Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Everything In the Sink: Writing, Health, Feminism, Poetry

In response to a piece of writing that moved me.

* * *
For $3.70, I bought a bagel and the most luscious hot chocolate you can imagine, and sat down to read the walking series between Jess and BFP.

For $3.70, tax included, I sat in a warm room and read Jess’ thoughts while I allowed the flowers of an Everything bagel to bloom in my mouth and the sticky sweetness of the whip cream and chocolate syrup avalanche everything in my mouth with sugar.

I’m celebrating.

It is the birthday of a friend. Jennifer, 32 today, an amazing mother and activist in the Philippines who fights a fight that would leave me scared shitless, but one that she levels with her eyes every morning in hot Manila. It is the day of her birth, entering the world so helplessly and, after a little over three decades, has exploded into a warrior for art, equality, understanding, and love in Quezon City, Philippines. I’ve known Jennifer for six months. I love and miss her dearly.

To celebrate, I read Jess’ work and envision her walks in Los Angeles. I hear her soft breath climbing the mountains of California and sense the spinning in her mind as she wonders what to write about on BFP’s site. I feel envious of their walks. No, that’s inaccurate. I feel envious of their partnership, the evidence that two people can agree to walk, think, offer... That’s more than what most people in this world will do in a lifetime.

I sneakily decide to walk with them. In my mind, I decide to stay a figurative block or two behind them so they can’t see me or worry I’m eavesdropping on them.

I get a library card from the local public library and rent Yoga videos for beginners. In the midst, I grab “The Namesake,” a movie I had already seen about the torrent of cultural identity and family.

To convince myself that I don’t care and it doesn’t matter if I can do the moves or not, I do the first video with regular clothes on and leave my hair disbanded. Everything’s loose.

I think about my quads. They feel stretched but not sore. Again, I put on un-Yogalike clothes and put a thin headband through my hair to keep it out of my face, but still lets it flow freely. I begin to fall in love with one move, the one where you pretend you’re flying. On one foot, I balance while I kick the other leg back. The upper body is surged forward, the back leg kicked straight out, the arms extended into wings. Hold the position. Breathe. My mind has wings.

I add an aerobic workout before yoga because I feel like sweating and wanting to build that fire again. My body feels differently. Like it’s been contorted, twisted, wrung. My blood feels thin and easy flowing. I try the relaxation pose and impatiently cut get up, hating it. I do not feel at peace.

I have a doctor’s appointment for a hysterosalpingogram. The feel of metal in my vagina brings waves of violent thoughts that do no belong to me. I think of the literal and figurative bayonets stabbed into the bodies of women in a thousand wars.

I shake my head, the thoughts spill away.

The test is horrible, but the results are good. Everything’s clear and functioning. He hands me a towel to clean myself up. I look up and begin to cry.

I put on Yoga clothes and pull my hair into a ponytail. The balance is not there anymore and I waver, uncertain.

I try the flying pose again.

Looking down, I search for my focus spot and my eyes well up. There is no balance, only sadness.

* * *
Out of nowhere a 40 degree wonder sweeps Cleveland. I am loosely bound with one sweatshirt and gloves and take a long walk in the snow.

I pass a house boarded up where three little girls died in a fire one year ago, before I lived in the neighborhood. The surviving parents are pregnant again and want to eventually live in the house again, the home their little girls loved so much. My head shakes from side to side. Everything flows in seasons, even life.

I notice that I have stepped away from the internet because I have had reoccurring thoughts about Andrea Dworkin and how she wrote her life into death by sitting, writing, and barely moving. To be that disconnected from the body scares me.

I walk further.

There is a man my age at the end of his driveway. A hoe is grasped in his hands as he hacks into the thick ice. Our eyes meet and I nod and smile a greeting. The snow of his teeth show brightly as he smiles in return. I need more of this.

I think about Jess’ thoughts of perfectionism, depression, and achievement. Her honesty whispers louder than the crunch of my boots and I wish I had someone to talk to about my writing, my journey and relationship with its power and the purity I’m desperately trying to hold onto.

* * *

I’d wanted to be a writer since I was seven or eight years old. In my attic, I have bins of crushes, confusion, suicide, sex, and drugs preserved in words. Or, at least, I have them preserved in the way I thought they were.

