May 14, 2014 § Leave a comment
My facility is more than concrete material under my feet. It’s a building. And, as I’m standing in it, I realize it’s the first evidence I have that I’m not making this whole thing up.
No one I know has come here, and seen this. No one knows how the traffic rushes and then stops on pothole outside the Industrial Research Institute, or the way the sun comes up in Muyenga bigger than I’ve seen it before. No one I know knows the exact smell of the horn I’m trying to treat out, or the smell of the red dirt when I wake up and sit on the porch in the humidity with coffee.
But, now, there is a concrete structure – there are meters and meters of something solid underneath me. What I do is under me and on top of me and around me, and I can measure it with my steps. These walls are a witness to the things I have done, and the sky, outside them, is burning the brightest blue I’ve ever seen – as if to prove that this all feels like more than it ever has before.
K is all Ray Bans and cigarettes, in his air conditioned truck, asking if I want “Mzungu food.” I nod furiously. I quit trying to act like a local a long time ago, and so I beg for a cappuccino, too. Lunch is salad and a cappuccino and, since K is buying, can I also have the rosé? He laughs, “yes, bring it to her.” When I order coffee, first, he tells me about the difference between Arabica – growing on the highlands, and Robusta – lowlands. Robusta’s lighter, Mzungu girl. That’s the common stuff, everywhere else.
Our building was used by somebody for something that someone’s mumbling about not going well. When it’s explained to me, later I can’t help but think about what my friend Sam says – that we’re all connected, like a tapestry. Even our mistakes.
Mine surface often in my mind. Failed initiatives, businesses that I ran and decided weren’t what I wanted, after all. I remember so vividly the first time I admitted to myself that I hated working with poverty. Later, that I didn’t want to be in nonprofit work. And a year later, to everyone’s shock, that I didn’t want to work in ethical or green fashion. I wanted to build supply chains for luxury markets, and I wanted to do it here, where I’ve been reborn over and over again since high school.
I want to be on the solutions side of poverty. I don’t want to have my hands in it, anymore.
Some of you will criticize me for that.
I’ll let you.
That’s because when you are a woman who builds, you must know three things:
1. know that you have a foundation strong enough to hold you up
2. know that you love your work enough to see it out
3. know that the experiences that will encompass your work are ones you are willing to live through.
Lastly, you must know that there is a promise of profit.
I don’t know why I was born in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, but meant to come to East Africa and battle out my break ups and career choices and dreams. But, I do know that this place has almost always stripped me of the things I needed to let go of. When it comes to the rest, Uganda and I have been fighting it out since I was a hormonal teen-ager with a suitcase full of long skirts. And, in that way, it has been my place of rebirth.
You might say that I’m giving it too much credit – that I could have done all this back in the Sacramento heat along the Yuba’s slow roll downstate.
But I know it’s not that simple.
I know, now, that there is no promise of prosperity for any of us without profit. Kakooge taught me that, when I went broke and busted open so hard I couldn’t pay rent, much less get on a flight to come back. I know, now, that you cannot pull a woman out of poverty with your own two hands. You need to have an enterprise and a global market behind you. And, that’s why I came out of Kibuli with my tail between my legs.
I know that I would never drag myself out on the dance floor at 5 AM to dance one more time with R, dancing slow and tight and so full up on feeling that I can hardly breathe. But he does, and I do, in Kampala.
I would never have lined up buckets in a facility to test horn finishings, ignoring the line of workers out to lunch each working to send somebody else to find the teaspoon I asked for, but that’s Nakowa.
Back where I come from, I would have stayed in an office building, air conditioning, to write about these men testing in a lab. But somebody told me it wouldn’t get done unless I did it. And so I called my driver from Muyenga to come get me. “Hey Fred, let’s go.”
Here, there is a thing outside of me that pushes me, again and again and again to the edge of what I would have been willing to build with my own two hands. It makes me a person coming out of a cocoon, or maybe living in a cocoon – or maybe being born again, except, this time, no one is going to baptize me in water.
There’s only baptism by red dirt and the bluest sky every where all around me, and this feeling that if I could pile up the sky and how I feel right now all together and send it to your doorstep, like something you could climb inside of, half way through your first cup of coffee, I would. Then, I’d make you dance around in it with me.
Not so much because I feel I’ve got it all, right here, but because I’m standing in the light, unsure, full of fear, and yet totally sure and aware that it’s going to be okay, and I’m on the right path.
That’s the stuff of a life, now, isn’t it?
That’s a foundation a woman can build upon.
May 20, 2012 § 1 Comment
The woman at my nail salon calls me “California.” She shakes my hand, “thank you, California.” When I go, she yells – “Bye California! Bye!”
Anna is from South Korea. She’s lived here for 23 years – 11 of them working 6:30 am to 8:00 pm at her salon on 1st street. She was quick to tell me how hard she works, ringing out her long hours like a gong of her success over the heavy smell of polish remover.
It took me half a schlack manicure to get that all the yelling and slapping and pointing and smiling and shaking her head at me was about communication. She didn’t have the words she needed.
This morning, someone called “intersectionality” the “pivotal point where reproductive justice starts.” I’m sitting at my desk typing and sipping my overly strong french pressed Trader Joes dark brew and then someone tells me about intersectionality and my world just got wider. Can I use this word for that perfect place when a black and tan is made just right? Can I use it for the way I feel when there’s a perfect storm between my past and my future and my present is a wildfire?
That’s the thing about the intersectionality between the right words you need and the writing you’re doing about your life. They expand your ability to call out what’s going on in and around and above and behind and inside you.
Last night it was all going on around me in a spot I was planning on leaving once I peed. But then I was dancing – four, five, six people around me all spilling my beer and laughing and welcoming me to the wild, raging city – and I stayed, and I danced and I danced and I danced, because Forbes said this week that the new charisma is chutzpah, and I have plenty of that.
