Fat Talk: I Eat, Therefore I Am

Years ago, when The Morphine Man* was breaking up with me for the final time (such an unpretty story), he cycled back around to his most significant issue with me, one he’d hauled out in each of our crash-and-burn moments when he wanted to end a conversation and send me packing in one fell swoop: my body. In his last goodbye letter, he told me about a woman he’d met who had confronted him about his smoking, asking him: “But don’t you want to live?” He said he’d never thought of smoking in such stark terms, and her question drove him to quit because yes, he definitely wanted to live.

And so, his question to me as he signed himself out of my life was the same: didn’t I want to live? Seeing me after so many years had broken his heart, apparently, because not only was I still fat, I was fatter. He’d once told me that he couldn’t be attracted to a fat woman—despite the evidence to the contrary in the form of his unflaggingly ardent pursuit of me. But more than how much he couldn’t possibly be attracted to me because of my body, reconnecting with me had made him understand the true, shattering problem: that I have a death wish.

A death wish. Really.

When he wrote that letter, I had pissed him off well and truly, and he needed me to go away. And the version of me that he’d dated in our first go-rounds would have collapsed in shame and pain at the merest mention of her body, would have slunk away to weep and moan in private, would have stopped speaking. That’s what he wanted and had come to expect from me, so the turn to blaming my fat wasn’t a surprise. If we were going down in flames, there was no question but that my oversized self would be heaved up on the pyre.

Sometimes, I live to disappoint. And in this case, I surprised him by not crumbling and slinking away. In the years between our first failed relationship and final, equally-doomed one, I had changed. I had changed enough that – when I chose to – I was able to talk openly and reasonably-comfortably about my body, about being fat. I had changed so much that I no longer accepted as an “of course” the idea that my body was to blame for any and every ill that befell me.

I clearly hadn’t changed enough to know better than to get involved with that man again, but I knew enough to know that I—and by “I” I mean all of me, all of my body, every bit of my big, fat self—was perfectly fine, entirely loveable, entirely life-embracing. A death wish? Not this girl.

The Morphine Man isn’t alone in thinking fat people are eating themselves to death. Of course not. That’s basically the popular conception of fatness. Fat equals death. Punto.

Except … not.

Here’s a thing we should establish up front: food isn’t the same as cigarettes, drugs, or alcohol. Not in any way the same. The woman who turned The Morphine Man’s head was puzzled by his insistence on inhaling poison. On purpose. Over and over again. The choice to smoke is that, a choice. While there is choice involved in eating, eating itself isn’t a choice. I have to eat. I have no choice but to eat if I want to keep living. I get to choose what I eat, of course. And, if my idea of dinner is a vat of Cool Whip, three pints of ice cream and a shopping cart’s-worth of pork rinds, then maybe I need to consider adding some fruits and vegetables to my grocery list, some legumes, a handful of cashews.

Another ex, the one I call “Z,” wondered how I could be fat when I ate the way I did. “I cannot understand how this comes true, how you have developed this size,” he said after we’d been together for a while (Z’s first language isn’t English, so we grant him his funky constructions). It was very simple, I explained to him. “I didn’t always eat the way I do now.”

And that was true. And isn’t it always true for everyone? What we want changes. And so the things I choose to eat change over time all the time. I used to eat meat and lots of it. Then I became a vegetarian. Now I’m an occasional carnivore who’ll probably go back to being a vegetarian. I used to enjoy crappy candy. Now I choose higher-end treats made with better ingredients and fewer chemicals. I used to eat only a narrow range of vegetables, now I eat just about any vegetable that comes my way. The only thing that hasn’t changed in my eating habits is my love and probably-excessive consumption of fruit. I like to think this is evidence of my having been a butterfly in a previous incarnation.

Unlike smoking, drinking, or taking drugs, eating is a thing humans must do … unless they actually do have a death wish. Are there fat people who harbor death wishes? I’m sure there must be. Just as there must be slender and skinny people who hold those same wishes. Where do we lay the blame in the case of a thin person, I wonder. Not on their hideously-outsized bodies, so where?

So, what The Morphine Man called “a zen-clear question”—Don’t you want to live?—works for smoking, works for meth addiction, works for alcoholism. It doesn’t at all work for eating. People who want to live, eat.

Of course, that’s not really what The Morphine Man was asking me, I know. My fat meant something was wrong with me, meant I was unhealthy. The fact that I was fatter than I’d been when he and I had last been together meant things were out of control, meant I was eating myself to death. That, too, is a pretty common perception of fat. If everything were fine with me, why on earth would I be fat? If I were the picture of health, I would—obviously—be as svelte and fit as an Olympic athlete. Like everyone else in the world. Like The Morphine Man himself, right? Except The Morphine Man, though thinner than I am, had never been “svelte” in all the time I’d known him.

