my friend Paula

Weeks ago I saw on Facebook that my friend Paula had a birthday. I’ve been off of Facebook for a couple months now, so I didn’t have its handy-dandy little notice that her day was coming up. Turns out she fibbed about her birthday, but it was right around that time. I got to thinking about how I could really wish her a happy birthday. Not just an email (she’s an online-only friend). Not an e-card. Not just “glad you were born!”

For days I constructed a brilliant essay about her. About her and me, of course. It was in my mind for days, then I started writing. Everything I wrote was crap. For weeks, it wasn’t enough. Or it was too gushy. Or it was… well, screw it, I’m going to just tell you now. I wrote about how we met in the newsgroup misc.writing and how she scared the crap out of me. How she was so totally mean that I cried a few times after reading her posts directed at me. How even then I was struck by her open mindedness, her willingness to accept people with very overt and often offensive flaws.

I missed the blogging hey day (hay day?) that happened in the early 2000’s, so I never got to know her in that way. Then, as misc.writing finally and totally collapsed Facebook revived our online world in a new way. That’s when I started to really know her.

Paula is unique in this world. Of course everyone is, but Paula’s unexpected. I kept trying to classify her as… well, you name it, I tried labels on

her and none of them fit. She’s strong, funny, a great writer, a dependable friend, and beautifully honest. She’s gorgeous inside and out, too. She is one of my first friends who doesn’t come from where I’ve been. Our backgrounds are different, our values are frequently different (besides valuing honesty and there are a few other key shared values), our politics are often different (don’t even get me started on how misguided she is about Palestinians!), and she somehow understands the world that is shoe-lust. Shooz, that is. Or has it become sh00z? I think so.

She is herself. It’s what I admire most about her. She may sometimes slide into trying to be something or someway for others, but more than

most people, she stays true to being her. She’s an incredible friend, a solid shoulder when I’ve needed it, and always (did I mention?) honest.

She’s amazing. And, yes, I am very glad she was born.

Happy birthday my dear, sweet friend. Here’s some buttercream just for you.


inside the dark

As someone who used to love getting stoned, visiting alternate realities, all that druggy stuff, I thought it might be fun to see if I could share a sensorial experience of what full-blown Pre-Menstrual Syndrome is like from the inside out. Tonight I realized it’s quite a bit like an acid trip. And, since not many people I know these days have tripped, I can’t just compare it and stop there. So, here we go… and, of course, this is just my own personal experience. Every woman has her own experience unique to her. Some of you don’t have the downsides and just enjoy the upsides, I know. Some of you only know your period is coming because you look at the calendar. Well, not me. I’ve found in my later years that I look at a calendar because I start feeling and behaving in particular ways. Then I say, oh, hey, there we go. That explains it!

Much of the experience mimics plain old clinical depression. There’s a darkness all around. There’s a cone or tunnel of light so I can see in front of me. All the periphery, ever crowding in, is blurry and hazy. I’m constantly feeling like I need to get my hair up in a scrunchy because it feels like my vision is being crowded out by fuzz. My hair up never solves it, but begins the process of containment. Containment is the only way I make it through these long days.

What most people don’t realize is the beast of PMS is also a gift. Like writers who drank themselves to death or the van Gogh’s of the world killing themselves after living with mental illness, my PMS brings with her gobs and gobs of creativity. Manic, maybe. Roller coaster, definitely. Productive, sometimes. Destructive, frequently.

In The Red Tent—a book I found only so-so but one that stayed with me in a deeper way than most I’ve ever read—Diamant paints a picture of women bonding together during their periods. The idea is rich and lovely. I think, however, women would do better finding space for themselves before their periods start. At least I would, and do.

Acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I’m aware that I’m in the throws of PMS, I can ride the tough times and the people around me aren’t subjected to quite as much irrationality. One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned about my own PMS, though, is that while I may act and say and do things impulsive, irrationally, violently, there is always some truth to my behavior. Everything is magnified. This brings me back to the physical experience.

Bright lights shine fiercely on single words in emails. Voices scream loudly when someone whispers. What should be simple confuses me, what should be comfortable distresses me. I feel alive and energized and heavy and immobile.

Today at lunch I was aware of how deeply into my hormonal surges I’d gone. Rather than try to continue on as normal, I said to my family, “I’m in a mood where anything you say or do will seem wrong. Let’s not subject any of us to that.” So, I didn’t say yes when Maya asked if she could feed Althea the sweet potatoes when we were out at the restaurant. I didn’t suggest Josh and I discuss anything of great substance (unlike last night when I went to him weeping about Big Things and The Future). I gave myself over to the waves.

