This is a social construct.

Ever since the election I can’t stop thinking about social constructs. When I was in school we often joked about how first years were obsessed with the idea that gender was a social construct. It’s true, but just because something is a social construct doesn’t mean it has no real world consequences.

And yet, as I see executive order after executive order passed limiting everything from immigration from predominantly muslim countries to hiring of federal employees, I can’t help but think about how we collectively create much of our own reality. Without the consent of the governed, Donald Trump is nothing but a man writing his personal opinion on some paper. Democracy doesn’t work unless we all agree to act within it’s constraints.

But this isn’t just about Donald Trump, but also the system that gave him legitimacy. It’s about capitalism, an economic system that thrives on the exploitation on low-wage and unpaid workers. It’s about how we understand success in this system. Our collective understanding of success is about financial gain and acquiring assets such as homes and vehicles. It’s about money itself. The value of stocks in the stock market is more often then not influenced by public perception of the well-being of a company. As more of our banking goes online it becomes clear that money is nothing more than numbers on a screen.

I think about this while I sit at work day after day. I think about how some days I am sick or exhausted or depressed. I think about the sunny days when I would rather be outside finding beauty in our world. I think about how if I didn’t have my job I would be able to pay rent or buy food or afford health insurance. In a capitalist system our ability to exist is literally determined by the labor we provide. It disadvantages so many women, people of color, poor folks, and people with disabilities.

So why do we agree to these structures? After all, our participation is essential to keeping these institutions powerful. What if we all chose to withdraw our consent from oppressive systems that we exist under? What would the world look like?

For the most part I think we either don’t realize our own power within these systems, or else are afraid about what follows that kind of revolution. We stay with the devil we know because we can’t imagine what a more egalitarian system would look like, or because we have achieved small success in this system and don’t want to forfeit our privileges.

And yet I think as more and more people become dissatisfied with our society, it will become our responsibility to construct new realities where we value people more than labor, and relationships more than monetary gain. Where we understand identity politics to be less about the individual and more about our collective definition of what labels represent. Where we understand how different facts and theories have been shaped by their historic context, and where we allow them to change as we do.

I think it is hard to change how we imagine the world and I think it takes a lot of time. But I also believe we all have the power to create change. Through art and theory and conversation and protest we put our ideas out into the world and allow them to germinate and be influenced by others, and slowly transform what we understand to be truth.

That is what it means to be a social construct. And idea is built by many and with it comes consequence.

This is what a white feminist looks like

“What’s the difference between feminism and white feminism?” My friend asked me in a text message. She had been looking at the Women’s March website, and she didn’t fully understand the distinction. I sat there for a while, staring at my phone, trying to figure out whether it was possible to hazard an explanation the length of a text message. I decided it was too complicated, something we needed to discuss in person.

Several days later, I found myself in a sea of pink hats, in the middle of our nation’s capital, trying to find my way to Independence Ave. When I arrived at the Women’s March on Washington, I had no idea where to go. Every street in every direction was flooded with demonstrators, numbering in the hundreds of thousands. I had to stand on my tip-toes to see the mega screen projecting live videos of the rally’s speakers—at times barely audible over the noise of chatting marchers. As I stood there, I was struck by the celebratory atmosphere of the event. All around me were women laughing and hugging and screaming like they were in the audience of a live broadcast of Rachael Ray. We deserve to celebrate ourselves, I coached myself, trying not to be cynical.

I tried to focus on the dizzying display of badass intersectional feminists leading the rally. Black, brown, Latina, native, disabled, formerly incarcerated, undocumented, queer, and trans women took to the stage to proclaim their truths, representing social justice organizations and movements that have been doing the good work for a long time, and will continue to do so in the years to come. When they announced that Angela Davis was about to take the stage, I nearly lost my shit.

“At a challenging moment in our history,” Angela began, “let us remind ourselves that we the hundreds of thousands, the millions of women, trans-people, men and youth who are here at the Women’s March, we represent the powerful forces of change that are determined to prevent the dying cultures of racism and hetero-patriarchy from rising again.”

March, march, march, the white demonstrators around me began chanting, drowning out the rest of Angela Davis’s speech.

March, march, march, march, they screamed, waving their pink “Pussy Grabs Back” signs and performing various renditions of the white woman two-step.

If these women had quieted down for a moment, they might have heard Angela when she explained that “This is a country anchored in slavery and colonialism, which means for better or for worse the very history of the United States is a history of immigration and enslavement.”

They might have stopped to wonder what progress has and has not been made for women of color since that day in 1970 when Angela Davis was arrested by the FBI for crimes she did not commit.

They might have considered, for a moment, who and what deserved celebrating. Was it really their pink pussies? Their privileged white daughters decked out in North Face jackets? Their collective, and questionably phrased, “girl power”? Or was it the fact that up on that stage, women of all colors, genders, sexual orientations, and creeds were bravely sharing their stories and fighting for a world where justice and equality were not only ideals, but realities for all women?

I am a cis, white woman, a lesbian, and an intersectional feminist. As a liberal-progressive woman, I am not automatically entitled to the feminist label. It is something I fight for, challenge, question, and talk about on a daily basis. And the more I consider the weight of that label, the more I believe that feminism without a radical basis of anti-racist, anti-oppression work is not actually feminism at all.

