Fuck is a four letter word

“Say it!”

“No.”

“Say it!”

“I can’t.”

“Just say it!”

“F…..”

“C’mon Hannah, it’s not that hard. Fuck, fuck, fuck!”

This, in a nutshell, was my childhood.  

It’s funny, right?  I, the consummate lipstick lesbian.  I, co-author of Femme as in Fuck You.  I, with my lace up combat boots and sassy undercut and distressed denim jacket.  

I, Hannah Leffingwell, was unable for the better part of twenty years to say the word “fuck.”    

I was that girl, front of the class, hand in the air, long straight hair parted precisely down the middle of my head, wearing an ugly chunky sweater and ill-fitting bell-bottom jeans.  I was that girl who felt nauseous if I realized I had forgotten my homework (which never really happened).  That girl who shhhhshed you in the library.  That girl who fast-forwarded through sex scenes even when she was all by herself at home.  That girl with her nose in a book and her head in the clouds.  That girl. 

If you had asked me, at the age of fifteen, what I wanted from life, I would have given you two solid answers: To go to Mount Holyoke College, and to marry a man.

If you’re laughing right now, I understand.  

Would you laugh more if I told you I also planned on “saving myself for marriage?”

Probably.

Needless to say, “fuck” was not in my vocabulary.

I remember the first time I ever said it, by accident, alone in my car.  I was driving home from ballet class, blasting “Little Lion Man,” dreaming about a boy I had only met once and knew I would probably never talk to, and it just… slipped out.  I really fucked it up this time, I sang.  And then I blushed, my whole body filling with a tangible wave of shame.

This word was never just a word for me.  “Fuck” was an expectation, an as-yet-unexperienced but inevitable submission, a visceral fear.  “Fuck” was all the things I didn’t want to do with that boy I was singing about.  “Fuck” was the reason I never called him, or tried to set up a time to meet.  “Fuck” was the way boys laughed at me when I started talking in class.  “Fuck” was the way I hid my breasts beneath too big sweaters to avoid their attention.  “Fuck” was wait, you’ve never dated anyone?  “Fuck” was you’ll like it when it happens.  “Fuck” was you’re going to a college with no boys?  

“Fuck” was everything I wasn’t able to say about a part of myself I didn’t understand.

Fast forward to my junior year of college.  I’m sitting in the common room of Safford.  It’s Thanksgiving break, and there’s no one around.  It’s just me and two friends, eating dinner.  Well, when I say two friends, I guess I should specify.  One of them, yes, a good friend.  The other?  Someone I had known ever since my first day of college, but rarely talked to.  Someone who made me blush every time she walked into the room.  The same someone I would fall head-over-heels in love with the next summer.  The same someone who would guide me, definitively, out of the closet.  And then break my heart.

But I didn’t know any of this at the time.  All I knew was that I could barely look at her without turning bright red.  When I learned she would be joining us for dinner, I felt this unfamiliar sense of dread and excitement.  I wish I could say I was confused by these feelings, but in reality I was so deeply buried in my repressive tendencies that I couldn’t even allow myself to enter a stage of confusion.

“So,” this someone said, her eyes like two laser beams shooting into my deepest self, “P. tells me you aren’t having sex until you’re married.”

It was just as abrupt as it sounds.  No segue, no easing in.  My friend P. would later describe it as an “intervention” – something they had both, apparently, been planning for months.

We can talk about the ethics of this situation another time, but the point is, I was taken off guard.  

“I just want to wait for the right guy, you know?” I said, stumbling over my words.

“But how will you know he’s the right guy if you don’t have sex with him?”

The answer to this question seemed simple to me: sex with a man was bound to be disgusting, I reasoned, and therefore, would only be enjoyable if coupled with the sentiments of true love.  If I found a guy I truly, truly loved, then maybe one day, somehow that love would magically make it okay to touch his dick.

This someone, the one who had been asking all the questions, looked at me in disbelief.  She looked at me like she and everyone else in the world knew something I didn’t know.  And then she said:

“What would you rather have in your mouth?”

The only way I can describe my embarrassment at being asked such a question is to say that my body felt like it was being invaded by a million tiny bugs, all of whom wished to make their way through my skin and eat away at everything beneath.  Every single muscle in my body was tensed, my cheeks were the brightest shade of red, my teeth were clenched behind the conciliatory smile I kept forcing to my lips.

