I hauled my aching, dripping body to the parking lot. All I knew was that I was really happy and really hungry. So yes, if Steve still had one buried in the depths of his truck, I wanted that banana.
Liz Tynes Netto is a lapsed journalist, TV producer, and current MFA candidate at Antioch University, Los Angeles. She is the flash prose editor of Lunch Ticket and she is writing a novel.
My father is a simple man in old age. He lives on the outskirts of Las Vegas now, in a rinky-dink apartment complex. The television blasts CNN at an alarming volume for such close quarters, but he’s outside, minding his business and squatting on the patio with a cigarette between his fingers. In between puffs, he pokes at his quaint, urban garden, a sign of his domesticated life as a retiree. He always wanted someplace warmer than the chilly, wet climate in Seattle, better for tired bones. In his heyday, he was a bell bottom-wearing playboy with dark features and a baritone voice. I always thought he looked like a Filipino Harrison Ford, but he is 73 years old now, his swagger tempered and grey.
My step-mother is inside, always the first to greet me whenever I visit with my children. She keeps a tidy home for my father in their tiny two-bedroom apartment. They returned to America from the Philippines with only a few belongings to send my little brother to college. Now, it’s neatly cluttered with nautical trinkets and various furnishings they’ve collected over the years. Amidst the sea blues, anchors and seashells is a massive subwoofer, now a makeshift side table. The coffee table is slightly askew from the living room futon to make room for my father’s prized possession, an 88-key Yamaha digital piano. He plays it on the futon whenever I visit, but not for entertainment. He plays it because it’s part of his routine, and the sound of him playing is so normal that I don’t recognize he’s playing unless I bring someone over that appreciates his talent.
Aside from his “real job” at Boeing, my first memories were running around bars or venues while he danced his fingers along the keyboard. My siblings and I grew up to synthesized disco beats and strobe lights. Our family lived and breathed music: Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, A Taste of Honey, Mouth to Mouth, and every cover song from the 60s and 70s.
As a teenager, I would find him downstairs in the dimly lit garage studio, sitting down next to a lamp, riffing off a song, enveloped in a cloud of nicotine. We didn’t talk to each other most of the time because I didn’t know what to say to my reserved father. Connecting with him was tough when my parents divorced, and I grew more distant during adolescent growing pains. The only time I had a conversation about his music was when I was sixteen after I handed him a sheet of music and asked him to play. He handed it right back to me.
“No,” he laughed, “I can’t read music.” So, he asked if he could listen to the song, some millennial pop ballad, and he played it, improvising with his signature keyboard sound along the way. Anyway, the studio wasn’t a place for bonding. The music slowed everything down. I drifted away in his melodies, further away from anyone, but close to his sound.
The smoky garage studio burnt down years ago in Seattle. (A case of a cigarette thrown in a receptacle. Go figure.) His studio has now been relegated to the center of the living room where he sits down to play a song. Except I don’t drift away this time. This time, I want to know why he plays every day and will for the rest of his life. I do because I’m in my MFA program, and I’m hungry for art and music. I wonder about my creative process, and if it was born out of my upbringing. Now I wonder if it was born out of his. Maybe his hunger is hereditary?
When I sit down to ask him questions, he lights up and tells me stories I’ve never heard and can’t quite picture. My father was the oldest brother of five siblings and cared for the family as the “man of the house” when their father, my grandfather, left our grandmother, the family matriarch. Maybe this is how he obtained his survivor sensibilities, qualities I mistook to be too blunt and hurtful.
My grandmother gifted his first guitar at fifteen and he played every morning after studying others play at clubs. He chaperoned my then teenage aunt when she worked as a restaurant crooner, realizing music was a passion during this time. My father was so good, in fact, that one of the restaurant band members asked him to form a band and tour Japan. He believed he would only be away from his responsibilities at home for six months, but soon he was a college drop-out, leaving his studies in Business Accounting.
I balked at the earlier prospect—my father bookkeeping in a dimly lit garage. It didn’t equate. But he didn’t choose that path. He stayed in Japan for six years and learned how to play the piano in one month after breaking his finger in karate. My late grandmother proudly showed me a black-and-white photograph of my dad with his band, dressed like an Asian Beatle.
The Japan tour lasted through the 70s near the end of the disco era. My father would have traveled to Singapore had my grandmother not petitioned for him to immigrate to Seattle, Washington, where he met my mother. She reluctantly supported his musician lifestyle for the better part of their marriage, waiting up at night or on the sidelines while my father stayed out for gigs. I watched as his musical endeavors tore at his relationships or mended them, depending on which story I heard. Either way, my father’s keyboard was always the center of his universe and now it was literally center of his living room.
My step-mother tells me he plays the piano every morning, as soon as he wakes up. My father, the simple man, but gosh—did he have glorious adventures. Some might call it foolish or risky the number of times he put music first, but he played because he couldn’t keep his hands off of it. The hunger was always there as soon as he found music in his hands.
When I asked him if he ever sought a record deal, he replied, “No.” He had his heyday, and now he spends days drifting off in chords. “I play to get away from negative thoughts,” he says.
That’s when I realize our creative lives are similar. I didn’t quite inherit the music family trait. I can’t even sing karaoke. No, my fingers drift over a different type of keyboard, the kind that allows me to write about my father and reminisce about disco balls and bell bottoms. I found the hunger in different ways, but there’s the same impulse, the same desire to channel a baritone voice chalked up in smoke, a riff, a melody, then poetry. And maybe I won’t get to live the rock star life in Japan, but I have my center of the living room in me and at my fingertips. I return to it day after day and make it sing, baby.