There’s a deep feeling of wanting to hurt myself. Not in any kind of scary serious actually harmful way. Just things like the compulsion to eat junk food. There’s something gross about it that feels right. Like a big fuck you to the world, to myself, to my body. I don’t care what you say, oh knowers of healthiness, I’m going to plump up, build up my fat stores, get ready to bear these children unless I… oh, thank god. I got my period. And that urge for garbage food disappears. Actually, I stop wanting to eat as if I’ve got a tapeworm about 4-6 hours before I get my period. How’s that for a nice little “TMI” tidbit? It’s true though. Totally predictable. It’s how I know to get a tampon in. Suddenly no food or only relatively healthy food looks good.

My body feels thicker. Not in a fat kind of way, but as if all my skin has more nerve endings. As if every sensation goes deeper into my skin. Everything smells more both in my perception outside myself and what I’m emitting. This is part of why I compare it to an acid trip. It’s as if something else has taken over and everything is heightened.

I’m consumed with waves of desperation. Desperation to organize spaces tops the list. I tear apart cabinets or drawers of clutter. I move furniture. I write blog posts and meme in the extreme. Everything needs to be done now. Unfortunately, I’m still me, and I’m not very skilled in finishing projects. Our house is left with pockets of newly tidied spaces and the rest looks like a hurricane came through.

It’s a shame, really, I’m not able to take a break from the rest of the world for these days and focus on art. The things I make during this time tend to be some of my more powerful work. There is a richness to this time, as well as an insanity. Warmth and heat and excruciatingly annoying bitchiness. I laugh more, cry a lot, and find myself unable to get words out as if I haven’t slept properly. Which, let’s face it, I probably haven’t. Slept. That’s not an effect of PMS, though, that’s simply part of having a 9 month old who thinks it’s great fun to wake up at 5am.

Just like any time of stress, I’m learning more with each cycle that I need to take it easy. Expect less of myself, be more gentle with myself, and give my loved ones fair warning.

I teach Maya that the chemicals in my body are all getting excited thinking they might get to make a baby. That they go up and down and all around and that’s why I seem extra energetic or impatient or sad. I don’t want her afraid of PMS or hormones, so I don’t make a big deal of it. But I also want her to know the truth. The chemicals in our body impact how we see the world and how we behave in it. When I’m seeing things through my PMS dark foggy glasses, it’s not like other times of the month. I explain to her that she might want to go in the other room because I’m about to throw the pots and pans across the kitchen and I don’t want to get mad at her when she hasn’t done anything to deserve it. Pretty amazing how much rationality I can muster when my sweet child is involved. Bet the adults in my life which I had similar consideration for their feelings, too.

Looking at the wrappers of the 3 Musketeers and the Skor bar on the desk here, feeling the burning in my stomach from the “queso” and chips, I’m full of gas, bloating, and laughter. The ups and downs are actually kind of fun when I realize the roller coaster is temporary. I try not to make too many serious decisions, but I pay very close attention to what ever it is that bugs the crap out of me. When this all clears up, I’ll sort through it and almost without exception, I will have learned some important things. People joke about PMS all the time. I’d like to see more people recognize its value. In our culture, women’s anger is generally discouraged. I think PMS and the very real (though often exaggerated) emotions that can come with it give me an outlet to find the truth. And chocolate.

a woman’s right to kill her baby

My friend won’t let me kill my baby. Or, to be much more accurate, she wants politicians and laws to decide when or if it’s okay to kill my baby. I’m 23 weeks pregnant and I’ve had a human life in me since the day I got the first positive pregnancy test. Now, we’ve named her, she’s a she (as far as we know), she wiggles like crazy, she’s about a pound and a half with almost all fully functioning organs (just her lungs need serious continued growth). She’s been “viable” since 2 weeks ago. Still, she’s inside of me. My body. Not someone else’s. If I wanted to kill her, that’s my right.

The language I’m using is provocative. If anti-choice and pro-choice believers want to come to any sort of agreement on the issue of personal choice in abortion we need to be willing to speak or at least hear each other’s language. I’ve written my description in horrifying terms: killing a baby. It makes my skin crawl just reading the title of this essay. But I realize that’s how my friend would see it. And, in my own case — for me — that’s how I see it, too.

Since I can remember, I’ve known in my heart I couldn’t have an abortion. Of course we can’t ever know what the future holds, but I went to extraordinary measures to avoid pregnancy. I didn’t have intercourse until I knew I would be able to care for a child. Then I always used birth control. No matter how wasted I got (those were some challenging times, the 90s) I never had sex without birth control. Because, as I’ve said, as soon as I know I’m pregnant, logic or science aside, I feel I’m carrying my child inside me. Immediately I begin the relationship that will last for both of our lives where I will care for that child forever.

