Apr 21, 2016 - AV Club    No Comments

Good night, sweet Prince

I went numb from the tips of my toes to the roots of my purple hair today when I saw there’d been a death at Paisley Park.

“It’s a big place,” I told myself. “People in and out of there all the time. Could be anyone.”

But I didn’t really believe it. 2016’s been like that.

I managed to hold it together as I rushed around getting last-minute birthday presents for my big, amazing, ten-year-old Griffin. And I’m determined to be cheerful tonight. My kid deserves that, and more.

But when The Current played the first chord of “Purple Rain,” the tears started rolling down. Purple Rain was the first R-rated movie I ever saw, at the tender age my youngest is turning today. A friend’s family had HBO, so when I slept over, we were determined to watch whatever was on just to feel grown-up. Instead, I sat stunned, thrilled, utterly changed.SVOD-DI-Purple-Rain-DI-to-L10-dupe

Prince was sex before I knew what it was. Not the biology, but the essence of sexuality. The breathless moans. The hitched breath. The sudden, ecstatic screams. They punctuated his songs, created a separate rhythm that scrambled my pulse in ways I couldn’t understand. His liquid dark eyes, casting a look back over his shoulder at you alone, asking if you had the courage to come along for the ride. Pure, tempting transgression on a purple motorcycle. prince-2013

Later, in college, my heart would race to “Darling Nikki” for another reason—we had to skip the track when we played the album in the record store where I worked. The stereo was at the front of the store, and many a time I did a flat-out sprint through the store to hit fast-forward before the line Tipper Gore never liked. My pulse speeds up in the first three bars to this day.

Prince was queer before I knew what it was. I sang along quite innocently as he breathed, “I’m not a woman, I’m not a man, I am something you can never understand.” And to be honest, I didn’t question it. His whole self was confirmation of that statement. My autistic perseveration as a child was history, and I especially enjoyed historical fashion. Prince was a museum of styles on parade. He had it all: Marie Antoinette’s beauty mark, Cleopatra’s kohl liner, Lord Byron’s carelessly tumbling curls, Cab Calloway’s finger waves, George III’s frothy lace jabot. Prince displayed a fearless feast of gendered signifiers, embracing and rejecting them all at the same time, sparing no one the intense focus of his seduction.1f739fa7955c0f4ab96c522841adc3c4

Prince was the musical descendant of ancestors before I knew them. You name it: Jackie Wilson, James Brown, Parliament Funkadelic, Otis Redding. Now that I’ve heard so many more seminal black artists, the more I hear their riffs and imprints. And now there are the artists who bear his stamp: Lenny Kravitz, Janelle Monaè, Kendrick Lamar, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and so many more. The genealogy is lavishly rich above and below. Prince even met the gold standard of performers in my book: he appeared on the Muppets. Okay, well, Muppets Tonight, but he wrote one of my favorite of his songs for that appearance (starts at 6:13).

It’s been a dream of mine, since we moved to Minnesota, that maybe one day I’d get to see Prince perform in person. As Paisley Park started to light up for late- and little-announced dance parties—some of which turned into impromptu concerts—I watched my inbox for alerts. Some were more than my body could handle; an 11pm start is tough even with maximum spoons. Others were more than my bank account could handle; $50 doesn’t seem like much, but it is to us.

And, of course, I thought I had time. We all did.

A woman with short purple hair and a black t-shirt with a cartoon of Prince sits with her head bowed.Now cracks a noble heart.—Good night, sweet Prince, 

And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest! 

~Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 2, Lines 359-360

 

Mar 11, 2016 - Physical Ed    5 Comments

This Belly

 

A white, fat, woman's belly

This belly is fat, and it’s mine. I own it. I earned it.

And I hate it.

I feel it around me like sandbags as I walk and sit and lie down. It oozes over my waistband. It forms doughy rolls inside my shirt. It pushes clumps of flesh into folds on my back. It rubs my skin against itself until constellations of tiny skintags form in protest. I look at tintype photos of the distortion of bone and organ caused by Victorian corseting, and I calculate how breathless I could stand to be to force that belly out of sight.

 

L0038404 Illustrations to denounce the crimes of the corset Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org 2 Illustrations to denounce the crimes of the corset and how it cripples and restricts the bodily organs in women. Engraving 1908 Published: - Printed: 10th October 1908 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc 2.0 UK, see http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/page/Prices.html

This belly comes from my ancestors. I was never cuddled by skinny, bony mothers or grandmothers. All my people are soft and jolly and restful to exhausted children at the end of a day’s play. That gentle flesh came from Ireland’s oatmeal and Poland’s potatoes. It weathered diet candy chews and scales and low-fat, no-fat endurance tests—this softness is stronger than them all.

My mother never said a kind word about her body in my entire life. When I admired her beauty-queen crown, she told me how her thick ankles almost cost her the prize. When I asked her how she danced to the music she taught me to love, she whispered how a ‘60s shimmy with her young, large, innocent breasts got her kicked out of the YMCA dance. When I told her I thought she was the best secretary in the world, she bemoaned her broad hips and butt, shaped by years of day-in day-out office chairs and Diet Coke.

I was barely five when people started exclaiming how much I looked like my mother. Now when I look in the mirror, I see her body, the one she taught me to despise. And I do.

This belly comes from my survival. I wasn’t small as I grew into adulthood—5’10” by the time I graduated from high school, size 12 in my wedding dress at 21—but I wasn’t terribly big either. The first semester of grad school gave me crushing tension headaches; doctors prescribed an antidepressant that was supposed to help. It helped more than I knew, masking symptoms of oncoming fibromyalgia until the day the medication suddenly, mysteriously stopped working. By that time, I was 75 pounds heavier. The male doctor who prescribed it didn’t think to mention that severe weight gain was common.

