"We enter into things in ignorance. There is no other way."

As promised, my very slightly NSFW tiny story, "Forestiere Underground Gardens" in this month's issue of Spilled Milk Magazine!!!! 

It feels appropriate for this story to be published in October, the same month as our wedding anniversary, as this story is very much about our first years of marriage, when we'd moved across the country to Central Valley, California, which was in the middle of a terrible drought. Most days, the sky was so clogged with dust and pollution, the nearby mountains were invisible. This tiny story gives a glimpse into what it feels like to be so far from home in a place that is so foreign as to feel almost inhabitable.

If you have a moment, give it and/or the whole issue a read!! I particularly love the first short short (Jade Quinn's "How to Eat Yourself") and Yuxi Lin's "Field Notes". 

What I Do All Day

We've spent the last couple months searching for wild raspberries in the forest, for crayfish in the river bed, for the lost cape of Lego Wonder Woman under the couch. There's a lot of academic proofreading to be done, and we need the money. I like to kvetch about the long hours at the desk, the mind-numbing tasks of double-checking reference dates against their in-text citations, but there are worse things in the world than reading about the ways in which the British incorrectly categorized Indian temples as either strictly Buddhist or strictly Hindu. Many temples were simply places of worship, and the brass icons often served dual purposes, as Buddha or Shiva, depending on the worshipper. 

Needless to say, I have not gotten a lot of writing done, but I am reading a lot. I started off summer break with Helen Phillip's haunting The Beautiful Bureaucrat. It was a book that had been on my to read list for a while now, but after I saw her read at the Hudson Valley Writers Center (HVWC), it shot up to the top of my list. The Beautiful Bureaucrat s a brutal accounting of our modern life. Maybe it's all the data entry I've done, but the descriptions of being imprisoned in a windowless, featureless room triggers that deep-seated existential dread I have of meaningless office work.

But now, there are just four days left of summer, and I have two editing projects due and a grant proposal, which I had, of course, intended to work on all summer. Instead I found myself the past few nights staying up all hours, trying to wrench an intelligible paragraph out of my tired brain. What astounds me, every time, is that with a little effort and a willingness to play, I have actually created a reasonable answer to the grant's first question of Who I Am

It's strange how bureaucratic hurdles such as artist's statements and college essays can illicit such dread, and yet, when done, they seem to serve the intended purpose of getting you to actually figure out where you are in this moment, where you want to go, and how to get there.

Spilled Milk Magazine (Issue 7)!!!!!!

I will have a slightly NSFW short short coming out in Issue 7 of Spilled Milk Magazine (end of September)!!! Spilled Milk Magazine  (http://www.spilledmilkmagazine.com/) is magical and a little weird, and my story is super short and more than a little weird (think Harper's Index with the language of a children's picture book--but with no pictures). I couldn't be happier that it's found a good home!

On Getting Our Hands Dirty

Not knowing is not the same as ignorance. Desire is not the same as sin. I remind myself these things every morning when I sit at my desk and start again. The blank page is always there, even when I've left my mark the day before, and the day before that. The blank page is there because oftentimes, on second reading, the marks I've left feel insufficient, even false.

So I start again. 

Sometimes when I am impatient to get a story "right," I am too eager for praise, and I forget the importance of getting my hands dirty. I forget that "fixing" that line that is bedeviling me is as easy as writing, reciting, singing it over and over until something shifts. 

Before becoming a mother, I had heard that children often prefer the box the toys are in to the toy itself, but I didn't believe that until I witnessed it myself. A cardboard packing box is alternatively my daughter's car, rocketship, doctor's office, home. 

The trick is, perhaps, to simply get out of one's own way, to trust that the box is not just a box, that the word starfish could make perfect sense in a sentence about St. George and the Dragon. And if it doesn't? Who cares. There's always more construction paper.

Notes for an Essay on "What Do People Do All Day?"

I love the first page of Richard Scarry’s classic What do people do all day? with the bookstore and the fiction writer and the poet and the painter given the same amount of representation as the grocer and banker. 

What is woman’s work? What is a writer’s job? What the fuck am I doing with my life?

