Travel & Bringing Home with You

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I travel a lot for work. For the most part, I enjoy this; I get to see new cities, eat different foods, and meet new people. Last year I visited Florida, Georgia, DC, Las Vegas, West Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Tennessee. The rolling hills in Tennessee took my breath away, and I ate like a king in Charleston (which I think is one of the greatest food cities in America). It only took about three days in the south before I was saying y’all–a phrase I would desperately like to import to Boston, and thinking of the pelicans at the beach in Miami still make me smile.

But it can also be hard to spend so much time on the road. Hotel rooms and restaurants can start to feel impersonal after a while, and I find myself craving the comforts of home. Mornings are the hardest, when I miss eating breakfast and drinking tea with crazy bed head and in my oversized flannel pants; breakfast in the hotel restaurant often feels like another moment where you have to be “on,” or at least presentable. And they never have good tea.

As you may have noticed from the pictures I’ve posted to the blog so far–I drink a lot of tea. And I’m picky about it. It’s obviously not popular like coffee in America, so it’s usually not made correctly. (Too many people have been subjected to my mini lecture about the proper ways to make a cup of tea, and I’ll spare you, but the essentials are this: put the tea leaves in before pouring the boiling (not just hot) water in the mug.)

I think it is our Irish heritage, but my family always drank a lot of tea. My nana used to make a cup before dinner each night, and let it cool down throughout the meal, to drink when she was done eating. It was part of the ritual of dinner, just like my grandfather’s mile-a-minute delivery of Grace. Many an afternoon, my aunts and uncles would sit around the kitchen table, drinking tea, and having long conversations. I was often more comfortable with adults than anyone my own age at the time, and I loved lingering at the table with my own cup of tea–which was then more sugar and milk than tea. When I would visit my great aunt, who lived in a beautiful condo outside Harvard Square and always seemed to me the most sophisticated and kind woman, she served her tea in china cups and a real tea pot.

In college, that beautiful, crazy time when all your best friends live just down the hall, I played host by offering everyone a hot cup of tea (made with my contraband electric kettle), and spent many nights reading novels or writing bad poetry and sipping tea. And when my family moved to semi-rural Maine, and our favorite brand of tea was hard to come-by, I would buy it in Boston and bring it home for visits, to much applause and, of course, a quickly-made fresh cup.

In short, a good cup of tea always reminds me of home, and it’s no surprise that it’s one of the things I miss the most when I travel. So you can only imagine how pleased I was when a dear friend gave me a cheery mug for my birthday last year, and I found a way to bring this piece of home with me. The mug in question is hard plastic, so I can squeeze it into my suitcase (which I am almost always sitting on to zip shut) without fear of it breaking. Remembering the trusty kettle from college, I bought a smaller version online, and packed it together with a tin of my favorite teas, and now I have an ever-ready kit for having tea on the road. These days my hotel rooms feel a lot more cozy, and I savor my mornings full of bad hair and a quiet cup of tea.

When you travel, do you bring a piece of home with you? Or do you like the adventure of experiencing something totally new?

Small Moments: Flying

I never get tired of staring out the window in planes. When I was a little girl on the way to California to see family, I famously looked out the window at a sky full of the tops of clouds, and said, “Mom! I didn’t bring my boots, and look at all the snow!!”

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I’m in Chicago now, where there’s plenty of snow, and I still don’t have my boots. I think I prefer the cloud-top snow.

(Photo: Somewhere above Pennsylvania)

Good Reads From the Week

FullSizeRender (7)For a longtime was I only reading the same handful of websites, and the internet was starting to feel like a small, somewhat dull place. Lately I’ve been shaking myself up, and searching out great content that I may have been missing. Here are a few of my favorite things from this week:

A round-up of advice about success and generally tearing it up from a bunch of different women. I especially like the idea of the slow burn; success takes a long time and it builds gradually. It’s easy to feel impatient and from that impatience start to believe you are a failure, when really we need to chill out and just keep chipping away.

This examination of why some people are always late rang very true–a little uncomfortably true.

This tiny house of my dreams is a thing of beauty. I want to move into that tiny, sun-filled loft and never leave.

Mark Strand on creativity:

We’re only here for a short while. And I think it’s such a lucky accident, having been born, that we’re almost obliged to pay attention…We’re combined in such a way that we can describe what it’s like to be alive, to be witnesses. Most of our experience is that of being a witness. We see and hear and smell other things. I think being alive is responding.

