Stand up. Fight Back.

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On a hazy January morning, we started to walk with the crowds towards the National Mall, not knowing the exact destination just simply moving with the current. The dome of the United States Capitol peeked out above a line of rectangular bureaucratic buildings. The faces of these buildings were stone and unadorned. They stood stoic and quiet, impenetrable. The crowd was still loose enough to allow gaps between the women and girls and dots of men who carried signs and upbeat voices.

We made it to a cross street, and I watched the people ahead of me as they made the turn, their eyes focused down the street, some lifted phones over their heads to take photos, others just stared, but they all kept moving. As we entered the wide expanse of the intersection, I saw what they saw. We were at the top of a hill staring down Independence Avenue. At the bottom the crowds were so dense and bright there was no indication of street or sidewalk, of where buildings stopped and the tiny dots of all those people and their declarations began.

We turned and walked down the hill, small conversations and observations with the people walking with us, there was laughter and shout outs looking for a member of our group not easily visible, “Where is she?”

“Oh, there she is.”

There were chants from the crowd, “When women’s rights are under attack, what do we do?” and the crowd responds, “Stand up! Fight back!”

“What do we do?”

“Stand up! Fight back!”

Above all the empowerment and solidarity there was also a cloud of everyone’s collective anxiety. Because we were not going to a festival. This was not fucking Bonnaroo. We were marching into a crowd larger than I had ever seen. We did not know how this day would unfold, where we would end up, how we would get home. We did not know if the crowds would be peaceful and generous. We did not know what force majeure awaited us. We also did not know if there was something insidious waiting in the future of the day. Nobody checked our clear backpacks. Nobody looked under my bulky jacket.

“When I say sisters, you say rise!”

“Rise!”

“Sisters!”

“Rise!”

We kept walking. My anxiety presents itself as jitters, stemming from the epicenter of my nerves and branching out. An overall sense that I might just simply pass out. I have had this experience before, when the stimulus overwhelms my capability to react. It is as if every vessel expands just a fraction and there is not enough room in my body for all my energy. My experience at this march was overwhelmingly positive and at times even fun, but I was nervous. I have two kids at home. As a mother, my life is not my own. I don’t have the luxury to be reckless. They are not my raison d’etre, but I belong to them. I breathe deep and keep walking.

“The people! United! Will never be defeated!”

“The people! United! Will never be defeated!”

I glance around and look for the familiar coats and jackets and pink hats of my marching crew. Everyone is wearing pink pussy hats, but I know which ones are mine. If I lose sight of my sisters, then I scan for our “Women’s Strike” signs. Black with white lettering. Unapologetic. The mood of the crowd is not somber. We talk and point out signs that make us proud or make us laugh.

Keep your god out of my bod.

Tiny hands, big asshole.

Everyone moves forward calmly but willfully. Officials in green vests stand in intersections and suggest we make turns, doing signs with their arms as if directing traffic, but instead of cars it is a mass of people—women, men, children, and strollers. Bumps into shoulders are quickly met with a call of “Sorry” and a response of “It’s ok” because we are women and we are taught to make no ripples. But on this day in January we form a tidal wave. By the hundreds of thousands, we put a dent in the center of the National Mall, making a mark on history. Our collective footprint like a space boot on the moon.

The women’s march was considered successful because of the incredible number of protesters in Washington D.C. and because of the solidarity shown around the country and even internationally. From what I could see the march was more than just white women. There was representation from women of color, maybe even more than I had expected, even though there still exists the valid concern of why white women are now finally marching out from behind our picket fences. Where the hell have we been?

This march was also peaceful. There were no arrests. No tear gas. No rubber bullets. There was barely even a police presence at all. I saw less than a dozen police, mostly standing against cinder block buildings, one knee propped up like a casual flamingo. The only interaction I had with the police was when I waved down a uniformed officer to get help for a woman who had tripped on a curb and landed on her face and suffered a cut above her right eyebrow. However, this protest was not successful because it was peaceful. Those two factors must remain mutually exclusive.

This protest was attended by women, men, and families just like me, who are kept just comfortable enough to be unwilling to storm the White House. We had the numbers, and maybe it is because a group of women would not usually destroy such a beautiful home. We had enough of a presence that we could have commandeered the White House, emptied it of all the precious antiques, and then burned it to the ground. But we didn’t. We wore our pink hats, told our bladders, “Not Today!” and took peaceful control of the National Mall. Then we left and went back to our spaces of comfort, hugged our children, and now many of us are continuing to organize in our local communities.

The march was important and successful. The night after the march, I was renewed and felt a sense of optimism about the people of this country and our precious democracy. However, the march was also benign. If we consider this march in relationship to the two Americas presented by Martin Luther King, Jr. then this march was attended by those living in the America where “People have the milk of prosperity and the honey of equality flowing before them.” We the people of this America are unwilling to throw bricks because that could substantially disrupt our glass houses. We are accustomed to silent conformity.