Feminism is not just “the radical idea that women are people,” it is the radical idea that all people—especially women—deserve justice.

Or, to put it another way, white feminism is not truly feminism.

I am proud of what we accomplished this Saturday. I am proud that people showed up in the smallest towns and the biggest cities, in the snow and rain, wearing their rainbow flag capes and their purple lipstick, bringing their partners, their children, their parents, and their radical politics. I am proud that the organizers of the Women’s March espoused a truly intersectional platform. I am proud that people chanted Black Lives Matter and wore American Flag hijabs.

But for all feminists, new and old, this is only the beginning of a long fight. As a white feminist, I am humbled by all the work I haven’t been doing, and energized to begin showing up—in the streets, in meetings, in my community—to make justice a reality. I hope that all those two-stepping, pussy-hat-wearing white feminists who showed up at the Women’s March will do the same.

*Cover photo courtesy of Flyah Angelou

 

 

When writing isn’t enough

Ever since I can remember, I have taken to my notebook in times of despair. I remember the night of March 20, 2003 when the U.S. invaded Iraq, because after sitting in the living room with my parents, watching a foreign sky lit up in shades of alien green, I locked myself in my room and pulled out my notebook. I was ten years old at the time. There were tears in my eyes, and fears lodged deep in my belly. I didn’t know exactly what to say, so I just began writing. What came out was a fictional story about a young Iraqi girl, running from her home as bombs fell around her. I don’t remember much else about the story. All I remember is that it mattered to me more than anything else I had ever written. And somehow, it helped me to get through the night.

Writing has always been the place where I feel like my truest self. The place where my tender heart can be at its most tender, and not fall apart. The place where I can watch it breaking, and still feel, somehow, whole.

I have notebooks full of letters to people who never knew I wrote them. There were things I needed to say, so I said them to the page. Sometimes I wonder where I’d be if those words had ever been spoken, or shared. But the truth is, they weren’t meant to be spoken, or shared. They were meant to be honored.

My friend sent me a picture the other day. It was a plaque from an art exhibit she had visited, and the theme of the piece was solitude. “To transit a moment of solitude,” it said, “is to tarnish the ascetic soul. But to let it burrow in and remain private can allow you to learn and unlearn the lessons as dictated only by the self.”

I have done plenty of burrowing, I thought to myself. And my ascetic soul is very much in tact.

But it is also lonely.

What were the lessons? I wondered. The lessons I learned and unlearned, alone with myself?

What was the lesson I learned from writing that story about the young Iraqi girl? Was it empathy? Was it pity? Was it compassion?

What was the lesson I learned from all those unsent letters? How much I had been hurt? How I could have protected myself? How I had failed to protect, and to truly seek, those whom I had so desperately loved?

And what was the lesson I learned when there came a time to stop writing? When there were no longer any words to be put on the page? When I woke up on Wednesday morning and went to my people instead of my pen? When I took to the streets instead of my study? When I sent out donations instead of words?

The lesson I learned was that some lessons can’t be learned alone. Some wounds can’t be fixed by bedrest. Some heartaches can’t be solved by ink.

Our nation is aching, and there are so many lesson we have still to learn. So many lessons I have still to learn.

But when the time comes for me to open my notebook again, it will not be to hide. It will not be to dodge hurt, or quarantine pain. It will be to look within myself for the achings of the world. To look within myself for hatred, greed, and anger. To see these qualities for what they are: human, and eradicable. And by seeing them for what they are, to understand how love is the strongest weapon we have. Not love in the sense of affection, or sacrifice, or possession, but love in the sense of liberation.

Love as all the ways our freedom is bound up with one another’s.

Love as the courage to speak, and the courage to hear.

Love as tenderness.

Love as light.

Some thoughts on the election, in no particular order 

1. I woke up this morning in the arms of my girlfriend, and I thought “how could anyone hate this thing we have, this sweet early morning thing we have, this warmth against my spine flowing to my heart, this love which has opened up wells inside me, so I always have more love to give?” How could they hate us?

2. My mom told me that she couldn’t remember being this distraught since JFK was shot. She’s not a very political person, but she wept when Hillary lost. I hope she sees a woman president in her lifetime.

3. I want to be empathetic to those who feel disenfranchised by American politics but I’m angry that their vote came at the expense of so many lives.

4. I want to be able to utilize my anger, but my heart is broken and I am tired.

5. I can’t stop thinking about my wrists, and how close my veins are to the surface. We are, all of us, so fragile.

6. “Misfortune had made Lily supple instead of hardening her, and a pliable substance is less easy to break than a stiff one.” -Edith Wharton

7. Sometimes guardian angels are the people organizing protests and writing petitions and organizing resources and offering money and to walk people home. They are everywhere if you are looking for them.

8. We did not start “making things political.” Sodomy laws made death a punishment for being gay in America. Until 2003 you could be arrested for being gay in 14 states. When white people came to the United States they brought black slaves and committed endless atrocities against them. They committed genocide against Native Americans for land.  Disability was treated with institutionalization which was often violent. Marital rape wasn’t criminalized until the 1970s, around the same time women received the legal ability to apply for credit separately from their husbands. All of this was legal. They made our bodies political, and our ancestors had to fight for our freedom. We are still fighting. We will not stop being political until we are all liberated. (My liberation can not ever come at the expense of anyone else’s).

