Thursday, March 8, 2018

Interview: Hannah Howard

Meet Hannah Howard, author of FEAST!

Dear friends, writers and undercover creatives,
There was a moment many, many years ago, when I was wondering about becoming a writer. I walked into Books Inc. in Palo Alto and was overcome by the sheer volume of books. They were piled on tables, they were shelved on floating A-frame carts, they climbed the walls all the way to the ceiling. It wasn't my best day, and I thought to myself, "Really, does the world need another book?" 

Fastforward to 2018, halfway through my MFA and my perspective has been turned inside out. Back then, even in the face of my overwhelm I loved books. But I love them now more than I ever have. Now I know people who write books. Their children get sick. The pipes in their homes blow. Sometimes their relationships fall apart. Their bills pile up. And still. They write. They revise. They submit. Maybe their work finds a kindred spirit who wants to represent the work, who wants to publish the work. That any book exists at all is a collaboration of miracles and a testament to human persistence. 

I take more pleasure in books than ever. Especially books written by friends and colleagues. As a celebration of what I'm learning about writing and especially what I'm learning about women who write, I am launching an interview series of women writers. Today I kick the series off with my friend Hannah Howard, whose book, FEAST has just arrived in the world. 

In FEAST, Hannah shares the story of her life with food. As a Columbia undergrad she lands a job at Picholine (cheese cart anyone?!) and begins to explore the inner workings of the New York City food world. Meanwhile, she wrestles privately with an eating disorder, reckoning with body image, craving, and the universal need we all have for comfort and connection. Her writing is alive on the page, at times sparkling (a cheese never read so yummy) and at other times searing (her descriptions of body dysphoria chilling and unsettlingly familiar). 

Hannah, congratulations on the publication of your first book! Talk a bit about the process of getting from your first flicker of an idea to producing the book. When did you start writing it? What were the hurdles? Who and what helped provide the momentum to make it to a finished product? What has been most gratifying for you as a writer?

I’ve always loved to write. More than loved to write—needed to write. When I started interning for Serious Eats in college, I wrote a column called Served about waiting tables at Casellula. That was not my first time turning my day-to-day experiences into stories and sharing those stories with the world; when I was in middle and high school, I published a ‘zine called Power Dreams about my adventures with my friends and the horror of moving from Baltimore to New Jersey. (Back issues 1, 2 and 3 are still available from my parents’ closet.) 

There was something instantly wonderful, addictive, and deeply gratifying about the whole process. I want to make meaning out of my life, and I want to share that meaning…and stories, silliness, revelations, heartache, messiness, and all the rest. I wrote columns, essays, and reviews, and at some point I realized that these anecdotes were adding up to something bigger. FEAST was born! I’ve been working on FEAST for the last five years.

So many people believed in FEAST along the way. My agent Andrea Somberg helped me turn a mess of ideas into a book proposal; Morgan Parker, my first editor at Little A, helped me transform the proposal into an actual manuscript; and Laura van der Veer, editor number two, helped polish and refine that manuscript into something I’m proud of. And I’ve had the added luck of insightful help and edits from the whole family at the Bennington MFA. And my mom. And my writer’s group. It takes a village. 

As for the hurdles: publishing a book is a long road and patience is not something that comes naturally to me. Going back into the weeds of the hardest, darkest part of my life was incredibly challenging. I started seeing a therapist again.  Sharing my most vulnerable stuff with the world is terrifying—but I’m hoping ultimately rewarding. 

I cried last week when I got my first copy of the finished book. Holding FEAST, with a cover and an author photo and all of that, felt unreal and magical. Talk about gratifying! 

What does it mean to you to be a working artist? Did you always take your own art seriously? Was there a moment you decided to "go pro"?

My mom told me that I could call myself a writer when I first got paid to write something, and I think she’s right. We writers and artists have a hard time owning what we do. I can’t think a lawyer who abashedly says, “Oh, I’m just practicing some law.” 

For many years, I’ve worked on a mix of projects like copywriting and marketing writing to pay the bills, and the “fun stuff,” writing that brings me gratification like personal essays and restaurant reviews. But I do get a certain satisfaction from copywriting. And I like making money, too. It feels like a crazy puzzle I’m constantly trying to fit together with varying success. I am lucky to have the privilege to create this working artist life. 

Tell me about your routine as a working artist. What are your artistic habits? What do you do if you ever find yourself stuck? 

Some days I work from my “bed office” with a giant mug of coffee and a big pile of pillows. As a former cubicle person, I feel lucky and a little bit naughty for getting to do this. If I’m having a writing day, I like to take a lunchtime break and go to a class at my gym, go for a walk, and make myself something to eat. I’ll get antsy and relocate to a coffee shop.

I’m writing this from Ground Support in Soho, a great coffee shop with excellent people watching opportunities. (There’s an incredibly stylish woman with two gigantic poodles shouting in a language I cannot identify into her phone by the door…) The change of scenery sparks something. My brain works best in the morning, so I try to schedule my meetings for the afternoons and save my sharpest focus for early writing time.