It went on like this for what felt like hours.  Pointed questions, flustered answers, all interspersed with this someone’s own tales of sexual discovery.

At one point, she looked at me, with that “fuck if I care” look in her eyes, and said:

“You know, there’s a big difference between fucking and making love.”

But wasn’t that what I had been saying all along?

That night, I tossed and turned in my creaky twin bed.  It was Thanksgiving Break, and the campus was empty.  No voices shouting across Skinner Green, no raucous bands of students stumbling back from Chapin.  Just the arrhythmic clanking of the radiator, the occasional flush of the toilet, and the distant sound of traffic on 116.

I remembered back to all those nights, growing up, when I had lain in my childhood bed – no bigger than the one I lay in now – and wondered what it would be like to kiss a girl.  Wondered is probably too strong a word.  I didn’t really let myself wonder.  It was more like I found myself thinking back to certain encounters with girls during the day, encounters where I felt this burning need for an undefinable closeness, and thought to myself: What if I were to kiss her?  Is that what my body is telling me to do? Usually, I wouldn’t go any further than that.  My thoughts would jam, my body would close up like an oyster, and I would force myself into a tumultuous night’s sleep.  But from time to time, surrounded by the inky fears of night, I would think to myself, What if I was a lesbian? A word filthier, scarier, more taboo than any other.  More forbidden, even, than “fuck.”

On that cold November night, as I lay in my dorm room, all of this came back to me like a deathbed epiphany.  All the girls I had ever felt indescribably, but unquestionably drawn to.  All the times I had hugged them for a just few seconds too long.

What would you rather have in your mouth? What would you rather have in your mouth?  What would you rather have in your mouth?  What would you rather…

Her words played over and over again in my head, her face floating in my half-dreams, her supple lips taunting me to choose, to choose, to choose… that feeling, my body drawn into itself as it fought the desire to hold her, to kiss her, to do all those things I had never even let myself imagine… remembering the way her small body had fit so perfectly in mine as we hugged goodnight… 

I fell asleep, and the next day I pushed every thought, every question, every desire from my mind, and continued on as I had for the past twenty-one years… I’m straight, I’m straight, I’m straight, I’m….

In love.  Or so it seems.  Three months have passed.  I’m standing in at the bottom of a spiral staircase, looking into the eyes of someone I care for deeply, someone I’ve only just met.  A different someone from the question asker, but who shares one very important characteristic: this someone is a woman.  We are holding each other, and I can’t seem to let her go.  We stand there like that, inextricable, for the longest string of minutes I have ever lived.  

It was around that time that I learned to say it. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.  Everything was changing.  I was learning the taste of wine, the smell of sweat in a crowded club, the feeling of 2:00 am on a deserted street, the meaning of the words “queer” and “femme,” the way to properly apply rose water to your wrists in a cramped French bathroom, the feeling of a woman’s body when she wraps her arms around you and lets you rest your head on her breast.

As the months passed, and I returned home to the States, I would learn other things too.  How to kiss, how to hold hands with a woman in public, how to wear my shirts buttoned all the way up, how to casually tell people I had a girlfriend, how to not-so-casually tell my parents the same thing, how to comfortably share a twin bed night after night after night with that someone and still get some sleep, how to say “I love you.”

I would learn in my body what I had never understood in words.  How to be gentle, and how to be strong.  How to ask, and how to answer.  How to give, and how to receive.

I would learn, in sum, how to fuck.  How to be a part of someone else, and let her be a part of me.  How to become, together.  How to be inextricable.

But I would also learn darker lessons. How to lie about who I was, how to disappoint the people I loved by telling the truth, how to let go of my girlfriend’s hand when we got off the bus in a new town, how to call her “my friend” without wincing, how to touch her leg secretly beneath the kitchen table when I met her family for the first time, how to lose myself when she left me, how to lose everything we had inextricably become, together…

I would learn that fuck wasn’t just a word I said in wonderment, in desire, in love.  I would learn that fuck was dirty in a way I never expected – dirty like life is dirty, in the way that dirt forms the basis of everything we love.

