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Breathe, or Awakenings during Beyonce Hot Yoga

The ethereal hum of my friend, Kristen,’s voice floated through the dense air.  Her words, a cocktail of yoga rhetoric and Beyonce lyrics, sailed through the field of bodies already veiled in sweat.   I’ve done hot yoga before– a handful of times.  It was always at a different studio.   I work out almost daily, but even in the presence of a mirror, something is always obstructing my view.  Other bodies, equipment– there is always an intentional barrier distancing me from my full self.   I own a full-length mirror.   I’m not blind to my appearance, but in public, in motion, I’ve taught myself to avert my gaze.

But here I was, at Beyonce Yoga.  And there I was– staring back at me.  The heat paneled my skin matte and luster.  My heels dug into my mat, each a tree trunk beneath me. Each of my legs a thick, infinite vine, my arms equally endless.  My breath was the metronome steadying the normal staccato of my heart.  As I rose in transition between poses, I looked at myself in the mirror.  I didn’t hate what stared back at me.

I don’t remember a reflection of myself I didn’t scrutinize.  If you’ve read my writing before, you’re familiar with how much I contemplate this.  I don’t remember a time when weight and clothing size and the amount of space my body consumes didn’t consume me.   The looping obsession of thinness has occupied so much precious territory in my brain.  As I grew into adulthood, I dared to loosen my grip on thinness, to explore what would happen if my purpose in life wasn’t how little of me could exist in the world.  I found body positivity.  Largely, Body Positivity has been liberating for me.  At the same time, themes of being “at home in your body”, “your body is beautiful”, Dove Beauty campaigns with curvy and white and able-bodied women with big grins don’t always resonate with me.   My body isn’t beautiful all the time.

My body is not a metaphor.  My body is my body.  Nothing about this is a series of words intended to underscore its significance.  The significance of my body is that it houses my indomitable spirit.  I dislike flowery language in relation to bodies because the more words between the subject and the verb, the further away the subject becomes.  And the truth of our bodies is that they are always the closest things to us.

Bodies can be lonely places.  So often, they become graveyards where we hide things in plain sight.  Our pain nestled in the shallow graves of tense shoulders and expanding waistlines.  My body has been a wasteland, a crime scene, a rustbelt city I was desperate to leave, someone else’s instrument who was just lucky enough to get played.  My body has been everything other than a body.

I never considered my body outside of how much space it consumed.  I never knew bodies like mine were allowed to exist without the pursuit of weight loss.  I never knew how to exist in a space with other bodies without comparing mine to theirs.  But here I was, doing exactly that.  Doused in sweat, soft midriff on full display– there I was, right in front of me.

The purpose of this essay is not to hail my body.  It isn’t to gild what is flesh.  The intention of this essay is to say that I saw my body for the first time through a lens other than hate, and I saw that it didn’t have to be pretty or adorned or anything other than exactly what it is.   And suddenly, with all that weight and pressure evaporated in the heat, I inhaled.  My lungs grew wide.

Warrior

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Midnight

I always thought I would be daybreak—something pastel and ripe.

I mused myself a rising sun.

Obvious in my radiance,

Glazing over a honey-hued sky.

 

But I think I’m more midnight than daybreak.

I fled from this,

Parceled myself in prettier pieces.

But I’m night.

Plum-blackberry Rorschach, complex.

Midnight is equally riotous and secretive—

A backdrop for what is afraid to be seen.

 

And in the undesired hour, starts are born,

a celebration of illumination suddenly bursts through the black,

Moon-cycles guide the tides.

And it is still.  Divinely still.

There is light and life on the other side of a set sun.

My whole life has been a wrangling of constellations from brief bursts of cosmic light.

Humanizing Heroes

I think most of our childhood idols fall when we realize they are people,

That talent is not a discerning force between good and bad,

But simply a luck of existence.

Superman didn’t buy the cape,

He got it, and flew with it.

We just forgot that he was Clark Kent too.

My Father’s Daughter

I am my father’s daughter.  I see him when I look in the mirror.  I’ve inherited his oval face, high cheekbones, thick eyebrows, long and unpronounced nose.  I wash off my make up, and there he is—all over my face.