Fibro triggered depression; physical and mental anguish became hopelessly tangled. The medication that kept me afloat, active, alive layered fat over my bones. The harder I have tried to be well and happy, the heavier I have grown. I’m told that exercise and getting outdoors more would help my mood, but this belly keeps me from venturing out as much as my pain does. The irony is not lost on me that the medication I take to be happier in my mind makes me unhappier about my body.

This belly comes from my children. One of my midwives told me that babies are very efficient parasites, in and ex utero. She meant to comfort me when I was in month 4 of throwing my guts up 20 hours a day, 7 days a week. I remembered it when my second pregnancy had me sick 24 hours a day for seven and a half months, when I was in the ER for fluids when I couldn’t even keep down water. I only had six weeks to balance a pint of Ben and Jerry’s on the top of my belly, between my breasts, and feel like a proper mother-to-be. I don’t have any of those sideways pregnancy pictures–they didn’t look different enough from my non-pregnancy pictures to be worth taking.

Because I was always tall and heavy, I never had a baby belly that could stop traffic as I crossed the street. Nobody inappropriately rubbed my stomach and asked questions, because none of them could be sure it was pregnancy that stretched my shirts tight. I felt like I needed to be working off my baby weight while I was still pregnant because obesity was on every list of risk factors I was given. And if I couldn’t lose weight when I was throwing up non-stop, losing that baby weight after the boys arrived seemed beyond hopeless.

And my belly comes from food, of course. Bread and tortilla and baguette and pita and bagels. Soup and stew and stroganoff, shawarma and spanakopita. Cheeses: Comté, Cheddar, Delice d’Affinois, Chèvre, Port Salut, Gouda, Midnight Moon, curds so fresh they squeak in my teeth. Pasta, pesto, palak paneer, pho. Dumplings of every gods-given nation on this planet. I adore the craft and kindness of food, its intimate introduction to every kind of culture, the warmest embrace of caretakers everywhere. If I could trade my belly for the world of delicious flavors and spices and surprises, I doubt I’d take the deal.

 

A fat woman in teeshirt and skirt lounging on a couch

So this is my belly, and all the things that made it. It’s where I feel things first–anxiety, relief, fear, welling joy. It presses against snuggling children and beloved friends when they accept my preferred forms of greeting and delight. It catches splashes from the pots and pans where I stir up nourishment and comfort for anyone I feed. It hikes up the back of my shirts when I bend down to garden, giving me unexpected sunburns. It rules out pretty dresses and fashionable clothing. It makes me keep the lights off if I want to feel sexy, even alone.

It’s not going anywhere, if I’m going to be honest. I want to believe people who say I’m beautiful like I am. But I don’t know that I’ll ever make peace with this belly. Like so many things about myself, I can’t love it. But it’s undeniably me.

A fat woman in a life vest, teal hair, and sunglasses, rowing a canoe

Lights of Resistance

Hanukkah candles lit in a diagonal row.

Photo by Amit Erez/iStockphoto.com

Hanukkah has a gloss on it, a festival of light like others this time of year. Part of that gloss has developed in proximity to the flash and dazzle of Christmas, but before that, much of Hanukkah’s attraction was the chance to delight children with candles, dreidels, chocolate, and wonderful practical gifts like socks and pencils.

But another aspect of that gloss comes from the effort to avoid examining the complex origins of the holiday. It’s what comes before the miracle of the oil in the Temple that spurs on such frantically cheerful celebration. The destruction of the Temple that made its rededication necessary followed a bitter civil war within the Jewish community. Jews who wanted to keep Jewish culture pure and separate fought against Jews who wanted to give up some of their Jewishness to join the dominant Greek culture that seemed like the flagship of progress and prosperity.

When Jerusalem was annexed by the Seleucid rulers of the eastern Greek kings, the Greeks and their Hellenized Jewish followers desecrated Jewish holy sites, killed fellow Jews, and forced others to break the laws of the Torah by eating pork or getting “uncircumcised,” a process about which I wish to know nothing at all, since circumcision itself is a removal of skin. Many Jews died rather than submit to these rituals, but many others submitted in hopes of assimilation into the wider Hellenic society where opportunity lay.

This conflict, and the uprising by the Maccabees that delivered two decisive military defeats to the forces of Antiochus and drove Greek troops from Jerusalem, are filled with questions we’re still struggling with today: “How does a community maintain its identity in relation to the broader culture? How much should outside influences be resisted, and how much embraced? How much do we depend upon God to save us and how much upon ourselves?” (1)

I see these themes playing out in a different context recently, that of the Black Lives Matter movement. Black Lives Matter seeks to empower black communities and individuals after 400 years of dehumanization and systemic racism. There’s an effort to lift up and honor the ways black culture is unique, and value its resilient manifestations in a society that constantly seeks to dominate it through force and privilege.

As with the Maccabees, this is a fight that springs not only out of the oppression imposed by the state, but also in opposition to the forces of assimilation, respectability, and appeasement from others in the community who see success and respect in the dominant culture as the only way to get ahead in society and avoid punishment by the state. This was cause for civil war among the Jews, and the conflicts between parts of the black community over the strategy for freedom can become nearly as heated.

These complicated issues of resistance, solidarity, and freedom have been on my mind for weeks now, during and following the occupation of the 4th Police Precinct in North Minneapolis. It followed yet another incident of state violence, the police killing of Jamar Clark, a 24-year-old black man. Instead of just marching once or twice in symbolic protest, then burying the injustice with the victim, leaders from Black Lives Matter Minneapolis, Black Liberation Project, and the Minneapolis NAACP decided on a strategy of resistance to raise tensions in an effort to procure justice: a Federal investigation of the murder, the release of the names of the two officers involved, and the public release of the video surveillance tapes from a variety of angles around the crime scene.

