“Smile! You look tired!”

My friend Lisa had a great opinion piece in the Times over the weekend that I just discovered this morning. How could I not try to find today’s poem in her words?

Today I was told not to look judgmental. Told this by a complete stranger on the subway platform. This, of course, is part and parcel of the “Smile!” nonsense that gets thrown at women. Feh.

“Smile! You look tired!”
(An erasure of Lisa Ko’s Times piece about quitting smiling.)

Women are often expected to smile,
make others comfortable.
Unnecessarily cheerful bluster,
Americans smile –
larger, toothier, intense –
a universal sign of the 20th century.
Smiling about a desire
for appeasement and artifice.
Nonverbal communication
is unpredictable, uncertain, suspicious.
The appearance of happiness
takes away our right to our feelings.
Appear happy,
compensate,
smile.


It’s National Poetry Month! Every year, I choose a specific form and try to write a poem a day in that form. This year, I am trying erasure poems and I want to use news articles as my source texts. I’ve practiced a few times, and it’s already feeling difficult! We’ll see how it goes.

Here’s an edited version of the Wiki definition of this form:
Erasure Poetry: a form of found poetry created by erasing words from an existing text in prose or verse and framing the result on the page as a poem. Erasure is a way to give an existing piece of writing a new set of meanings, questions, or suggestions. It lessens the trace of authorship but requires purposeful decision making. What does one want done to the original text? Does a gesture celebrate, denigrate, subvert, or efface the source completely? One can erase intuitively by focusing on musical and thematic elements or systematically by following a specific process regardless of the outcome.
Also, Robert Lee Brewer at Writer’s Digest has some good points to add about ethics and plagiarism:
Quick note on ethics: There is a line to be drawn between erasure poems and plagiarism. If you’re not erasing more than 50% of the text, then I’d argue you’re not making enough critical decisions to create a new piece of art. Further, it’s always good form to credit the original source for your erasures.

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Washington International School
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Comrades in Arms

I once had an only date with a small, anxious man. He was nervous and … ferret-y: fidgety like the way ferrets move. He was a few years older than me, an inch or two taller, very slender, white. We went to dinner at a Burmese place in the East Village. Then we walked around for a bit then said our goodbyes at the subway.

I knew in the first five minutes that we weren’t a match, that we wouldn’t see each other again. I imagine that he knew it, too.

At one point after dinner, as we walked up First Avenue, several young men ran past us. There were maybe six or seven of them, and they ran on either side of us. They were fast but seemed aimless, as if they were running just to be running.

I found them beautiful to watch, like gazelles, so effortless and full of energy. But they spooked my date. And it’s understandable that someone would be alarmed by having a group of people run up on them at night. Sure. It’s more surprising that I wasn’t alarmed. But my date stayed freaked out long after the young men had flown past us. His state of alert was so high, it began to make me nervous.

Finally, he stopped walking and, when I turned to look at him, said: “If there’s any trouble, I can’t protect you or fight for you. I’ll just run.”

I remember being surprised, amused, and pitying. There’s so much wrapped up in a pronouncement like that. Over time I’ve come to realize how wrong and unfair my reaction to him was. At the time, all I could think was – welp, if there had been even the thinnest chance of a second date, or even a curiosity kiss to end this date, it just shriveled up and died on the vine.

I certainly don’t ever expect my dates to step up with sword and shield or dive in front of blows or bullets if something awful goes down when we’re together. And mostly that is because I don’t think about things going that kind of sour. That isn’t a way my life has ever played out. But even with men I’ve been in relationships with, I have never assumed that they would physically protect me. I mean, if something happened I’d be right there, so I’d expect that I’d defend myself. I’d expect us to fight together against whatever.

That said, for you to tell me you’d run away, that you’d flee to save yourself and abandon me? Um, no. Just no.

Of course, my response to his honesty was based on stereotypes about what it means to “be a man,” to behave in a “manly” way. The shriveling up and dying of any hint of desire I might have felt for this man was caused entirely by the fact that I was trained to expect the man by my side to play the role of knight in shining armor.