On Saturday, I read the introduction of Audre Lorde’s biography by Alexis De Veaux. De Veaux writes that Audre never felt like she found a home. Never, even in her last days battling cancer, did Audre feel spiritually settled. Looking for what, no one knows for sure, but there was a mystical homelessness about her and I’d like to think that maybe I’m not alone in feeling the same way.

There is something restless about the creative spirit that yearns to be embraced, yet by its very definition cannot be comforted. And so the Spirit creates. It creates to survive because to be still, to stay in one place and consider the enormity of never feeling comfort is too real, too frightening. The possibility of what that eternal wandering could mean is too harsh to accept.

But Audre accepted it, eventually, writes De Veaux.

Thank God and too bad that I’m not Audre.

It is because of writing and this roaring for which there is no volume control, I am homeless.

* * *

I revisit Jess’ thoughts about achievement.

"I had no idea in that moment that not everyone defines human worth by work and work-related accomplishment."

What does that mean for me? I grew up in either a private institution or a private family that worshiped the credentials that came with academic achievement. Credentials, academic accolades, degrees, awards, intellectual distinction was not about superiority. It was about survival. Education meant survival. As immigrants, education became the means to provide for your family. Licenses to practice, exams to study for mean providing for yourself in the United States and making life a little bit easier for someone back home or for whomever you sent your money. For every degree, ten more people could be fed or another person could go to school. That equation wasn’t exact, but there was a sense of responsibility I felt to do well, to do excellent and one of the ways sacrifice is repaid is through the success of children. There was never room for anything but medicine, law, or, at minimum graduate school.

I wanted to be a writer.

Perfectionism is most certainly not a culture-specific phenomenon. It transcends race and ethnicity and plays out differently according to context and quality of measuring stick. For the Philippines, a country colonized first by the Spaniards and then by the US Americans, education became a golden ticket out of poverty. It was a privilege to even have the opportunity to succeed and if the opportunity rested on your door, who are you to not answer?

Educational achievement became a sweet addiction, how I imagine a post dinner cigarette tastes to smokers. It melted in the form of intellectual stimulus and in watching the widening of pupils when I listed my degrees, schools, and ease of which they came. It came in the small upturn of my parents’ lips. These successes, somehow, meant everything and nothing all at the same time. Addiction is like that.

Admitting how important education is to me and my family means revealing a colonized mind that I was ashamed to admit. Of course my parents thought education was important. “This country is about one thing: credentials. Without your degree, you’re nothing.”

How could I deny something so true to their immigrated experience? Each hostility, each slap, each shove, every cold shoulder they experienced somehow related to the fact that they were foreigners in this land that both needed them and despised them. The only way to stand their ground was to hold onto whatever was stable: education. That saying about your degree – once you attain it, no one can take it from you – wasn’t just about achievement, it was about defense.

What does it mean to admit a part of your very success, the goals you had set for yourself were set forth by a colonized agenda, a strategy to keep a people oppressed, a way to ensure the submission of servants and maids, garbage diggers and farmers, the sick and the dying?

And what made matters worse: I wanted to be perfect in that system.

That elitism, that view from the top from the tower, meant everything. It was never explicity stated as such, but it didn’t need to be. Watching what happened to my mother, without a college degree, a woman who traded in her life in the Philippines for me and my siblings in this country was enough evidence. 29 years of watching the discrimination against her face, her accent, her words, her perspective, her existence in the Midwest was enough lesson for me to want to screw the system by succeeding in it and calling it out on its racist, elitist bullshit. No matter what I felt – in addiction or anger – my plans always included extraordinary measured achievement. I always turned to structured pathways of the academy to prove my worth, “justify my existence.”

Then I found feminism.

"…I was still looking through a really isolated-individual lens in a lot of ways, and so unaware of all the ways privilege would have played out had I continued along that path, breathlessly pursued that book deal in my twenties, etc., etc."

How empowering to find feminism, I first thought. A human organized rallying for equality. And, look! You don’t have to have degrees, it embraces every individual, it both uses and questions theory and can be as personal as it political and as grand as a march or considering the farmer of your daily apple.

I found BFP’s blog when it was simply a gathering place for women of color. This was before I had any knowledge of the dynamics of internet organizing, media justice, or the trouble that could brew with one singular blog post.

