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.

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Love is all we have

There are no words for what happened in Orlando last night; or rather there are too many and none of them are quite right.

There is the fact that I have already seen people asking not to politicize this tragedy, saying we can not blame the hateful ideology of a presidential candidate, or gun laws for what happened. It’s true there is no one thing that convinces someone to take a gun and use it to kill people he perceives to be “different” and “wrong.” But this didn’t happen without context. There are many ifs. If he hadn’t been able to access a weapon that can kill many people in a short period of time. If he hadn’t been exposed to political agendas that say that LGBTQ folks don’t deserve basic rights and heard the underlying message that queer folks, trans folks, and people of color don’t matter and don’t deserve to be alive. If if if.

There is the grief for the queer folks who died while celebrating their identities. It’s pride month. It was latin night at Pulse. It is a time of joy and community and conversation about how to make our communities stronger. There is grief for the families and loved ones of these queer folks, and the knowledge that family often looks different in the queer community. There is imagining the fear of not knowing if someone you love was hurt because you’re not “next of kin” on government forms.

There is anger that this could happen. Why did this fucking happen? Why did this have to happen? Why has this been happening in smaller, less publicized ways for years and why hasn’t it been stopped? Why is my queerness perceived as such a threat that people debate if me and my community deserve basic rights and safety? Why are trans women considered threats when they want to pee, when they are part of a community that constantly has to worry for it’s own safety?

There is fear for those I love, for copycat attacks that will follow, for losing more queer people, who are just trying to live.

There is a sense of impotence for what I can not change, and for the privilege I have that means I am less at risk for these kinds of attacks because I am white and middle class and cisgender.

And there is love. Love for my queer community. Love for the people who are already organizing vigils and donating blood and writing their representatives. Love for the others afraid for their own safety. Love for the grieving and the bereft. Love for Muslim folks in the U.S. (especially LGBTQ+ Muslim folk) who already are the scapegoats for so many tragedies.

It can feel trite to quote Martin Luther King Jr but since reading about the shooting, what has circled in my brain is this:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

We have to continue to love each other as hard as we possibly can. The root of justice is love. The root of our community has always been love. In heartbreaking times like this, love is all we have.

It’s An Exercise

The summer before my senior year of college I decided to live in a dorm at my school, and do a little bit of project work for my boss. It had been a rough year for me, but tempered with a lot of therapy and self-discovery. Therapy is great for self-discovery, but only if you don’t mind feeling like you’ve been ripped open at least once a week. It’s like losing the top layer of your skin; everything feels red and raw and it hurts if anything touches it, but it heals pretty cleanly.

One day I was working with my boss, when I made a joke to the effect of “lol I’m the worst.” You know, the kind of casual, self-deprecating humor that people use a thousand times a day. But my boss stopped me, and looked me in the eye and said “now say something nice about yourself.”

I was taken aback. Didn’t she know it was a joke? I didn’t actually think I was the worst. But I still couldn’t come up with one good thing to respond with.

I had never realized how those jokes could add up, until they became the lens in which I viewed myself. Someone who was annoying or loud, or generally the worst. The things I said in public became the thoughts that circled my mind, like vultures zeroing in on a kill. I’mtheworstI’mtheworstI’mtheworst.

I’m sure you’ve heard the idiom “no one can love you until you love yourself.” It’s been pointed out many times how harmful that line of thinking can be to someone with a mental health issues who doesn’t love themselves, to believe that then nobody can love them. But I think there is still some wisdom there. Until you learn how to appreciate the fact that you are worthy of love, it is hard to believe that anybody would truly love you.

I decided I would stop saying negative things about myself, or at the very least, I would counter it always with one good thing. I needed to break up the pattern of self-abuse, and start believing that I could be good enough.

A few months ago I was out with some of my old friends, when one of them started apologizing for being indecisive. I told her it was fine, we are all just people, and we have quirks that make us who we are. I suggested we all list one thing that we think of as a flaw about ourselves. Everyone could think of one easily. Then I said “now let’s do an exercise where we all say one nice thing about ourselves.”