9. For all the disagreements I had with her, I feel for Hillary Clinton. The sexism she experienced (has experienced, is experiencing) on a national stage has been an unsettling reminder of how we value ambitious women. I hope I channel her steely perserverence. I hope somebody has hugged her and told her she matters.

10.  You matter. You are valid. You are good. You are not monstrous or disgusting. You are not dangerous, except to the heterosexist white supremecist ableist transmisogynist system. You are a brilliant offering to the world around you. Your resilience is inspiring. Your vulnerability in the face of hate is breathtaking. You are cared for and loved. It is not alright now but I will fight to make it alright to you, wherever you are.

All my love,

Marnie

Intentional Communities and Why We Need Them

In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates describes Howard University, the historically black college he attended, as “The Mecca.” This sacred place, Coates tells us, was the “crossroads of the black diaspora.”

I first witnessed [its] power out on the Yard, he writes, that communal green space in the center of the campus where the students gathered and I saw everything I knew of my black self multiplied out into seemingly endless variations. There were the scions of Nigerian aristocrats in their business suits giving dap to bald-headed Qs in purple windbreakers and tan Timbs. There were high-yellow progeny of AME preachers debating the clerics of Ausar-Set… It was like listening to a hundred different renditions of “Redemption Song,” each in a different color and key.

What interests me about Coates’ description of the Mecca is not so much what it says about Howard University, in particular, but rather, what it says about the continued need for intentional communities, built around shared identities that are, and have been for centuries, under siege.

I say under siege because I don’t want anyone to confuse my argument with a general apology for narrow-mindedness, at best, and xenophobia, at worst. White Lives Matter and Men’s Rights Activists have nothing to do with what I’m saying, and everything to do with what I’m trying to say. There is nothing simple about the intentional communities of which I speak, but there is something sacred about them, and it is to this sacredness that I wish to speak.

I went to a women’s college. The usual response when I shared this news with my fellow high school students was “I’m soooo sorry!” or “But how will you meet boys?” or “Are you religious?” or just plain “Why?” At the time, my answers to their questions were evasive. Living under the false impression that I was straight, I took their concern about meeting boys as well-intentioned, answered that there were men at the other colleges in the area, told them that I was not, in fact, religious, and explained that I had chosen the school for its academic merits.

I was not lying, not exactly, but what I said to them was untrue.

I went to a women’s college because women had been at the center of my existence for as long as I could remember, because the company of women was the only place I felt like I could truly be myself, because the night I visited Mount Holyoke College for the first time, I sat around a table with women from all walks of life, with long curly hair and shaved heads, a knack for chemistry and a love of Latin, crosses around their necks and hijabs on their heads, talking about their girlfriends, boyfriends, partners, lovers, and everything in between, about their latest lacrosse game, or an interview with a corporate bank, or a new DNA pattern they had just discovered, or the way it felt to look at the stars in wintertime. I went to a women’s college because I needed women plural to understand how I, a woman singular, was actually just myself, and could choose the words to name this self with no regard for other’s projects or prejudices. I went to a women’s college to find out that there was no one way to be a woman, that it was alright not to be a “woman” at all, that this word was both the most important and most contested word I would ever use to describe myself, and that this contestation was perfectly alright—that it was, in fact, encouraged.

I am reticent to draw the connection between Coates’ description of Howard University and my own experiences at Mount Holyoke College, knowing full well that white feminists have too long appropriated the work of black activists and thinkers for their own ends, without giving credit where credit is due. I am also weary of establishing false equivalency—the need for historically black colleges is different in tenor and volume than the need for women’s colleges. The two are not mutually exclusive, nor is one a more important endeavor than the other. Rather, I believe that both spaces offer a lens for understanding the limits of mere inclusion as a catch-all solution for past (and present) oppressions.

We don’t join communities like Howard University and Mount Holyoke College to be with people who are just like us. We join these communities because under the umbrella of a shared identity, we are free to explore our differences. When I entered the gates of Mount Holyoke College, I was free to be more than just “the smart girl.” We were all “the smart girl.” Instead, I could be the eccentric translator. The friend who never forgets your birthday. The figure you see walking around the lake every evening at sunset. The girl who wears her grandmother’s ring and her grandfather’s sport coat. The lover. The joker. The dreamer. Myself.

In the past few weeks, I have been privileged enough to witness the birth of an intentional community here at my place of work. As co-facilitator of an LGBTQ meditation group, I have been deeply moved by the willingness of my peers to explore spirituality in a queer-centered space. For so many of us who identify as queer, religion and spirituality have been sites of oppression and injustice, especially in our childhoods. Though there are numerous spiritual leaders at the front lines of this battle, fighting for the inclusion and full acceptance of queer folks into spiritual communities across the country, there is something particularly sacred about a space where we can explore our spirituality and our sexuality in tandem, without being the only lesbian, or trans woman, or gender non-conforming person in the room. To be able to speak about the pains of missing my ex-girlfriend without secretly worrying that someone is thinking “but she doesn’t look like a lesbian” is more powerful than you might think. To be able to share our stories of tragedy, discovery, and triumph is not only affirming to each of us as individuals, but essential to our continued survival as a community.