Tents sprang up, then food service, then winter clothing giveaways. Sisters Camelot pulled their bus right into the camp and unloaded hundreds of pounds of fresh produce over the days of the occupation, most of it flowing out into the community. Some days, the lines of cars stretched for over a block, each one pulling up to donate firewood and propane to keep protesters warm day and night.

Old woman with native drum and man in shadow  by a campfire; a Black Lives Matter banner hangs in the background

Photo by Jeff Wheeler/Star Tribune via AP

For eighteen days, campfires burned in a line down one block of Plymouth Avenue. They were carefully tended: logs laid in careful formation, coals stoked to a new blaze, water and sand at the ready nearby, ashes diligently swept away. The miracle of this string of lights wasn’t the fuel needed to keep those fires burning; it was the community that formed to keep the whole occupation bright and steadfast. Just like Hanukkah, there were stories and games and songs and food to push back the cold darkness of racism and defeat. Hanukkah means dedication, and that’s what kept the 4th Precinct Shutdown going: dedication to the neighborhood, dedication to the people, dedication to the idea of freedom and equality.

In the wake of the city’s destruction of the camp, Minneapolis police cars are pulling people over, trailing them far beyond their jurisdiction, just for having shown up on that battleground. Police retribution is a real fear for Northside residents, and efforts to procure a promise against retaliation and continued police violence have been met with silence. This form of oppression resembles the German tactic of “collective responsibility” in the face of resistance. “This retaliation tactic held entire families and communities responsible for individual acts of armed and unarmed resistance. The fact that thousands did fight back is remarkable.” (2)

If the lights of Hanukkah are meant to give hope, so were the lights on Plymouth Avenue. And if the resistance of the Maccabees is meant to inspire us to band together in the face of oppression, so was the 4th Precinct Shutdown. And if lighting other candles from the Shamash is meant to give us courage to be the kindling light in others’ lives, Black Lives Matter calls on us all to be the beacons that shine love and light into the shadows of our society and make it better.

A diagonal row of campfires down a city street, people clustered around each.

Photo by Jeff Wheeler/Star Tribune.

“Chanukah, 5692.

‘Judea dies’, thus says the banner.

‘Judea will live forever’, thus respond the lights.”

— Rachel Posner, Nazi Germany, 1933. (3)

Nov 23, 2015 - Social Studies    No Comments

Scouting at the Shutdown

While the Boy Scouts Movement has creepy, eugenicist, imperialist, moderately fascist origins, the Girl Scouts have no such conflict attached. The values of community, commonality, friendship, and service pervade the Girl Scouts’ ethos, along with a focus on developing practical skills to make girls feel strong and self-sufficient. Even that most dangerous of developments—the Girl Scout cookie—fosters an entrepreneurial spirit in its purveyors.

I grew up steeped in Girl Scout values, even if I dropped out when I was only a Junior Scout. I never made it to one of the international Girl Scout/Girl Guide lodges in foreign countries that I dreamt of as a kid already obsessed with other cultures and travel. But my grandma and my mom were both long-time Girl Scout troop leaders, and even if I didn’t get a badge sewn on my sash for them, so many of the skills they taught me came from that curriculum of skills and values.

I learned to sew, cook, camp, and navigate in nature from both of my mother’s parents. Whether it was a trip to the North Woods of Wisconsin or a weeklong wagon train adventure in the northwest corner of Yellowstone National Park, a lot of my memories of them involve forests, campfires, and practical problemsolving. Whenever I see birch trees, or smell pinewood smoke, or rub apart the silky seeds of a milkweed plant to give them a boost in spreading, I feel their steady presence around me.

I became involved with the occupation of the Minneapolis Police Department 4th Precinct following the police killing of Jamar Clark. Of course you did, you may be saying—where else would I be in these years of racial justice work? I was there, marshaling, the first night, when the crowd marched between the 4th Precinct and the Minneapolis Urban League to call out and disrupt the mayor and police chief who were offering the same unsatisfactory rhetoric of moderation that Dr. King skewered in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. I was there, chant-leading for 3.5 hours without a bullhorn in the pouring rain, and later holding down the west gate as witnesses and allies pressed large tarps to the chainlink fence to protect themselves from the pepper spray the cops deployed.

Red circle with a flower in the center, circled by words "Ladies' Sewing Circle and Terrorist Society."But I was there, too, on the peaceful days. On a rainy Tuesday afternoon when we sat under the covered entryway and formed a sewing and knitting circle that reminded me of the old “Ladies’ Sewing Circle and Terrorist Society” buttons (though, times and trolls demand that I say that the only people acting in a terroristic way at the 4th Precinct have been the cops themselves). On a chilly Friday night when we gathered, a thousand strong, for a candlelight vigil demanding justice and transparency. On the next Sunday night, while people of color from the Northside met elsewhere to plan next steps, with my boys along so they could say they saw this all someday.

People gathered around a crackling fire in a metal fire pit in the middle of the street in front of the Minneapolis Police 4th Precinct

AP photo/Jim Mone

The encampment has reminded me of my grandparents and my Girl Scout origins so powerfully, it’s given me sensory flashbacks at times. I’ve told stories around pinewood fires that smoke and spit. I’ve sung songs in wide circles of shared strength and faith. I’ve hugged strangers, and taught skills (some I wish I didn’t have to, like how to safely wash eyes stung by tear gas), and eaten food cooked with love for a crowd. Every picture of a red, crackling fire and nylon tent takes me back to my childhood.

