The lessons of small things

I see you. I’m going in to write.

I stop at the toilet. I realize how much nicer the bathroom would look with all mustard-colored towels. As a child, I told myself I would never be the kind of woman who would care about the color of the bathroom towels. But suddenly, home is Home, and it is an appendage of me and I need it to be satisfying. I desire to satisfy it. The Home. I am indebted.

What is a woman who doesn’t want to be a mother, when the option is available? Is she anything? Is she human?

I spent last week with small children and was terrified, horrified, as I prepared myself for the week.  I can’t do it. But then, it was fine. In the midst of the children, I was reminded how goofy I was as a child. How goofy I used to feel around children. I’ve become so tight and anxious. Something about over-exposure to helicopter parents. Something about uncovering my own damage and realizing my potential to damage others. Because this was my feeling, has been my feeling: If I cannot be a mother, I will not be disappointed. If I choose not to be a mother, I will not be disappointed. If I choose to be a mother, I will not be disappointed. I will marry this ambivalence. I will change my name to it. I could not protect myself all those years from all those words, but I can save myself now.

I spent the week with two children, whose joy gave me joy. Whose wanderings and silences and urges wowed me. Impressed me. Schooled me. One child, we’ll call her Z, climbed the doorways like a little squirrel. Like a creature with legs and hands meant for climbing. Her abba stood close, encouraging her, asking her if she could climb both, if she could climb all. Never had a parent encouraged me to be fearless, to take a risk, to put my grubby, tiny hands and feet on the white walls for chrissake.

Z would be asked to do something and she would say, “no.” And that would be that. No argument, no screaming or threats or catastrophic change in the atmosphere. I stood dumbfounded. Z would be told it was time for something and she would say, “okay.” No wailing or bargaining or compromising or devastation. I furrowed my brow in disbelief. What have I been taught? What have I witnessed?

“These are the kind of things a mother might teach a daughter. How to get through the day. How to feel a little better when she is feeling a little worse….All my mother had done was try to love me while not loving herself. All she had done was make me feel about myself as she did about herself. She had been pummeled by life, by loss and by men, neglect and upheaval. She taught me what that felt like and it felt like shit. But in this realization there was great relief. My mother had not hated me. She had not thought me fat or misshapen or disgusting. These were feelings she carried about herself.”

So I’ve had to unlearn all the things I was and wasn’t taught. All the things I absorbed, me and my learning sponge of a brain. I can forget. And I cried, cried, cried in the living room while the children played outside, half-supervised and barefoot in the grass. Realizing all the things I didn’t learn but all the things I have learned and all the things I am learning and all the things I will learn:

1. Cultivate a persona of unreliability.

A handful of years ago, I had a revelation. This was back in the time when I worked very hard to answer all the emails in my email inbox. When I lived in fear of the disappointment of other people. When quelling the impatience of strangers was of higher priority than my own artmaking or sanity. Maybe you live in such a time of your own right now…

I spent a long time trying to maintain relationships with people who wanted more than I was capable of giving. The truth is, I do need to cancel plans regularly. I need to disappear for a few days or even months to attend to my writing. Friends or lovers who resent this, who interpret it as a personal rejection, are often angry with me. And feeling at a deficit makes me want to work harder to make it up to them.

Patriarchy (and institutional bigotry) conditions us to operate as if we are constantly working at a deficit. In some ways, this is true. You have to work twice as hard to get half the credit. I have spent most of my life trying to be perfect. The best student. The best dishwasher. The best waitress. The best babysitter. The best dominatrix. The best heroin addict. The best professor. I wanted to be good, as if by being good I might prove that I deserved more…

I don’t believe in my deficit any more. I will stop seeking out the edges of that pit. I will stop falling into it whenever I am asked a simple question. Whenever the thing doesn’t go my way.

I am loved now. I have a Home now. I don’t have to feel needed. I don’t have to feel tied. There is no strain to feel anymore. Not a leash, not an ugly to answer. Nothing to run from.

I had never expected that my psychiatrist telling me she loved me would be one of my happier moments. It sat in place of something that had been missing. A sensible love. A love that was not the other side of hate. A love that did not need me.


Visiting someone else's life and peeking in. Sorting out what I like, could do without, and desperately want for my self.