I was hyped up on being called “Some of the best feminist writing I’ve ever read,” an “honest manifesto of the righteously pissed off modern woman.” Che GueVagina! I was stoked on this comment on twitter that someone hadn’t, “read anything that fundamentally revolutionary since the ’70s.” The intersectionality of that, and the words on the grapevine from people that are close to my heart, was killing me inside. And I had to go, go, go. This city was blazing into the night without me, and I was a righteously pissed off modern women.
There are corners in this city where people are finding the meaning of things while the dark brews are flowing. I wanted that corner. I found it at 10th and Willow. It was 10:30 – still early, on drinking time. I pulled up a seat in the quiet backroom of the bar.
The bar tender was blonde, and she was talking about her son. Her name is Pam. There was a man in a blue shirt, sitting in the far corner. He was the only one in the room, and they were talking the way old friends do. I needed that kind of humanity in my life.
If our bodies are a reflection of God, the transcendence that one friend’s soul has with another’s – the genderless, bodiless, comfortable, meeting in the middle – has to be another side of divine nature that we’re just barely on the cusp of.
I pulled up a chair and talked Zodiacs with Pam and her friend, which led to the way the Capricorn in me came out on the internet this week. I told them my angst over revealing my struggle was the reason I left a bottle of wine sitting on my kitchen counter, and came to catch the spirit of the city instead. The judgement had started coming in, and I just didn’t want to be alone.
I emoted about the backlash. My name’s hot on the grapevine.
I was drinking Blue Moon. Pam’s friend was drinking Coors.
“All these people from all over the world are telling me how they relate to me,” I told them. “And, these aren’t people who are anti-religion. These are people dying to explore the religion they grew up with in an arena that’s free of judgment and shaming. They want the freedom to get it right – for them.”
The old friend beside me was nodding. He looked at me and said, “I don’t know you very well, but I’m much older than you. So, here’s a piece of wisdom from someone who’s down the road a bit. I want to tell you that you’re on it. You’re right on it. Keep going.”
Pam nodded at me and quietly said, “drink’s on me baby girl.”
He put one finger down on the counter, and pressed down and said, “this” – meaning my life right now, my life signified in that one bit of black counter he had his pointer finger on. “This is going to take courage,” he said. “And it’s going to hurt.”
I nodded. “I’m here because it hurts, man.”
What hurts is the fear that honesty about your process is punishable. What hurts is the panic that everything could be taken from you if you were to get real – not just with god – but with the people that have always defined God for you.
My heart dives with that panic. My heart dives when my name’s on the grapevine. Then it rises like a bat out of hell to my throat and I get teary because humanity in all its goodwill came at me like a fire hydrant, this week. I could check off a list of men and women I can call now – people from my background, editors I’ve written for, women in international development – women in East Africa, in New York, in Northern California, in Egypt and from India and Europe and Los Angeles and the Middle East, all telling me that they felt it too. But that wasn’t all. There were men calling and tweeting and writing – men working in development in Haiti with fundamentalist backgrounds and men I knew as boys when I was little. There were Ugandan journalists and gay men who experienced sexism living in Malawi and scholars and pastors and doctors and writers. Perhaps one of the most tender responses came from a friend I haven’t spoken to in months. He called laughing last night, telling me I had balls and I was setting our background on fire.
“You fucking okay you crazy feminist bitch? How are ya?” He chuckled. “I just want you to know I love you, and when they start railing on you, you call me. I’m here.”
I’ll say it again. It wasn’t the freedom to “come out against” something I was expressing. No, that would be against the whole point.
I was expressing my desire for wide open space as I search for authentic truth – for love of mankind instead of his religious systems. I have been sitting at my desk for many hours now, trying to find the words for the difficulty in searching for solidarity and integrity in the midst of acute judgment.
“Did I tell you about the year I studied Buddhism?” my friend asked me.
“Yeah, well, I had to keep it quiet.”
Had to. I hate those words more and more.
They won’t let me.
These phrases are pouring into my inbox and they’re about families and friends – the closest people in all these peoples lives – the women who raised them, the men who taught them how to ride bikes, the people who helped them wash their hands in the church foyer bathroom when they were four. There’s a stark terror present in the face of consequence for being honest about their struggle. Shaming. Blaming. Getting after! Punishment.
I wanted solidarity bad. I had to, because I know there’s a loss that comes in breaking out – admitting you don’t have it together. Have you read C.S. Lewis? He talks about Eustace the dragon having his skin torn off deep so he could be human again. He talks about how the salt water he entered into as a new, baby skinned human hurt him like hell.
Maybe I’m a new human, too, and the dragon skin has just barely gone. Perhaps that’s why it hurts. I sat on a stairway near Washington Square last night and I stared at all the people. I let the struggle sit inside me. I let it breathe. I gave some girls directions to a liquor store. I told two old, overweight men that the bar beneath us was worth checking out. I’d had good nights there.
Within the struggle, I’ve found there’s a need for new words, new terms, new ways of coming at this beast in our communication with our background. Someone told me that guilt can be redefined as powerlesness. She told me that my image of God had to get bigger.
“My God is swirly and in nature. My God doesn’t have a lot of words, because I have a hard time with that. Oh, and my God lives in music,” she said. “God doesn’t want to be quantified and made to be so narrow – no, I don’t think God wants that at all.”
She told me her God was light, airy, cheerful. She gave me the phrase “gender abuse.”
Re-identification – new language. New ways of seeing. If religion is sushi, I’m taking great big bites of sliced ginger. I need a new palette. I need it bad.
