Why I Like to Write With Other People

This is how we wrote: on low tables, on couches, on floors, on Friday afternoons. I entered into the writers’ group christened Megafauna as a college freshman. There were seven of us—a mix of students and twenty/thirty-somethings who all knew Sara, a recent college graduate that brought us together—and we went in without expectation. Then we learned everyone’s living room, watched the contours of sun and shadow change in different seasons, and did so almost every week at 4 o’clock over four years.

By the time the meetings dwindled, we had hosted dozens of readings, made some bomb ‘zines, sat with each other through a hundred afternoons where we wrote to music or to first lines of poems, drank tea, traded books. Some of us graduated college and some of us got married or had babies for the first time and some of us moved away. But the act of writing and reading together rather than doing so alone, taking time to mull over the shapes and sounds of words and the endless number of ways they could fit around each other became, for a long time, necessary.

And it is still necessary. This week I went to a writer’s group for the first time since Megafauna split two years ago. I am not saying writers’ groups can be replaced—because each one is specific to its own time and people and needs—but I went to a stranger’s house and sat on their couch. We ate snacks and read each other’s words into the quiet as the day was going down. Someone read a poem out loud. I had not written for weeks. But by the end of the night, I felt like I had remembered something forgotten.

I thought of a random afternoon with Megafauna that has stuck with me for so long, for no reason. I remembered sitting in Sara’s downtown loft in the winter with burned popcorn, the smell of it filling the apartment. We were in the middle of a free write and I was suddenly aware of the light pouring into the room and these people who had become great friends around me scribbling intently into their notebooks—that rare moment of appreciating what is happening in one moment, the realization of life as it is, the finiteness of it. I thought: I am here right now and I always want to remember this feeling because it will not continue forever.

Writing is a solitary act much of the time. Artsy people have different methods of doing their work. The problem is that there are often distractions like to-do lists or the Internet or someone who wants to go a bar, which sounds better than staring at the wall with a piece that isn’t moving. To meet, however infrequently, with other people who also sit in their rooms fending off distractions and try to tackle the blank spaces—people who feel the same light in their bones when they hear a certain sentence, people who understand what you are trying to make of this life and can support you and tell you what works, what doesn’t—reminds me that art is never made totally alone.

To that end, I was curious what keeps other people going. I asked some writer friends to share what inspires them, what works for them. In the spirit of communities, here is what they had to say:

  • Find ways to be creative as often as possible, even if it’s not writing. I don’t always have the time or the discipline to write every day, but I almost always read or paint or experience something new or knit or draw or even color. Those activities soothe my inner artist and help inspire writing when I do actually sit down and practice.
  • A lot of my inspiration and motivation comes from interacting with and seeing other poets—seeing them live or reading their books or watching them on YouTube (Button Poetry is the best channel for that). I also go to a weekly poetry workshop…Surrounding myself with a community of writers is the most prominent way I stay motivated to keep writing.
  • Coffee (!) and working at a desk or table that faces a window.
  • Usually inspiration comes from somewhere outside of myself so I find I have more ideas + more energy for creating after being in quiet, creative spaces like bookstores, museums, libraries, and coffee shops and/or after being around other creative people. After going to Creative Mornings a few weeks ago, I wrote a poem on the bus ride to work. Just listening to someone talk about their creative work made me more motivated to express myself and MAKE.
  • I try to write 1-2 free writes a week and then work on them throughout the week until I send it to someone else. After getting feedback, I read it at an open mic and bring it to my workshop to get more feedback. Then I usually leave it alone for at least month.
  • The poem “What the Wing Says” by David Swanger always fuels me to make poems: “I will speak more plainly: you think you are/ the middle of your life, your own fulcrum, / your years poised like reckonings in the balance. / This is not so: dismiss the grocer of your soul. /Nothing important can be weighed…” The poem is an offering, an invitation into the everyday, the rough stone of the now. It dares me to probe from each ventricle the magic, the truth, the insane and the holy. An ordeal which is dangerous and thrilling. (And the whole fun of writing, after all, is the risk and the thrill.)
  • “Syllabus” by Lynda Barry has reminded me of the role of creative journaling and capturing thoughts that may feel disjointed but are still tendrils of the creative muse.
  • I try to stay updated on political events and those work their way into my writing in some way. I think important writing is a reflection of the time, so staying informed makes easier to accomplish that.
  • BrainPickings has a neat series on the daily routines of writers. It’s inspired me to try to schedule a free day around creative space instead of all my to-do’s and emails and adult obligations.
  • It comes down to variation for me. I get tired of working with people with similar mindsets and ideas, so recently I just made connections on the science side of [grad school] and have been creating a show with them instead of with theatre people. I get creatively charged when I bring two very different things together. For that, I find a diverse group of people, take an interest in their work, and just listen to them get passionate about whatever they’re passionate about.
  • tUnE-yArDs all day long.
  • And much more practically, deadlines!
  • For me, the most important thing is to have an audience for what I’m doing, to know there will be eyes on this soon, whether it’s where I want it to be or not. That really motivates me to keep plugging along, to invest my energy into it so that others can experience it at its best. Just having someone to read through it, whether it be a friend or family member, can provide a lot of motivation.
  • Other authors: The War of Art by Steven Pressfield & Dominique Christina’s This is Woman’s Work
  • What keeps me going are my previous selves that kept trying to write regularly until having kids finally made it stick. I write early before they get up now. (I”m not alone in this: Patti Smith, Margaret Atwood: a lot of women writers say it was kids that make them take their own writing seriously finally.)
  • I try to do something creative every day, even for just a half hour, whether it be writing, music, or art. Also, what helps me is to avoid the internet. The less time I spend on the internet, the more creative I am…so obviously I’m not very creative right now.