It comes down to something very simple: I want to do more. I want to feel more. I am missing…something, something critical. There is an urge I have in the pit of my gut. Like a geyser waiting, boiling, ready, but I sit and push it down. What is it? A hum, a tapping. I can't quite locate it. It is living, breathing, tangibly there.
I sit and try to hear it. Close my eyes and strain a little more. There is a drive, a passion in me to figure it out. Am I afraid? Afraid that if I hear it, then I will have to respond? I will have to answer the call and do something about it. What will that be like?

Am I ready to be left without excuses?

Not mass produced

I’ve been thinking of so many things. Trying to make sense of my place in higher ed. Trying to make sense of my place in a society that is becoming increasingly anti-intellectual and insular. If you watch the news.

I don’t know if I am different, but I have always felt I am different. Growing up, there seemed to be a clear divide between myself and my peers. I was born, I opened my mouth, with a question. I am reflective, always searching for new lines of inquiry. My critical thinking skills were apparent from an early age. I have distinct memories of my kindergarten and first grade teachers warily accepting my answers in class. Warily addressing my comments. The things I would say. My classmates have memories of this same girl– questioning, curious, bold. Somehow, this was seen as malicious, my love of questions. My seeking soul. As a six year old, learning like a sponge, I did not have malicious intent. I only sought data, facts to grab onto, something to pull me out of the sinking ship that was my world where everything was ambiguous, unknown, unanswerable.

When will I see my father again? I don’t know. Will we have running water in the morning? I don’t know. Will we ever stop feeling sad? I don’t know.

So maybe that’s it. My difference. Just my mind, my whirring brain, my rich inner life. Seeking words and moments and knowledge. I don’t know. But I wonder too how much of that difference can be attributed to my latin-ness. The blood in my veins that comes from the mountains, the desert, the valleys of Mexico and the rivers of unknown America. I don’t know. The shape of my last name that comes from Spain. That came across the ocean and scattered out, and caught my ancestors. I don’t know. I have loyalty cards, membership cards, to clubs I have never been to, but whose ceremonies and social cues I know. What then? I don’t know.

How much of my struggle, of my search, has just been me, trying to fit in. Trying to blend in, because I am different. In what way, I can’t exactly pinpoint, but in a way that is significant and has shaped me and continues to raise it’s little sharp head from time to time. Like when a white friend mentions her offense, her tan parents, her boring partner, her lonely life. When something, anything, jolts up in me, strikes a chord, and I have that inner quiet argument with myself: do I say something? Do I show this side of myself? Whatever that side is that has a different, opposite response, opposing knowledge to what is being presented to me as common fact, common, familiar, all-encompassing experience? Do I counter that with my own?

Do I remind the people who have never felt different that they are in fact different?

What if I instead desire being liked, being loved, and am tired of the wariness. What if the constant reminders of being different are too much. What if these have in fact drowned out, overcome, overpowered my desire to be loved? Then what? The boundaries I walk between being loved and loving myself. Between caring for others and maintaining myself.

Do others trump the self? Does the self trump the others? Neither seems quite right.

Entirely irrelevant

We had too much coffee at brunch. My stomach churns and sloshes. Nothing seems to help the slight irregular movement behind my ribs.

It is early July in Green Bay. The cicadas hum like it’s late summer, but the weather is just becoming pleasant, reliable, and steadily warm. The sun only recently a familiar face.

I enjoy a staycation. I read and read and read. I consider my future as a mother. I consider a future without children. I consider another world for women. I read some more. I cry, selfishly thinking of my own brown-skinned loves. Thinking of all the brown people I’ve loved in my life. I imagine their own deaths, their likelihood of getting murdered. Shot at their favorite bar. Over a beer with their best friend. I cry and it feels like relief. I tell myself it will be okay, although I have nothing to back this up. To prop myself up. To change my feelings of fear. I text my Asian boyfriend who is in New York visiting his Asian friends and family. We talk about Asian murder. I send him the link to the Indian murder. He does not want to read it. I did not expect him to. We change the subject from scary white men to food. Our constants.

I drive to Goodwill. I purchase books for my friend, who is expecting her first child. I am delighted to find a few of my favorite books from childhood. Maybe this new child will get to feel some of the things I felt. Maybe this new child will be like me. Maybe this new child will be a part of my life. I have no idea. I find myself at the dress rack, sliding hangers as much as the cramped space allows. I find myself with a handful. How easy it is to be a woman sometimes. One piece of cloth as an outfit. No zippers, buttons, or buckles. I am excited to wear something light and simple. To feel free in my body and unrestricted in my movement. If only every day my skin could feel so unencumbered.