I barely knew the man I was on that date with. He could have had any number of past traumatic experiences that made the idea of a street fight so petrifying that he couldn’t keep walking without letting me know that he wouldn’t be putting himself in such a situation.

I told this story to my sister not long ago, and she burst out laughing. I mean, yes. That’s my response, too. Even now, I’m sad to admit. Because our conditioning means that it’s a funny story. Even today. Even with everything we know. Because who says that? But still. Our laughter also tells me how much work I still have to do, how far I haven’t come.

How stunting is it that we don’t allow men to feel things it is entirely natural and human to feel? What do we do to men – and to the women and children around them – when we don’t allow them to be vulnerable, to be afraid, to not want to be fighters? I think we see the answer to that question over and over again – Adam Lanza, Elliot Rodger, James Holmes. Sadly, that list is so very much longer.

I want, also, to be clear that I am not a fighter. I am not anything at all like a fighter. If someone had attacked my date and me on the street that night, I would surely have faced the attack with bewilderment. I would have said, “Hey!” because I’d have been surprised that something awful was happening to me, and “hey” is my go-to exclamation. And then I’d have said, “Hey!” again, I guess, as I saw my date take off. That date was years before the accident that messed up my knees, so it’s possible that I would have run, too. But it’s more likely that my surprise and shock would have stalled me long enough that my attacker would have gotten whatever they’d come for – my purse, my life, whatever.

I am not anything at all like a fighter. And I’m lucky because I’ve never had to be one – or, only just a couple of times – and, too, society doesn’t expect me to be one. Even with my height and size, I can “play the girl” and not have to know how to throw or block a punch.

I could learn how to fight, could learn how to defend myself. And society makes room for that. As a woman, I have the room for that. Men don’t get the same degree of space.

What do we think we’re gaining as a society by depriving men of the right to their feelings, of the ability to be comfortable with their fears? When will we see that whatever we gain is significantly outweighed by everything we lose?


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

The Violent Male Gaze

Tonight, I stepped away from the Times and over to Jezebel for my source material. Found an excellent piece by Clover Hope to use for my poem. Definitely worth reading the full essay. She has a lot to say and says it well. Thank you to everyone who suggested I switch up my news source. Of course that was a great idea. I’ll be doing more of that.

The Violent Male Gaze
(An erasure of the Jezebel article on the #MeToo movement and film)

This is a cycle.
It’s happened her whole life
sexual assault, rape, domestic violence –

Public attention has escalated
acknowledgment of violent sexual behavior,
reflection and reinforcement of prevailing views,
our pessimism about change remains.

Violence has worked for decades,
the link between real-world sexual violence
and depictions of violence
confirming violence as a sexual stimulant for men.
Violence exists within a continuum
of culturally sanctioned, ritualized aggression,
a continuum from the symbolic, cleansing, and cathartic
to the desensitizing, exploitative and profoundly hypocritical.

What’s been robbed of women
is the privilege of complexity.
Consideration
of how we respond to or reject violent imagery.
We are inundated with images
of women as victims,
images of murdered women’s bodies.
They are the narrative background,
acted upon rather than acting.

Men in power have stalled the course of evolution.
The issue of violence begins with how women are seen –
unconscious indoctrination.
Awareness of these images,
pointing out that women are sexualized,
made into sexual objects,
an overpowering message that you’re constantly seeing,
a consciousness created about what women are here to do.

Advancement of women is one obvious solution.
One of the clearest ways to combat sexual harassment:
Some enlightenment …
And a lot more women.


It’s National Poetry Month! Every year, I choose a specific form and try to write a poem a day in that form. This year, I am trying erasure poems and I want to use news articles as my source texts. I’ve practiced a few times, and it’s already feeling difficult! We’ll see how it goes.