If The Morphine Man hadn’t been throwing my body at me in an effort to drive me away, I would have talked to him about some of the things that are true about why I am fat and what being fat has meant and means for me. I don’t know that he could ever have processed the idea that, rather than eating myself to death, I had eaten myself to a sense of relative safety. He wouldn’t have understood that, but he might have had a better understanding of me, of the things I’ve dealt with.

As for his insistence that he couldn’t be attracted to a fat woman, that was surely true … for all that it was also quite obviously completely false. While I never had any doubt that he was physically attracted to me, I was certain I was the first fat woman he’d ever dated, maybe the first fat woman he’d ever wanted sexually. It had to be both puzzling and troubling for him to find that he could be attracted to me, could want to have sex with me. Men aren’t supposed to want to be with me. With the exception of my hourglass shape, I most emphatically don’t fit conventional beauty standards for female bodies. For him to pursue me while at the same time knowing that he could never be attracted to a fat woman must have created some painful cognitive dissonance for him.

I keep thinking of that question: Don’t I want to live? Well, yes, I absolutely want to live. But—of course there is a “but”—I want to live on my terms. I want to live in a way that will let me live fully, comfortably, and confidently. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. Isn’t that what we should all want? It shouldn’t be surprising, and it also shouldn’t have to have anything to do with the size of my body or the food I eat.

Because I have for so many years had a disordered relationship with my body and with food, living fully and comfortably does have to do with my body, does have to do with what I eat. Living comfortably means I need to change that relationship, need to continue the self-love journey I started years ago. And that means I need to care deeply for this body I have—care for myself. And that’s something I know how to do and something I continue to learn and relearn how to do. This self-care is pretty basic: I need to feed myself what I’m hungry for when I’m hungry for it, keep myself hydrated and well-rested, move for strength and flexibility, take myself out into nature so I can feel sunshine and summer breezes on my skin and sand between my toes, surround myself with people who love and respect me, laugh loud and long, and take lovers who want me—not some idea they have of the person they should be with but me in all my me-ness.

It’s possible that, should I ever do all of those things all at the same time and consistently, the size and shape of my body will change. But it may not. If I ever do all of those things all at the same time and consistently, What is sure is that I will be healthier and happier, stronger and more deft in my movements. And that will be fabulous. I’m looking forward to that.

I eat, therefore I am. And I have every intention of keeping it that way.

_______________
* I don’t generally use folks’ real names, and I haven’t come up with a good fake name for him, so I use this nickname because it pleases me, and he is the person who introduced me to the amazing band, Morphine.


Part of a series about my body, originally inspired by Roxane Gay’s Hunger
If you haven’t read the ground rules, please take a look before commenting.
You can find all of the Fat Talk essays under the Fat Talk tab. Thank you.


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 do my best to catch up, to write 52 essays by year’s end.

Fat Talk: The Diva and the Pea

I am a high-maintenance woman. I know that about myself. I tease myself about it, but I don’t make any effort to change it. Why should I? This is actually who I am. I’m fussy and frou-frou. I like comfort and luxury. I accept this about myself. Others struggle with it, with my embrace of this truth, with how fully I lean into it.

metal chair

I recently went to see an off-Broadway show, when I got into the theater, one glance told me the narrow, armed, metal chairs wouldn’t fit my ample butt and that I’d be so horribly uncomfortable that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy the show. I checked in with the usher, asked if there were any wider or armless chairs that could be swapped in for mine. She said she’d find out and let me know.

As she took off to investigate alternative seating options, I went back to stand by my seat and wait. A couple came up the aisle and, as they passed, the woman said she could see that the seats would be really tight. She sat — in the seat directly behind mine — and confirmed for her partner that the seat was, in fact, too small for her. She shrugged it off and settled in.

When the usher returned with a handyman to figure out my situation — my chair needed to be unbolted from the risers — I stood off to the side. The couple seated behind me watched what was going on. The man asked his partner, “Do you want to do that?” She, giving me a nanosecond’s eye flick of a glance, said, “NO. I’m not that big.”

The stagehand guy finished his work and walked off with the uncomfortable chair. The usher carried over a totally suitable chair, and I took my seat.

I understand that woman, mostly. She was correct, for what it’s worth. She wasn’t as big as me. But that really wasn’t the point. She’d already called out the discomfort of her seat. Presented with a pretty easy way to fix the problem, however, she rejected it out of hand, chose to be uncomfortable all evening. Of course. Because God forbid anyone should equate her less-fat size with my much fatter one. God forbid anyone should see us as being anything alike. Better she should remain squeezed and in pain for a couple of hours than have anyone realize that she was fat.

I understand that woman because I spent many years being that woman, squeezing myself into seats that were never meant for asses of size. Or, even worse, turning down invitations because I knew I wouldn’t fit into the space that would be provided.