There’s a theme ringing out like Anna’s voice does at the salon. It’s coming from Pam’s friend at the bar, and several old friends who have called to cheer me on. I think it’s key to this disidentification, re-identification, healing, crazy, wild process I just started. I think it’s the key to a new kind of communication, and finding better words.
“To get room, you have to give room,” they say to me. They’re using words like gracious, loving, kind, understanding. They’re telling me to to create a barrier of understanding with people. They told me to have love that gives freedom.
Kahlil Gibran said something about that too. He said,
Let there be spaces in your togetherness, And let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls. Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup. Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf. Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music. Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping. For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts. And stand together, yet not too near together: For the pillars of the temple stand apart, And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.
Just as my schlack manicure was drying under the uv-rays this week, a girl came in asking for a pamphlet – a card, telling her pricing. A price list? We were all trying to help think of new phrases to help Anna understand she needed something in her hands that told her how much her pedi would cost.
When she left, frustrated, Anna pointed towards my vagina and said – “wax?”
Where did she get THAT idea? If this woman is hurting my arms, I can’t even imagine what my poor v-jay would look like. Scorched earth wouldn’t begin to describe it. I was horrified. I crossed my legs.
“WHAT? No! No. I don’t want you to wax me.”
She shook her head and pointed at the door where her potential customer had just stood. She said, “she want Brazilian wax?”
God, I laughed and I laughed and I laughed. I couldn’t even respond. I laughed and finally I said, “No. Anna. She didn’t want that. But I love this color on my fingers.”
Anna smiled then, and she laughed with me – big, loud laughter – laughter as loud as the commands she barked. We had a moment of honest human exchange both of us understood. Then she slapped her file against the counter, and started haggling about pricing with me.
I thought of Anna last night, when I got a letter from someone I used to know that hurt me deeply. I felt the guilt coming in like a hooded spirit, taking over my heart and beating me down. That’s how I’ve always responded.
I called a friend. And, he laughed. He laughed and he laughed at the idea of my old friend’s accusations being true. And, so, in the quietness of my own bedroom, I started laughing with him.
Mid cackle – I thought of Anna, price lists and Brazilian waxes. And, in that moment, I remembered that it was powerlessness I was feeling, not guilt.
That made all the difference.
May 17, 2012 § 25 Comments
I’m having this struggle. Burning, churning, making my gut wrench struggle. I walk down 1st street with my heart on fire. The separation of church and state – it’s going on between my temples in the worst way. No, it’s not that. It’s bigger than that. I’m a woman, now. I buy my own things. I feed myself. I put a roof over my head. I go out when I want. I come in when I want. I cuss when I want to. And, when I know I shouldn’t – not because I believe there’s any kind of negativity in the words themselves – but because I’ll lose my audience, I try not to. I’m a woman working in the field of woman’s development. I get on planes by myself. I started a company. Along with it, I’m learning to ask for what I want out of a relationship.
That’s something they tell you you can’t do, at a Christian University. I went to one. They told me I needed to wait for men to want me. They told me I couldn’t want them first. They told me to wait to be wanted.
But there’s this revolution, see. It’s hit the streets of New York and it’s calling us out in throngs – into bars and coffee shops and down the nuts and snacks aisle in Trader Joe’s on Sunday afternoons. It’s not generational, and it’s not counter-religious. It’s cultural. It’s spread across the board of age and occupation. It’s called authenticity. Twitter started it for us. Twitter, because twitter taught us to stopped following those girls that bitch about their breakups and to start paying attention to the women that were “fucking angry” the week of the Egyptian woman in the blue bra. We gave up inappropriate drama – the kind you want to unfriend on facebook because it won’t stop updating how it feels about it’s ugly ex – for the kind you’re dying to watch like a firework pealing across the skyline. These girls showing up in our feeds? They were authorities. They were brilliant. They were starting something – the girls who couldn’t stop e-cussing because they were so god damn pissed off about what was happening in the world of women’s rights about them. They didn’t have time for you if you were complaining about their language. They were in the middle of a revolution – a revolution women were being kicked around the street for. There’s language for that. The phrase, I think is fucking brutal. Those bastards. Kicking women in their bras around the street. Being kicked on the ground is fucking brutal. And Mona Eltahawy wasn’t afraid to tell us so – the systematic degradation of Egyptian women needed language.
Instant information has changed everything. Now, we watch this stuff on youtube – and the people you-tubing it with their phones? They’re typing expletives and feelings and developments as they go, and they’re coming right to your phone – live. So, you’re more engaged than ever before with the world around you.
Don’t you get it? It’s about what they’re saying. Don’t get so caught up in the presentation that you can’t see it. It doesn’t matter anymore if girl is cussing while she tells you about it. She’s telling you about it. Look around. No one else is experiencing the way she is.
Pick up your pace. Catch up. We’re professional women. We’re professional woman comfortable with our bodies and our revolutions and our alcohol on Monday nights – and we’re talking about it. We’re saying what we want. We’ve got chutzpah in our veins.
Can you feel it?
We’re the ones changing your world. We’re the women starting our own businesses and clothing lines and starting revolutions in Egypt – the women who say what we think. I’m the bottom of the totem pole. I’m a freshman, a new beginner – the pond scum the big kids push around. I hardly know what I’m doing, except that there’s this raging, pounding, churning revolution around me and it’s telling me to get it out – and to say it how I want to. Censorship is dead. The age of typos and cussing and talking about my sex life being the bane of every company’s existence is over. Now, the lack of authenticity, the stuffiness, the lack of personality – it’s leaving you behind. And me? People are calling me up to come speak because I say what I think. And, that’s what’s next. That’s the future. It’s got me giddy inside. I’m doing a dance in my room.
Honesty. The way I feel it. The way I want to tell it.