Here’s an edited version of the Wiki definition of this form:

Erasure Poetry: a form of found poetry created by erasing words from an existing text in prose or verse and framing the result on the page as a poem. Erasure is a way to give an existing piece of writing a new set of meanings, questions, or suggestions. It lessens the trace of authorship but requires purposeful decision making. What does one want done to the original text? Does a gesture celebrate, denigrate, subvert, or efface the source completely? One can erase intuitively by focusing on musical and thematic elements or systematically by following a specific process regardless of the outcome.

Also, Robert Lee Brewer at Writer’s Digest has some good points to add about ethics and plagiarism:

Quick note on ethics: There is a line to be drawn between erasure poems and plagiarism. If you’re not erasing more than 50% of the text, then I’d argue you’re not making enough critical decisions to create a new piece of art. Further, it’s always good form to credit the original source for your erasures.

Image result for national poetry month
Washington International School

Fat Talk: Fat-Shaming and My Secret Decoder Ring

So, with the fat shaming. I am over it. I’ve been over it. So over it that I’d think my over-it-ness would be glowing off me like a radioactive cloud. Trouble is, the assholes who have what to say about my body can’t actually see me. They just see FAT WOMAN. I am a faceless, ageless, blob, existing only to poison their fields of vision and offer myself up for their instruction, ridicule, scorn. Yes, sure. But really: I’m not the one.

Man behind me at the bagel place this morning sucks his teeth when I order a cinnamon raisin with cream cheese, says; “And you wonder why you don’t lose weight.”

I turn to give him some heavy side eye (pun entirely intended), say: “Actually, I’m wondering if I’d also like jelly. And of course I’m wondering how it is you think what I eat is any business of yours.”

He screws up his face, asks, “You ever look in the mirror?”

If he only knew! My vanity and I spend more than enough time gazing dreamily into looking glasses. But here is the thing. His answer — asking if I ever look in the mirror — is straight-up stupid. Because here’s the other thing. A fat body is only his business if it’s his body. Punto. And then here’s the last thing. I’ve been clear just how few fucks I give about his opinion,  and yet he keeps it going. What could be his problem?

I smile at him — as if he could ever deserve one of my smiles — and tell him the mirror and I have been in a long-term, committed relationship for many years. Surprisingly, he isn’t amused.

“You big black women,” he says, “you always have too much attitude.”

“And it really hurts your feelings, doesn’t it?”

“Nothing about you is worth my time.”

I laugh. “And yet, you’re wasting all this time thinking and talking about worrying about what’s going on with me. Interesting.”

He pulls out his phone, suddenly very interested in the facebook. Right.

I’ve written about foolish, fat-phobic people like this before, people who think they have the right to comment on my body simply because I have the audacity to have my body. In public. Where anyone can see it.

Sigh.

I sound cocky and comfortable in that exchange, but that’s not entirely the case. Yes, I am good with comebacks. I have so many years of practice, I’d better be good. But the bagel place is crammed with people, some of whom I see on a regular basis. It’s never my idea of a good time to be fat-shamed, and certainly not in front of a crowd. I receive no support or warm smiles or acknowledgment of any kind from the people around me — because of course — so I step up and shut this fool down all by myself. Because I am grown and I know know to do that shit. Because there’s no authority I am bound to obey that says I have to take anyone’s crap any day of the week. Still, the whole business leaves me pissed off and uncomfortable. Leaves me playing the moments over and over in my head. The ugliness has been silenced, but its sting and stench linger.

*

I’ve also said in the past that, whenever someone comments on my body, I know they are really talking about themselves. It’s really just always true. Always and always and always. It’s hard to see sometimes, so you have to look carefully. It helps if you have a Fat Shame Decoder Ring. I’ve got one. It’s lovely, forged in the fires of Mount Doom and everything. One ring to read them all.

the-one-ring-3d-model-max

And so, I’ll decode this man’s comments. His snarky, “And you wonder why you don’t lose weight,” is clearly directed at himself, wondering why he hasn’t been able to achieve some goal he thinks he’s supposed to want. And when he looks in the mirror, he’s reminded of that perceived failure, of just how much he hasn’t achieved. It would be sad if he weren’t so annoying, so ready to scrape some of his self-hate off and try smearing it on my beautiful brown skin.