But I quit that nonsense. It was certainly not as simple as snapping my fingers and having it be so. It started after I damaged my knee and began to realize that venues could and would accommodate me as a disabled person. So why shouldn’t I ask for the accommodations I needed as a fat person?

I know who I am and how high-maintenance I can be and often am. I ask for my needs to be met and expect it to happen. As much as I was an entirely go-along-to-get-along child, I have grown into a very let’s-talk-about-me-and-my-needs woman. I’m Meg Ryan ordering food in When Harry Met Sally — because I know what I want and I can’t really imagine why I shouldn’t have it. I’ve visited theaters before buying tickets so I could try out the seats and ask about better options. I’ve called ahead to restaurants to find out how close together tables are placed so I’ll know if I can move easily to and from my seat. I know what will make me comfortable, and if it’s possible to have that, why wouldn’t I?

The fairytale, “The Princess and the Pea,” centers on proving or disproving the royal blood of a rain-soaked woman who claims to be a princess. She is given lodging, but a pea is placed beneath the mountain of mattresses and feather beds on which she is invited to sleep. She, of course, is so delicate a creature that she is kept awake all night by the painful discomfort of that pea. It’s a Hans Christian Anderson story, part of the fairytale canon and source material for Once Upon a Mattress, a hilarious romp starring Carol Burnett.

As a child, I thought the story pretty ridiculous. It seemed only to prove that anyone could be a princess. Wouldn’t everyone feel something annoying in their bed? Obviously, no one had a spare supply of mattresses and feather beds to pile up for a random guest to sleep on, so that was just storytelling foolishness. One woman, one mattress, one pea seemed more likely … and seemed likely to prove nothing.

I didn’t have any princess aspirations, but that story made clear to me that I’d be able to prove my royalty quite easily. I had no doubt but that I would feel that pea. And that I would turn that bed inside out until I found it so that I could get my tired self to sleep. Please.

People often mock me for my picky, I-want-what-I-want behavior. I’ve had folks chide me for being demanding and selfish. Yeah, I suppose I am demanding and selfish. And? I’m not rude about it. I’m not taking anything from anyone else. So what’s the problem?

I get it, of course. I’m supposed to go along, supposed to take what I’m offered and be happy with it. Or … let’s be more exact: because I’m not white, beautiful, young, and thin I am supposed to be grateful to be allowed to show myself in public at all, allowed to take up even the least amount of space. Because if I looked like Tay Tay, people might find me petulant and spoiled, but they would be far less likely to be annoyed by me. For me to call out displeasure or desire for something different is demanding, is presumptuous. How dare I imagine that I, in my fat, middle-aged, Blackness, draw attention to myself, have the nerve to give voice to my needs? Welp. There you go. Life’s like that sometimes.

Needs I have. And I will make them known. Put a pea under my mattress and feather bed, and I’ll be sure to complain loudly enough that you’ll fix that shit just to shut me up and preserve your own right to a full night’s sleep.

I’m not a jerk about getting my needs met. There’s no cause for that. and no reason to make scenes … as long as no one tries to deny me out of pettiness, fatphobia, or misogynoir. If something I want can’t be done, it can’t. Okay. But if someone just refuses to accommodate me, that’s a whole other story.

I don’t think of myself as a princess. No, I’m more a Prima Donna … but, contrary to the snarky dictionary definition, my sense of my value isn’t in any way inflated. I am temperamental and unpredictable. I am demanding. Because I know how I deserve to be treated. And I’m comfortable making sure you know, too.


Part of a series about my body, originally inspired by Roxane Gay’s Hunger.
If you haven’t read my ground rules, please take a look before commenting.
You can find all of the Fat Talk essays under the Fat Talk tab. Thank you.


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 do my best to catch up, to write 52 essays by year’s end.

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 how 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 then 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!

Losing Ground

In high school, I had a grand plan. Despite my understanding that college was my post-high-school future, I had an alternative fantasy, a between-high-school-and-college fantasy. I’d step out my front door and not step back in until I had walked across, through, around, over the whole of the country. Yes. The full-on adventure of hiking the United States—at least the 48 contiguous ones.

I started mapping a route when I was a sophomore. I can’t remember now when I first had the idea for the trip. I certainly didn’t know anyone who’d done it. None of my friends were talking about doing something similar. Maybe I read something somewhere that inspired me.

I knew better than to mention this grand plan to my parents. There was no such thing as a gap year back then. Not heading to college immediately after high school, would just be seen as slacking, and neither of my parents would have thought it was a good idea. There were people who took time off between high school and college, but that was usually so they could save money, or because they were having a child. It definitely wasn’t a thing that was seen as the normal course of events. I probably could have told my aunt, Mildred, but I didn’t know that then. I was only 15. I hadn’t yet recognized Mildred for the big-brained family eccentric she was.