I come home and sit on the roof. I think about writing. The constant urge. The constant slight vibration in my palms. Almost anxious, desperate, to produce something. Something with shape and weight and feeling. A way to displace all this weight that I gather. A way to keep moving forward. To keep the jitters at bay.

Stop sexism

This (Can Feminist Scholarship Stop Sexism) was a bit heavier of a Friday morning read, but it made me laugh:

“If I can be sufficiently helpless or self-deprecating or infantile, if I can affix enough implied exclamation marks to whatever harsh verdicts I deliver, perhaps I can offset the offense of pairing intellectual facility with femininity. Or so I have often reasoned. I can eviscerate your novel or your argument, but don’t worry: I’m too ditzy to drive!(!!!!!)”

I am exhausted. I tested the waters, put just my toe in the doorway to academe when I was 18 and blessed with work-study funds at the community college where I forced down as many intro-level courses as I could, and spent a few days a week dusting the old books in the library to save for the life I hoped was waiting for me. Twelve years later and I have not stopped working on a college campus.

At first it is slight. You do not notice…maybe it is because I primarily worked with women first at the commcoll library and then at the financial aid office of my four-year institution. All women, in all the offices I went to. All the times I delivered mail to the student accounts office or the bookstore or admissions. They are helpful, polite, efficient. I had a few male professors. A few were warm and a few were cold. One gave me a C on a paper. My first C, ever. I cried, maybe more than I’ve ever cried in front of a strange man. In front of another person I had no connection to, other than I sat in front of his face a few days a week. He blamed my emotional reaction on my background: “Where did you transfer from?” I felt more insulted and more alone after my response.

There were a lot of other things going on. My period was coming. It was my first semester in a real institution of higher learning. I was finally living on my own, but that meant carefully budgeting, carefully eating, carefully managing my time. I was spending full days in the library, falling asleep over books and journal articles. Staring at my laptop for hours. I had always been a diligent student, always over-studied and over-prepped for school. This was different. This was life-consuming. So much more seemed to be riding on my effort, my engagement, my grades. I had so much to apologize for that I had never felt sorry for before.

“Women come to expect a battery of dismissals and debasements, and they adjust accordingly: To be feminized is to learn that you can either accept your diminution by becoming diminutive (sorry!!!) or put up an unceasing fight, one that often endangers your career or further degrades you. Usually “you can receive some benefits by adapting yourself to a system that is, at another level, compromising your capacity to inhabit the world on more equal terms,” Ahmed writes. Recall the wall, and imagine how it feels to come up against it. Imagine apologizing daily to the wall, and trying to pretend you are happy.”

At 20, I won a competitive internship placement in the library. I met with the Dean. I explained to him my hopes of pursuing graduate study in library and information science. He was small. He said, “seems a little late to start now.” I was 20. I had been working in libraries for two years. His comment did nothing to temper the anxiety I was living with as I began exploring graduate schools and considering my future as our country entered the recession and I tried to be realistic about my prospects as an English major. How would I feed and house myself after graduation? Without the safety net of my financial aid?

Graduate school came and went. More women, less men. At my first professional position, as a visiting faculty member, I was told not to check my phone in meetings. My requests were denied. My words were reasoned away. Men would approach me at the bus stop, “you look fine.” I left.

Now, I’m told to “get my shit together.” My emotions, my complaints are often laughed at by the men who run this institution. More women, less men are my colleagues, but that’s not whose world I work in. I’m exhausted. I lash out at male colleagues whom I trust, who try to see, but can never feel, the walls I push up against every day. They feel a different urging in their bones. They can perform a different type of academic. I listen to male students as they describe wanting to punch a female professor in the face. I am asked out by other male students. “Want to get coffee?” My straight-faced, no-bullshit work attitude is addressed by the faculty I work with: “Cold.” Female students talk to me like I am a friend, a peer. “What year did you graduate?” “Did you go here?”

My female colleagues get pregnant and students gossip. They take time off and come back with more demands on their day. A different body. A different mindset.