To this day, I don’t know if I’m grateful for discovering the feminist blogosphere, something that I partition away from BFP’s blog, or I wish I had never found it. It was where I have laid many foundations of thoughts, but have witnessed more and more arbitrary and useless destruction – and it is competition among women by the way – for book deals, recognition, and speaking tours. It is cleverly covered with labels, “communities,” and learning curves. It has its good moments, but after so many years, the definition of “success” has morphed into a narrow and stubborn party of a few while the majority of women still suffer from sexism and violence. Blogging has the potential to teach and transform, but we’re not ready to accept that responsibility as organized bloggers and writers. That requires something more profound than vision. It takes listening.

Somewhere I found myself writing more and more but feeling less and less grounded, the opposite of my usual catharsis. I began writing about important issues because that’s what I thought mattered to the world, not realizing the world would be much better off if I write about what matters most to me.

In this ridiculous and unbelievably fast internet world, I have come to disengage with the feminist blogosphere as I dig more into my own feminism. The earth of my life, the soil which needs human hands, not my keyboard fingers, needs kneading. I’ve spent so much time confessing my faults that my line of creativity has bounced from productive to masochistic depression, measuring my worth with white, mainstream feminism which I don’t even like or agree with. And it’s not about blame. It’s just more of the same.

The longer I read blogs and the regurgitation of news that consistently licks the ethnocentric boot of US women, the more I am convinced I am on the right path of disengaging, ceasing my own internal battle to publish, publish, publish, and write a book, write a book, write a book.

I want to offer the world a compiled story of my experiences, of my life, not a reaction to my experience with feminism. All of this I now realize, 24 days before my 30th birthday.

The goals I had etched for my 30th were more about finding audiences, not my writer’s voice and building rails for my walking so that I walked straight, head up.

I walk. I walk in circles, with my head roaming the sky, behind my shoulder to see my boot prints in the snow, and sniffling from the cold, Ohio air.

bell hooks puts the geography of her writing into her writing. She asks and centers what it means to write from Kentucky. What does it mean that BFP writes from Michigan, or that Jess writes from LA? Or that most feminist mainstream bloggers write from New York, Brooklyn, or San Francisco? It matters. Our walks, where they lead us, matters.

What does it mean that I long to write from any place but where I am? How have come to be so ashamed of my Ohio place of writing that I feel un-credentialed, as if I have no authority over my own life? How have I come to deny myself in accordance to a colonized agenda as I read about colonization?

By measuring writing with a published book stick, the epiphanies that used to come to me like dreams and orgasms slowed to a dulling halt. No more reactions, no more opinions. Everything I wrote was first sanctified by my excitement and then nullified by a voice that whispered, “What do you know? You’re just another another.”

Another another.

Dreamer. Philosopher. Warrior. Poet. Yearning for truth with dripping insecurities.
And privilege.

That’s what made it even worse. I am a woman of color with intensely rare privileges.

How trite. How boring.

I’m tired of writing disclaimers of my privilege. I’m tired of apologizing. Even as I write that, I'm sure it reads RESISTANCE to acknowledging my privilege. But it's like, no matter what I write about, no matter how much I paint the elephant a traffic cone orange color and acknowledge it, point at it, sit next to it, and then I write my thoughts - someone, somewhere (usually "anonymous") comes in and reminds me, "don't forget - you're a privileged person of color. You don't have that much experience in oppression." Here’s the thing: I don’t know how to acknowledge it any more than I already have. And if I stop acknowledging it, I'm sure someone will call me a "leftoid cunt" again. I don’t want to spend my life writing about privilege. That would be a sardonic tragedy all on its own.

* * *
There is storm in its full state
everyday, plump,
- throbbing red -
birthing another and another
so I have a womb full of wind.

Its carnage bleeds out white women,
my husband, books, and screams,
but I never grow pale.
I have an endless supply of
angry blood, I suppose.

I’m waiting for it to stop.
Waitin’ for the sky to part,
for the rain not to be wet anymore.
I wonder if this is my Call.

To no longer seek the world
and its problems
and Write in observation of war,
but instead
to sift through my own debris
and believe,
with my entire mind
that it is good and I am whole.
And the debris
- the ugly wreckage of life –
is food.