 

Morning on a Train

There is a train taking me home, taking me far from home.

I am going from Indiana, my childhood home, back to Washington, D.C. I leave a place I have known all my life to return to a place I have only just learned in the last year, but in each place I am finding a way to be alive. I drift in and out of sleep with a book and Annie Dillard reminds me to look closely again.

We inhabit a place we only so often observe. This comes at a moment, Dillard says in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (which is a good one), when we slip from our own self-consciousness and see our surroundings as they were created, before our opinions and experiences, what we wish to see, clouds them over. This train sliced through the land all night, going east from Indiana, and I could only feel its rocking, wonder in dreams if we were taking the curves slow enough. We went through Harper’s Ferry, a sudden bright sky spewed across the water, and I recognized the woods where I pitched a tent last fall with friends, or thought I did. We stuck ourselves in a clearing a mile from the car, peed in the grass, laid on our backs inside a closed zipper looking out at the dying fire. I knew the name of the place, knew we had been there, but doubted I could pick out the exact spot from the winter woods, miles and miles long, where we slept.

But still I watched the trees unspool and thought, There! Or maybe there. I tried to recognize the spaces between the trees. We spend our lives trying to recognize a place, to be recognized. To retrace a memory that remains bright and holy in our minds, to find the familiar, to return to a path we know–in other words, to be known. You take huge steps, Dillard says, trying to feel the planet’s roundness arc between you feet.

The new is necessary and holds a thrill. I feel that way whenever I leave a place and go somewhere I don’t yet know–whether that’s D.C. or Peru or London or Boston. Those names you don’t know yet, those objects you have not touched, those colors of doors or a shadow over a clump of buildings and the way they hit the sun. You get to learn the world again, see it differently, go out of yourself. You cross a sea or a border and come back burning differently, fully absorbed in trying to make sense of a landscape and a people and a life you do not know, and you are changed for it. This is a desire not to be quelled–the wish to venture out and be shocked by unbound experience.

But against this need is a wish to return to what you knew before. I think it’s interchangeable with the need we have to make a home. Why do we think of our childhoods, save photographs and journals, spend years loving so many of the same people deeply? Why do we ask for the old stories and pass them on? I think because they show us to ourselves, remind us what we already know, and that is the comfort, an anchoring just as the new expands us. This train took me from one home to another, and in between is the land I do not know–the towns and spits of snows, the farmland January gray, a million houses people fill and leave.

My grandpa recently asked me to describe what it was like to be a postgraduate. I didn’t know how to answer. Like every stage of life you experience, it’s tough to squeeze out what you know while you’re living it. But trains have a way of pulling out your thoughts, however unformed.

I would tell him I am learning to make my home in more ways than one, to see the beauty of unmaking when necessary, as well as to explore what it means to stay. To trust myself. I am always seeking the place, the book, the person, the work that will give me my next thrill. At the same time I get knotted up when I think of forgetting things (hence why I write down every day), of forgetting my former selves, or the many lights shed on my hometown, or the love I carry for friends now spread across the globe.

Now I am learning to let go some, to lean in some, to trust that where I am is where I should be. I have learned a little about how to rent a house, how to cook for one, how to work in the city, even if it sometimes feels like a game of pretend. My thighs are thick. I can ride my bike for miles. I do so, stubbornly, in the snow. As an flatlands girl, I am more than a little excited to have mastered the hills. I have learned a little about how to navigate that wide open unknown that is my life, to stand in that space without always being afraid of the choices I make, the many paths I could choose, what might change.

Like that William Stafford poem: “There’s a thread you follow. It goes among things that change. But it doesn’t change.” We hold on to that thin little line we know, come back to that thread, with one hand thrust into the unknown.

Field Notes from a Writing Workshop in Cape Cod

The teacher of the workshop looked like his book jacket. He walked in and surveyed his expectants, me and the nine other attendees who were supposed to learn how to “write from experience.” I was at the Fine Arts Work Center on scholarship, broke after a year of voluntary service, in a room so white and so full of white things I couldn’t help wondering if it had been intentional. The snow-colored walls, a blank board on an easel stand, the light wiping the room clean—was this meant to clear our minds?

Instead the writer sat, and we introduced ourselves. I’ll call him Brian. Brian had tattoos up his sleeve, and piercings, just as I thought he would. There was a heart curled around his bicep. He spoke more softly and had more grey hair than I imagined. On the plane I finished his memoir on the bus, which made me feel as though I knew him, and I had to keep reminding myself I did not.

We did not write that first night. I watched the other faces as the light drained out of the room, cutting everyone down the the essentials after they introduced themselves as I tried to remember their names. There was a retired doctor who collected $25,000 pieces of art and a teacher from New Jersey, a comedian from Brooklyn with a one-woman show, a high school girl with perfect bangs I swore was in college, a lesbian couple. Workshops all start the same: there is a sense of possibility, the work you might create with a room full of strangers, and an equal sense of something like dread that these people, with all their various stages of knowledge and unknown lives, will critique what you have to say.

At that moment we were thinking about making it to the beach for sunset. Brian stared at us for a long moment, his jaw moving in circles. “You need three things to make your art: space, time and community,” the director of the center had told us when we arrived. Here we were in the space.

“I’ll see you guys tomorrow,” Brian said.

CLASS NOTES: DAY ONE

My goal is always to write someone’s favorite book—improving their experience rather than bringing in everyone. Your ideal reader is you. You’re writing your own favorite book. You won’t write anything good for people you don’t respect. Pay attention to what you devour and write like that.