Other things have added new associations to my memories of camping and community. When the music starts up, people dance, old and young. When it’s time to link arms and chant, we don’t choose the neighbors on either side—we just form an unbreakable, committed chain of bodies and voices. When we need supplies of one kind or another, we post Google Docs, tweets, Facebook posts, and group texts. When comfort and consolation are called for, people drive up in cars with heaters and warm seats and sometimes even kittens to cuddle.

This encampment obviously isn’t infinitely sustainable—winter is coming, as Ned Stark would say. But that doesn’t mean it was pointless or ineffective. It has radically changed the narrative of what the North Minneapolis community can do, among people who don’t already know: serve one another, sustain a peace among rivals, clean and feed and provide for people of every age and background. These things take work and discipline civic-mindedness and good faith, things that the narrative of white supremacy says are beyond the ability of communities of color. They can defend themselves in the face of gross brutality, as we saw repeatedly throughout the week. They can build intersectional relationships, with groups as diverse as the Sierra Club and labor unions, that will pay dividends in the future as we work toward the combined goals of racial justice, economic justice, and environmental justice.

I’d like to think that the founder of the Girl Scouts, Juliette Gordon Low, would’ve approved of the 4th Precinct Shutdown. I’d like to imagine that current and former Girl Scouts lace the crowds that have gathered to defend the prolonged protest. I’d like to know that the communal sharing has spread skills and gifts in a way that will serve the Northside residents and others for years to come. And I’d like to believe that, in the seasons to come, the smell of woodsmoke and the feel of yarn and the sight of tents and the greetings of new and old friends will remind everyone of what the uncommon, beloved community we built together at the 4th Precinct.

Nov 19, 2015 - Social Studies    1 Comment

In the Trenches

[These are only my experiences and observations. I wouldn’t presume to speak for anyone else, especially not people of color, for whom this fight is literally life or death. Take this caveat for what it’s worth.]

I’m making fair progress on my pulp action novel, and I need to write a flashback scene about the main protagonist’s father. Since the book is set in the Harlem Renaissance, I decided that the father had fought in World War I.

Naturally, this raises problems because of the racial segregation of the U.S. Armed Forces at the time. But in my research, I came across the 369th Infantry Regiment: an all-black unit that enlisted to fight in the Great War. They’re little known compared to more famous units like the Tuskegee Airmen, but no less impressive. They faced significant racism in the town where they trained for only a month before being deployed to the front in France. Once there, they were reassigned to the French 16th Division, because white American soldiers refused to fight side-by-side with black American soldiers. U.S. Army superiors even issued a cautionary pamphlet to French leadership, warning them that black men couldn’t be trusted not to defect, flee battle, or rape women.

B&W photo of a dozen black men in WW1 uniformsThe unit acquired a number of nicknames in the course of its service—the Germans called them the “Harlem Hellfighters.” They were also known as the Black Rattlers and the Men of Bronze. By the end of the war, 171 members of the 369th were awarded the Legion of Honor or the Croix de Guerre, including Pvt. Henry Johnson, who was the first American ever awarded that highest French military honor. They spent 191 days under fire, and never lost a foot of ground.

NCheshire regiment living in WW1 trenchesaturally, research on the Great War led me to descriptions of trench warfare. Rather than mere ditches, the trenches were an incredibly elaborate, highly tactical system of earthworks. None of this, however, reduced the horrors of living and fighting in them for years on end. Water constantly flooded the trenches, sometimes as deep as knee-high, requiring pumping crews to drain as much water as possible. The constant wetness led to miserable conditions such as trench foot, and the close quarters meant that vermin were an endless problem. Letters from the front describe rats as big as cats among the millions of rodents that infested the place. By day, soldiers lay low as artillery pounded their positions; by night, both trenches and the No Man’s Land between them sprang to furious action under cover of darkness. Mustard and chlorine gas attacks were common; soldiers practiced holding their breath for six seconds, to cover the four seconds it took to put a mask on.

How morale could be anything but abysmal was entirely beyond my imagination.

With all this research fresh in mind, I headed down to the 4th Precinct of the Minneapolis Police Department, located just three blocks from the spot in North Minneapolis where cops shot an unarmed, possibly handcuffed man named Jamar Clark on early Sunday morning. Community members and activists against police violence gathered Monday to protest yet another extrajudicial killing of a black man. Members of Black Lives Matter Minneapolis occupied the front entrance, and a little camp sprang up around the precinct.

Camp occupation of MPD 4th Precinct

photo by Chris Juhn

The rain started in earnest on Tuesday, and by the time I got there to join a knitting circle at the occupation, things were pretty swampy. I brought some wooden pallets to lift supplies out of the mud, as well as hand warmers, hygiene supplies, and some cocoa butter and hair grease (the revolution will not be ashy). Campfires in metal braziers smoked in the drizzle, and tents, tarps, and plastic ponchos offered a little protection from the weather. The foyer of the precinct was a cozy nest of blankets and pillows for the half-dozen people holding it down.

Despite the weather, despite the constant threat of escalating violence, everyone was cheerful. We all had a purpose, even if it was just to be part of the crowd. Those who couldn’t stay brought welcome deliveries of hot food, dry socks, and coffee. Folks stopped by our little craft spot and took knitting lessons, or looked over my shoulder to read the message I was cross-stitching as gifts for friends. The sense of community and purpose was unmistakeable.

