Girlfriends Who Have Broken Up With Me

In sixth grade, my identical twin sister and I had to ride the bus to school for the first time.  Bigger kids–seventh and eighth graders–rode the bus with us.  No one ever really outwardly teased us, but we both knew that they were laughing at us behind our backs, about what I’m still not really sure.  I guess we weren’t cool in the ways that mattered at that age–we didn’t wear Guess jeans, and we were smart and good at school.  We carried our violin and viola to school every day, and we weren’t involved in all the gossip even though we all lived in the same neighborhood.

V rode the bus with us.  She’d been our friend through elementary school, as she lived on the street behind us.  She also carried her viola, and she also wasn’t particularly cool–she had buck teeth and was skinny and gawky, but somehow she seemed a lot more confident with the older kids, who were her immediate neighbors.

One day, my twin and I stopped at the drinking fountain on our way out of school to catch the bus.  V caught up with us and said, “Please don’t talk to me on the bus.  I don’t want everyone to know I’m friends with you.”

I vaguely remember agreeing that this would be the best thing to do.  It wasn’t until several minutes later, maybe even not until we got home, that it occurred to us to be wounded by this comment, but once we realized what she’d said, our friendship never quite recovered, even though we all ran in the same circles in high school.

 

Years passed between V’s breakup and the next significant one I remember.  The summer after my first year of college, I returned to Kalamazoo to live.  I still felt like Kalamazoo was more my home than Ann Arbor, and so I got a room in a filthy punk house.  I worked at the Subway Sandwiches a couple miles away.  I rode my bike there every weekday morning, and then after work, I spent my evenings at the local coffee shop that was started by a punk kid we all knew.  I carried my Royal typewriter there in a red wagon I had found and sat and wrote letters or worked on my zine.

There I befriended M who had recently moved to town from an hour or so away.  I’d known of her through the punk and zine scene, but at the Comet Café, we became close.  She lived down the street at another punk house, and I was so taken with her take-no-shit toughness and the way she cried easily.  She was an artist and a writer, and I loved her big laugh.

When I went back to college, an hour and a half away, we stayed in touch, mostly by writing letters.  She eventually moved from Kalamazoo to Olympia, Washington, and though we never lived in the same town again, I still felt a strong connection.

The spring break of my junior year, I was stuck in a kind of a rut–I was in a shitty relationship and needed to get out of town.  I found a very cheap flight to Olympia and decided to visit her and another friend I had there.

I was staying with the other friend, but M and I made plans to get together the first night I was there.  She had to work at the strip joint where she danced, but she said she’d call when she got off work.  Hours after she’d told me her shift ended, she still hadn’t called, so I called her instead.  She didn’t call back.  I tried a few more times that night and then again all the next day and the next until I had to fly home.  She never called back, and I never talked to her again.

 

S and I were friends in college.  We both volunteered with a group of folks who did arts in prisons, and she and I led a improvisational theatre workshop with incarcerated men together.  This work was hugely influential in my life, and the connections I made with people who also did this work were consequently very meaningful.

After we both graduated, we went our separate ways, I to California, she to New Orleans.  We kept up a bit through email.  We had never been intimate enough to have a regular phone relationship, but after I lost my first teaching job and wanted some kind of change, I had a passing idea that I’d move to New Orleans.

September 11th had just happened, and plane tickets were cheap.  I lived with a woman who’d just won a large settlement in a housing case, and she offered to bankroll a trip to New Orleans for the two of us and my sweetie.  I wanted to visit to see if it was a cool place to live, and my housemate just wanted to travel.  I asked S if we could stay with her, and she offered up a room at the big bicycle punk collective warehouse where she lived.

We hadn’t been there long when S started acting weird.  She didn’t make much of an effort to be friendly or catch up.  She seemed far more interested in her various projects, her job stripping, and the life of her household community.  The first night we got there, as we were cleaning up dinner, she turned to a man who lived there and, flirtatiously asked, “What are you doing tonight?” completely ignoring me, my friend, and my sweetie who were all staying there.