Therein lies the gut wrench. The dance stops. The music fades. My glass gets nailed back down to the counter because you’re telling me to stop. You’re telling me to wait again, to listen again, to censor again.
I’m writing things you don’t want to read. They’re coming out of me like big, weekend explosions. Word vomit. They’re not about the revolution in Egypt because I’m not there. I’m here. I wasn’t in Uganda for the women that ripped their shirts off for freedom of expression and got their boobs grabbed by police while they were shoved into taxis but I sure as hell was in Sunday school when they told me I couldn’t buy tank tops because the boys might be distracted. I sure as hell was in Sunday school when they told me “sexy” was sinful, when they told me to keep my legs shut and my mouth closed and to look for a husband to direct the rest of my life – for a man to submit to, lay my life down for. I sure as hell was awake when the damning text messages came in the first time it came out I was supporting a man, instead of being supported by him.
I’ve spent hours on the phone defending my right to choose – to choose my words, my wardrobe, my relationships. I’ve been kicked around in the worst way in a world where autonomy doesn’t make any sense – a world where the women I know stay sexless and quiet until marriage and sometimes afterward. And god damn I tried so hard to be one of them. I tried so hard. I tried not liking boys. I tried not liking beer. I tried hating cigarettes. I tried giving all three up for lent.
I hate lent.
I was a contortionist, changing and shifting and moving to try and fit in this little box someone created for me. And I don’t want it anymore. I like my tank top straps the way they are, my tattoo where it goes – and I like my beer to flow freely.
I shouldn’t even have to be talking about these inalienable rights.
But in the world I grew up in – you do. You’ve got to fight your ass off for an ounce of respect after you sleep with a man outside of marriage, let alone a woman. You’ve got to pound your damn head against the wall to get anyone to hear you when you say you’ve found a balance in your relationship with god almighty and vodka crans on Friday. Nobody believes you. They don’t think that balance is possible. They think it looks one way, it goes one way. And they read about your honest writing and your tweets and your coming out of the closet – no matter what sex your partner happens to be – and they label you as one of the sad ones, the ones gone astray.
You’ve left the fold.
They make you choose. They make you decide. Religious. Not religious. Like you can check it off in a box the way they expect you to check off your orientation, your drinking, your marijuana use.
And, it’s not really about whether they think you should or shouldn’t. It’s about your right to express it. Your right to process. It’s about they way they’ll string you up for the word you chose to use, the partner you chose to have. Was everyone listening when that brief for conservative fundamentalists got sent out last week?
“As people who promote personal responsibility, family values, commitment and stability and emphasize freedom and limited government we have to recognize that freedom means freedom for everyone.”
I’ve got my inalienable rights. What I’d like is the respect I need to explore them without a label.
Well, what if I smoke a cigarette every two weeks? What if I’m not a smoker, but I smoke when I’m drinking jack? What if I had sixteen drinks last week, and three this one? What if I’m a really healthy individual – I drink my carrot juice, I eat my apples, and I like two beers every night. Damn, that means 14 drinks a week, checking a box in the doctor’s office. That’s high on the doctor’s scale. He’s giving me funny looks now. He’s checking my heart. Do your math, doc! It’s not a big deal.
We’ve been cringing. Or, I’ve been cringing. You know, I tried to talk about my experience with a deacon who chased me around my parent’s church with a figurative Bible held over his head writing letters about me and taking surveys on my modesty. I was 19. He took me down fighting, and he ruined my reputation for wearing bikinis on the weekend. When I tried to blog about it, the phone-calls shut me down. All these well meaning busy bodies calling to help me deal with my situation in humility and submission.
Inalienable rights. I needed to blog. Does the church understand? That would have been healing. That would have brought me back.
I need healing. So, years later, in New York city with the clothes I love and the shoes I can finally afford – sitting with a great big sigh coming out of me for the autonomy I’ve never had – I’m starting to write about all the things I’ve been told not to.
And I’m walking down first with my heart pounding because of the disappointment I feel when I think that maybe I don’t get to be honest. I don’t get to let it out. I don’t get to be real – not me. All those girls that grew up and rejected their faith – they do. Those people that came out of the closet and said they didn’t want faith anymore – it was clean for them. My friend Caleb calls it a burden I’ve got to figure out if I’ll shake or not, this “faith thing.” He tells me it’s still inside me, tying me to a background I disagree with on a fundamental level.
I had a roommate that told me she liked to live in the pink and blue and green and grey shades of life.
“I like it all,” she smiled at me. “It all teaches me something.”
Then she told me she loved Jesus. And Hillary Clinton.
That was the week Obama got elected. I pasted a poster of his beautiful red, white and blue face above my desk where I could look and see the sun go down behind the capitol building every night.
I didn’t tell my family. Obama didn’t fit in the box – I was un-contorting secretly.
But is that freedom at all, the kind where you uncross your legs and get your head out from under your armpit where no one can see?
I live in pink and grey and green and blue – but can I write about it? Can I talk about it? Man, that’s the kind of writing I ride google for. I’m all over this laptop trying to find people pouring all the ugly, beautiful, horrific things out of their souls so I can find myself in it – get a piece to rip out of it and scribble into my journal.
So, if I talk about the real stuff – the desires and events and people and places that are boiling up inside me and asking for words – the kinds of things I’m starting to tell my editor I need an alias before he publishes – will they make me choose? Do I have to check the box? Faith, not faith. You don’t get to be complicated here. It’s black and it’s white.
I need a god damn sharpie to scribble all over this chart.
That’s what my heart looks like.
I moaned about all this to a friend turned mentor over breakfast a few years ago on the corner of First and Adams today.
He told me he understood my dilemma. He said it was difficult. Then, he said that his one consolation was, “they can’t take it from you. That – your religious freedom – your freedom of expression and choice within it – is the one thing they can never take.”
