I’m not up in arms over Jezebel’s latest debacle calling “selfies” nothing but a degrading digital act of vanity, making people focus on beauty and nothing else.
As a writer and photographer, I woefully disagree. The beauty about photography, and why it pairs so elegantly with writing, is it’s wordless power to share truth. It generates engagement through image so words aren’t necessary. For me, it’s not about waving your techie arms for attention, but a manifestation of one’s creative lens. Why should we not document ourselves? As a photographer, I rarely let anyone use my camera, which means I have few photos of myself.
Taking selftraits can be a meditative look into one’s soul. It conjures emotion, memory, and documents who we were at one moment in our fleeting dust of our lives. Categorizing “selfies” as nothing but cheap uploads may be the trend, but selftraits have been going on throughout history. Writing one’s story, photographing one’s body or face? These are tactics of survival, annotation, so we are remembered on our own terms.
There’s a difference between these photos. Even without the explanation, I think it’s clear what’s what.
TweetOver the weekend I ran into someone I knew from college. Someone who went on to become a physician and married a lawyer and wore really nice clothes with a cool, slick satin tie. As we exchanged expected pleasantries, and that pause came, signaling questions were coming I braced myself:
So, Lisa, what do you do?
In a world that is bombarded by measurements of worth by production, degrees, and credentials, I knew his reaction before I even said the words: I’m a writer.
Eyelids disappear, brows temporarily move in with his receding hairline before slowly coming down with the forced, “ooookay!” Like I had just said I was at a protest. Like how a physician would communicate, “Right on! Good for you, kind of.”
And as we talked about how house and private practice, his wonderful kids, and wonderfully stable life as a physician I wondered if he would ask what I love most about MY life and it’d be something like, “I love my partner and our son. I’m chasing my dreams and the wild part is that they are on this crazy ride WITH me. We’re happy and still searching for who we want to be.”
But I didn’t want to risk his eye sockets cracking under the disbelief so I just smiled and nodded as he spoke. He wasn’t being disingenuous. He was kind but it was clear that a life of creativity is equivalent to a life of chaos and disruption. No plan, no stability, no firm anything.
*Shrug.* I know. I kind of like it that way.
And yet, as I explained to Nick, it’s still hard for me to accept the creative road. When so much of my life I WAS cultivating myself for a life of a physician (I was going to deliver babies all over the world in underdeveloped regions and no access to healthcare) or a lawyer (human rights, of course). But instead, for today, I chose to be a writer. I chose this pathless life of daily grassroots existence and wiping mud off my face from rejection and critical feedback. What I most struggle with, though, is my ego. Like most writers do. Like any writer does. I struggle with the need to know that what I have inside me is worth sharing.
It’s ironic to be a writer. It’s what you want to do more than anything and yet the uprooting of that truth is so painful and so consuming, you’ll do anything to NOT do the work. And after the years it took to come forward and present yourself to the world, you find that you need affirmation. The desire to write is NOT enough. You want to be gripped by the world’s hands and shaken furiously to see if there’s any more work left in you because they want more. It’s ego. I want respect and I’ve joined forces with some of the most invisible people on earth: the ones who document, make rhymes, and philosophize about the human race’s development.
The professional life still beckons me. To this day, I can’t read about human rights law programs without feeling a dagger in the heart. When I was pregnant, I asked my OB/GYN if any older women attended medical school. She nodded excitedly, “It’s hard, but it’s possible!” It occurs to me on a daily basis that when one chooses to write, it’s one decision that cancels out every other viable life that would carry a great potential for a life on a sure trajectory. It would be the exam you knew you could pass. The purchase you wouldn’t need a receipt for because you know you’d never need to return it.
Writing is not any of those things.
Writing, unfortunately, manifests itself in a process that most of us, by nature, typically avoid. The emotional ground work to create something true and resonating with our fellow humans means we have to live a bi-existence. On one hand, you have to live in the world: buy groceries, endure DMV waiting lines, trip on sidewalk cracks, and fidget with broken belts just like everyone else. And yet we have to maintain enough distance and quiet to be able to create an alternate universe to the world in hopes to write a book, poem, essay, or article that will help others realize an inner truth they didn’t know about themselves.
