Many folx cite “asking for help” as one of the hardest things to do, regardless of the circumstances. I hate asking for help. But it’s not because I feel proud or courageous. In fact, asking for help scares me.
Something happened to my back yesterday- have you ever felt so much pain you can’t stand up straight, it takes you over five minutes just to will yourself to sit because your muscles are DEFINITELY tearing, you know they are, the agony is so real and you just want to sit in the car for goodness sake. The person screaming yesterday was me. My entire upper back felt like braided string cheese smushed so tightly in the plastic packaging. I could barely walk, let alone carry a grocery bag. In a perfect world, I would have teleported home so as not to disturb anyone’s fun. But I was out with some friends, wandering the aisles in a Korean grocery store in San Jose, and I had to ask for help.
First, I needed help carrying a bottle of vodka. Don’t judge. It was on sale and finals week is coming up. I couldn’t carry it through the store, so I asked one of the friends with me to hang on until checkout. Next, everyone patiently waited by the car as I crawled, muttering to myself, “a few more steps. That’s it. Just a few more. One foot, the other.” As I mentioned, getting in to the car (and the front seat, which I tried to demand I didn’t need) had me wondering if I could walk home because the pain upon bending my legs made me nauseous. Our classmate in the driver’s seat insisted that I couldn’t simply go home. So, the four of us embarked on an adventure.
I felt vulnerable and guilty. Here were three graduate students accompanying me for my own damn problem, something that didn’t affect them save hearing my groaning. I refused everything they suggested at each different point, only to succumb to their insistence. And I started wondering why I couldn’t just let these three wonderful people take care of me.
Many of the students in the sections I teach utilize me as a teaching assistant very well. They send outlines, rough drafts, even crap I don’t know how to label, and I respond within twenty four hours as a personal rule. I hate sending my work in progress to others. I hate it because it scares me to show people my process and thus, my imperfections. While I don’t call myself a “perfectionist,” I realized that this fear of showing the work behind the product comes from not wanting to admit a period of uncertainty. Yesterday, I couldn’t stand the fact that these helpful, kind and caring people could actually express their care for me because it meant showing my pain before I can show off how well I heal.
When I worked as a chaplain, my colleagues and I often talked about modeling good human behavior. What we meant was allowing our students to see that we do make mistakes, muddle through problems we don’t understand, and we work to improve. I will always hate asking for help because I will always fight the negative voice in my head calling me a fraud. Maybe that voice isn’t always a bad thing- it’s the worst of any criticism. Maybe it’s ok to sit in the front seat once in a while.
As we celebrated Better Together Day yesterday, I felt exhilarated by the photos and social media posts from around the country. Folks in their stylish shirts attending gatherings, sharing what they appreciate about different sources of wisdom, and especially getting outside (weather permitting!) to cultivate a presence on college campuses across the country appeared throughout the day. I even took a selfie with my shirt because I wanted to feel included in the celebrating 🙂
This past week has been full of interfaith happenings on Stanford’s campus. On Monday night, I watched a Buddhist leader speak about mindfulness meditation to a crowd of almost 1000 people in Memorial Church, the heart of the Main Quad. The Office of Religious Life prepared an Open House to celebrate the CIRCLE (the Center for Inter-religious Community, Learning and Experiences) 10th Anniversary. We also worked to finalize readers for an interfaith service that will take place this Sunday as part of University Public Worship. Last night, I got to moderate a fantastic panel of four professors in the Religious Studies Department speaking about “faith and feminism,” which took place at Stanford’s Hillel House. Over 50 students showed up on a Tuesday evening to learn about women in Islam, Judaism, Christianity and Hinduism. What I loved so much about the panel was the panelists’ commitment to complicating the history of women in these traditions- they reflected on the term feminism within different contexts and why the word doesn’t necessarily help us understand women’s roles or agency- we must consider a variety of experiences. The students asked really difficult questions, especially related to oppression and equality.
What really moved me, beyond the wisdom I took from the panel, was representation. The crowd held many religious and non-religious identities, some of which caused me to reflect on difference as the basis of contention. Some of the questions roused deep emotion because they stemmed from a fundamental disagreement on what a sacred text tells us, or how women should function in a particular community. That contention helps us to be honest about difference. Further, it opens an opportunity for hearing. In that room, we heard each other, even if we didn’t agree.