To get to Provincetown, I took a flight from DC to Boston, and then a bus, and then another bus, and the journey’s length was enough to make me feel as though I had reached another world. The bed and breakfasts unspooled themselves in primary colors—wide porches, picket fences, stained glass, spilling trellises—along the lengths of the bus windows, the ocean always within walking distance, the roads so tiny two cars on opposite sides had to slow to five miles an hour. Everyone wore bathing suits and sand like a second skin and no one knew what time it was.

The Work Center was tucked just off the main drag and I holed away in a guestroom above the office, my days crawling one into the other: books on the beach before class, poetry readings after dinner, writing late into the night. I carried Brian’s paperback with the sole purpose of having him sign it but I didn’t want to ask.

 CLASS NOTES, DAY 2

Reread and rewrite every word so that you can wake up in the middle of the night and see the sentences projected on the backs of your eyes. We’re terrified of being misunderstood so we overcompensate. Don’t talk down by explaining something the reader already understands.

On Tuesday we considered the hummingbird for a long moment, as the essayist Brian Doyle asked us to do. I was slain, as we are sometimes slain.

“You can brick up your heart as stout and tight and hard and cold and impregnable as you possibly can and down it comes in an instant, felled by a woman’s second glance, a child’s apple breath, the shatter of glass in the road, the words I have something to tell you, a cat with a broken spine dragging itself into the forest to die, the brush of your mother’s papery ancient hand in the thicket of your hair, the memory of your father’s voice early in the morning echoing from the kitchen where he is making pancakes for his children.”

How do you describe what it means to get taken down by a sentence? How do you put your finger on what exactly will pluck that chord inside you? I wanted to ask Brian how he did it, just as I wanted to sit down with every person who wrote my new favorite line, who made me sing for just a second. There are 26 letters in the English language, and words are just words, and yet somehow you string them until you know for sure they cannot be moved—they exist only to move you.

CLASS NOTES, DAY 3

 Honor everyone’s truth in your story. When Tobias Wolf published a novel, his stepsister said, Everyone knows that I’m that girl! He said, How do they know? She said, I told them. People don’t want to be written about, but what they mean is I’m not comfortable with you writing about a side of me I didn’t know I had. If you’ve made peace with your morality, you can say, I’m honoring your feelings, they’re valid, but I’m okay with this.

On the beach by nine, the sky half drunk with clouds, I sat with pages of writing from my classmates and felt inadequate to give my opinion. A man was doing yoga near me, twisting into impossible shapes. I get you, I thought. We’re all just trying to work out the kinks. I asked in workshop later that day how one lives a life devoted to art. I was out of college a year and the writing life looked very different in the world than it did in your head. I wanted to hear how people balanced devotion to creation and also paid the rent without making the work about money.

How do you stay a hobbyist? was the answer. How do you keep it at the center of what you love, as something you do for pleasure, and not turn into something that you hate because it’s the pressure to put food on the table? Art and commerce are not connected. You won’t make money with writing, and when money becomes the focus it takes away the joy. There’s no simple answer, but everyone figures out for themselves in different ways how to do it.

The teacher from New Jersey said that we have this idea of the correct timeline and then we get disappointed. Some years you may not write at all and some summers you may write a novel. She knows 50-years-olds who are publishing their first novel and some people who get published by the time they are 27. You just have to find your rhythm—and no one can tell you how to do that.

There was the intersection of awe and normality: I went to find a Eula Biss essay for class and there she was on Brian’s literary website. In a Zumba class, the poet Nick Flynn left his little daughter to dance, and I wondered if she got his gift for poetry or whether she would act like her mother, or neither. After his reading, I watched him kiss her head.

We were all living our quiet lives but then some of us went and did brilliant things. The person whose writing I’d been sucking down for years also wanted coffee in the afternoon and jumped off the pier and had a daughter who wouldn’t stop saying dadddddd into the microphone after his reading was over and waited to start until Michael Cunningham got out of the bathroom.

CLASS NOTES, DAY 4

Write the thing that wants to be written. The writing that comes the easiest is the best—when things are just coming out of you. Put it on the page, ask questions later. Writing is just a big block of clay—don’t slow down the creation of that clay. The writer’s job is to shape that clay, but edit later.

When the week began, I ran to the Stop n Shop one mile away and bought the following: one quart of milk, a carton of eggs, a box of black tea, three apples, six packages of Ramen Noodles, a bag of frozen veggies and a jar of off-brand peanut butter. My bank account was empty and the food needed to stretch five days. On the third day I went out to a bar with three classmates, all of them more than ten years older than me, and the beer slipped through my veins like sand.

The smells were sharper; floral perfume and cigarette smoke in the dark, the glass of gin on the bar when I ordered. The blonde comedian from New York danced by herself, pulled people off their bar stools until there was a floor of couples letting go of their bodies. That line was broken between class and real life.

Even though in writing everyone shared the deepest parts of their lives—deaths and divorce and miscarriages—out in the open we realized the silent agreement to keep sacred what we put on paper. We shed our layers for those hours with Brian but here we were new friends in the low light, with a kinship of the unspoken. We didn’t talk about our stories. Instead I watched them sing to songs from the ‘80s I didn’t know, feeling the warmth of alcohol cut my hunger. They had all been married, some of them divorced, one of them lost a baby. They were singing about purple rain. I knew so much about them, and yet we didn’t know each other at all.

CLASS NOTES, DAY 5

There is not talent. The person that writes every day will always become a good writer. Talent is the desire to write every day. If it doesn’t sell, you will have created this thing that is important to you and that is enough. It’s very easy to confuse writing with publishing—they come from the same unknowable desire. It’s not about publication. It keeps you alive.