There are days I wish I had gone to med school or taken the LSAT to see if Could/Should have gone to law school. But I know if I did switch places and magically be in that life, I know deep inside there’d be – not a roar (because that’d actually be delightfully promising) – but the whimpering sound of a dying darling girl who dreamed in words and couldn’t wait to rewrite the ending of stories she didn’t like.
I chose writing because it was my only true love. I chose writing because it was my only real choice. And for some reason that made the decision both easy and painfully difficult.
A Guide on How To Write About Sexual Violence, In Reaction to “Mellie’s Rape” on Last Night’s Episode of Scandal
TweetIt was horribly done.
Last night’s handling of sexual violence. Scandal writers “explaining” the history of Fitz and Mellie’s marriage, how Mellie came to be how she is now. The writers took us back 15 years ago and gives evidence of how Mellie came to be the kind of First Lady that she is.
There are many ways to interpret the script and delivery, but how I took it in and how I’m seeing the aftermath on social media is troubling.
First, there was no trigger warning whatsoever. I guess after so many years of editing the anthology about sexual violence, I knew it was coming. The scene opened with a drunk father in law, power obsessed, in a dimly fireplace lit den with a young, bright eyed “asset” of a wife, Mellie. My writing brain scans the scene in seconds. My first thoughts rushed forward to predict what was going to happen. Flash thoughts were:
1. Why is this scene going to be important? There are no mistakes in television. Every second counts toward the story line. Scandal doesn’t do subtle.
2. What would mainstream writers do to try and bring sympathy for a female shark character?
3. Why do I feel like something horrible is about to happen?
I was right. They wrote a rape scene into Scandal last night and it was terribly done.
The next morning when Mellie smiles and says she will never mention it again, she then wields the familial and political gavel from Jerry’s grip and the story moves onto her pregnancy.
As much as I suspected Mellie’s rape, it still bothered me, all the way up until I fell asleep. Eyes woke up this morning still troubled by the way it was handled. Perhaps it’s triggering for all of us – survivors and allies alike – to have visuals of rape so suddenly thrust into our homes. A violence so strangely normalized in media and yet so profoundly sickening when it echoes in our living room, a mere few feet from our sleeping children.
What has the narration of rape become? How is being so callously and nonchalantly written about, show in the beloved characters of stories that circulate every watercooler conversation the next morning, “Can you believe last night’s episode?” and thus unfolds more notions and missed opportunities to deconstruct the cultural problems that bolster sexual violence and rape.
Writers are responsible for their creative power. And just as we do do research in fields before we write details about the who what when and why — we should have standards that evoke sensitivity and tact when writing about this issue. Here is a brief guide for writers out in the world contemplating writing sexual violence into their story.
And for the love of all things holy, Scandal writers — USE TRIGGER WARNINGS.
TweetI’m not able to write about the typhoon in the Philippines. I am overwhelmed by the devastation of my homeland.
I am devastated by this calamity.
TweetLast week I had a work meeting at a site away from my usual office. The morning colors of the fall day were distracting. It was so bright, so clear, the sunshine setting everything on fire. Leaves, trees, and bushels seemed to be on fire from the inside out.
I made it to my meeting and afterward, although I had much work to do, decided to linger the grounds. There was no one around except a caretaker trimming a bush. I saw four deer ambling about in the woods. My knee high boots had a wooden heel and clomped loudly on the paved areas. Although I would never consider myself a fashion expert, I do have some common sense for attire. That day, I donned my tan zip up boots with a loose cream vintage looking dress with a blue floral print. Over the dress, I worked in a short navy blazer so the slightly casual dress was sharpened with a modern cut jacket.
I looked around to make sure no one saw me. In my car that day I had packed my gym bag with a plan to attack the gym after work. I grabbed my New Balance sneakers and slipped off my boots, and slid my feet into the comfortable flat shoes that had conformed to my feet.
In my dress, I ran like the wind down a path and into a kingdom of autumn. I passed majestic trees, swishing wind by my ears, and filtered the golden sun on my skin.
I had never been to this place. I had never worn sneakers with a dress. I couldn’t believe that I went running through an unfamiliar path dressed as I did. Whatever compelled me to race the wind was too strong in me. I had to burst open into a run to spend the energy and endorphins that delivered a joy I couldn’t measure or explain.
I couldn’t remember the last time I felt that way. So I took a picture to remember this particular morning, a slice of perfection to last me until I forget what it feels like to sprint in a flower dress.