My position as a pro-choice woman is just as strong, however, as my personal choice not to have abortions. There are several facets to this position. The first, and the least digestible for the anti-choice movement, is that I believe knowing when life begins is a personal and spiritual decision. I have friends who believe life begins with the quickening (feeling movement of the fetus). I have friends who have had multiple abortions who still aren’t sure when life begins. I also have friends who believe life starts at conception, but have had abortions. This aspect of the pro-choice movement is typically pointless as we debate with the anti-choice believers. To most of them, abortion is always murder.

Carrying a fetus, a baby, inside our bodies is an ability only for people who have a uterus. It is this fact alone that makes abortion different than all other laws governing our bodies. We have laws that say we can not physically beat each other up. We obviously have laws against murder. We have laws that try (in vain) to prevent self- or other-harm through drug use or acts like drinking and driving. And, as soon as an infant is outside of its mother, we have laws protecting that child. Thankfully, infanticide is illegal in our country. There is no comparable situation, however, where cis-gender men or boys have a life growing inside of them.

When we begin legislating medical decisions for one group of people and not for any other, we say that group has fewer rights than the others. Therefore, no matter how difficult it is for some people to accept, no laws should govern what happens to someone’s pregnancy. Until my baby is born, what happens to her is entirely my decision. And I will fight for the right for anyone with a uterus to control their body however they see fit as fiercely as I will fight to keep my own baby safe and healthy.

“she’s Black, she’s Black, she’s BLAAAAACK!”

“She’s Black, she’s Black, she’s BLAAAAACK!” was just about all my brain could handle. Maintaining a simple and polite conversation was barely possible. No matter how much we had in common, no matter how likely a future friendship, I could think of nothing but that amazing dark skin, the transcendent hair texture, and my entire personal history of race relationships. Oh, how I wanted to prove to this woman that I was not like just any white woman! I knew, of course, it was just this level of self-consciousness that would make me utterly annoying to her. But, I just couldn’t help myself.

Helping myself, though, is really what race relations is about for me these days. I do care about the greater socio-political issues (shocking disregard for people’s lives all across the continent of Africa, overt brutality in our country, job discrimination, and of course the list goes on). However, my personal journey with racism now centers around me, my husband, and most of all, my daughter.

When I sat for coffee with the “she’s black she’s black she’s BLACK” woman, I was reminded of a time in college in the late 80’s when a fellow student raged at me something like, “I am not all black people! I can’t solve your problems!” The disgust, the tears, and the absolute giving up I felt from her did change me. I was so ignorant, so inexperienced with people who were not white-upper-class-and-highly-educated that I lumped anyone unlike me into a group. This group, I thought, would be my source for how to fix the world. Surely, they knew what I could do to not be like a bigot, a racist, a slave owner.

It was then I began to try and get over myself. Trouble was, I just didn’t have anyone to practice being just a person with. There was no one in my life I could intentionally not discuss race relations and curing the world of injustice. There was no one in my life with darker skin, or fancier hair. There wasn’t even anyone I knew whose family had struggled financially, dark or fair skinned. And, yes, I recognized how this desire to not look to someone for all the answers was just a different side of the same coin.

I don’t believe in the concept of being “color-blind.” I find it offensive to everyone involved. Why should anyone pretend someone doesn’t look the way they do? How is that respectful? One constant in my life is my need for authenticity. Facing tough issues by talking about them; I don’t do well with elephant’s snoozing on the throw rug nearby.

It my own need for honesty and clarity that had me obsessing, desperate for an intense and intimate conversation about race every time I ran in to this woman. Entirely annoying, of course, since I knew I was just doing it again. Not seeing her as a woman, a mother, a wife, a writer, a social justice activist, but only seeing her Blackness. I really didn’t want to, but I knew if I pretended I wasn’t, it would just make it worse.

In college, I studied and fell in love with “Symbolic Interactionism.” Put forward in force by Herbert Blumer but made real to me by Erving Goffman, the idea that we all together strive most of all to maintain a coherent sense of reality. The “presentation of self” is disturbed when an individual becomes obsessed with their own performance. Smooth interactions between individuals are the goal of most players in life, most of the time throughout our daily lives (most don’t walk down a crowded busy street intentionally slamming into other people, we work together as individuals to keep the peace).

I know in my past I have suffered from white guilt and that has prevented me from behaving naturally. It’s humiliating, really, but, it’s my own shit.