We are who we choose to be. I wouldn’t have made it anywhere if I didn’t believe this to be true. And though, too often, choices are made for us in which we have no say, there is ultimately a deeper place where we have the right, and the freedom, to curate our hearts. Whether others recognize or cultivate this freedom is another story. Whether our bodies are safe enough to worry about our hearts is something else entirely. But the hope is that by carving out spaces for fellowship with those who share our identities, we can remember what it feels like to just be ourselves. 

Radical healing, or a room with no doors

Reposted from the Global Spiritual Life tumblr.

The white fathers told us: I think, therefore I am. The black goddess within each of us – the poet – whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free.

I remember the first time I ever read these words in my tattered library copy of Sister Outsider, by Audre Lorde. It was the summer of 2015, and I had just graduated from college. I was back home in Colorado, going through a break-up, counting the days until I boarded a plane and moved to New York City. On my bedside table were two stacks of books. I can still see them in my mind’s eye, their fat and thin bindings creating a tapestry of colors, embroidered with words.

I feel, therefore I can be free, I said aloud to myself, over and over again. I feel, therefore I can be free.

I carried these words around like a mantra, thinking that maybe if I said them enough, I could make them come true. I certainly had no shortage of feelings. I woke up crying, went to bed crying, walked around my neighborhood crying, sat in my room crying. Later, sadness would be joined by anger, resentment, shame, and fear.

“Acceptance,” writes author Cheryl Strayed, “is a small, quiet room.”

But after a few months, I began to see that mine was not the only room. Peeking out of the door that I had closed on myself, I began to see a whole world of doors, a whole world of rooms where people wept, and prayed, and screamed, and wrote secret notes on the corners of the wall. Rooms that I could not enter, rooms that had long been empty, rooms with their doors left ajar, rooms full of light.

I came to discover these rooms because of meditation. That summer, books weren’t the only thing that kept me afloat. It was also the summer that I came to the practice of meditation. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I knew that my cushion was one of the only places where I felt truly safe. In the months that followed, as I began sitting in the community and reading work by teachers near and far, I felt the same way about the practice of meditation that I had felt reading the words of Audre Lorde. I knew that I had discovered something true, but I also knew that there was still so much more to learn.

This past Wednesday, as I sat down for an LGBTQ meditation sit at my school, I felt nervous and excited about the opportunity to practice in community. Though I meditate on a daily basis, I have struggled to find a steady sangha, and I hoped that I had finally found a place I could come home to. When our teacher, Danielle Saint-Louis, pulled out her own copy of Sister Outsider, I knew I had found what I was looking for. When she opened the book to the very same passage that had touched me one year before, I knew that I could finally hear these words as more than just an affirmation of my own particular sorrow. I could hear them as a call for radical love, the kind of healing that can never be contained in a single room. The kind of healing that opens doors.

It was the dharma that taught me how to sit with my feelings, with my fears, with my suffering, and with my pain. But it was also the dharma that taught me how to rise, how to seek, how to listen, and how to love.

Friends, this is no small lesson. In a world that teaches me my whiteness needs protection at the cost of other lives, it is a radical act to practice healing in community. It is a radical act to practice metta – or loving-kindness – not only on the cushion, but in our everyday lives. Not just to say that we value the lived stories of those who experience oppression, including our own, but to listen deeply to these stories, to investigate honestly the content of our own biases and fears, and to love against the forces that tell us we should hate. Love not as sympathy, or courtesy, or empty words of encouragement. Love as the messy business of accepting that our liberation is tied up in the liberation of others–that liberation cannot exist in a room with no doors.

Audre Lorde was a feminist, a lesbian, a woman of color, a writer, a poet, and an activist. To read her work without recognizing each of these intersecting identities is to undervalue the complexities of her lived story, and to hide away from the complexities of my own. Buddhist meditation is a practice developed and cultivated by people of color. To practice meditation without recognizing this history is to take possession of something that is not mine to take.

Healing is a practice. It is a practice of recognizing and tending to pain, of giving and receiving care, of offering and building strength.

To heal without feeling is to stumble in the dark.

In metta meditation, we offer loving-kindness first to ourselves, then to our loved ones, and then to the world.

May all beings be happy, we say. May all beings be healthy. May all beings be free from harm and suffering. May all beings be at peace.

Healing may start in a small, quiet room. But it does not end there.

Cults, existentialists, and Sci-fi… oh my!

A brief introduction to what we’ve been reading this summer:

Marnie

To be honest, this summer most of what I’ve been reading is fanfiction. I wasn’t super into fanfiction as a teen, but I’m so glad it exists because where else can I find an epic fantasy series about good versus evil and love and redemption, that also has queer characters? Or just a short romantic comedy book where the characters are casually queer? Or one where there is a whole friend group of queer people, as actually happens all the time IRL, and there aren’t any homophobic characters at all? Do you know where I can find these books? Are you writing one of these books? I will read it!! Tell me where it is!!! I’d love some books that reflect my reality, but possibly featuring dragons.