Cristina Van Orden lives in South Los Angeles with her family and Chorkie. She is currently an MFA Candidate at Antioch University, Los Angeles and Poetry Editor for Lunch Ticket. Her work can be seen or is forthcoming in Chaleur Magazine, Gordon Square Review, HOOT Review, and Silverneedle Press.
Books rest on shelves, floors, tables, and chairs in my home. Film posters, book covers, maps, and even postcards hang on my walls. Plants crawl down the mantle, down from the ceiling, and sit in corners, window sills, shelves, and on tables.
A globe, a mason jar of number two pencils, a coat rack made from old skis, coasters from The Globe my cousin gave me, a poster from the Arcade Fire concert I attended, Virginia Woolf and Frida Kahlo saint-like candles from Strand Bookstore, the abstract painting made by my friend, paintings by my partner’s mother, sister, and uncle. My great-cousin’s shillelagh from Ireland given to me by my parents, my granddad’s WWII diaries willed to me with the hope I’d write his story, my childhood blanket made by a close family friend, my great-grandmother’s Cuban coin ring smuggled into the country during the revolution. Photographs close-pinned above our bed. Collected piece by piece over time.
Some given to me, some bought on my own. Some given to my partner, some bought on his own. Rich colors carried from place to place make white walls home.
The things we hang and rest on shelves speak. These walls and shelves hold silhouettes of people that lived here before, from the time the house was built in 1900 to the present. These objects, these things live in the words of those who lived here before us. Their words stick to plaster and coats of paint. Words and walls and shelves hold history—mine, and yours, and everyone’s—to tell it all takes time, takes practice, takes play.
We’re not supposed to care about things. And words are just things. Things written, sung, preached, shouted, and shared. Yet, I pledge my allegiance to them. I firmly support their power. Then, I pick them up for safekeeping, adding them to my collection. Hints of them sneak into my writing like boys at girls’ slumber parties.
My influences are like my Craigslist bike—the yellow Bianchi frame is still the same, but I changed the pedals to purple, switched the tires to blue, and made the handlebars green. Their words provide the framework, but I steer mine to their destination.
Even this metaphor is like the things Tim O’Brien carried or Zora Neale Hurston’s bag, but I’m making it my own.
We writers are hoarders of syntax and polygamists of diction. The compound, complex, and simple burst out of closets and climb to the ceiling. I welcome more words to my colony. Then, I lay them all out in front of me to play like a child emptying her toy box. No one told me I couldn’t put my He-Man figurine in Barbie’s Dream House. No one should tell me that I can’t use Leonard Pitts in my poetry or Louise Erdrich in my essays.
I am the mad scientist—stirring a vat of Virginia Woolf’s stream of consciousness, Sherwood Anderson’s grotesque, Langston Hughes’s resistance, Octavia Butler’s vision, Sandra Cisneros’s fragments, Elie Wiesel’s memory, Richard Wright’s poetic honesty, Maggie Nelson’s transitioning textual body, Kazim Ali’s text queering, Julie Otsuka’s point of view, Eula Biss’s braiding, Rebecca Solnit’s fire, Claudia Rankine’s exposure of imagination, Roxane Gay’s direct reflection of today. Each word still wiggling as I throw it in.
But this is nothing sinister. I do not torture words; I let them bloom.
Still, I realize what may come to mind when thinking about the mad scientist caricature in film and literature. A white man driven insane by his work. Dr. Jekyll becomes Mr. Hyde or the scientist in the film The Fly turns himself into the insect. Their humanity transformed into monstrosity. Good turned to evil. Or the already evil, downright diabolical, mad scientist with crazy white hair, a white coat, and bulging eyes, paces in his laboratory plotting ways to destroy the perfect society. What’s worse: writing a trope or being one? Carmen Maria Machado’s writer narrator asks in “The Resident.”
I am the mad scientist—but not him. (I may be paranoid but not an android.)
I’ve got white skin and crazy hair with white strands here and there. I’ve got doctors’ papers diagnosing my disorder. But what makes me mad is not my concoction but the world we live in. I am a woman. I embrace defiance, disorder, disillusionment, deconstruction. When given a command, I am absentmindedly wandering in a world that doesn’t yet exist—I hear Vincent Harding say, I am a citizen in a land that does not yet exist—a world where there isn’t an Other, only One—a You, an I, and a We—not an Us versus Them. I am absentmindedly, not aimlessly, sifting through my collection of constructed words that break, that bury the laws, the order deemed natural and normal that oppresses most of us—working to distance my mind from the carefully curated lies of the monstrous bodies who established these paradigms. (You don’t own me.)
Many writers say they are storytellers and that’s okay. I’m not focused on narrative arc, but what’s organic. I’m the mad scientist here to give words the space to do what they do—to move, to meander, to travel until they reach your door, soliciting next steps. (This must be the place.)
Words are living, we are living, ravenously. And we can’t survive on the diet we’re fed. We hunger for something more satisfying. Mere air, these words, but delicious to hear, Sappho says.
Unsatisfied by what is, I nourish what’s becoming.
