To the Moon and Timbuktu

To the Moon and Timbuktu

Nina Sovich shares the first chapter of her new book, To The Moon And Timbuktu, with Equals. 

The cab driver assures me his sister Salima runs a lovely hotel.

“It’s a very good hotel, yes, very good hotel. No noise, no bother. Very clean. They have many, many Western tourists. Many women. Salima is a good woman.”

He leaves me in front of a squat two-story building made of poured concrete that sits on the edge of the desert next to the army airport. The second-floor balcony is hanging off its anchor bolts, and the windows are murky with sand and pink goo that looks a lot like Pepto-Bismol. The only light in the hotel emanates from a first-floor pool hall that smells of fish heads and burned felt. Cigarettes, empty milk cartons, and black plastic bags skip down the street in the midnight breeze, accumulating in a huge pothole in front of the hotel. Clean, I suppose, is a relative term.

© by Nina Sovich. Published by Amazon Publishing/New Harvest. All Rights Reserved. 

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Margery Kempe: Medieval Pilgrim, Autobiographer

historical woman

I read about Margery Kempe, in the aptly titled The Book of Margery Kempe, in my senior year of college, for a class on medieval history. My first impression was: “Man, b**** be trippin’.”

Actually, I shouldn't use that word. It was more like, “This woman is really, really annoying.”

Of course, over the years, I’ve come to appreciate what Margery accomplished a tad more. In her self-penned Book, for example, she recounts that time she took a pilgrimage all the way from Britain to the Holy Land by herself. That was no small feat, especially for a non-noblewoman. Even today, if you did that people would be all like, “You’re a woman and you’re going by yourself?”

Margery was born sometime in the late fourteenth century in Norfolk, England, the daughter of a wool merchant and sometime Member of Parliament. In today’s world, she would have maybe been a suburban yuppie. She married a dude named John, had a bunch of kids, and was all set to have a regular medieval suburban yuppie life with him.

But Margery found a higher calling. Literally. (Okay, not literally. I don’t think.) She began to have visions sometime around the birth of her first child. This prompted her to rearrange her priorities and attempt to live more purely. Eventually she gave herself completely to a religious life, even getting her husband to agree to maintain a celibate marriage with her, which sounds like a rough deal.

Her religious adventures included visiting the Holy Land, where she thoroughly irritated all of her fellow pilgrims with her crying spells and general carryings on (can you imagine how crazy you have to be to piss off a bunch of religious pilgrims with your religious fervor?), making the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, and possibly visiting fellow devotional woman and more highly regarded mystic Julian of Norwich. Margery’s husband was actually from Norwich, so they probably had a lot to talk about.

A story to illustrate Margery's, er, extreme personality: When she returned from her Holy Land visit---in which she was almost stranded in Rome because she gave all her money to the poor and her fellow pilgrims had just about had it up to here---she continued to make pilgrimages around Europe, though she was constrained by her lack of resources and her gender. She often wore all white and tended to weep uncontrollably out of devotion to Christ. Her behavior was so odd that many locals accused her of being a heretic, and at one point, she was nearly burned at the stake. However, church authorities intervened, and Margery's knowledge of the Bible and non-heretical views bore her out. She just had really, really crazy ways of putting them into practice.

What really cemented Margery’s fame, however, was the fact that she put all of these wacky life experiences into a book (albeit one that she dictated to a male writer, being likely illiterate herself). This was actually remarkable. Very few people of her status (middle-class-ish), much less women, had their thoughts and feelings recorded for posterity in this way. Through her, historians are today able to understand the religious lives of laypeople and non-nobles.

And I have to hand it to Margery. Sure, she might have been annoying, and overdramatic, and slightly hysterical at times, but she also was pretty damn courageous. It takes courage, undoubtedly, to strike out on one's own, follow one's passions, and not be trapped by what others might think. On a minimally related personal note, I am starting my PhD this week. Which sounds pretty serious. As sometimes happens, I’ve been racked with insecurity and uncertainty—am I good enough? Am I smart enough? When I raise my hand to speak, will something clever come out, or will it be super lame and everyone will point and laugh and be like “ohmygod you guys how did she get in.”

But who cares? Make a fool of yourself. Dance like no one’s watching. Fall down and have sparkly visions of Jesus and alienate everyone around you. As long as you’re doing what you love, what the heck does it matter? You might still end up with a book that’s remembered five hundred years later, or at least that gets you on the “History” shelf at Barnes & Noble next to Doris Kearns Goodwin and Jared Diamond.

Margery gets it. She's there too.

Orange Is the New Black and Diverse Ensemble Casts

I’ve been binge-watching (is that what it’s called?) the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black for the last week, especially since I just moved to a small Midwestern town and my laptop is one of my only pieces of furniture. It’s great. It’s hilarious, the characters are super compelling, the actresses are beyond amazing. It’s an almost all-female cast. It has a great Regina Spektor opening which is NONSTOP IN MY HEAD (“Taking steps is easy / Standing still is ha-a-ard!”).

The series follows the trials and tribulations of protagonist Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), a Smith-educated wasp in her late twenties or early thirties who, while ostensibly living a stable yuppie life with her clean-cut Jewish writer fiancé (Jason Biggs), once had a serious relationship with a badass lesbian drug smuggler (Laura Prepon) which resulted in her transporting drug money across the ocean. Now, years later, she’s been convicted and is serving fifteen months in minimum security women’s prison. We see her voluntarily “surrender” to the prison, looking extremely out of place and comparing her new prison-issued slippers to Tom’s shoes.

Immediately, she’s thrown into a world of bizarre rules, barter systems, creative use of commissary resources, pronounced racial divides, and variously corrupt prison officials, and must learn to navigate it, to often humorous, sometimes tragic, effect. Plus—fun pre-prison flashbacks that spotlight a different character each week.

The thing about this series, and the reason that it’s been the subject of a lot of interesting conversations since it began, is that it has a lot of problems, but it has a lot of really good things. And all of it is worth discussing.

One of the biggest complaints: Despite the fact that nearly one in 100 adult Americans is incarcerated (!!), making it a huge part of the American landscape, we only hear or care about this experience when our protagonist is an upper middle class white lady who totally doesn’t belong there. It’s all a fluke! It’s like a prison ethnography for all of us on the outside!

There have also been complaints about the perpetuation of racial stereotypes. Piper discovers immediately that the prison population is essentially self-segregated along racial lines: the whites, the blacks, the “Spanish,” and the others (mostly represented by a mustachioed older Asian lady with poor English skills, one of the show’s more obvious stereotypes). “It’s tribes. It’s not racist,” says Morello (Yael Stone), a white inmate. And to be sure, the black and Latina inmates occasionally appear as racial caricatures. But the interesting thing about the show’s dynamic is that the very fact of the environment’s extremely racialized structure allows these caricature  moments to be “surface,” to be othered perception or extreme self-awareness (as with Tasty’s impassioned defense of fried chicken in her WAC campaign speech). Racial stereotypes show up on the show, but the story doesn’t stop with the stereotype—you keep learning about and fleshing out even those who may have seemed one dimensional, and you do it in a setting that is hyper aware of the social realities of race.

As for Piper’s privileged status: creator Jenji Kohan recently gave an interview with NPR in which she called Piper her “Trojan horse” into the more interesting, more diverse show setting of a women’s prison. Translation: she sold it with a white middle-class protagonist but doing so allows us to access to poor minority characters as well as issues specific to being in the prison system. I feel like this is both a sad acknowledgement of the reality of the television landscape (shows with minority leads, especially ones representing a lower-class background, have much more difficulty getting aired), and a canny way of working the system to still tell really great stories about minority women in prison. Some of the show’s best characters are the supporting ones: the aforementioned Tasty (Danielle Brooks), Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba), Miss Claudette (Michelle Hurst), and, notably, Sophia (Laverne Cox), a transgender black woman played by a transgender actress—still a rarity on any kind of TV.

In this, “Orange” reminds me a bit of the often terrific ensemble cast of “Lost”: a white romantic triangle at the forefront (Jack, Kate, Sawyer) but a giant diverse supporting cast who got significant screen time and complex parts to play (most notably, Daniel Dae Kim and Yunjin Kim as Korean couple Jin and Sun, and Naveen Andrews as former Iraqi Republican Guard officer Sayid; though, to be fair, Andrews is British of Indian background in real life, continuing a long tradition of Indians playing Arabs).