A blue haired woman in a black motorcycle jacket scanning a line of people with linked arms

photo by Emily Terrell

That community felt very different yesterday, when people rushed to reinforce the occupation after Minneapolis police literally threw the people in the foyer out onto the pavement, then attempted to trash all the tents and supplies. I got there as soon as I could, and went right to work as a chant leader for the next three and a half hours. Sometimes I screwed up, and everyone laughed along with me as I joked, “White lady can’t chant.” Between upbeat chants I gave lessons in how to use milk or antacid to wash pepper spray from their eyes, as police continued to escalate tensions.

B&W picture of people holding a tarp up to a fence

photo by Chris Juhn

We blocked access points, raised tarps in front of gates in an effort to protect against possible chemical agents, and kept chanting. The rain poured down; SWAT teams circled the block in vans with armed officers hanging out the cargo doors to intimidate. The smell of tear gas from other parts of the occupation hung acrid in the air.

And yet, while sometimes angry and confrontative, the crowd remained mostly peaceful. My fellow marshals grinned fiercely when we crossed paths. The demonstrators stayed relentlessly cheerful. At the west gate where I was marshaling and directing traffic, a dozen young protestors traded chants for freestyling and dancing. A young man came around with a huge tray of spicy fried chicken that bolstered everyone’s spirits (important lesson learned: I don’t look very authoritative while directing traffic with fried chicken in hand). A grandmother kept bringing her golf umbrella over to me, protecting me from the rain while she lectured me about going without a hat.

And suddenly, I knew how those soldiers in the trenches kept their morale up. The power of sharing even miserable experiences with people who stand for what you stand for is almost intoxicating. As rough as it gets, as uncomfortable, as frightening, you know you’ll be able to say where you were when people ask you what you did when the crucial moment arrived. Even if it’s just to hold an arbitrary line, you did something indispensable. We’ll have the stories of the mud and the rain and the campfire smoke and the camaraderie.

Long line of people standing with arms linked in the rain

photo by Chris Juhn

Nobody’s going to get a Croix de Guerre out of this. Most likely, none of us will end up with a badass name and reputation like the Harlem Hellfighters. But we’ll always know we fought for our value, even for our country—the country that values black lives as much as white ones, women as much as men, queer as much as straight, poor as much as rich. And that’s better than any medal.

Nov 2, 2015 - Uncategorized    No Comments

An All Souls’ Prayer for the Near Misses

In this season of remembrance,

as the world prepares for the long sleep of winter,

our hearts draw closer to the ones who’ve gone before.

We open the bundles of grief

whether thickly wrapped by the years

or jagged edges poking through new, thin cloth,

glimpsing the missing who walk at the blurry edge of vision.

 

But not all we mourn has passed on.

Our hearts sometimes rattle with the terror of near misses,

when the almost-lost are still this side of the thinning veil.

We see their ghostly pictures on the ofrenda.

We see friends and coworkers, and imagine what they’d wear to the wake.

 

We give no time to recover from these brushes with loss

Of deaths so narrowly averted, our knees still quake

and we listen to their breathing in the night

and imagine how different the house would sound without it.

We wash the clothes they wore the day we almost lost them.

Our hands are drawn like magnets to rub the scars.

We drive out of our way not to see the cursed-blessed place.

 

Accidents and attempts, panics and scares, on days so near

we might still turn to those pages in our planners.

And when we cry our tears of terror and relief on All Souls’ Day,

when we are pressured toward gratitude instead of grief,

the hundred thousand living specters squeeze the breath from our lungs

at the graves marked but not dug.

m.5111_all-saints-day

Oct 7, 2015 - Psychology    1 Comment

Vignette: Lost in the Shuffle

To go along with the series of posts I’ve been writing about my recent mental health hospitalization, I’m adding a few short scenes from life on the ward. Hopefully, they’re a good complement to the more traditional posts.

Pills in Cup“What are the pink ones?” I ask the nurse as he hands me my morning meds in a tiny paper cup.

“The same as yesterday: your allergy pills,” he answers, his attention on something else.

“Huh,” I reply. “I haven’t had my allergy meds since I came in here. Maybe it’ll help with this stuffiness.”

“No,” he says slowly, like he were teaching a child. “You had those yesterday.”

I frown. “No, no I didn’t.”

He sighs and reiterates, “Yes, you did get them yesterday. 30-30-30, which makes 90 milligrams, remember?”

“No,” I answer flatly. “I’m very sure I didn’t. There was no pink in my cup yesterday morning. I remember.”

His bedside manner dies a quick, cold death in the face of my resistance. His mouth tightens into a flat line for a moment before he says, “Well, I guess we’ll have to agree to have different memories, because I know I had the same conversation with you yesterday.”

“No, I didn’t!” I exclaimed. “I might be wrong about the pills; I don’t think I am, but maybe. But I’d definitely remember this conversation. This is not a replay.”

He looked at me sadly, as if my disagreement disappointed him gravely. I didn’t think you’d be the type to argue, his expression said. “I’m sorry you don’t remember,” he said.

“I remember fine,” I snapped. “I’ve got a photographic memory. I remember the cup, I remember the pills, I remember the blue and green pattern on your damn shirt. I did not get anything pink yesterday.”

He walked away, ducking his head as if to stave off any further argument. I sat back in my chair, winded with exasperation, and then it struck me like a fast car:

This is how it starts. Now I’m the lady arguing about pills in the psych ward.

I’m the one whose memory has holes in it like depression had walked through the spiderweb of my days, tearing whole sections out. This tool I rely on so heavily—these millions of flashbulb pictures I layer, sort, and store all day, every day—it’s unthinkable that it would fail me.