The three of us ended up sort of fending for ourselves, as she went about her social life without us.  We finally decided that, if we weren’t going to actually get to hang out with her, the cockroaches crawling all over us at night while we slept and the muggy, uncomfortable heat of our warehouse bedroom weren’t worth it, and my housemate decided to pay for a hotel room for the three of us for our remaining two nights there.

The last full day we were in New Orleans, S and I made plans to hang out alone, just the two of us.  I called her from the hotel room, and she didn’t answer my call.  I called several times, but she never called me back.  We left New Orleans a day later.

We are now casual friends on Facebook.

 

The most recent girlfriend who broke up with me is the loss that sits on me most heavily.  J and I were best friends through high school.  We’d started out as enemies in sixth grade, but, by eighth grade, we were close.  Though we had very different social circles, my intimacy with her was the most important friendship besides my twin.  We spent long hours at our favorite café together, where we shared the stories of our lives as we were figuring out the kind of adults we wanted to become, and we took various road trips together before we went away to separate colleges.  We promised each other that we would not become the kind of “best friends” her mother had–women who exchanged Christmas cards yearly but never really saw each other besides that.  We imagined living together, raising our children together, having the kind of extended family that we felt was lacking in our suburban childhood.

When we separated for college, we still talked on the phone regularly.  We also tried to get together whenever we could, which wasn’t often: She was in New York and then India and then Colorado, and I was in Michigan.

We had the kind of intense relationship where, every couple years, we’d have a major falling out, but we always managed to work it out to become close again.  After the last falling out, once we decided we wanted to make our friendship work, we went through a counseling process that a therapist friend of mine had given me, and it seemed like, once we’d aired all our old wounds and given voice to all the shit we’d been through in our twenty years as friends, our friendship was stronger than ever, especially when we eventually became new mothers around the same time.

This is why her breaking up with me just a few months ago seems that much more hurtful–it came out of nowhere and caught me completely by surprise.

Like most new moms, I’d been struggling with my baby’s sleep.  My sweetie and I had discussed various methods for getting him to sleep, including “crying it out,” which I felt–and feel–firmly opposed to.  I happened to mention this to J while talking to her on the phone one afternoon.  The conversation was equal parts asking for advice and venting how tired I was and how frustrating sleep was, especially given that my sweetie and I were in minor disagreement.

Later that evening, J sent me email after email about why I shouldn’t allow my baby to cry himself to sleep despite the fact that I’d repeatedly told her that I was also opposed to this methodology.  Somewhere in the course of this email back and forth, I’d expressed that we hope our son grows up to be independent and self-sufficient.  J told me that she thinks “independence is bullshit,” and I expressed to her that this felt like an unfairly harsh condemnation of a value that we hold for our child.

Her response to this was to write me a long email telling me that she can’t be the kind of friend I need her to be, that she can’t spend so much time engaging with me, that her energy needs to go into her own family. She said I could write her back if I needed to for closure, but she would not respond; we were done as friends.

This was four months ago.  We haven’t spoken, and I am still not entirely sure what happened between us.

 

I think about these women now.  I’m getting older, and it seems like it gets harder and harder to find the kinds of friendships with women I had growing up.  Though I am thankful for the women I am deeply close with, I still feel sad about how hard it seems to develop the kind of intimacy I want in female friendships, and I mourn the loss of some of these relationships.  Many of my best friends live far away, and I still worry about becoming the kind of friends I once promised myself not to become–the Christmas card exchangers.  Raising a child and working full time is a challenge, but, for this reason, I feel like I want the groundedness that comes with friendships; I want the mothers who are going through it too to be able to share their experiences with me, and I want to feel like I have women who will listen to me and be there for me.

The New Jim Crow Book Review

Growing up, I thought very little about prisons or the people locked up in this country.  If I did, it might have been in a very Hollywood or crime show kind of way: “Bad” people are locked up in order to keep the rest of society safe.  It wasn’t until I began volunteering in prisons when I was in college through a course I took that I thought about the reality of our criminal justice system.

Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness didn’t tell me much I didn’t already know, but the picture it paints is a scathing critique of our heavily racialized criminal justice system.  In the introduction, Alexander tells us her book is for two groups of people, either the people who maybe don’t know much about how mass incarceration works in this country but are open to criticisms of it being racist and corrupt or people who already know the realities of the system but want the facts and details to bolster their arguments when talking with people who still think that we only lock up “bad” people to keep the rest of society safe, and the fact that we lock up so many brown and Black men has more to do with their criminal behavior and poor lifestyle choices than anything inherently wrong with our system.

I am part of this second group of people, and so reading this book certainly gave me the statistics and stories to counter the prevailing narrative of mass incarceration in this country.  And I couldn’t have read it at a more critical point in our nation’s story, this point of a wider conversation about how “Black lives matter” in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York.  It feels like I’ve had far too many conversations lately in which perhaps well-meaning, “color blind” people argue that, while it’s sad that these men died, they shouldn’t have been engaged in illegal activity, and, if there is a widespread fear of Black men, it’s justified given the violence and criminality of impoverished urban areas.

Alexander debunks this notion and shows how American’s “war on drugs” parallels other moments in our nation’s history, from Reconstruction to Jim Crow.

She begins with a discussion of Reconstruction and helps us to understand how so many white folks came to side with the wealthy landowners who sought to keep Black men and women oppressed post-slavery.  She argues that poor whites were as much a pawn in the game, that they were equally under the thumb of the owning class and so had to be taught to hate Blacks, otherwise the poor and oppressed would vastly outnumber those in power.  This history continues today, with the myth of the American Dream.  Poor and working-class people must believe that they can “make it” in a system that is stacked against them, and they must believe that anyone who doesn’t “make it” is simply lazy, criminal, or otherwise undeserving.  This myth helps to perpetuate a system which seeks to lock up vast numbers of poor Black and brown men.

Alexander provides a number of studies which find that illegal drug use is pretty much equal across racial groups and that, if there is a disparity, it tends towards white people using more than others.  However the United States is the most incarcerating nation in the world, and the vast majority of folks locked up are people of color.  “In some states, black men have been admitted to prison on drug charges at rates twenty to fifty times greater than those of white men.  And in major cities wracked by the drug war, as many as 80 percent of young African American men now have criminal records and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives.”

Alexander further demonstrates how the war on drugs was specifically leveraged against our nation’s most marginalized groups with mandatory minimum sentencing and disparate sentences for crack cocaine use versus powdered cocaine use (the former being primarily a drug used by poor, Black communities, the latter largely used by wealthier, whiter folks).  The drug war and mass incarceration is extremely lucrative, and Alexander takes us through all the ways that states stand to gain from militarizing their police force and locking people up.  One flaw in the book is that she says relatively little about how prisons are big business in this country.  She touches on it by noting towards the end of the book how many people would be unemployed if we cut our prison population dramatically.  I feel it’s worth noting that lots of people have a vested interest in making sure we lock folks up, not just the states and local jurisdictions who get paid by the feds if they make drug arrests or get to garnish property even if they don’t convict.  A number of major corporations use prison labor, and private prisons are some of the best selling stock on Wall Street.

Alexander goes on to detail all the ways that, once someone is in the system, even if they’ve never served jail time, they are at a disadvantage for the rest of their lives.

Thousands of people are swept into the criminal justice system every year pursuant to the drug war without much regard for their guilt or innocence.  The police are allowed by the courts to conduct fishing expeditions for drugs on streets and freeways based on nothing more than a hunch.  Homes may be searched for drugs based on a tip from an unreliable, confidential informant who is trading the information for money or to escape prison time.  And once swept inside the system, people are often denied attorneys or meaningful representation and pressured into plea bargains by the threat of unbelievably harsh sentences–sentences for minor drug crimes that are higher than many countries impose on convicted murders. 

Many states bar felons from ever voting, which means that a huge portion of the Black electorate is underrepresented, and employers may legally discriminate against anyone with a record, meaning that these people find it very hard to ever find meaningful employment, thus leading to a vicious cycle of recidivism.