TweetI’ve been thinking a lot about how much time I read and absorb the life advice from other writers. It’s soft addiction. Articles about the challenge of motherhood and writing smell like dessert, and I devour each one as if I’ll find myself in someone else’s once kept now open secrets.
Who you choose to build a family with and how they view your writing life is kind of a big deal. So often it’s the children – how many to have, whether serious writers have children (whaaat) – who are blamed as the prime distractors to women writers. Here’s the thing though: a billion things distract or consume a writer’s time. But another adult in the household is capable of helping create and sustain a productive and balanced writing life. Right now, in most heterosexual relationships with stereotypical gendered traits, the partners, spouses, or lovers of women writers can help (he drove the kids to soccer, he made dinner one night) but its still the woman who does the majority of the child lifting. As long as that is the model, balance will not and cannot be struck.
If I could tell young writers anything it would be to cultivate as close to a sustainable writing life as early as possible so you can choose a partner well and the expectations are clear from the start. She or he doesn’t have to completely understand the demands of writing, but gets the jist that for as long as you’re in a committed relationship with writing, the primary human relationship won’t look like other relationships that are used as a barometer for success, happiness, or even peaceful.
Nick sometimes struggles with my struggle to be fully and absolutely present to him on weekends, our sacred hours together. My fingers begin itching for a pen or a keyboard, my mind starts forming rebuttals and imaginary characters (depending on what I’m working on), and my eyes widen or narrow in reaction to my thoughts, as if I’m having a conversation all by myself. Which, actually, is the painful truth for partners of writers.
Who you choose to parent with, how you set up that situation is one of the most underrated areas in the debate of women writers and finding balance. Nick gladly picks up most of the domestic duties when he is home because he knows that I need to focus on writing when I can. He disappears with Isaiah for hours at a time so I have a quiet office in the house and only interrupts to see how I’m doing, to rub my back, look over my shoulder and make a short quip about turning out a bestseller so we can retire. (My usual reply is a laugh, “With the content I’m interested in? Hardly going to make us rich.”) But more than that and what usually carries me is that he gets it. He sometimes doesn’t like it but he gets it. He gets that writers often wonder away to love a character instead of a human being next to you. He gets that I spend a majority of my time doing unpaid work and picks up the slack, watches our budget, and takes on more because of the understood covenant between mother writer and her work. He gets it and the balance, the ever so fragile balance, is sustained when your partner understands the psychological, emotional, and financial sacrifices that need to be made in the name of creative work.
The community, village, partner, and family we create is just as critical to the food we put in our bodies, the amount of sleep we try to get, and the oxygen we take in for creative work. Emotional support is amazing, but the practical resourceful help that partners give – without tricks or guilt trips – cannot be overstated in the mother writer role.
The balance of parenting, for those in partnered relationships and nuclear families, has to be shared. It must be shared. I’m not convinced that balance can be struck without actualizing that in your family. And I simply refuse to normalize a state of imbalance; it is not an option for me. What turns that refusal into a lived reality is a partner who refuses gendered imbalance as well.
TweetThere were two rather unexpected events that took place yesterday. If I look closely, I see how these two seemingly different events perfectly illustrate my life and my identity right now.
At two o’clock yesterday, I went for spiritual direction. Spiritual direction is a form of spiritual practice where you typically spend an hour or so with a trained and certified spiritual director to help you more clearly recognize grace, God, and love in your life. The reasons and methods are varied, similar to psychotherapy, but it’s not therapy. It’s like you become your own personal theologian over your own life. You investigate the joys, struggles, and thoughts and process them aloud with a director. They ask questions, dig around, and reflect back what they hear from you. Quite a simple method, yet very few people utilize this form of practice. The last time I went for spiritual direction was nearly a decade ago. My director’s name was John and I still think of that relationship every few months. It was that impactful.
I went to see Fr. Don Cozzens. A prolific writer, a progressive thinker, a graceful challenger to the modern US church, I sat with him for an hour to talk about my relationship between writing and my faith. Specifically, I came to him to talk about this hard stone of fear sitting in my stomach. A fear to write about what I truly want to write about because of my identity as a Catholic. I feel uncertain and off balance. At times I felt unsure how to answer his questions about my identity as a Catholic, as a women of color, as a feminist, as a writer.
He spoke at length about two things: ego and courage.