Books Marnie read:

The Girls by Emma Cline

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You’ve probably seen this book around your local bookstores recently. The Girls has gotten a lot of hype since it came out, and I’m always spotting it in New Releases and Bestsellers, but hey you guys! That does not mean this is a vapid fluff book. It is part thriller about a young girl, Evie, spending time with a local cult in the months leading up to a grisly murder, but it is also a story about a teen girl trying to explore her identity and sexuality, and find her own power. It feels out the insecurity of being a young woman in a way that feels very honest and not gimmicky. It explores an intense friendship between Evie and cult member Suzanne, and the line teen girl friendships can straddle between platonic love and romantic and sexual attraction. The Girls takes place in 1969 but still feels relevant.

The book is also interwoven with scenes of adult Evie meeting another teen girl and witnessing the same insecurity and need for approval that she experienced. These sections are much quieter, but I liked how they seem to subtly suggest that very little has changed for teen girls. You all should read this book so I have someone else to talk about it with!

Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende

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This was my first book by Allende and I could not put it down. Island Beneath the Sea is a historical epic that spans the French and Haitian revolutions and the purchase of Louisiana by the United States through the eyes of a plantation owner, Toulouse Valmorain, Zarite, a woman who was born into slavery, and the cast of characters that come in and out of their lives. It is packed with magical realism and is alternately beautiful and brutal, joyful and tragic. It is a book about humanity; the limits of human resilience, and the cruelties that people are capable of.

As an American I feel like most of the stories about the history of slavery are very U.S. centric, so it was a very different perspective to read about how French citizens living in Haiti dealt with changing legislation regarding abolition and citizenship for black and mixed race individuals. I think Western Europe’s history with slavery and racism is often erased, and this book really laid bare some of the attitudes and cruelties inflicted by the French, as well as the culture divide between France and it’s colonies.

Xenogenesis Series by Octavia Butler

 

These books were weird, but as a scifi nerd I loved it. The series takes place after a nuclear war that has made Earth inhospitable for humans. However, humanity has been saved by the alien species, the Ooankali, who will save humanity — but for a price! The first book follows Lilith, a woman who has been chosen by the Ooankali to awaken other humans who have been saved, and help them adapt to coexisting with the alien species on and Earth that will no longer sustain machinery. The following two books follow the pursuits of her children, as they create a new species- part alien, part human. There is a lot of commentary about gender in these books, which is different in the Ooankali than it is in humans. However, most of the plots revolve around breeding and there is some homophobic text that dates these books. I was also a bit uncomfortable with some of the ableism that came across in the alien’s attempt to “improve humanity.” Despite all of that, I did enjoy the series, and especially how it made visceral the grotesqueness that the humans in the book feel in reaction to the utterly alien Ooankali. It felt like a good commentary on how people respond to difference.

Funny note: I got these from the library and the weird 80s covers were SO FUNNY and so infuriating.

Lilith is explicitly a woman of color, and yet the cover looks like some weird lead in to a pulp novel about white lesbians. Also there is just a vagina with a woman’s face coming out of a hill. What is the deal with this???

In the Country We Love by Diane Guerrero

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I had to take a break from Orange is the New Black back in June, but luckily I was able to fill that space with this lovely memoir by cast member Diane Guerrero!

In the Country We Love has the easy to read tone that you’ve come to expect from celebrity memoirs but DAMN is it honest. Guerrero is upfront and personal about the struggle she faced as the daughter of undocumented immigrants, who were deported when she was just 14, leaving her to figure how to live without them in the United States. She discusses her struggles with depression and self harm, as well as the estrangement she felt living 4,000 miles away from her parents. She also talks about her relationships, as well as her love of performing. The book is targeted at a young adult audience, so the writing is not always the most complex, but it is compelling throughout, both a tell-all and a call to action. She describes meeting President Obama, and what compelled her to be honest about her parents immigration status, after hiding her situation all her life.

Diane grew up in Boston, so I enjoyed a few twinges of joy when she mentioned being in places that I am so familiar with, while also gaining a new perspective on the heartbrekaing realities that families face so close to my home.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by JK Rowling

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My sweetie bought be the new Illustrated version of HPSS and we’ve been reading it aloud this summer. Somehow I didn’t notice how incredibly melancholy this book is throughout when I was a child?? And it’s even sadder with some of the beautiful illustrations drawn by Jim Kay (although of course Tumblr has converted me to black Hermione and mixed race Harry, so it’s not quite the dream).

What is sadder than child Harry Potter who has been neglected all his life being surprised when people actually like him? Or Harry seeing his parents in the Mirror of Erised and not recognizing him because his abusive guardians never even showed him a picture of his parents. 

Come on JK. That’s just rude.

Hannah

If you’ve ever talked to me about my reading habits you probably know that I like to choose a “theme” each summer around which to plan my book list, or to choose an author and read his/her entire oeuvre. The summer after third grade I decided to read every piece of Holocaust-related historical fiction that I could get my hands on. The summer after eighth grade I decided to read up on the genocide in Sudan. The summer before I started college I discovered Virginia Woolf. The next summer was In Search of Lost Time… you get the point. My idea of a good summer is to basically find the most depressing and/or most long-winded novels possible, and to read them in my backyard with a cup of hot tea in the hot sun. Is there such a thing as literary masochism? I think I have that.