I lived in a family with a surprising number of road atlases, so plotting my path was easy enough in the beginning. I studied the maps, at first thinking there was a way to trace a path that wouldn’t require any back tracking, then plotting a course that looked like painting broad horizontal stripes across the country with me trekking west then east then back west again until I’d covered the country. In the end, I decided north-south stripes would be best, moving steadily west then flying home from California or Washington State depending on the direction of the final stripe.

I loved making this plan. Truly. It filled me with so much excitement. One thing that became clear early in the mapping was how long a trip I was talking about. The United States is enormous, and I wasn’t planning on race-walking my way across the continent. (No race-walking, despite the fact that I lettered in race-walking–seriously. The things you don’t know about me! 😉 )

When I’d originally started planning, I’d foolishly imagined I’d need to approach my mother with the idea of a one-year pause between high school and college. Sitting with the road atlas made it clear that the one-year idea was a ridiculous notion. One year? As if! No, I was going to need two, maybe three years. At the least. And, even if there might have been a way to convince my mother to say yes to a year-long hiatus in my education, there was no kind of possibility of getting her to go along with me stepping outside my life for some unknown number of years. Not a chance.

I soon realized I had problems that were bigger than time. First, I realized that leisurely cross-country treks that take years to complete also take lots of cash. My family had lots of lots of things–pets, board games, puzzles, musical instruments, books–but cash we did not have a lot of. I was rich in fantasies about doing things only rich people could do easily, however, and my full-country trek was clearly going to fall into that category.

The only jobs I’d ever had were babysitting–which I was singularly bad at–and collecting payments for my brother’s paper route. Neither of these things a) paid well enough for me to have saved a tidy bundle of travel funds or b) taught me much of anything about the world of work that might have made me a good candidate for picking up short-term jobs along the way to pay for my trip. How was I going to eat? Where was I planning to sleep? I wasn’t mapping out a cross-country camping trip. There was no chance I’d be bedding down in parks and campgrounds across the nation. It was going to be a “hotel, motel, Holiday Inn” kind of situation.

Right. On whose dime?

So, yes, money was my first stumbling block. But it started to look like an easy problem when the real problem revealed itself.

The real problem was that the country I was planning to explore alone, on foot … was my country, the good ol’ US of A.

When I started mapping routes, I was planning with an eye to full coverage, to making sure I spent a little time in every state. I traced my finger along path after path, drawing a winding ribbon around the atlas maps.

And then one day I stopped and really looked at the map. Looked at the map … and saw the path I was making through Mississippi.

You may not know this about me, but Mississippi is no-go territory for me. I’m pretty certain I’d never articulated that truth for myself at the time I was planning my adventure, but I for-sure felt it when I looked at the map that day. How had I managed to spend so much time planning my grand tour without taking history, reality, and my Blackness into account?

Because of course Mississippi wasn’t a singularity. Once I viewed the map through my Black lens, suddenly I was carving pieces out of the map all over the place. My meandering stroll across my country began to look like a crazy game of leapfrog, with my feet touching down in a scatter-shot polka-dotted array.

It wasn’t the trip I had in mind. Not even close. I regrouped and spent most of junior year trying to map a course that would work. Instead, I found myself becoming more and more discouraged as my “possibly safe” zones got smaller and smaller still.

Something I didn’t consider until well into this process was the built-in danger of planning to do even the shortest leg of that trek alone, as a teen-aged girl. Really. What was I thinking? I already knew quite well that boys and men were capable of doing me harm, knew I needed to maintain vigilance and full wariness … and yet I was going to decouple myself from everything familiar, from my home and family, and send my 17-year-old self out on the road alone?

Clearly, my ability to fantasize wasn’t just strong enough to make me forget I wasn’t a trust-fund baby. It was powerful enough for me to ignore the truth of predatory men and racism. The rest of my body might have been soft and out-sized, but my fantasizing muscle was toned, Olympics-ready, practically bionic.

I kept fantasizing about the trip, but I set the actual planning aside. There was no way I was going to imagine myself past all the obstacles I’d finally recognized. My cross-country adventure became a pretty dream I’d call up every once in a while to sigh over with regret.

*

Eventually, I had the opportunity to trust my life to the kindness of strangers. I went to Europe for my junior year of college and did some traveling, including a summer of hitchhiking. And after graduating, I went back and hitched around some more. And here I am writing about it, so obviously I survived. (Thank you all the strangers who didn’t turn out to be killers.)

I saw my European travel as dramatically different from my US-trek idea. And, while I thought about that Euro-hitch in terms of race, race was the only filter I used when thinking about my trip. It’s interesting to me how entirely I was able to erase the issue of being a young woman on my own. I was surely in as much danger of rape in Europe as I was in the States, but I didn’t think about it once during trip prep.