I am a thirty year old female who works in higher education. I continue to live in a world of my own creation. I continue to create a world that does not keep me up at night. That does not leave me feeling nauseous and helpless. That works for me, not against me.

I admit. The things I did not know:

I did not know how to grow up interracial. I did not understand how to be different in a world that demanded simplicity and sameness. 

I did not know how to fall in love after eating and sleeping and growing in a house that pushed love away, hid it in the corners, crushed its soul. 

I did not know how to get up every morning and go to work in an office, with benefits and meetings. I had not been exposed to such a lifestyle. Expectations that are created by invisible rules rather than by real needs. Real logic and follow-through. 

I did not realize how badly I needed to leave that childhood space. How much I had been brainwashed to see my small disheveled life as normal, as everything, as the only thing. 

I did not know for sure, although I always suspected, quietly in the back of my mind, that I could have a life that better matched my inner narrative. A life that better fit my expectations of and my reactions to the world. 

I did not know. But I know now. 

On Father’s Day

Mom mom mom mom mom.


An interesting thing happened to me yesterday. My roommate offered me fries. Hot, fresh, greasy, McDonald’s fries, and I refused. I was already in bed. The sun was still up. “But you love fries,” he said. “I don’t want them,” I said.

Some days it is like this. She creeps in oddly, in the crook of my elbow, and I am stuck, holding her there for the imminent future.

My mom.

When I was young I called her mamma. Something she later became nostalgic about, particularly when my brother and sister cried for her with “mommy.” Mommy was whiney, too needy. Mamma implied something else. A more genuine interest, maybe. Respect.

I’ve almost always had a genuine interest in my mother. For as long as I can remember, I have puzzled over her, tried to solve her.

I broke into her childhood suitcase, filled to the brim with letters I tried to read. I dove into her bed when she was awake, often falling asleep to the scents in the sheets. Something so soothing there. Cigarette smoke and Opium. Cedar.

My mother is an alcoholic. What I thought was a snarky quirk, something cute like hipster cat t-shirts–wine in her coffee cups in the afternoon–has turned into something vicious and gray. Like a splayed bunny in the road.

Mom mom mom. She made me unsure of her love, unsure of myself. She left me alone, she shut me out, she didn’t answer my questions. I sought her. She sought away.
I became a cheerleader because she was a cheerleader. I struggled with math because she had always struggled with math. I started writing because she was a writer. Writing to me in a journal before I was born. Rounded cursive words that she lost after my early birth.

Some woman I will never know, my mother. Someone who evaded me for years, who I in turn avoid now. Some woman who called me names and made me doubt the whole world. Made me sure it would devour me whole, spit me out, leave me with her. And what could she offer me, then?

I love my mother. I despise my mother. I do not miss my mother. I rarely think of telling her good news in my life, of any news of my life, or of inviting her to my home. When I was in college I fantasized about lunches with my mother, weekends with my mother. The two of us, as it had never been before. She evaded me still. She insulted me still.

I grew up. I stopped competing with my mother. I know and catch and try to correct the gestures I stole from her, the poor posture I copied from her, the grimaces I make like a mirror to her. I cut my hair. I keep off the weight. I tell myself, I’m doing what I want. Not because she didn’t do these things. Because she told me these things would hurt me. That I would break reaching for them, lose myself asking for them, as she had.

I am not broken. My skin bends and burns. It threatens to reshape, to leave me. It tries to break as it was so skillfully trained to do. I stand up straight, even though my mother taught me to curl around. I find my voice, even though my mother told me to shut up. I talk, and laugh, and succeed. Her anger is not my anger.

She wants me to come home to her now. To reclaim her. To miss her, as she misses me. She wants me to proclaim my success as hers. Me as a result of her. She wants me to bring the good things of my life to her. Like an offering, a sacrifice. Something to appease the Gods. I ignore her texts and block her on social media. Her rantings, so similar to my life lessons. So unnecessary. So unneeded. So uninformed. My feminist guy does a kind thing, but it reminds me of her. How she would steal my agency, silence my voice, prevent me from meeting myself. I know he is not like her. He has a different motivation, a different outcome. Seeks a different me. A me. I only cry for a minute. That feeling of falling rising in my chest. A sunken place. A moment of distress. Historical trauma.

She didn’t give me the words for things, the things I would find. I’m finding what I knew all along: I’m fine.