For me, Better Together Day is about hearing and seeing each other. It sounds simple, but in a world where intolerance quickly leads to ostracizing and violence, seeing and hearing matter deeply in creating communities that can center learning as a way to build relationships. Though we may not remember the content of events and activities on the particular day, we do remember who is present and thus know that we have possibility for community. I will remember not only the panelists from last night, but the audience as well- how we showed up to a space together, listened, and acknowledged that we each carry questions important enough to ask out loud. Better Together Day reminds me that community can be built on difference, because a shared commitment creates the starting point for a contentious but deeply meaningful space. And of course, we all looked pretty great in our blue shirts.
Happy International Women’s Day! I love the outpouring of pictures and writing and speeches about the women who have trail blazed and led and mentored, those who are, and those who will.
I’m going to say something bold. This week, it seems like grief and death have surrounded me- from Coco winning at the Oscars to thinking about empathy in end of life care in my class to an interfaith memorial service to…the horrid violence that can occur when grief goes unchecked. Now, this violence is also rooted in toxic patriarchal and white supremacist attitudes. Grief can play a role in exacerbating this. In my short life, I have encountered lots of grief and found that frankly, often women deal with it better.
On Sunday my partner and I watched a live performance of “Remember Me” at the Academy Awards. The song was up for best original song (and it won!). I think many people would say it’s easy to cry- the premise and the melody remind us of friends we have lost. We cried too. This morning my partner texted me saying that he listened to the song while looking at pictures of his father, and he didn’t understand why he did that. It only made him cry again. “It’s been more than a year, why am I still doing this?”
I’ve written about death and grief a fair amount. In my work, we think about memorial services, funerals, and other ways of ritualizing death quite often. I think what goes unnoticed is not the raw grief from more “fresh” loss but the grief we carry through the rest of our lives. We often hold this idea that at some point in time, grief will exit, it will leave us. We “get over” it. But that’s false. Several people that came to to the interfaith memorial service grieved for people they lost five, ten, or even thirty years ago, and perhaps their grief looks different than someone with raw pain, but the entity is there. Grief becomes a part of us as soon as we experience loss, and it stays with us- it morphs and changes and takes different forms. This is why we wake up crying, or feel empty, or sometimes even laugh out loud for no reason. The other day I was thinking about my grandmother who loved to tell anyone, much to their chagrin, who visited her house about these dolls she had- King Henry VIII and his wives. It was one of those moments that explodes with joy and pain and yearning and sorrow all in the same instant.
I think it’s crucial to talk about grief often. Grief is not always related to the end of life, but it is always related to death as an end. The end of a career, the end of a relationship, the end of living in a particular place. Is grief our friend? I think we might discover different ways to relate, but knowing it exists within us is helpful and actually soothing, sometimes.
Today I am lifting up the women in my life because they hold grief in ways that push them. My mom, my sister, my friends, my classmates, my professors, the activists and teachers and writers I admire- we all hold grief for loss. Some of this loss is what should be and simply isn’t because women constantly fight for space. Our grief can be shared by the space women make for each other.
February traditionally feels like a frustrating month (maybe it’s just me). We made it through the depths of January, and the daylight extends just a little more every day. We aren’t quite there. Now in my own academic storm, I remember my students feeling particularly exhausted this month. The quarter takes a serious turn toward “the second half” and finals week actually comes into view. Not to mention how many blizzards we all trudged through only to have a big event cancelled.
Congress frustrates me. The patriarchy REALLY frustrates me. For the past week or so my frustration has actually turned to anger. I admit- I feel pissed off. At least, I did. Last night I was talking to a friend who sent me a story about a mom who broke down at an airport because her toddler was literally being a terrible two. She couldn’t pick him up, couldn’t get him to sit down, couldn’t do anything so her exhausted, over-worked and underappreciated self just plopped down. And cried.
You might imagine this story could take several turns. As my mom likes to say, “someone is always filming! You can’t do anything wrong anymore!” I imagined people making fun of this woman on social media. Maybe even with a nickname. There would be video. But that’s not what happened, at least in this story.
In this story, strange women saw what was happening and got to work. They didn’t hesitate or ask questions. You can read the details here. The important part is, they showed up. My friend who sent me this story said, “I hope I would be like those women” (she is). Imagine, strangers at your aide.