He told me it would be difficult – that it would rip me up inside the way I expect for it to. My life would be excruciatingly painful for a bit – a lot like coming out, but less clean, when I came out and told everyone that I loved God a certain way, but it didn’t look like they wanted it to.
Then he told me authenticity was the most important thing – he told me to choose wholeness, whatever that looked like. And, it certainly didn’t look like climbing into an evangelical box or judging myself on a faith meter a sexually frustrated deacon with a pot belly told me I should live out of.
When it comes down to it, I guess that’s the whole point. It looks messy. It looks a little discombobulated. But it certainly doesn’t look like beers on Monday nights and black bras under my white tank tops or the way my navel ring clicks against my high waisted red shorts when I walk.
No. If you can see it – it’s running much deeper that. And, you’re missing the point if you’re going to gasp about where I slept over two weeks ago, or that pack of cigarettes I split with someone in East Village because I was having a particularly stressful day. The fucking point – if you can see it – is that I’m finding my place, as a woman. I’m throwing off all the things they told me – about being defined by a man who knows his direction, and gives me mine, about losing my sexuality in modesty, about losing my soul in obedience and the reality of what I want in the willingness to let go to the wishes of those running this big machine. I’m losing the things that made me never want to darken the door of a church again.
In my soul, my heart, my throbbing head – it’s the getting rid of the old that’s bringing in the new. It’s a re-appropriation, a disidentification. A friend who came out at 20 wrote to me that, “It will be crucial that you continue this ground breaking work inside of you for the full act of disidentity to be successful.” He talked about extracting power from stigmas, challenging preconceived notions and ultimately tearing down walls of oppression.
“No more of this ‘women in bras being kicked around and felt up’ or waiting in humility, covering and denying your steaming natural sexuality bullshit for the sake of a man’s desire for control of your/their body and your/their mind,” he wrote to me. “I love how you’re still writing about balance – between your life and your faith. Because, I can tell, you are and then again you’re not ‘losing your religion.'”
Someone asked me this week what I’d teach my children – if I’d have them go to church, if I’d push them in a certain direction, tell them how to believe. “Will your family be religious?” they asked me.
God. I just sat on their couch and stared and didn’t have an answer. I don’t. I really don’t have an answer. See, I’m discovering truth organically – truth you can’t discover with someone breathing down your neck. And that’s new for me. The hairs on my neck are still raised. I barely got out. But I did get out. And here, where I can breathe, I’m finding that “The old life is gone; a new life burgeons! Look at it!” And I have to believe that, “All this comes from the God who settled the relationship between us and him, and then called us to settle our relationships with each other” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
I’m finding that the whole “settle our relationships with each other” bit is a wildfire.
A friend I parted ways with badly last year is getting on a plane to my city soon because, like James Taylor tells it, he
Got a letter from a dear friend of mine, the story of a spiritual awakening.
She spoke of her love returning in kind, she let me know that she’d be waiting.
And I should be on my way by now.
Walking across the floor, reaching for the door, on my way by now.
That letter was all full of purple and grey and green with sharpie scribbles – spiritual awakening gone rogue, coming out my insides.
I don’t remember when I sent it. But I have a feeling it was right about the time I began to understand that there was something sacred about trading in my secret love of foul language for an open love of people, and my fear of my family’s opinions for reconciliation with the people I had gone head to head with in college. It was the month I lost all recollection of how it felt to be told my sexuality was evil, and found a man to discover – and discuss – it with, instead.
Love of mankind instead of his religious systems. I’m on the front lines – can you feel it? Maybe you don’t like the way it sounds. Maybe you don’t like the way it looks. Maybe you don’t like the way it’s presented – but it’s the real deal. It’s a revolution, no matter how you present it.
March 1, 2012 § 4 Comments
Anna Winters was spot on when she said that, “What I often see is that people are scared of fashion – because they’re frightened or insecure, so they put it down.”
I lived comfortably as one of these people, and planned on continuing do to so until Africa knocked me over, and, deserving or no, I was thrown into the mix of what Winters describes as, “something…that can make people very nervous.”
Nervous, in particular, if you’re a girl who lived in your brother’s cast of soccer shorts and rainbow flip flops for most of college.
But, here I am – whether by design, or by accident, I’m still discovering. And, regardless, I’ll be damned if I’m not making the most of what I’ve fallen into.
In effort to give it my best shot, I bought my first four pairs of lacy underwear at Who What Wear‘s styled by party at the Grove. A man with a bow tie and silver tray bought me lemon drops, and I pretended not to have at least every season ever invented of H&M sport thongs sitting in my drawer at home while he handed me a little white napkin.
(this game got much easier after my second lemon drop).
Two nights later, I tried to fit into couture for the first time. 10 pm, watching “the Artist” with three friends – I gasped when Nakate’s wardrobe director walked in with a black backless wonder that I just had to try.
“Can I wear it!?” I squealed.
“Get your pants off girl,” he laughed. “You want to wear some couture?”
Oh, god. Did I…
I took my yoga pants off, and the work began. Halfway up my thighs, and, standing in my new black lacy underwear in front of a panel of my favorite gays, I was primed to take my top off and replace it with an editorial kind of risque when my size 28 inch waist got in the way of my best couture wearing aspirations.
“No! Hell no!” I whined.
Breath held, waiting, I closed my eyes and clenched every ounce of extra weight I could while he laughed and said, “This isn’t gonna happen.”
I stuck out my lip.
“Girl, it’s such a small dress, don’t worry about it,” he said. Then he got a twinkle in his eye and threw in a quick, “It’s a problem with the model, not the dress!” for the appreciative audience on the couch.
I pushed him, but his eye kept the twinkle – “Let’s try something else!”