My youngest siblings are still in their teens, under his roof and his fist—though less totalitarian than it was in my teens.  I hear their arguments, and the frustration of my upbringing comes rushing back.  The way he made me feel like a leach for having needs.  How I walked a snowy mile home in slippers because I didn’t want him to guilt me for needing a ride at 15.  The times he called me selfish for taking a shower before my brother—pounding on the door as he reminded me how consumed I am with myself.  I can’t count how many times he disappeared to his work, leaving me (age, eleven or twelve) to tend to my siblings for weekends.  My childhood dissolved into the needs of younger children.   I was the parent he couldn’t be to my sisters.  I was the partner he couldn’t be to my mom.  And I hated him for it.

Hatred soured to loathing when he took a job in Indiana my senior year of high school.  When we didn’t join him, he left anyway.  He reminded me frequently that I was the source of destruction within my family.  If only I had obeyed him, we would be ok.  If only I were a good daughter, our family would be whole.  I was bad and wrong and destined for hell.  But here I was, trying to hold my family together.  Seventeen years old, and I was stretching my hands as far as they could go serving my three siblings and my mom.  When she failed out of nursing school that fall, it was me, not him, who became the Band-Aid.  His absence and silence became the enabler to the abuse that ravaged our household that year.  I didn’t want to be right, reader.  I would’ve given my left arm to be the angst-ridden, ungrateful teen whose father knew best.  Were I only an obstinate, headstrong girl.  But, I wasn’t.  I was a seventeen year old drowning in responsibilities too big for her.  My best couldn’t save my family, or even myself.  And when he told me that they were moving to Indiana—the land he left me for—where they could pretend to be this united family, the one I preserved, rage overtook me.

I could only see my father for his weaknesses after that.  My hurt howled through my early adulthood.  I just wanted to be as far away from him as possible.  Distance was the only way I knew to keep my infrared anger away.  I don’t regret these years.  I don’t regret my reactions. I refuse to apologize for how I kept myself whole and where I found my joy in the process.  He was never a part of that process.

As I grow into adulthood, I know our parents never leave us.  A genetic imprint can’t be removed.  My father is an echo in my behaviors—how diligent I am in all my actions, my fierce loyalty, irritating stubbornness, an earnestness that edges on hokey.  I exercise as vigorously like him, monitor my diet with his same shrewd discipline.  I am my own worst enemy, just like him.  Guilt is my shadow, just as it’s his.  To interact with my father is to be in his ghost story, one narrated by my paternal grandfather.

My grandparents immigrated to the United States from Ireland.  They were neighbors in the old country, but arrived in the US separately.  My grandfather left school in the sixth grade to labor in Scotland and later Wisconsin.  My grandmother received an eighth grade education.  She was twenty when she arrived in New York City.  It was October of 1948.  Her single life was riotous and remains mysterious—she lived with an accused murderer.  She generated income through housekeeping and reading tealeaves.  Somehow, my grandparents reconnected and settled in Providence, RI.  My father was their first-born.  A sister and brother joined him.  But the pressure of being was reserved for my father.  He had one toy growing up.  He never Trick-or Treated, but had to pass out the candy to other children.  There was a bitter winter when my father was shoveling the snow with my grandfather.  My dad put on gloves.  My grandfather mocked and berated my dad for needing gloves.  Scorching his son for being cold.  My dad was eight.  From my understanding, this was common.

He and his siblings ate butter and sugar sandwiches while my grandfather ate steak every night.  The children were locked out of the house all day every summer. My father was forced to be an altar boy from the second he was old enough to participate.  He would serve this church for a decade, and when he had to leave the role to work, the church listed him as “dismissed”.  My grandparents never said anything to defend their son when the church inaccurately portrayed his exit.  Even in college, my father lived at his parent’s home and paid rent while being a full-time student and working full time.  To this day, my dad calls this “lucky”.  I call it exploitation. I know my father’s childhood was traumatic because my aunt, his sister, struggles to verbalize what happened to him.   Her silence is a feud between reverence for her parents and pity toward my father.  She, a witness to his abuse.

I don’t know that my dad understands that emotional abuse and love aren’t the same.  I don’t know that he understands that parenthood is a sacrifice, and a parent doesn’t get to lord those concessions over their children.  There is a lot I don’t know about my father.  He remains an incomplete picture, but then again, how do you gather a complete narrative from his incomplete pieces?  We don’t know how my grandfather came over to the US, only that he did farm labor in Wisconsin.  The names of his grandmothers remained a mystery to him until he was in his forties.  My father has no concept of an extended family and sees no oddity in that.  I am not the keeper of his scars, and I will not participate in the family tradition of lending our baggage to the next generation.