But in order to learn this, I would have to take a word that, for so many years, had alienated me from my own body, and make it my own again.  I would have to say it over and over and over again, in public, in private, in the least and most intimate of moments. I would have to study its vibrations in my throat, its shape in my mouth, its frequencies in each room I entered.  I would have to teach my fingers to type it, my pen to form it, my body to enact it.  I would have to estrange this word from its burden of past meanings, estrange myself from the burden of past selves, and meet it anew.  

Reappropriate, verb: to take possession of, to steal, to take for oneself.  

For twenty-one years, “fuck” was a word that did not wish to recognize me.  A word that challenged the very essence of my being.  A word that told me I was wrong.  

So I stole it.  I snuck in late at night, in the inky blackness of all my childhood fears, and I took it for myself.  

“Fuck” is a four letter word, and it is mine.

Advertisements

Why we all deserve a happy ending

Hopefully, you’ve all seen Carol by now.  If not, you should go see it, if for no other reason than to relive those glorious five days in May when we thought Cate Blanchett played for our team.

The Price of Salt, the novel by Patricia Highsmith on which Carol is based, holds a very special place in my heart.  At the age of twenty, lonely and confused in Paris, I decided the only way for me to know if I was actually feeling what I thought I was feeling for the girl I had a crush on was to read a novel about it.  Some people consult the internet to unravel these kinds of feelings.  I went to a bookstore.

I don’t remember how I learned about The Price of Salt.  All I knew was that it had something to do with lesbians, and I needed to read a book about lesbians.  Preferably, a book about lesbians who didn’t know they were lesbians until suddenly they fell head over heels for one another, and lived happily ever after.  

highsmith_carol_penguin
Cover art for The Price of Salt

There are a handful of English-language bookstores in Paris, and the most famous one – Shakespeare and Co. – didn’t carry The Price of Salt.  I remember walking into a smaller shop, just a few blocks from Notre Dame.  There was barely enough space to walk comfortably between the shelves, eliciting several awkward run-ins with fellow browsers, who scowled and walked away with their worn-out copies of Ulysses clasped pretentiously in hand.  

I was having no luck, so I finally asked the owner if he had a copy.  “Never heard of it,” he admitted, noticeably puzzled.  “Well,” I said, discouraged, “can you recommend another book for me?”  He asked me a few questions, and then handed me a copy of The Magus by John Fowles.  Clearly, he had no idea what I was looking for.

Long story short, I got hold of an audiobook version of The Price of Salt online.  I remember leaning against the window of the train on my way out of Paris, watching the countryside pass.  I couldn’t stand the build-up… I just wanted Therese and Carol to makeout already, have lots of lady sex, and vow to love each other forever and ever.

10563093_10204374513303160_5116138025687993050_n
How my face looks when I’m listening to sassy lesbian lit on the train.

But Highsmith isn’t one for easy-bake romance.  The narrative is slow, the audiobook version even slower.  Eventually, I became discouraged.  There’s no way they’ll end up together, I thought, and I didn’t think I could withstand the disappointment.  If they didn’t end up together, then clearly my own budding romance was doomed to fail.

Incidentally, Therese and Carol had a lot more luck than I did, but I couldn’t have known that at the time, because I couldn’t bring myself to finish the book.

Needless to say, I was ecstatic to learn that somebody had the gumption to turn The Price of Salt into a film.  I was so ecstatic, in fact, that I attended a queer book club to discuss the book, met a cute girl, and asked her out to the movies.  Ah, to be young and… questionably, kind of in… what exactly was I in?

tumblr_static_23zwi8r5jt40gw0ggkookoc80.gif

In freefall, reeling from my break-up, grasping for straws.  That’s what I was in.  I cried all through the movie, missed my ex like crazy, dreamed we would get back together just like Therese and Carol and live in an apartment on Madison Avenue… the date went downhill from there.

I moped all the way home, frustrated that two fictional characters from the 1950s (the 1950s, for God’s sake) had an easier time finding love than a motivated young lesbian living in the queerest city in the world.

Most of all, I was confused.  I was confused because two years after giving up on what I assumed to be a depressing novel about 1950s lesbianism, I discovered that Carol did, in fact, have a happy ending.

Ever since coming out, I’ve gotten used to being told that queer relationships aren’t built to last. It’s a story told by numerous books, films and TV shows, not to mention straight people.