On the last day Brian told the class his process. He got up each morning, made a cup of coffee and wrote as long as he could. But twenty minutes a day, he said, that is enough. Write every day, but don’t kill yourself. We must go from a string to a rope when we wove our stories. Come back to that line. The magic was how thick you could make that rope of ideas. If we actively searched for that tension and honesty, the reader would follow.

He said to focus on writing something good, and everything else would come. He was a big believer in the slush pile. That’s what I think, he said. Maybe it’s true, or some of it’s true, who knows.

I did not want to leave that room, that space cleared of everything but the words, because there was always that question after I returned of when I would write again. I held out my copy of Brian’s memoir to him, and he laughed, and said something about the pretty girls always approaching him for a signature. Several of the words he scrawled were unintelligible, and for the rest of the plane ride home, and whenever I pulled out the book after that, I wondered what he had been trying to say. The thing was he had already said so much and I just took what I could.

What WATER Gave Me

We started by rolling out the carpet. Upon my arrival at the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual last August, the first task was to unfurl two thick oriental rugs that would rest all year on the office floor. The carpet’s girth took two of us – my coworker, Cathy, on the other side – before its deep blue and salmon hues were visible, the wrinkles worked out. The rug filled the length of WATER’s library, a conference table atop the pattern.

On that rug I would spend countless hours with the women of WATER. That rug was the meeting place for discussion of daily news happening outside the office walls. We lit candles for meditation on that rug, sat silent in the dark, hosted hundreds of scholars and friends for tea, shared our lunches and our thoughts. We licked thousands of envelopes to mail, wrote grants and fostered conversation with our monthly presentations by feminists around the globe. We talked to Carol Adams and Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza on that rug. In short, the rug blew my mind.

Before I came to WATER, I had never taken the time to learn in depth the role of feminism in culture and in religion: its history, its past and present thinkers and leaders, its struggles and shortcomings in sometimes leaving out class and race, its necessity. My theology and feminist courses were few. I naively believed that my feminism could just exist. I had always been a feminist, and of course I advocated for equality and empowerment. How much I denied myself. Our work is far from over.

WATER gave me the words and gut to express what I have always felt deep in my bones. WATER gave voice to what I knew I believed, but couldn’t always express. It felt as if everything was finally articulated. Here was where I could learn to say what must be said—the vital progress we need in the world, the work toward radical justice, the need to call out privilege in all its forms and create new structures of spirituality and society that uphold everyone. My learning has just begun.

Before this year, I was also increasingly frustrated with faith, and with my Mennonite denomination—a conflicting position to be in when you are in a year of voluntary service for the church. Mennonite Church USA’s official stance is one of exclusion for LGBTIQ people, and I was ashamed of the ways in which a church I belong to, a denomination I grew up in, treats people with such inhumane cruelty. I worried by staying that I endorse what I do not believe. I was angry that individual interpretations of scriptures written thousand of years ago are upheld over treating people with long-overdue respect and dignity. Our interpretations say more about us then they do about the text; we see what we want to see, says Virgina Ramey Mollenkott. I am still frustrated.

It was also a year in which the church voted to uphold the Confession of Faith that denies full personhood to all. I saw a broken system and all the ways in which religion as a whole was being used to cause harm and back systems that uphold white, heteronormative patriarchy and perpetuate discrimination. Many religious denominations tell women what to do with their bodies and shut them out of leadership, keep LGBTIQ people and people of color living in a world of violence and hurt. Political conversations are fraught with references to faith, and not in a good way. This year Baltimore was on fire and acts of white terrorism flourished in the South. I struggle with Church. I have a hard time labeling myself as a Christian. I did not want to align myself with institutions that often perpetuate such hurt.

But in the words of Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, “the church is not going to be church if everyone walks out – some people have to stick it out.” And at WATER, I began to untangle my faith from church, to see it as separate. I found faith in feminism, in work for change. Faith, to me, is much more about our actions lived out in the world.

At the same time, I began to see that my ties to church were powerful in the right communities. I found definitions of faith in the WATER community, and at Hyattsville Mennonite Church, a welcoming congregation, and through the wonderful people in my own congregation back home who were supporting me through this year of service. On a Sunday morning at Hyattsville, just as at College, we would stand to sing in four-part harmony songs that have been in my mouth since I was a child. It’s the kind of music that can fill you up, the kind that made Garrison Keillor’s favorite performance of his career. In those moments I remember the goodness of what we are and what we can be. My identity as a Mennonite remains important.

Faith has the potential to be inclusive and aligned with social change and embody the kind of love we all so desperately need. That kind of faith is what lasts when you strip away the glossy perfection of tradition and realize the flaws that lay within, ones which cannot be fixed without much work. I began to see the importance of staying within a religious tradition through all its shortcomings because change comes from within. I believe the core of a tradition endures even as we seek change. My spirituality has been challenged by my inner conflict for loving the Mennonite Church but loving equality more. I hope, in time, I will no longer need to feel so conflicted. Until then, I seek comfort within communities I feel most aligned to while hoping for discussion and dialogue, as well as asking for grace for the ways in which my impatience and my beliefs can hinder those conversations.

And there were small victories: the passing of marriage equality for all, the Confederate flag taken down, the hiring policy changed to inclusion at my Mennonite alma mater (thank you, Goshen College!). The women of WATER celebrated same-sex marriage on the steps of the Supreme Court and toasted with champagne in our office. These are small steps in a long way to go.