Perhaps an interesting counterexample to this white lead, diverse ensemble phenomenon can be found in Shonda Rimes’ “Scandal,” starring the amazing Kerry Washington. "Scandal" has been much touted as having the first black female lead on network drama since 1974. Washington’s character, Olivia Pope, is the epitome of power and grace, a major player in D.C. politics. The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum refers to the show as a “post-racial fantasy." Basically, in the “Scandal” universe, race is never an issue. As such, it’s groundbreaking, but it’s simultaneously status quo-reinforcing. In some ways, “Orange” is the opposite of that.

While it’s screwy that television and media still work this way, and while there’s plenty to criticize about a show like “Orange Is the New Black,” I think we should still celebrate its small victories. And hope that its good qualities are pointing our media landscape in new and ever-better directions.

The Youest You

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

I'm pretty good at a number of things, but I don't have a special skill, talent, or hobby that I can really call my own. When it comes to my education and career path, I've managed to achieve many of the traditional markers of success. However, I'm fairly confident that's because I've chosen to stick within the boundaries of what comes easily to me, essentially avoiding failure by not challenging myself. It's also possible I'm adept at pretending that I'm better than I really am or know more than I really do.

Maybe I'm truly lazy and don't work hard enough to consider myself accomplished or skilled. Maybe I'm particularly attuned to the fact that there will always be people better than me. Maybe I'm just not cut out to excel at anything.

I'm not even sure why it matters to me. I don't want to walk around with a medal or read about myself in the paper. Am I so insecure that I'm seeking outside validation to make me feel good about myself —like my inner ten year old who wants to get picked first for the team at recess? I think having some sort of special talent would feel like a worry stone I could keep in my pocket and touch when I needed a little pick me up. Maybe what I really need is a worry stone.

Sincerely,

Just ok

 

Dear Just Ok,

It sounds like what you are searching for is greater meaning in your life—some kind of driving narrative about what you are meant to be doing and how you should shape your life.

Some call that a calling.

Recently, I read a book to my daughter (every day, several times a day, for two weeks) called Ella Takes The Stage.  Are you familiar with it?  In this children's story, Ella the Elegant Elephant is asked to participate in her school talent show.  She gets really nervous when she looks up "talent" in the dictionary, and it says, "a special natural ability."

She tries out several (singing, juggling, etc.) but eventually she just ends up supporting everyone else—mending a ripped pair of tights on a dancer, baking cupcakes for all the performers, saving the day by getting the monkey to jump into her hat for the grand finale.  Everyone claps for Ella, who does not win any medals but is appreciated as being the "wind beneath the wings" of all the people who did acts.

The message is: maybe you don't have special talent, or it could be that your special talent is supporting those who are actually talented!  To which I was like, "Oh great, teach my daughter to be a shadow artist who caretakes those with 'real talent'.  Awesome."  Don't get me wrong.  I want to champion all kinds of expression, even those who are more "behind the scenes."  But a total support person is not a fulfilling or sustainable role. So, don't buy into any of that "maybe you're just a worker bee” bullshit.

Here's how I would have ended Ella the Elegant Elephant.  Ella loves to sing, but is shamed out of it by people who think she's not good enough.  In my version, Ella would find a song she feels highlights her unique voice, even though it may sound really odd, maybe writing it herself to make sure it works.  Then she'd perform it at the Talent Show, and some people would get it, and some would cover their ears.  Ella wouldn't win the top medal in the show, but she would start down a path as an experimental musician that was highly fulfilling even as she enjoyed supporting her fellow artists by baking cupcakes and painting posters.

Shit, now I want a cupcake.  Anyway, enough elephants, more you.  It is excellent that you are thinking about this—don't shame yourself out of it.  It means that you are taking yourself, and your life, seriously.  You are craving meaning and purpose, not just empty praise.  You want to find something you're incredibly good at, not necessarily to be successful, but because it feels amazing to excel at something.

It sounds like you have gone down the "usual" pathways for finding that special something you are wonderful at doing, and have come up empty.  So here's where we flip it on its head: perhaps you're not going to find that thing in education/work right now.  Also, your idea of talent needs a re-vamp.  Maybe what you are amazing at is being you.  You need to find the medium to express your "you-ness", and follow that, even if you are not perfect/successful/praised at it.  I promise you, this will scratch the itch that you have to be "great".  You will get so much out of the process that your whole goal of life will shift.

The inimitable Martha Graham once said, “There is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost.”  So, I'm going to ask you, Just Ok, to go off the beaten path if you have to, to find that way to express your uniqueness.  Don't let it be lost in the effort to obtain society's hallmarks of success (degrees you spend a lifetime paying for, houses that depreciate in value, climbing a job ladder you realize you want to jump off).  That stuff doesn't last, and you're right, it's not worth caring about.  But finding out what you are truly passionate about, and what you can do well and feel good doing, is worth pretty much all of your effort.

So here’s what I want you to do.  Make a stream-of-consciousness list of things you’d like to try, even if it turns out you’re not the pillar of perfection at them.  Then choose one to do this week.  Laugh at how terrible you are at first, but see if you get the hang of it.  What did you love to do as a child, before the idea of “success” entered your consciousness?  Were you shamed out of it and into a smaller support role, like Ella the EE, or have you just never thought about what the adult equivalent of being a master at Light Bright is (I think it’s coding, or furniture design)?

The roof is about to be blown off of this “just okay” life you’ve built for yourself.  It is going to be surprising and strange, and you may never gain the kind of external achievement that our culture so cherishes.  But you will know where your strength lies, and that is something that no one can take away from you, and which you’ll need for the inevitable ups and downs of life.

It’s time for you to be your own worry stone.

Love,

Sibyl

P.S. I don't want to influence you too much on this search, but might I point out that your quandary letter was exceptionally well-written?  From one writer to another... whatever you do next, you should write about it.

Kösem Sultan: Ruler of the Ottoman Empire

historical woman

(Note: Be careful when you Google her name. Nothing bad, but there is a Kosen Sultan who appears to hold the Guinness record for being the world’s tallest man, so not to be confused.)

So the “harem” is one of my favorite not-favorite Orientalist tropes. (“Favorite not-favorite” is one of my favorite phrases.) It’s also a very misunderstood concept, heavily romanticized in Western art and literature and imagined as a sexually debauched space where scantily clad women lounge on divans smoking hookah and pleasuring, well, pretty much any dude who walks in the door. You can see why it’s been popular.

In reality, the harem was an enclosed space for the women of the royal household, etymologically derived from the Arabic haram—forbidden—which allowed elite women to live in seclusion and yet still have access to and even exert control over the seat of power. In the Ottoman Empire, the women of the harem could be very influential, even enjoying a period in the 16th and 17th centuries known as the “Sultanate of Women” when, through regencies and political strategizing, they were practically in charge. It’s worth noting that this partly coincided with the height of the Empire’s power.

Kösem Sultan is one of the most extraordinary of these women. Born on a small Greek island around 1585, she eventually made her way to Constantinople at age fifteen, sold into the harem of the Ottoman Sultan Ahmed I, where she became a favorite of his and then became one of his wives.

Ahmed died in 1617, and in 1623 Kösem’s son Murad IV became Sultan and Kösem became Valide Sultan, or Mother of the Sultan. Because Murad was a minor, Kösem was his official regent—the first woman to ever rule the Ottoman Empire and one of only two who ever would. She was regent for nine years.

Now, as I hinted at earlier, the Ottoman Empire in this period was nothing to sneeze at. Its subjects numbered around thirty million, and its reach extended across North Africa, Eastern Europe, and most of what we now know as the Middle East. Like many empires, it could have probably quit while it was ahead circa 1550, but continued to expand and was mostly still doing A-OK until 1683, when the Ottomans whiffed at the disastrous siege of Vienna, undertaken by Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa Pasha.

So Murad finally came of age, did alright, then died eight years later. Kösem’s other son, Ibrahim I, took the throne, but dude was kind of a mess (random headaches, bouts of physical weakness, mental instability) and Kösem was basically the power behind the throne. Then Ibrahim was deposed and Kösem craftily presented her seven-year-old grandson, Mehmed IV, as the new sultan, and thus became regent for Time No. 2.

This second bout of imperial power was only to last three years, however, before she was challenged by her daughter-in-law Turhan Hatice, mother of Mehmed and another major harem imperial power player. Turhan heard rumors that Kösem was plotting to remove Mehmed from the throne and replace him with another grandson—not one of Turhan’s—and it’s likely that it was Turhan who ordered Kösem’s assassination. Legend has it she was murdered by a eunuch, who strangled her with her own hair. Yikes.

Thus ended the tumultuous, Showtime miniseries-style life of Kösem Sultan. I would actually endorse the making of such a miniseries if I didn’t feel like it would be an Orientalist mess waiting to happen.