On one hand the ego of the writer is always pushing. Ego is always afraid of what others think, even when in hiding – which could be mistaken for lack of confidence – but is really about ego. (That took me a while to understand.) But it makes sense. On the other hand, it takes the “chasm of courage” to put yourself out into the world, to open up oneself for criticism and challenge. He remarked, “The challenges you reference – the hierarchy, clericalism, triumphalism, patriarchy of the church – these are big pieces to the block in your writing as you are describing, but I think there is something else. Something that is not church.”
Well, I sat with that for a while.
He was kind and smiled warmly, “Forgive my arrogance. I’ve only known you less than an hour and am telling you what to do with your life. But here I go: there is something much deeper than the church you are fearing. Your friend who lost is job because of his progressive beliefs? It goes deeper than that. Your fear of being the Catholic community not understanding you? It goes deeper than that. So just sit with that.”
I did. I sat there.
He ended with what he began, “Write. Come what may.”
Four hours later, I left this priest who wrote controversial books for a living and drove to another college campus. At Kate State, my friend, Daisy Hernandez was giving a talk. The subject of her lecture was on feminism, women of color, sexuality, and Latina experiences. It’s hard to not praise her presentation when she gave a shout out to my work. (Insert any gif of shameless dancing.)
One of the things that caught my attention was how many college students brought up the word “queer” which Daisy used to name her sexual identity. I saw many college students nodding as she spoke and I saw even more wait for her after the lecture, standing there awkwardly, shifting from foot to foot waiting to ask her more about her queer identity. It was a word I am familiar with as many of my friends who date and love and partner with men, women, and gender non conforming people. Queer is a word to me to describe the natural continuum of loving, or being attracted to, or being in relationship, or just plain wanting another person. It’s an everyday word for me. Like “the.”
I thought about how and why I not feel the need to name my sexuality. I stopped identifying as anything several years ago. It was a personal decision I came to after years of examining my life, reflecting with my partner, choosing what felt most right to me. And what felt right was not to use any identifier at all. I didn’t reject anything, I just didn’t find anything that encompassed my experiences.
The decision to un-identify as heterosexual and my decision to not identify with anything else came shortly after an upsetting experience with a group of friends who questioned my life choices. Shortly after I was engaged to my partner, I made a comment that I knew I was ready to commit to one person because I realized what love meant. I didn’t love his gender. I didn’t love his sexuality. I didn’t love parts of him. I just loved him. That totality and consumption of another human through love wasn’t blind to these parts of his identity, it just didn’t stand out that way anymore. The more I understood how I loved him, the more I understood how to love others in general. Gender didn’t matter. I fell in love with a person who happened to be a man. Even with all the socialization, the cultural and religious influences in my life, I came to understand that love, for me, was not contingent upon gender, or sexuality, or labels. I shared with a friend that “it didn’t matter if it was a man or woman. I knew that I could have dated or not dated anyone and I would have been fine. I could have loved anyone. And in realizing that, I knew I was free to love whom I choose. And I chose him.”
In sharing this in an unsafe place, the comment was deduced to a cheap conversation about sexual attraction and dating history. My insight was lost in the torrent of questions if I was gay, straight, queer, bi…or what?
It took a few years to tell that story and I look back and shake my head because I still feel the same way. Why the need for label? Why the desperate grab to smack a word on my forehead so you know how to treat me. Why not just get to know me? Why not get to the know the person I fell in love with?
I fell in love with this person who, at one time, when he was employed as a minister, would dress in his finest suit to attend funerals for people he didn’t even know. Whether the service was overflowing or just a smattering of people in the pews, he put on his best clothes to pay tribute to someone who died. He attended because he believed in the inherent worth of every human that walked the earth. He wore his best suit because he believed that was the least he could do for the one person who came to say goodbye to their brother, father, sister, mother, or spouse.
I have these hazy memories of waking up and seeing him dressing in that black suit and knowing he was on his way to a funeral. ”You don’t have to go, you know,” I reminded him. ”No one would ever know the difference.” He’d catch my eye in the mirror and flash me a smile that I always found made my heart thunder away, “I’d know. I like going. I want to be there. Someone should, must be there.”
Someone that held that kind of perspective of human life, relationship, and wasn’t afraid to be made vulnerable by the emotionally heavy nature of a funeral is the kind of someone I continue to love to this day. It’s why I chose and continue to choose to build my life with him and why love is the only door I leave unlabeled.