Also, we have been so conditioned to the idea that rioting is non-productive and only further divides groups. How many times have I heard the phrase “those people” sprout and erupt around times of rioting and violent protest? We use rioting as a scapegoat for othering. King is celebrated by the white community and we get a day off from work to celebrate him because of his promotion of nonviolence. Ask any school kid in America and that adjective will be the one that is most closely associated with his legacy.  I am still waiting for my kids to come home from school with their detailed reports on Malcolm X.

Looking more closely at King’s “Other America” speech, he talks about the use of nonviolence as a more effective measure than rioting because “A riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt” and he continues to state that he cannot condemn riots without also condemning the conditions that promote them because “A riot is the language of the unheard.” King was arrested 30 times for protesting against segregation. Nonviolent is not the same as nondisruptive.

As a white woman who walked into this march maybe feeling the anxiety for the first time of a possible fear of police presence, I realize that I have no excuse for not standing up before now. Maybe I should have been standing shoulder to shoulder with all the marginalized voices throwing bricks into business windows. Even better, there is (as King taught us) a space between a protest with no arrests and an outright violent demonstration. We are going to have to be more disruptive to fight against a bully of this magnitude. We cannot just walk the streets and expect to be heard. My name is now likely on some type of list. A big black checkmark beside my H. And the thing is that I don’t even know if I have the courage to come out from behind the protection of my glass house. I am still questioning how much I am willing to sacrifice. As I sit here being heard, I am a parcel of hypocrisy.

My unwillingness to let go of my space of comfort is exactly what the Trump administration, headed by Grand Wizard Steve Bannon, is counting on. They are expecting that middle class white people will abandon the disenfranchised when it comes time for real protest, that the huge crowds of people will soon just be a few groups living in tents and playing hacky sack while the rest of us are at home watching CNN and tucking our children into warm beds. That is what Trump and his band of villains are using to place all their bets. Giant stacks of chips made from compressed pieces of our freedom and betting on apathy. Our gazes down as we have passed by our history of inequality and violence fueled by discrimination of anything that is not white, wealthy, and patriarchal are what got us here. Fear and division put extremism in the White House. We are going to have to use courage and solidarity to get us out. We have the numbers. We have the education. The awareness. Morality. Empathy. History. This administration thinks we are bluffing. We need to firmly demonstrate that we are serious about maintaining the rights of all the people and not just a select few.

When democracy is under attack, what do we do?

Stand up! Fight back!

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Self Portrait as My Traitor

“The work of all women writers is jeopardized when individual female authors are taken to task for the content of their writing.” –bell hooks from Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work

Two months before I filed for divorce, I published an essay titled Match.com (later published in The Funny Times in November 2013). In the essay, I consider Martha Stewart’s foray into online dating, and I suggest that her profile and her appearance on talk shows where she would actually meet with men who responded to her—men with gilded silver hair who looked like they were fresh off the golf course—was all just a publicity stunt for her new book. I noted that I was a married woman who was “not necessarily looking”, but I suggested that most likely neither was Martha. At this time, my marriage was in the process of being declared a federal disaster zone. Aerial footage would show our marital home as a pile of tiny splinters, cars turned upside down, trees pulled up to expose their enormous red clay packed roots. As a former inhabitant, all I could do was stare at the aftermath. I knew everything was gone. It was over. But I did not know where to start in an effort to move forward.

I approached the Match.com essay the way I approach most essays, with a problem. As I considered the issue through the mock profile, I came to the conclusion that what I really needed was for someone to accept me despite all my flaws. Much like Martha Stewart’s Match profile, my fake one was not about going on any real dates, it was a way for me to explore what it would take, realistically and comically (often bedmates), to fix that unhappiness.

My ex-husband “discovered” the essay during our divorce process and tried to use it against me. He wanted that essay to serve as evidence that I was cheating on him before I filed for divorce. He wanted my writing to be an exposé of my character. He also just didn’t get it, which is why he never had an interest in reading my work in the first place. I rarely shared my writing with him because he did not like that version of me. That version that is in my own words. That version where I am in control of how I am perceived. He wanted to see me in a certain way, and the honest accounts of my life and my perceptions stood in opposition to his version of how he wanted me to be.

It is also about control. Using my writing as a way to call my value systems into question is a way to revise me and to alter the meaning of my words. It is also an issue that adds bricks to the immense wall of gender bias. More recently, I have been taken to task by my employer for the essay I wrote called Some Bunny to Love. As a woman—as a mother—there are ways that I should act. Adrienne Rich describes how her poetry writing suffered after the birth of her first child because she was worried that if she appeared unhappy in her work, if there were “periods of null depression or active despairing” then she could be deemed some type of monster (I published an essay about this in September 2012). Of course, Rich had her children in the 1950s, but it seems we are still persecuting women for their honest commentary. bell hooks warns:

“Critics will exercise the power to publicly judge and morally condemn the subject of women’s writing when it transgresses the boundaries of conservative convention and mainstream decorum.”