Everyone got immediately uncomfortable. They fidgeted and made fun of me for being corny. Answers were tempered with “I guess I’m not that bad at….” and “maybe I’m okay at this.” Some refused to answer at first. One friend said in jest “I’m really good at tricking people into being friends with me.” This dragged out over many uncomfortable minutes because I didn’t want to let it go. I wanted everyone to find the thing in themselves that they were proud of.

These were smart, accomplished, funny, hard-working, beautiful women, some of whom I’d known and admired for most of my life. If they couldn’t think of one thing  that they felt proud of, who could?

Their experiences and mine don’t exist in a void. When you spend your whole life hearing you’re not skinny enough, not pretty enough, not smart or straight or white enough, not gender conforming enough or able-bodied enough, it becomes entrenched deep within your mind, until it feels impossible to untangle. Some days it always lurks at the top of your mind, and all you can think is “I suck I suck I suck.” Other days it comes as a surprise. “I thought I was past that, I thought that was healed.”

I don’t know if it ever quite heals. But as an exercise, I try to be actively being kind to myself. I try to not compare my accomplishments to others, because there was a time when my depression was so debilitating that I couldn’t  focus on much beyond “get out of bed” and “ask for help.” I do my best to feel proud of how far I have come and what I have accomplished. I try to reach out to friends who get it, so we can mutually complain or laugh or just feel understood. Community, I am learning, is an essential part of healing, and of living.

What if instead of downplaying our accomplishments, we let ourselves be proud of them? What if when we felt good about ourselves, we said it out loud? What if we told others that we are proud of them, or that  they are brilliant, interesting, and beautiful?

I think love is an exercise. It’s something we have to practice, until we get it right. It’s something that takes energy and time. And it’s something we have to do for ourselves, in addition to doing it for others.

Last week I put on my favorite blue dress and went for a walk with my wonderful girlfriend. I told her “I feel so pretty today.” She said “it’s nice that you like yourself so much.” It made me smile. Maybe it’s unusual to hear people compliment themselves, but I think it’s an exercise we should do more often.

Doing the Work

For me, social justice work is about love.

Loving humanity and wanting everyone on earth to have access to basic human rights. Loving my community enough to stand up against the oppression that takes place within it. Loving myself enough to trust my instincts and use my voice.

In her transformative book All About Love, bell hooks tells us that love isn’t a noun, but a verb. We can’t just say we love someone, we have to learn how to intentionally practice love. Practicing love means setting boundaries, providing care, being honest, and seeking justice. Without justice, she tells us, there can be no love. Love, in short, takes work, and bell hooks argues that many of us don’t know how to do the work.

I started learning how to practice love through therapy sessions in college. In psychoanalytic therapy, you learn to look into your past and find the roots of your shame and pain. You learn how to read the messages you internalized but didn’t recognize as contributors to negative thought cycles. You learn where you were missing love, and how those situations could’ve been handled differently. I don’t know if I will ever quite be free of depression, but because I did that work, I don’t think I will ever be able to reach the same depths of shame and self-loathing as I once did.

Learning how to practice loving myself gave me an unexpected side effect: in learning about the context of my own life, I also started to look for the context of the lives of the people who hurt me. I could empathize with them, and figure out how to create boundaries to keep myself protected, while also forgiving those people for how they hurt me.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean excusing someone for their actions. It doesn’t mean giving them a free pass for the pain they’ve caused or pretending that I wasn’t hurt by their actions. It doesn’t even mean expecting immediate change, (although wouldn’t it be nice if we could guarantee that we wouldn’t be hurt in the same way again?). For me, forgiveness means accepting that the journey that brought me to where I am is completely different than another person’s journey, and under different circumstances I might have done the same thing.

Often in a community where social justice is valued, I feel this urge towards empathy stir. I think in progressive circles, we are often enraged when we see someone who we consider to be “one of us” make a mistake. It hurts more coming from someone we thought we could trust. Meryl, why did you say we were all from Africa when asked about diversity in a film panel? Beyoncé, why were you in a culturally appropriative Coldplay video? Why can’t you just let me love you uncritically?