I don’t need it. I know where I’m going.
* * * *
Fr. Donald Cozzens. Ms. Daisy Hernandez. The two faces of Catholic and feminist agitation yesterday. It was quite a day.
TweetI was 22 years old and pouring out my heart to a priest who would eventually marry me and the man who was the reason I was pouring out my heart. But I didn’t know that then.
I poured out my heart because I didn’t know how else to deal with its leaking. The embarrassing drops of naivety and innocence that can only be squeezed out of the heart by the cracks of first love. I didn’t know that was what was happening.
I didn’t know a lot of things. I still don’t know a lot of things.
Looking back at that time, when this priest listened to my yearning to move on and out of my early 20s conventional lifestyle, I see that restlessness not as a period of my life, but I identify now as a permanent marker of my identity. The grave dissatisfaction with unfulfillment. The sudden uptake of bravery to do whatever it takes to make transformation possible. The tunnel vision. That wasn’t a phase, that’s Me.
The priest commented that my restlessness was likely a sign of “moving through something, like a shedding snake with new colors on its skin.” My lips pursed in repulsion. Dry, dead skin of a snake. Interesting comparison. It made me itch, physically. I’m not drawn to crackling and lifeless skin trails. It haunted me though because, despite my shuddering and itching, it felt true. New colors. Finding hard, uneven ground to slither my body so I could more easily rid myself of useless layers? Hunting rocks to scratch myself against to help the process? In this profoundly odd way, it was perfect.
Some months later after the dead skin talk, I played Scrabble for the first time with a group of friends. And when a controversial play called for a dictionary validation, I picked up the heavy green reference to look up the word and immediately lost my grip with my left hand. It fell, split open to the floor and that’s when my eye say it at the top of the left page: ECDYSIS. A shedding. A moulting of an outer integument of skin. Like a snake shedding its skin.
There it was. A word to describe the process the priest told me I was in. I just didn’t know it wasn’t a process. It was my life.
I took a mental photograph and flipped the pages to validate the disputed word and went on with the game. But as I outwardly continued with Scrabble, yelling at and even wrestling Mike one of my roommates, over the use of the word “navajo,” for the win, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something larger was being conveyed. And it came through the accidental drop of a dictionary.
Although I consider myself both spiritual and religious, I largely put my faith in people. I think humans reveal more about truth, sanctity, and creativity than any symbol or natural element and that placement of faith leaves me with a touch of skepticism when people say “it’s a sign” is used to describe a curious encounter. But when ecdysis flopped itself open with a Webster, I wasn’t so sure that crumbs weren’t being laid so I could find the loaf.
The next twelve years were cyclic like that. The shedding was constant and followed a pattern. Pain, lesson, implementation of lesson, enlightenment. Restlessness. Repeat.
I find myself today, twelve years since that dictionary fell out of my hand, ruminating on ecdysis. My literal muse. It’s taken me that long to metabolize its enormity and helpfulness. Restlessness is not a state of unhappiness, or lack of joy. Quite the opposite. The joy of everyday life – my loves, my struggles – fuels the desire to pursue more and it’s taken me twelve years to accept that without shame. And now that I’m here it seems ridiculous that I was even hiding. I hid the fact I was unsatisfied. (Some in my life would say I hid it poorly.) But I didn’t want to insult others. I didn’t want my dissatisfaction to hurt others. I didn’t want others to think they or my relationship with them didn’t or doesn’t give me joy. But fulfillment is much larger than singular threads of relationship with others. Fulfillment is about relationship to one’s own life, one’s own practice of living and pursuit of meaningful existence.
And it took awhile and several rounds of partner dialogue with Nick, strategic therapy sessions investigating emotional and cognitive patterns (aka “Why do the same thoughts keep surfacing?), playful cuddling sessions with Isaiah, face down in the pillow crying sessions followed by and face up in the pillow staring sessions to digest another basic survival tool: we end up living a template if we don’t create our own design.
Snakes shed their skin at different frequencies. I don’t remember the last one I went though of this magnitude. The ecdysis I am currently experiencing is moving me to new terrain, bigger rocks…and this time, I’m giddy with anticipation.
Life and love share a common cosmology: time changes everything.
Thank ecdysis for that.