Other days I am absorbed in non-writing work and projects. I go for weeks where I write every day, but there are weeks where I hardly write at all. I like to think of these times as opportunities to soak up inspiration and recharge. I’ve been letting myself take breaks when I feel stuck and revisit something in a few hours, or in a few days. Deadlines are great cure for stuck-ness.  

Talk to us about your intuition and your intuitive habits. How is your intuitive self alive in your writing? Feast is a book fueled by obsession. What role does obsession play in your writing life? What are you learning that is surprising to you about your own obsessions, if we can use that word in a friendly way between writers :-) ? How (if at all) do you think obsession and intuition are related?

I love this question! I think of obsession as two-headed. There is a negative, destructive part of obsession that, if indulged, spirals into a dark, fucked up place. My eating disorder was fueled by this kind of obsession. But there is also obsession in a more positive light, a deep creative fixation that can spark the best kind of writing. I think to write a book, any book, you must be at least a little bit obsessed with your subject, your characters, and your story. You’re going to spend a whole lot of time and emotional energy there. Maybe this juicy, generative obsession is intuition. 

Success in the arts is measured very differently than in other endeavors. As an artist, how do you define success for yourself? Making art often seems to me like an act of faith. What inspires you to continue doing your work?

I’ve thought so much about this. I’m an ambitious person. My goal has always been to write a book. And my greatest hope is that people read FEAST and feel less alone. Now that I’ve written a book…well, I’d love to write another one. I’d love to make a career as a writer. That would be a huge success.

Making art is such an act of faith. Starting with a blank page. That stupid cursor on a white screen, blinking as if taunting you. And harder yet, sometimes—sharing that work with the world. I’m inspired by an amazing group of talented artist friends like you who are fighting the good fight. I am inspired by people who take risks and show up. By writers, artists, and readers. 

What, if anything, has writing taught you that carries over into other aspects of your life? Are there any habits or routines you keep as an artist that support you in your life in general? In what ways does pursuing your art impact your well-being?

Dinah Lenney, one of my wonderful Bennington MFA professors, said this in an essay at the TriQuarterly Review: “You have to get naked first. Moreover, it’s not enough to get naked (this is what I used to tell my own students), you have stand up naked and turn around slowly.” Sometimes I think, oh my God, why would anyone want to do that? Maybe I’ll quit writing and learn to be an accountant. But the good, important stuff is often the vulnerable stuff. The getting naked and turning around slowly stuff. When I’m feeling that fear of being seen, really seen, I’m probably onto something real and worthwhile. 

Whose work is inspiring you right now? Feel free to range wildly and not limit yourself to literary art!

Some writers I’m loving: Mary Karr, James Baldwin, Ariel Levy, Meghan Daum, Ruth Reichl, Alice Munro, Donna Tartt. I’m always inspired by food and flavors. I’ve been watching some brilliant TV lately—Orange is the New Black, Transparent, The Handmaid’s Tale. And some movies that have really stayed with me, Lady Bird, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and of course Black Panther. 

Thanks Hannah! FEAST is available on Amazon today. Don't miss it!

Thursday, October 19, 2017

If you're feeling like it's an F-bomb kind of day

Who, in these crazy times, is not in need of reading that will either make you laugh or bring some level of comfort? These bright yellow covered books are road signs to mental health that do both AT THE SAME TIME!

We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, Samantha Irby: Get inside the head of one of the funniest people I've met on the page in a long time. Irby's inner monologue as she fills out an application to reality TV show, The Bachelor, had me in stitches from page one. Her self-deprecating humor offers Philip Lopate style permission for each of us to be human. Also, if you like swearing, which I really do, run don't walk to pick this one up. And when you finish the book and just NEED MORE FUNNY, take refuge in Irby's blog.

F*ck Feelings, Michael and Sarah Bennett: Here is the thing your shrink won't admit, everyday that you don't get your shit together equals another day of gainful employment for them. Believe me, as the daughter of a therapist, if at all possible you should avoid becoming a shrink's lifetime bread and butter. The Bennetts agree. This book lists the most frequent chronic problems they witness in contemporary adults (everything from living childhood trauma, to raising a kid with an LD, to adultery--they cover A LOT of ground), and then suggests perspective shifts that will help you live with the problem rather than solve it. In the wise words of Maggie Nelson, "the shit stays messy," and the Bennetts are here to teach you how to celebrate small victories and stop wasting time solving unsolvables. As someone who has both been the bread and butter and gone to college on the bread and butter cases, I get it, there is nothing that can replace a real person resonating with your trauma. And still, from the minute I read the phrase "f*ck self-improvement" I got the tingling feeling of a laugh going, and the sense that liberation was much closer at hand than I allow myself to believe.

P.S. Here is a public service announcement for my fellow middle aged people. Did you know that double spaces after a period MAKE YOU LOOK OLD? Lord, how did I miss this? So forget your anti-aging creams, just drop that extra space after a period and you will be looking ten years younger already.

