A Writerly Obsession

At my first for-real job, I was a bookkeeper. “For-real job” means the first job I took with the intention of doing the job for more than a minute, the first job that wasn’t simply a way to finance my next vacation – though I didn’t stay there over-long, and it did finance some vacations.

I kept the financial records of a small professional organization. Real work, not the paper pushing I’d done in my previous job. I can’t imagine anything I could have said in my interview that would have inspired anyone to offer me that position. I didn’t know the first thing about being a bookkeeper … and I wouldn’t have tried to gloss over that fact, as it never occurred to me that possessing the necessary job skills was … you know … necessary.

I was trained by the woman who’d been the works-when-she-feels-like-coming-in part time bookkeeper. Let’s call her Edith. She was a bored lady of leisure, childhood girlfriends with the director of the organization. She had stepped in to help out a couple of days a week. Then the organization had grown, and part time was no longer enough time, but she had no interest in working every day. She was in her mid-forties, and casually glamorous. I remember loving her wedding ring — it was a broad gold band, a crowd of people standing hand-in-hand and arm-in-arm.

The organization’s records were kept in the kind of old-fashioned ledgers I’d only seen in movies. They were awkwardly big. I remember them as enormous, but they were most likely legal size. Thick, hard, cloth covers with leather-wrapped corners, bound on the short end with metal peg-and-clamp fasteners. Edith handled them carefully, as if the slightest jostling might shake the ink loose.

The desk was like any desk, but instead of a chair, there was a tall stool, a backless barstool. And when it was time to teach me how to keep the records, Edith opened the top desk drawer and pulled out a fountain pen.

The pen was an old one, a Parker. The pen may still exist, but I couldn’t find it when I searched. The Parker Vector is similar in cost, so it may be the modern version of my ledger pen. My pen had a silver cap and a dark-but-transparent blue barrel, and it took cartridges.

I’d never used a fountain pen, so Edith gave me a crash course in pen use and maintenance. She gave me the location of the one store she knew of that sold the ink cartridges, showed me what I now know to describe as the nib’s flexibility. And she showed me how to “erase” any errors: lick the corner of your Pink Pearl eraser and rub gently until you’ve worn away enough of the paper that you can write over your mistake. Natch!

And then we got into the books. Edith was patient, never once her losing her mind with anger at my inability to learn even one thing about keeping those books. Because really, I didn’t learn a damn thing. My training ended, and Edith was gone, and I was on my own. I sat on my high stool and leaned way down over my ledger and played at bookkeeping.

And I followed Edith’s rule and used the Parker only for the ledger. And, when that pen died, I didn’t do the perfectly reasonable thing and pick up a ballpoint and get back to work. No. I went out and bought a new Parker. It never occurred to me to use any other pen.

At the turn of the quarter, the accountant came. I handed over my ledgers with pride. I was a little cocky, thought I was doing the job. The accountant took my books into the conference room and sat behind closed doors for a couple of hours. Then he called me in to review.

The accountant, David, was a lovely man – older, stocky, Jewish, with a gentle voice, kind eyes and beautiful wavy silver hair. We chatted for a while. It was our first time meeting, and he wanted us to get to know each other. As our chat wound down, he asked what I’d studied in college. I gave what had already become my standard airy, dismissive wave and smile and said, “French and photography. I know! It’s the perfect training for my job!”

We laughed, and he repeated my answer. “French and photography. I knew it couldn’t have been accounting.”

I won’t lie: I was more than a little surprised. Something was wrong with my books? My precious ledgers weren’t perfect?

David, because he actually was a lovely, kind man, spent the better part of the afternoon giving me a crash course in accounting. Most important and most mind-blowing takeaway? The grand totals of my rows and columns had to match! No, seriously, that was the whole concept of balancing the books.

French and photography. Right.

With David’s patient help, I got to be as good at my job as cocky-first-quarter-me had imagined she was. I stayed in touch with David. We exchanged Hannukah and Christmas cards for several years after I left that organization. Whenever I got a new job, he was sure to ask how my French and photography were helping me out.

Most of that is not my point. I just couldn’t resist telling that story.

The first of my two actual points was about Edith’s set-up for this job: the old-school ledgers, the high stool, the fountain pen. It was as if she thought her job was an audition to play Bob Cratchett.