This quarter I am CDAing (kind of a fancy word for TAing, with a few caveats) a course on empathy and medicine. Five pre-med students come to class with fascinating and often heartbreaking stories and questions about empathy. Many relate to their field. I am no stranger to the comparisons between medicine and care. With a sister completing her first year of surgical residency, I could point to many examples. What we find in the class is how difficult empathy is to define. It’s different than sympathy, or compassion, or care. This week we even read a book against the concept of empathy. The most meaningful literature for me was the biblical story of the Good Samaritan because it calls out “religious” people for failing to use empathy as a source for action. Is religion supposed to teach empathy?
I think what really lifts me in this story of strange women is the unspoken shared experience. They know motherhood. I imagine it’s beautiful, but also exhausting and sometimes downright horrible. Especially at an airport, where you wait to be smashed into a metal box. One of my questions about empathy is whether our own suffering makes us more or less likely to alleviate someone else’s from the same source (in this case, the toddler is the source). The answer is most certainly it depends, but when joy can come from suffering, I believe perhaps we seek to help others find it. This week I’m working to let go of my anger so I can seek joy with others, maybe even strangers.
Another week of reading and writing and pretending I know what I’m talking about! The third week of the quarter floats away into the distance, drawing the looming final papers, conference presentations, book reviews, grant proposals and other exciting checklist items menacingly closer. At least the sun stays out longer.
As a first year PhD student, one of my constant learning goals is how to design strong syllabi for courses I would like to teach one day (could be next quarter, could be next year, could be in thirty years). I enjoy pouring over potential books and articles. The experience throttles me back to my favorite classes at USC. It’s easy enough to google syllabi for similar courses, but in order to really hone a spectacular combination of readings, assignments, and learning outcomes, I have to pay attention to detail. Campus cultures are very different. Students learn in different ways. Heck, the quarter system creates a storm of issues- you only get ten weeks, minus intro week one and wrap-up week ten. What if a holiday falls on class day? All questions to consider. In this recent quest, one question yanks at me with every reading I assign. Representation.
By representation, I mean who gets to speak via the texts listed under each weekly heading. As the curator, I hold a substantial amount of power in my pen (ok, keyboard) to introduce students to material that will assist them in discussion, dialogue, even debate. Of course, not every source makes it to the homework section (that’s an understatement. Ask my older colleagues about paring, paring more, paring even more). Our vast knowledge proves too much for a semester-long course. It should. We work for years to make it that way. But with power comes responsibility and for me that responsibility is to represent identities that often don’t have a voice. I’ll use gender here, because inserting more texts written, edited, and translated by non-males has been my focus this week. Recognizing that every discipline splits into sub-disciplines and subsequent areas of focus, some folx might have more difficulties than others. I’m not a listicle writer (though I love a good one that features gifs of sassy animals), but I think this merits some bullet points for suggestions that have helped me. And while I focus on syllabi design because of my profession, I think this question expands to many different fields. Who is in the room, at the table, has the mic? Who makes those decisions?
So. How do we think about better representation on our syllabi?
Do a LITTLE research. Think Creatively about Where You Find Your Sources.
Ahem, pardon my sarcasm. Of course we do research. But are we keeping a critical eye out for authors and speakers who may have been passed over because they aren’t white men? Someone once trashed a book I chose for a week on Muslim experiences in the United States because it was a memoir, ie, not academic. The thing is, academic books about “the” Muslim experience tend to be written by non-Muslims. There is nothing wrong with this. But there is a difference in someone’s own story- we get vulnerability and the chance to make connections with someone who might be different from us. Pro-tip: working at a university is great because we have colleagues who may study very different subjects but these subjects intersect at points. I remember reading a theological text in my Arabic class during my master’s program, for example. If you can’t think of any sources written by women, pop over to a colleague’s office and ask for suggestions. Ask for a translation. Ask them to lunch. Hey, lunch date!
Change Unit Weekly Topics or Themes to Make Sources Relevant.
But the quarter is only ten weeks! We have to get through units 1, 2, and 3 and that’s pushing it in ten weeks! Putting in a source written by a woman throws a wrench in my WHOLE jam here! Ok, I hear you- learning goals and outcomes are important. We usually write them for administrators because students don’t read them (why should they? They’re usually bland!). Maybe you can’t change these outcomes/goals. You can change the topic of Week 5 instead (NOT to “women/females/anyone not male in ___ subject. See point below.) and make it work with the source. Use a source that reveals a kind of methodology in the field. I might have trouble finding a source about a religious community that doesn’t allow women (or maybe we just don’t know) in a specific place and time period. Think classical Taoist texts, for example. I have this other text that dates later, but comes from the same general area and falls under the general theme of the course. Instead of “Classical Taoism” Week, I get rid of the word classical and say “early.” Or I find a secondary source that talks about the Daode Jing as a potentially feminist text. I have the students debate whether this makes sense after they read some sections.