Kösem Sultan’s story is entertaining, and her bids for power are impressive, but not so great is the implication that women basically had two options in the Ottoman Empire: to be invisible, or to be a conniving power-hungry b-word. It’s a false dichotomy, but it’s how historical women tend to be remembered. She may very well have been these things, but let’s take into account the falsehoods of historical memory and the persistence of exaggerated feminine tropes, not to mention the potential Orientalization of otherwise straightforward political history (a eunuch? strangled with her own hair? it's almost too perfect), and instead celebrate(?) the awesome ambition of Kösem, the sultan-iest of Ottoman royal women.

"I Don't Want a Bigoted Friend"

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

A college friend of mine has an attitude problem when it comes to race. We met 12 years ago and lost touch a year into our studies when our programs diverged. At that point she had already made 2 racist comments, one which I pointed out was unfair and biased, and she conceded. But when the second comment occurred, I cut my losses and went on my way.

Five years ago she moved to my city and sought out my friendship again. I was happy to hear from her, because she does have a lot of good qualities and has turned out to be a fairly loyal, if somewhat self-centered friend.

She had done some traveling after college and I was hoping her mind had opened and she'd matured with regard to her unconscious views on race. Not totally. There were a few less-overt comments that I let slide, due to my passive nature and just general cowardice (ugh). I never thought that she would remain my friend for this long, or that she'd figure it out eventually by interacting with more folks from different backgrounds (our city is fairly diverse and she's since entered a multicultural graduate program).

Alas, that's not really how privilege works, as we both know, Sibyl! The recent release of the film Fruitvale Station, and its confluence with the Trayvon Martin verdict have produced some ugly & awkward moments with her—which unfortunately I've heard of second-hand. Her comments were to the effect of, people are just saying nice things about this movie because of the trial, subtext being that ... black people are getting away with "it"??  It makes no sense. It's getting to the point where I have to run interference with other friends because I'm (perhaps selfishly) afraid this reflects badly on me. I don't want a bigoted friend, but at this point she has become so important to me that I can't just cut & run either.

I think I know the right thing to do, which is to gently bring it up and act like I just don't understand why an otherwise nice person seems to hold these views, and to sort of cushion it by saying I think she's much smarter than that. But I'm afraid that instead I'll start shaking with rage and go off about white privilege (I'm white too, so it doesn't take a rocket scientist to recognize what's right in front of our eyes). Any tips? Thanks so much!

Losing the Race

 

Dear Losing the Race,

In the past month, people all over the country have had some unfortunate surprises, seeing how folks close to them reacted to the Trayvon Martin murder case, and the film Fruitvale Station, which depicted the murder of Oscar Grant III.  It’s been awkward, depressing, and downright enraging to see that people you thought were allies are actually indifferent, ignorant, and/or even full-out racist.  How is it 2013 and so many white people just don’t “get” the effects of institutional racism?  Well, privilege is a sneaky thing, and no one wants to give up power they don’t want to believe they have in the first place.

The message I heard, over and over, from the black folks in my life was, “White people who are conscious, please handle your people. We are tired of explaining racism to them.  It’s time for you to step up.”  So, although I recognize that my efforts are far from complete, I’ve been using every platform afforded to me to discuss race in America, and I thank you for another opportunity to do so.

What I am finding is that since most people avoid talking about race like the plague, they are clunky with it.  Their opinions are not fully formed, untested by debate and expression.  They are a bit like teenagers in Health class on Sex Ed day - there’s all kinds of jokes where there should be depth, and the level of tension in the room is palpable.

I like that you are willing to examine what having a bigoted friend says about you.  What it says about you is you are a human with human friends, that are complicated and imperfect and not totally aware of themselves.  Everyone has their equivalent of your bigoted friend in their lives.  It’s like the embarrassing uncle who you used to love as a child for all the reasons you now hope he doesn’t show up at the family functions—his loudness and silliness was fun for kids, but less funny as an adult.

You probably enjoy the bluntness of your friend, in other contexts.  You like that she tells it how she sees it, doesn’t hold back, and isn’t always perfectly PC.  However, you were hoping she would evolve over time.  Ignorant views in college students are to be expected—I’m so lucky I still have any friends who knew me in my early 20’s, a time of bizarre absolutes all over the political spectrum.  However, in adult life, friendships are really difficult to hold on to, and for all the effort one puts in, you don’t want to feel like you’re giving your time to someone who is on the wrong side of history.  It feels like collusion.

This friend has been placed in your lap so you can do your part in making change, starting right where you are.  Relationships are the only thing that change people.  The person with homophobic beliefs has to reconsider when they find out their beloved piano teacher is gay.  And someone with unconscious racist beliefs won’t change them unless people they care about start to stay, “Listen, this is not cool.”

So what you need to do is practice.  Talk about this issue with people you know agree with you, first.  Practice with people you don’t care as much about, too.  I remember when I first started confronting racism in conversations, and the visceral physical reaction you described happened to me.  I shook, I cried, I had to leave the room and hyperventilate.  But, over time, I was able to get those somatic responses under control and speak more freely.  I actually think it’s fine if you shake and cry—it could be compelling for your friend to see how much this means to you.  However, it would be best for your health if you didn’t go into anaphylactic shock every time you talk about this, so practice and breathe.

I actually don’t think you should pretend not to understand why an otherwise nice person holds these beliefs.  Because you do know.  You should be forward, direct, and use examples.  You can do this compassionately, in a way that helps put your friend’s statements into context, showing her that it’s not her fault that institutional racism exists, but it is her business and duty to recognize it and stop propagating it.

I suggest following up your conversation with some reading material for her to peruse.  An article your friend may connect with is Peggy McIntosh’s Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, which includes a list of day-to-day examples of how white privilege works itself out in real life.  She may not want to believe that all of the examples on the list are true, but there are at least a few that she will be unable to refute.  I do understand that this article is problematic, but it seems that your friend really needs to start slowly, although she should be encouraged quickly to move on to bell hooks.  This could be the beginning of a really important personal growth journey for her.

People do not want to acknowledge their own ignorance and privilege.  In order to get them to do so, you have to provide both positive and negative reasons.  For instance, you’ll be saying, “It makes me really uncomfortable and upset when you say these things.  It is why I didn’t call you for years.”  So, the message is, “your racism hurts your friends and makes them not want to hang out with you.”  But also you can tell her your journey, from unconsciously enjoying white privilege to being aware of it and trying to call it out when you can.  What have you gained from this process?  What personal growth can you offer her by becoming awake to how the world really works?

I think it is great that you don’t just want to cut this friend out of your life—that would be a missed opportunity for you both.  Just being aware of white privilege is not enough.  We have to have the courage to speak out about it when we see it, calling it out and encouraging the people in our lives to do the same.  And, what have you got to lose?  You said yourself you don’t want to have a bigoted friend, so give her the chance to evolve, and see what happens!  I really believe this is the only way things are ever going to change—one-on-one conversations with people we love.  The personal affection makes it matter in a way that a movie and a court case never can.

In Solidarity,

Sibyl

Lady Jane Grey: Nine Day Queen, Fabled Innocent

historical woman

 

I usually focus on historical women who have accomplished a whole lot, against all odds and expectations given their oppressive historical contexts. Today I wanted to spotlight a historical woman who didn’t really do much. She was only queen for nine days, and most of that time was spent inside a dungeon. Then she was killed. Before her seventeenth birthday.

What I think Jane Grey’s story represents is a necessary counterweight to the often triumphal stories of the women that grace our history books—those few exceptional ladies who managed to rule countries, win wars, write books, etc. and are given lots of retrospective pats on the back for it. (And sometimes a more subtle “hey if she could do it, what are y’all complaining about!” as well.) Jane Grey is instead a woman whose time in the spotlight was brief and whose fate was largely out of her own hands. In that, I think she better represents the plight of many women in her time, and lots of other times. But either way, we know very little about her.

What we do know: Jane Grey was an English noblewoman, born around 1537, whose father became the Duke of Suffolk (hereafter referred to as “Suffolk” because of wacky British landed title conventions). As a sixteenth-century teenage girl related to royalty, she was clearly ripe for some strategic marriage alliance-ing. For a time it looked like she’d be marrying her cousin, Edward VI, a son of Henry VIII who would become king. Instead, she was married to the son of the Duke of Northumberland (hereafter referred to as Northumberland—see above).

Remember that this was all in the midst of that Protestant Reformation thing. Note that Edward VI was kind of on Team Protestant. But there were others on Team Catholic. Important background.