If there’s any doubt that the criminal justice system disproportionately harms Black men, consider the issue of alcohol abuse and drunk driving.  By the end of the eighties,

drunk drivers were responsible for approximately 22,000 deaths annually, while overall alcohol-related deaths were close to 100,000 a year…The total of all drug-related deaths due to AIDS, drug overdose, or the violence associated with the illegal drug trade, was estimated at 21,000 annually–less than the number of deaths directly caused by drunk drivers, and a small fraction of the number of alcohol-related deaths that occur every year. 

However, sentences punishing drunk drivers are typically two days for a first offense and two to ten days for a second offense; while someone convicted of possession of a tiny amount of crack cocaine serves a minimum of five years in federal prison.  Why are these sentences so different?  Why, even though drunk driving is far more likely to result in death, are drunk drivers so leniently dealt with? Drunk drivers are predominately white and male.

White men comprised 78 percent of the arrests for this offense in 1990 when new mandatory minimums governing drunk drivers were being adopted…Although drunk driving carries a far greater risk of violent death then the use or sale of illegal drugs, the societal response to drunk drivers has generally emphasized keeping the person function and in society, while attempting to respond to the dangerous behavior through treatment and counseling.  People charged with drug offense, though, are disproportionately poor people of color.  They are typically charged with felonies and sentenced to prison. 

Alexander’s book is engaging and enraging.  She cites a number of studies and covers a lot of ground.  She also roots her critique in personal stories to help heighten the emotional pull of her anger.  She lays out her argument very clearly, and I have the hope that other people besides her two groups she intends as her audience would read it; I wish I could hand it to every person who ever argued with me about my volunteering in prison by saying that prisoners don’t deserve theatre workshops or every person I’ve argued with recently who, in the guise of colorblindness, condemn the protesters in the Black Lives Matter movement.  Ideally, policy makers would hear Alexander’s call as well.  As a nation, things are going to have to change if we want to truly claim racial equality.

One fact that she cites that’s worth mentioning is that the less educated a person is, the more likely they are to favor a punitive approach to crime.  Hopefully, we become more educated as a nation and, instead of claiming colorblindness, which Alexander says, as an ideal, “is premised on the notion that we, as a society, can never be trusted to see race and treat each other fairly or with genuine compassion,” and begin to dissect the ways our criminal justice is deeply racist and deeply flawed.

Top Ten Books of 2014

I had a hard time identifying my top ten books of the year. In part, this is because I was a tough customer: Being a new mom meant that I read less than last year, and it also meant that a book had to be really good to capture my attention, since my mind was so thoroughly exhausted and entranced by my new baby.  So I definitely had fewer books this year that I loved.  I had some clear favorites, but then beyond these were a whole bunch of books that I loved but that didn’t necessarily stand out.  Choosing from these books to make a nice even “top ten” was hard.  I’m sure I could have a whole bunch of “honorable mentions,” but I’ll keep the list a tidy ten.

In The Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman

This book was the best book I’ve read in a long time; I am surprised it didn’t win any awards this year. (See review below.)

Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem

What makes this book stand out among the many that I read this year is its voice. The narrator has Tourette syndrome, and his tics are funny and illuminating, often shedding light on the strange sounds of words or their relationships to other words; there’s a poetry to the language of his malady, and I laughed out loud many times while reading this. The novel is a crime novel, which is not really a genre I get excited about, and, I have to admit that I wasn’t as interested in the unwinding of the mystery as perhaps other readers might be, but it was still a remarkable read.

Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem

I liked Motherless Brooklyn so much that I decided to read Lethem’s later novel. This is a bildungsroman of sorts that spans several decades starting in the 1970s in Brooklyn. The protagonist is the white son of counter-culturalists who are some of the first whites to move into the lower-income Black Gowanus neighborhood. Despite his befriending of the hip, biracial son of a great soul singer, the protagonist, Dylan, is bullied and teased for being white. The novel follows his friendship with Mingus as the two delve into comic books, music, graffiti, and sex, and it explores race politics, gentrification, art, and more.  And, oh yeah, there’s this little supernatural element thrown in; this fantastical element only lightly affects the plot and in some ways reads more like allegory than anything, but it means that Fortress of Solitude is not just a typical, straightforward coming-of-age novel.