His next comment is definitely for me. I do have far too much attitude. Far too much. Much more than I am supposed to have given how society sees me. I should be humble, should be trying to hide myself, should be well and truly ashamed that other people are forced to see the grotesquerie that is me. Instead, I walk around like a person who deserves life, who deserves a bagel and a schmear. My audacity really gets on his nerves. After all, if he knows how deeply he has failed at whatever task he’s set himself, how can I — so clearly failing to meet society’s standard of female beauty — have the nerve to mind my own damn business standing in the bagel shop? How can I dare to order breakfast in the sight of hardworking assholes like him, people who are really out here trying?

His last comment is a toss-up. It’s meant for both of us. He wants me to know he’s not actually focused on me — because of course — but he’s also breaking my heart just a little bit by telling me that nothing about himself is worth his time.

That’s a sad declaration to make about one’s self, so yes, breaking my heart … but only the tiniest of bits. Because, as unfortunate as it may be that this man doesn’t find himself worth his own time, his insecurity and self-loathing don’t make his behavior toward me any more acceptable. It’s always true that the things people say to me reveal the things they fear or despise in themselves. I’m still left with the public shaming, with that effluvium drying on my skin and stuck in my hair.

The decoder ring only works after the fact, long after the ugliness has passed. Because it’s for me, not for whoever’s words I’m decoding. No matter how well or poorly I handle the unpleasant moment, I need to handle it on my own. Telling whichever awful person is in my face that they’re really talking about themselves will serve no helpful purpose. So I say whatever I say, hold whatever silence I choose, keep my head up. But than I carry that bitterness around with me, even after I think I’ve moved on. It keeps creeping back in.

That’s when I need to slip on the decoder ring and remind myself what was really going on so I can remember that I am exactly the same as I was before encountering that stranger and their mess — just as tall, just as black, just as fat, just as fine, and that nothing they’ve had to say changes any of that.

I’m glad to have the ring in my jewelry box, though I think sometimes it would be preferable to move through the world in a sound-proof booth.


One in a series of essays inspired by reading Roxane Gay’s memoir, Hunger.
If you haven’t read my ground rules, please take a look before commenting. Thank you.For 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I fell months behind on my #GriotGrind, and it seemed highly unlikely that I’d write 52 essays by year’s end. But then I dedicated my NaNoWriMo to writing essays, and did a pretty good job of catching up! I’ve got to move house before the end of December, so I’m unlikely to reach 52 essays. Still, I’ve written more this year than in the last two combined, and that adds up to a solid WIN in my book! Get ready for #52essays2018!

Your Fave Would Never

I wrote this essay a few weeks ago. I sent it around to a handful of outlets, but it didn’t get picked up, so I’m posting it here. Sadly–though entirely unsurprisingly–the subject remains current.

__________

In response to the calling out of predators in entertainment, media, politics, sports, and all over the damn where, a Yashar Ali tweet linked to a satirical news story saying Tom Hanks had been revealed … as being extremely kind. The actress’ claims refer to her time working with Hanks on The DaVinci Code. She states: “The entire time I was on set he repeatedly exposed himself to me as a thoroughly decent human being.”

It’s funny—or almost funny—but also annoying and problematic. I understand the urge to call attention to (put on a pedestal) the men you think are above this fray, men who would never, ever be implicated in anything like any of the accusations we’ve heard. I do get it. But it’s troubling, too.

Because you have no idea. None.

Yes, there were apparently a raft of open secrets about many of these scumbag men. But there are also accusations being made against men who don’t come with open secrets. And those accusations shock us in large part because we’ve been loving on these men for years, long enough to believe we knew them.

And that was our mistake. We never knew those men.