Don’t Pigeonhole Gender to One Day/Week/Topic.
Please don’t do this. I can just see the sense of accomplishment. Alright, I found not one but TWO sources written by women about women in ____ field. I organized a WHOLE class period to discuss it. I even invited a women SPEAKER to come talk about women! I’m amazing. Ok, you know what this feels like? It feels like pity. It feels like when you leave the food waste out for the raccoons (no offense raccoons. Y’all are cute.). It feels like the only time women get to be represented is when we are talking specifically about gender and that in any other theme, women just aren’t allowed or important. Representation matters on every.single.level. I’m not saying all the sources need to be written by women. I’m saying think about who speaks through the sources every single week. Looking further than the usual suspects means I get to have more innovative discussions with my students. I might even learn something new. Learning? That’s not…that’s literally my job. Yay.
If You Really Can’t Find Any Authors, at Least Look for Texts Written about Non-Males.
I’ve looked EVERYWHERE, taken my colleagues to lunch, poured over other syllabi, picked through the archives. There just aren’t any women who have written about _____. Unfortunately, given the history of oppression and gatekeeping for non-male scholars, writers, thinkers-anyone with a voice, really-sometimes the sources don’t exist. It’s not acceptable to just revert back to the all-male cast. Are there any texts written about women? And they don’t have to be about a superhero. I fell into the trap earlier of getting frustrated because I couldn’t find a “strong” female character in a set of texts. That doesn’t mean there weren’t any. That means my students should learn to engage with how writers depicted women and not just label them “sexist” without further examination of context. Let’s be honest (as honest as we can, given the limited material we have) about experiences that run the spectrum of heroic to traumatic to “mundane.” The point is my students learn to ask questions, not assert unfair judgments about cultures they do not know.
Thanks for your consideration. Now go out to lunch so you can grade those midterms.
I’m slogging through assignment after assignment this week as the end of the quarter creeps (RACES) closer and the news and its subsequent commentary causes some blood-boiling. Some people are surprised by the slew of allegations going public around sexual harassment and assault committed by men in power. And some people will continue to defend these men, even when multiple women come forward and have been coming forward for decades.
I have been noticing some argument around backing some of these men because they apologized, or because they stand for good values, despite their actions. Louis CK wrote a whole apology, so he is redeemed, right? No *expletive* way. I’ll continue to be enraged. And I’m struggling with two things. The first is, the men on the news are men already in the public eye. They’re scum, but there’s plenty of scum to go around in any old circle. I’m not trying to say I think all men are scum. I am saying that the way our society treats women teaches men that harassment and assault are ok, and worse, it doesn’t teach them what is terribly wrong. My mom was shaking her head the other day while we were walking because she felt confused as to why men would reveal their privates to young women in their offices- “didn’t they think eventually this would get out?” Here’s the horror- I would guess that most of these men had no conscious thoughts that what they were doing was wrong. Thus, they wouldn’t worry about their behavior “getting out.”
The second thing I have been questioning is forgiveness. Now, it is not my place to forgive the men who committed harassment and assault to other women. I can only choose to forgive those who hurt me. I will say that the “apology” letter is meaningless to me, because it doesn’t change what happened and demonstrates no attempt to change in the future. But what does it mean that the majority of men in our culture have committed some form of harassment or assault? Does this mean we feel disgusted by everyone? I’m not going to lie, I feel very privileged when I get to be in women-only spaces, and much less exhausted than during a typical day. I live with the incredible privilege to actually be able to call men out when they contribute to rape culture (commenting on my body is never ok. Don’t do it.), and to have resources to help me do this. So I believe I should ask where we go from here.
It is not the responsibility of women and non-male folx to educate men on any of this. If they choose to, it is their gift. I think we should forget the apologies for now. You’re not sorry unless you do something to change not only your behavior, but the behavior of the men around you. And you keep at it. Talk to other men. Tell them when they’re contributing to rape culture. Ask others to do that to you. Non-men cannot change this no matter how much outrage we preach.
I am in awe of the women who have come forward, and in further awe of the millions of women who can’t. As the allegations continue to come out (they should), I firmly hope we believe them.