Monday, October 9, 2017

October reading update

I'm not going to lie, this month has been the hardest month in my MFA program so far.  The way the Bennington Low Residency program works, we meet twice a year for ten days in Vermont and in the intervening time we work one-on-one with established writers on our own material (I'm working with Dinah Lenney this term, and got to work with Susan Cheever last term--both amazing writers and amazing teachers).  Every month we're responsible for reading 4-5 books, writing two annotations--which is what fancy graduate school calls book reports, and we submit 15-20 fresh pages of work, along with the revision of one of the last month's pieces.  Altogether, my Bennington peeps and me, we call this stack of work a "packet."  

Packet #3 of 2nd Term is killing me.

That said, the best part of this last packet has been luxuriating in the reading when the writing has not been flowing.  Here's my reading list for the month:

I'm going to start with the essays I've loved, because they feel like they might be more widely appealing.  They are all low-investment (relatively short compared to a book, and free) reading options that will challenge you into a better place from sentence #1.  Plus, if you have not seen the plural of "Prius" written on the page, you will find its appearance "prii" hugely satisfying.

What has Irony Done for Us Lately, A Place Journal:  Calling all Pam Houston fans: she has a new book on the way, and some gems from it are being released as essays.  This one must be read with tissues, but you won't be disappointed.  Bennington peeps, read to experience our beloved Josh Weil with a thirty pound elk baby in his arms.

I'm Drowning in Whiteness, Ijeoma Oluo,  Fellow white people, we have to read these pieces.  What comes up for me and what I'll be thinking//writing about more, has to do with what white supremacy has stolen from all of us.  It should be obvious by now that non-white people live more dangerous lives in the US.  And we should be furious about that.  But if we think that white supremacy mostly does a disservice to other people, we are missing the point.  These cultural separations are robbing us all of us.

I Need to Talk to Spiritual White Women about White Supremacy, Layla Saad,  The biggest lie white women have been sold is that we are our most successful when we are being nice, that and that love looks like something from a Hallmark card.  Fury is love that demands justice, and you've been told you have no right to your own fury.  The world needs us to find our fire, ladies.

Now for the books:

I'm the One Who Got Away, Andrea Jarrell:  A memoir exploring the contours of the writer's desire across the span of her life.  Without mentioning the word misogyny, she nails the complex problem of women's desire in the patriarchy.  Has a great ending.  Plus she got her MFA at Bennington--WOOT!

Conundrum, Jan Morris:  Published in 1974, this is the classic trans memoir that seems, so far at least, to be the seed for all others.  Important because it establishes some metaphors about the experience of gender that seem to have become fundamental to how we talk about the various genders that don't yet have a name or a language to live in.  The book was a break through, but in some sense also represents the linguistic limits the gender nonconforming experience still lives within.  Read along with Nora Ephron's scathing response to the book to learn how some of our prominent feminists have been seriously horrible to trans folks.  I haven't been able to locate her review online, if you want to read it check out The Most of Nora Ephron. Like Conundrum itself, Ephron's response continues to be the scaffolding behind a lot of political pushback towards transpeople.

Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides:  Confession.  I haven't finished it yet.  But so far, this is the most writerly example of a gender nonconforming experience I've come across.  That said, the author is not gender nonconforming himself, which doesn't mean he shouldn't write it, but it does mean that I think he has to have some of the same problem I do trying to feel into the experience.  But, the guy is a masterful writer--which accounts for a lot.  So more on this to come.

Some Assembly Required, Arin Andrews:  A FTM trans memoir written by a young adult right after transitioning.  Includes very explicit information that most trans memoirs do not directly address.  Written for other teens considering transition and does a lovely job of addressing the overlap between gender identity and sexual orientation.  From a distance we are taught that these two topics are separate, but in this first person account it's clear that for this individual the two topics are intimately tangled together.

not shown in the pile:  Boys of My Youth, Jo Ann Beard:  This is a collection of essays by a writer that writers love to love--her language is like fireworks in your brain.  Plus she is funny.  You should read her even if you're not a writer.  If you are a writer you should read her and then work hard not to feel bad that your words don't fizz and swoop on the page just like hers.  We are all special in our own way, right ?! LOL

Monday, September 18, 2017

What I'm up to September 2017

Dear blog-reading friends,

I miss you all!  I wanted to quick check-in and report that I have been writing, writing, writing, even though I'm not posting as much as I usually do.  A lot of the work I'm producing for my MFA is not yet ready for primetime, but there are still some juicy bits to share.

The motto at Bennington is "Read 100, Write 1"...books that is.  So needless to say, I've been devouring words. I think you might enjoy a peek into the "best of" in my reading list for the month.  If you guys like this I'll continue to post.  I would definitely love to hear what you're reading.  Please post what's on your nightstand in the comments!

This month's "best of" includes:

On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder.  A collection of 20 very short essays about preserving civil society written by a Yale professor who studies the history of fascism.  I especially appreciated some unintuitive tips about staying connected with your community and upholding ethical values in group settings such as at work and at schools.

"A Few Words about Breasts," essay by Nora Ephron

"A Portrait of My Body," essay by Phillip Lopate

"An Evening Out," short story by Garth Greenwell from the 8/21/17 New Yorker.  The dog at the end, you'll never forget her.  Bonus, the audiofile of Greenwell reading the story is also included in the link.