Just to give one example of the negative impact of these stories, I would like to give a shout-out to one of the most soul-crushing films ever written about lesbians (are they even lesbians?): Kissing Jessica Stein.  It’s an old movie, but I watched it for the first time this summer, at a particularly terrifying moment in my personal life when I was beginning to realize that my relationship with my girlfriend was falling to pieces.  Imagine my chagrin when, after two lighthearted hours of queer romance, the narrative jumps forward in time, revealing in quick succession a painful falling out, a teary break-up, and then… boom, we see the main character finally getting together with the man that she’s been oh so in love with all this time.

Ultimate heartbreak, ultimate frustration.  At the time, this movie seemed to reveal my deepest darkest fears: that the woman I loved would break up with me, and society would make me straight again.

Thank god only the first part of that nightmare came true.

The point is, it’s hard enough to be queer without being consistently bombarded with images of tearful breakups and temporary lesbians.  It’s hard enough when the people closest to you think it’s “just a phase,” but to turn to a book or a film hoping to find some reflection of yourself and find yourself utterly betrayed is downright heartbreaking.

Looking back on it now, I was right to choose The Price of Salt as the first queer novel I ever read.  I was right to seek solace in the story of Carol and Therese, two imperfect individuals who find love.

What’s less clear in the film than in the book, however, is that they don’t just find love.  They make love.  Therese learns to stand up for herself, to say “no” instead of giving in to Carol’s every whim.  And Carol learns to back off a little, to be vulnerable with Therese even when it means feeling out of control.

This is the kind of story that needs to be told, the kind of story that we are so often robbed of in mainstream depictions of queer women.

A love story with a happy ending.

 

What Billy Crystal Taught Me About Emotional Maintenance

My favorite New Year’s Eve movie of all time is “When Harry Met Sally,” or, as I like to call it “Billy Crystal Comes Up With Bad Theories About Gender, Meg Ryan Destroys Them.”

0584968_2682_mc_tx360
Did you guys remember that Carrie Fisher is in this movie because I sure didn’t!

I have a lot of love for this film. The incredible 80s style! The scene where Meg Ryan fakes an orgasm in a restaurant to prove Billy Crystal can’t tell when women are faking it! When Sally says to Harry: “Its amazing. You look like a normal person but actually you are the angel of death.” Shoutout to Wellesley Alum Nora Ephron for bringing us the dialogue to slay a thousand fuckboys.

Despite all this greatness, “When Harry Met Sally” is also one of the first movies that I can remember that described women based on the amount of maintenance they require. In one scene Harry tells Sally “There are two types of women: high maintenance and low maintenance.” (Ah dichotomies,  how you seek to explain the world and prove only your own ignorance).

Of course the idea of the high maintenance woman did not begin or end with “When Harry Met Sally.” I’ve heard of her a million times. She is Cher Horowitz of “Clueless” fame. She’s brunette Taylor Swift from the “You Belong With Me” video. She cares more about her hair than humanity, she has a closet the size of a bedroom, she is always getting mad at her partner and crying and making a scene. In “When Harry Met Sally,” Harry tells Sally she is high maintenance because she likes her food a certain way and likes to snuggle after sex. Oh vain temptress, why dost thou make us women look so bad?

fop
“Feed me and tell me I’m pretty!”

This trope is ridiculous and sexist, not just because it pits women against each other based on gender presentation, but because it asks women to act like they don’t have needs in order to appear cool.

The fact is that all people and relationships require maintenance. By gendering maintenance we are saying that what women ask for is “too much,” whereas the emotional support women provide for men is seen as doing the bare minimum, and doesn’t require gratitude or reciprocation. In “When Harry Met Sally,” Sally supports Harry through his depression after his divorce, at one point trying not to mention her dates to him so he won’t feel sad, but Harry has no problem criticizing Sally in casual conversation.

Women are frequently fighting double standards where the effort they put in is seen as the bare minimum. Putting on just enough makeup to look “natural,” without wearing enough to make people think they are “lying” about their looks. Wearing skirts that are long enough that they won’t be considered promiscuous but short enough that they won’t be considered a prude. The dynamic of being passionate without being needy or overly emotional is just another way of making women palatable to men.