We so want there to be men who aren’t horrible—if only to affirm our belief in our ability to assess character, to choose friends, to read people. And, of course, there are men who aren’t horrible … but we don’t get to decide who falls into that category. We don’t get to designate who the “good” men are based simply on whether or not we like them. Do I want to believe Tom Hanks isn’t an abusive lout? Of course. Do I know he isn’t an abusive lout? Nope.

That “news” piece is meant to be a joke, but it annoys me because, while it’s giving Hanks a nod to let him know he is loved and trusted … at least by the person who wrote it, it is also telling a woman who might have something to say that she won’t be believed because we all “know” Hanks would never.

One of the things this moment is making clear is how many women have been silenced and how effectively. The story about Hanks plays into the silencing—surely not intentionally, but intention has to take a backseat to impact.

The other thing I’ve been seeing in the last week is women starting to name men they are holding their breath over, men they hope against hope aren’t going to get pulled into this particular spotlight. I could make one of these lists, too—Bill Withers, Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Mackie, Goran Višnjić, Viggo Mortensen, Danny Glover, Denzel …

There is no point to this list-making. Of course we don’t want to learn that the actors or musicians or socially-conscious businessmen we love as assholes. But what is true is that we don’t know. We don’t know at all.

George Takei was accused. When I read that, I had to consciously fight my urge to dismiss the accuser. I surprised myself each time I had to do that. How could I so readily believe the women who’d come forward but dismiss this man and give Takei a pass? The voice in my head just kept saying: “But Takei would never …”

Yeah. But I don’t know that, do I?

Don’t forget: these famous, celebrity men we want to believe the best of are beloved because of the characters we’ve seen them play or the public personas we’ve seen them project.

Don’t forget: we don’t even know the men we think we actually know. Take Bob, a young man who was a favorite counselor at the summer camp I attended for years. I certainly thought I knew Bob, but he turned out to be a man who would sidle up to 13-year-old me and ask if I sold sex and for how much.

And of course there’s also Alain, a man I was friends with who raped me after a night of running around the city laughing and dancing and—I thought—enjoying our city and our friendship.

My point is that we want to believe our faves would never, but we can’t know that. A man can only prove he’s not a predator by not being one, so we can never know. We can never know. Alain never seemed like a rapist any of the times we went to dinner and hung out talking about our plans for our lives and where we imagined traveling and what work we thought we’d do. He just seemed like any guy I enjoyed being friends with. He was just any guy.

They are all just any guy. Until they’re not. If they looked like predators, we’d know to steer clear of them. They know that. And we have to know it, too.

I don’t fault the women who are posting names of the celebrities they hope no one steps up to accuse. My own list can go on and on. It can, actually, include every man who hasn’t yet been accused because I don’t want there to be any more predators.

But I know better. I know—as much as I hate knowing—that my fave … might. And yours might, too.


For 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I fell months behind on my #GriotGrind, and it seemed highly unlikely that I’d write 52 essays by year’s end. But then I dedicated my NaNoWriMo to writing essays, and did a pretty good job of catching up! I’ve got to move house before the end of December, so I’m unlikely to reach 52 essays. Still, I’ve written more this year than in the last two combined, and that adds up to a solid WIN in my book! Get ready for #52essays2018!

Yes, yes, of course … me, too.

Women are all over FB right now posting “Me, too.” Some are posting with the tagline: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me, too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” Some are posting their actual stories. And it’s powerful … and triggering. And enraging. And starkly hideous.

I posted my “Me, too” and thought I’d leave it at that. I did just write about being sexually abused, after all. And I’ve written in the past about experiences with sexual harassment, about assault. Did I really need to say anything more?

But the tidal wave of “Me, too” posts flooding my timeline began to overwhelm me. I’m not surprised by them. Hardly. I am more surprised by women who can’t say “Me, too.” It just seems likely that nearly every woman everywhere has experienced some form of sexual harassment or abuse, some manifestation of the complete social normalization of rape culture. Still, the posts felt so heavy, so painful.