To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf.  Dinah Lenney, my current instructor (The Object Parade: Essays and Bigger than Life: A Murder, A Memoir) calls it life-changing.  So I'm in.

Not pictured here, but both fabulous reads:

The Suicide Index:  Putting My Father's Death in Order, Joan Wickersham.  Wickersham is an instructor at Bennington. In this book she reflects on her own father's suicide, using the structure of an index to give shape her complicated, unresolvable experience.  The way she ruminates on the page is sharp, original, and at times very funny.  One of my favorite books so far.

She's Not There:  A Life in Two Genders, Jennifer Finney Boylan.  A transgender transition memoir--a contemporary classic in this subject area.  Boylan is a columnist for the New York Times.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Sweet peas

I walked out of my office this morning and the air smelled like suntan lotion.  I knew something new was in bloom, but couldn’t name it.  I had just gotten off the phone with a new friend, we had talked for two hours straight, and though I had been struggling on a piece of writing for weeks, I felt encouraged—though in real time, was no closer to finishing the draft than I had been earlier in the day.

Despite the fact that the piece was hanging over me, I went on a walk around the block and listened to an On Being podcast with Richard Rohr recommended by my friend.  In the podcast, Rohr talked about the difference between chronos—everyday, minute to minute time, and chiros—deep time, wise time, the kind of time that reminds us each of our actual size in the universe.  Rohr referenced a Latin phrase that he had learned as a Franciscan monk, sub specie aeternitatis, which means, in the light of eternity, as a context that could be applied to any moment in order to shift focus into chiros.  He explained that the things that bothered young men, and at the time he was talking specifically about men, those irritants often disappeared in the light of eternity.

I saw what he meant immediately and the writing that I was struggling with ceased in that moment to have such a tight hold on me, at least in a way.  I could see how finishing it today or tomorrow would had no real world consequence for me or for anyone else.  The ten pages I’m hammering away at matter very little to the eternal universe.

I wound my way through our neighborhood to the public garden where the flowers are going gangbusters.  Every green stalked showed off a petaled swagger.  The peonies especially flaunted themselves in all their excess, the layers of pink and white petals, their over the top scent, blossoms so big and heavy that each stem seemed at risk that it might break under the weight of so much beauty.  I sniffed the blossom, but this wasn’t the suntan lotion smell that had struck me in the morning.

I walked some more and wondered if my writing mattered at all.  In the grand scheme of things, does anything really matter in the light of eternity, but because I’m writing about gender identities, and because gender identities transcend time in a way that I necessarily don’t, the writing did seem to matter somehow—though, you know, eternity is a lot of pressure.  I might buckle under the weight of an idea that mattered that much, and plus, what does a single person’s contribution matter to an archetype.  And there I was caught in the tension again—ideas matter way too much or somehow not at all.  I found myself slightly disappointed in Rohr’s light of eternity, or if not in Rohr’s notion itself, the way my own mind was distorting it.

On the way home, I walked by a house with an unkept garden.  Weeds rambled, the lawn was burned out in some spots, and near the edge, there was a small tangle of last year's sweet peas.  By all measures they shouldn’t have been there.  Lathyrus odoratus, that tendril-ed clutch of vines, humble blossoms, and scent, is an annual, and this garden hadn’t been tended this year and likely not last year either.  But there it was, a wildly occurring splash of pink, seeded there who knows how.  I leaned over to take a sniff, and I knew right away it was the scent I had caught a whiff of earlier in the morning.

I stole a sprig and carried it home, holding it close to my nose the whole way.  It cast a spell on me, that scent.  I felt small again, like my mother would walk around the corner and take my hand.  There was relief in that—to be whisked away on the scent of an accidental flower, to be reminded of love.

Later in the day I found this poem.  I hadn’t ever seen it before, but once again, I am grateful for Naomi Shihab Nye who speaks my own heart better than I ever could.



The river is famous to the fish.

The loud voice is famous to silence,
which knew it would inherit the earth
before anybody said so.

The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds
Watching him from the birdhouse.

The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.

The idea you carry close to your bosom
is famous to your bosom.

The boot is famous to the earth
more famous than the dress shoe
which is famous only to floors.

The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it
and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.

I want to be famous to shuffling men
who smile while crossing streets,
sticky children in grocery lines,
famous as the one who smiled back.

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.


And those pieces came together for me, the scent of unplanned sweet peas, the work of button holes and pulleys, and one word at a time.  Nothing was cornered into here or there, eternity or this moment, nothing spectacular was required.  And I believed it, you know which is the thing.  We can know these things but not actually believe them.  Perhaps what I understood today, though not for the first time, is that believing, actual faith in a thing, is an act that requires the body.  The knowing needs a vessel, my mind grips, but my believing body breathes.  Its a thing better done than said, but in a body whose way is characterized by language, the language just keeps coming, whether it serves or not.  And so here I am writing again, after a few weeks of feeling very stuck.  

Wishing you all the sweetness of springtime.  