Edward VI was king for a short time. Then, on his death bed at the age of fifteen (!!), Edward proclaimed that, rather than his half-sisters and fellow wacky Henry VIII brood members Mary or Elizabeth (IDEA: Muppet Babies-style animated show “Baby Tudors”), he should have his successor be Lady Jane Grey. Northumberland and his fellow pro-Protestant conspirators allegedly brought about Edward’s change of heart. Jane, as it is, was a devout Protestant. Hence, she and her husband Guildford (real name) ascended to the throne on July 10, 1553.

Nine days pass. And they’re kicked out.

The villainess in this little story is Mary, who became queen after Jane. Mary was Team Catholic all the way. When she made her claim to the throne, she had Jane, Guildford, and Jane’s dad Suffolk imprisoned in (where else) the Tower of London. Suffolk was set free shortly thereafter. It might have ended there—even though Jane and Guildford were found guilty of treason, it seems that even Bloody Mary realized that the two didn’t deserve to, you know, die or anything. That would just be messed up.

But then.

A dude named Thomas Wyatt started a rebellion in order to reinstate a Protestant ruler to the throne (his pick: Elizabeth instead of Jane). Wyatt’s Rebellion had many supporters, including Jane’s dad, Suffolk. Mary wasn’t having any of it. She quashed the rebellion, killed Wyatt, and, because Jane’s dad was involved, ordered Jane, Guildford, and Suffolk all beheaded.

There’s a famous painting that hangs in the National Gallery in London (see it, it’s gorgeous) by Paul Delaroche called The Execution of Lady Jane Grey. The incredibly lifelike figures on the wall-sized canvas include the Lieutenant of the Tower of London, who leads the blindfolded Jane to the execution block; two weeping ladies in waiting; and the executioner, leaning on his large axe. It’s an incredibly striking scene—Jane is all in white, practically glowing with innocence, literally being blindly led by a man to her gruesome fate. It made an impression on me to the extent that years later I felt compelled to write about her. Of course, as many scholars have pointed out, such representations of Lady Jane simply perpetuate her role as an abstraction of female helplessness and innocence, even a Protestant martyr. It’s important to remember that she was a real human being, a highly educated noblewoman with her own beliefs and ambitions (though these were likely largely overridden by those of the people around her). Maybe she would have made an excellent queen! Who knows? Her cousin Elizabeth certainly did. But you already know about her.

Male Authors, Female Authors, and Serious Literature

strong female characters

I just finished reading Jeffrey Eugenides’ most recent novel, The Marriage Plot, and having done so, felt more equipped to ponder a rather inflammatory statement he made last September regarding perceived difference in treatment of women authors’ work in relation to that of their male colleagues.

Jodi Picoult had tweeted the following: “NYT raved about Franzen's new book. Is anyone shocked? Would love to see the NYT rave about authors who aren't white male literary darlings.”

Ostensibly, she was criticizing the fact that while her books covered similar ground as Franzen’s, they were treated very differently by publishers and critics alike. Even the cover designs send out “chick lit” signals, while Franzen’s look more “serious author consider this for an award please.”

It could have been left at that. But Jeffrey Eugenides, himself an acclaimed male author, felt compelled to chime in. In an interview with Salon, he called Picoult’s complaints “belly-aching” and said, "I didn’t really know why Jodi Picoult is complaining. She’s a huge best-seller and everyone reads her books, and she doesn’t seem starved for attention."

Here’s where I’m like, hold up, Eugenides.

While it would be unseemly for Picoult to complain about any lack of commercial success, there is a difference between that and critical success, aka being taken seriously as a writer. I’m not super familiar with her work, so I don’t actually know how good of a writer she is. But—at the very least—she is Ivy League-educated, very prolific, and sells millions of novels, albeit ones that must single-handedly keep a lot of hand models specializing in soft lighting and tender gestures in business.

And therein can lie part of the problem. A book’s marketing goes a long way in determining its reception. If the publisher thinks a book will sell to a middle-aged, light-reading crowd, they’ll commission cover designs and blurbs that appeal to said crowd. While such marketing is often astute, it also precludes the possibility that those books will ever be Taken Seriously.

And as author Maureen Johnson recently wrote in the Huffington Post, “The simple fact of the matter is, if you are a female author, you are much more likely to get the package that suggests the book is of a lower perceived quality.”

Eugenides may or may not be right that Picoult herself has nothing to complain about. But his casual shrug-off of any kind of gender gap in the promotion and reception of modern literature seems at best naïve, at worst super male privilege-y.

I like Jeffrey Eugenides a lot. I’ve read all three of his novels, and interestingly all of them devote major page time to female characters in mostly sensitive and nuanced ways. The Virgin Suicides is told from the point of view of a chorus of neighborhood boys who are obsessed with the five sisters of the tragic Lisbon family. While the boys never truly understand the girls’ pain, there is a deep cosmic sympathy that courses through the narrative—even as the girls remain inscrutable, it is always understood that they are flawed breathing human beings.

Middlesex (which I reviewed on my book blog) is an epic chronicle of Cal Stephanides, born Calliope, a hermaphroditic boy who spends the first fourteen years of his life as a girl. Again, while hardly an LGBTQ anthem, the book deftly deals with the fluidity of gender and sexuality, as well as the persistent presence of “Cal” in both a female and male body.

It wasn’t until I read his most recent novel, The Marriage Plot, that I could see where Eugenides might go wrong. The narrative is told from three points of view, your classic love triangle between Madeleine, Mitchell, and Leonard. Mitchell, like Cal, has a lot in common with Eugenides himself and is fully fleshed out. Leonard suffers from bipolar disorder, and his passages are often gut-wrenching. But Madeleine? She’s kind of a privileged, boy-crazy twit. It’s not that she’s entirely unsympathetic—but she’s uninteresting, un-fleshed-out, and seems to exist (even with omniscient narration) as the cardboard fantasy of Mitchell’s ill-advised romantic desires.

Further, and here’s where the irony gets delicious: The Marriage Plot’s title and content could have lent themselves to the most chick lit-y of marketing campaigns. Madeleine is an English major obsessed with Austen, and though somewhat subversive Eugenides’ narration does self-consciously follow the old marriage plots within his modern (and postmodern) 1980s setting. Yet the cover for his book, the blurbs, and its placement in the bookstore are all miles away from Jodi Picoult’s stuff. Is this the proof he needs that male and female authors’ work are often given unequal treatments? Could a woman author have written something called The Marriage Plot about a college girl in love and been taken seriously as Literature? It’s debatable, but it's doubtful, and it’s definitely worth asking.

For more on this thought experiment, I highly recommend that you check out Maureen Johnson's May 2013 Huffington Post article, which showcases the results of her Twitter project to “gender-flip” famous novel covers—including The Marriage Plot.

Meet the Local: Accra, Ghana

mind the gap

Meet the Local is a series designed to uncover the differences (and similarities) in how we think and live in different parts of the world.  Over the upcoming months, I’ll ask locals from places all over the world the same set of getting-to-know-you questions.  This week, we travel to Ghana, where it's typical to have both a Christian name and a local name---so meet Jane, or Nana Ama Nyamekye.  She was born in Kumasi, and now lives in Accra, Ghana's capital, where she works at The Hunger Project, a NGO that focuses on empowering people to end their own hunger.  

Meet the Local, Ghana

What do you like about the place you live?

The people around are quite warm.  They show their communal spirits, and I communicate well with them.

What don’t you like so much?

The roads.  They are untarred, they are dusty.  When it rains, it becomes quite difficult to get anywhere, to even walk, because it’s muddy, and there are a lot of potholes so if someone is driving and someone passes by, you can get quite wet if the driver doesn’t avoid it.

What do you normally eat for breakfast?

I like local porridge, it’s made from millet and ginger and a little chili pepper.  We call it koose---it’s made from black eyed peas.  You can eat bread with it, but I feel like the bread is too heavy, so I mix it with the porridge.  Sometimes I have hot chocolate with it.

What do you do for a living?  How important is your job to your sense of self?

I’m into small scale banking, so to speak---I’m in micro finance.  I work with a NGO whose goals I really admire.  My job makes me feel fulfilled in that I grew up in an environment where people could be very intelligent but because they lacked the financial ability, they couldn’t reach whatever targets or goals they set for themselves.  My job looks at ensuring that people are economically self sufficient.  It aligns with myself, my personal feeling and hope for the world.  I expect people to be okay, I expect people to be looking out for a world that embraces people, that people will be given opportunities to make ends meet.  I believe that everybody has potential, and that, given the opportunity, they can meet the goals they set for themselves.  This job allows people to be uplifted.

What do you do for fun?

I like to be with kids---they’re adorable.  I like to admire their innocence.  But mostly, I unwind my day with a movie, or sometimes I end my day by listening to gospel preaching.