I think this dynamic often replicates itself in queer relationships. While anyone can take on the role of emotional caretaker, I know too many femmes who have felt that they need to prioritize the needs of their masculine of center partner over their own. Asking for more support or attention is seen as “needy” and makes someone undesirable. It sets up a situation in which it’s impossible to stand up for oneself. I can remember explicitly telling an ex that I felt like they didn’t respect me, and being told that I was just being “too anxious.” I ended up apologizing after that conversation for expressing my feelings. My feelings were diagnosed, and blamed on my history of mental illness rather than acknowledged.

When we tell people that they are high maintenance, we are asking them to do the work themselves so that we don’t have to. Withholding affection and support can quickly devolve into emotional manipulation and gaslighting, like in the situation I mention above.  I spent months feeling guilty for bringing up my feelings, when they were perfectly valid. I was ashamed, and I couldn’t trust my own responses to uncomfortable situations.

Of course we should all work to be aware of our needs and be able to practice self-care.  Being aware of some of the ways we ask for energy from folks in our lives can help us set up healthier, more reciprocal relationships, and can also help us learn how to take care of ourselves. However we should also be able to ask for help without being afraid of being too much. Maintenance can be as simple as complaining about our day and having someone say “that sucks.” It can also mean spending time processing a complex emotional experience. It means validating and supporting the people in our lives, and being open to the fact that we might need to change our behavior to be more responsive friends and partners. It means taking the time to look at where our relationships could use some help, and putting the effort into improving them.

In the end of “When Harry Met Sally,” after much friendship and fighting Harry and Sally do finally get together. In one of the most memorable rom-com conclusions of all time, Harry lists the qualities he loves about Sally, including several of the ones that make her high maintenance. For me that moment is about Harry learning that he has to let go of the many theories he has about men and women and instead try to be with the woman he loves in an authentic way. He doesn’t always understand her, but he accepts and supports her and helps her grow. In the end all the maintenance that goes into their friendship makes their romantic relationship more meaningful. If Harry and Sally can do it, so can the rest of us!

Coming Home

During the holiday season, there’s a lot of talk of coming home. Today, as I boarded a plane from New York City to Denver, I found myself in a time warp, thinking not just about what it felt like to come home this year, but how it felt last year, two years ago, my first year of college… how this feeling had changed for me in so many grand and minute ways over the years.

I also thought about the fact that at this same time last year, coming home meant coming out.

For many queer folks, coming home for the holidays is far from easy.  Sometimes, it can feel like walking onto the set of a TV show – you know which role you have to play, and you also know that the walls guarding your cozy living room are made of cardboard.  Nothing feels real, but everyone is playing the part so well…

For others, coming home may be a joyous occasion.  A time for laughter and companionship, for rest and gratitude.  My hope is that everyone finds at least one space where they can feel this way in the next few weeks, even if it is not a space that others would consider “home.”

Today, as I looked down from the airplane onto the frozen cornfields, snaking rivers, and disparate cities of the American West, I felt the word home as I have never felt it before.  I felt it not as a concept, but as the knowledge, bone-deep, of a remembered belonging.

I thought about Giovanni’s Room, a book I read for the first time this month, and of the phrase:

Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition. 

For the main character in Baldwin’s novel, home is more than just a house, or a town, or even a family.  Home is a state of innocence.  A not-knowing.  An unquestioned acceptance.  A fierce, but unspoken and unspeakable blindness.  Home is an illusion that, once shattered, can never be re-membered.

In French – Baldwin’s adopted language – the word “home” does not even exist.  Maison can be roughly translated to house, foyer to household, and chez to a place that one inhabits.  But home – that bone-deep knowledge of a remembered belonging – is not a concept that the French language seems to understand.  I find it interesting, then, that Baldwin chooses not only to emphasize this word in his novel, but also to expand it – to dive to the depths of its hundred meanings and find the one meaning that speaks to him.

Let me be more precise:

When Baldwin says that home is not a place, but an irrevocable condition, he is speaking to more than just a physical – or should I say, geographical journey from one place to another.  When I read this line for the first time, I cried.  Not because I began to imagine the house where I grew up, or the streets that I played in as a child, or the smell of chicken soup in my mother’s kitchen – but because I realized that to me, being queer has often felt like leaving home.  To me, queerness is this irrevocable condition Baldwin speaks of.  

Which, ironically, also means that it is my home.