During a conversation with Cindy Lapp, pastor of Hyattsville, she said that faith is about belief, but even more about action. Discrimination on the basis of gender or sexuality or race or religion or any of the other neat boxes we like to compartmentalize others into has no place in church. Faith becomes worthless if it is not manifested by unwavering, no-holds-barred love and acceptance—the kind of love Jesus showed to everyone. Faith, to me, is how we treat each other. How we live in community together. How we lift each other up every day.

This is where WATER’s work comes in: using feminist religious values to create social change. Co-founders Mary and Diann have worked in these spaces for more than 30 years, and make space for young feminists to find their own voices, to continue on the journey of this work together.

Every August, WATER takes a break and the carpets get rolled up for cleaning. It’s a strange intimation of an ending; the rugs go and so do we. The challenge as I leave is what it will look like to carry on this work away from WATER, just as WATER’s work will, of course, continue, with Mary and Diann’s brilliant leadership and new sets of young feminists. Mary and Diann are fond of saying: Once a part of WATER, always a part of WATER. I know that just because I leave a space does not mean I leave a community.

In June, WATER hosted a party for the documentary Radical Grace. We ate brie cheese and fig jam with the filmmakers and the nuns who starred in the movie and have given their lives to the work of social change. One of the nuns, Simone Campbell of NETWORK, told us that gifts are often given before you know you need them. My time at WATER was just that.

My perceptions have been altered and more clearly defined. I have been the recipient of incredible hospitality, made lifelong friendships, and learned in a classroom that taught me so much about the world, about myself and about how to build a life of feminist and activist work. I am so grateful to Mennonite Voluntary Service and my home congregation, College Mennonite Church in Goshen, Indiana, for giving me the opportunity to be at WATER and with the Menno community in DC.

Thank you to WATER for a year of books, scones and conversations, for a year of recognizing privilege, working to dismantle patriarchy and power structures, and keeping us all awake to what must change. Thank you for teaching by example how to be fierce, united feminists who have never and will never take no for an answer.

Your light spreads so far. I promise to carry a little flame with me.

We Dressed, We Wore, We Lived: A Perspective on Clothing

Note: I recognize that my views are skewed by the privilege of being able to think about clothes as fashion and expression rather than just necessity. That privilege is part of a system that excludes and works at the expense of many people in the world. The injustices surrounding clothes are well worth unpacking but will be saved for another essay.

I see clothes as an omen…I see an image of myself and what I’m doing: paying for a coffee, waiting for the train, hunched over my desk, carrying my daughter on my hip—and I realize these little films starring these articles of clothing unfold within a space of time. – Leanne Shapton, Women in Clothes

**

In the fall, my colleague returned from a Congressional meeting and mentioned the suits.

All the young women in the room seemed to be dressed identically: black power suits over bare legs, statement jewelry, scarves wound loosely for pops of color. No flip flops or jeans here – if you held a job in that building the expectation was not only a Master’s degree, but also a sleek black tailor fit, a ritual of dressing up almost like clones.

Her remark led to a conversation in the office about clothes: the role of them in our lives; the importance, expectation, and standards of dress in professional settings; and how perceptions are influenced by what we put on.

We discussed the harmfulness in the centrality of fashion to our western culture. There are impossible beauty standards. There is privilege in being able to see clothes as fashion and not just necessity; that bracket excludes the majority of people around the world. In the U.S., many are held to unfair standards, deprived of jobs on the basis that their wardrobe isn’t professional enough. Shouldn’t people be picked on their skills and character alone rather than for how well they can wear a string of beads?

But for better or worse, there’s no denying that clothes do matter in the western world. They aren’t just a practicality for keeping us warm and decent. We live our lives in clothes. We collect them, share them, scuff our shoes in daily pursuits. They carry memories of what we did while wearing them. They can help to communicate our moods and personalities, have the power to affect our confidence and perceptions. Why else did all the women in that courtroom dress alike?

***

womeninclothes-600

Women in Clothes (2015) is a book of essays, interviews, conversations and portrait series with more than 600 women about the role clothing plays in their lives. Editors Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits and Leanne Shapton present a stunning case for what dress and fashion signify for women in American culture. From twenties to eighties, from Muslims to atheists, from fashion designers to garment workers in Cambodia, they leave no button undone.

Essay names like “What I Wore to Fall in Love,” “You’re Lying with Your Face,” “The Delirium of Desire,” and “Men Looking at Women,” read more like poem titles. When do you feel most attractive, what do you see in this picture of your young mother, what’s the difference between style versus taste, and what inspires you? The book made me feel hopeful, as though I was not alone in the art of dressing, in both its pressure and allure. These are questions to ponder.

And so I did, as I woke up each morning and went to my closet, as I walked DC in black boots marked by snow salt, as I put on different masks for work and nights out, as I gloriously stripped everything off for sleep. How do we find – or lose – ourselves in clothes? What are the stories we tell?

 ***

 The imprints of time and memory: the butter-soft leather jacket you bought 90% off and wore to a sweaty concert on New Years Eve, and on sidewalks in the city, and everywhere; the red lace dress in a line with identical bridesmaids; the blue patterned pants lost to bicycle grease after rides to work day after day; the new pair of shoes that keeps you looking down at your feet; the magic in a dress that fits like a glove, the color green on a brown-eyed boy.

 ***

 Dressing Rooms, 2007

 She stands in her underwear next to pile of blue skirts. It is a week before she starts her first day of high school in Peru, and the uniforms are navy blue, white and puke, all pleats and itchy wool. Each piece is wrapped in plastic like a treat.

In the bathroom mirror, she feels out of balance, in need of something to fine-tune her edges. There is too much of her. She stands at the sink, tucking the cotton shirt in and out of the skirt’s tight band. The fabric sinks into her belly button. She wants to undress. Every day she will have to wear this uniform and people will see her. At least they will all look the same. Two ladies who speak little English measure and prod at her limbs.