How often do you see your family?  Tell me what you did the last time you saw them.

The last time I saw my family was in the end of May, a little while ago, but I will see them this weekend.  With my cousins, they are a little older than me, but they are all involved in corporate institutions, so first I try to talk about how we can help women, and women in the workplace.  But sometimes we just talk about family.  Last time we met, they asked me to help plan my auntie’s birthday.

What’s your biggest dream for your life?

My dream is to be able to get a PhD, something that will be beneficial to other people. I want to do research, and maybe to lecture as time goes on, so that the experience that I’ve gathered can be combined with the academic world so that I can be efficient and effect change.

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?  Why?

I always want to be in Ghana, because the people are warm, and because I have the chance to improve upon the systems.  I want to make it so most people can go to school, and then most people can give back to society, especially in the rural areas.  So yeah, I would want to be in Ghana.

 What are you most proud of?

I’m proud of being a change agent.  In my line of work, I work with people who want to take a step forward in their economic adventures.  I get so happy and proud when people tell me how their lives have changed from nothing to economic self-sufficiency.  I have more than a hundred women who had nothing, no savings, but have saved now amounting to more than 500 Ghana cedis (approximately $250 USD).  They’ve been able to send their children to school, some to the tertiary levels.  I get so happy when I realize that people are not always just sitting down folding their arms but they are always trying to work, to change their lives.

 How happy would you say you are?  Why?

I would say I’m happy, I’m fulfilled, even though I haven’t gotten to my limit yet.  There is always room for improvement.  I know that I’m working in a good team, and my team members are all working together to achieve the same goals.  In my home, there is peace---with my husband, everything is okay.  When I go to the field, I meet my women who embrace me with huge smiles because of the changes they’re seeing in their lives.

Check out previous answers from locals in Lisbon, Sarajevo, Sydney, and London.  Want to participate in Meet the Local or know someone who does?  Email liz@thingsthatmakeus.com for more details.

The Chickens Wake At Five

diary of a filmmaker

Dear Diary, The chickens wake at five.

I swing open the creaky door of their coop and they dart out into the yard. They high-step through the garden, bobbing through basil, pecking at tomato plants. Sometimes they scratch up a cloud of dust then sink their bellies into the dirt.

The chickens are named Himalaya and Buddha. They are both thick and strong, but Buddha is a little smaller and more docile than Himalaya. Their glossy feathers are red and black and they shine like oil slicks in the sunlight.

I don’t know much about chickens. I assumed the eggs would come in the morning. But when I open the lid to the hay filled box where they sleep, all I find are two chicken shaped indentations. It’s not until late afternoon that they appear, those two pastel ovals in the yellow straw.

I collect the two eggs in the afternoon. Each egg is smooth, warm, and oblong. Holding them in my palm I’m reminded of the symbol for infinity. Like the symbol, the eggs are matched halves---shells containing, curves repeating.

I blame Alice Walker for thinking like this about chickens, for trying to see the universe in a bird, for trying to see poetry in poultry. Around this time last year I was reading Walker's  “The Chicken Chronicles: Sitting with the Angels Who Have Returned with My Memories.” I found myself enchanted with Walker’s meditative and philosophical writing, and entertained that her observations where drawn from contemplating the behavior and being of her flock of chickens.

I should probably explain how I came to have chickens in the first place. I’m housesitting in Brooklyn in exchange for chicken keeping, dehumidifier emptying, and acting as liaison to a visiting French family who will be staying in the upstairs portion of the house.

The place is stunning. A classic Brooklyn brownstone on a quiet tree lined block. I’m here with my dog and my computer and not much else. We’ve retreated here so I’ll have time and mental space to complete my documentary project and to apply to grants. At home my attention dissolved into chores, work, television, more chores, more television. Here I get up early for the chickens and the dog, work on editing and writing and transcribing, walk to get a coffee, loll in the park.

This is not my real life, I remind myself.

This is a single six-week escape. It’s a special time for working and writing.

It's time I’ve come to understand I need in order to actually make progress on creative projects. I hardly leave the apartment. I walk the same loop to the grocery store, the coffee shop, the park, the apartment. Oddly enough, if I were to trace my daily walking routines on a map they would take the shape of an ellipse. An oblong, egg-like trajectory. Contained, repeating.

An Insufficient Fare Kind of Day

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It’s an insufficient fare kind of day.

A spilled soda kind of day.

A drop a dirty fork on a customer and he rolls his eyes at you kind of day.

A your best friend misses his flight to come visit you kind of day.

An if I try to fold this blanket I’m gonna freak out kind of day.

A day when the murderer of a black teenage boy goes free.

A day when your heart feels numb and clumsy as a gloved hand.

A day when you realize that everyone you know is sad for the same reason and that’s the one thing that makes you feel better.

A day when the murderer gets his gun back and the prosecutor smiles and says she’s proud and you wonder how did these people get to be in charge and what is wrong with us?

A day when your friends go to a rally and walk all around Manhattan and miraculously people still have hope and rage and energy left.

A day when you sit in the yard after work drinking a beer with the guys, listening to them talk in Spanish, using your four verbs, laughing at stupid stuff and cheers-ing over and over again. And you know it doesn’t change anything but it makes you feel better.

And your boss’s cousin talks about how jail is so easy these days it’s like daycare and you crack up.

And you look at the sky and think about how you are just a tiny spot on the globe.

And you are more than usually aware of the complicated, simple humanity of everyone around you.

I have nothing very smart to say about George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin and racism and the American justice system. There are so many people saying smart things all over the internet, I’m sure you have read them. I don’t know if I should even try to talk about it, but I can’t really think about anything without also thinking about that.

I have been reading so many heartbreaking, infuriating articles over the past few days since George Zimmerman was acquitted. I have also been doing a bunch of stuff to prepare for my wedding, which is on Saturday. My emotional state has been blurry, as if the good and the bad cancel each other out, complimentary colors mixed together to make a non-color.

I've been looking through Pema Chodron's book Living Beautifully With Uncertainty and Change to find readings for the ceremony, and this passage feels particularly apt at this moment:

"The other morning I woke up worrying about a dear friend's well-being. I felt it as an ache in my heart. When I got up and looked out my window, I saw such a beauty that it stopped my mind. I just stood there with the heartbreak of my friend's condition and saw trees heavy with fresh snow, a sky that was purple-blue, and a soft mist that covered the valley, turning the world into a vision of the Pure Land. Just then, a flock of yellow birds landed on the fence and looked at me, increasing my wonder further still.

I realized then what it means to hold pain in my heart and simultaneously be deeply touched by the power and magic of the world. Life doesn't have to be one way or the other. We don't have to jump back and forth. We can live beautifully with whatever comes--heartache and joy, success and failure, instability and change."

I can't let my heart go numb. I have to have a big, wise heart that has room for all of these things at once.

Waiting

diving girl

By Ariana Pritchett My mom always says she could predict how my sister and I would approach new experiences in life by the way we entered the pool as children. My sister always started out on the stairs, taking them one step at a time, slowly getting used to the water before fully submerging. Me, well, I would take a running leap and dive head first into the deep end.

I am impulsive by nature.

If I get a hankering to do something, I want to do it now. I don’t want to ease into it. I don’t want to wait around and get prepared. I. WANT. IT. NOW.

This is why at 17 I ran off to San Francisco without thinking about needing money for gas or food. Why at 21 I flew to Spain by myself without a place to stay when I landed. This is why at 24 I got married, at 26 I bought a house, and at 27 I got pregnant. And it’s why three years ago I committed to adopting our second child without any information on what that really entailed. I was not going to wait around for anything. If there’s something I want in my life, my motto has always been, ‘Why wait? You’ll figure it out when you get there. No regrets.’

And so of course it’s only fitting that the universe would show up now with a big package of Waiting, my name written all over it.

Adoption for me has been all about the surrender of control . . . and waiting.

If I’d been given the green light I’d have jumped in head first to raising our second child three years ago. But adoption doesn’t work that way. First there was saving for the huge financial investment. Then there was the paperwork, which felt never-ending. Now I am waiting to be matched to a birthmom who chooses us to raise her child. We could get a call today. We could get a call in two years. And there’s still more waiting to come. Once we get matched we have to wait for the birth, and even then the adoption is not final until 6-12 months after the baby is home with us.

My family and friends question how I’m able to handle all this waiting. Tell me how difficult it must be. And it is, especially for me.

But after working my hardest to push through this wall of waiting, I’ve finally given in to it. And it’s amazing what I’ve found here sitting on the steps:

~ I’ve treasured my time with my son and husband all the more, because I know that soon it won’t be just the three of us anymore.