Despite the fact that they make great examples, I don’t want to talk about celebrities here. I want to talk about communities that center social justice and how we can better love and do good work for one another.

I think that often when feeling angry and uncomfortable people forget that they too were once learning about social justice. They too made mistakes that we are uncomfortable to think back on. They too are not perfect. To paraphrase a problematic fave, Albus Dumbledore: the world is not divided into social justice advocates and bad people.

The fact of the matter is, love shouldn’t be uncritical. People we love make mistakes, and we forgive them. We make mistakes, and we forgive ourselves. That doesn’t mean we excuse ourselves, or continue being hurtful. To err is human, and to grow is also human.

But, you say to me, I am hurt and angry and exhausted from explaining myself over and over and over again! I don’t have the energy to forgive, because those little offenses add up quickly, and I deserve better!

I understand that, too. As a queer woman, I often get upset with well-intentioned straight folks who ask intrusive questions, and as a femme, I’m hurt when I feel like my queerness is erased, because I like to wear dresses and paint my nails. As a person with depression and anxiety, I am infuriated when I hear “everyone goes through that” and “you need to calm down.” If it happened once in awhile I could deal with it, but as an ever-present hum in the background of my day-to-day, it often feels like too much. Sometimes I have to love myself enough to say “no.”

But luckily, I am not alone. It’s not my responsibility to singularly educate and forgive everyone who has ever said something problematic (i.e. everyone). There are educators doing the hard work of writing and teaching about homophobia and femmephobia and stigma around mental illness. I have straight friends and masculine-of-center friends and neurotypical friends who listen to my frustrations, and use what they hear to inform themselves and their other straight/neurotypical/masculine-of-center friends. These people do some of the tough work of “calling in” the people in their lives who say problematic stuff, and challenging them to be conscious of what other people experience.

And it’s my job to do the same thing. As a white person, I’m not doing anti-racist work if I decide to get mad when a friend or family member says something racist, but don’t try to educate them about why what they’re saying is racist. As a person who has grown up financially secure, I’m not working to eliminate classism if I hear someone say, “they should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps” and don’t try to explain why that thinking is wrong. As a cis gender woman, it’s my responsibility to point out jokes that are transphobic and as a queer person, to call out transmisogyny in my community. As an able-bodied person, it’s my responsibility to recognize and address ableism, whether it’s in my workplace or in everyday language. If I don’t have the language or the knowledge to respond, I can find information from someone who does, because the internet is a magical place.

I think that when people stand in solidarity with an identity that isn’t their own, there is a pull to distance ourselves from our identities as an oppressive majority. When someone who shares our identity do or say something oppressive, we’d like to get angry and be hurt and say, “that’s not me!” We’d like to forget that in the past we might’ve done or said the same thing, because we didn’t know better. But we have to be able to say, “That’s not my pain. Someone else is hurting or will be hurt if these actions continue, and if I can make a difference I should.” We have to love each other enough to protect each other from hurt and to call in those who mean well, but still cause harm.

I learned about “calling in” as a practice from Ngọc Loan Trần’s brilliant essay on Black Girl Dangerous. They write: “Mistakes are mistakes; they deepen the wounds we carry. I know that for me when these mistakes are committed by people who I am in community with, it hurts even more. But these are people I care deeply about and want to see on the other side of the hurt, pain, and trauma: I am willing to offer compassion and patience as a way to build the road we are taking but have never seen before.”

They suggest “calling in” as a practice to use with people you are in community with, “of pulling folks back in who have strayed from us.”

I think calling out has become very mainstream in communities that center social justice. Especially online, where we often forget that we are talking to a person and not an algorithm, it’s easy to place blame. In a queer facebook group, I’ve seen fights break out because someone didn’t know the right language to use when querying about creating a safe space, and battles in statuses about sharing a meaningful message from a celebrity who has also recently made a tasteless joke. We live in public, and sometimes we forget that just as often a private word will make more impact than a public chastisement. People respond more to love than to shame.