A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers

Aging, struggling Alan Clay finds himself in Saudi Arabia to sell holographic technology to the King.  Though he and his associates must wait endlessly to meet with a representative for the King in what becomes a Kafkaesque situation, he still hopes that this sale will stave off financial ruin and help fund his daughter’s college tuition.  Clay is the ultimate old-school American businessman: He believed in the promise of entrepreneurship and started his own bike manufacturing company.  But times have changed, and now manufacturing is being outsourced, and more and more Americans are unsure how they fit in the changing economy.  This is the context for Egger’s novel, which is full of these larger scale ruminations about our social landscape while still being an intimate, sometimes sad, sometimes funny portrait of a man who is very human.

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

This book wasn’t much more than just a really good story with developed, interesting characters, but it caught me right off.  It helps that I love baseball, in part because it’s such a mental and psychological game, and Harbach’s novel spends a lot of time exploring the psychology of baseball.  It’s not just about baseball though, which is why a reader who isn’t interested in the sport could find this compelling as well.  It has unconventional (and conventional) romances, delves into father/daughter relationships, and explores college life. The characters are flawed but likeable and realistic, and the story unfolds in interesting ways.

Runaway by Alice Munro

I feel like I need not say much about Alice Munro since she’s so prolific and so widely loved.  That said, I sheepishly admit that this was the first complete collection of stories of hers that I’ve read, and I understand the heaps of praise she’s garnered.  Her writing is so precise and seemingly simple.  Her characters are everyday people–in this collection mostly young women–who are in everyday situations, but she brings such honesty and love to these people that even the simplest story seems a revelation.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby

I was deeply moved by the movie based on this book when it came out in 2007.  I finally got around to reading the book.  The backstory is astounding: Bauby, at the age of forty-three had a stroke.  His mind remained alert while his body was almost completely paralyzed, forcing him into a condition called “locked-in syndrome.”  He still had control of his eye movements and so used these to write this small memoir: his assistant would run through a list of letters, and when she got to the letter he wanted next, he would move his eye.  He tells his story here but does more than that: He ruminates on his memories, contemplates his children, admires beautiful women, all the while working to craft poetry out of a terrible, devastating situation.  It’s a beautiful book.

Man V. Nature by Diane Cook

This collection of stories is often surreal and funny: In the opening story, widows are imprisoned while they await a new husband to select them for remarriage.  Another story involves the final days for a wealthy man living in his mansion while the waters rise around him as the world ends, and my favorite story, “Somebody’s Baby” is about a neighborhood where a man steals babies.  Cook’s voice is deadpan but also observant.  Many of the stories feel allegorical and about bigger ideas, though they stand on their own as simply good stories too.  In “Somebody’s Baby,” for instance, Linda is distraught about the kidnapping of her brand new baby daughter, and yet the neighbors all assure her that she can just have another, that everyone knows the man takes babies, and there’s really nothing to do but accept it.   This story has a sadness to it, not only because babies are being stolen, but because I know that many people live in this world with the reality that their babies could be taken by war, disease, or poverty, and “there’s nothing to do but accept it.”

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Frances and her mother have fallen on hard times after World War I and so must take in boarders in order to make ends meet.  This is, at first, an uncomfortable situation, but Frances eventually grows close to Lilian, the young wife.  Lilian seems to be unhappily married to Len, and their marriage becomes further complicated by Lilian’s growing feelings for Frances, an unconventional young woman.  Like The Art of Fielding, this is mostly just an intriguing story with well-developed characters.  It has some plot twists, but that’s not really what makes the book (in the way that the plot twists make Waters’s Fingersmith).  It also raises interesting questions about class and social convention.

Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner

See review below.