For me – as, I’m sure, for many queer folks – coming out was not a linear process.  In the beginning, it felt like walking that extra block further than I’d ever walked before, and then sprinting back home before my mom realized I was gone.  It felt like the scene in Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend where Elena and Lila leave the confines of their small Italian village for the first time, aching to see the sea, only to run back home when the black sky opens up with rain.

The first months that I spent really exploring my sexuality were a challenge to what I had always known, yes – but not yet an escape.  A longing – but a longing that I could not yet translate into desire.

I made a map of everything I knew – all the streets and houses and buildings that made up the world I had so long inhabited – and then I began to imagine roads forking off from the edges of that map… lakes and rivers and mountains and whole oceans that I finally allowed myself to envision.  And like a child hiding her rucksack in the floor boards, I only shared my plans in whispered half-confessions, and only with the people I believed shared the same dream.

It wasn’t until recently that I realized how much love it took for me to come out – to myself, and to the world.  The love of others, yes.  All of the voices who affirmed me, who guided me, who shared their stories of triumph and heartbreak.  But also the love that I was willing to offer myself.  The love it took to build the kind of confidence required to set out where there was no map, and to simply be.

Adrienne Rich says that this leaving, this apparent cutting off of everything we have ever known, is not simply circumstantial, but is, in fact, necessary.  If we never leave home, then it is never anything more than a place.  The placeThe only place.

But there come times—perhaps this is one of them

when we have to take ourselves more seriously or die;

we when have to pull back from the incantations,

rhythms we’ve moved to thoughtlessly,

and disenthrall ourselves, bestow

ourselves to silence, or a severer listening, cleansed

of oratory, formulas, choruses, laments, static

crowding the wires. We cut the wires,

find ourselves in free-fall, as if

our true home were the undimensional

solitudes, the rift

in the Great Nebula.

No one who survives to speak

new language, has avoided this:

the cutting-away of an old force that held her

rooted to an old ground

the pitch of utter loneliness

where she herself and all creation

seem equally dispersed, weightless, her being a cry

to which no echo comes or can ever come.

So what does it mean, to speak a new language?  What does it mean to bestow ourselves to silence, to a severer listening?

For Baldwin, speaking a new language didn’t mean inventing new words. It meant finding new meanings to the words he had always known.

Words like home.

Words so common, so expansive, that they are both the seer and the seen, both the writer and the written, both the teller and the story.

This holiday season, as I find myself at home – more myself than I have ever been – I find new meanings to the words I have always known.  Words like daughter, friend and woman.  Words like care, truth and family.  

Perhaps this irrevocable condition I find myself in is not simply a measure of what I left behind.

Perhaps it is also a measure of what I chose to come back to.

Perhaps coming out was always coming home.

Things you don’t talk about at the dinner table

“My experience…  is that almost everyone I’ve met who has turned to the Buddha did so because they have suffered the end of a love affair.  They have lost someone they loved.  Perhaps they have lost a country, as well, or parents or siblings or some function of their bodies.  But very often, people turn to the Buddha because they have been carried so deeply into their suffering by the loss of a loved one that without major help they fear they will never recover.  (I actually love this about Buddhists: that though their reputation is all about suffering and meditating and being a bit low-key sexually and spiritually languid, they are in fact a band of hopeful lovers who risk their hearts in places a Methodist would rarely dare to tread.) This is what happened to me… This involved, during meditation, learning to breathe in the pain I was feeling, not to attempt to avoid or flee it.  It involved making my heart bigger and bigger just to be able to hold it all.”

Alice Walker

As a queer woman, I am used to talking about things that aren’t fit for the dinner table.  I’m the girl who, while eating lunch, makes jokes with my (very straight) grad school colleagues about how there are only a few things I would rather put in my mouth than an avocado.  We all know which things I mean.

Don’t get me wrong, I can be tactful when duty calls.  I’m a Pisces after all, a social chameleon who can change my colors to fit (almost) any situation.  I like to think I have a knack for judging the temperature of the room — getting a gauge on how many Adrienne Rich references is too many, if you know what I mean.

But the most surprising thing for me about the past two months living in New York City is that talking about my queer identity, my radical feminist convictions, or my heavy periods has been the least of my concerns.  The most uncomfortable conversations I have had so far have also happened to be the “cleanest.”  Namely, the ones where I have opened up about my spirituality.

*

Like Alice Walker, I came to the teachings of Buddhism with a broken heart.  After losing love, I had no idea how to rebuild myself.