The patriarchy runs deep. So deep. How many of us hesitated to post the hashtag because a) we felt ashamed, b) we felt triggered, c) we felt invalidated (I “only”…”just”…”not a big deal”…) or d) all of the above? No victim or survivor owes social media any indication that they, too, have suffered. But the problem is a tangled web, not a straight line of perpetrator- victim.
Who is “us”? We can’t just include women, here. Not only does that invalidate the experience of queer, non-binary, non-conforming, and others who have born witness via their own bodies to sexual harassment and/or assault, but by ignoring anyone except women, we take away agency from everyone. Survivors live every single day, and that takes agency. As little as it might feel we have.
Something else that bothers me about the past two days’ worth of posts on this hashtag: it is so easy to sympathize without owning one’s role in the abuse. This doesn’t just go for men. The first time I grappled with the truth that I experienced assault, I was not much younger than I am now. Not only did I have to relearn that what I experienced wasn’t “meant to be flattering” or “because of what I was wearing,” I began to realize that I had said those things about other people. I questioned women who wore short dresses and high heels and layers of makeup. What did they think would happen? By thinking these things, I participated in the patriarchy. Even as a survivor, I can still uphold misogyny.
Dismantling is not a one-and-done experience, either. Even now, I catch myself feeling irritated by a student who speaks too much in class- but would I feel as annoyed if the student were a man? Subconsciously, I felt more comfortable calling a female professor by her first name than a male professor with the same qualifications. Why? I’m disgusted with my subconscious. This is the problem with categorizing “assault” and “harassment” as different from “microaggressions” or “casual sexism.” While one may involve physical violence, and each experience brings a different kind of trauma and need for subsequent processing, the idea that one can’t participate in the hashtag campaign because the only real experience they have was “just” when their boss interrupted them constantly, or they’ve “only” been catcalled by strangers, not raped after drinking at a party, so blatantly hides the existence of misogyny everywhere, among all people. These “small, meaningless” gestures are the most dangerous because they are so hard to call out, and further, to explain to the perpetrator- the burden of course falls on the oppressed. Yet these acts uphold rape culture. As harmful as this has been to me, I cannot help to dismantle unless I examine my own interactions with it.
I am in awe of the friends who have shared their voices and stories these past few days. I couldn’t do it. It is so common to internalize our shame. Me too: I am a survivor. Me too: I am complicit. Me too: I pledge to bring my subconscious participation into the conscious, stomp on it, and work to liberate my fellow survivors.
I come from a strong line of female writers. My grandmother liked to write historical fiction and romance novels. My mom is writing a memoir about being the parent of a medical school student. We are writers, and we write.
I spent the last week on retreat in Taos, New Mexico with 22 brilliant women writers. Every day we listened and shared, wrote and read, moved and found stillness. Every day the rain came and brought with it the scent of fresh lavender and mountain air. As our time together went on, I heard an echo from several of the women at lunch, in our small groups, even after morning dance: You are brave. You are so brave.
Every time I heard this my gut reaction was to correct. “Oh no, I am not brave. I may hide it well but inside I am terrified, nervous, anxious, and completely unsure. My mother is brave- a cancer survivor. My grandmother was brave, she was a mother of six. But I am not like them.” In one of the afternoon sessions, our assignment was not only to name our inner critic but to personify them. These are the people or experiences we internalize that tell us we can’t write because we’re not creative, or edgy, or we might offend someone. What if they could help us, we mused.
My inner critic turned out to be an old man sitting at an antique wooden desk, looking sternly at me over his glasses. In his hand he holds a rejection letter. All it says is, “no.” The man couldn’t be expected to waste his time telling me why or what I might do better, he just laughs and shakes his head. “You really thought your story belongs in our prestigious publication? HA!” He shoos me out with a lazy wave. This critic comes from something I wrote about last week, which is an obsession with perfection and a deep hesitance to show anyone my work unless it’s absolutely stunning. I can write all day, never stopping for a minute to consider how scary it is, until it comes time to share. I can practically feel my face fall when the email comes in, something about dear writer, we regret…it’s hard to read past that part. Sometimes you don’t even get an email, just silence. Ghosting, as the dating world calls it.