I liked it, that’s true enough, but it was hardly normal, and it certainly wasn’t necessary. Ledgers had moved into the modern era years before. Everyone in the organization had a desk chair. She could have kept the books with a regular pen. Her insistence on using the fountain pen for the ledger when she used a workaday Bic for everything else was just odd – except in the context of her playing the part of bookkeeper in a period play.

Edith’s random oddities are responsible for my second and more important point: my introduction to fountain pens! She planted the seed. My bookkeeping job made me familiar and comfortable with fountain pens. And today, I own many too many, so many that I probably need an intervention.

After my stint with the books, I didn’t find my way back to fountain pens for three or four years. I was in Kate’s Paperie and found myself at the pen counter, practically drooling over the loveliness under the glass. I went back to the same pen again and again. The saleswoman, clearly sensing that I needed only the gentlest of nudges to turn me from a looker to a buyer, inked the display pen and let me write a few lines to see how it felt. Well, of course, it felt wonderful. Smooth across the notepad she’d placed in front of me. Clean, thick line – not bold but assertive. I walked out with that pen, a black-with-gold-trim Pelikan M250 – piston-filled, thick but lightweight, logo at the end of the cap.

Pelikan M250

I was reading Natalie Goldberg then, my first go-round with Writing Down the Bones. So I was doing a lot of writing, filling pages, filling notebooks. And the Pelikan was an excellent companion on that journey, so fluid my words spilled out effortlessly across all those pages.

A year later, I was back in Kate’s buying a ridiculously over-priced birthday gift for my new love (the start of my saga with The Morphine Man) — a gorgeous hand-bound notebook with a birch bark cover and thick, ultra-smooth, creamy paper. A notebook like that deserved a fine writing implement, so I moved slowly down the gleaming pen case until I found a deep green Waterman – slender but heavy, it’s green a dark, marbled resin. I bought it for The Morphine Man … but I knew before I got home that it was really for me. And so it was. (He loved the notebook. Was none the wiser about the pen.)

I used to think pens were necessary, disposable, interchangeable tools. If you lost one, you picked up a new one and moved on. I had favorites – the Pilot Precise rollerball was a particular love – but I wasn’t attached to any pen. The Pelikan changed that. I have only lost one pen in the 30 years since I bought that Pelikan. One. And I agonized over that loss, still occasionally kick myself over my carelessness and hope the person who found my gorgeous Levenger True Writer Kyoto took good care of it and wrote well with it.

And my handwriting has changed. It was never truly terrible — despite the bad penmanship marks I got in grade school — but it is definitely nicer now. This seemed a strange fact at first, but then, the last year that I was teaching, my students helped me solve the mystery. One of the goals that bubbled up at the start of the year was that a lot of the younger students wanted to improve their handwriting. No one had ever asked about good handwriting before. I started researching … and writing with a fountain pen was one of the top recommendations. It was all about ease of ink flow eliminating the need to exert force with the pen, allowing the writer to loosen their grip and write more comfortably.

I bought a set of student pens and gave a little tutorial on how to hold it, how to write with it. No one had every used a fountain pen, and most hadn’t noticed that I always wrote with one. We had a lot of discussion about that. Sadly, I’d been writing with a fountain pen for so long at that point, I had no “before” examples, no pre-fountain writing to show the difference.

My students thought the pens were funny, and the novelty made encouraged practice. Not everyone stuck with it, but the ones who did saw that their writing changed. And they noticed, as I had after switching to fountain pens, that they could write for longer periods of time without their hands hurting. I wonder if they stuck with fountains long enough to see their hands change, too. The tip of the middle finger on my right hand used to have an ugly, rough, half-callused indentation. It doesn’t anymore.

That year of Bob Cratchett playacting had quite the long-term effect. I don’t actually know how many fountain pens I own – I’ll make a conservative guess and say four dozen. Sailors, Esterbrooks, Pilots, Platinums, Pelikans, and any number of other brands, big names and unknowns, fancy and expensive, and three-dollar beauties. It’s fair to say I have a pen problem, but there are far worse vices, so I give myself a pass.

I wonder what made Edith choose that Parker, why she didn’t keep the ledgers with whatever pen was on hand. Was it really about the choice to turn her work into a game – setting herself up like a Dickensian clerk on her high stool with her tiny numbers noted down on those wide green “eye-ease” sheets? Whatever her game, I’m grateful to her. I’d surely have been introduced to fountain pens eventually, but maybe by that future time, I’d have been so entrenched in my writing habits, complete with a favorite pen, that fountains would have been just an interesting curiosity. Edith and her Parker came along at the exact right moment!