I can recall the yellow pattern of the wallpaper in my nursery as I lay on my back in my crib. I can recall the precise color of any piece of my clothing so I can match thread to fix a button while I’m out shopping. I can go through our house and say where we got almost every object in it. How can my memory have ejected something so recent, so memorable? What else would it suddenly toss out into the void? How long would it take me to miss it?

Is this how it is for the other people in here, the frequent flyers? When did their memories start to shuffle unexpectedly, like furniture moving itself while you’re out of the house? How many conversations did they forget before they started to doubt the solidity of the ground they were building their lives on? How do they plan a future or react to a crisis if they can’t call up a clear, certain memory of what went before?

I was swamped with confusion, but the beacon that drew me through the fog was empathy for these temporary neighbors, and all the people like them in mental health units and outpatient programs and aching solitude all over the world. In feeling the vertigo of being adrift in the sequences of everyday life, I wanted to rush around, planting signposts, affixing Post-Its to bathroom mirrors, tucking notes in lunchboxes to remind them that there is order and love and understanding out there, even if they can’t remember it.

I sat by the window most of that morning, looking out on the endless Mississippi River flowing by. I thought about how it didn’t need to remember any of the people who’ve traversed it over millennia to follow its inexorable path. I stayed with the terror of losing the reliability of my own memory, and how it might feel to learn to flow without staking out landmarks every inch of the route. It would mean letting go, the hardest thing in the world for me to do.

On my way past the nurses’ station around lunch, I heard a voice call my name. I looked over and saw the morning nurse. He had an odd look on his face, like someone who’s about to do something their parent is making them do.

He cleared his throat and said, “Um, so, funny thing. It turns out I was mixing you up with somebody else who also gets allergy meds. It was her who I talked with yesterday, not you.”

I stood silent, shocked to get this admission from anyone in authority. People in mental health units don’t have to apologize for anything, typically, not even fairly egregious mistakes or omissions.

“So, heh, I guess you didn’t get those meds yesterday. Sorry for the confusion,” he finished, shuffling papers on his clipboard so he wouldn’t have to make eye contact with me.

I nodded and thanked him for the apology, when what I really wanted to do was pump my fists in the air, and hoot, and run a victory lap around the TV lounge. I don’t need to be right all the time. I’d even made a weird sort of peace with being wrong. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say all I felt at that moment was a rush of relief like the one when you finally see a road sign after doubting your direction for miles on end.

moabranchroad

Oct 5, 2015 - Physical Ed, Psychology    3 Comments

Telling Time

This is the third in a series of posts about my recent struggles with mental illness. You can find the first post here, and the second one here

TW: self-harm, suicide

Doctor Who Spinning Tardis watch

This is not my actual wrist, or my actual sonic screwdriver, but it IS the watch I wear. I wear mine with the face on my inner wrist.

I started wearing my wristwatch last Thursday. I had to go out and do things, and part of my leaving-the-house routine involves putting on my watch and the two rings I keep looped through the band when they’re not on my fingers. It felt good to slide the heavy cool rings in on my right hand again, to run my thumb over the runes and ocean-grey gemstone.

But I winced as I buckled the watch, because it sits right over the wound on my wrist where I tried to kill myself. I put it on anyway.

It’s not much of a wound, to be honest. I heal very quickly; it’s at the itchy stage now, worse than any of my tattoos were. The only reason there’ll be a scar there is because I was so quiet about it when I got to the hospital that nobody remembered to do anything until I reminded folks hours later, up on the ward. They told me it was too late for butterfly stitches or super glue, and had me wash it well.

Let’s be clear: when I wear my watch over it, it’s because I am ashamed. I am ashamed because it’s a weak wound, messy and shallow, with many individual cuts barely deep enough to break the skin’s surface. It’s humiliating because it looks like I didn’t mean it, like I was only willing to commit enough to draw some blood and get some help. I want to tell people, no, the knife was much duller than I thought, and once I was sitting down with it, with the pictures of my sons in my lap, I was crying too hard and too weak to stand up and find a better blade.

I’m embarrassed that I couldn’t even do that right. I feel like an imposter so much of the time, which is part of what makes it difficult to internalize any of the nice things people say to and about me. The day I tried, I was crushed beneath a thousand failures, things that I see every time I look at myself in the mirror. Those failures are like other cuts, disfiguring me so thoroughly that I can’t understand how anyone could see me and mistake me for a good person. To fail to cut like I meant it just puts more hesitation marks on me, signals that I can’t perform under pressure—a pictograph for despair and incompleteness.

I’m ashamed that I feel confident enough to write about these 2014-09-19-1062seafeelings so openly here, but I’m mostly unwilling to have a conversation about this in person. Even with good friends, I’d rather the mark was out of sight so we can talk more abstractly about my problems. The wound is the very opposite of abstract; it is hopelessness in a concrete, raised mark. When I don’t want to have those conversations in real life, I feel like as much a fraud as some sea lion (see adjacent comic) flopping around online, splattering his abusive comments all over everyone’s internet when he barely has the guts to say hi to his neighbor if they collide on the street. I’m just another fake getting virtual courage behind a computer screen.

I’m even ashamed that I didn’t want my parents to find out about any of this. My mom’s not on Facebook, and my siblings unfriended me five years ago, so it’s ironically safe for me to use social media as an outlet and expect it not to get back to any of them. One of the only things I insisted on that numb night I checked into the hospital was, “Don’t tell my mom. Nobody needs that.” The first and last previous time I’d been suicidal enough to go into the hospital, the first words out of my mom’s mouth when she called me there were, “How could you? How could you even think of putting us all through this?” I knew what she meant—I remember the hollow devastation in the days after my grandpa took his life, the questions and no answers. And to be perfectly honest, I just didn’t have it in me this time to sit through that tirade. Guilt was already twisted into every muscle in my body—I couldn’t take any more. But it’s hard to forget that I can’t even do family right when it’s needed most.