We did – and for the next hour, at least, Christina Milian and I were connected by three degrees of separation – a rack of designers, a stylist who wanted to see them ahead of time, and my size four thighs. “Walk of shame girl, walk of shame!” I was sent out again and again to get a thumbs up or down from a man in face mask on the couch, and his newly introduced boyfriend beside him.
“That is gorg,” in response to a feathered editorial piece with a white bowtie. “Should I be seeing that much nipple?” to a second mesh top, and a quick judgment from the green facemask: “Yes! It’s editorial.”
We played dress up for most the night, and I thought about my body, and myself. Here I was, in my underwear, holding out my arms and admitting my terrible luck with zippers.
Let’s correct that statement.
*Here I was, on my first day wearing the first pair of underwear I’ve ever purchased that doesn’t look like I bought it for a sport’s marathon, getting a zipper stuck on a dress a designer’s name I can’t remember sent in for Christina Milian’s next breakfast event.
Zipper fixed, still slightly overly conscious of my lacy underwear, I continued my trip up and down the hallway – in star studded heels, a pair of boots that wouldn’t zip up over my calves, a little striped leather number that made my size 28 waist look fantastic, and, after that, the “chikita banana” dress – a long line of multicolored sequins with a train and, with it, laughter so long our stomachs hurt.
At least ten outfits later, there was a Sherri Hill I got to keep if it fit me right because, “this piece won’t work with anyone’s body.”
100% polyester, barbie pink, one shouldered, and perfect on boobs that have always been a few sizes too small – not to mention, thighs that couture had so recently rejected – it was mine.
“Take it home girl,” the voice behind me said. The face mask from the couch yelled “favorite! Stunning!” and the boyfriend nodded, and smiled.
I smiled too, at my B34 breasts and size 4 thighs, perfect – for the first time in my life.
Back in my sweats and a cosco tank top my mother bought me when I visited home after college, I thought about transition – as a woman. Sometimes life forces you into a second chance – your husband loses his job and you’re having to go back to work after 25 years spend raising children, your husband’s past affair raises it’s dirty head for the first time, and you’re faced with an affair long buried, but suddenly relevant. Or, perhaps, your boyfriance (yes, this is a thing) leaves you on a dime, and you’ve got to find a blow up mattress to sleep on, finish out a nannying job, and find a way to get home.
I’ve found that disaster breeds new life, if we let it. Perhaps the dress didn’t fit me, the city was wrong, or the relationship fell apart right when I was giving it my best shot.
I’ve always thought these situations were dead ends – big, glaring red lights on a trip to an unknown destination. Now, I know that they’re simply a sign of two things:
1. There has to be a way forward, if one is to keep living and 2. This isn’t it.
Perhaps it’s simply time for a right turn.
This weekend, a discussion in my mother’s best friend’s kitchen turned from failed marriages, failed moves to Portland and religious paradigms gone awry to the art of pinterest, opportunities in New York City, publishing deals and positions at art schools in San Francisco.
Walking out, I had to wonder if things could possibly have turned out this well if they hadn’t gone awry.
Over tea, last night, in a beautiful apartment in the bay owned by a friend who was kicked out of his home for coming out at 20, I brought up the idea of opportunities. Specifically – ones that come around for the second time. Opportunities for living as who we are, at our most honest. Opportunities to move to the cities we wanted before we met the men we thought we wanted, the jobs we dreamed about before we got married or, perhaps, the one shoulder Sherri Hill piece we get handed when the couture doesn’t fit quite right.
I thought this was a terrible place to be. But, twirling in my Barbie pink dress last Friday, I had to wonder –
what’s to say that a plan B can’t, in it’s own right, take on a life all it’s own?
…particularly when it turns out to be a better fit, to boot.
February 27, 2012 § 2 Comments
I wish growth came instantly, like a thunderclap. I wish it came right when when we see our faults – the crashing moment when a person (me) realizes that we said too much, acted to quickly, left dignity and/or graciousness at the door and, as an ex of mine used to say, “word vomited” all over a situation that needed careful thought, instead of speech. But growth is a process – one riddled with failure. Moment after moment – Damn! I did it again.
I’ve got to get better at mulling a thing over.
It’s a combination of things, this quickness to go at a situation and needle it with my words, to talk about another woman – another person’s life – or their interaction with mine. Did it help anything? I don’t think so. A quick release of emotion, a feeling that I’ve “gotten it out” – but then, do we ever “have it out?” Words are like guppies. You start with two. And, before you know it, you’ve got to get a bigger tank – or, in my case, a bigger town.
Maya Angelou says that words get in the walls and the upholstery. She says that they are objects. She says that they are more powerful than we think. And, I’ve been slinging. There’s no better word. Slinging. Like mud. Where will the next one go? There’s a Winslow Homer to the left of my kitchen table. Perhaps we could sling some harm there.
It’s a cry for help. I lost my footing. And so, like any villain in a single story – I pointed at everyone else – “Look at her! She’s floundering too!”
But, when does that help? When has it ever helped?
Me? I keep going at it far too long. And, by the end of it, I have an overpowering image of Olivia the pig – a cartoon character I used to read about that, “even exhausts herself.” Oh, god. Here I am again – polka dotted with my pink snout, lying dizzy in the middle of the carpet. Did I need to turn so terribly fast?
Perhaps the realization most humbling is the truth that there are others who speak about me, and, in the midst of it, the kind, kind words of those who never would – the kind touch and loving words of a man in my life who says “come to San Francisco for the week” and will buy Trader Joe’s groceries and roll European cigarettes for the days when they just aren’t fighting fair, are they?
“Mean girls,” he says over breakfast. And then, “They didn’t realize that you are powerful.”