~ I’ve had more time to think and dream about this baby before s/he even comes into being. With each daydream I can feel my heart expanding in anticipation for this new life.

~ I’ve actually begun preparing for our child’s arrival without feeling rushed. This is new for me. We’re thinking through feeding, diapering, figuring out what is actually needed to prepare for a new addition to our family. I’ve spent quiet time mentally creating a nursery that will be a soft space of safety and comfort. Because I can take it slowly this time, activities that in the past would have caused me stress and worry are now relaxing and fun.

~ I’ve noticed all the opportunities that have presented themselves because the baby didn’t arrive in a hurry: work opportunities, travel opportunities, and time for personal growth.

But the learning that is the most tender to me is the build-up that comes from waiting, the love that continues to grow each day that we wait for our child. The knowledge that by the time we meet our son or daughter we will not be able to imagine it being anyone else.

Diving in is fast, furious and exhilarating. It has brought incredible experiences and countless blessings into my life, and I still do love to leap big. But lately I can’t help but wonder what might have been possible if I’d tried wading in slowly instead of jumping into the deep end of these huge life decisions. Because it is in the steady, gradual entry that I can really feel the water rising up over each inch of my body, until I finally immerse myself in the experience and just float. It is through this slow surrender that a deeper love and appreciation of each step of the journey is fostered and the space is created for something miraculous to be birthed.

If you want to know more about the Pritchett families adoption journey you can follow their facebook page (link to https://www.facebook.com/ThePritchettFamilyAdopts) or share their adoption website (www.thepritchettfamily.com) with your community as  50% of birthmother matches come from personal networking through the adoptive family.

[photo source]

Marriage Rules for Little Girls

peanut m&ms

By EBK Riley The other night, as my daughter Delia rearranged the peas and chicken on her dinner plate to make it appear that she was actually eating, she announced that she "wanted to marry a rich husband." Swallowing my chicken and the jolt of fear that arose because she is already contemplating marriage at six, I asked her why she thought that was a good idea. She was very matter of fact, noting that if she married someone rich, she could have a big house, go on vacations, and get lots of clothes and her own car and anything else she might need. This is the first year she has seemed concerned about our family's comparative lack of stuff, and apparently it is shaping her ideas about a lot of things. Because she has visited the houses of school friends, she is less satisfied with our apartment, and as every girl who has had to share a room with her sister is bound to do, she is lobbying for her own room. "We could all have our own rooms if we had a house," she says, though she graciously allows, "you and Daddy could still share, if you wanted to..." We do. Thanks. But before we could turn the discussion away from lifetime commitments to talk about how having a lot of stuff isn't always so important, Fiona chimed in, "M used to have a lot of money, but he doesn't anymore and I love him anyway."

Fiona is in an imaginary committed relationship with a three foot tall plastic display version of a yellow peanut M&M. He was gifted to her before we left Boston by my CVS manager, who not only wanted to get it off his sales floor, but who was also touched by the true love of a girl and her candy pal. She can call him just "M" as a nickname, because he's her boyfriend. All of her dolls and stuffed animals are their children and she tells us often what he thinks about situations that arise with 'their kids' at school and about stuff happening on television. M has a lot of strong opinions, and I don't agree with all of them, but at least I know he's from a good home and he doesn't have a motorcycle that I have to worry about Fiona riding on the back of. We hope they're very happy together until she's about thirty, which is the age my husband Mike has decided the girls will be allowed to date.

The discussion of marriage continued when I asked Delia, "Don't you think love is more important than money when you decide who to marry?" Mike was also interested in the answer to that one. Again, she was matter of fact, "Well, if he was rich, he could buy me lots of presents and then I would love him." She paused for a minute, pretending to chew some peas, and possibly because she realized that this might be kind of shallow, she added, "I'm sure I could find someone who is nice and rich, and I would love him because he was nice, and he would still be rich. Then I would have the best of both." There it was, the admonishment of parents through the centuries: It's just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor one. Out of the mouths of babes, right?

We were at the table for a while, because Delia never did really did make any progress on her dinner, so we discussed the possibility of her becoming rich herself. She had taken this for granted, assuming she would have a career (as a rock star or an astronaut or a professor) and her own money, but she was clear that her future partner should have his own too, because then they would not have to worry about money for sure. "And I might want to take time off to stay home with babies, or he might, so we both need to have money."

It all seems so simple when a six year old explains it to you.

Still, as we finally cleared the plates, after Mike and Fiona had gone in to muck out the girls' room in preparation for bedtime, I told Delia that even though it does really kinda suck to be poor, the real trick to marriage is finding the person you want to be with, no matter what else happens. "Yeah," she said, "like they say on a wedding, for better and worse, for richer and poorer, and then they both say I do and they kiss."

"Yeah, just like that," I said. And she giggled, because she's six.

Above and Beyond

Sometime before I was born, my mother sold shoes in a department store. And so, as we’d hit up the back-to-school sales every August, she would begin her refrain. “No one knows how to sell shoes these days!”

Up and down the aisles, in and out of stores, she repeated her mantra as my sister and I trailed behind her. Each of us was hard to fit—my sister a 5W, myself a 6N—and she was unrelenting. A power-shopper if there ever was one, she zigzagged us back and forth across town until we finally collapsed in the back seat long after sunset.

The sellers committed various transgressions, most of which involved trying to fit the foot to the shoe, rather than the shoe to the foot. They offered all manner of padding and inserts in their attempts to transform ill-fitting glass slippers into gloves. My mother never fell for any of it.

I can hear her now: “If the shoe doesn’t fit, for God’s sake, DON’T wear it.” (Helpful advice for any number of situations, in addition to shoes.)

Even worse than the inserts, however, was the seller who offered nothing. After carefully examining every shoe in the store, making our selections, and requesting our sizes, we would wait on the bench in hopeful anticipation. Eventually, the harried salesperson would emerge from the back room, offering only a shrug and, “Sorry, we don’t have it in your size.”

On the way out, my mother would give us a lesson not only in selling shoes but in choosing to go above and beyond for your fellow human being. First of all, she said, you must never return from the back room empty-handed or even with a single pair of shoes. Instead, whether the customer’s requested shoe is in stock or not, you should return with multiple suggestions to match her size, her style, and her life. The first shoe rarely fits, so you’ll want to place some options immediately at her disposal. Give her a sense of abundance, but not overwhelm. Pay attention to what she really wants, not just what she says she wants. And if, after all, nothing fits, blame the shoes, never the foot.

Finally, if you already know from the start that you’ve got nothing that will properly suit her needs, don’t waste her time. Give her the name of a store where she can find it, and offer her directions for getting there too.

Although I’ve never sold shoes, I’ve often thought of this advice as a roadmap for working and living and interacting with others. It’s not about working extra long hours or trying to take on more than is humanly possible. It’s about seeking small, everyday opportunities to delight, surprise, and genuinely help the strangers and intimates we encounter.

The 88 Cent Tote Bag

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I am getting married in a few weeks, and my partner and I are trying to find something to give to people as favors, their prize for coming to our wedding. Our budget is approximately one dollar per person, which rules out the fancy vegan chocolates, the tiny succulents in little tin pails, and pretty much most things I’d want to buy or they’d want to own.

I finally came up with the idea of buying cheap blank tote bags and block printing an image on them. I knew how we would present them, rolled up and tied with twine and a little tag that would say “Thank you for coming.” I could picture their future lives, like so many given-away kittens, hanging out in pantries, in the kitchen, at picnics.

I searched the internet, ruthlessly turning down totes that cost $1.86, or $2.35, and finally found some for under a dollar. I started the purchasing process and got to the part where it totalled the shipping costs: $26.45. “Well I bet I can find a coupon for that!” I thought, proud of my thrifty nature, and opened a new tab to search for coupon codes. I found a couple of dead links, and a few wedding boards featuring former brides complaining about the low quality of the tote bags from this particular site. I looked at one woman’s sad photo comparing the actual quality of the bag she received with the image on the website, and I started to freak out.

This tote bag was almost certainly made by someone working in a sweatshop, I realized. Which is obvious, given that it costs 88 cents, but which I’d been avoiding until that moment. If I’m not willing to pay a fair price, who do I expect to make up the difference? The employer? The government?

The cognitive dissonance between my vision of sweet, hand-printed gifts lovingly tied in twine and the reality of the product I was about to buy made me feel dizzy. I want to give people something I made, but who made this tote bag? And how many other tote bags did they make that day, and how were they paid for it, and what was the ventilation like? What is their name and what is their life like and what were they thinking when they made it? One thing is for sure, they were not thinking about me or the guests at my wedding. Suddenly this "personal" gift started to seem extremely impersonal, and probably immoral.