With luck, the scar won’t be visible much longer. For months now, I’ve been planning to get a tattoo to remind me to stay alive on the inside of my left arm. It’s the smoothest, palest skin I have, the perfect parchment for a reminder like that. And it shouldn’t be hard for a talented artist like my friend to weave the design around the scar. I like the thought of burying it under something beautiful.

Even then, though, I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be ashamed of that mark. It’s so second-nature to find features and flaws in myself that demand to be concealed so I don’t risk rejection for them. I know some will tell me it’s just the receipt for the price of this precious life. I’m not ready for that yet—I see my belly’s stretch marks that way, but I can’t find what’s redeeming in this piece of evidence yet.

Stigma is related to the word stigmata, the marks on Jesus’ body from his crucifixion. To see and touch them was proof of his identity. This scar translates the stigma of mental illness into that physical evidence, and even covering it with a tattoo or a watch will not erase the judgments it will provoke when others and I will see it. Time will have to tell whether it becomes a symbol of failure or redemption.

The Long Con

This is the second in a series of posts about my recent struggles with mental health. You may be interested to read the first post first.

Real Lottery Gravity Balls

A psych ward is a funny place. About the only other places you get such a random assemblage of people, stuck together for so long, are jury duty and prison.

The mental health unit has characteristics in common with both. Drawn from a surprisingly broad cross-section of society, the hand on the lever of this lottery is mental illness. Once you’ve “registered” in this particular Powerball, it’s only a matter of time before failures in the medical system, stress, and coincidence bring your number up. Some people try not to accept the summons, but you can only put it off for so long.

And like prison, those in the ward have very little control. Doctors abide by the same scheduling habits as cable installations. Meals show up around regular hours, but orders are skimpy and frequently wrong. Sometimes this reaches the realm of comedy, such as the guy who randomly got four—count ‘em FOUR—prune juices with breakfast. One guy said, “It’s enough to make you laugh,” to which I replied, “Dear gods, don’t make him laugh!”

If you need or want anything, plan early and ask often. Ask before you actually want it, in fact. What distinguishes the veterans from the first-timers is how they get what they need. They know exactly when to get louder, talk more, pace faster, move objects. This is classic agitation at its finest. The rest of us who aren’t willing to trade the shreds of our civility for what we need look on in an awkward combination of embarrassment and admiration.

Anything that helps kill time is a valuable commodity, but residents aren’t working with a full bank of options. No cigarettes for those whose days tick down ash by lengthening ash. No freedom of movement—the whole natural world is look-but-don’t-touch beyond glass windows, and without fresh air, we all pale, cough, and itch in the dry, controlled environment. I asked for yarn and a crochet hook to keep my fingers from being fidgety, but security measures mean that even dental floss only comes in six-inch increments. When I pointed out that you couldn’t do much with six inches of anything, one lady cackled until I got the joke and blushed.

We talk to each other because there’s nothing else to do. Some people are desperate to tell their stories; once the floodgates are broken, the pain of their lives flows out, carrying the flotsam and jetsam of broken relationships, fractured trust, crushed hopes. Others fold in on themselves, all raspy paper angles, like grim, silent origami. The staff tries to draw these shy ones out of their shells, but it ends up being a ridiculous commercial on TV or a silly conversation among the more gregarious inmates that prompts them to eventually break the silence. And what they say often surprises us with its unexpected dry wit or snappy observation.

The truth is, there’s no way to know what’s the truth about anyone in here. Some stories, told with wild gestures as misplaced punctuation that breaks sentences in odd places, can’t possibly be true. People adopt credentials they never earned, claim other people’s whoppers as their own. There’s no fact checkers, no Snopes, no common acquaintance to call out a lie.

One guy has set himself up as a kind of professor, soliciting consultations at group meetings, so he can share his accumulated wisdom and expertise. What he doesn’t impart to others (in his too-rich language, full of ten-cent words misapplied and mangled) goes in notebooks that curl with the force with which the words were pressed from the pen. Another woman swears that she’s a trained law enforcement officer. Her stories start out plausible, with all the right jargon, but veer unexpectedly into obvious delusion before swerving back to the reasonable. Her timing doesn’t match her storytelling, either; she interrupts other conversations mid-stream, holds forth for a few minutes, then paces away rapidly before she finishes the sentence she started.

Next to these folks, I sound just as braggadocious when I mention that I used to teach college, or that I’m fluent in French, or that I ran for school board. I could claim that I earned my Ph.D., that I travel the world, that I have 100,000 Twitter followers, and it would sound no more or less true than anything else I claim. Experiences are hollowed out to just the visible shape, the lives outside our ward far away and nearly irrelevant to the problems that landed us here.

Whatever stories we’re telling, whatever tales we’re selling, we’re all con artists on the ward. We’re on the grift, we’re looking for the next score. But the get-rich-quick schemes we’re peddling promise a healthy life instead of riches.

We know the real road to this treasure is long, hard work, but the wait seems impossible. With the zeal of newfound converts, we’re sure the new meds are going to do the trick: stop the jitters, feed the craving, push back the dark, deliver blessed sleep. We profess our dedication to the routine of self-care and reflection. We vow to sidestep gaudy temptation and all her lures—so seedy and threadbare by sober daylight, but delicious, seductive, irresistible in the dark stretch of night.