“This is too small,” they say. “Maybe a size bigger.”

All the ladies are staring. Her mother is staring. Her mother’s friend, her sister.

“The sweater is kind of itchy,” she says, feeling her throat begin to close.

She pulls the skirt down but it claws at her waist. She wants to be a two or a zero but they give her a six. In America she was a four. Soon she will turn 16. She cannot stop thinking about the numbers.

***

 The goal is to strike a balance so that our clothes amplify, not define, our personalities. The messages we send with our clothes and our bodies cannot ever truly be ours alone because the world will always interpret them. We are always, in a sense, dressing for others. Clothes alone cannot create the confidence. They can only enhance what we are already comfortable with.

“We are always asking for something when we get dressed,” writes Leopoldine Core. “Asking to be loved…to be admired, to be left alone, to make people laugh, to scare people, to look wealthy…It’s the quiet poem in the waiting room, on the subway, in the movie of our lives” (Women in Clothes, 24).

Our fabrics decorate the outside of something humming within, something much more worthy of love and time than the right skirt falling just so. Core says: Let the inside pour out of you. Maybe confidence is learning to wear your grandma’s ugly old wool sweaters with the sailor buttons – because they remind you of her, because they hold a history and feel as though she is wrapping you in a hug each time you put them on. And in that way you tell and live stories, through and within the clothes.

 ***

 I was twelve when I began to collect fashion magazines: Teen Vogue, Seventeen, YM, CosmoGirl! My older cousin read them and I begged for the subscriptions that arrived to her house. On a family vacation to the beach in Michigan, my mother let me buy my first.

I took Teen to the beach until the pages were curled and sandy. I lay in bed with the magazine splayed open on my pillow and felt as though I had been welcomed into a brighter, glossier world. I was almost a teenager, almost part of a club that had before seemed elusive, and the pages held potential: the possibility of being the kind of girl who streaked her hair with highlights and ripped her jeans and was so happy.

Even the experience of reading was fraught with the sweetness of perfume samples, ones you could rub onto your wrists and smell all day long. I learned the power of pressure points. I was not tall or skinny like the models in each spread, but here were the secrets to tell me how I could emulate them.

This is what I thought it meant to be a teenager. My interests shifted overnight from my American Girl dolls to lessons in how to present myself, how to fit in and stand out at the same time, how to be original by assimilation. Now I saved my allowance for tighter tees with logos and graphics, for flared jeans ripped at the knee.

Before picture day in sixth grade, I needed sunless tanner. The product was new and all the companies had yet to perfect its glow. I bought a bottle without permission and slicked cream all over my face the night before school. When my best friend called me out on looking like an orange pancake, I felt panicked, as though I had been exposed. Beauty was supposed to be effortless. There is a shame in revealing that you care about your looks, especially at 13; how you interpret what you think the world is telling you to need.

Several years passed before I started to believe fully that I was more than the sum of my parts. I began to realize, a million magazines later, that I was tired of wanting what I didn’t have, tired of the consumerism and search for self-improvement masked by articles touting inspiration and confidence. It was all a paradox; the pages were tailored and glossed by hours and experts. This was not real life.

 ***

 Dressing Rooms, 2013

 I brought six shirts to Peru. Six shirts and two pairs of pants and one sweatshirt and two pairs of shoes, and for three months the same six shirts hung on a line to dry in the mountain’s strong sun. I pulled them dirty over my head each morning. How freeing the sensation to have so few clothes. When I returned to the United States, I would throw open my closet doors and think: what did you ever do with so many clothes? The rows of hangers lined by color were overwhelming.

In Ayacucho, I went in pajamas to the tienda across the street for a bag of bread, then pulled on my clothes from the day before. My mind was on the dusty road, the chickens that trailed behind me, the stars nailed against the sky at night, my host mother’s silver-capped smile when I came in the kitchen. My time became a singular call for living with my body as it was, rather than perfecting toward what my body could be. I felt like the right strings had been cut.

My house didn’t have a mirror. For the first time since middle school, I left bare-faced, without even bothering to look at myself. The strength of the sun and days spent on a church rooftop scorched my fair skin and bleached out my hair, but I wouldn’t have been able to tell you this until I returned home and my family shrieked at my tan.

At first I longed for my reflection: If I don’t look, how can I know if I’m okay, and if I’m not okay, how can I present myself to anyone?

But I was unlearning old mantras in the best of ways; no one treated me differently because I did not look like my definition of acceptable. My showers in bone-cold water were infrequent, once a week when I felt my hair thick with grease. The children I taught still played with my curls and told me they were beautiful.

My host mother Luz was in the kitchen, her questions of how I slept already on her lips. She, too, wore the same pink top from the day before. She wet a comb and pulled tiny rivers through her daughter’s hair before we all left for downtown. We filled our bread with fried egg and avocado. We filled the hollows of our bodies, bowed our heads and Luz prayed: Thank you, thank you, thank you. In my head I echoed her. Thank you, for this unbroken imperfect body you have stuck me in.

 ***

 Now I watch real women. As Heidi Julavits writes in her chapter,

“I am always checking out women because I love stories, and women in clothes tell stories. For years I watched other women to learn how I might someday be a woman with a story…”

There isn’t shame in clothing, in style, in fashion. I think we just need to treat their roles carefully, to recognize their multi-layered effects, to not forget the ways in which they can be damaging to our minds and bodies. They are not the only lenses through which we should view one another.