In my vat, my words and influences clink glasses and dance to Lizzo’s “Juice” and Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration.” Sometimes they get too rowdy, but sometimes they don’t get along. Intertextuality isn’t ever cut-and-dry. Sometimes Solnit confronts Anderson for his portrayal of fragile women. Sometimes Gay calls out Woolf for limiting intellectual worthiness to white, privileged women. I have to sit with the things conflicting. I have to confront them honestly. Listening to them helps me think about the past, the present, and my life within.
But sometimes I’m overwhelmed by their wisdom and doubt my ability to continue. I hear that loud, sharp, high-pitched ringing in my ears. And sitting becomes stuck.
When my words aren’t moving, I have to move. (Twist your head around.) I pace from room to room and, if need be, around the neighborhood. I bring my dog with me. Together we’re two animals sniffing for a place to leave our mark. A wall of sweet perfume hits me as I pass the blooming lilac bushes. I think of my mother spraying perfume on her wrists, dabbing her wrists to her neck, then spraying again into the air and walking into the scent, letting it fall onto her clothes and skin. Lawnmower blades slice through blades of grass, flowers pop pink, orange, yellow, red, and purple at the first sight of spring, sawdust scatters in the light by the construction site. I’m reminded of Ana Maria Spagna’s Uplake and all the things she taught me. Twirling my hair, I wind thoughts down streets and, eventually, to white space. The music begins again. They fill the place. They feel the tempo of Giorgio Moroder’s arpeggiator as everybody sings to Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love.”
I proceed with glee but caution. And only disturb the neighbors enough to wake them. And I hope other experimenters continue to offer me the same courtesy.
Listen to Kate Carmody’s Mad Scientist’s Mix Playlist.
Kate Carmody is a writer, teacher, and activist. While pursuing her MFA in creative nonfiction at Antioch University in Los Angeles, she works as a blogger, assistant blog editor, and a member of the community outreach team at Lunch Ticket. Her writing recently appeared in Stain’d Arts. She was born in St. Louis and lives in Denver, Colorado with her fiancé and dog, Corky St. Clair. The three of them are also in a band called Datafacer, named after her niece’s childhood doll. Twitter: @KateCarmody8 Instagram: carmo8
I notice small details. Hairline cracks in a wall, misspellings and incorrect grammar, the moment a person lies. There’s no inquiry involved, no attempt to gather evidence. I’ve always been this way.
It still stings my mom. She wonders what I’m even talking about when I point out the fret on her nurse’s face. People bring their worries to work, I tell her. They can’t just shut it down. But Mom waves me off as she always did while Dad listened intently. He was the same way and valued my perception.
Where we come from it’s called touched and not something to boast about. Some consider it second sight—of the Devil. Others: a spiritual gift. Whatever its source, this inclination has barbs. People don’t take well feeling seen through.
I’ve learned to hold my tongue. Even lost friends. When you see a thing and know a thing can crush someone you love, you feel conscripted to warn against the thing. Age and sages have taught me: you have to let people fall. There exists one exception to this platitude: if a person asks me for advice, then let thee be warned: I go full hog.
A person introduces me to a new man she likes. Let’s call him Jack. We work through the small talk. I cover my reactions like a smiling ventriloquist. The visit finishes and later the woman contacts me with such hope.
So, what’d you think?
If Jack calls you or comes to see you: Kindly give your regrets.
How do I know this?
It’s in the eyebrows. Small face muscles. How Jack rubs the back of his neck. Honestly, it’s a feeling I get. Something otherworldly that just…tells.
When I was eight, my parents took me out to dinner. The server wore a pale pink cotton dress. My father remarked how pretty her hands were. She thanked him, took our order, and left.
Daddy. She’s in a fight with her boyfriend.
What on earth, child? My mother sucked in air and turned away.
Daddy nodded, yes. He believed me. Something was weighing our server down, a burden pushing on her chest. To me, it was as visible as the slender fingers that held her pen and notepad.
Those who notice small details, who closely observe others, notice fellow observers. We find each other usually in silent acknowledgement. These are my people. No secrets are hidden, no heavy blankets laid over top. I don’t have to hold back what I know. They don’t deny what they already accept.
My father was a watcher. But by the time I was nine, he missed warnings signs I’d begun flagging in front of him. What my father didn’t notice and my mother denied shaped my future. The turmoil this caused derailed how I self-expressed. A child in conflict is left with few options.
I became a liar.
I want to tell you lying started out little white-like. That I occasionally cried wolf or the fish got bigger in retold legends. But my lies were astounding fictions.
Lies built walls and closed me away, became my hiding place, and though child-lying is obvious, it emboldened me. With age, practice, and a shrewd ability to evaluate others, by high school, I was a damned good liar.
Keeping the details straight exhausted me. Compulsively shifting narratives, dodging peoples’ suspicions. To be caught in a lie struck a fear in me, yet not more frightening than having my truth exposed. I would do anything to protect it. Anything.
Off at art school, oil painting, and habitually denied sleep, the hairline cracks in my thinking began to dissemble it. Lies distracted my restless, hungry mind—the mind I thought I was starting to lose.
By the time I dropped out of my senior year in college, I had mastered lying. I lied so completely the words fooled everybody. Lies became my superego and spokeswoman. I lied when it wasn’t even needed. The compulsion was flexed and ready. If backed into a corner, a lie came out swinging.