I realize that it is somewhat ridiculous to fixate on the tote bags, when I have no idea where most of the things I purchase, for the wedding or otherwise, were made—or rather, I do have an idea, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t in an intergenerational feminist craft collective made up of my friends and loved ones.

Sometimes I buy things that cost $1 because they’re a good deal even though they smell like plastic and sadness, and sometimes I buy locally-sourced, organic things for too much money. Either way I hate myself a little bit.

In my dream world, we would all make most of what we use, either buying or making the materials to do so. If we wanted to buy something, it would be for a fair price, and it would be because that thing was special or beautiful, not because we didn’t feel like taking the time to make it ourselves. Things wouldn’t be cheaper to throw away than to repair. We would value the time and labor it takes to make something.

I realize that I could make my life more like this if I tried. Instead, I live in a city and buy cheap crap quite regularly.  I am often extremely happy to walk down the street eating a 99 cent popsicle with 35 ingredients.

But aren’t weddings about trying to live out our romantic fantasies of how could be? Isn’t that the point of saying the nice words and wearing the special outfits and getting everyone you love together in one place? Some fantasies include riding in a limo and wearing a diamond ring. My fantasy includes not buying 88 cent tote bags. I know that I can figure something out that will be just as cheap but that won't make me freak out. For better or for worse, I'm going to live the tote-less dream.  

Strong LGBT Characters and the Potential of Media

strong female characters

Last week marked a historic turning point for the LGBT community in America, with the Supreme Court’s decisions on DOMA and California’s Prop 8 paving the way for greater equality in marriage, and possibly in general. It wasn’t entirely shocking, as polls have shown a steadily increasing support throughout the country for gay marriage over the last several years: over half of Americans now support it. At the same time, the sheer rapidity of this acceptance is noteworthy. Ten years ago, pro-equality Americans were in the minority, and gay marriage seemed like a distant dream. Now, as long as things continue as they have been going, it’s more a question of when than whether. To me, it seems like partial validation of my (and this column’s) underlying theory that media—particularly positive media portrayals—can go a long way in shaping our society’s understandings of minority groups. This is not to say 1) that the LGBT community has achieved all of its goals or “made it”, or 2) that LGBT representations in TV and movies are not often problematic. But familiarity, kind of, breeds acceptance. As one-dimensional or stereotype-y gay characters often are, their very presence banishes the alternative: the shadowy negative archetype that might otherwise persist in sheltered people’s minds.

When did the sea change begin? First: remember when Ellen Degeneres coming out was a huge deal? She was on the cover of Time magazine. Her sitcom struggled with this new plot twist, and was eventually canceled. Her burgeoning (?) movie career (including a romantic-ish comedy called Mr. Wrong) kind of stopped. Over the course of the 2000s, however, she’s made a major comeback and is now one of the absolute queens of daytime TV.

In the meantime, a whole crop of other “gay” shows has hit small-screen success. “Will & Grace” (which even Joe Biden noted as an influencer of American opinions on LGBT issues), “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” and everything on Bravo since, “Glee,” “Modern Family,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “The New Normal.” Also, the coming out of mainstream, broad-appeal celebrities like Neil Patrick Harris and Anderson Cooper. LGBT characters and people became, in a way, normative. What would have been shocking to middle American sensibilities in 1990 was required viewing by 2010.

Not to say there aren’t problems with the ways that many of these shows represent gay characters. The gay stereotype of the flamboyant, effeminate white male who loves Broadway, fashion and tiny dogs, and who has the bourgeois upper middle class budget to indulge such hobbies, is, maybe, overrepresented in media—any other “type” of gay character is underrepresented. There should be more gay characters of color. There should be more lesbians (that aren’t there just to generate ratings amongst hetero male viewers), as well as bisexual and transgender characters—you know, the L, B, and T that are usually overshadowed by the G. There should also be LGBT characters with a range of personalities and interests that don’t reinforce our gendered notions of how gay men and women “should” act.

That's the second part of my theory, I guess: first, representation. Then, range.

For now, though, here’s to Kurt, Blaine, and Santana from “Glee,” Cameron and Mitchell from “Modern Family,” Callie and Arizona from “Grey’s Anatomy,” Will and Jack from "Will & Grace," Willow and Tara from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," Xena and Gabrielle from "Xena: Warrior Princess," Lafayette, Jesus, and Tara from “True Blood,” and all the others who have, in their own, potentially small way, helped LGBT identities become mainstream.

In fact. Can I double thank Lafayette? Because he’s one of my favorite things on TV.

Who are some of your favorite LGBT characters and TV personalities? Have they changed the way you think about LGBT issues?

Dream vs. Reality

Dream vs Reality

By Erin R. Van Genderen I turned twenty-three in June, and in no such way did I ever imagine my life to have turned out the way it has.

When I was younger, I pictured my adult life as a whirlwind of jet-setting, cosmopolitan adventures. I would graduate from college at the top of my class and move somewhere new to work a prestigious job or get a doctorate and teach upper-lever literature theory. I would be professional, impressive, independent, a bombshell. I would make my own life for myself and escape the stigma of my small-town upbringing. Eventually, I’d find someone and settle down, but only after I accomplished everything I wanted to do and worked the wandering out of my bones. I would probably be Thirty.

Move into reality, where I’m newly married to a military man and the name of our game is impermanence. In our current assignment, I’m a stay-at-home wife with a few little jobs on the side, looking forward to a more permanent station where I can pursue a couple of Master’s degrees I have my eye on. As external self-worth goes, I have very little---there is no boss to praise me, no co-workers to compete with, no promotions or raises for which to struggle---and so I’ve learn to give my own self a pat on the back when I get all of the laundry finished or meet a deadline.

And although the first scenario certainly sounds glittering, I’m happier than I could have ever dreamed with the second.

Chalk it up to the honeymoon phase if you will, but I like to think that the life I live now is so much richer because it’s taking me in directions I could have never traveled by my own volition. As a planner and perfectionist, I’m constantly stretched by the nature of my husband’s job. We don’t know where we could be going next---overseas? D.C.?---but I have to be ready to adapt at a moment’s notice. We uproot and move on every few years, leaving behind little homes and orphaned potted plants, but the excitement of a new place is always just ahead.

It is hard. Sometimes it is sad. But this lifestyle is already exhilarating.

And that’s a lot of what marriage is, I’m finding---many of those everyday details transform into something thrilling, and many of the fluttery moments become the mundane. It is an adaptive state, never one of stasis, just as we are adaptive creatures.

The realities we dream up for ourselves are a little bit short of what we should really be expecting. But what a pleasant surprise it is when, if we are adaptive, we have the forethought to reach out and grab the good things flying by and hold on tight, leading us on to a brighter adventure than the one we had stashed away for the future.

What Are You Writing?

what are you writing

My name is Samantha Marie Bohnert. I enjoy the snow, words, adventures, writing letters and finding something new to dream of daily. I have been a writer since I could put pen (or pencil) to paper, and I am inspired by many things, from the way the light hits my toes in the morning to the sounds of my surroundings. I live in my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio; a city that has kept my heart safe and follows me wherever I go. My love for coveting what is beautiful—and sharing that beauty with those around me—brings me happiness, always. Well, I’m a writer. To put it more honestly, I am a person who derives joy from words, organizing them in a way that is both aesthetically pleasing and comprehensible. If I have had any kind of self-proclaimed identity, and not one that others have given me (“bubbly,” “irreverent,” one who speaks with a certain “frequency”), it would be that I am a writer, through and through. Teachers of my past, whose goal was to inculcate me as something significant: instructor, artist, or even a poet, were some of my biggest supporters. My mother told me that my second grade teacher said I wrote at a level well beyond my years, and I can still remember the look on my 6th grade teacher’s face when I handed him a 72-page story, to which he quite bluntly informed me that while impressed, he wouldn’t have time to read completely. And at this point I should specify that I am speaking about writing of the creative persuasion. I would write short stories, the beginnings of a novel, stream of consciousness, but rarely poetry; poetry was something I admired from afar, like acting, or singing that sounds good outside of a shower. I wrote as much as I read, so my youth was cloaked in verbiage and a world’s supply of notebook paper.

But alas, there came a time when I plateaued. The last time I can remember writing with fervor was around 12 years old. Writing succumbed to a similar fate as my love of reading (to prevent regurgitation, please refer to a recent WAYR post). Looking back on it, I think I just ran out of material. A hopeless romantic since kindergarten, my stories were where lovers went to die, à la Romeo and Juliet, but incredibly juvenile. I wasn’t experiencing much and I was trapped in a romantic prison of my own making. It was probably best that I stopped writing, because I was missing it. I was missing that very thing that writers have. This is not to suggest that I knew what that thing was, because I haven’t figured it out yet, but I knew I was missing it. I also knew I needed a break to live some sort of life outside of books and other writers’ made-up stories. It was a long break, potentially never ending.