(The pen in my GriotGrind image is my perfect little Sailor pocket pen. I have a crazy number of pocket pens, mostly Platinums and Pilot Elites, but my Sailor with it’s excellent blue-black ink is a go-to fave!)

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.

Fat Talk: Giving Over My Body

I’ve been having  lot of physical therapy the last few years. I’ve had a handful of knee surgeries, and now some new knee business and a rotator cuff injury, so PT comes with the territory. A few weeks ago, as Yu-Lan was manipulating my shoulder, I had a little epiphany: I don’t trust people with my body. I don’t relax in other people’s hands.

Yu-Lan needed my arm limp so she could move my shoulder the ways she needed to. I couldn’t relax it. I kept thinking I had relaxed it, and then she’d shake her head and my arm and say, “Let it go.” This went on for a while.

My past PT experiences have been similar. First Daniel, then Mark, tried really hard to get me to relax so they could do their work. I’ve been working with Jeremy for my shoulder–was seeing Yu-Lan because Jeremy was sick that day–and have had the same story play out with him.

With Daniel, I chalked up my tension to the fact that Daniel is beautiful. He looks like Takeshi Kaneshiro in House of Flying Daggers. Really. To have this unreasonably-pretty young man put his hands on me was both pleasant and alarming. But–with no intention to throw shade–that wasn’t the issue with Mark. And, as cute as Jeremy is, he’s not the kind of cute I go for, so I definitely can’t blame my libido.

*

I’m middle-aged. I got fat at 15. I’ve spent pretty much my whole life paying very close attention to my body. I’ve learned to be hyper-aware of how much space I’m taking up at any given time, and of how I’m taking that space. I’ve learned to be aware of how my body exists in relationship to other people’s bodies, to other people’s thoughts and feelings about my body.

I’ve spent years choosing to stand so as not to force other passengers on the train or bus to accommodate my size. When I have chosen to sit, I’ve used the things I’ve learned about how to angle my body so that it fills less space, even though all of those tricks leave me uncomfortable.

But all of that, all of those ways of focusing on my body, are different. What I realized with Yu-Lan is something other. Not trusting people to handle my body with care points past the body-awareness I’ve had to develop as a fat person. Points, instead, to the root catalyst of my fat. I don’t trust people with my body because people haven’t shown themselves to be trustworthy when it comes to my body.

It’s not a particularly surprising point, of course. Surely the fact that I’ve been writing so much about my body lately is why working with Yu-Lan illuminated this point for me. But what does it mean? What has it meant over time in my life?

It’s little things: Removing myself from any professional development or team-building activity that would or could possibly include trust falls or other intense physical contact with co-workers. Refusing a hand up when climbing walls or trees, when mounting horses, preferring to risk myself by managing on my own rather than risk myself by relying on someone else’s ability to make me safe.

It’s little things: I am a lousy partner dancer, incapable of letting a man lead. I’ve had one male partner who  was able to lead me without me fighting against his gentle guide. One. Every other time I’ve tried partner dancing, it has ended badly. I literally resist my partner’s movements, move in opposition to him as if we are adversaries. It’s never been confrontational, but it sure as hell has made for awkward, clashing dance. I’ve always chalked it up to the fact that I am a crap dancer–because I am a crap dancer–but I think there’s more to it than that. When I dance alone, I’m a far less crappy dancer. When I took belly dance classes, for example, I was totally dance dyslexic–always moving in the exact opposite direction from the one the instructor indicated–but the moves were fluid, came naturally out of my muscles without resistance.

It’s not-so-little-but-entirely-obvious things: Struggling with medical exams, fighting against doctors’ requests for access to my body the way I fight a partner’s dance moves. Struggling to fully relax in the arms of a lover, in bed with a lover. Struggling to trust that person not to morph into someone else, someone untrustworthy, someone dangerous, having my mind play the mean trick of showing my lover change faces as he lies beside me in bed, turning into a stranger, into a demon, into the devil.

*

I’m wondering about the fact that I am extremely ticklish … which makes me think about cats. And Elmo. (Yes, of course. Elmo.) But first cats.