I am my father’s daughter.  This is the hardest piece I’ve ever written because it’s largely the most painful, unresolved piece I’ve ever given breath.  My relationship with my father is forever raw, unresolved, incomplete, and yet, illogically loving. The words are there.  They’ve waited twenty years to see black and white, but they struggle.  They struggle in the way I do with my relationship with my dad.  But I’m not my father.  I’m not him.  I haven’t made the same choices he has.  I get to examine his mistakes, how they came to be, and forge a different path for myself.  I am his daughter.  This is a fact I abandoned for twenty-three years.  I left it the way he left me, as a means of survival. Because I was more interested in my ego than the necessities of my own life. He is a bad father, but a good man.  Now that I no longer rely on him for my livelihood, I can differentiate the two.  I’ve learned to love myself in the ways he is incapable of loving me.   I’ve grown to love him in the ways I know he’ll never love himself.   Because tremendous power is had in loving the parts that are broken without the incentive to fix them, to embrace them as they are.  I think that is the love that heals.

On Coercison and Aziz Ansari

The truth is you probably know an Aziz Ansari.  You probably love one.  I do.  There aren’t definitive emotions to this because I’ve also been the victim of sexual violence multiple times.  I love these men while acknowledging that they’re so problematic.  I love them as the flawed people, and know that the same guys who have comforted me have probably Aziz-ed some other woman and are totally unaware.   There’s a gravel in that love, something pinching and uncomfortable that I can’t extract.  We exist in a complicated world without heroes or villains, but with vastness of complications that are difficult to untangle.  I wonder if we’re all loving somebody else’s oppressor.

My job as a woman and (to borrow Roxane Gay’s language) as a victim who survived is not to educate these men.  You’re grown.  You are accountable for your actions.  Look around you, and understand that even if you were unaware of the impact your behavior had, you know its gravity now.  Reporters, please STOP asking women to explain and apologize the men in their lives.   We are mothering abusers out of their responsibility to atone.  Yes, gentlemen, you have a responsibility to not just apologize but do better every day.  And before #notallmen comes out to scold me for holding all men accountable for a few sins, I have this to say:  Your maleness is a passport into spaces I cannot enter.  Advocate for us in those spaces.  Don’t go along to get along.  There is a body count to your silence. Your silence becomes the scars the women you love will hide from you.  I’m over the “good guys”, the “nice guys”—the men who turn invisible at the mention of our suffering. Do better.

My job as a woman is to stand with other victims.  A man I love probably hurt you.  I won’t apologize for him, as women have been apologizing for the behavior of men for far too long.  What I will do say that even if you know I care for him, even if you know I’m connected to him in some way, I value your survival.  I value your safety and your health.  More selfishly, I value it because I felt like I devalued mine in an attempt to deny my own experiences.   Were I to excuse another predator, I leave the gate open to negate everyone’s experiences.   There needs to be a precedent.  The precedent is that if someone comes forward with a story of assault, to meet it with questions is an act of violence.  The denial of another’s hurt only reinforces it.

External Processor: An Essay

I can’t stop talking about all the things I’m not supposed to talk about. I read an article by Eleni Pinnow. She lost her sister, Aletha, to suicide.  Eleni’s grief howled through her words, and one statement struck me and never left—“the reason depression and suicide are so pervasive is that we don’t know how to talk about them”.  I want to talk about them.  I want to talk about all the things my mind tells me not to and not feel bad about it.

I can’t stop talking now.  I can’t stop writing.  The words gush from every part of me.  My words are tireless fingers untangling everything that’s knotted. Where words struggle to reach, I feel a compulsion to place sound there.  I think I feel that if I can give my discomfort a voice, it will be less apt to linger.

Whether it’s my mental health, my body, my eating disorders, sex, growing up, my struggles and triumphs—I don’t feel bad talking about it.  Exposed, yes.  I question if I am sharing cherished information with an undeserving audience.  Closure isn’t my goal.  It isn’t validation either.  I don’t aim to be heard or achieve any degree of fame.  It is enough to form my voice in the world and know I’ve dared my words to exist. I want to say all the things I’ve never heard said before.  I don’t regard my work as esoteric or profound.  Rather, we’ve been socially programmed to suppress these things, and I want them to surface.

Perception

You don’t want others to live their values,

you want them to live your values.

To say the former is to paste an entire topography onto a person without ever learning their coordinates, their landscape, explored the valleys of their being and the desserts of their experience.

People are oceans,

You can’t judge their depths from the waves.