Friday, March 17, 2017

Thoughts on the gender revolution

Dear friends,
If you follow me on Facebook, you've probably noticed that I am linking to a lot of pieces about gender, especially topics that have to do with women's rights and the emerging understanding that gender is a spectrum.  Many of you who know me, know that this topic has been a reading and thinking obsession of mine for a long time.  All the way back from when I first read the Diary of Anne Frank as a girl, through the years I spent hiding out at the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe researching the history of the Pill and the women who demanded it be reformulated for safety reasons, to founding Shine on Collaborative, a coaching organization whose primary concern is women's contributions and well being--the experience of gender has fascinated me.  And it's humbled me by its complexity.

You've probably already noticed that we are in the middle of a sea change in the universe of gender.  The Trump administration has and will put up road blocks to stop it, but in a way, these road blocks are amplifying the felt sense of what is afoot.

National Geographic calls this a Gender Revolution, and I agree with this characterization.  By the time our children or maybe grandchildren are adults, there will be pockets in the world, mostly cities, in which gender will look completely different than what we have known up until now.  The feelings I have about this alternate between, excitement for what may be one of the most important cultural shifts in my lifetime, fury in the face of extreme conservative backlash against progress for any of the non-dominant genders, fear for the safety of the individuals whose lives are lighting the way forward, but who may not be in friendly territory, and sometimes also exhaustion--because change is hard, and finding the right words and concepts to describe what's emerging requires real effort.

I'm writing this post for friends and family whose day-to-day might be on the periphery of this revolution, who may think something like, "boy and girl was good enough for us, why do we need all these other special labels?"  And to remind myself that, yes, we need to keep moving forward, even though it will take a lot of work to reinvent say, a language that takes into account that he/his and she/hers categorizes individuals in a way that at times is unnecessary and at other times is not specific enough.

I'll start with a narrow set of facts.  High school biology teaches us that biological sex falls into two neat genetic categories, XY or XX.  Jogging your memory here, you learned that if your karyotype is XY, your phenotype will be male and that if your karyotype is XX then your phenotype will be female. To be specific the main physical details consulted to determine your phenotype were your private parts, and assigning you a gender did not take into account any other physical evidence about your brain, your endocrine system, your kidneys or any of other difficult to measure physical trait that tends to correlate with whether you are XX or XY. 

Also not covered in that 9th grade unit on genetics and biological sex is the fact that other combinations of sex chromosomes can and do result in viable human beings.  We know for sure that X, XXY, XYY, XXX and XXXY all occur with varying frequency within the human family.  And they are not that uncommon.  XXY is thought to occur in as many as 1 in 500 people.  The current guesstimate is that XXX and XYY both occur in about 1 in 1,000 people.  But even then, many people with these less typical chromosomal combinations don't know about their own genetic difference, which means we have a limited understanding of how often these combinations occur.  At the very least based on the estimates available, simple math leads to the conclusion that among the billions of human beings on the planet, there are millions of people alive today whose biological sex does not conform to a binary gender rubric.

Let that sink in for a minute.  The two neat categories of male and female are inaccurate in the most fundamental way.

And this is just the beginning of the biological confusion.  There are other worlds of information that describe the interactions between hormones and the brain that also have considerable impact on the categories of male and female.  And that does not even begin to address the way social narratives have attached themselves to physical bodies.  There are many aspects to the complexity of gender, but for today, I want to be clear about one thing--the concept of binary gender is wrong, and a single focus on sex chromosomes should be enough to convince any of us that gender as a category deserves a revolution.

Scientists discovered these other genetic sex variations in the late 1950's as a result of new developments in genetic research methods.  But when these types were discovered, they were classified not as new separate sex categories, but as twists on male and female.  Usually these twists were considered poorer versions of male or female, but in the case of XYY, there was a brief spell around 1968 in which a big deal was made about the arrival of the "super male"--someone who was extra macho, and alternatively might be more likely to end up serving time for criminal violence, or might end up a hero, as suggested by the main character in the novel called XYY Man (just ordered it on Amazon to have a peek) in which an XYY guy named Scottie finds his skills as a cat burglar in high demand with the British Secret service.   There's that social narrative piece.  I find myself here both laughing and cringing.


My education has trained me to pursue clarity, and that confusion in any realm, but especially in the realm of gender and identity, is a bad thing.  I've often felt internal pressure to know what side of an argument I believe or agree with, I've wanted to have big thoughts about how to "fix" the problems of gender, I've wanted to know for sure one way or another whether my thinking about gender or my performance of my own gender is good or right.  

But lately I've been wondering whether or not this need to "know," to pin down the facts, and to be good, correct, and right, is in itself a culturally gendered way of thinking, or if not gendered exactly, a traditional way of thinking that is getting in the way of experiencing the complexity of the situation.  But this is especially hard because not knowing, in the case of gender is extra vulnerable.  In some cases not having the right words for who you are or the most accurate words to demand your right to personal safety can be a matter of life or death.  

Still, Rebecca Solnit, Virginia Woolf, Pema Chodron, Lydia Yuknavich and all the thinkers who encourage getting comfortable with uncertainty are my coaches these days.  I wear their words like a team uniform, a way of belonging to the crew that is doing their work out in the dark every day, feeling around for new languages (thinking of Yuknavich's book Chronology of Water) or pushing the old one to do new tricks (I'm thinking o here of Kristi Yamaguchi and her triple lutz, triple toe, or Michelle Kwan and her seven triple jumps in '88). 