Cats have this thing where they use their purring as protection. When they are stressed or nervous or frightened, some cats will purr to appease, to signal the need for help. Purring appeals to us, makes the cat seem kinder, sweeter, makes us–if we aren’t monsters–less likely to harm the cat. If the cat is afraid of you and purring inspires you to pet the cat, to show it kindness and offer it food or care, that fear response is helpful, protective.

And this is why I’m thinking about my ticklishness and Elmo. I thought Tickle Me Elmo was incredibly annoying, but also creepily manic. That crazed, fake, flinching laughter was a lot like my own response to being tickled, something I’m only seeing now, and I wonder if that was another reason I loathed that toy.

When we are tickled, we are at the mercy of the person tickling us. We are in their hands, literally. And the places where they touch us, where we are sensitive to tickling, aren’t the places casual acquaintances would normally touch us: our waists, the backs of our knees, under our chins, the bottoms of our feet, our stomachs. People who tickle others force an intimacy that may or may not be welcome, desired.

Is then, the response to tickling–manic laughter–like the cat’s purr? Is my hysterical laugh my fear response masked as cuteness? My way of inspiring the person touching me to treat me kindly?

*

I have one strong memory of giving myself over to strangers’ hands, of going completely limp and letting other people manage my body.

Years ago, my sister and I went to an Echo and the Bunnymen concert at the old Felt Forum. Fox, my sister, and I went to a lot of concerts back then. We were good at getting right up in front of the stage. But Fox never stayed at the front. There would always be a moment when she’d look at me and say she was headed to the back of the venue. I, stubbornly, refused to go with her–we were right at the front!–so we’d pick a spot to meet after the show, and she’d disappear through the crowd.

The Echo and the Bunnymen show was no different. She told me it was time for her to go, we picked our meetup spot, and she left. Almost immediately, the crowd turned violent–because that’s Fox’s spidey-sense super power: she knows when a crowd is about to turn. People were pushing and elbowing and punching to get those of us in front out of their way. I was knocked to the ground and the people around me began kicking me. I couldn’t get myself up, and I was pretty sure I was going to die.

From nowhere, a stranger was cradling my head and then pulling me up, some man I didn’t know. He got me on my feet and kept his arm around me, asked me what I wanted to do. He said I could stay, and he’d keep me beside him, keep me safe, or he could get me out. I didn’t see how he could manage it, but I opted for getting out.

He said I’d have to go hand over hand up to the front barricade and then out. That didn’t make any sense, but I said okay, and somehow he lifted me and lay me across the top of the crowd and the crowd passed me–hand over hand–up to the security staff at the barricade and they pulled me down and helped me get out.

That whole passing-hand-over-hand part? I was rag-doll limp. I didn’t assist in my rescue even enough to lift my feet so that my big, combat-booted feet didn’t smack folks in the head as I was passed forward.

Never mind the fact that I still believe that man didn’t actually exist, that he was my guardian angel in corporeal form intervening because it wasn’t my time yet. I certainly never saw him after the show. And there’s no way he should have been able to lift me as easily as he did and settle me on top of the crowd. There’s no way the crowd–which seconds earlier had been kicking the life out of me–should have come together to pass me up to the security guards. Clearly Divine intervention.

But never mind all of that. How was I able to be so handle-able? How did I manage to go fully limp at a moment when I knew I was at the mercy of dangerous strangers?

*

In my PT visit after working with Yu-Lan,, Jeremy needed me to trust him. He needed to test the movement of my pelvis, hips, and knees. To do that, I had to be limp, had to let him take my leg in his arms and bend and twist and swing and pull it in many different ways. I had to lie limp while he pressed down on my pelvis and into the space where my thighs meet my torso. Some of these movements are awkwardly intimate, but Jeremy is wonderfully professional. While being gentle and sure-handed, he basically manipulates my body as if I were a large mound of bread dough–no danger of mistaking the intent of his touches.

I kept freezing up. Seizing up. Tried several times to pull away from him. He was worried that he was hurting me, but I assured him he wasn’t.

“So quit fighting me,” he said, laughing.

Yeah. Would that it could be so simple.


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.

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.


 

Fat Talk: The Cage, Part II

In the first part of this essay, I said that I’m pretty comfortable with myself, and that’s mostly true. That comfort didn’t happen magically, and it certainly didn’t happen because I’m regularly met with loud and enthusiastic praise for being fat. As if.