So, too, the number of women posting about how they never told anyone, how they felt responsible, how they put themselves in harm’s way against their own discomfort or awareness of danger because of concern about how the man would feel or be impacted if they didn’t acquiesce.

And I am impressed that so many people feel comfortable enough, safe enough to be able to post. And I’m feeling for all the people who don’t feel safe to post and are holding their silences. And I’m grateful to my non-binary and male friends who’ve posted their “Me, too” stories, driving home the full range of this issue.

But at the end of this day, I find myself wondering what all these posts add up to. Where do they leave us?

As I said, its’ not surprising to see how many women are posting. But what do any of us hope the result of this will be? Those of us who have had to deal with harassment and survive assaults will see how completely not alone we are, will maybe release some of the shame we have carried when we see that what has been done to us wasn’t our faults, doesn’t say anything about who we are as people.

And that’s a good outcome. I guess what I’m really wondering is: will any man who has ever harassed or assaulted a woman look at those posts and see himself?

Why is it so hard for me to believe that’s possible?

*

A couple of years ago, something similar happened on Twitter. Someone called on women to post about the first time they were sexually harassed. Again, the volume of responses was overwhelming. For me, the truly overwhelming aspect was how young we all were the first time we were sexualized and made to feel uncomfortable or frightened because of the way a man or boy behaved with us. The tweet I posted was about a man who masturbated at me … when I was eight. And so many of the tweets were stories about experiences in third, fourth, fifth grade. Very young girls.

At the time, I was frozen in my efforts to make sense of it. It was too ugly. Yes, in some small way, I felt better knowing I wasn’t the only one, but not really. Knowing that third grade girls everywhere were having awful experiences was cold comfort at best.

I had a longish tweet convo about this question of how young so many of us were at that first experience. One of the things that kept coming up was the fact that we as girls had just begun to have awareness of our bodies as pleasure centers, of the idea and experience of sensual pleasure. And then whatever awful thing would be done to us, and we would blame ourselves. Because, if we hadn’t discovered that strange, surprising world of physical pleasure, then surely that man or boy wouldn’t have said or done whatever he said or did.

And the worst part of that realization was that, in a twisted way, it’s likely one hundred percent true … Not that we as children were to blame for our assaults, no. Absolutely not. But that, as the women in that Twitter conversation and I eventually concluded, those men and boys who harassed or molested us must have sensed the change we were living through. They detected whatever that new physical awareness was … and they came for us. They decided we were fair game.

*

And from that moment forward, those men and boys saw us as available to them, as “ready.” And we grew up encountering those men and boys again and again and still again.

How does now saying, “Me, too” affect any of that? Those men and boys didn’t hear us when we were children. Why on earth would they hear us now? Can we really believe they will suddenly (snap of fingers) have the epiphany that enables them to see themselves as predators, as the ones who need to address their attitudes toward and behavior with women?

*

Years ago, I took an amazing class at the American Place Theater. The class was for teachers, showing us ways to incorporate theater exercises into our teaching of literature and history. In one exercise, I was sitting around a coffee table with three women. We were tasked with creating a scene about an adolescent girl getting her first period. We started by acting out our mothers’ responses to that milestone moment. The first woman showed her  mother’s careful demonstration of using those awful belts we had wear before adhesive strips were a viable thing. The next woman turned and pretended to slap the woman next to her, saying, “You’re dirty now. You’re a woman. Don’t look at men.”

All of us at the table were mortified (and I felt grateful for the first time ever about my own mother’s exuberantly joyful response that, at the time, I’d found completely embarrassing).

This idea that the simple fact of our bodies, our completely as-they-should-be female bodies, is not only wrong but is our fault is unutterably disturbing.

*

As so we are seeing women reclaiming themselves with that “Me, too.” It’s all of us saying, “I, too, have been acted upon, have been made to feel less than, to feel guilty, to feel wrong simply for being alive in my body, simply for having a body that men have grown up to feel ownership of. And it wasn’t my fault, and there was nothing I did wrong, and you need to see how many of us there are telling this story.”