Here are some passages of Solnit that describe what I'm talking about:

"We know less when we erroneously think we know than when we recognize that we don't.  Sometimes I think these pretenses at authoritative knowledge are failures of language:  the language of bold assertion is simpler, less taxing, than the language of nuance and ambiguity and speculation."

"My own task these past twenty years or so of living by words has been to try to find or make a language to describe the subtleties, the incalculables, the pleasures and meanings--impossible to categorize--at the heart of things...The tyranny of the quantifiable is partly the failure of language and discourse to describe more complex, subtle, and fluid phenomena, as well as the failure of those who shape opinions and make decisions to understand and value these slipperier things.  It is difficult, sometimes even impossible, to value what cannot be named or described, and so the task of naming and describing is an essential one in any revolt against the status quo..."

So for all of us who find the long lists of genders on college forms confusing or tiresome, my request is that we stick with it.  We are learning so much all at once and it will be years before the everyday language can hold the complexity of what we are learning about the reality of gender.  My hope is that we can be creative and empathetic through the learning process.

At this point, I also look back to the half-marathon I ran with my friend Laurel in 2013.  To call us amateur runners would have been generous since we hardly thought of ourselves as runners at all.  The night before the race we got together with my friend Katherine McIntyre who asked us what our plan was for getting through the 13 miles (our longest run had been 7, I think).  And we had none.  At that point she suggested we put our selves in a 5 minute run-2 minute walk pattern.  She had a lot more experience, which was enough to convince us to avail ourselves of her advice.

During the race, I learned that the most difficult part of the first half of the race was keeping to the pattern.  I felt like a horse chomping against the bit every time we had to slow ourselves down to walk.  The thought bubble that popped above my head then was "refraining is the most difficult task."  It was one of those moments when life and metaphor happen at the same time.  My body was doing the motions of a perspective that is increasingly difficult to hold in a fast paced world.  I was forcing myself to walk when I wanted badly to run.

It ended up for the best.  In that last mile, we were both spent and hardly made it across the finish line.  If we had not saved our energy, we would not have made it.  On the topic of gender, as well as all of the other political topics that are in such flux right now, having a plan for pacing and sticking to it, feels right to me, along with finding ways to be in a state of productive uncertainty.  And by pacing, I'm meaning pacing around the language and making room for some level of confusion, while at the same time holding sturdy vigilance for everyone's right to safety, to free circulation in their environment, to love and be loved.

In the meantime, if you meet someone whose gender you do not know and you need to find out what pronoun to use when talking to them, there is a simple polite formula for how to proceed.  You say, "Hi, my name is Cristina. What's your name?"  Then they might say, "I'm Jordan."  Then you can say, "Nice to meet you Jordan.  The pronouns I use are she/her.  What do you use?"

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Happy International Women's Day

What I know "for sure" about being a woman is unfinished. 

I do know gender impacts your personal safety, how likely you are to live in poverty, what kinds of jobs feel within reach, and whether or not you feel entitled to voice your most passionate perspectives.  We will need International Women's Day for a good long time to come, and we'll need it to do its job for all the genders.  

And I do know I love being a woman, which feels like more of a paradox everyday.  It's like this:

warm body late night  
bath bubbles buzz
lip stick sweet cream 
hips, hips, hips, 
spinning like tops 
hiding diamonds 
in praise
of flowers and tulle
and the twelve signs
whispering steady streams
of warning and love


These good things I learned from my mother.  The rest I learned from being a mother. Mothering is the kind of bowl that is bigger than the brain, you know, that can see the wrong things and love the things, and get up every morning hugging and fighting at the same time and not fall apart. 

Which is not to put mothering on a pedestal, but to say that a maternal perspective, one in which one person works on behalf of another less powerful person, or one in in which taking care, not optimizing, maximizing, or winning, is the primary motivation, gives life, encouraging tiny green shoots of goodness to make their way up through the cracks of impossibilities.

Happy International Women's Day.

Monday, February 13, 2017

My friend Nancy's term "inner patriot"

My friend Nancy is awesome.  She has coined the term "inner patriot."  She and my friend Brette have also sent me this care package of ice cream.  That makes them both super awesome.

Hi all,

I have not yet posted in 2017.  It is as if there is too much on my mind to even get out a few sentences.  But I thought for today I'd just post a couple of simple things:

I'm worried. 

--Continuing to employ a staffer blatantly plugged a private business interest.
--Then the following two days using the POTUS twitter account to continue to plug the family business by using it as a location to entertain foreign dignitaries.
--Calling that business on the POTUS twitter feed, "the Winter White House."

Here is a quote from The Standards of Ethical Behavior for Employees of the Executive Branch iIssued by the US Office Of Government Ethics

"(7) Employees shall not use public office for private gain.
(8) Employees shall act impartially and not give preferential treatment to any private organization or individual."

These above actions were against the law in the case of the staffer, and against the spirit of the law in the case of POTUS.