Powerful, that is, until I stooped – until I spoke as they spoke, jabbed as they jabbed, and made a show of my frustration. Oh, darling Olivia – when will we learn?
I’ve come to see that any woman who expects to speak well of other women must be a woman who learns to love herself. It starts on the inside, the definition of who I am, and how I go forward based on the cornerstone of my being. Am I beautiful? Am I smart? Am I capable?
It starts when we’re small.
I’m six, and I tell my father I want to be a country singer. He tells me I can be whatever I choose. At nine, I want to play the pipe organ, and he says we should find me a teacher. At sixteen, I’ve lost all interest in music and I want to write. He tells me I wield words like a sword – that if I can be so powerful in argument, surely I can be powerful on paper. I’m 23, with a transnational business to run, and a town I’d like to get out of – and he tells me, “I think you’re on the edge of something big.” On the heels of his words come a friend’s – “If you can keep from being jaded, keep perspective, and give grace to those who don’t know themselves as you do, your work will know no bounds. But, get bitter? And you’ve lost it. You’ve lost direction. You’ve missed the point.”
Where does bitterness begin? I think it begins when a person’s words stick in the upholstery – the walls – the floor. And, with their words, we begin to change the way we believe about ourselves. I was successful. I was pretty. I was capable. I could have been a country singer! But, after interaction with another woman – I’m not so sure. With lost footing comes the first signs of bitterness. If I can’t be pretty, capable – smart. Then, what can I be?
I can be critical. Here is a perfect example of how we subtly do it (thanks, Gina!).
I missed the point this week – stopped seeing myself, stopped seeing proper perspective – got bitter. And, perhaps, the only way to get up from this dizzying position is to sit down, have a good cry, and recognize that, like so many that have gone before, I must come back to believing in myself and valuing my own work, my relationships, my life. Without it, I’ve set the room to spinning, and, quite possibly, managed to do nothing much more than sling words to the walls – and exhaust myself.
Perhaps the only way to move forward is create boundaries in my mind – a wall in the gray matter that stops word slinging before it bores holes into my perception of myself.
I had a long conversation with this man about it this weekend.
“You’re going to laugh,” I said. “But I’ve finally hit a light bulb kind of realization. I’ve finally realized I don’t need everyone to like me. I mean, I guess I spent years trying to get everyone to think I was fantastic.”
He didn’t laugh. He choked.
I supposed I should have warned him.
“Are you okay!?”
“You just ruined a perfectly good drink!” he coughed.
Then he laughed – big, loud, heaving laughter, and I laughed with him. We laughed and cackled and made fun of the years and years I’ve thought that I needed every woman around me to love and adore me in order to believe in myself.
“Oh, Shan,” he said. “I know you did. I know you tried to get them all to love you. But they just won’t. They won’t all like you. And you won’t like all of them. And, I’m so glad you finally get it.”
We talked for another half hour or so – because he likes me. So does the friend that wrote me this morning and said, ” You will always disappoint someone. But there are always, always people in YOUR life whom you can not disappoint. I am one of them.” And, on top of it, the friend coming to get my tonight to whisk me away for a few days to an apartment overlooking the bay where I can work in a town of women who don’t know my name.
This morning, I settled on the knowledge that there are many woman around me who will never “like” me the way I wish they would.
And, with it, the knowledge that life begins when I like me the way I wish they would.
That way, I can stop criticizing either of us.
Photo via Squidoo.com.
December 31, 2011 § 2 Comments
I went to my brother’s wedding last night. I love his bride. I love him. And, I sat bawling like only a sister does in the front row in between my mom and B. God. Just look at him. Look at her. Look at how he’s laughing like he did when we were kids, and how she knows him like a woman who says she loves him fully should. When they were introduced for the first time, he gave the dorky smile he used to on Halloween – his favorite holiday. Suddenly, he was six, a pirate and I was four, and a tiger.
I had to laugh. I had to cry. He’s made so much of himself.
At the reception, a friend asked me if anything was new. They checked my hand for a ring when they said it, and afterward asked what I do for a living. I told them I work to distribute goods from a group of women in Uganda.
People are often unsure what to do with that. I’m often unsure to do with that.
They smiled and said, “oh, nice.” I smiled and wished there was alcohol being served.
I thought about that moment in the shower this morning. Martha Beck says, “every woman needs a cornfield. No matter what’s happening in your life, find yourself a cornfield and hide there whenever you need to.”
The shower’s mine. I sat on the floor with a cup of coffee and let the water hit my face. I stayed in for way too long, and I thought about this year. I thought about PTSD. I thought about alcohol. I thought about the times I thought I would have a ring on my finger, and the relief that came from realizing what I had escaped from. I thought about foolish decisions. They were okay in my cornfield. I took a sip of coffee, felt the warm water – let the corn field get bigger, the fan get louder.
I looked at my fingers like my friend had. And, I thought about the hands of the women I work with in Uganda. I thought about what we’re doing together, about the richness of my life. I guess I should have told her that I’m not bitter. I’m not lost. I’m not wallowing, or hurt, or “left.” I’m just different. And, I would hope, a little more hungry for a wider spectrum of things than I used to be.
I guess I could have told my old friend about my year – I could have brought up nights talking about the helicopters coming into fields in Afghanistan, near death experiences. I could have told them all kinds of stories that near swallowed me in 2011 – stories that aren’t mine. I could have told her about Max dying, and about how Afghanistan even took over that week – chasing around the half of my heart that wasn’t present, that was hiding in a corner when it was time for the funeral, that couldn’t handle the pressure of death in a family – especially the death of a child.
I could have told them about Portland, and the months I spent there – Afghanistan came there with me, but so did Africa. I could have told them about the collage I made, when I decided to let out the pressure inside me on an old atlas my father gave me. There’s the shape of a woman over Africa, and the shape of a man over Afghanistan.