A moving essay about anxiety and taking risks and trying to figure out if you want to be a parent. There are a seemingly infinite number of resources and opinions for parents, and there’s a great community online for people who don’t want children. But I’m hungry for more conversation about how and when to decide.

The Dainty Squid’s new dye-job is making me crave some neon locks.

For reading material you can hold in your hand, I just started Charles Blow’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones which is sharp and bright and raw; I highly recommend it.

What did I miss? Please share the favorite thing you read this week.

How to Get a Beach Body

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As I mentioned yesterday, I spent last week at the beach. I grew up in a tiny beach town, and nothing could be more beautiful or perfect for me than the ocean. Sun, sand, salty-air, an entirely unstructured day. There is, of course, one dark shadow looming over the beach for most adult women–bathing suits. I largely stopped wearing two-piece bathing suits late in elementary school. The site of my shame has shifted over the years: My thighs in pre-teen years because of the confusing stretch mark, my breasts, large and victim to gravity in middle school, (I was almost 30 before I discovered bathing suits with underwire and bra-sizing. Get on that shit, people.) and later of course my belly.

When I got married, I wanted to take the upper hand on the cruel narratives playing on loop in my head. (My family calls these “old tapes,” an adorably out-dated turn of phrase, sure to confuse the young millennials.) Wearing a bikini at our pre-wedding cookout and the honeymoon–events centered around people loving me!–seemed like the ultimate safe spaces to tackle on these shitty narratives. So I rocked and (mostly) loved being plump in a bikini.

Eighteen months later, heavier, those two-piece suits felt more like a taunt. Wearing my bikinis felt impossible–gross. And wearing my one-piece felt like acknowledging my own failure–like a scarlet letter of gluttony and laziness. But some small part of myself knew that was bullshit, an old tape.

Fuck it, I thought. I’m wearing the bikini.

And so I did. Those first few days were fraught with insecurities and over-thinking and a few misplaced tears when my husband compliment my one-piece. (You mean you hate my bikini?!) And so I started writing a post in my head about the pressures of having a “bikini body,” the double standards for men and women, the pervasiveness of perfectionism, and the messed up ways that perfectionism prevents us from experiencing things–like a care-free day at the beach.

But an interesting thing happened. Day after day I lathered on sunscreen and pulled on my bathing suit, sometimes a one-piece and sometimes bikini, and gradually the post in my head started to grow stale. I still felt vulnerable with an exposed belly, nervous as a plus-size woman in a bathing suit. Who was I to jiggle and take up so much space at the beach? But the fierce narrative about the bullshit surrounding women’s bodies and bathing suits? Bit by bit, it somehow felt less raw.

I was still trying to find a way to speak to my experience throughout the week when I stumbled on a quiet passage in Yoga and Body Image that tore me open. In this book, Kate McIntyre Clere writes a moving essay about navigating the baggage we all carry about our bodies, and the desire to carve out a healthy and happy space for her young daughter. Contemplating a beach day with her daughter, Miro, she summarizes a possible conversation:

I am not feeling great about my body this morning. I don’t feel so great about wearing a bikini today. You know, Miro, sometimes my mind really believes these thoughts and it makes me feel really bad. So then I have to say to myself, it’s okay. Bodies change shape all the time. I’ve got a choice and I’m not going to let these thoughts ruin my day at the beach. Let’s go and enjoy ourselves!

Upon reading this passage, I started scribbling in the margins frantically. What if you could acknowledge the pain of living in an body, a body that may never be officially “good enough,” but still go on to love your day at the beach?

Sometimes, in an effort to confront negative body image messaging, it can easily feel like we’re left with two options: love your body or hate your body. And so we tell ourselves we will love our bodies–once they are perfect and we no longer hate them.

But what if there was a middle way? What would happen if we acknowledge the moments or the days that we struggled to love our bodies? What if we said to ourselves: I know this is hard right now, but there’s a whole world out there to enjoy and, fuck it, I’m going to enjoy it?