* * *
Now a part-time department store and daycare worker, a nanny, and a full-time education student, I could sneak away one night a week for group therapy. I took the #5 bus to Salem Ave. United Way for low cost therapy. The very first bus ride— about midway—the driver stopped and picked up a mousey girl with a slight limp. Miles later, I pulled the cord, stood until the driver lurched to a stop, and I stepped forward. Down at the second bus door, I noted Mouse Girl doing the same. We exited the bus and walked wordlessly together.
* * *
The group scraped chairs into a circle. We sat in an awkward silence until a bubbly therapist burst in and introduced herself, then encouraged us to do the same. We named off counter clockwise, all fifteen of us, except for one. The therapist introduced this woman who sat, knitting, as “Ruby,” and moved on to the business of how we would honor confidentiality. For the next six months of Wednesdays, Ruby knitted without looking up, come whatever #MeToo share swirled around her.
During this momentous first group therapy, fifteen minutes into the session, a tiny knock interrupted one woman’s confession. The therapist looked rattled, and quickly met a colleague at the door. Whispers passed between the huddle. Someone had arrived late. When the therapist turned and offered the new member a seat, it was Mouse Girl standing there more bent and looking feeble with a pained face. The therapist patted and fawned the newcomer as they walked into our circle.
Ladies, this is Penny.
Penny missed her bus and had to walk over a half an hour just to get here!
The group sighed. Poor thing. How awful.
Penny limped large, arduous steps to an empty chair, ladies praising her efforts.
Her dress was maroon, closely formed to her shape. Skin, the color of limestone. Brown hair, frizzing in the August haze cupped her small shoulders. As she turned to ease down into the chair, she spotted me. Her eyes narrowed. Gold, like my brother’s and nervous. I stared at my caught mouse.
* * *
That’s the night I changed my life.
Riding home on the bus, without Penny accompanying me, I realized how much we were alike. She lied and made people sympathize with her. She needed their immediate affection just to be able to join in a circle, because being herself was too frightening. When I saw my reflection behaved back at me, I swore this oath:
I will never lie again.
I’ve stuck to it. Okay, okay. Saying Santa is real to a three-year-old, yes. I’m feeling great today when I’m not, those little fibs, they happen. But otherwise, I speak the truth.
When I committed to truth, I stuck to group therapy and waited for the day Penny would return or Ruby would dare speak. Ruby only shared once. She’d grown up in a farm house with all brothers. I kept my eyes focused on the nubby yarn, pulling through her fingers in even strokes. Knitting needles scraped with each word.
I’d been so kind, so entertaining to this group, smiling no matter how much emotional pain I incurred. Ruby’s share began to crack the casing that housed me. Tears lifted over and pooled into my smile, but I choked them back and kept smiling. Rage wouldn’t knock loose for many years.
Penny never came back.
* * *
Student teaching back at my prestigious high school, I was daunted to face all those teachers. They wanted me to call them by their first names! How would I escape the ridiculous, lying fool I was back then? I kept reminding myself that my teachers had been saviors during those terrible days. There were truths, there were facts. Learning was real. Even the tragic loss of my close friend was real. Truth showed up in other ways. My singing voice had filled the theatre. My art had decked the walls.
But one hard truth hounded me. Still does. In my two-mile town, schooled with the same people K-12, not one teacher, principal, guidance counselor, coach, not even one mother asked me the question I would have answered.
Is somebody hurting you?
When my teachers introduced me to Tom Auten one Friday lunch in mid-May, I was struck in love at first sight. I had a smudge of art charcoal on my nose. Our first date—after the movie—we drove down to the river, sat with the top down by the Carillon Bells, and talked. When bugs started biting, we retreated to his little house, sprawled out on his carpet, and told each other all our shit. We both had loads.
A few months after our confessional, Tom and I were engaged.
I’ve spent my life with the one person who knows all my truth and he loves every part of it. I want to tell you Tom’s love restores all ails. That faith heals. Time is a balm. But I don’t lie.
Restoration is tiring work, gathering the broken pieces and overcoming the damage I endured.
Some days, I wonder who I’d be if I hadn’t needed to protect myself, if I hadn’t been The Liar. What body of art I would’ve created, where my stage career would have taken me? These reflections aren’t grand schemes to diffuse the dull ache of a well-educated wannabe. I remember what it felt like before I lost me.
I take comfort in the small details: how I can stop a baby from crying with one smile, how I can finally hug, how dogs adore me. I’m great at jury selection, keenly aware of the out-of-tune, able to closely match colors. I can smoke out schemes, sleuth plots, solve them, feel when change is coming, sense evil.
When teaching, my classroom is a safe place. I’ll protect every child. Protection is of great importance to me. Mess with my sons, regardless of the consequences, I’ll take you down. And there’s more. I’m a forever friend. My ability to spot trouble helps me know who to keep at a distance. And, yes, pay attention to the men I keep close to me. They are quality.
Learning to trust women hasn’t come as easily.
* * *
Recently, I attended the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Portland. At the loving suggestion of a writing mentor, I attended a panel discussion titled: “Writing the Mother Wound.” Close friend and CNF writer, Mireya S. Vela and I entered the large presentation room already filled. Women spilled to the sides, lined the walls, and bunched in the corners.
Mothers are in trouble.
Mireya and I slid to the floor and listened. The presenters shared raw words, exposing their mother rage. These women voiced the forbidden, complex expressions never allowed. I stared at the rungs of a chair. My body, still, breath even. I closed my eyes and listened as poets and essayists spoke for me.