Now I’ve also seen some great education happen on social media – I don’t want to discount the work done to call out those who are not willing to recognize their actions as oppressive, who continuously spew hate or apathy for people who don’t share their identities. Publicly showing up in solidarity for one another can also have an impact on folks you don’t even realize are reading.

All I ask is that in doing the work, we remember the humanity of one another. We forgive those who are trying to grow and change, and we care for those who experience violence and oppression everyday. We check-in with ourselves and make sure we know when is our time to speak and when is our time to listen. And we continue to do the work for one another, with love.

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.”

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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?

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“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!

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.

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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…

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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…

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But I was still at the bottom of the well.

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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.

 

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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.

 

 

 

Walking in Heels

Before I moved to New York City, I spent a good deal of time and money trying to find the perfect pair of shoes. They couldn’t be brown. All of my shoes were brown. They couldn’t be flat either. Cool urban femmes didn’t wear flats, right? They would probably be made of leather, even though this complicated my position as an animal rights activist and sometimes vegan.

When I finally found my dream shoes, I didn’t buy them. Naturally. When something is going right in my life, I tend to run away. There must be something better out there, I think to myself. And I end up barefoot in the cold, dreaming of what could have been…

Maybe it isn’t so surprising that I also happened to find these shoes in the first place I looked. Another pattern in my life. I met my first girlfriend the first day of college, but I didn’t have the guts to kiss her until three years later. Here’s hoping that my shoes, unlike my relationship, will last the year.

When I first saw the shoes, I almost walked away. They were so… sophisticated. I couldn’t possibly wear shoes like that. I wasn’t sophisticated. Was I?

I took a picture, knowing that this was a decision I couldn’t make alone. I sent the snapshot to all of my stylish femme friends, soliciting advice from coast to coast. Some raised concerns about the color (somewhere between beige and gray). Most, however, were quick to show their enthusiastic support.

There was the question of money, of course. As a grad student and a long-time thrift store/back-room-of-the-Gap shopper I felt a surge of guilt at the thought of dropping $60 on a pair of shoes that were not, for all intents and purposes, highly practical – i.e., they did not contain orthopedic arch support, nor did they boast a sensible tread.

But… when my feet slipped into those beautiful heels, it seemed that I was never meant to wear anything else – not even Danskos.

After two weeks spent comparing prices, visiting other stores and studying the picture before I went to bed at night, I finally returned to the store. What if they weren’t even there? What if I had missed my chance?

I could describe it as a mystical experience when I saw them for the second time, perched jauntily on top of the shoe box at the end of the aisle in DSW. They were just as beautiful as I had remembered them. I had strategically worn a dress this time instead of jeans, to ensure their versatility. I put them on one last time, and it felt like coming home. It seemed that we were meant to be.

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I walked around my room at home, dreaming of all the adventures we would have together. Long walks in Central Parks, languid afternoons reading in dimly lit cafés, late nights dancing at the Cubby Hole…

It was my first day of grad school, and I slipped on my new heels defiantly, giving myself extra brownie points for the fact that my bag matched them perfectly.

My Dad, who had helped me move into my new apartment, needed to run an errand in midtown. No big deal, I thought. We’ll be in and out in five minutes, and then we’ll catch the subway downtown and I will dance my way into a glittery new life.

That’s all fine and good, but this is my Dad we’re talking about. Nothing with my Dad is ever quick.

We must have walked twenty blocks looking for this place. I quickened my pace angrily, thinking how embarrassed I would be to arrive late to my first event. My shoes clacked on the cement, my nails driving into the hard shell of those beautifully rounded toes. My heels rubbed against the unforgiving leather, and began to bleed.

By the time I got home that night, I could barely walk.

My love had betrayed me.

*

Fast forward to October. I’ve been in the city for one month, and I haven’t worn the shoes once. I’ve been invited to a housewarming party in Astoria – a housewarming party swarming with attractive young queers. This is no time for orthopedic arch support and sensible tread. It is time to pull out the big guns.