Books Hannah read (anyone who can guess the theme gets a prize):

At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Others by Sarah Bakewell

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What better way to celebrate a cheery summer day than to ponder being, nothingness, and the utter meaninglessness of human life? Answer: well, lots of ways. But this is the way I chose. For a subject that may seem frightening and inaccessible to many, Sarah Bakewell offers her readers effortless prose that are not only clear, concise, and down-to-earth, but also just plain thrilling! Alright, I know that most of you probably wouldn’t use the word “thrilling” to describe a twentieth-century philosophical movement that basically asks the question: what is the point of life? and answers: there is no point!, but let me tell you, it’s this leftist atheist lesbian’s idea of a good time. What happened in Paris in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, in the aftermath of one of humanity’s darkest moments, was an energetic intellectual exchange between public intellectuals that helped define modern notions of humanity, ethics, and civic responsibility. In a world where God with a capital G no longer seemed to promise peace, understanding, or a way out, the philosophers of the “existential café” sought to create a roadmap for living an ethical life. If this isn’t a good enough reason to read Bakewell’s book, then let me also just remind you that one of the leading figures in the existentialist movement was none other than SIMONE DE FREAKING BEAUVOIR, one of my personal heroes and the author of one of the most important feminist treatises ever written:

The Second Sex (Le Deuxième sexe) by Simone de Beauvoir

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Originally published in 1949, and translated into English in 1953, The Second Sex became a foundational text of the French second-wave. When Simone’s book hit the shelves, French women like herself were still getting used to the fact that they could finally vote. That’s right, France didn’t give women the right to vote until 1944 ! Considering the fact that first-wave feminism had focused much of its intellectual and activist energy on the fight for suffrage, the question now became: what next? Using the philosophical foundations of existentialist theory to build her argument, Simone de Beauvoir not only explored instances of gender inequality in contemporary French society, but conceived of a daring theory of human development: one in which humankind’s most shameful acts could be traced back to the oppression and exploitation of women. Using biology, psychology, human history, anthropology, and even autobiography as her tools of analysis, Simone made it clear that women were considered “the second sex” not because of biological destiny or God-ordained inferiority, but because of the intentional and systematic oppression of women carried out by men over the course of centuries (THE PATRIARCHY).

I’m still working my way through this mammoth text (in the original French), but I promise that this won’t be my last word on the subject.

P.S. If you’re planning on picking up a copy in English, make sure to get the most recent edition, translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier. The original edition was translated, of course, by a man. And of course, he fucked it up. So just get the newest version, okay?

Mémoire de Fille by Annie Ernaux

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I feel like a little bit of an asshole adding this one to the list, because it has yet to be published in English translation. But rest assured, Annie Ernaux’s works have been translated in the past, and I have no doubt that her most recent novel will soon join the list. Mémoire de fille, like all of Ernaux’s novels, is a work of memoir. In order to express the subjective distance that Ernaux feels with her past, she writes about her younger self in the third person. In this case, she is describing her first sexual experience at the age of 18, during her first summer away from home (1958). What I love about Ernaux’s writing is that she chooses a life event, something that made an impact on her psyche, and instead of telling a chronological version of said event, she circles around it, until finally landing in a place that feels unresolved, but yet somehow complete. While admitting to the pitfalls of subjectivity and the fickleness of her own memory, Ernaux also does what few women authors of her time (and ours) were allowed to do: to see her life as valid subject matter for serious literary exploration. In the process, Ernaux reveals shocking truths about being a woman in her time – and ours. For a little teaser, here’s my own translation of the first paragraph:

“There are some people who are submerged in the reality of others, their manner of speaking, crossing their legs, lighting a cigarette. Enmeshed in the presence of others. One day, or maybe one night, they are swept away by the desire and the willpower of one particular Other. The person they thought they were vanishes. They dissolve, watching their reflection act, obey, carried away by the unknown current of things. They are always one step behind the will of the Other. He always has a head start. They will never catch up.”

We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrl to CoverGirl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement by Andi Zeisler

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I’ve spent the last year of my life steeped in stories of the second-wave, and I’ll probably spend the next five years becoming even more steeped, which is exactly why the title of this book caught my attention. Isn’t there something so seductively radical about the bra-burning energy of the 1970s? Do you ever ask yourself: what happened to all of that energy? Andi Zeisler, cofounder of Bitch Media, takes readers through the aftermath of the second-wave, revealing the ways that the children of our bra-burning foremothers carried the torch, let it burn out, and at times, doused it in the cool waters of capitalism. Though the first part of the book, dedicated mostly to media representations of feminism, has plenty to offer to pop-culture savvy readers, I found that Zeisler’s writing really took off about halfway through the book, when she starts exploring the complicated intersections of popular feminism and capitalism. The book is thought-provoking and entertaining, and particularly relevant as #feminism surges into the mainstream.

August is a Wicked Month by Edna O’Brian

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So yeah, I pretty much decided to reread this book for two reasons: the badass cover, and the fact that it was August. I had found this novel on one of those lists of books to read before you die, purchased a tattered used copy (apparently it’s out of print), and read it at the age of fifteen or sixteen, much too young to have any idea what was going on. I’m glad I gave it a second chance, because O’Brian’s writing is stunning, and the portrait she paints of being an Irish woman in the 1960s is, well, devastating. I can best describe it like this: take The Great Gatsby, change the author to an Irish novelist writing in the 1960s, and change the main character to a young divorcé and mother named Ellen, and that is August is a Wicked Month. After her ex-husband takes their son to the countryside for a week of camping, Ellen decides to catch a plane to the South of France, where her only plans are to sleep with as many men as possible, and buy a nice white dress. I wish I could say that things turn out as planned, but then, it wouldn’t be the novel that it is. Just read it, okay?