Why didn’t you help me?
Then I heard it. Weeping. Beside me, above, reverberating against the walls, with breath and heat: rows of women emoting and heaving. I didn’t move. I couldn’t. But these women moved me.
Somedays I wonder who I’d be had I not grown up with secrets and shame. Would I be a person who scoffs at the hyper-vigilant-touched, who turns her head away and waves people off?
* * *
I am the daughter of a man with deep sight. Combined with my own hyper-vigilance, not much slips past my view. But my wrecked childhood slipped past his. My father was devastated to learn he hadn’t protected me. The news diminished him.
I wanted to rewind, get back to the moment before he knew, when I didn’t feel dirty and used. This was the man who respected my opinions, valued my thinking, whose face lit up when I entered a room. I just wanted my Daddy back.
I wanted to lie.
Need help? R.A.I.N.N. says, “Visit online.rainn.org to chat one-on-one with a trained RAINN support specialist, any time 24/7.”
Andrea Auten is a writer and a visual | performing artist. A writing specialist for Antioch University Los Angeles, she is an Associate Managing Editor for Lunch Ticket Literary and Art Journal. She lives with her husband, sons, and beloved writing partner, Dusky, the family cat, where she is currently working on a collection of short stories. @AndreaAutenArts | andreaauten.com |
His name was Nicolas. We called him “Greek God.” It was 1995, pre-Facebook and we huddled in a dorm room, perusing a glossy, thin booklet displaying headshots of over 500 Vassar freshmen. Instead of chugging tepid beer at a nearby party, our friend group, a motley crew who shared little in common except that we were all beneficiaries of generous financial aid packages, ate greasy pizza and doled out nicknames for classmates we’d noticed from afar but hadn’t yet met. “Drama Girl” for a willow-thin young woman who wrapped Pucci silk scarves around her Manhattan prep-school crown of chestnut highlights. “Greenwich Boy” for a trust-fund kid with green hair who dressed like Billy Idol and wore a pierced safety pin through his chapped bottom lip. And finally, there was “Greek God,” a rumored Austrian count by way of Palm Beach, Florida and Findlay, Ohio. Nicknames were saved for other first-years we found exotic and intimidating. Rich kids more sophisticated than us and therefore, more beautiful and deserving of a spot on a campus where they vacuumed fallen leaves and dried twigs off the rolling lawns each morning.
Over the course of the semester, we eventually called them by their given names, yet for me, “Greek God” stuck. He looked the part with his gelled, flaxen curls, a pronounced, aquiline nose, and a smile both wide and broad that dominated his year-round sun-kissed face. Nicolas wasn’t much taller than me, maybe 5’10”, but his posture was like a dancer, and his broad shoulders and slim waist made him appear more formidable. And then there were his clothes: a seemingly never-ending array of Prada loafers, skin-tight Armani slacks, Versace jackets with swirls of turquoise and gold.
One particularly bleak February afternoon, I was walking back to my dorm from class and I spotted him across the empty quad. He pranced toward me along the slush-lined path wearing sumptuous black leather Chelsea boots and the most beautiful camel mohair coat I’d ever seen. A cashmere scarf trailed behind him like a Pride flag rippling in the icy wind. Nicolas must’ve noticed me staring, mouth agape, because he shot me a glance and then a wry, knowing smile that said, I dare you to look at me. I immediately shut my eyes and turned away, my nose in the air. He was fully out and I was only halfway there and resented his bravery. I was also jealous of all the things he had that I lacked: wealth, white privilege, ridiculously good looks, confidence. In any case, I decided that day to hate him and for the remainder of my college career, I went out of my way to ignore him whenever I saw him on the quad or at parties. At the time, I’d recently read Marx and Weber and saw myself as a budding Democratic Socialist, despite that I’d spent all of my summer barista tips on new clothes at J. Crew and Urban Outfitters. And because of this, I thought I was better than him. In my mind, Nicolas was part of the evil capitalist class with his silver BMW three-series and a wardrobe of showy designer clothes. Meanwhile, I strived to be an understated, yet stylish, social justice warrior who just happened to know the brand names of everything he wore and drove.
For the next two decades, we didn’t cross paths nor did he cross my mind much. Then a few months ago, I woke to find a former classmate had posted a news article about him on Facebook. The story said he’d worked as the personal assistant to the head of an investment bank and had stolen over a million dollars’ worth of wine from his employer. After hiding out in Brazil, Morocco, and Italy for fourteen months, he was arrested at the Los Angeles airport and transported to the LA County Jail, the latter of which just happened to be where I worked as the Senior Fellow, charged with improving healthcare delivery for inmates. In my pre-caffeinated morning haze, none of the story’s pieces made sense. Wasn’t he Austrian Royalty? If he was so rich, why was he working as a modern-day butler? I swiped through the article for photos of him but was disappointed to find none.
When I arrived at my office at the county jail’s healthcare division, I cancelled my morning staff meeting in order to Google news stories. Article after article portrayed him as a lifelong charlatan with humble midwestern roots. His mother wasn’t an Austrian countess but in fact, operated a self-storage facility. She’d mortgaged her house in Ohio to make his bail. Over the next few hours, I devoured everything I could find online until I realized he was probably in my building. I had to see him. To help him. I wanted to make sure he was housed in one of the LGBTQ wards so to avoid harassment or worse. I asked one of the sheriff’s deputies I’d befriended how to gain access to the jail information database and in my manic fuss, I spilled that I was looking for a college friend.