Listen, I tell my shoes before we head out, I don’t want any bullshit this time, okay? No blisters, no bruises, no sore toes. Behave. I mean it.

On the way there, I feel like a million bucks. I walk to the beat of Laura Marling, in defiance of the painful memories of our last outing together – in defiance, too, of all the ladies in my life who, like these shoes, had betrayed me.

I would show them.

Several hours, and many glasses of apple cider mimosa later, I am dancing at the Stonewall Inn. I’ve been wearing my heels for hours now, and there isn’t a blister to be had.

“You look fierce,” says one of my friends as we dance. “I’m intimidated.”

At last, I’ve made it.

So my story has a happy ending. I may not have found anybody to go home with that night, or really proved anything to my ex, who has never seen my awesome new shoes and probably couldn’t care less.

But at the very least, I finally learned how to walk in heels. And that is a victory worth celebrating.

Dear Hannah

Dearest Hannah,

It pains me to say that while I remember that day, when I was a CA and you a wee firstie, I don’t remember meeting you! I don’t want you to take it personally though, because I was a TERRIBLE community adviser. Some advice to my babes with anxiety- never take a job in the place where you live. Being judged on bulletin boards when you’re trying to hide in your room is the WORST. I know some larger schools compensate with free room and board, but not moho! We made $88 every other week for a pretty emotionally draining job. Don’t do it.

That being said, I wonder if we would’ve been ready to be friends all those years ago. I think about this sometimes with Katie, who lived down the hall from me during my first year in college, but who I didn’t fall in love with until my senior year. In the time between I fell in and out of love multiple times, went through some of the worst depression of my life, went to therapy for 2 years, learned how to take care of myself, and grew up. If I hadn’t gone through that, maybe I wouldn’t have been ready to accept the love and support she (and you) had to offer. I think the same holds true for my journey to identifying as femme. It didn’t come all at once, I had to work for it.

During my senior year of college I had a conversation with my brilliant femme friend Jessica about doing anti-racism work in the student orgs on campus. She was the chair of the QPOC student group, and I had just stepped down from my role as chair of a different LGBTQ org. I told her that I felt frustrated because while we came up with ideas to make the group more inclusive, I never felt like they were put into action. She offered me this brilliant advice that applied to activist work as well as my whole life:

Progress is very rarely linear. The idea that your problems have an all-encompassing, rational solution is a masculinist way of thinking.

She rocked my world by telling me that. As a newly identified femme I wondered, what is a feminist way of thinking? In my experience, when people are asked to describe femininity they will describe appearance and when asked to describe masculinity they’ll describe character traits. What, I wondered, are the character traits of being feminine?

For me, being femme means viewing vulnerability as a strength. We live in a world that privileges being “rational” over being emotional, but what would it look like if we listened to our joy and our anger and our grief? What would it look like if we treated others with radical empathy, and tried to view things from each other’s perspective instead of putting our opinions first? What would it be like if we made space for conversations that are are painfully honest, and instead of looking for a solution, just sat with our discomfort, knowing that to err is human? What if we made space for our humanity and the humanity of others?

Being femme to me means trusting that growth is a part of a process. There were times in the midst of going to therapy where I felt worse than where I started. I would cry for an hour and leave feeling like I had been ripped open, to go huddle in my bed. Those were the times when the real work was done. I had to look into the eyes of the grief at my center, and only by doing that could I take away some of it’s power over me. Being femme means trusting in your own resilience and throwing yourself heart-first into the world.

And femme means community. Femme means being the drunk girl in the bathroom who tells everyone else how pretty they are. Femme means making safe sober spaces (where you still tell everyone how pretty they are). Femme means calling your friend on their walk home, so they don’t have to be afraid walking alone. Femme means sharing and crying and laughing and validating and calling out and calling in, and taking care of each other.

I’m very lucky to have many amazing femme friends, whose constant love and validation has buoyed me on the daily. For me, being femme also means being grateful for all the love and light in my life.

You’ve got all my love Hannah, and I’m excited to embark on this blog-venture with you! So for you, same question: what does femme mean to you?

❤ Marnie