Wearing bathing suits for eight days straight was at times intense. It started off raw, sometimes painful. But gradually, somewhat unconsciously, I found my way to a truce. I know I don’t want to hate this body, but I don’t know if I can yet love it the way I want to. But what if I embrace this in-between–to neither love nor hate this body, but let both co-exist? And to let myself be in the midst of this messy soup of feelings and fears and joy. This new kind of vulnerability didn’t necessarily come easily in Mexico, but gradually the allure of a pleasant day at the beach overpowered the old tapes playing in my head. And the scales tipped–in my favor.

On Stealing Time

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As those of us in the northeaster dig our way out from Snowmaggeddon 2015, I have to admit I’m missing the sunshine from last week’s vacation. My husband and I took each other to Mexico for a Christmas present, and it really felt magical. We spent the week sitting in the sun, reading books, swimming in the ocean, and eating tacos. I might have cried a little bit when it was time to leave. We were lucky enough to be staying right on the beach and I declared before we even boarded the plane that I would be waking up early one day to watch the sunrise. My husband smiled, a little doubtful that this would happen, but mostly relieved that I wasn’t asking him to wake up at 5:45 in the morning on vacation, too.

Each evening I would diligently set my alarm before bed, and each morning I would hit snooze for 30 minutes before shutting it off entirely. This is not a pattern unique to vacation; I cannot count the number of times I’ve signed up for an early morning yoga class or planned on writing, reading, or going for a walk before the work day begins, only to spend the morning hitting snooze and reveling in just how soft and warm my bed can be. I don’t think there’s something inherently bad about this; I don’t think that morning people are better or more moral than night owls. But on those mornings that I do manage to sneak out of bed early, and start my day with yoga or writing or just a quiet cup of tea before the maddens begins? It always feels like I’m unwrapping a treasure. So I continue to set my alarm ambitiously early, and occasionally google “how to be a morning person” while dreaming of a lifetime or quiet, productive, peaceful mornings. And my bed continues to be it’s softest and most alluring between 6 and 8am.

This was my predicament on the second to last day of vacation, hitting snooze, trying to convince myself to stay in bed, to get out of bed, telling myself, “Just five more minutes and I’ll be ready.” (“Five more minutes!” has become a bit of a joke in our house because of my consistently slurred, sleep-drunk delivery of the request to my husband when it’s time to go to work.) And then I thought–in a that striking way that only happens when you’re half dreaming–if you really want something you have to be willing to get a little uncomfortable in the process. And the sharpness of it pushed me out of bed.

If I’m sitting on my couch, comfortable, the likelihood that I’ll get up to make a cup of tea is directly tied to how badly I want that cup of tea. I mean, this is obvious, when we think of it in regards to the mundane. But what about other desires, the wants we carry around in our heart, that whisper to us in odd moments–when we’re in the shower, when we’re feeling brave after a glass of wine or two, when we’re setting our alarm clock, full of the promise of a tomorrow? I hear them, and I keep waiting for the convenient times to respond. I’ll go to yoga tomorrow, when I don’t have as much work to do. I’ll write later, when I feel more inspired. I’ll meditate when I don’t feel so stressed and frantic. I’ll see the sunrise when I’m not sleepy.

I once had a great professor in college who gave an inspired lecture that must have been under-appreciated by the room full of 19 year olds staring back at him for whom time was infinite, but his words still stayed with me ever since. I thought of him that morning on the beach. Rich Murphy told us: If you want time to be creative in life, to write or paint or make any kind of art, you have to steal it. The world will not give you this time; you have to steal it.

The beach was cold that morning, and the sky was so overcast that I never saw a sunrise. Just a gradually brightening grey sky. In other words, it was very different than what I expected, than what I thought I wanted, when I shuffled down the hotel stairs to the beach–and I was so very glad to be awake. To be uncomfortable, stealing time, writing in my journal on a rainy morning at the beach.

Breath, the Body, and Our War on Ourselves

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I don’t remember exactly when I first started to hate my body. Do any of us? I remember standing, looking naked in the bathroom mirror during middle school, and deciding which parts of myself I wanted to keep, which parts I would trade in. My straight nose and hazel eyes were okay. My pimply chin and my breasts, red with new stretch marks, were awful. I knew I was supposed to hate my body, and how could I not, considering how rapidly it had changed. I had been a puppy-like girl with comically overlarge feet, tall and clumsy–a clumsiness that came from long limbs and a near-complete lack of self-awareness for my own body. What sweet heaven. Suddenly I had breasts and zits and hair in all sorts of confusing places. In puberty our bodies become alien to us, and sadly I think that for most women they remain forever foreign–dark and dangerous places that have us trapped.