We call family and friends, throwing out line after tenuous line into the river, trying to catch anything secure enough to weigh us down against the relentless current. Even estranged, unhealthy bonds look good enough to hold in here, though you heard them spill the numb-lipped story of damage done by the same person with whom they’re now cuddling and caressing the phone handset.

Practical, long-term solutions feel like magical thinking here. It’s clear that none of us can wait long for real improvement, not when the next drink, the next hit, the next catastrophe might show up before we even get home from the hospital. Logic demands that we cook up something faster, and so we mastermind the new scheme for a windfall of happiness and safety.

Too bad the house cheats. Too bad we’ll never make it out the door with our stolen goods. At least, in this place between folly and failure, we’ve got plenty of fellow grifters to appreciate the beauty of the plan.

Ocean's 11 at the Bellagio

Oct 1, 2015 - Psychology    17 Comments

The Place That Scares You

TW: suicide, self-harm

What lands a person in a psychiatric ward is a trip beyond the pale, a dip in the waters of extremity that run so deep, it terrifies the people around us as we flirt with the bottom. I didn’t reach a tipping point the day I hurt myself. I wasn’t hearing The Critic or The Stalker any more loudly or frequently that day than the one before.

No, the day I hurt myself was simply the day I couldn’t wait any longer to be heard. I tried to check in two weeks earlier, but the gruesome fact of mental health today is that there is no room at the inn for the safe. You must be pursued to the gates by the hounds of depression, or delivered in a heap just one step shy of the morgue, before a bed will materialize. The first time I went to the ER, I wasn’t willing to say the feelings were anymore threatening that day than any other. I knew which buttons I would need to push to get what I needed from this torturous, Russian-roulette game of a Skinner box, and that day, I wouldn’t play.

It shook loose a few resources I needed, though, to crumple and collapse so mortifyingly before others. A week’s wait to see a new psychiatrist is a breeze compared to the four months it would take without the stamp of desperation I let them put on me. But the new meds are mighty slow to upload. Three to four more weeks before even a glimmer of future usefulness might be perceived, the doctor says. You think, I can do that—it’s at least a destination, not just the yawning abyss of uncertain improvement.

But sometimes, some days, waiting it out with gritted teeth just doesn’t work. The sympathy garnered for a hospital visit that doesn’t become a stay is thin as skim milk. The pressure mounts up again almost immediately, sure as gravity. That scream for help is so fresh in your mouth, you can still feel the jagged, blocky shape of it. But for everyone else, it’s already passed into distant memory, evaporated by the breezes generated by our fast, forward movement. You want things to be normal, so you act like they’re normal, but they’re not normal. And you still need the help.

That’s how you find yourself, crying all day, your mind on the thousand other things awaiting your attention, things you probably should be doing instead. Things you begin to think you’ll never get done. Things you begin to think would be better done by someone else. Someone better than you. A better worker, a better friend, a better wife, a better mother. Anyone better.

Anyone whose body isn’t so broken and weak. Anyone whose mind doesn’t spin uselessly on endless loops. Anyone whose senses don’t spark against every stimulus, lighting fires of irritation that burn through patience and kindness, that driest and most precious kindling. Literally anyone else. But you stand in the way, The Stalker reminds you. No one else can pick up these duties until you let them go. No one else will step in and do what you can’t until you’re gone. It’s the most sensible thing in your irrational world: Just get gone.

At that point, it hardly matters whether you’re successful. If you are, you’re gone, and that’s it. No eternal reward, maybe not even a sense of rest and a second chance, but at the very least, a cessation of struggle.

And if you’re not, well, that attempt makes your earlier cry articulate, etched in your undesirable flesh. Nobody would do this if they didn’t need help, so help they must get. There’s a line between the normal world and the extreme, and by carving a part of it into your body, you have crossed it. People tend to take notice of those gestures; if you’re lucky, they take notice while there’s still time to help. It’s almost funny to see the rush of activity, the urgency of concern, when you’ve been crying out for so long. Why was this the thing that got their attention? Is it really that arbitrary? Is it just a matter of sacrificing pain and safety to unlock these bystanders and their will to act?

Why would anyone wait, if that’s the case?

These are the things that make people consider self-harm in the first place. And if it does anything well, the psych ward confirms that there is no advantage to be gained by waiting patiently, asking politely, respecting boundaries. In this place, all that gets you is overlooked and underserved. I have to be willing to sacrifice my general unwillingness to be a self-centered pain in the ass in exchange for better care. Some days, that’s not a trade I start out willing to make.

The heart of what I need to learn is how to ask early and often, not for anyone else—I could raise a million dollars, turn out a million voters, teach a million lessons, just so long as it’s for someone else. I’m long on giving, because it’s how I define my self-worth; I’m very, very short on taking, because I’ve internalized the idea that the more space I take up on this planet, the less there is for people who deserve it more. Even just writing this blog post, with the distinct possibility it’s only worthwhile as my own way of processing things, feels like I’m wasting people’s time.

The psych ward gives its residents an odd assortment of gifts when they check in. You give up your shoelaces, your vices, your freedom, your control. What you get back is deceptively cheap. You get an excuse from anything that might demand your attention. You get a medical team all in one place. You get to rest as much as you have to—just think of the last time you could really say that. And you get to be entirely honest about how much you need help.

These things aren’t really cheap, though. To get them, you need to do something most people can’t—you need to stay in the place that scares you. The place on the banks of that deep water that would swallow you up as soon as give you your reflection. Staying that close for that long makes people in the normal world anxious; they want to help, but the water is terrifying, and changing the subject seems like the best defense. In the hospital, though, you’re not the only on the water’s edge—you’ve got company, right there in person. And because we’ve all crossed that line somehow, it’s not hard to invite each other to pull up a chair.

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