I read a few books this week, really living in to the question “What do you want in this moment?” Reading is always one answer. In the book The Spirituality of Imperfection, the authors tell us that admitting our imperfection is quite a profound step as humans, but one that ultimately leads us to healing. In one chapter, they consider the woes of perfectionists by considering a particular point: “We may not be able to do anything completely perfectly. But what that means is that we cannot do anything entirely imperfectly. Consider a bad day: we wake up late, spill our coffee, give a terrible presentation at work. But we complete a few tasks and commiserate with our spouse in the evening, and not everything has gone wrong.”
I thought about all the writing I have ever read. What a spectrum from mind-blowing to absolutely horrifying. Yet, the mind-blowing could always be tweaked just a little more. The absolutely horrifying still has one tiny piece of merit. My work will never be perfect, and never completely useless. Bravery is knowing this and not letting it stop you.
I am a writer and I am writing. I come from a strong line of female writers- my grandmother, my mom, and now 22 new sisters. None of us perfect, all of us alive with stories. We are writers and we write. We are brave- fear exists within us, but we do not entertain the possibility that this fear would stop us from doing what we love and what is right. And what is right, is to write.
My mom picked me up for the millionth time at LAX a few months ago. It was dusk, and I lugged over-sized bag and greasy hair into the car amidst honking and traffic jams. We know this route well- darting around buses to get on the 105, carpool lane to 110, Pasadena Freeway to Orange Grove, and finally on to the 210. Home.
The Pasadena Freeway is the oldest in California. Three lanes wide, it winds around Highland Park and South Pasadena until it ends right on Arroyo Boulevard. What was once an easy Sunday drive in the 1940s is now a treacherous road. It’s hard to see around the twists, and because the lanes are so narrow, easy to hit the center divider or another vehicle. When accidents happen, often they cause domino crashes because of the visibility issue. In addition to all of this, in order to get on the freeway, cars must wait at stop signs to merge into the furthest lane while vehicles fly by at 65+ MPH (the speed limit is 55, but who are we kidding, Angelinos).
Each member of my family boasts their own strategy for driving this freeway to avoid an accident. My mom says to drive in the middle lane, so as to have options if you need to swerve quickly. My sister, on the other hand, likes the lane closest to the center divider because people can only drift into one side of that lane, unlike the center. My dad likes the outside lane. I’m not sure why, but perhaps neither is he. I avoid the freeway altogether- for me, it’s all about the 5 to the 134.
On this particular evening, Dodger fans caused twice the congestion at the start of the Pasadena Freeway. We inched forward and stopped every five seconds. Finally after forty minutes, we started to move. Because of the traffic my mom had managed to move into the right lane, she kept a watchful eye on the right side as cars pulled to stop signs, waiting to merge. As we rounded a curve, a mini van pulled right in front of us- we were less than a second from rear ending it that would surely have ended in totaled cars and perhaps fatal injury.
My mom did something miraculous. Just before she rear-ended the minivan, she swerved left, avoiding the van just enough to sneak by without collision. She didn’t have time to check on her side to see if another car was in the middle lane- but her instinct told her to save me before herself. Thankfully, there was enough space for her to avoid accident entirely. “What the FUCK was that guy doing!?” she exclaimed. I took a few breaths. A vision of the car accident I experienced came right at me, causing my forehead to sweat instantly. My mom didn’t mention the incident for the rest of the car ride, as if it happened to her every day. I know it doesn’t.
For the next few days I wondered if my instinct would have caused me to swerve left. Would I have saved myself, or my passenger? Perhaps I would have frozen like the last time, and totaled my car. I’m not a mother, but in that moment I knew my mom had made a commitment to sacrifice for us even in the most rapid moments.
I was remembering one of my teachers in elementary school the other day because she, also a mother, did something remarkable for our family. When my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer and chose to remove her breast because she wanted no uncertainty that she would live (“she had a family to take care of”), this teacher would take my sister and me to breakfast at IHOP before school. It was a great day when we got to go to IHOP. Only in the past few years have I realized how much more this woman has been to me than a teacher.
Happy Mother’s Day to all those who sacrifice their time and comfort for others. Motherhood may be beautiful, but it is just as much no-frills, unsung work that keeps us all alive.
Most of us have heard and or read Trump’s sexual harassment comments and if you’re like me, have subsequently read plenty of articles floating around Facebook and Twitter that explain why these comments, this “locker room banter”, is so harmful. Many of these articles I can’t even read all the way through because they feel so invasive. I find myself sobbing uncontrollably, reliving, remembering, and trying to reimagine. I am so in awe of any woman, regardless of who they are voting for, that shares her story of sexual assault with me- especially if I’ve never met her.