And it’s powerful, and enraging, and sad.

*

But I would rather see men posting, “Me, too.” I want them to post “If all the men who have sexually harassed or assaulted a woman wrote “Me, too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.

All meaning every man who has catcalled a woman, hissed or whistled at a woman, looked at a woman as if imagining her naked, walked down the street beside or behind a woman trying to get her number, brushed against a woman to feel her breasts or butt or have her feel his erection, called out to a passing woman what “rating” he’d give her or whether or not he’d be willing to “smash that.”

All meaning every man who has grabbed a woman by the arm or shoulder when trying to “holler at” her, come on to a child or teenaged girl, gotten angry and up in the face of a girl or woman who hasn’t welcomed his advances, followed a woman, leered at a woman as she breastfed her baby, bought a woman dinner and assumed she would “repay” him with sex.

All meaning every man who has watched his friends treat women in any of these ways and has said noting, has laughed, has looked the other way, has gaslit his sisters, girlfriends, and female coworkers who have complained about another man’s behavior, telling them, “Oh, he’s harmless,” “He doesn’t mean that,” “You’re too sensitive.”

All meaning all. Maybe then. Maybe then, we would not only get a sense of the magnitude of the problem but actually see men take responsibility for their misogyny and start to dismantle it, start to change their behavior and respect women as human beings who have the right to exist, to live their lives free of molestation, as beings who owe men not one damn thing.



I’m following Vanessa Mártir‘s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.
I’m months behind on my #GriotGrind, but I’m determined to catch up, to write 52 essays by year’s end.

Testing My Faith

I saw a woman harassed and frightened by a man. I was too far away to do anything about it. I wasn’t sure what I was seeing until it was almost over. It was a crowded A train during morning rush hour. I had only just managed to squeeze myself onto the car. I wasn’t looking at people around me, was mostly thinking ahead to the meeting I was headed for. As we pulled into Hoyt-Schermerhorn, I focused. I’d been kind of staring off ahead, not really looking at anything.

At that moment I focused and saw a man, maybe close to my height (5’10”), stocky, doing some kind of bob-and-weave movement. He was about a third of the length of the train car away from where I was sandwiched in, but I could clearly see his weird bob and weave. I looked closer. He was bobbing and weaving into and away from the face of a woman. She was small, maybe five-foot-two or three. She was slight, not waif-slight, but very slender.

I stared at them for a few seconds, trying to tell if they were together. Had I seen the man’s face, I would have known they were definitely not together because when he turned around as the train pulled out of the station, the man’s face gave him away — he looked unstable, looked unkempt … not like a homeless person but like a madman who didn’t waste time pulling his look together.

But I hadn’t seen his face yet. I just saw him diving in and out of the woman’s face. I watched him for several seconds that felt a lot longer. By the time I registered that something was deeply wrong with what was happening, the woman had removed herself from the space, had ducked under the arm of the person on her other side and moved down the car. She was so small, I lost sight of her immediately in the crowded space. That was when her harasser turned around, when I saw that, whatever he’d been doing, it couldn’t have been pleasant for that woman. I would never want that man’s face anywhere near mine.

He turned and started talking to the people around him. Not like excusing his actions, but like bragging. He looked quite proud and pleased with himself, as if scaring that woman was a kind of triumph for him, and I guess it was. I couldn’t hear anything he said. It was loud on the train, and he was quiet, talking for the people directly near him, not for all of us. The train pulled into Jay Street, he took a seat and that was that.

But that wasn’t that. Couldn’t possibly ever really be that.

I was so angry. Angry at him, sure. Of course. More, I was angry at all of the people in that section of the train. I’ll grant that the man’s appearance was unsettling. I wouldn’t have considered it a small thing to confront him. But he was menacing someone. He was all up in that woman’s face, up in the face of a person who was small both in height and size. He was taking pleasure in frightening her — because that was the first thing I saw when he turned around, his big, I’m-the-man smile. He was having a great time ruining that woman’s commute, and maybe her whole day, maybe her week — who knows what that incident may have triggered for her? He was having a great time … and not one person thought of a way to do anything to stop him, to shield her, to defuse the situation.