That obliviousness to my gender and my body was surely part and parcel of my belief that, as a fat woman, I had made myself undesirable to men and therefore invisible. And my imagined invisibility allowed me to do crazy things like plan solo cross-country trips without ever thinking of my personal safety as a woman.

My safety as a Black person, however, was paramount in my thoughts, and it seemed to go without saying that Europe was safer for me at that time–the early 80s–than my own country.

There was plenty of anti-Black racism in Europe in the 80s, of course. It wasn’t so much directed at me, though. It was also different from the racism I saw, experienced, and expected at home. And somehow those differences gave me a feeling of security.

Those European tours lasted a few months each. And both, but especially the second trip, included extended stretches of me traveling alone, me standing alone on the shoulder of a highway with my thumb out and my face hopeful. There were some dicey moments along the way, yes, but even during those moments, I would still have said I was safer on those French or Spanish or Austrian or Belgian or Czech or German streets than I would have been anywhere at home.

*

I hadn’t thought about my high school trek planning in many, many years … and then suddenly there it was a few months ago, in the front of my brain, called up by who knows what.

It started me thinking about what that trip would look like today. I still don’t have much money, but I certainly have more than I had as a teenager. And I have marketable skills and work experience that could enable me to support myself in random towns across the map. I also have credit cards. I would still be a woman alone, and now I’d have sometime-y knees and a cane, making me look that much more like an easy victim. And, importantly, I am still most definitely Black.

I think about all the places I removed from my tour plan in the late 70s … and I realize that there are far more places I’d need to cross off the trip list today.

If I marked out the road atlas now, it would be the visual aid of the conversation I’ve been having with myself and online for the last three years: the fact that my country, my home, has become that much less welcoming, less mine.

Today, in 2017, the NAACP has issued not one but two different travel advisories for Black folks—one for St. Louis, the other for American Airlines. In 2017.

Had I attempted my trek after graduation, it’s a pretty good bet I’d have come to a bad end—an accident, a rapist, a serial killer, a bear—something. Sure. But I might have had a great time before running headlong into whichever life-ending force would have had my name on it. I’d have covered some ground, maybe seen a handful of states at least, gotten a good look at some of this crazy-huge country I call home. Today, I can’t convince myself that I’d make it out of New York State.

*

I’m not the only Black person who has intentionally narrowed her range of motion. The need for organizations such as Outdoor Afro and Journey Outdoors is real. As is the fact of terrible encounters with whiteness in the wild—I can’t stop thinking about the Black family whose reunion at Rollins Lake, Nevada was cut short when an armed white man threatened their lives. And the number of people creating lists of places that aren’t safe for Black folks to travel. I don’t know how to reconcile these clashing truths. I don’t like feeling that I’m losing my country, but I can’t pretend that very real dangers don’t exist.

 

I don’t have any answers here. I see the tiny pockets of places–both in the US and elsewhere–in which I can imagine being safe. The Europe I hitched 35 years ago is, sadly, dramatically different today, and I’d have little to no chance of a safe, months-long hitch now.

And I don’t see a way to reverse any of this. In high school, the US was a place in which I could imagine being safe exploring on my own … almost. Today I can’t imagine that at all. There are so many consequences of the intolerance and hate that is rolling rampantly across this country and others. The extreme shrinking of my universe is clearly one of them, but I didn’t see it happening because my lens wasn’t trained on that. These last few years, I’ve been focused more acutely, focused on feeling safe right in my own city. And while I was nearsightedly pre-occupied, I managed to miss the larger shift in my landscape.

I have no intention of swearing off travel. I’m currently planning for a big writing trip for next year that will land me in entirely unfamiliar territory, and I can’t wait for that. Still, revisiting my long-ago plan of hiking my country and seeing how much less viable an idea it is today frustrates and saddens me. This is my home and has been my family’s home for generations. And while it is true that this country has never wanted to accept my family or others like mine, we are still here. This additional reminder of the fact that my country sees me as alien is sitting hard with me. It’s not news, but it still hurts.


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!

Cultural Awareness as Deflector Shield

I adored my auntie. I am, as it happens, an auntie my own self, a role I absolutely adore filling. Yet still, there is my absolute distaste at hearing white folks use this term in relation to Representative Maxine Waters.

Since my essay about Maxine Waters was published last month, I’ve been thinking about the most popular, annoying reactions I’ve seen. A lot of people on a lot of different threads had a response similar to one of these:

“Oh, in my family, we call all older women and men “aunt” or “uncle” as a sign of respect, even if they aren’t related to us.”

“Oh, in the [fill in your not continental American cultural background here] culture, the term is used to show respect.”

“Oh, that seems like an American thing. In my country it’s totally different.”

“Oh, my students from [name any other country in the world] call me “auntie” all the time, and they mean it respectfully. I like it.”

“Oh, you can’t assume everyone has the same understanding of that term as you do.”