In her essay “The Mom Coat,” Amy Fusselman writes:

“[Y]ou can’t actually make yourself beautiful. It’s similar to writing: what’s beautiful about writing is not the words. The words are a recording of the beautiful thing. The words are a recording of the beautiful thing in the person, the thing that becomes beautified only by action, and ultimately becomes the most beautified only by the most beautiful action of all – love. This thing, this transmitter of beauty, is ultimately unadorn-able and undecorate-able. It is indivisible and it bedazzles” (Women in Clothes).

Now I watch real women because they inspire me. I see that they are not perfect illusions, but imperfectly wonderful. For that moment they walk by me on the street, I get to understand the smallest fragment of their personality because of what they chose to wear that day. I get a fleeting glance into this one moment in their life. They are all shapes and sizes, they are tattooed and drinking coffee, carrying umbrellas, walking dogs in rain boots, dressed for work in black tights or about to jog Rock Creek Park in fluorescent laces.

They are inspiration without Photoshop and advertisements. The real, sweating, breathing, pockmarked, messy-bun individuals who go about their lives.

The Words We Seek

a little essay about Peru and a certain kind of faith 

They came to me spackled in sun, flush with the weight of backpacks, pockets filled by candy apples hard as glass. They came and twisted themselves into my arms, stood atop my shoes, and asked me to carry them over to the roof’s ledge, so we could look across Ayacucho’s lengths unfurled into the hills.

How do you say – and they pointed to their lips, a dog, a brick wall – in English? Every day I turned to the child in my arms, or to the seventy children sprawled across the concrete floor of the church, and I shared a word.

The vowels inside their mouths were like strange fruit; spit out when they lost interest, replaced by the rice and potatoes we ate together. But after our lessons, I scooped Emilie onto my hip and the two of us began to learn. She was five, clutching my neck with arms so tiny I worried they would break. She pointed at objects and we traded the names of what we touched, first in Spanish, then in English. She was warm against my neck, murmuring letters. We could barely speak to each other but there was something we understood.

 ***

I was a junior in college when I arrived in the mountains of northern Peru as part of a study-abroad term. For six weeks, my only task was to teach at Luz y Vida church’s after-school program. My host family lived at the very edge of Ayacucho, where squat houses tapered into the hills beyond. My father, a pastor, had built our three-room house by himself, finishing the adobe walls of my room a week before I arrived. He traveled to preach in smaller villages, so my mother, Luz, and my little sister, Raina, were the ones who guided me, who showed me daily life on the outskirts of a mountain city.

Before breakfast Raina woke me up and we went in our pajamas to buy bread at a little store across the street. I held the bread; she carried street puppies into the kitchen that reeked of fish and were whittled down to their bones. Luz made us take them back after we ate; we ran away as they tried to follow us home.

Once a week I showered in the dark earth of our dugout bathroom, the water shocking awake whatever sleep remained. We ate bowls of quinoa soup on Raina’s mattress, scrubbed the spoons clean with our fingers, laughed together at the words I misspoke.

In the dark of the courtyard, I went to brush my teeth. There was no light for our bathroom. Instead I stood and watched the hills above, dots of light from a hundred other homes mirrored by a sheen of stars nailed to the black overhead. There was no heat, no pillow, no mirror, no way to articulate my thoughts. I wore the same clothes day after day, crawled into bed with dirty feet. I had not spoken an English word aloud in two weeks.

But the quiet left me breathless. I couldn’t stop looking. Without my familiar comforts and surroundings, somehow I was emerging from walls I didn’t know I had built. Somehow I was seeing myself, stripped gloriously bare, for the first time.

 ***

Luz was nine when a terrorist group killed her father, fourteen when she left home. She still carried stomach pain from her stepmother’s beatings, and some days when I arrived home from lessons, she couldn’t get up from the mattress. On those afternoons she sang children’s songs about little chicks cared for in the cold, hymns in the Andean tongue of Quechua.

Her warbling reached me as I strung laundry and knelt to feed our six guinea pigs outside. The heat was rampant, but a certain shade of blue at the horizon sent her grabbing for my arm to pull me into the house. We huddled on the mattress as the sky descended moments later, a rain so fierce the drops turned to gunshots on the tin roof.

Luz sang even as the water drowned out her voice, her thumb tracing a pockmarked book. When she fled from a home higher in the hills to Peru’s capitol city of Lima, she dreamed of becoming a policewoman. She sold eggs at the market, took classes in English and guitar, and married my host father instead.

The downpour threatened to break the windows as she handed me the book to read aloud. My Spanish still came out stumbling; I hesitated. She opened the spine into my lap, where prayers spiraled down each page. I’ve never been alone because of this, she said.

How was it that my mother, who held wounds on her body for twenty years, never waivered, while I, who knew almost nothing of suffering, could find doubt in the smallest words on a page?

The rain was so loud I could barely hear myself, but I looked up at Luz; she was saying the words with me. There is time for everything, she told me once, when the children I taught wouldn’t listen. You learn. You make do. You keep going.

***

In tumbling out across a vast earth, my faith became tied to the idea that I live in a world, not a country. Borders are mere lines on a map, but we have so much to learn about being with each other. We must seek expansion to make sense of what exists outside our familiar confines – those things we cannot see. In connecting with the beauty of the unknown, however uncomfortable, I can begin to understand what it means to feel connection to some larger belief beyond us.

I learned how to walk cliffs of foaming limestone in the early hours, how to be content with bucket showers and a face without make-up, how to love over lines of culture and communication. This is seeing in the best sense: to grasp how insignificant we are, but how part of a whole – something created, something good.