Donald Hall (Life Work) / Seamus Heaney (“Digging”) vs.
Sarah Manguso / Maggie Nelson / Hein Koh (breastfeeding)

Sigrid Sandstrom: “The meditation later opens up as an un-analytical way of being, that de-emphasizes filtering the world through the eyes and brain; instead prioritizes bodily knowledge and physical sensation. So instead of ‘looking at oneself looking’, one can be with oneself in an embodied way. Being and experiencing are privileged as opposed to looking and seeing.” (http://www.sigridsandstrom.com/writing/zoe/)

Ana Alvarez-Errecalde (female gazing)

From Solnit: “Find a vocation. Talent is overrated, and it is usually conflated with nice style. Passion, vocation, vision, and dedication are rarer, and they will get you through the rough spots in your style when your style won’t give you a reason to get up in the morning and stare at the manuscript for the hundredth day in a row or even give you a compelling subject to write about. If you’re not passionate about writing and about the world and the things in it you’re writing about, then why are you writing? It starts with passion even before it starts with words. You want to read people who are wise, deep, wild, kind, committed, insightful, attentive; you want to be those people. I am all for style, but only in service of vision.”

On re-reading Kelle Groom's "I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl"

The lower Hudson Valley rainforest feel is in full effect today. I awoke at 5 a.m. to my daughter's voice. She's been waking up the past few days, sore from swimming in the town pool, from trying out her new bike, which she rides at an angle. The world outside feels unstable and dangerous, but in our little apartment, with her father and I as co-navigators, spiders are ferried to safety with relative ease. 

I don't remember the first time I read Kelle Groom, nor do I remember how I came across it. I think I saw someone's recommendation, and I thought I'd like it. "Like" is not sufficient. It is one of those books that makes the world feel less grim. Not because she looks the other way, but because she has the stamina to look directly at those moments in her life, which taken together, would have destroyed the most rigorously determined person. But that's the grace of the story, the tender hope I find amidst the grief.

Just a page in, we glimpse it, this hope: "We're still together. My darkness keeps him safe, fed. My body does everything right: carrying, feeding, singing a water song. My heart counted on like a lullaby. In the outside world, my practical skills are limited--I don't know how to keep house or manage money, sometimes I can barely speak. But in my son's world, my body has everything he needs. I belong to him."


"I believe in fiction and the power of stories because that way we speak in tongues. We are not silenced. All of us, when in deep trauma, find we hesitate, we stammer; there are long pauses in our speech. The thing is stuck. We get our language back through the language of others. We can turn to the poem. We can open the book. Someone has been there for us and deep-dived the words." 
Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?

The Doctrine of Total Depravity (a love letter)

My eyes are trained to assess the consistency with which strangers use serial commas, obey the rules subject-verb agreement, and such. The particular stranger at hand has the eighteenth-century habit of capitalizing everything: “The Doctrine of Total Depravity.” I lowercase and insert comment: “Per CMS 8.116, doctrines are usually lowercased.”

I admit I have half-abused the notion of Us and perhaps even the notion of Love by occasionally dreaming of Others. But it is often in Temptation and Chance that I find the Strength to move forward. If there’s anything I’ve learned in recent years, it is that Temptation is not the same as Sin.

Here is the ocean and there are the boats, and I forget why I’m here. And then there is the tiredness that involves wondering whether the world is tender-hearted.

I do and I do and I do, but this thing I do doesn’t make me happy exactly. It’s not the same as watching Spanish soap operas or eating Breyer’s mint chocolate chip ice cream out of the clay bowl. But, in truth, it is much better than before, because before all this, I was ostensibly happiest when asleep.

I suppose you are wondering what it was like for me to forget, to forgive? 

But, you see, I haven’t a clue in the world.

All I know is that a couple nights ago, we were walking at dusk through a park in Westerly, and you were scared of getting lost and I was scared of getting mugged, but instead, we found a pond full of blooming water lilies. Now that’s what I call Luck.

to JG in celebration of nothing in particular
[[Originally published online in a slightly different form at Dossier Journal]]

Topless: Some thoughts on protest, naked and otherwise

Nudity, my own or other people’s, doesn’t bother me, but I’m in no way a nudity fanatic. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve bared myself in public—in Harvard Yard along with hundreds of other naked students (Primal Scream); beside the Wannsee in Berlin on a summer day beside hundreds of other naked sunbathers; as the singer of Chickita, an all-girl punk band, in a warehouse in Athens, Georgia; and as a mute Scheherazade at a benefit for young playwrights at a renovated church in Times Square. 