And yet, I am pretty comfortable with myself, and I know that that’s both generally unexpected and, in many folks’ opinions, extremely unacceptable. After reading that first essay, a friend said she isn’t used to seeing fat narratives that aren’t about getting thin, that don’t have body transformation at the root. Body transformation is most definitely not my goal, and I know how alien that is for many people who might read these essays. But there it is. Good to establish that right up front.

***

My comfort with myself is relatively new. I certainly wasn’t comfortable being fat when I was younger. The terrible romper I had to wear in high school gym class could have created that discomfort all by itself.¹ So would the mandatory gymnastics routines we had to perform each year to pass gym: choreographed, in teams, in skimpy costumes … and in which I was always the largest, least-gainly, and least able to fit the costume member.

My ease with myself began to develop when I stopped dieting, when I decided that I would never again subject myself to the cruel, predictable roller coaster of dieting.

From fifteen to thirty-eight, I was a dieter. Even when I wasn’t actively dieting, I was a dieter. I lost so much weight on diets. Once, I lost enough weight that a man who had never been interested in me romantically or sexually was inspired to make a violent pass at me. Score! Once, I lost enough weight that a man was kind enough to let me know I’d reached the outer rim of “acceptable,” of fat women who weren’t so fat that he wouldn’t fuck them once. Just once, mind you. Talk about a bonus!

Seriously, though, I did lose a lot of weight on diets. Over and over and over. In that way, I was an excellent dieter, always able to lose, and lose, and lose.

But there’s this thing that happens when I diet. I get smaller. Every time. It’s a problem.

When I lose weight, I get more — and more aggressive — street harassment. When I lose weight, people — friends and strangers — comment on my body. When I lose weight, the fear of weakness resurfaces. Thinness equals vulnerability. Still.

And all of this is why I said it feels safer in the cage than out of it.

Years ago, after I gave up dieting, when I was working on developing a healthier relationship to food, a relationship that didn’t (always) involve eating my feelings, I did a visualization exercise. The idea was to imagine myself in my regular day to day, but to imagine myself thin. This is a pretty easy exercise on its face. I won’t speak for other fat people, but I used to spend a lot of time imagining myself thin.

For the second part of the exercise, I was to pay attention to any feelings that came up as thin me was doing my job and running my errands.

Oh. Well, that was different. I immediately noticed how uncomfortable I felt, nervous, on display, hunted. Hunted? Yes, like I had morphed into prey.

I stopped the exercise. That was the first time I’d articulated equating thinness with being unsafe, being unable to protect myself, the first time I drew the connecting line between being molested and getting fat.

I didn’t know what to do with that, with the fact that the thing I was supposed to want above all things — thinness — was also the thing I perceived as putting me at risk. And it wasn’t just my perception. Men had shown me each time I lost weight — and I never had to lose very much weight for them to make this clear — that they couldn’t be trusted, that I couldn’t feel safe with them.

I’ve done that exercise a number of times since that first, revealing, time. The idea of thinness still calls up weakness and vulnerability, though not as strongly as happened that first time. Which is probably progress.

I know, without repeating that exercise, that I still have work to do here. When I lose weight now, I’m fine with the loss … until someone calls it out, until I’m forced to buy clothes at a smaller size. When that happens, all I want is to start eating, to go back into binge mode to cover myself again, hide myself back behind a newly-fortified wall. And that’s always what I do. I can lose weight fairly easily. Overcoming my fear of being smaller is another thing all together.

***

I don’t think of my body as a cage. My size does make some things true for me that aren’t true for thin people. And my size makes me behave in ways thin people have likely never had to imagine behaving. But this is my body. It’s not a cage. It’s me.

Yes, there is the idea of my body as a protective wall between me and anyone who might harm me. But I also understand the false security of believing in that wall. Both the attempted rape and the rape happened to fat me, not slender me. Rapists and abusers don’t care what your body looks like. Their violence has nothing to do with societal beauty norms.

But if I know that, if I know my body isn’t safety, why maintain this size? If I don’t think of my body as a cage, why did I describe myself as trapped?

Yeah.