***

The rooster sent up a cry into the dawn, and I woke with him, jolted in my bed by the sound. After weeks I got used to the noise, as though we were the only two awake at the onset of day, a kind of companionship that lasted until the sun came. In the light he was always hungry, running toward me with his sharp beak thrust up as soon as I appeared, ready to peck at my legs. The crumbs Luz threw for him weren’t enough, but every morning I still heard him signal his existence.

Then I mentioned to Luz that the rooster and I woke up together, and the next day the air was silent. The three chickens stood at the kitchen door in the red light; Luz gathered their eggs. Where’s the rooster? I asked.

He was waking you up, she said. So we killed him for you!

She laughed and crushed me to her. As I ate his tough breast in my soup that evening, wracked by guilt, I thought how I was just beginning to understand the complexities of love.

 ***

 To live faith is to know nothing at all or just a little bit, and to sit with it, in the same way you try to speak a language you don’t yet understand. You get comfortable with the silence. You learn to let go of missing pieces. You find joy in the fragments you grasp, while knowing that tomorrow you may wake and feel lost all over again. It is a test of love, an act of communication with your body, a lesson in learning how to wait and embracing the unknown. In this way I live with the knowledge that my imperfect tongue will be just fine.

Fifty Shades of Angry

You most likely would have had to sever your connection to the civilized world this month not to have been swamped with news about 50 Shades of Grey. After seeing the movie last weekend out of resigned curiosity, I decided I wouldn’t write a word. The cyberwebs are already dominated by reviews and rants, and nobody needs another reason to talk about 50 Shades of Messed Up.

There’s been significantly less coverage (or almost none) of She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, a documentary that traces the early history of the second wave in women’s liberation during the 1960’s and ‘70s. It’s a documentary about the depth and sway of the feminist movement at a time when there wasn’t even a word for gender oppression – that was just life. She’s Beautiful features interviews with key players years later, like Alix Shulman and Kate Millett, and footage of the earliest marches and rallies. The movie was playing at E Street Cinema in DC to a scattered audience, while its sexier competitor continues to be the number one draw at the box office.

I find it sort of heartbreaking that a movie celebrating the dawn of female empowerment, a momentum millions of women worked so hard for, a web of rights easily taken for granted in present times, is being so widely eclipsed by a movie that in many ways reverses in mindset what that movement has done. At the film’s finish something in me cracked, and I realized I couldn’t stay silent.

Because I am angry.

It’s easy to write off 50 Shades as harmless entertainment, to go for the curiosity born of cult following. There’s the argument that we already know how awful the subject matter is, so we can go to poke fun at ridiculous dialogue and a floozy plot. As theologian Mary E. Hunt would say, you can’t lose your sense of humor in these times. I did laugh out loud at the hypersexual dramatization in asking for a pen, the strands of would-be dialogue replaced by lip bites.

But I am angry because we live in a world where stories glorifying male domination, women’s oppression, domestic violence and abusive relationships still thrive – as top grossers two weekends in a row. I am angry because women are still portrayed as objects who exist to please men, who are reduced to breathy cries and the thematic lighting of their barely-there belly curves.

At the risk of oversimplifying (I am no 50 Shades plot expert), Grey is typecast – the gorgeous, wounded male who should be excused from his behavior and treatment of Anastasia because of a horrific past of abuse. If she can understand him and get him to be vulnerable, she can change him. If she can show him love, her love will change him. Instead he remains manipulative, controlling and violent. Anastasia’s sense of self-worth seems entirely wrapped up in making Christian fall in love. She is a virgin when they meet and starts the story as a timid English major who can barely stammer out a question. She is, as the movie portrays, nothing before Christian. She is unaware of her sexuality (and therefore unaware of everything else) because she doesn’t know herself in context of a man. She has no convictions or goals and no visible confidence.

Her shred of empowerment, if you can call it that, is exhibited after Christian ravishes her for the first time. She morphs into a glowing seductress with new direction; it’s as if she needed him to unleash her sexuality and confidence, which suddenly spills unburdened onto every other area of her life. As the relationship unfolds, after he blindfolds her, ties her up, spanks her and finally, whips her, she leaves with the first good words we hear out of her mouth: “You will never touch me again.” But we all know she’s coming back.

Regardless of how much we insist that these stories don’t rule us, that they serve merely to entertain, they do take over our culture. They still get all the attention, still make millions of dollars, still seep into our lives even if – as one photographer reported – we tape up their covers with white paper so no one will see what we are reading on the subway.

I left She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry feeling so much gratitude for the women before me. If not for them, I would not be able to own a bank account in my name, to choose any profession, to work once I had children (because of course I would have children), to study women’s roles in any aspect of history. I saw my grandmother’s generation march by the thousands down New York streets. They organized rallies, daycare centers and abortion clinics. They worked against a system that wanted them in the home and out of the way, where want ads in the paper still specified jobs by gender, and the ones for women asked for “beautiful secretaries who might fall in love with their bosses, and get to quit working altogether.” At rallies, they held typewriters in chains.

They created ideas for the kind of world they wanted to live in, and then found enough courage and determination to actually begin to shape that world. I watched them come together to collectively say: We are human beings. We are not sex objects or housewives; we are brains and spunk. We demand equal job opportunity, the right to chose what we do with our bodies, our babies and our lives. And we are angry because we do not have those choices.

Here’s what I urge us all to remember: We need to continue to be angry – about 50 Shades, about those ever-more-subtle linings of our culture that continue to keep women underpaid, unheard, over-sexualized and overlooked. Our oppression might sometimes be harder to find today, but films like 50 Shades, however subconscious, have effects. I repeat what those fore-sisters first said: to be angry is beautiful. Let’s add some fuel to the fire.