Employing some twisted logic, I think I was, even then, trying to give myself an alternative narrative. My body was betraying me, and I hated it for that, but I on some level I knew my body needed to remain home. So I found some safe places. My eyes, the birthmark on my right ankle shaped like Ireland, my height. I might not be beautiful, I was telling myself, but these individual parts were okay. And there was comfort in that, even as I was carving myself up and marking whole body parts for “discard.”

I also don’t remember when I first stated hating my belly, but in this war on my body she has become mortal enemy #1. I remember analyzing the girls in my high school, and longing for their tiny waists. I remember noticing, with sadness and jealousy, that a friend’s belly carried her weight in front, rather than to the sides like mine. She didn’t have “love handles;” she could hide it better. It gave me a perverse sense of pleasure when, years later, I gained enough weight that I started noticing it in the front, too. And years after that, when I was skipping meals in the dining hall, I remember laying in bed and resting my fingers in the space between my belly and my sharp hip bones, thinking how good it felt, and wondering how good it would feel to be just a little bit smaller.

Every outfit I have chosen, every day for over 15 years, has been assessed first and foremost for how well it masks my belly. My sense of fashion–this very personal sense of self in our capitalist world–has always always been shaped by trying to hide this “problem area.” I’ve read many a style guide for “apple shaped” bodies, cheered the return of slightly-higher rise jeans, and when I stand before the mirror, now fully dressed, my eyes have a laser focus on my stomach, to assess how it looks, always within the range of not-that-bad to catastrophic.

Sadly, I don’t think this story is unique. I tell you all this to share with you a recent realization on my part, from a beautiful weekend retreat at Kripalu Center, out in the Berkshires. But first, try something for me. Wherever you are reading this, take a deep breath. Breath deep and, with your breath, fill up your belly. Pay attention, for a moment to what it feels like to breath into your belly, and then pay attention to what it feels like as you soften and release the air. What sensations did you experience? How do you feel?

I hope your experience is different from mine, because I’ll tell you what I experience–nothing. It’s like someone gave me a shot of Novocain first. I have been practicing yoga and meditation, off and on, for years, and “Breath deep into your belly” is the equivalent of a layup; it’s a tool to warm you up, loosen you up, and get you centered. If you’re rattled or distracted, it’s a simple drill that can help you get your groove back. But, to stick with my basketball metaphor, for me it’s a Harlem Globetrotter-esque dribble-between-the-knees-and-shoot-from-halfcourt move. Focus on breathing into my throat? Breath deep to fill up my chest and lungs? There is a tangible sensation to all of these ways of being and breathing for me. But to breath deep into my belly, I can experience only as a void.

How can we wage decades long wars against our bodies, and not carry that hatred and anger and sadness in our bodies themselves? I can’t even look at myself without fear and derision for my stomach; how could I honestly feel what is happening here, what I’m feeling there. I’ve pushed my belly, emotionally, as far away as we can push anything that is physically attached to us, and, again, I don’t think I’m alone. I’ve ignored it and hated it like some kind of poor orphan child living under my stairs. And during years of on-again, off-again yoga practice, when “breath deep into your belly” was an empty experience for me, I assumed that I wasn’t concentrating the right way, that I was just breathing wrong. Again, the narrative I told myself was try harder, be better.

I don’t know how to fix this, exactly; I’m still living with the enemy, working towards seeing it (myself) as neutral, normal even. Good, even. How radical would that be? A voice in my head whispers, if you make it (your belly, yourself) small enough, you will like your belly, yourself. But I know that’s bullshit; I want to reject that narrative. The survival technique I came up with at 13, to carve myself up into good and bad (where at least there is still some good), isn’t working anymore. The new project is to like my whole self. Even writing that feel strange–simultaneously like an inspirational poster in a guidance counselor’s office, maybe with cats, and also like a lie. Maybe some meditations where I breath into my belly, sending love and kindness that way will help. Certainly more yoga, which helped me see the tangible effects of the cruel narratives I’ve been telling myself all these years. And, I suppose, openness–to myself, to the world, to breathing.

Small moments of gratitude

Monday’s are hard. Monday’s in the winter, when all you want to do is stay curled up in your warm bed, are especially hard.