But one day, just a few short months ago, I started to feel like a girl of 12 again, with a 28-year-old girl’s experiences. Every breath, every excruciating moment, and all of the uncontrollable peals of laughter have brought me full circle, and with a fresh perspective. All I want to do is write, and while it’s a terrifying thing to wonder whether or not I’m good at this, I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t care. I care about saying something, moving mountains, causing a stir, and being honest. I care about showing that I see the world as extraordinary, and also showing others that simple things are worthy of note. Even the tiniest, seemly insignificant and overlooked event has a story.

Example: for the past few months I have walked by the same concierge on my way to work. And though our exchange has only ever been a nod from him and a cordial “hi” under my breath, I’ve realized that his existence is something to be celebrated. His kindness, his sincerity, and the fact that he seems to unapologetically love his job, is fascinating to me. I could immortalize his blip of space in my life, because he epitomizes what I want to do as writer. I want to say thank you to everything for just being, and for allowing me to take all of it and spin it however I choose. Perhaps in my story of him he’d have an accent, or maybe he would carry on weekly conversations with me, or maybe I’d write him exactly as he is. The world is mine to mold, all the while keeping in mind that there is a fine line between writing in a way that shows that I can see the world as it actually is, and what it could be. Writing is a process, and there is a comfort in knowing that none of it will be perfect. Passion never is. It is a chore, it takes work, and it’s a fight, but a good fight that shows it’s worth something. I’m a writer, and I have no idea what I am doing. And maybe knowing that is the infamous it.

Luckily, there are many, many talented women who will hopefully 1) tell me what they do to be successful writers; 2) share their experiences with me concerning the toils and troubles they face from holding steadfast to the “writer” persona like I do; and 3) tell me what they believe it to be. I look forward to using this space as a place to meet “ladies of letters,” a moniker I’d like to patent once I figure out how one does that. I’d also like to take this opportunity to revel in the talent of other writers who like to talk about writing. Ideally, I’ll learn a little something. Realistically…well that is to be determined.

There are so many different kinds of us

we are all people copy

By Layla Guest The tiniest Cambodian woman I’ve ever seen rang me up for two magazines and a bottle of water at I Love LA, the news and gift shop in LAX’s terminal 2. She smiled so wide at me, taking her time as she looked at both my debit card and my ID, “Lie-la. No, Kayla. No, Lie-la. Yes, that’s you. Lie-la.”

She hummed as she carefully checked and re-checked my purchase total before punching it into the credit card machine. One nod for each button pressed correctly. A giggle and a double wink when she pressed the wrong button. “Oh oh oh, that’s not the one.” She handed me my items one at a time. “Always be beautiful. Always be strong. Stay smiling and you will be wise. You are very brave. Stay beautiful.”

There’s a great scene in Up in the Air when George Clooney is describing which line to get in at airport security, “never get behind families with children.” I boarded my flight behind a young mother with her two children who had stopped to tie shoelaces, pull up pants and rearrange pony-tail holders. I passed them on the jet way and walked towards our plane.

From behind I heard, “excuse me, um, can I cut you?” I turned around. Nothing. Then I looked down. From a clear face with a half-toothless grin, “um, I just stopped to tie my shoe. I was in front of you. Can I cut you? Well, me and my sister and my mom. Can we cut you?” His mother rolled her eyes and took in a breath that signaled yet another impatient, “LUUUUUKE!” I said, “of course, it’s only fair.” He looked at me like I had just let him skip to the front of the line at Splash Mountain. In disbelief, he marched forward, head high.

We de-planed in Minneapolis/St. Paul to stretch our legs before boarding the exact same plane bound for Boston. Jordan, my partner, and I overheard a woman we had our eye on earlier. A man had been in her husband’s seat in LA when they boarded. The man seemed to have a pretty reasonable thought process behind wanting (needing) the window seat. In the window seat, he could sit slightly sideways, leaning against the plane to keep his frame from spilling over into the seat next to him. The couple, showing no patience, demanded he move out of the window seat to the aisle. I eavesdropped as the embarrassed passenger said, “I asked for a window seat, it’s best if I sit there. I’ll fit better that way. Do you have a window anywhere? I don’t want to be a burden. I asked for a window.”

The flight attendant said no, only in the emergency exit row, which is exactly where Jordan and I were sitting, with a roomy window seat directly to our left. He looked at it and us longingly. Jordan said, “just give him the damn seat.”

On this plane, we had to pay extra for the extra legroom, so it was not a seat that could just be given away, apparently. The gentleman proceeded to stuff himself into the aisle seat next to the impatient couple. “Can you just buckle the belt, sir?” “Yes, I’m not an imbecile.”

After the impatient woman recounted the story to a flight attendant at the gate she complained that people as fat as the man she was sitting next to should not be allowed to fly in a regular seat. “Isn’t there a way you can ask everyone how fat they are when they buy seats? We shouldn’t be subjected to his issues.” The flight attendant said simply, “Ma’am, he’s just a man.”

Yesterday was a big day. The Supreme Court’s rulings on DOMA and Proposition 8 make me incredibly hopeful. Hopeful that we are moving forward as global citizens---in understanding that, as evidenced in today’s interactions in and around the airport, there are so many different kinds of us. Us, being humans. We are old, young, unconditionally altruistic, innately cruel, deeply profound, struggling to get through our days, always searching for reciprocity. While some will consider yesterday’s rulings as a step back, an inconvenience and wrong, there are spirits that shine bright, like my sagely airport cashier, reminding us to be wise and stay brave.

Lessons from the Emirates...

lessons for clara

Dearest Clara,

Every so often, I’m able to be exposed to a part of the world I hadn’t known before, with customs and traditions and environments that are completely foreign to me.  We often seek that out in our personal travels, but my work trips tend to be confined to a set of usual locations.  That’s comforting in its own right, but sometimes, it’s exposure to a completely new place that perks me up and makes me interested in what it is that I do all over again.

I had this feeling just last weekend I traveled to the Emirates for the first time, taking in that intersection of the world as much as I could over the few days that I was there.  I couldn’t help but to see their world with new eyes and I noticed:

  • Modesty is not a bad thing: Regardless of one’s opinion as to why, women’s dress was largely more modest in the Emirates, and in the larger Middle East in general.  Like most people raised outside of that environment, part of me can’t help but be fascinated by women who cover up nearly all of themselves when in public.  But once you notice how much certain women do cover up, you can’t help but also notice how much women who are visiting do not---shirts that go lower, skirts that go higher. There was something about that juxtaposition that made me choose clothing and combinations that were more modest and more covering than I might normally, even though I don’t consider myself a revealing dresser.  And interestingly, it was in that additional coverage that I found a certain bout of comfort and confidence because I knew I was being judged by what I was saying, and not what I was showing.  You don’t have to change who you are when you go abroad, but you should absorb your surrounding environment and adjust accordingly.
  • If it doesn’t look natural, it probably isn’t: Across the city of Abu Dhabi, I saw plenty of things that were beautiful and modern but didn’t necessarily look like they were part of the natural scene.  For example, when approaching the city the road is flanked by sand dunes until skyscraper upon skyscraper rises to the sky . . . or until fountains of water appear in the desert heat.  One of the beautiful things about being human on this earth is building and improving and changing the conditions we might have been born into---we don't have to be confined solely to what "was" but we have the possibility to dream and build what "can be".  But we still need to be mindful of what belongs, and what we give up by adopting that change.
  • Invest your resources: The Emirates were fortunate with the natural resource of oil, but also with the foresight that money made from resources can always run out.  It’s amazing what the country has done by putting resources into building and tourism, and making itself a crossroads for the world.  But more importantly, they’ve also invested into education and transport, as these are the things that stay long after the money is made and pave the way for future possibilities.  When you are lucky enough to profit, make sure you set aside a portion into savings and activities that build your future.
  • Look behind the scenes: Most people who work in the Emirates aren’t actually from there.  And if you take the time to speak to waiters, drivers, hotel clerks, and just about anyone else, you’ll find that they are far from home and their families, and looking to make a living so that their children are entitled to those very basic resources that I mentioned above.  When you’re being treated to a wonderful experience, take a look behind the scenes to see what makes things work.  Chances are, you’ll be surprised at just how many people’s efforts go in to making that experience for you.  Compensate appropriately, it affects their future.

All my love,

Mom