I’ve been struggling with this blog being “not political”, especially in the last year. Realistically, not a few hours pass without hearing a reference to the election in some way. It has not been my intention to ignore the pain and polarization I blatantly see, but I recognize that I have. My default mode of expression on this forum has been stories of my own experience and how they give me hope even among the atrocities in the world. People working together, talking together, laughing and crying together, despite their differences. I am sorry for not speaking more bluntly about the horrifying abuse that black, latinx, undocumented and documented immigrant, Muslim, Sikh, and other people have endured from a single man and his words. So, I will not speak for anyone but myself, and I will tell you my truth. This week I need to tell you why this “locker room banter” matters to me- as a survivor of sexual assault, yes, and more directly, as someone who lives in a woman’s body every day.
When I wake up in the morning, I put on the outfit I picked out the night before, turn the coffee pot on, and shower/brush teeth/pack my lunch. Sometimes I forget to scoop the coffee into the pot and that adds a few minutes to my routine. I check the T schedule so that when I arrive, I won’t have to wait too long to get on. When I’ve got everything all together, I grab my backpack and head out the door. It’s scowl-face time. There’s a building across the street from my apartment that is under construction. Often, men are working when I walk to the T. I’ve seen them staring, at me and other women. Sometimes, they yell things like “hey, smile!” And “why so serious!?” I practice my therapist’s method of escaping the catcall trigger: name the discomfort (“a stranger yelling at me”), name what’s happening (“I’m shivering, my face is red, I’m walking faster”) and say your calming mantra (“I own my body, I own my mind, I am an agent”). Ignore the comments. It works better some days than others.
When I make it to the T station, sometimes men will follow me closely so they can enter the platform without a ticket. For whatever reason, this makes me upset and I want to say “if you ask me, I would buy you a ticket” but I don’t because it’s safer to just ignore them. On the T, I try to stand where other women are standing because a few weeks ago the train was very crowded and a man held on to one of the handles with his elbow out and he touched my chest. I tried to move, but there was no space. We passed two stations with his elbow wedged into my chest.
When I arrive at work, I try to make eye contact with everyone I pass on the way to the office. Self-defense classes taught me this in order to show that you’re aware of another’s presence. Sometimes I make eye contact with someone, usually a man, for a little too long and I feel my face turn bright red. Quickly, my eyes avert and I walk faster. I don’t want to give anyone the wrong idea. Once at work, I usually start my day answering emails or checking in with my coworker. Often we share experiences of micro aggressions that occurred on the train or walking to work. This is 9 am. Our bodies stay on alert for at least 8 more hours before we go home.
Almost every day, I see women students whom I love that have experienced some kind of gendered micro aggression. Much of the time they don’t even call it that: they’ll say, “I wish I wasn’t scared to speak in class. I guess I just need to stop caring about what people think and speak up.” They’ll say, “I couldn’t tell him I was on my period, that would have freaked him out.” To my heartbreak, they’ll tell me that they should have called a guy to walk them home, their bad for getting followed or catcalled at night. They’ll admit that their male professor makes them uncomfortable and they feel bad about that, they’re just being “overly sensitive.” And I see them interact with classmates, staff, and faculty, and I watch them get interrupted, body shamed, and sometimes even harassed without even recognizing what is happening. This is magnified enormously by their race, their gender, their sexual orientation, their ability to speak English, their religion. And I want so many times to draw these women close to me, cradle them near my heart and in my arms and say, “let’s stay like this forever.”
I am outraged by Trump’s comments, and even more by his lack of remorse. I can’t say I’m all that surprised, given the systemic non-apologetic oppression women experience every day for the bodies they live in. What scares me the most is the “normalizing.” The fact that people, not just men, live thinking that this kind of behavior is “how it is,” and that this dictates how we live our lives in almost every moment. It terrifies me that people live without the agency to name when someone treats them poorly because of who they are. And I absolutely cannot claim to fully understand this experience, even in my own body and mind.
I write this because it is my truth, and believe that telling stories helps us make sense of experiences that are painful and traumatic. I also hope we will name our pains and our harms more. My hesitancy is always “people don’t want to listen” or “they’ll feel uncomfortable.” That is not my experience. More often than I have realized, the most intimate and open conversations start with one person’s honesty that they’re living in pain or anger or sadness. Even if we don’t relate, we can build trust this way. I commit to speaking up more, because silence can only hold me where I am.