            Although it’s been fifteen years since my last foray into full-on public nudity, as mother who breastfed, I found myself in the last few years baring breast in unlikely places: airplanes, libraries, grocery stores, on a park bench overlooking the East River. From day one, my daughter refused a bottle, so if I was going to leave the house and not have a hysterical infant on my hands, I quickly realized, I was going to have to suck it up and whip out some boob. And so, last Spring, when I saw the picture of a topless young woman accosting Putin and Angela Merkel at a trade fair in Hanover, Germany, with “FUCK YOU, PUTIN” written on her back, I felt pride and relief. Punx not dead. We are not powerless.

            Staged by Femen, a Ukrainian women’s rights group, the Hanover trade fair protest was intended to bring light to Putin’s numerous human rights violations, in particular his continued imprisonment of members of Pussy Riot, the all-female punk rock collective based in Moscow, who had been arrested for hooliganism after they’d staged a “Punk Prayer” protest against Putin in a Moscow cathedral.

            A few days after the Hanover protest, Femen called for an International Day of Topless Jihad in solidarity with Amina Tyler (Sboui), a young Tunisian woman, who, after posting two topless protest photos of herself on Facebook, had received numerous death threats and feared for her safety. After the protests, Tyler was kidnapped by her family and forced to undergo virginity tests. Then she escaped her family, went into hiding, and was looking to leave Tunisia. Since then, Tyler and others have come out against Femen for forcing a Western feminism onto the non-Western world.  

            Most members of Femen are very young. They are also beautiful. Many wear make-up. Their project is based in part on reimagining feminism as something sexy, something young. As one member, Sasha Shevchenko, put it: “I didn’t even know what feminist meant. I thought a feminist was an ugly woman with a mustache. She is lesbian and she hates men. If you ask girls on the street about feminism, they will tell you the same story.” This narrative rankles. The sexy revolution, as many have argued, does little to reverse the basic problem of women being viewed as objects to be leered at and desired.

            The Pussy Riot members, it should be said, were never naked. In fact, in their protest, they were entirely covered, with colored hoods over their heads and sweet girlish dresses and bright tights. And although Tyler had originally aligned herself with Femen, her Facebook pictures send a different message than the pictures of Femen’s street protests. In the pictures of Femen’s public protests, the women are standing with their backs erect, their knees locked as if ready for attack. In the photos of Tyler that first sparked the controversy, she sits against a black backdrop, her face is made up with red lipstick and black eyeliner, and her hair is cropped and styled. The photos are  intimate, a far cry from the photos of women in cut-off jean shorts and combat boots standing in military position on the streets of Paris. Also notable is the calm, almost passive, expression on Tyler’s face. 

            The photos of Tyler remind me of the work of the performance artist Marina Abramović, who often uses her body as a site of exploration and resistance. In one early work, Rhythm O, 1974, Abramović stood in a gallery beside a table with 72 objects and a sign that explained that the spectators could do what they wished to her for six hours. At the end of the six hours, she would leave. As the performance progressed, audience members became more bold, more violent, more aggressive. Her clothes were snipped off, her skin was cut with razors, she was fondled, someone held a gun to her head. At the end of the six hours, she got up and left. As in much of Abramović’s work, even as the audience assaulted her, her eyes remained open but her face remained expressionless, as if in meditation.

            I am not suggesting that Tyler is really a performance artist masquerading as an activist or that Pussy Riot and Tyler are engaged in the same fight, but I do think it is worthwhile thinking about the intersection of art and protest. Art often has a power of persuasion that political rhetoric lacks. It stems from an artist’s genuine expression of a particular emotion or set of circumstances, and one’s own body is a convenient and cheap resource for artists. A Jeff Koons sculpture or Christo and Jeanne-Claude installation requires a warehouse (or two or three) and a small army of people to come into being, but to do a simple performance, as Zhang Huan has said, a performance artist's mind can serve as her studio. 

            What amazes me about both Amina Tyler’s and Pussy Riot’s stories is that young disenfranchised women are making themselves heard. Punk rock has been deemed dead by some, swallowed up by the man, another casualty of relentless consumerism, but here we have women all over the world getting angry, getting heard, and not backing down. I remember vividly the visceral catharsis of standing on stage and screaming my head off over the deafening roar of my band. The one night we went topless was no different than all the other nights. The impulse was the same: No fear. Make noise. Be heard.