“Don’t do it,” she said. “That’s called fraternization. You could lose your job. It’s considered breaking the law.”
I returned to my desk crestfallen but decided my mission was worth the risk. I clicked open the database and was about to type his name into the search engine. It dawned on me that I didn’t know what to say to him besides asking whether he felt safe. I then looked down at my battered J. Crew khakis and denim shirt that had recently started buckling against my growing stomach. I was middle-aged, starting to look it, and working in a jail. And though it sounds ridiculous given that he was the one behind bars, I was too ashamed to face him. Besides, what if he didn’t remember who I was? It had been almost twenty years. So I closed the database and returned to work, rationalizing it wasn’t worth risking my livelihood for someone I’d barely known.
Weeks passed and I convinced myself that Nicolas would get off without jail time. Some politician would pardon him or the investment banker would drop charges or the judge would order community service in lieu of time served.
“We live in a country where white people, especially pretty ones, get away with just about everything,” I said to a friend with a dismissive eye-roll.
However, Nicolas made the mistake of doing the one thing you can never get away with in America and that’s steal from the wealthy. In 2008, American bankers bamboozled middle- and working-class folks into billions of dollars’ worth of subprime mortgages and were later gifted a bailout. Around the same time, Bernie Madoff, an investment advisor for the uber-wealthy was caught defrauding his clients and slapped with a maximum sentence of 150 years. One news story reported Nicolas’s mother begged his former employer’s wife to drop the charges. She even promised to repay them for the wine. Purportedly, the investment banker’s wife said it was out of her hands.
On the day of his arraignment, Nicolas checked into the Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan and jumped to his death. A news article reported that he’d called his sister before to say he couldn’t go back to jail. The following day, I called in sick to work. I wallowed in bed wondering if there was something I could’ve said or done to have changed the outcome. And though in retrospect, this rumination was ultimately self-serving, it was my way of mourning someone I didn’t know well but with whom I shared something in common. We were both class traitors. I am the only son of Korean immigrants and, like Nicolas, raised squarely middle-class. We’d clawed our way into an elite liberal arts college historically reputed for educating young women of the leisure class. We strived for lives that outsized our birthright.
This summer, I will fly to New York before riding a Metro-North train to Poughkeepsie for my 20th college reunion. I don’t consider myself a “rah-rah” reunion-type, and despite incessant pleas, my close friends have chosen not to attend. However, there will be a memorial service where we remember those from our class we’ve lost. I hope to light a candle for our Greek God.
Tom Pyun is a writer based in Los Angeles. He was a fellow with Tin House, Vermont Studio Center, Gemini Ink, and VONA/Voices. His work has appeared in The Rumpus, 7×7.la, Joyland, and Blue Mesa Review and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and a Best of the Net award. He is an MFA candidate in fiction at Antioch University.
Sometime in the past week or so, I hit a funk. I decided to catch a few extra minutes of sleep in the morning and it quickly became a few extra hours. It can easily be dismissed as having a lazy day. Or a lazy week. Or a month. It doesn’t bother me that much, at first at least. It only bothers me when it gets out of hand.
The reasons behind the funks can vary, but the feeling is always the same: Exhausted. Overwhelmed. Tired. Frustrated. In summary, not giving a fuck. I stopped giving a fuck years ago, but the feeling is more aggressive nowadays. When you can go without taking a quick shower for three days, you know you’ve reached peak apathy. It’s also the time when you know that you need to take a goddamn bath.
It’s clear at this point that the funks need to be addressed, but they always take a backseat to everything else. It didn’t seem like too much of an issue. It can be worked around, or helped out with other things. It’s no big deal.
And then I couldn’t write a damn thing.
* * *
It’s hard enough to find the time to write. It’s even worse when you can’t find the motivation. The funk muddles the process, makes it excruciating to get through. It’s a miracle to concentrate on anything for more than a minute. I stare at the screen, willing the words to arrive before I give up and move on to something else. Anything else. Even then, the breaks turn into a distraction from getting anything done, then to an excuse to not do anything at all.
Part of it is the perfectionist in me. I get so caught up in the idea of what I want to write that I get nothing done. The other part is that I live in a house that is never quiet. Calm has no place in this house when family is in it. I’m used to chaos, but this chaos has no order. It shows no mercy and for what I know, there’s no end to it. After a while, despite my struggles, the chaos seeps into my calm and warps it into something disgusting. Something toxic. Writing becomes the last thing I want to do.
* * *
It doesn’t take long for the funk to manifest itself. My bedroom serves as an indicator of what I’m going through. When it gets bad—when I can’t walk the two feet from my bed to my door without tripping over whatever the hell my cat knocked over this time—that’s the sign that I’m in a bad place.
I was scrolling aimlessly through my Facebook feed two summers ago when I came to this realization. A friend who was probably going through her own funk mentioned how the state of your room usually represents the state of your mind. It spoke to me for obvious reasons; my bedroom was currently a biohazard and I was behind on my writing. Before I came across the post, I never fully considered that my lack of motivation could be something else.
It was in the comments of that post that I found the solution to that problem. A minor solution, at least.