Today I’m grateful for the time I stole back in bed, sipping my tea, holding off the mad dash of the week for just a few moments more.

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What are you grateful for today?

2014: My Year in Books (& the year I saved myself by reading)

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As already established, I’m a bit of a nutjob New Year’s resolution enthusiast. Some years I have many (eleven this year) and other years I take a minimalist approach. Last year I had only one: Read 55 books.

I went into 2014 feeling depressed: I was unhappy professionally and adrift personally. I didn’t like my job, and, because I spent all my free time watching House Hunters and reading crap on the internet, I didn’t know who I was outside of my miserable job. Life felt empty, and I was floundering for meaning and joy. I knew something needed to change, because I was turning into someone I didn’t recognize or particularly like–and that someone certainly wasn’t happy.

There were lots of things I wanted to change: I wasn’t working out, I was drinking too much, I was spending more money than I made, I ate a lot of candy, and I probably wasn’t calling my mom enough. But I also knew, fragile as I was, I wasn’t going to change everything at once. And as much as I craved a major life overhaul, I felt it best to focus my energies. What, I asked myself, used to bring me joy, outside of my work and my relationships with the (beautiful, crazy, smart) people in my life? And I remembered the little girl, blankets piled high even in the summer to block out the flashlight, reading (and sweating) far past her bedtime. And the teenager who underlined her books and excitedly ran into the kitchen to read lines out loud to her mom and aunt. And the college freshman with e.e. cummings poems taped to her wall, who felt electric and alive and a little scared reading the crazy priest sermon in The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. Somewhere along the way, I’d forgotten how to read for the pure joy of it. I’d stopped reading almost entirely; my books were turning into decorations.

So I printed out a calendar for January 2014 and I set a goal–50 pages per day–and I tracked my progress. A month in, and I could feel myself waking up. The refreshing sort of stretching and yawning and tingling that happens after a good, long nap. I like to think that we all have a thing that brings us a joy and acts as a benchmark of a well being. My best friend is an incredible athlete, and if the world feels crazy or scary or dark, she goes running and feels brave and sane and strong. Another best friend is an artist, and practicing her art wakes her up; the happier she is the more she draws (and the more she creates, the happier she is). In 2014 I learned that I’m a reader, and if I’m not reading then my whole world is out of synch.

So I set out to bring balance back into my world with the ambitious goal of reading more than one each week. This past year books pulled me, page by page, out of my depression. They were a lifeline to something I wanted to be part of–something that gave me meaning and purpose and, best of all, joy.

Fifty-seven books later, I thought I would share my some of my favorites with you:

Favorite novel:
Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
I read this book early in January, but it held onto this top spot for the entire year. It’s so delightfully unexpected and the language pulled me in and did not let go. It’s a true literary novel, with a rich and complex and lively plot. This book was like coming home to reading, and finding out someone has left the light on for me.

Runner Up: The Known World by Edward P Jones

Favorite memoir:
Wild, by Cheryl Strayed
A book about a long, arduous & solitary hike should be about as monotonous as that hike itself. But this book is so vibrant and warm and full of triumph. It made me feel incredibly grateful to be living, and I may have gone on a spent the summer daydreaming about my own hiking adventure.

Runner Up: Not that Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham (Haters gonna hate. This book is beautiful and smart and insightful.)

Favorite YA:
Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
This is a beautiful story about first love, but for me it was also about the first time you loved a story. Reading it felt intoxicating in a way that only reading as a small girl has felt. I stayed up until 3am reading this book, and as soon as I finished it, I wanted to start over again at the beginning because I couldn’t bear to leave these characters.

Runner Up: Heir of Fire by Sarah J Maas (I have a soft spot for YA fantasy books. Everyone’s got a guilty pleasure. If this is your thing, go read some Sarah J Maas; she is perfect.)

Favorite non-fiction:
The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin by Masha Gessen
The eternal student, I love a meaty non-fiction book, but they are rarely page-turners. This book about Vladimir Putin, written by a Russian journalist who has been observing and reporting-on Putin’s Russia for decades, was incredibly compelling. Gessen is a brilliant writer and Putin a fascinating subject; I could not put this book down. Bonus: Reading this will make you feel very enlightened and worldly, considering how active and menacing Russia has been lately.

Runner Up: Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King (If you want to learn more about Jim Crowe South, the NAACP, and the legislative battles of the Civil Rights Movement, especially after Ferguson, please read this book.)