Playing with dollhouse toys, my daughter announced one afternoon that she called one set of dolls the dark-skinned dolls. She didn’t say that the other set was the light skinned dolls. I gathered myself together enough not to launch in to a whole history of race issues in the USA. She’d made a simple observation. We’ve tried to always be sure she has characters in books with lots of different backgrounds, tried to always have dolls that are not only blond and white, knowing every little thing is part of the greater picture. We talked to her about melanin when she first asked about darker skin after visiting my parents’ church. We’ve done everything we can to not make a big deal, but to still keep the option for deeper discussion open. And, yes, I am probably over-thinking it way too much. But, then again, I’m really not.

We live in a state (Maine) where it’s not common to see people who aren’t white. Economic status is more varied than where I grew up, but trying to recognize those differences takes a judgmental frame of mind, not easy for a four year old to pick up on. We visit Boston (awfully white city, but relatively International) and come across families speaking other languages, wearing interesting clothes, looking remarkably different. It’s nice, and we talk about things with her, but what will help Maya most?

I tried signing her up for a Kwanzaa celebration class for toddlers, but was vastly disappointed when the instructor slipped up and asked the class if they knew about the country of Africa. I do believe that experience with people with darker skin, with different languages, and with different cultural backgrounds is the best thing we can give Maya (and ourselves). But, how can this happen and not be contrived?

I’ve written previously about my six grade field trip on a bus into Hartford where the teachers showed us “urban decay” and “urban renewal.” They actually stopped the busses in stressed out neighborhoods and said “this is urban decay.” I guarantee you there were people around those streets. How can [my husband] and I be sure that signing Maya up for classes or working to have playgroups where the kids aren’t just white isn’t a lot like that? I suppose it makes a difference if there is a genuine interest in the topic, or if the playgroup participants are actually friends. Knowing I have the motivation of “exposure” however, is what feels too close to that old frame of mind (“these people will give me the answers, ease my guilt”).

Today we went to the toy store where [my husband] and I very blatantly purchased an excessively expensive and annoying toy strictly for bribery (you reach this milestone, we’ll celebrate with this toy!). We reached the shelves and the Baby Alive toys available were only the dark skinned, curly haired dolls (sort of African American looking, though I think they all look like aliens). We had watched a movie on the computer that morning as we whetted her appetite for the thing where the freakishly large-eyed blond baby says, “uh oh, I made a stinky!” I flinched at the shelf. I wondered if I should be prepared for Maya to say, “That isn’t the doll we saw, I want the other one!” I was really hoping I wouldn’t have to say, “It’s this doll or no doll,” because I didn’t want the darker doll to be the disappointing choice.

Maya didn’t say a word about how she looked different (even though the doll was surrounded by the blond dolls of the “pee-pee only” version). She hugged the box to herself. She has been cherishing the boxed doll all day (she gets to open it after she reaches her milestone).

On the way home from the store, this is what she said, “The company that makes these dolls must really want children to buy them!”

“Yeah, hunny, why is that?”

“Because she has dark skin and dark skin is the most beautiful.”

“Dark skin is beautiful, hunny, yes, they must know.”

Inside I’m not afraid her pale-skinned self-esteem is suffering, I’m doing a touchdown dance with fireworks. Thinking, at least at the moment, she’s making good associations.

A few months ago (a year?) I said to the “she’s black she’s black she’s BLACK” woman who I had come to know on some deeper levels, “It’s so nice to finally know you as a just a person.” I honestly don’t remember if we went forward with that conversation at that point, or later in safer email, but, it’s true that she’s the first Black woman (and Latina, it turns out) who I consider a friend. And, it’s most definitely true that while I have fleeting thoughts of “wow, that hair is so cool,” or, “her skin is so stunning,” I realize I have thoughts like that about all of my friends in different ways (“how does she pull of those knit caps?” “when does she have the time to shave her legs?” “her hair always looks so clean.”). They are fleeting and I’m not obsessed.

[My husband] doesn’t have the same hang-ups I do. He grew up in a much more culturally diverse world (Southern New Mexico). He’s also blessed with an ability to not over-think things. But, he knows what I’m talking about when we try to decide how to help Maya not think that this world (Maine) is typical of the rest of the world. He knows how gross it feels to imagine signing Maya up for a playgroup or class only because we know she’d meet kids who aren’t white. I suppose, like everything, I’ll have to turn this over to faith. Trusting that it will all work out because God’s in charge and I’m not.