What I know for sure is that I won’t diet again. Ever. The mind required for dieting is damaging to me, feeds doubt and self-hate. I am currently in a fight with my cardiologist who wants to enroll me in a managed, monitored weight loss program. Guess again. The wonky heartbeat that mysteriously developed last summer has been fixed, and while going on a diet might fulfill his fantasy that I will begin to look like my mother — something he calls out as a goal for me every time we meet — dieting will do nothing for me but mess up my head, slam truck-sized holes into all the progress I’ve made toward liking and trusting myself. I am not interested.

Giving up dieting sounds like abandon, sounds wanton, almost criminal. As a fat person, I am supposed to crave thinness, supposed to want and need to lose weight. Really, even if you’ve never had this thought about me or said some of these words to me, trust me: plenty of other folks have. Plenty.

But I’ve turned away from the path our fatphobic society thinks I should guide myself down. I have become a Bad Fatty.

***

Which means that I remain fat, yes. And it also means I am somewhat belligerently so. I don’t have patience for people’s fat-shaming and fat phobia — good God, don’t I wish that had been true from the beginning of my fatness! Once, before I became a vegetarian, I was ordering a sandwich at a deli. The person taking my order disapproved when I added bacon. She paused before noting what I’d asked for, sighed, looked at me, and asked, “Are you sure you want that?” Because heaven forbid I should have bacon on my turkey sandwich. Imagine the eventual destruction-of-the-world should I have bacon on my turkey sandwich. I looked at her, surprised. “You’re so right,” I said, smiling. “I meant to say double bacon! Thanks for catching that!”

I don’t have time for people’s mess. This is my body. Mine. All mine. And if folks don’t like looking at it, they can look elsewhere. And if folks want to tell me what I should and shouldn’t be eating, I am happy to tell them that, since they aren’t paying for my food, since I didn’t take my food off their plate, they are welcome to shut the fuck up. I will feed myself what I want when I want it. I will dress myself how I like when I choose. I will have the audacity to take up all the space I take up.

When I lose weight now, it’s a sign that I’m feeling myself – feeling stronger, feeling safer. It means I’m trusting myself, committing to my creative self. It means I’m living more mindfully. And I’m glad for all of those things. And sad when I feel the fear creep in, when I start to gain back whatever I’ve lost.

***

I am comfortable with myself.

I am comfortable with myself, and there is still work to do. I still don’t believe the world is safe for me to be smaller. I still don’t want to invite the added attention that comes when I’m smaller.

So yes, work to do. Not so that I can lose weight and keep it off, but because living in fear isn’t a way I want to live, because overcoming those fears will move me — finally — past the object those men and that boy wanted to make of me, the object other men have tried to make of me.  Overcoming those fears will leave me stronger, more whole, more myself.

__________

¹ Have you read Eleanor and Park? That’s exactly the romper I wore throughout high school. I mean, Oh. My. God. For real.  (Also? Just read that book because it’s good.)



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.

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.

Black Bluebird Respect

In third grade my friends started joining the Girl Scouts, and my mother wanted me to follow them. My brother was a Boy Scout, and it seemed those big, organized group activities appealed to her. I was an often solitary child, as happy to curl up with a book as play with my friends, and she may have worried about my reclusiveness. She talked up the Girl Scouts, but I wasn’t interested. Was I just a contrarian kid, was I opposed to child labor in the form of cookie sales, was I averse to sashes and badges? No. The turn-off of the Girl Scouts was simple: I didn’t want to be called a Brownie.

I hadn’t ever been called a Brownie, mind you – did anyone ever actually call Black people brownies? They did call us “darkies,” but I was too young to ever have been called that. I grew up in a time and place where no one was saying “darkie.” Folks said “colored,” but not darkie. And “colored” is the worst thing I can remember being called until I was older, so it’s curious that I had such a stiff reaction to Brownie.

It isn’t curious that I had some race consciousness so early. My parents were active in the Civil Rights Movement, and their politics rubbed off on my brother and me. And, while I was only eight, I’d had my first self-shaping experience of race prejudice a few years earlier, having been shunned by all but one of my kindergarten classmates simply because of my color.

But I was a meek kid, a go-along-to-get-along kid, so it’s still odd that I would have had strength enough of my convictions to refuse to follow everyone else’s lead, to reject my mother’s urging to become a Scout.

My mother didn’t pressure me, but she didn’t give up, either. When I reached fourth grade, she raised the question again. We had just moved to a new town, and maybe she thought Girl Scouts would be a way for me to build a group of friends quickly. I was still anti-Brownie, but she was determined. She did some homework and came back with the idea of starting a Camp Fire Girls troop. First level in Camp Fire world? I got to be a not-in-any-way-racially-problematic Bluebird. I signed right up. I still have my Bluebird pin today.