I had listened to Landslide about a thousand times…

 

I had cried to Adele…

 

I had read Elizabeth Bishop, Adrienne Rich and Violette Leduc….

I had played L Word drinking games… alone… in the afternoon…

enhanced-buzz-21732-1362509714-3

I had started “losing sleep and gaining weight“…

I had cried for hours on the phone will all my best femme friends, asking why why why why why did she leave me…

anigif_enhanced-buzz-30896-1362531051-0.gif

But I was still at the bottom of the well.

*

People like to talk about self-care.  In the rocky months after coming out, I had a lot of people tell me to “practice self-care.”  Over a year later, in the wake of the break-up, these voices became even louder.

But the truth is that I didn’t have the first idea of what this so-called “self-care” actually looked like, besides a vague notion that it probably included bubble baths and nail polish.

I remember, at one particularly low point during my summer of tears (we can all thank Marnie for that phrase), I ended up on the floor in my living room at home, watching The L Word, painting my toe nails and eating ice cream.  I thought this was what I was supposed to do to “take care” of myself.

In reality, it just made me feel like shit.  I got purple nail polish all over the carpet, sat through a triggering episode about Alice and Dana’s break-up, and groaned as I felt a solid brick of processed heavy cream settle in my stomach.

Almost four months later, after an equally triggering episode of Master of None, I found myself, once again, on the floor.  Except this time there was no TV, no nail polish, no ice cream.  Just me, cross-legged on a cushion, eyes closed — meditating.

So what changed?

This is where the conversations usually become uncomfortable.

Because here’s the thing: spirituality is just not something you bring up at the dinner table.  Not unless you’re about to rail against right-wing conservative Evangelical homophobes, in which case pass the bread.

Alice Walker offers us one possible reason why the spiritual (but not, might I add, the religious) is so often relegated to the private sphere:

“The male effort to separate Wisdom from the realm of the Feminine is not only brutal and unattractive but it will always fail, though this may take, as with Buddhism, thousands of years.  This is simply because the Feminine is Wisdom; it is also the Soul.  Since each and every person is born with an eternal Masculine, this is not a problem except for those who insist on forcing humans into gender roles, which makes it easier for them to be controlled.”

I couldn’t have asked for a better starting point for understanding what it means to embrace the search for spiritual Wisdom as a woman, as a lesbian, and as a femme.

 

*

For me, self-care wasn’t a reality until I had a spiritual framework in which to understand it.  When I say “spiritual framework,” I mean that in the broadest sense of the word: not a religion, or a set of dogmas, or an institution, but a deeper connection with the spirit.  With my spirit.  With myself. 

For me, this path began with the practice of meditation.  I was lucky enough to begin this practice with the guidance and support of my aunt, who has been a meditation teacher and yoga instructor for over thirty years.

When I began this practice, I did so with one goal in mind: to focus on the breath.  In the practice of meditation, this is what we are asked to return to each and every time we sit.  As my practice has deepened, and I have spoken with various teachers, it has become clear to me that this is not merely an elementary step in learning how to meditate: it is a foundation that even experienced practitioners return to again and again.

A few months after I began meditating, I was lucky enough to take part in a three-day silent retreat.  It was during this retreat that I began to learn the fundamental tenets of Buddhist philosophy that underly and support the practice of meditation.  It was by learning about this philosophy that I began to understand how I could use my practice not merely as a means of healing my broken heart, but also as a means of building empathy, compassion and loving-kindness for others.

In other words, I began learning how to use my meditation practice to deepen my engagement with social justice.

This is a topic that Alice Walker explores in her talk “Suffering Too Insignificant for the Majority to See,” from which the above quotations are taken.  She says it better than I could ever say it myself, and with many more years of experience behind her.

This is a topic I can’t possibly cover in one blog post.  It is a topic I hope to revisit again and again, because I find that intersections of spiritual and queer identities are too often hushed in both communities.

I also understand that this topic is difficult to discuss for more reasons that just dinner-table politeness.  Buddhism is an ancient religion, with a diverse and complicated history.  To say that I am a “Buddhist” at this stage in my practice feels disingenuous.  I hope that I can continue to write about my encounters with Buddhism while remaining respectful of the diversity of beliefs within this faith tradition, and of the people around the world who practice it.