Most joyful book:
Hero Worship by Rebekah Matthews
This book has the distinction of being the only short-story collection I read, and is therefore in a category all its own. And the category I’ve placed it in, “most joyful,” will likely confuse almost everyone, because I can never describe this quite right, but here goes:

Jacques Lacan has this idea that real joy is always a little bit painful. Think of a moment of ecstasy; it’s such a raw moment that you can’t actually stay in that place. And lurking at the edges of joy you can feel the discomfort; they are always a little twisted together.

(And maybe this is why, in my sadness I had turned away from reading, from something I loved so dearly–I knew it would make me feel electric and alive, and in that there is always also discomfort. Maybe I was just too afraid of any pain, even bundled up as it was in goodness.)

Hero Worship is painful and sad and lonely while also being hopeful and sweet and compassionate. Perhaps it is this combination of things, that are both disparate and also make up the very nature of our human experience, that made me feel excited and alive and a little bit uncomfortable while reading it. I cannot recommend it enough.

Continue reading

Baby Fresh for 2015

I am a giant fan of new year’s resolutions. I know a lot of people make them, most of us ditch them, and the gym is always close to empty by February 10th. But I love the promise and hope of earnest intentions, the nobility of trying to be our best selves, and the clean slate of January 1st. I had a friend once tell me that she’s careful to shave every New Year’s Eve, because she likes to enter the new year feeling fresh and clean “like a baby.” We laughed our asses off but, also, these days, I always shave my legs (already a rare occasion) on New Year’s Eve.

For a variety of reasons, I found myself in a bit of a funk on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, and I was tempted to wallow and spend a lot of time plays “Threes” on my phone. However, I really wanted to make something special out of this self-help loving girl’s High Holiday. So I rallied and began what can only be described as a a mad cleaning and purging frenzy. (This is where I should confess that I’ve been obsessed with Tiny Houses lately, and this was not my first mad purge. Recently my husband pointed out that I have too much crap to live in a tiny house and, never one to back down from a challenge, he came home two days later to find every item of my clothing and most of my shoes strewn across the floor, including a “goodwill” pile large enough to sleep on. A few days later, I spent 25 minutes scrubbing my (seriously disgusting) bathtub and celebrated after by rewatching this guy.) Continuing with this theme, on New Year’s Eve, I threw away a giant trash bag of cosmetics, some of which I’d been hauling around since college (I think? I don’t actually know where most of that stuff came from.), recycled mountains of paper, and discovered an alarming number of dust bunnies.

For years my philosophy has been: Just slam the drawer/closet door shut and look the other way. This has resulted in a mad accumulation of crap, and the only thing keeping me on this side of hoarder-dom was a period in my recent past where I moved every year for about ten years, the itty-bitty nature of my current apartment (only so many closet doors to jam shut), and the patient insistence on the part of my husband that I have “way too much shit.”

The trouble with the just-shove-the-door-closed approach is that nothing ever actually feels clean. Best case there’s always clutter, worse (and more likely) case you have a giant pile of clothes taking up half of your bedroom floor because you’ve run out of room in that closet and the door hasn’t actually closed in months. My new approach is glorious: I’m just throwing everything in the donation bin, the recycling basket, or the trash heap. Turns out I don’t miss any of it! And I found a ton of things, like my most favorite boots from Christmas last year; they were buried behind a yoga mat, my wedding dress, and my L. L. Bean tent in said closet.

Sometimes we gravitate towards things, and we don’t know why or even that we’re doing so. I didn’t know, when I first started sorting through my clothes, that I was angling for a month long house-cleaning and crap-purging project, but I’m so glad I got sucked into this insanity. Because for the first time, maybe ever, my house is really clean. As in “everything has a place” clean. As in “this feels very grownup and I like it” clean. I often focus on some serious self-improvement projects to start the new year; it’s a ritual that I love. For the first time, however, I’ve entered the new year feeling clean and ready, slightly less burdened from the crap we all carry around, and breathing a bit easier as a result. (Seriously those dust bunnies were gross!)

How about you: How has the energy of the new year affected you? Eight days in, how are your resolutions feeling?