Meanwhile to call protesters

"professional anarchists, thugs and paid protesters" 

when protesting is not only our right, but written into the first amendment of the constitution, is wrong.  

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or of the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

It is worrisome.

To my good friends who find these times overwhelming, and overly negative.  Please, stay tuned.  Do not fall into confusion or paralysis.  We are called on to peaceably redress our grievances.  I know you are not accustomed to being in the fight.  I know you want to take a break or for all of this to go away.  But history tells us, this falling asleep or falling back is how we lose our democracy.  For those of us who have had the good luck to have enjoyed the privilege of straightforward citizenship in the form of whiteness, perhaps a Christian identity, a decent education, food on the table every night, etc. that privilege has kept us on the sidelines for a very long time.  We have maybe even believed that our voice doesn't matter.  It does.  Do not fall into overwhelm.  Do whatever you need to do to say energized to  call your Members of Congress everyday.   In the past other good Americans have correctly criticized our government, and they have left us a legacy of clear instruction.  Peaceful non-violent resistance.  We can do this.  We are doing this.  

When I feel tired of all this, which is a lot, I call on that resource Nancy has dubbed our "inner patriot."  I love this phrase.  Our inner patriots will never tire.  Our inner patriots do not belong to a party, they belong to the cause of functioning democratic ideals.  Our inner patriots know that to plug a personal business from an official government office is wrong, our inner patriots know that it is a startling departure from historic norms for a president to refuse transparency around their tax record.  Our inner patriots believe that real facts exist and that it is our job to find sources that report them.  Our inner patriots believe that our elected officials work on our behalf, and we contact them regularly to express our opinions.  Our inner patriots insist on robust electoral process, on the checks and balances built into the government, and on mutual respect between citizens.  Our inner patriots make the calls.  Our inner patriots have heroes and call on them regularly through reading, prayer, channeling and petitioning in real life and in spirit.  Our inner patriots are timeless.  We practice knowing that every moment is urgent and that clocks and calendars do not measure our timeline.

One of my heroes lately has been Rebecca Solnit author of Hope in the Dark.

"When I think back to why I was apolitical into my mid-twenties I see that being politically engaged means having a sense of your own power--that what you do matters--and a sense of belonging, things that cameto me only later and that do not come to all."

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Tenzo: A poem

January 31, 2017

The cook has always known the flame.

"Do not burn the butter," she says.
"Or else the alarm will sound and
we will not be able to eat the eggs."

Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Shortest Day

My shoulders slumped a little as I walked out of the salon last Thursday.  I didn't like my hair cut. The blonde fell in smooth strands, a little bang whisked across my brow.  I couldn't put a finger on what I didn't like.  But when I got home that evening my tween daughter put it in simple terms.  "Mom, it's a bob."  She squinted her eyes a little and elaborated.  "Actually, its a little bit shorter than usual.  It's not just a bob--it's a mom-bob."  Of course it was.  I was a mom with a smooth blown out bob, a mom-bob is what I had for hair.  I didn't love it, but was mildly resigned to it.  Something about me with a mom-bob made sense, not to my internal story of myself, mind you, but to my understanding of the world beyond me, to the people who look at me and think of me in a certain way.  I think to them I am a mostly a mom, and for me to have a mom-bob would make a certain kind of sense.

Because I'm a mom of a certain age, who still has blonde hair, a haircut does not finish it off for me.  The next day I had my second hair appointment of the month--for the color.  By last Friday my roots were showing about an inch and a half, damning evidence that I had missed the previous appointment.  My colorist hates it when I do this.  It makes her job of making my hair look natural more difficult.  I've spent the last three years or so threatening to give up the color, but pretty much everyone I know--my kids, my hairdresser, my colorist, everyone, is staunchly against my going gray--and in the end, I suppose for now I'm with them.  I'm not that interested in looking older these days, which must be some kind of sign that I've grown up, because I can remember the days of wanting to look older than I actually was.  And beyond all that I've not been able to calculate the logistics of letting it go gray.  Do I cut it off and then grow it out?  Do I tough out the year of hair half gray half blonde?  That's usually where my thoughts on gray stop and I book the next three hour appointment.

For the first time at this particular appointment, I ran into a male friend getting his color done.  Do you acknowledge this?  Is it outing him somehow to say hello?  For years friends have streamed through the salon during the three hour appointment, and we've covered, children, marriage, the state of the nation, all with our hair foiled up into wild looking techno manes.  But the men had never joined us here.  So that was a new.  I decided on texting him to let him know I was there, so when we ended up sitting next to each other in the blow dry line it was a little less awkward, I like to think.

While I sat next to my guy friend, a twenty-something male stylist with blue ear plugs and black doc martens blew out my freshly blonded mom-bob.  Smooth, straight, pretty.  It was a haircut that was hard to argue with, because it didn't look bad.  But in the course of the three hours in the chair, not only had I seen my first male friend come in an cover up his gray, but I had also read Megan Mayhew Bergman's essay, The Long and Pretty Goodbye.  In it she catalogued some of the most effective elegiac writing of the year, including an article about the sudden thinning of the giraffe population in Africa.  In thirty years the giraffe population has fallen from 157,000 to 97,000, slipping from the list of animals around which there is little concern into the list of species vulnerable to extinction.  