I don’t know the answers. I don’t know how I can help Maya make friends without having an internal explosion about race or class issues go on in her brain. For this day, for this moment, I’ll take Maya finding the “dark skin is the most beautiful” as a pretty good start.

but Senator, you just don’t get it

Harriett was running down the hall, late for the luncheon with Senator Simpson. As she ran, she called over her shoulder, “someone canceled, do you want to come along?”

Did I?

I’d been working for Harriett Woods, former Lieutenant Governor of Missouri, at the National Women’s Political Caucus for just under a year. My most recent project was organizing luncheons with leaders of women’s organizations and each individual member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. This was just immediately following the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Of course I wanted to “come along!”

After passing through the metal detectors of the Senate building, I had to run to keep up with Harriett’s long leg strides. When we entered the private dining room, the architecture and decor seemed ancient and powerful. Two or three of the women’s group leaders had already arrived and were seated at the heavy wooden table that filled the small, bright, high-ceilinged room.

We took our seats and I sat, not speaking, just listening to Harriett make lovely appropriate small talk with the other women. No one spoke about what they were all there for: the topic was “discussing women’s perspectives on the Hill/Thomas hearings.” I was in shock. Here I was, 21 years old, sitting in a private dining room of the Senate with leaders of some of the most influential womens’ organizations in Washington, DC — we were all there together waiting for Senator Alan Simpson.

Senator Simpson, the vocal Judiciary Committee member from Wyoming.

After about ten minutes, the door behind us opened. The tallest man I’ve ever seen in my life limbered in followed by an elegant (and also tall) woman.

The Senator took a seat at the tremendous table. He took a seat directly across the table from me.

The woman who was with him, his wife Ann, sat at the head of the table on the other side of the room.

The Senate dining staff began serving our lunch as the polite and amiable chit-chat continued.

Again, there was no mention of what the participants were all there to discuss and I found the omission made the conversation shallow and stilted — though I see now how it was all about manners, protocol and style.

Finally, as I evaluated the fruit cup (yet another food item I couldn’t possibly eat with my stomach so full of butterflies), Harriett said something like, “Shall we get started?” Something like that. She crafted such an eloquent but simple statement, I wish I could recall the exact words.

She made her point: it was time to move beyond the small talk.

Then the Senator then took the lead.

He began speaking of Anita Hill and how she had perjured herself. I don’t know how long the Senator spoke, as I was still in shock, but I do remember distinctly that he mentioned the “corrupting effect of this rock and roll” — my jaw almost dropped onto the floor when he actually said that.

As the Senator spoke, I ground my fingernails into my palms to keep myself from speaking. The thoughts were a hurricane in my brain and I was afraid I would burst out in some verbal explosion of frustration.

He was missing the point, and no one was saying anything to him about it!

Were we going to sit there and listen to him slamming Anita Hill and just sit mute? Would all these nice manners continue and block any real communication about the frustrations of the issues of real sexual harassment in the workplace and the lack of women in the Senate?

At one point a sort of squawking noise escaped from my mouth.

My fingernails were almost through the skin on my palms.

I looked, pleadingly at Harriett after I made the sound and I said to her, “could… could I say something?”

And Harriett, the strong, impressive and grand woman announced to the shocked looking table members with her arms waving about, “Yes! Yes! My assistant, Heather, would like to say something!”

My hands relaxed in my lap.

I started to speak with a quivering and timid voice.

I said, “Senator, I understand that you think Anita Hill perjured herself. But, I don’t think that’s the point. I think the point is, there were no women up there on the Judiciary Committee, so no one could possibly know what she had gone through if she had been telling the truth.”

The Senator was just staring at me.

After I finished speaking I’m not sure if I even took a breath of air.

The Senator took a bite of his fruit cup and his head began to nod.

He chewed and said, “Hmmm…well, I never thought about it that way.”

I recognized even then that he was being kind and diplomatic — though I will always hope my words might’ve reached him.

I continued shaking and shivering throughout the rest of the luncheon. I have no recollection of any other words that were exchanged in the meeting. I just remember when it seemed it was time to go.

The Senator raised himself slowly from his chair, and the rest of us followed.

When all of the thank-you’s and good-bye’s were being exchanged came one of the most remarkable interactions of the whole experience.

Mrs. Simpson came over to me with her hand extended.

She introduced herself to me, and I introduced myself to her. She continued shaking my hand and looked deep into my eyes and said, “You keep on going,” and gave my hand an extra tight squeeze.

In the cab on the ride home, Harriett said to me, “I hope you’re writing about all of this.” That was eight years ago, and at the time I wasn’t. The experience, however, isn’t one I will ever forget. Each time I revisit the memory I’m energized by Mrs. Simpson’s words and I do “keep on going.”