Depending on where the female author resides, the boundaries of conservative convention can usually be stretched to blanket almost anything, especially if related to female sexuality—unless the works are capitalist blockbusters, like Fifty Shades of Grey, then that is okay because it is about the economy, stupid. Oh wait, and about a man sexually dominating a woman.

There is an Afterword that Vladimir Nabokov added to the 1956 edition of Lolita titled, “On a Book Entitled Lolita” that has always interested me. I find value in reading an author, especially one such as Nabakov, reflecting on his work in his own words—it is the Inside the Actor’s Studio of my field. Also, this afterword is where we get such moments of inspiration like his declaration that “reality” is “one of the few words that mean nothing without quotes.” But what has attracted me the most from this short essay is his discussion about what inspired him to write Lolita. He simply provides this anecdote:

“As far as I can recall, the initial shiver of inspiration was somehow prompted by a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes, who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.”

I interpret this passage to mean that sometimes, if we look through another’s eyes, we may not like what we see. What we see could leave us haunted. This certainly applies to Humbert Humbert because this book—to me—is mostly about the contradictions, nuances, and shock of first person narration. This small revelation from Nabakov, tacked on at the end of one of the most morally disputed novels in the canon (because it does still make it in—resolutely inside the academic tower), can be applied to the work of female authors, especially those of us who are autobiographical. As I share my experience, it may stand in opposition to how I am expected to act. Think. Feel. When a reader peers out from my eyes, he may not like what he sees. It is like viewing a Frida Kahlo self-portrait. Each artist has her own bars of the cage and when depicted honestly, it just might make people squirm.

I aim to write authentically about the myriad of experiences that constitute my life, most often my personal life (or lack thereof), my role as a remedial parent, and my career as a writer. A recurring theme for me is writing about what it is like to be a single woman with two kids in a small southern town, and how that can make it difficult for me to find love. I am also a romantic, which is a real cockblocker. I recently took an online quiz to determine which Shakespeare story best matches my love life. Of course I got Romeo and Juliet. The advice I take from this important and real diagnosis is that I have unrealistic expectations, and I should go directly to the nearest apothecary so I can be put out of my misery. That is what cages me. I have nobody to blame for the fact that I have struggled to find a suitable partner—someone intelligent and kind, and not to be greedy, but also a sense of humor. And I would like to be pretty damn close to as important to him as the sun. And it would be great if he has a yacht or a helicopter or both (ISO someone with a helipad), and he should be a sommelier.

Although I love to employ humor, both in my writing and as a defense mechanism, the truth is that being alone is a major part of my life. Most nights after I put the kids to bed, I wish I had a hand to hold on the couch. In the house we have rented for the past two years, I have only had two men spend the night. One was a man I dated this past winter, and we spent time together here on a weekend when my kids were with their father. The other was a man I dated long distance for almost a year, and then he lived with us for four months. We created a happy but somewhat artificial semblance of a family life, based on a real and deeply rooted friendship, and I will never regret that time. My children laughed with him and through that experience I was able to see how generously they are able to love—without spite or jealousy or loss of feelings for their own father. They can love exponentially and that made me immensely proud.

As a woman—an educated, independent woman—I am not supposed to be sad because I am single. I cannot be the Julia Roberts character from Knotting Hill and say that I am just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her (I have learned this the hard way). I am supposed to just be amazing and live each day as if I can actually do this on my own and hope that the right person will show up when I am not looking, or when I am having a bad hair day (never going to happen). But I have never been good at doing what I am supposed to do. I am a rebel. And I will not be silenced. According to bell hooks, “Given the power of censorship and antifeminist backlash we should all be insisting that women writers continue to resist silencing.” My resistance comes in the only form I know: to just keep writing.

My craft is humor writing, and I have carved a decent niche in a difficult genre. Humor writing cannot be riddled with clichés. It has to be fresh. It must evoke recognition of shared experience but with a twist that reveals something more—perhaps something more sinister, more extreme, or even more pathetic. It has to grab people to arouse laughter. I employ a voice in my humor writing that is dangerously honest. She puts the elephant in the center of the room and decorates it with garlands of daisies and daggers. Through the process of creative expression, I am more able to accept my flaws and love myself just the way I am, which is all I have ever asked of those around me.

My ex-husband’s attempt to use the Match.com essay against me during the divorce was not the first or the last time I have been taken to task for the content of my writing. And I have no doubt that the last time will occur only after I stop writing all together. What I have to take away from this is that my writing must actually matter. People are paying attention. And there is something I am doing that is rattling the cage.

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bell hooks’ work is from her book Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work published by Holt and Company in 1999.

Adrienne Rich’s ideas about the intersection of writing and motherhood is from her essay, “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision” published in College English in 1972.

The excerpt From “On a Work Entitled Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov is from “Lolita” on iBooks, Second Vintage International Edition published by Vintage Books. https://itun.es/us/FRlez.l