And finally, because every good themed list needs a book that makes you ask the question: which one is not like the other?…

The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac

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I was back in Colorado for the week, and my parents and I were going camping. Somehow, Simone de Beauvoir and friends just didn’t seem quite right for the woods, so I decided to bring Ol’ Jack along. Jack and I go way back. I saw the original scroll of On the Road at the Denver Public Library back in 2007, ended up reading it during my sophomore year of high school, and continued picking away at his collected works throughout my teenage years. Fast forward to senior year of college, when my feminist conscience is really starting to rev up. I make a pact with myself that I will no longer purchase any book written by a straight white male author, and that I will try my best not to read any books by SWM, purchased or borrowed, if I can help it. I also decide that Jack Kerouac is on my long list of misogynistic assholes whose work does not deserve the attention it has received. Eventually I realized that this was a difficult way to approach life (and literature). I still stand by my book-buying pact, because I can easily borrow those books from the library and spend my money on authors whose voices I feel more urgently deserve to be supported by my dollars. But I recently had a change of heart where Kerouac is concerned.

This summer, the Centre Pompidou in Paris put on an absolutely stunning exhibit called “The Beat Generation.” Almost a decade after I originally saw it, I was faced once again with Kerouac’s famous scroll. There were video screens hanging above it, playing footage of Western landscapes seen from the windows of passing cars. Woodie Guthrie songs were playing on the speakers. I wept and wept and wept for the landscapes of my home. As I walked through the exhibit, I remembered how utterly entranced I had been when I first encountered the works of the Beat Generation. Their womanizing and appropriating of other cultural traditions was flagrant and is still completely upsetting. But/and they also created work that had a serious impact on American culture. Long story short, if you’ve never read Kerouac, and especially if you have any sentimental ties to the American West, you should give Dharma Bums a try. Kerouac is (mostly) celibate throughout the novel, so it’s a little easier to swallow than some of his other, less restrained literary escapades.

 

The Leftovers

Trigger Warning: This post contains discussion of suicidal ideation, major depression, and self-harm. I appreciate the vulnerability of our readership; and encourage you to practice self care when reading this type of post.  Continue reading “The Leftovers”

Living Through a Heat Wave

Let me preface this by saying: I am not someone who enjoys the summer.  Sure, having a break from school is great.  Ice cream is tasty.  Sangria is to-die-for.  But of all the seasons, summer has to be my least favorite.  This has been true ever since I can remember.  For example, I distinctly remember the last day of third grade, packing up my desk in Mrs. White’s classroom and weeping because the school year was over and I just didn’t know what to do with myself.  Two years later, I had a mini-existential crisis as fifth grade came to a close and I convinced myself that this meant “saying goodbye to my childhood.”  In high school, things were looking up.  I busied myself with dance classes and camping trips with my best friends, learned how to bake bread and sew, and became a thoroughly skilled domesticated feminist.  But even that couldn’t save me.  

There was just something about the sun that I couldn’t handle.  I felt stuck in my house, like the world was against me.  When I went outside, I felt like my whole body was under siege.  I felt how weak it was, how susceptible to the elements, how fragile.

In France, they call this kind of heat la canicule.  I remember the first time I ever came across this word.  I was in a translation class my sophomore year of college, and I needed to find a poem to translate for my final project.  Late one night I sat in the empty common room of my dorm, flipping through an anthology of Algerian poetry.  I came upon a short poem by Malek Alloula, a native Algerian poet who had been living in exile in France for most of his life.  Something about the poem struck me, and I tried my hand at a translation.

poem 3The translation was clumsy and inaccurate, especially my rendition of la canicule.  What I loved about this word was that it sounded to me like “canopy”.  I could picture the heat hanging over the city like a large piece of suffocating cloth.  A force that lorded over you, drying you up like a relic of petrified wood.  Of course, the speaker’s primary concern in this poem is not the literal heat of summer.  Instead, he uses the heat (and the “sarcasms of winter”) as a metaphor for the intensity of war—the way it cuts off the past, breaks lineage, destroys families.

And then there’s Albert Camus, probably the most well-known French author to write about la canicule.  You could say that Meursault, the main character in The Stranger, is more than a little bit obsessed with the heat of the sun.  As he follows his mother’s funeral procession, a nurse gives him some sage advice: “She said, ‘If you go slowly, you risk getting sunstroke. But if you go too fast, you work up a sweat and then catch a chill inside the church.’ She was right. There was no way out.”

If we look more closely at la canicule, we begin to see that it really does bring out the worst in people. For Camus’ Meursault, it’s cold-blooded murder.  For the speaker in Alloula’s poem, it’s colonial violence and civil war. Outside of the realms of fiction and poetry, the effects of the heat are no less severe.  In August of 2003, over 15,000 people died in the span of one month during a deadly heat wave in metropolitan France.