Book Review: In the Light of What We Know

In the Light of What We Know, Zia Haider Rahman

Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem says that “within any given system, there are claims which are true but which cannot be proven to be true.”
In The Light of What We Know takes this theorem as its metaphorical heart in order to explore the nature of personal identity, memory and its effects on who we become, and how we make the choices we make: In looking at who we are, pinning down exactly what brought us to this point is slipperier than we know, and, further, perhaps we can’t ever truly understand who we are in the first place. “The farthest reaches of what we can ever know fall far short of the limits of what is true.” Rahman’s novel explores issues of race and class, science, international politics, mathematics, and more. Each chapter begins with several epigraphs, ranging from literary—Somerset Maugham or Ford Madox Ford—to scientific, to political, including the definition of rape, and these quotations help establish the complicated themes and ideas that the book works through. And, being a book of ideas as well as compelling, complicated, and interesting characters, it is easily the best book I have read so far this year, perhaps one of the best books I have ever read.
In 2008 an old friend, looking thin, unkempt, and shaky, shows up on the doorstep of our narrator, a banker who is embroiled in the fallout from the financial collapse related to the housing market. Zafar, the friend, is a mathematician who has also been involved in the news-grabbing headlines of the day: the U.S.’s war in Afghanistan, and both men find themselves at a crossroads in their lives where they are trying to understand how the choices they have made in the past have brought them to their current (unhappy) place in the world.
The narrator, who remains nameless throughout, intertwines his story with Zafar’s story, much of it culled from recordings of their conversations and from Zafar’s own notebooks. Zafar’s story reaches as far back as his impoverished childhood when he emigrated from Bangladesh to Britain and follows his path to Oxford, where he meets the narrator, and then to Afghanistan. Zafar is like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, haunted and compelled to tell his story, seeking forgiveness, or at least understanding, for the sin that he has committed. The difference between Coleridge’s character and Zafar is that it’s not clear whether Zafar is truly seeking atonement or is simply justifying his course of action.
On the surface, the two men seem similar: Both are Oxford-educated South Asians who chose high-powered careers yet have struggled with love and find themselves now discontent and trying to make sense of that discontent. However, as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that key differences are at play in the men’s stories. The narrator comes from considerable privilege. His family is wealthy and connected, and he makes the point that he was able to buy his luxurious house even before he made it big selling mortgage-backed securities.
Zafar, on the other hand, grew up in poverty; his immigrant parents worked menial jobs, and he always felt out of place in the elite world he eventually finds himself in. His observations on class go beyond bitterness; he is an astute thinker about the intersections of race and class, and some of the scenes in the novel that explore reactions to him as a Bangladeshi are told with an appropriately scathing awareness.
Zafar is deeply angry at the U.S. and British involvement in Afghanistan, skeptical of any humanitarian rhetoric and convinced that the politics at work are merely the play of very wealthy Westerners attempting to grab more power. However, he, like any realistic human being, is an unreliable narrator of his own story. “No one can tell their own story…They’re the most untrue stories of all, the stories we write ourselves by our own hand in the first person where our own dishonesty is hidden from us.” Despite his anger and resentment, he also puts those he disdains on a pedestal.
This contradiction in some ways is at the heart of his story: He falls in love with Emily Hampton-Wyvern before he even meets her, upon simply hearing her name, a name that suggests status, power, wealth. Emily embodies Zafar’s view of the British: beautiful yet aloof and unattainable, unable ever to apologize for her wrongdoings, unaware due to her enormous privilege, perhaps, that she has done anything wrong. Zafar’s relationship with Emily eventually brings him to Afghanistan and to the sin his narrative unfolds.
The end of the novel and the final unwrapping of Zafar’s narrative is the only less than perfect aspect of the story. It feels a little too much like the finale of a children’s crime story, Scooby Doo for instance, in which all the pieces of the puzzle are suddenly laid out for us the readers so that we get to see all behind the scenes that we had not seen before. However, by this point, Rahman’s narrative has been so complex, interesting, and provocative that, as a reader, I easily forgave this clunkiness. Even the less than perfect ending lends itself to thought and contemplation, and one is left with more questions than answers, perfectly appropriate given how little we can truly know about the nature of life.

Sestina: Tin Can Call

The summer I turned sixteen, I learned
the burning that happens when contact
is made: flesh and mouths, a new kind of touch.
Kids really, trying to smash ourselves together,
atoms mingling, heeding the old call
looking for The Other who would hear—

The low buzzing we made, like bees, hear
not just our desires but everything we’d learned
about desire—that birth is a call
to the universe; from conception we have contact.
We only survive when we are together.
We learn from being touched what it is to touch.