* * *
Once you get past the title of the website, Unfuck Your Habitat is a helpful kick in the ass. Browse long enough and you’ll come across a section titled “The Depression/Messy House Cycle”. I don’t recall finding the page on my first visit; I remember looking it up on Tumblr and finding post after post of before and after photos of bedrooms, kitchens, closets. I came across a challenge that sounded like a good place to start: make your bed as soon as you wake up.
The morning after, I started making my bed. The first attempt was sloppy; the bedsheet was hanging off my mattress haphazardly, the pillows were lumpy and in need of pillowcases, and an eighth of it was taken up by books and clothes I haven’t bothered to put away yet. But it was still an attempt.
Over time, I started putting in more of an effort. I tucked in the sheets. I removed the large pile of books from the foot of my bed to its proper place on my desk. Eventually, I began making efforts to keep my desk organized, put my clothes away properly, vacuum the floor. The room was still messy, but I could at least see the bottom of my floor now.
* * *
On the worst day of my current funk, I spent the better part of my morning staring aimlessly into space under the guise of watching terrible movies. Maybe it was the movie itself or I got tired of doing nothing, but whatever the reason I reached for my phone, set the timer for twenty minutes, and began clearing the floor. I set the timer a few more times, cleaning up the room until I got tired of setting the timer.
Obviously, tidying up your space doesn’t solve everything. It helps me get out of my funk, but it doesn’t keep it from returning. I’m still in that funk from last week, and while I’m back to getting out of bed the moment I wake up, it’s still a struggle to focus on the important things. It’s still a process, but I’m okay with that.
Lily Caraballo is a graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing Program at Antioch University Los Angeles and a figure model. She is a staff member of Lunch Ticket, a former contributor for Black Girl Nerds, and is featured in the anthology My Body, My Words: A Collection of Bodies. She lives in Los Angeles with her cat.
I rifled through the plastic container, searching for the perfect nail to affix my handmade sign to the tree. Renee, my partner in crime, stood to my right holding the “NO Gas Station!” signs that we’d just made in my garage. She seemed unconcerned about the vehicles that whizzed by a few feet from us, but I noticed the drivers who stared at us quizzically as they paused at an adjacent stop sign. We must’ve been a curious sight, the two of us, traipsing around that wooded lot in sweatpants and sneakers. She, the retired social worker and seasoned community organizer. Me, the former executive and reluctant activist, wondering just how I’d ended up here.
* * *
This isn’t the story of a girl who undergoes an emotionally linear transformation from working for the establishment to leading protest marches. It would be simpler if I told it that way. It just wouldn’t be true. And that’s not usually how it happens anyway, is it? While most good stories have an inflection point that sets the protagonist off in some new direction, real life isn’t so black-and-white. We often evolve in fits and starts, over micro millennia, not fully aware of the changes we’re experiencing on a molecular level. And when we are, sometimes yielding, sometimes resisting.
If we’re lucky, when we catch a glimpse of our transformed selves—perhaps, like me, in the reflection of a passing car window—we’ll recognize the new creature we’ve become and embrace her. It’s when we don’t, or won’t, that we can experience identity crisis. According to the clinical definition, identity crises are reserved for adolescents, but I don’t agree with that. I think it’s when your internal identity no longer matches your external reality, and it happens to adults all the time. I’ve witnessed this phenomenon among friends who had to shed their former identities of successful professionals to take on the thankless—and financially perilous—role of caregiver to an ailing parent. The men who lost their status as breadwinners during The Great Recession likely had a similar experience. In retrospect, I’ve had identity crises at multiple stages in my life.
As far as I know, we’re the only species that experiences such neuroses. We think that possessing that level of consciousness makes us superior. But do you know that bugs don’t have identity crises? They are born knowing that they’re not yet what they will be, but also exactly what they will become, so they don’t get attached to identities that will one day no longer fit them. I think that makes them superior.
…the Universe has a will of its own that bends and shapes us in spite of—or perhaps because of—our ambitions.
As for humans, we consider it an act of love and encouragement to tell our offspring that they can become whatever they wish, choose your own adventure. Schools still have Career Days where children are encouraged to pick a label that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. But we don’t usually tell the rest of the story: that the Universe has a will of its own that bends and shapes us in spite of—or perhaps because of—our ambitions. When that sculpting process reaches its conclusion, we must come to terms with the outcome, whatever it may be.
* * *
If you’d met me in high school, you might have predicted that one day I’d be making protest signs in my garage and pissing off the powers that be. But life doesn’t always unfold in the way we expect.
Freshman year had barely started when my troublemaking gene fully expressed itself. I grew up in Pittsburgh where air conditioning was a rare find, and when classes began in the late summer of 1989, it was stifling hot. As if the lack of AC wasn’t bad enough, some sadistic bureaucrat had decided that we weren’t allowed to wear shorts to school. We were miserable and complained openly about this undeserved oppression. So I circulated a petition demanding that the school change its policy and allow us to wear shorts. I don’t remember how many signatures I collected, but it was enough that I felt confident presenting them to our harried principal, and in what seemed like record time, our demands were met! We could wear shorts, the authoritarians decreed, but not more than one inch above our knees, or we risked being sent home. We reveled in this small victory even though school administrators refused to give us credit for it, lest we allow our newfound power to go to our heads. I parlayed that win into formal leadership roles at school and honed my reputation as someone who wasn’t afraid to speak truth to power.