So what do these three incidents have in common, besides being related to France?  In all three cases, the fatal effects of the heat (whether direct or circumstantial) disproportionately targeted marginalized populations.  In The Stranger, Meursault (a white man of French origin) shoots an an unnamed “Arab” to death on an Algerian beach.  In Alloula’s poem, he alludes to the Algerian War, fought between 1954 and 1962, which scholars estimate to have resulted in the deaths of nearly 1 million native Algerians.  During the heat wave of 2003, the vast majority of heat-related deaths affected France’s most vulnerable citizens: the elderly, the homeless, and those living in poverty.  

This summer, the heat has intensified.  Violent act after violent act, senseless death after senseless death.  And not surprisingly, this violence takes a disproportionate toll on marginalized populations: people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, trans women, people living at the intersections of these and other identities.  As news broke of the shooting in Orlando, and of the murders of Philandro Castile and Alton Sterling, I felt as though as though mass shootings and police brutality were increasing at a dizzying rate, rushing towards some kind of horrific climax.  

Crime rates have evolved and changed over the past fifty years in complicated ways, just like the weather.  Hot summers, cold winters, unexpected floods.  One hot day in the middle of April is probably not going to hurt anyone.  Three hot days in May might be a bit of a bother.  It’s when the hottest days pile one on top of the other, day after day, that you enter la canicule.  

What’s different about this summer is not that the heat is any hotter, it’s that we’ve had to live through so much of it in such a short span of time.  We’ve reached a threshold, a tipping point between passively waiting for the heat to pass, and actively working to alleviate its deadly effects.  Many of us reached this threshold long ago.  As a white American, the seemingly sudden horror I felt this summer after the deaths of Philandro Castile and Alton Sterling showed me just how passive I had been about the deaths that have been happening for years, for decades, for centuries.  It was as though I had been sitting in an air-conditioned penthouse, and somebody broke the window to let in the ferocious heat that had always been outside.

The violence of this summer, like the heat of the sun, cannot be solved by short-term solutions alone.  Refusing to leave the house, to walk around in public places, to drive your car—in the long run, these changes are not sustainable.  They fix nothing.  Just look at climate change: inventing better sunscreen won’t fix a hole in the ozone layer.  So why do we think that carrying more guns will fix the epidemic of violence that is taking over our country?

As we work towards long-term systemic solutions to this epidemic, we must also deal with the fact that we are still in the heat of the fire. We are still in la canicule.

But here’s the thing about a heat wave: it doesn’t have to kill. One of the primary reasons why so many elderly, impoverished, and homeless French citizens died in the 2003 heat wave was because they did not receive the care they needed. Many died alone in their apartments, when all that was needed was for a neighbor to walk up the stairs with a cold washcloth and a bottle of water, and make sure their neighbor was okay.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that the long-term solutions to the problems we face are… well, long-term.  In the short-term, we need to take care of ourselves and of each other.  Allies need to step up and start carrying water, providing support, checking in on the ones they love. The heat does not affect everyone in an equal manner.  The death of yet another person of color in our country at the hands of police will break some, and pass over the heads of others. It doesn’t matter who you are, or how immediately you feel affected by this violence.  It is your job, it is my job, it is our job, to support and care for anyone who is.  It is our job to go into the heat that some of us can’t escape, and do what we can to keep each other safe.

Further reading:

Camus, Albert. The Stranger. 1946.

Kaouah, Abdelmadjid, ed. Poésie Algérienne Francophone Contemporaine. Autre Temps: 2004.

Keller, Richard C. Fatal Isolation: The Devastating Paris Heat Wave of 2003University of Chicago Press: 2015.

Gladwell, Malcolm.  “Why mass shootings, like Orlando’s club attack, keep happening.” CNBC: June 14, 2016.

 

 

Keep Your Heart Open

I’d like to apologize for the radio silence these past few weeks. It’s been a hard few weeks to be a person here in the world. Our hearts have been heavy in response to the violence in Orlando, Tel Aviv, Turkey, Istanbul, Baton Rouge, Minnesota, and I’m sure a few more places that I am missing. There is so much to say and yet so few words are forthcoming. I don’t know what I have to offer in response to these tragedies.

I am sad. I am tired. I am doing my best to help in my own small ways though it does not feel like enough. There is always a voice in my head asking “what else can I do? what else should I do? what else do I have the responsibility to do?” I am scared often for the people I love, in this world where people die because of ideological reasons, for their identities, for simply existing in public.

Sometimes I am reminded that despite the breadth of human history, there will always be questions that don’t have neat answers. I wonder if my ancestors felt this in response to the tragedies of their time. I wonder if they chose to act, or if they turned their eyes and closed their hearts, to protect themselves from the confusion and pain.

I hope to keep my heart open, even in these heart-breaking times. To be affected by injustice, even when it is not close to home. To not allow myself to be complacent. To keep helping in my small ways, and hope that if enough people chose to act in small ways, it can become large scale change. I hope that you will too. I hope you will keep talking (and shouting) about injustice, keep donating money and time, keep being kind to those around you, and choosing to accept when you are wrong.

I’ll leave this small post with some articles and a poem that I have found useful these last few weeks.

Love and peace to all of you.

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Full Transcript of Jesse Williams BET Awards Speech 

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Mourning on Ramadan: Breaking My Fast With Queer Muslims After the Orlando Shooting