Hands, eyes, lips, hearts, touch
and understand. Without speaking, we hear:
all that our ancestors have learned
to cultivate society, not just sex as contact
but contact that issues forth the greater call.

String stretched taut, tin can call:
We twin sisters sleep at night, while parents forget to touch.
The line is in place, but loss of contact,
not even scratchy murmurings—hear
vestigial sighs and moans that have become unlearned,
aloneness now safer than being together.

How hard it is to hold together
when our atoms buzz about in empty space, call
to one another only through cosmic forces we can never learn.
And yet, I risk this cosmic touch
of forever, in another, and now hear
the heart beat growing inside me, this impossible yet mundane contact

of creation, of birth—contact
that challenges all notions of aloneness. Together:
on a brilliant night of unexpected lightning. We heard
the call of love, heard the call
that defies sound waves. Our touch
something both old and new but within us, cosmically learned:

We dance the dance of contact, all our being calling,
reaching for togetherness and psychic touch.
I hear without hearing all the universe has learned.

Right Now and a Memory

August 3, 2014, 1:30 am
My infant son is sleeping fitfully next to me. I find that every time he stirs or struggles, I am roused, awakened. Maybe it’s a curse for all parents—this worry about everything that could happen. Terrible things flash through my mind of all the ways he could be hurt or worse. So, when he stirs, I do too, and now I am awake.
He woke me up at one, am straining and fussing for a nipple that wasn’t there. I can only guess that, in his baby mind, breasts just appear from out of his slumber, filled with warm milk…so he always surfaces from his sleep—usually not fully—looking, searching for it, eyes closed, grunting and turning his head this way and that. He’s begun to strain so much he inch-worms himself in his little co-sleeper. He’ll end up perpendicular to where he started, just his head in his bed and the rest of his body in ours. Or worse still, one night he came rolling into me while I was asleep. He only did that once, and, as far as we can tell, he’s not actually rolling yet, but this is just one more thing to worry about—he, swaddled, rolling over, and, because his arms are pinned to his side, being unable to hold himself up.
Hence I don’t sleep well.
So I’m lying here, unsleeping, remembering. I remember this:
This really happened:
I’d driven to Chicago from Ann Arbor. It was summery, and the city held on to the heat. Even after the sun went down the pavement released its trapped heat of the day, and the buildings and smog cradled it, holding it: a muggy, Midwestern summer.
Nighttime, we set out walking. I don’t remember now if we had a destination or if we were aimless. But we walked for hours. We ended up in a place that felt to me, someone unfamiliar with the city, as the edge of town: factories, train tracks, warehouses. There was a chocolate factory there that my Chicago friends knew about.
As we got close, the smell of chocolate took over the night. The sky glowed pink with the lights of the city. Chicago isn’t ever truly dark. The factory was silhouetted black against that pink, and in front of the factory, parked on the train tracks that bounded the factory, was a train car.
A long tube or hose stretched from the car into the factory. The car was pumping its goods into the factory to be processed, but coming out of the top of the car and then falling back down like snow to coat its roof and the ground around it was sugar: sugar falling like snow. How could we not climb the ladder up, dance in the falling sugar, eat handfuls, not caring that our hair and insides of our shoes were sticky, not caring that we were covered, like the top of the train car, in sugar?
Afterward, buzzing and sticky, we went to the river. A bridge went over the river with several lanes of traffic for cars. But the bridge also had a pedestrian walkway with places where we could crawl down underneath the bridge and sit on the platforms made of girders. From these nests, we could hear the whir and thump of traffic, and we could watch the boats with their points of light guiding them under the bridge.
We breakfasted at IHOP at six am and stumbled back to the apartment in Logan Square where we fell asleep in our clothes with sugar still in our hair.