* * *

The relationship between health (mental and physical), writing, and practice of both are cyclic in relationship. The only thing that keeps my own destruction – my storm of depression, self-paralysis – in check is movement. That alone may sound unoriginal, but consider the trends of technology and season. The other day, I reached for the door knob before braving the winter, and paused. I could barely sense the skin on my stomach. I didn’t know if I was breathing in or out because it was buried in a bra, camisole, shirt, sweater, scarf, gloves, hat, and enormous parka. The weight and expansive coverage of cloth on my body prohibited movement. And that was just to my car where I would sit again.

My body couldn’t feel itself.

* * *

I waited for the groundhog to say good news.

* * *

Instead of waiting for external sunshine, I wrote this instead.


  1. this is so beautiful. you've taken this conversation down paths that needed walking down, that hadn't yet been trod in the collaboration - lovely, each of us spinning off in tendrils where our specific identities and experiences lead us, seeing where the connections are, where the divergences are ... love you so much. xo, jess

    (and i want to say: i'm struggling with whether/how the path metaphor can be other than colonial - because i don't want to suggest that we humans need to walk on or "explore" these paths to make them real or legitimate - to make them exist in the pioneer style. faltering a little with the language ... )

  2. Anonymous8:33 PM

    I *knew* I could hear somebody walking behind us, Jess!!!! :-)

    Lisa--this is SO beautiful. so powerful. I loved the connection that you made (although it is a very painful one) between your body moving and the horrible bullshit medical "help" you've been subjected to. what happens to our bodies DOES effect us--mentally, physically, emotionally-it DOES affect our balance.

    Thank you SO much for pointing that out...


  3. ha, I just finished my own jumping-off of that post, and then I wander over here and you've done one too!

    i agree with jess. this is beautiful. it's so beautiful i actually feel sort of incoherent and unable to do anything but tell you that it's amazing and beautiful and honest and will stay with me, and to thank you for writing it. (and of course link it. really, this is wonderful)

  4. I'm glad you found the feminist blogosphere because it's how I found you. Reading your conversations, with Brownfemipower and BlackAmazon, in particular, has changed me. You taught me about kyriarchy and I can't go back; I can't look away from what troubles me. When I want to filter, I instead examine, and I can do that because you gave me words to name what I know is wrong.

    "Dear Veronica" is a wondrous collection that would also be successful in print. Your letters are so intimate, I feel like an eavesdropper.

  5. All I can continue to write is my continuous thanks for your support and love words. They make me feel like I can fly. Speaking of which, I will try the flying yoga pose again today.

    Muchos Besos to you my friends...

  6. To be that disconnected from the body scares me.

    this really hit me - me too! (because sometimes i feel that i am.) i am so inspired by this post - as well as bfp's and jess's posts - and about about reconnecting to our bodies through movement, particularly as a way of dealing with depression. this is powerful.

    thank you for creating this space within the 'feminist blogosphere' (as frustrating as it is), for the vision and hope and beauty.

  7. I am a constant lurker here, but I just wanted to tell you how much this resonated with me. That disconnect- from a place, from a job, from the body-it's the thing I fight the most. I'm still trying to figure out what connects me, what to accept, and most importantly, what to reject.

    Thanks for this piece, and for this space.

  8. A lot of what you're saying resonates: the competition in the feminist blogosphere, the effect of aging and experience, the written record of who you used to be, the balance of desire with necessity. I feel it all. Though my praise is inadequate, thank you for sharing.

  9. This is such a gift, Lisa. Thank you for sharing this with all of us. I think I'm going to have to read it a couple of times and let it all sink in and percolate...

  10. Lisa -- really enjoyed this post. It sounds like you're coming to a critical realization. I think some institutions, whether Feminism or whatever else, have to be encountered on ones own terms, and sometimes getting away from an external yardstick is the only way to do that. Later, you may (or may not) come back to whatever institution it is and feel less locked in by it. That has been my experiences in some other contexts -- the corporate world is a good example.

    Anyway, thanks for some thought provoking ideas as per usual.

  11. Powerful words, Lisa.

    Your words about disconnection are resonating with me almost too much.


Hey there,
Before you leave a comment, just remember two things:
1. You are taking responsibility for a public comment
2. Anything that resembles racism, homophobia, classism, ableism, or anything based from religion, citizenship, or ethnic bias - don't bother commenting, you'll be deleted.