At home, my parents were sticking it to The Man in their own right. After my father had run unsuccessfully for school board, he and my mother organized with other parents to sue the Pittsburgh Public Schools for discriminating against black students. Through years of persistence and a lot of data, they succeeded in having the school system placed under a consent decree to correct its racist disciplinary practices.
With my whole family’s community organizing bona fides firmly established, I departed for college. As it is on many college campuses, protest was a relatively common occurrence at my historically black university. I marched on at least three different occasions during my undergraduate years. Except for one, I don’t even remember why. I assume I believed in the causes I marched for, but I was likely also influenced by the energy of the moment and by the fact that I was a columnist and an editor for my college newspaper—so it made for great material.
* * *
At some point between protesting on campus and taking a job with a public/private partnership, I had made a choice: to try and change the system from within. I don’t remember it being a conscious decision, but it is a common rationalization. I made this decision without irony and resolved to be a champion for representation, excellence, integrity, and efficiency. Regardless of the story I told myself, however, I couldn’t deny that I was no longer anybody’s activist.
Regardless of the story I told myself, I couldn’t deny that I was no longer anybody’s activist.
As I wrestled with this internal conflict, I colored outside the lines by challenging the status quo and occasionally pissing off a superior. In fact, I may have been the most outspoken and nonconformist senior manager many of my colleagues had worked with. At the time, I cast it as part of my change agent identity, but I think it was also a way to reassure myself that I had not completely abandoned my activist principles.
Once I transitioned from local government to entrepreneurship in 2013, I struggled to find my place. In more ways than one, I was questioning who I was and where I belonged. I became a hashtag activist, signing Change.org petitions and reposting #BlackLivesMatter memes, but I clung to my identity as an insider. I suppose I was attempting to hold on to the respectability (and income) that comes with working inside the system. Besides, I rationalized, not everyone could effectively manage large, complex institutions, so wouldn’t my talents be put to better use there?
* * *
It was in late 2016 that I found myself at my first Black Lives Matter event. The specific atrocity that prompted me to attend, I don’t recall, but I do remember that my soul was tired. The names and faces of black people murdered by police tormented me. The occasion was billed as a self-care event, a safe space for us to come together and heal from the violence and neglect directed toward the black community. My spirit wanted and needed to be there, but my conscience berated me: These people are tired because they’ve been doing the work, it screamed. What have you been doing? Go home! I shifted in the pew and looked around at the faces in the small church where we’d gathered. I winced at the thought that the young white activists sitting next to me had more of a right to be there than I did. After chatting with them for a few minutes, I trudged to a workshop that started off with some deep breathing exercises. Then we went around the room sharing what had brought us there that day. I made a self-conscious confession about my inadequate involvement in the community. It seemed even more pitiful once a young woman shared tearfully about her boyfriend, a veteran, who had been killed by a police officer while naked, unarmed, and in mental distress.
That event became a turning point for me, and I joined some grassroots groups in my community. I even became the president of one. Still, I strongly favored roles that depended on my professional skills: strategic planning, writing policy statements and press releases, running meetings, and moderating panels. Until a need arose that compelled me to step outside of my comfort zone. I and many residents were dismayed by what we perceived to be our city administration ignoring the will of the community and violating commonly accepted ethics. In my professional role, I had addressed elected officials at public meetings more times than I could count. I had even been verbally attacked and disparaged and didn’t back down or lose my cool because that was the job. But when I stepped to the podium as a citizen, I stumbled over my handwritten notes as if it were my first time. My message still found its mark, but a realization weighed on me: I had just come out as an activist. There was no going back now.
So earlier this year, when my neighbors and I learned of an unwanted development in the works during a town hall meeting, I sprang into action. An out-of-state developer wanted to put in a gas station and convenience store on an improperly zoned lot smack in the middle of our heavily residential neighborhood. The community had fought them off once before, but now they were back and receiving the covert assistance of our city officials to complete the project. The thought of underground fuel tanks threatening a nearby stream, tankers barreling down our already-neglected neighborhood streets and a busy establishment on a treacherous stretch of road was too much for us to bear. I scribbled out a petition and circulated it around the meeting room to my angry neighbors. Renee and I joined forces, and in short order there was a small coordinating committee, flyers, a huge turnout at the next City Council meeting, and, of course, the signs.
In a stunning about-face, the mayor announced that the city would no longer support the convenience store project and would instead purchase the land from the developer and turn it into a neighborhood park. This was less than two weeks after we organized our opposition. I guess even a reluctant activist can be effective.
* * *
Once Renee and I had finished hanging up the last sign, we waited for oncoming cars to pass so we could cross the road. It was then that I caught a glimpse of myself in the window of a passing SUV and felt the familiar sting of self-consciousness. Was this how I wanted to advocate for change? As a community organizer in sweatpants rather than a policymaker in a business suit?
In all honesty, my answer is still “No.” Even after a major community organizing victory, I have to admit that I am much more comfortable in a boardroom than I am at a protest. I realize that my sculpting process is not yet complete, and I do not know who I will be when it is. What I do know is that whoever I become, I want to embrace her without shame or insecurity. For now, activism is the assignment the Universe has given me, so that is how I will serve. I’m still working on the reluctant part.
A.D. Lowman is a management professional, consultant, and community leader. Her leadership and career advice has been featured in Essence, Money, and Diversity Woman magazines. She is pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing at Antioch University Los Angeles where she serves as a blogger, interviewer, and assistant web team manager for Lunch Ticket.
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