“Oh, if you tell people not to say “auntie” you could be hurting their feelings because it means something else in their culture.”

Did you notice a pattern? I saw the same thing happen over and over. The moment one person posted one of these “what about this other culture” comments, there are suddenly a bunch of replies from other people talking about the traditions of other countries and cultures and how interesting the similarities or differences are … and suddenly we’re having a whole other conversation that has nothing to do with what I was writing about.

Feh.

On almost all these threads, someone eventually stepped in–and then stepped in when it happened again and then again … because of course–and pointed out that these discussions were missing the point. And some of the Cultural Awareness people were able to hear and understand that. Others really struggled with it. Hard.

And I’m feeling the need to shine my light on why seeing that “other culture” conversation kept springing up drove me nuts.

People seemed to want to be sure everyone understood that “auntie” doesn’t have a negative connotation round their way. Fine. But you know what? The word doesn’t have a negative connotation right here, in the States. It is a term of love and respect, a term used for elders we care about, whether they’re in our families or not. Same meaning and use as in whatever other culture you heard about or studied or lived in during your gap year or whatever. Same.

That’s the point.

The term has always been familial, has always been used to show love and respect. Subverting that meaning and use of the term was surely one of the reasons the term was chosen for this distinctly American, disrespectful use. My essay draws that line, specifically states that using “Auntie” was a way for polite-seeming white people to speak impolitely to Black women, it allowed them to sugar-coat their disdain, their insult, their race prejudice with a kind-seeming honorific. They subverted “Auntie,” made it ugly.

So, if you read the essay, it should have been easy to see that there was no need to call out the traditions in other countries. None at all. And yet there were all those comments, again and again and again.

Here, I’ll insert the other, somewhat-related comment I also saw quite a bit:

“Oh, I’ve never heard this use before so when I say it I am, obviously, not using it that way, so there’s no problem.”

It’s easy for me to believe people wouldn’t have been aware that they were hearing “auntie” used in a demeaning way, but they’ve surely heard the term used for Black women–because, hello, they must absolutely have heard of Aunt Jemima. But even if you never knew there was some nasty history attached to “Auntie,” I’m telling you that there is, I’m telling you exactly what that nasty history is. So yes, you could have called Rep. Waters “Auntie” before you learned the backstory, but now that you know the backstory, why would you still want to use the word? If I’m saying I feel a way hearing that word in your mouth, why would you still want to use that word?

To get back to everyone else, making the case for using the term today because it’s used respectfully in another culture is just as insulting. In some ways, it’s actually more insulting. If I tell you there is a very specific use of the term that is particular a) to this country and b) to white people and Black women, and if I tell you that hearing white people in 2017 refer to a Black woman using this term makes me feel a way … one thing I’m not asking is for a cultural awareness lesson so that I can learn how other peoples use that word and why I shouldn’t only associate it with negative ideas. And by telling me all of that, you are letting me know either that you missed the point of my essay entirely, or you are intentionally harping on this side point to move the conversation away from racism.

Guess which one I think you’re doing.

I’m sure it’s uncomfortable to hear about the tools of racism and to learn that you’ve been using one of them when you didn’t realize it. And I imagine it’s much easier and far more comfortable to deflect, to resist the focus on something ugly and wax poetic about an alternative story that makes you feel better.

I get all of that. I’m not here for it.

I’m always talking about how white folks need to step up and do their work. Feeling uncomfortable? That’s part of the work. White people need to “suffer” through the few moments of feeling Ill at ease and hear what’s being said. My essay wasn’t an attack or an accusation. It was me letting people know how I hear the word “Auntie” when white folks use it in reference to Rep. Waters. It was a request that white folks stop using the term. It was an opportunity for folks (maybe primarily white folks) to learn something about this country’s history–because I decided to trust that people really mightn’t know about that bit of ugliness in our national past. And it was an opportunity for white people–once they learned about the derogatory use of “auntie”–to make the decision not to continue saying something that could be hurtful.

I’m going to extend my benefit of the doubt a little further and say it’s likely that most of the people talking about the ways other cultures around the world use “Auntie” aren’t fully aware that they are trying to change the subject and turn the conversation away from the sticky discomfort of talking about racism. I’m being this generous because I know that many of the ways white folks deflect to insulate themselves from having to deal with racism are unconscious.

Let’s forget racism for a minute. Suppose you were in a meeting that included a person who smacked you really hard across the head every time you saw them. You decide to say something about this awful smacking crap, and you hope that saying it in the group will finally get this person to stop because the group will rally around you and condemn that violent behavior.

You say, “You know, I have to tell you that it’s really painful and enraging when you smack me in the head.” And that person nods and says, “Oh my God, have you ever noticed how 2-year-olds can be slap-fighting one minute and then kissing like crazy the next?”