My Philosophy, An Open Letter

Dear Dad,

I feel like you’ve asked me a few times about, as you put it, “the philosophy on my body hair,” and I’ve tried my best to explain it. But I want to see if I can articulate my “philosophy” a bit better.
I stopped shaving in high school. I was, as you know, pretty involved in punk rock, specifically hard core and riot grrrl, both of which were anti-commodification and anti-consumerism. Punk rock was all about the community: community in music, community around creating art, be it zines or spoken word, or more. Riot grrrl was (is?) a specifically feminist version of this, an attempt to assert women’s place in that community, not just as girlfriends, but as central creators of music or art or politics.
Riot grrrl and feminism in general helped give me a place and helped me name my sadness and anger that I had felt as a girl growing up. I am sure that lots of people experience this—I don’t claim to be unique in this, but, for whatever reason, growing up I never felt “pretty” in the standard or cool way that the popular girls were. Perhaps it was because I was jockish; perhaps it was because I went through puberty early and was tall and gawky in that awkward way that all preteens are earlier than everyone else; perhaps it was because I was smart and more interested in books than in fashion, or perhaps it was because mom didn’t see any value in spending money on expensive, designer clothes, and so I never was as stylish as a lot of my classmates. Whatever…Kids picked on me, on both Stacey and me, not as badly as they picked on other kids, but they did. Perhaps they were just jealous of Stacey and me, that we were twins and therefore had a certain amount of fame and “coolness” automatically conferred on us. Or perhaps they were just being kids. Again, I claim no specific uniqueness in this.
But I went through periods of wanting to be cooler, wanting to be prettier and feeling sad that I wasn’t. I also, at the same time, felt critical of this. No one wants to feel sad, so there was that, but I also had some consciousness that no one should feel sad in this way.
I’m pretty sure that my playing sports and being sporty early on was instrumental in my feeling like a feminist long before I had a name for what I felt. Growing up, I was angry when we’d play softball, and the boys wouldn’t let me or other girls pitch. I was angry when anyone asserted that girls “don’t do that,” whatever “that” may be. I was annoyed by anyone who tried to tell me what girls “should” be or do.
So then when I started hanging out in the punk rock and riot grrrl communities and seeing girls who didn’t shave, it made me suddenly aware of all the ways that ideas of beauty are so limiting, so prescriptive, and so rooted in social convention. This is true for men and women, but in the world we live in, women are more often expected to strive to be beautiful. It’s easiest to see this in the makeup and fashion industries for instance, but the social convention of shaving is just one other way women are taught that their natural bodies are not beautiful. And it’s one other way our status becomes about what we look like rather than who we are inside.
You said that shaving is not a social convention, but, again, the very fact that we, as mammals, grow hair naturally, shows that something in society has decided this (not nature). No other mammal has any kind of hair removal for beauty. It’s also obvious if you look at other cultures—shaving is less common in Europe or parts of Central America, and it is a relatively recent cultural phenomenon.
Anyway, I was inspired by the fact that I could feel beautiful in my natural state, but more importantly, I was inspired by the fact that the girls I knew in punk rock weren’t just interested in being considered beautiful; they recognized that there are so many more important things to be: strong, smart, politically active, creative.
And I had always hated shaving. It took a lot of time, grew back prickly and irritating, cost money, and sometimes hurt. I started to realize there was no reason for me to do something I didn’t want to do just because society said I should.
And this has generally become my ethos: I’m not interested in consumerism despite relentless attempts to get me to buy, buy, buy. I’m not someone who ever just accepts the political party line that would rather I didn’t think critically about policy choices of our leaders. I don’t follow fad diets or spend my money on makeup. Sure there are social conventions I do follow; I’m not saying that I’m a complete social renegade, but I would like to think I choose the things to follow because I care about them or enjoy them. (For instance I care about being fit and healthy in part because I enjoy working out and in part because I feel better when I do.)
I would like my son to grow up believing women can be whoever they want to be. Heck, I’d like him growing up believing he can be whatever he wants to be: Maybe he’ll be into sports and such, but maybe he’ll be bookish or into fashion or art. Maybe he’ll want to wear princess dresses as our neighbor did, or maybe he’ll wear nothing but jeans and sneakers. Maybe he’ll want to shave his legs and armpits! Regardless of what he chooses, I want him to feel like he has a choice in creating his identity, that he doesn’t just have to follow what is expected of him. I hope that I can model that for him in the choices I make myself.
I hope all this makes sense. I really am happy to talk more about it if you want; you don’t have to feel embarrassed to ask me.
I love you,
Sara