Everyone stayed in their books and newspapers, stayed on their phones. Everyone chose to ignore what was happening right beside them. When the woman saw her chance to squeeze through the crowd to get free, she moved past the man standing beside her. He was tall and had one arm stretched out to hold the overhead rail. She ducked under his arm, and he bowed his body to make a little more room for her to pass … and then he held that position a moment longer, as if giving the harasser a chance to pass, too. He was prepared to facilitate the woman’s continued abuse by making way for her abuser. WTF? True, he hadn’t tried to help the woman at all, but simply straightening his body, putting a barrier between the woman and the man, would have at least been a protective gesture. Nope. No protection there.

I don’t know what I want from people, what I expect. I’ve had my own experiences with people on the street or the train not coming to my aid. I know it’s easier and certainly feels safer to stay out of a charged and troubling situation. But seeing this moment on the train really upset me. How can you stand next to someone who is being terrorized and do nothing? I was too far away and too tightly packed against other riders to do more than witness. I have no idea what I would have done if I’d been standing closer, but I would have done something. Some thing.

That’s easy to say, of course. But I have receipts. I’ve intervened between abusive men and their partners in the past. I’ve called out harassers on the train, even used some low-grade violence once, though I don’t recommend that. Confrontation isn’t a thing I make a habit of, but it has happened. There seemed to be something wrong with that man, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have been stopped, couldn’t have been made to back off.

Full disclosure: a big part of my surprise is because the woman was white, and the man harassing her was Black. Our raison d’etre as a country is to stand up for the safety and honot of white women … especially in the face of a threat from a Black man. And yet no one stepped up for this woman.

But just on the level of basic human decency, I don’t understand what I saw on that train. Do not understand.

This morning I was at a conference and heard NYC Public Advocate Letitia James reframe Michelle Obama’s line, saying: “When they go low, we need to get loud.” She was talking about the opposition (the Resistance) being big enough, forceful enough to “drown out the noise” of harmful policies and ill-conceived decisions (hey, I’m trying to be generous).

I get what she’s saying. It makes perfect sense. But how does that happen, exactly? Where is this solidarity and readiness for the fight supposed to come from when we don’t care enough about one another as individuals to step up when the person next to us is in danger?

People knitted pink hats and came out in the hundreds of thousands for the Women’s March. They felt like, and were, a giant mass of “No!” directed at THOTUS¹. And yet, for all that sisterhood and comradery, there was also silencing, erasure, and exclusion.

Am I wrong to see a connection here? Empathy is going to be central to the success of whatever fightback is strong enough to carry us forward. If we can’t care enough for the woman standing beside us, how are we supposed to be standard-bearers for refugees we’ll never see, Palestinians losing their land in a place we’ll never visit, women denied reproductive care in nations we erase when we think of their continent as a country, Black bodies left in the street for hours?

But then I think about the people who came out for Muslims travelers over the weekend. They put out calls for lawyers, brought supplies, came out and stayed out. They stepped up. They gave me some hope.

I still don’t understand what I saw on the train. It’s just not okay to ignore someone in distress. Not okay.

And I can’t help but believe it’s these small acts of brave kindness and compassion that will help us feel strong enough, able enough to step up in bigger ways. Because we’re going to need to do that. We’re going to have to take risks, put ourselves in harm’s way. We’re going to have to stop pretending not to see what’s right in front of us.

We have to do that for strangers on the train, and we have to do it for this nation of strangers that has never needed us more than it does now.

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In 2017, I’ve committed to writing an essay a week.

It’s not too late to join if you’re feeling ambitious! Check out Vanessa Mártir’s blog to find out how!

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¹ Titular Head oThese United States


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