Learning about the declining giraffe population pierced me in a new way, as if there had not in the last few months been enough disillusion and disappointment.  Eloise, our almost seven year old, is a self-proclaimed giraffe-girl.  In a family where gender is fluid and up for discussion, Eloise claims giraffe-middle as her gender essence.  It's about the eyes for her, and I can't argue.  Both she and giraffes share a fringed wide-eyedness that makes an undeniable impression, and she claims the kindred spirit any way that she can.  It is not uncommon for me to pick her up from first grade to find her wearing her giraffe horn head band.  She draws giraffes.  She dreams of giraffes.  She has decorated her room with giraffe artwork and a collection of giraffe stuffies that range in size from over five feet tall to four inches short.  Each has it's own gender-middle name:  Jingles, Beau, Sparkle, and on and on. I cannot hold the full catalog in my head.  Eloise asks me almost every week, "When can I visit the giraffes in Africa?"  

From my seat in the salon I foresee a slow train wreck of heartbreak that I could not prevent.  With zero hope in my heart, I sign up, from the salon chair, to become a member of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation.  I don't research or dig deeper to find out if it's a good organization.  I just plug my credit card in one more time, because it is the only thing I can do, not to ward off disaster, but to ward off a kind of personal shutdown, a way of not allowing myself to give in to the helpless feeling that lingers at the edge of everyday these days.  As the sad feeling descends once again, this time weighted down even heavier by the visceral feel of my daughter's heartbreak alongside my own, I force myself to also understand it as the seed of hope, to see the wide view that these feelings of sadness as the underside of our love for so much that is both within and beyond our grasp.

The last time I felt sadness like this was when my friend Brett was in a biking accident and almost died.  The doctors did not think he would live and they predicted that if he did he would not come close to a full recovery.  He had been biking across country and ended up in a hospital in Joplin, Missouri.  His wife, his children and a few close friends flew out to be with him and make their hope manifest in person which seems almost always to be the most important thing.  I was not at the inner circle of this tragedy, but at the next rim.  I was very sad and would find myself crying at odd times and in odd places, feeling sort of stuck and helpless in Palo Alto.  But eventually I came to the idea that my sadness would help nothing.  That though I felt sad, that sad feeling had to serve as a call to notice what it felt like to be alive and well, to be able to walk, to be able to hug my kids, it had to be a call to joy of some kind, since I myself was not debilitated.  This was hard to remember, so I streaked my hair with pink as a reminder.  Every time I looked in the mirror I was reminded of a certain basic joy of just being, the kind of joy that is often easy for me to overlook.

Similarly, I decided just feeling despair about the giraffes, and the election, and the single sex bathrooms in North Carolina would not help anything, and that I had no room in my life for resignation to things that did not suit me--like that mom-bob.  So  I texted with my hairdresser to say that the cut was good looking enough, but wasn't working for me.  He texted me back to say, "Let's make it fierce,"  which felt just about right.  As he snipped away years of hair, my one fear was for what the girls would say.  

People who have known me a long time, know that the short-haired feminist is always on hand, even if you can't see her.  But the girls had never seen me that way before.  Chloe had told me a dozen times when I had thought about cutting my hair short before that she did not like the idea, that to her mind, "You won't look like my mother anymore."  I also realized that the whole world that has grown up around these daughters of mine has only ever seen me with long blonde hair.  It was strange to realize, since I know myself in so many other ways, but this group of people I love, this group of people who are my everyday, has only ever known me with long hair.

For me, short hair is a sign that a new adventure is starting.  I had my hair short when I left for summer camp for the first time, when I started boarding school, and when I moved to California.  These were all the most formative moments of my life.  It seems just right to me that as I start my MFA, at this particular moment in time, that another adventure is beginning.  In each adventure, I can see that a set of questions was rising to the top--beginning with:  who am I and who is my tribe, and then who am I and how will I take care of myself, and now as I head to writing school the question is a little bit who am i (though so much less than in school and upon arriving in California) combined with how can I help?  Though there is likely nothing more practically useless than an art degree, I am becoming a student again to ask the question, how can my writing help.  

And just as a final note in the darkest time of the year, I offer these couple of quotes that have helped me this month.  Because though writing is impractical in so many senses, other people's writing, more than almost anything else, has been my lifelong solace.  To all the writers out there who are doing their thing to offer their best effort, I am grateful.  And to Rebecca Solnit, I know I am not alone in gratitude for Hope in the Dark, a book that found me the day before the election and which I read cover to cover in just a few hours.

"Resistance is first of all a matter of principle and a way to live, to make yourself one small republic of unconquered spirit.  You hope for results but you don't depend on them."

"Joy doesn't betray but sustains activism.  And when you face a politics that aspires to make you fearful, alienated and isolated, joy is a fine initial act of insurrection."

And to Lidia Yuknavich thank you for the continuing encouragement to "Try everything."  

Happy New Year everyone.  May the return of the light stoke your joy.

With love,