And, before you can point out that this has.not one thing to do with your point, someone else says, “Oh, my partner always gives me a little slap on the shoulder when she walks up to me. We call them ‘love taps,’ and I really like it.”

“Oh, my partner and I have love taps, too!” another group member says. “I thought that was just our little thing. How funny that you have that, too!”

And suddenly everyone is talking about love taps and the boy who pulled their hair on the playground in kindergarten who proposed after college … and the issue of you being assaulted by your colleague has been disappeared.

Frustrating as hell, isn’t it? Frustrating as hell.

To be most clear: the sidelining of my point about white people and “Auntie” is like this disappearing of calling out your colleague’s violence.

Does it seem like a lot to ask white folks to change their behavior, to sit down and listen when someone tells them something they’re doing is hurtful, silencing, derailing? It shouldn’t be, but clearly, it is a lot to ask … and the truth of that is maddening.

Yes, this is another one of those moments when I say a whole lot of stuff and then just say, “I’m tired. Beat to my fucking socks.” Because … yeah.

I’m glad a lot of people read my essay–more people than have ever read anything else I’ve ever written. That’s a wonderful thing. I just wish more of them had allowed themselves to actually hear what I had to say.


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!

Un Rêve Parisien

In the wee small hours of Monday morning, I dreamed this wonderful, crazy dream:

I was in Paris, and I was with Lisa Ko. We were walking along the Seine, and decided to scale a building — one we had apparently scaled once before, back when I was in my 20s. We wanted to get to someplace on the top floor, no idea why we didn’t just go inside and up the stairs. We climbed the façade, then had to shimmy along a ridiculously narrow ledge the full length of the building. We reached the uppermost corner and had to go up and around it. There were decorative touches to the architecture that made crossing it hard — weird bits poking out that should have made good foot and handholds, except they were made of wood instead of stone, and they were frighteningly rickety. Lisa was behind me, giving me encouragement, but I was terrified. I made it about halfway then froze because the next several decorations moved when I tested them, and I knew they wouldn’t support me. Lisa was really good at giving me a pep talk, but I was still convinced I was going to fall. Finally, I decided to just go for it, that if the decorations had withstood big storms, surely they’d withstand me. [Writing this, it’s so clear how much sense that doesn’t make! My logic was that the storms had to have had at least 100 mph winds … first, I doubt Paris has had a single storm like that, let alone many … and, too, I weigh a good deal more than a hundred pounds, so how would any of those storms have been relevant?] I told Lisa that, if I died, I wanted her to “tell everyone I love them,” and then I started up the last bit, which turned out to be quite simple: I swung my leg up over the top of the corner — bypassing the scary bits entirely — and pulled myself over to slide down the smooth back side onto a much wider ledge. Lisa came over easily — despite the fact that she was wearing six-inch metallic gold platform heels! — and together we came down from the ledge and directly into someone’s apartment. Lisa looked a little sheepish and said, “We should probably get some writing done,” and I agreed. But first, she said, we should get some food. She led the way through the beautiful apartment to the great room. there were people at the dining table — a young woman and a teen-aged boy — and an elderly and middle-aged woman in the kitchen. The middle-aged woman was dishing up food while the older woman watched. Lisa went up and took a seat at the breakfast bar, and the woman put a plate in front of her. “Jay’s mother always feeds everyone,” Lisa explained, and that was when I realized the woman was Jay-Z’s m other. She put a serving of deep, green, delicious-looking cucumber soup into a tall plastic cup and set it beside Lisa’s plate then started on my plate. The older woman leaned over to read the side of the cup, which said: “Happy birthday, Bitch,” then looked at Jay-Z’s mom and asked, “Are you the bitch?” And Jay-Z’s mom nodded and said, “That’s right.”

And then I woke up.

I find this dream supercalifragilisticexpialidociously fabulous for a few reasons:

  1. I love that I was in Paris. I haven’t been in many years, so it was a lovely gift from my subconscious to suddenly be on the streets (and the façades!) of that city.
  2. I love that I was traveling with Lisa of all people. It’s true that we’ve been on a trip together once before and are planning a trip for early 2018, but nothing so grand as spontaneous wall-climbing in Paris!
  3. I love my subconscious’ decision to make Jay-Z’s mother so generous and welcoming. Other than the fact that she’s Jay-Z’s mom, I don’t know a single thing about Jay-Z’s mom — not even her name — so her appearance in my dream is both wonderful and hilarious.
  4. I love Lisa’s six-inch heels and here ability to scale that wall while wearing them. Lisa is fabulously talented, but I had no idea how for and in which directions her talents would manifest!
  5. I also love how patient and supportive she was when I was afraid to start the last piece of the climb. I generally tend not to tell people when I’m afraid of something, and don’t often ask for or admit the need for help (yes, that’s a problem, and it’s on the “Work on This!” list). So that moment in the dream was a nice illustration of what it can be like to let your friends step in and be your friends and help or encourage or support you when you need it.
  6. I love that, even in the dream world, Lisa – who is one of my writing accountability buddies – was still thinking about writing, and reminding me that I should be doing more of it!
  7. I love that the food that made the deepest impression on me was the cucumber soup. It was so green and pretty, and I just knew it would be cool and clear and tart and yummy.