*

My mother didn’t often get me. I was a strange proposition for her then, and my strangeness in her eyes continued until well into my thirties. I was tall, awkward, unpopular with boys … a kind of photo negative of her. Our experiences of the world and the ways the world saw us were so different, I had to have seemed patently alien to her.

She didn’t always get it right with me – her obsession with my body shape and size was particularly difficult. As was her rampant fear of the quite completely impossible chance of my getting pregnant in high school.

But for all her off-key moves, her inability to figure out who I was because I was so unlike her, she trusted my mind, my capacity for seeing things. Even when she didn’t agree or fully understand my position, when it was clear that I’d thought a thing through and had reason behind my decision, she gave me room, respect.

She could have seen the Brownie situation as small, silly. Could probably have forced me to become a Scout. But she didn’t. This thing that happened between us – this way that she was able to see me and that I knew I was seen – it didn’t happen often. Charting our history, I realize that it happened most consistently when my focus was on race.

In seventh grade, I lashed out at a classmate who called me a nigger. It was the first time anyone had called me that. No one admonished him. Instead, I was seen as the problem. I was sent to the nurse’s office so she could figure out what could possibly be wrong with me to make me behave so aggressively. She called my mother to suggest some appropriate scolding and punishment. My mother wasn’t having any of it. She spoke to me to make sure I was alright, then had some words with the nurse, words that turned the nurse first red then white, words that shut down the scolding the nurse had been doling out.

My senior year of high school, my final presentation in speech class was about being one of only three Black kids in that school. My teacher said I’d have to present another one, said she couldn’t grade the speech because it didn’t fit the topic: “America, the Melting Pot.” She said that, because she’d liked the speech, she’d be generous and give me a chance to write something else, to do the assignment correctly rather than get a crap grade. My mother wasn’t having any of that, either. She had a conference with my teacher, which ended with the speech being graded as written.

(You’ll notice I don’t tell you what my mother actually says in these situations. That’s because I have no idea. That’s her MO. My mother is genteel. A lady and a trained actress. She goes into the fray with grace, has calm, mysterious, carefully-worded conversations … and on the other end … the world is righted.)

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I don’t know how my mother found out about Camp Fire Girls. We were pre-internet, she had no friends in that town, and there were no existing Camp Fire groups in the area. But she found out what she needed to know. I didn’t care for the other members of my troop much, but I had fun all the same. I like learning stuff, and there was always some new thing. We went on nature walks, learned history, baked bread. We even met some Iroquois elders, for reasons that escape me today. We also learned to knit – a skill I use now to create delicate, lacy gifts, primarily for my mother.

Mostly, what I liked was spending time with her. I was fascinated by my mother. I found her just as alien as she found me. I couldn’t imagine being as poised, beautiful, or talented as she was, and I was already questioning whether I made logical sense as her daughter. But in Camp Fire Girls, all of that could be ignored, and we could just be ourselves with each other.

Which was maybe what she’d wanted. Maybe the Girl Scouts had never really been the point. Yes, she could have forced me into the Scouts, but she could understand my reason for not wanting to join, so she found another way, found a path I could walk, that we could walk together.



I wrote this piece for Listen to Your Mother. I auditioned with it on Wednesday and found out yesterday that I didn’t make the cast for this, the final year of the LYTM performances. I found out while on break during the Girls Write Now genre workshop. That’s a crappy time to get bad news. I’m in that room to learn, to hang out with Sophia, to see other mentors. I put my phone away, put my feelings about the rejection away with it, and got back to the workshop.

I didn’t think about it again until late in the afternoon when I was on the train headed to the hinterlands of Westchester to watch my niece’s school musical. I was still sad about it. I hadn’t realized just how much I’d been looking forward to being part of that show, part of that community. And rejection always hurts, so it’s not surprising that I was sad.

But that sadness was already fading by the time my train ride was underway. I’ve certainly dealt with writing rejection before. MANY times. The hard slap of disappointment has to pass or you don’t move on to the next thing. I decided on the train that I’d share this piece on my blog, and here we are. And now it’s time to move on to the next thing.

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It’s the 10th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!

Head over to Two Writing Teachers to see all of today’s slices!