Femme Love


“being a femme is not just a way of presenting, it is a way of loving. It is a way of loving others, but most of all it is a way of loving yourself.”

I love that Hannah wrote this. During the first few weeks of my current relationship I remember feeling that something wasn’t quite right. When we were together I was so ecstatically happy, but when we were apart I worried that something was missing.

Even before we started dating and we’re spending a lot of time together under the guise of friendship, I remember I didn’t feel as nervous as I usually did when I had a crush. I didn’t feel panicked when replying to texts, or afraid of saying the wrong thing. For the most part I was confident that she liked me.

In place of the agitation I usually had when I had crushes, I instead felt like I was being pulled towards this woman. It felt inevitable.

After a couple of weeks of dating I realized that what was missing was the doubt I had constantly felt the last time I had tried dating. I wasn’t second guessing if she liked me-I knew she did. I didn’t have to second guess what she was looking for in this relationship because she had told me. I had found someone who would hold my heart like it was a precious thing, who would take care of it and keep it safe.

I think it’s easy to buy into the notion that love has to be tumultuous, with break-ups and jealousies and last minute proclamations at the airport. The object of your affections is your whole world and without them you are empty.

I think it’s something else entirely to come to a relationship with a sense that you are important and deserve to be treated well. To choose someone who doesn’t consume you, but rather meets you where you are, and wants to move forward as partners.

I don’t think I could’ve come to that kind of relationship earlier. I needed the time to find my own self-worth. It took me a long time to accept that no one was coming who would help me heal from the places I had felt broken. I had to learn that I was smart and capable, and I could heal myself. I needed to find the part of myself that I loved and take care of her.

I knew I didn’t want to date someone who thought I couldn’t take care of myself. That way leads only to condescension and unequal power dynamics. I wanted someone who would know I was strong, even when I felt weak. I knew I was enough, just as I was, and I needed someone who would remind me of that if I ever doubted again.

I have been so lucky. I found someone who believes that I am a tough flower. She supports my crazy dreams (to the point where one time I said I might want to move to Minneapolis but didn’t know if I could live so far from the ocean and she researched the proximity to bodys of water). She accepts my femmeness, my vulnerability and my friendships and my crazy outfits. When we face challenges she has inspired me to grow. She makes me a better person.

It can be hard to accept a love like this. It can be scary to see your own value. It is scary to accept the way it challenges you to be better and answer it in kind. But it is also so fulfilling. By loving and being loved I have found a home, in myself and in someone else.

Thoughts on love and sunsets

On these crisp November evenings, the light sits low, sinking slowly in shades of gold, red and pink.  The light dies early.  Darkness comes before the heart even has time to awaken.

I am alone again.  A phrase which has become like a mantra to me lately.  Alone again, I sing to myself, as if saying the words will somehow make the profane sacred again.

I am not sad.  I am not happy either.  I am just… alone.

I walk past the window in the living room.  I have a long list of things to do, of ways to make this day useful to someone, to something, beyond myself.  I have papers to write, friends to call, plans to make.

But when I see the sunset, I realize I cannot watch this sunset with – or for – anyone but myself.  A truth that breaks my heart.

I am reminded, though I wish I wasn’t, of all the sunsets I shared in love.  I am reminded of one evening in particular, when we held hands and witnessed the entire event of a mid-winter sunset, from its glorious bursts of orange to its soft murmurs of pink – together.  I am reminded of the way I gently cried, squeezing her hand.  Of the way my heart broke, even in a state of such fullness, fearing that this love, like the sunset, would not last.

I choose to write about this moment because being a femme is not just a way of presenting, it is a way of loving.  It is a way of loving others, but most of all it is a way of loving yourself.

Tonight, nothing can make up for the heartache of what I have lost.  But though I may not have a hand to hold, I can still love myself enough to cry.  I can love myself enough to be vulnerable with this pain, to be vulnerable with this fear and sadness.  I can love myself enough to let it hurt.

Love after Love

by Derek Walcott

The time will come 
when, with elation 
you will greet yourself arriving 
at your own door, in your own mirror 
and each will smile at the other’s welcome, 

and say, sit here. Eat. 
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart 
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you 

all your life, whom you ignored 
for another, who knows you by heart. 
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf, 

the photographs, the desperate notes, 
peel your own image from the mirror. 
Sit. Feast on your life.