One of the things I love the most is that I tried to encourage myself to remember this dream. Someone recently told me that if, as you’re falling asleep, you tell yourself to remember your dreams, you have a better chance of remembering. I don’t know why that would ever be true, but why not, right? So I said that to myself a few times as I was drifting off … and here I am, recounting this wacky dream. Obviously, I’ll be trying that again!

The other thing I love most is that being able to remember the dream also means being able to see all the places where my conscious self steps in to mess with whatever’s happening in the dream. Because I’m a lucid dreamer.

I’ve written a few times about my dreams and specifically about lucid dreaming. I got interesting in studying lucid dreaming … but then I got busy and tired and captivated by something else. So I didn’t do much study. I’ve learned the tiniest sliver of a bit about lucid dreaming. But this Paris dream makes me want to pick up the research where I left off.

In one of my older posts about lucid dreaming, I mentioned that it was a long time before I knew there was a name other than “dreaming” to describe what I experienced because I thought that was the way everyone dreamed, thought everyone dreamed and was aware that they were dreaming. It never occurred to me that there was anything special about it. Once I learned that it wasn’t so common, I won’t lie: it started to seem a little shinier, a little more special.

Because I’m aware that I’m dreaming, my conscious mind can alter things about the dream or pause and think (or, as is often the case, laugh) about particularly odd things I see and do in the dream. In the Paris dream, my consciousness stepped in a couple of times. First, I gave myself a play-by-play as Lisa and I climbed the building, wondering what the hell I thought I was doing climbing some building in a dress and pumps. I don’t have a great history with climbing things. I fell from a rock wall in southern Portugal. I got stuck on a different rock wall in Jamaica, hanging on for dear life above from unfriendly-looking surf, terrified to move forward or back. I’m not a climber, not really, so what did I imagine myself to be doing scaling that façade with Lisa?

The second consciousness intervention was during the scary part of the climb, the part where I convinced myself to take a chance because, if those weird and rickety wooden decorations could withstand 100-mile-per-hour winds, they could certainly support me and my not make of wind self. That was clearly my conscious mind on drugs, desperate to get me over that wall, even if the “how” of it made no sense.

The final moment of consciousness came when Lisa and I found ourselves in Jay-Z’s mom’s apartment. I laughed as I came down from the wall and saw that I was in a room. I have had so many dreams in which I wind up in strangers’ homes uninvited. And quite often I wind up in the kitchen. In one, I broke into someone’s house just so I could cook. In that dream, I was busy making a big pot of spaghetti sauce. Clearly, there’s something that needs interpreting about me and kitchens, me and breaking and entering, me and strangers’ houses …

* * *

Generally speaking, my conscious self only comments on what she’s watching dream-me do. There have been a few times when I’ve changed the course of the dream action. I usually only do that when things aren’t looking good for dream-me. I remember a dream in which I was being chased – when I think about that dream, I always say I was being chased by a monster, but as I type this, I’m remembering that I was actually being chased by the first wife of my most awful ex (talk about things to unpack!!). She was armed, I think with a knife, and wanted my blood. I was running through a wooded area and found myself face to face with a wall. There was no way around or over it (I guess I wasn’t aware at that time of my fabulous wall-scaling skills). I could hear her closing in … and then I just moved myself to safety on the other side. I didn’t want to see where that story was headed. I literally narrated myself beyond the problem: “Well, somehow I got over it,” conscious-me said in the dream as dream-me reoriented herself on the safe side of the wall and made her getaway. I do love the Deus-ex-machina-ness of that.

In a comment conversation on one of my other lucid dreaming posts, someone talked about being able to bring other people into her dreams and pointed out that I could use my ability to control the dreams to give myself a little Jamaica vacation whenever I wanted one. I haven’t tried either of these things, but now I’m inspired anew by the pleasure I felt at seeing Paris – the Paris I remember from living there decades ago, the Paris I know does and doesn’t still exist. I was happy, at home.

I’m interested in dream interpretation – because of course I want all this wacky fabulousness to also mean something – but I’m okay with the mystery of that. For now, I want to play with this blurred and blurring line between my conscious and unconscious mind, learning what kind of fun I can have poking into my dream world.


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 fell months behind on my #GriotGrind, and it seemed highly unlikely that I’d write 52 essays by year’s end. But then I decided to dedicate my NaNoWriMo writing to writing essays, and I’ve been catching up! Whether I reach the goal or not, 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!