I thought the continents were coming together.
I guess I could have told them that too.
I guess I could have smiled in my red alligator heels and purple dress and said that I almost got lost in another person’s story, but I didn’t. I could have told them that I found a strength in me I didn’t know I had, but I didn’t think of that till this morning, hot water rinsing the conditioner out of my hair, body tired from dancing with cousins and brothers and old friends. I guess what I could have said was, “I almost got lost in another person’s story. But I got yanked out, kicked out, sent out – and, I found myself when everyone must have thought I was just about to lose it.”
I guess that’s what I’d tell someone, looking back on this year. I found myself. Then, I’d say that I found myself because of dozens of stories that aren’t mine, but have begun to define me.
I would say that, this year, I lost myself and found myself in stories. I lost myself there, somewhere between Kandahar and Camp Leatherneck. But, in Kakooge, in Wobulenzi, in Kampala – I found myself. I found myself in the stories of women that reminded me of myself.
I could tell someone that those stories made me new.
Here’s 50 of my favorites from this year:
- Patrick Kabugo was able to quit a teaching job that took him over an hour to reach by motorcycle, and forced him to stay away from his wife and children for 5+ nights a week. His wife began to bring in a salary equal to his and, in exchange, he was able to quit his second job as a teacher, and begin working exclusively to help out in the area of the country he is most passionate about: his own village, Kakooge.
- Patrick and Agnes made a statement of religious peace in the community through hiring women of all religious backgrounds to work for the Nakate Project.
- The mayor of Kakooge noticed Nakate’s work in his village, called it “extremely good” and said it was something he had hoped would begin to happen for his people.
- Grave Kavuna, a pastress in Kakooge, was able to send all 10 of her children to school through her own salary.
- Florence stopped defining herself as the poorest woman in the village.
- Grace, an uneducated woman, was able to send all 10 of her children to school to be educated.
- For the first time in her life, Grace was able to take her children to the hospital whenever they fall sick.
- Over 40 women received salaries throughout the year.
- Grace made a statement in the church that she runs – men don’t believe that women should have their own money but she preaches from the pulpit that, through Nakate, she has her own bank account.
- Nakato stopped believing that a bank account is only for rich women, and opened her own.
- Nakato was able to pay for her own medical bills, and bring herself back to health after falling really sick for a period of time because of her HIV status.
- Margaret Namayego paid off a Habitat for Humanity house loan.
- Margaret bought two cows and a pig.
- Grace Nsambu bought a bicycle, a cow and grew her small roadside shop.
- Grace became an equal breadwinner for her family.
- Harriet opened a bank account, bought a pig and started a breakfast and lunch roadside stand.
- Harriet’s granddaughter Anet saw her grandmother purchase a pig through Nakate, and began to work with us herself, in the hopes that she could save enough money to open her own restaurant. When her grandmother saw her initiative, she gave her some of her own Nakate salary to get her started on her business while she’s waiting for her’s.
- Dorothy Nambooze paid for all her grandchildren to go to school.
- Justine stopped digging a hole in her back yard and stuffing money in it. Instead, she opened a bank account.
- Justine feels “settled” inside and stopped worrying incessantly – for the first time in her life.
- At 50, Florence received her first paycheck.
- Florence was able to begin buying animals to supplement her income with Nakate, and started successfully taking care of her 10 grandchildren.
- Kisakye bought bricks to buy herself a permanent house.
- Kisakye felt empowered to take care of her children herself, instead of depending on a husband she says was a drunkard.
- Caroline began a charcoal business shipping charcoal to Kampala on trucks that come through Kakooge on their way to town on the Kampala to Gulu highway.
- Caroline identified land she wants to buy in Kakooge, and plans to buy it as soon as she saves enough of her salary.
- Caroline was able to pay for her sick mother’s health care.
- Margaret Nakibuka bought iron sheets for roofing her home.
- Scovia, a Rwandan first generation Ugandan, paid off her loan on a house in Kakooge.
- Scovia started a business selling milk at the local market.
- Jane turned her mud hut into a cement house.
- Jane was able to afford taking care of her sick mother.
- Nakato was able to get herself out of bed and on her feet through continuing to work with Nakate while sick with HIV, and paying for her own hospital bills.
- Betty was able to afford rent, and school fees for her children.
- Florence Nakacwa bought herself a piglet.
- After Juliet Nabukenya’s husband left her for another woman, she was able to send all of her children back to school with her own salary.
- Lydia went from sitting at home without work to do, or digging for a small salary in other people’s fields, to having a job that paid for her pay her bills, and save some money.
- After being deserted by the Muslim community and her family, Saudah bought poultry for herself through her salary and says she eats whenever and however she wants to, now.
- Margaret Nakamya finished building her house, and bought a bicycle, pigs and a cow.
- Margaret stopped sitting at home crying thinking she’d die from AIDS and leave her children. Instead, she said she has hope.
- Over 120 children were able to attend a private, well run school founded by Align Ministries in Kakooge through their mothers paying their salaries.
- Nakate became the most reliable source of income in Kakooge.
- Together with her job as a teacher, Rebecca was able to single handedly provide for her four children, two of her siblings and her mother.
- Fatuma agreed to leave her work as a prostitute and begin making jewelry instead.
- Jane Katushabe opened a bank account, and began saving money to buy a permanent house, instead of renting.
- At least five women in Kakooge hired people to dig roots for them, instead of digging themselves.
- 8-year-old Maurine was able to provide for her own school fees, and help provide for her grandmother to feed herself and her older siblings.
- Health care was paid for for in over 20 people’s families through their own salaries, rather than outside funding.
- Saudah bought herself a brand new outfit for the first time in her life.