Bad Feminism, Roxane Gay, and Being Messy

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I recently finished Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist. I have not been this excited to read a book in a long, long time. They tell you not to judge a book by its cover, but who isn’t excited about such a striking title, the crisp cover and neon pink lettering?  What even is a bad feminist? I immediately think of someone in high school who aced AP US History and Calculus, but skipped gym to smoke cigarettes in her leather jacket off campus. You know, the kind of girl who is effortlessly cool and also clearly possesses the ability to disintegrate ignorant people with a look. She’s a bad feminist as in bad ass; she gives absolutely no fucks.

But of course, no one is that girl. Even the person who is  that girl, doesn’t think she is.

For me, this book suffered because it couldn’t be the print version of that imaginary girl. I wanted Bad Feminist to be all things. I wanted a book that was equal parts deeply moving memoir and feminist manifesto, something that both spoke to the depths of my soul and rallied the masses. I wanted reading this book to feel like joining hands with Simone de Beauvoir, Judith Butler, and bell hooks as we danced and sang around the maypole (only something less phallic).  In other words, I had entirely reasonable expectations.

 All of this, of course, is one of the very things she’s writing against—the fervent and impossible hope we all carry around—for one voice to speak for and to us all.  Structurally, I think Gay is at her best when she includes her personal, which ranges from funny—an essay about competitive scrabble, another about her hate/love relationship with Shades of Grey—to heartbreaking—a haunting discussion of sexual assault, her own, the language used to discuss others. I think these are the moments she shines, which may say something about me, but it may also say something about what we want from feminism today. The 60s told us “the personal is political,” a phrase that has always felt strangely hollow to me. This is probably because I am a child of the 90s and we came of age, politically speaking, to see a president impeached over an affair, a lie, and something about a blue dress. The personal is obviously political to us, although perhaps not in the way second wavers meant. On top of that, we learned what politics was in the same breath that we saw it as a system, primarily investment in protecting and promoting its own self-importance. That kind of political awareness doesn’t bode well for the spirit of the early motto.

The truth is that feminism is inherently personal; it always has been. In the current age of feminism, I am most interested in the way we struggle to live feminism in our daily lives. How does feminism shape, inform, and help in the space of the personal?

An outspoken male co-worker speaks over and/or down to you at work? How can feminism be a tool to navigate that? The truth is, (and here I’m getting away from Gay’s book, but I like to imagine she’d agree with the idea), the response is different, even if we’re all feminists. Personally, I’m bossy as hell. I’m going to excitedly practice for the next opportunity to put you in your place. (Another way to read that: I’m going to obsessively dwell on your sexism until our next encounter, thereby carrying the burden of your idiocy with me on a near daily basis.) Another woman may see the man’s misogyny and also recognize that her colleagues see this guy for the moron he is. She may use feminism as a lens to place his shitty behavior, and then laugh the situation off, on her way home to her happy life and an OITNB marathon. Feminism is personal; it’s a tool we use to navigate life and sometimes to navigate politics.

Because of this, I like, not only that Gay writes about her personal experiences of living as a woman, as a feminist, but articulates the reality that living feminism means many things. Ultimately, Roxane Gay uses bad feminist to mean something other than my imaginary super smart “bad girl.” She’s talking about an inability to live up to the measure of what a “good” feminist looks like, in much the same way some of us struggle with the desire to be the “good girl.” This “good feminist” ideal, she recognizes, is an ugly combination of our own demons, the unfortunate influence of “feminazi” conspiracy theorists, and other anti-women narratives. Perfectionism is an ugly version of self-hatred-cloaked-as-ambition that I am all too familiar with. So, while I am personally very comfortable to be the feminist in glitter and neon pink lipstick, with a closet full of dresses, I understand the roots of Gay’s anxiety. Wading through that anxiety, Gay comes to an interesting and important place:

I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human. I am messy. I’m not trying to be an example. I am not trying to be perfect. I am not trying to say I have all the answers. I am not trying to say I’m right. I am just trying—trying to support what I believe in, trying to do some good in this world, trying to make some noise with my writing while also being myself.

Roxane Gay is “bad” at being a feminist—so bad that she’s written a collection of brilliant essays on the topic. This book made me want to sit up straighter and be part of this conversation. It made me want to look inward, at my own preconceived notions and the issues I’m sitting on the sidelines for, and it made me throw some shade at some idiots in the world around me. Ultimately, Bad Feminist made me think and it made me want to write; it inspired me to make some noise and to be myself.