Improbable Hope

In the hovering nothingness before time restarts, I find hope. Every morning, when the potential of the day hasn’t been demolished by the facts of the world, there is the pause. I love that gap of dullness when my crepuscular consciousness is a stepping stone to full awareness and my dim surroundings muffle the truth.

These days, I find that time is a bit like the gasping moment before the tires slip free of the ice and traction becomes a graceful glide with no predictable end.

If I’m lucky, I can hold the larger world at bay for a while. I focus on the purring motors that start up with my own stirring and the stretchy canine yawns. There is no slow dawning for the furry people who delight in my awakening.

Before there are papers to grade, my own writing to tackle, and a drive to feed the cat temporarily in my care, there is the clinking of food dishes, the howl of the hungry, and the thundering rumble of the kettle. There is a graying moment with hot coffee, warm furred bodies pressed against me, and a few words in my book: (“The men in the bar appraised her automatically, like tired dogs who knew they should terrorize a cat in their yard.”)!!!

On the icy back deck, chill seeping in wool slippers, camera in hand, I try to capture the je ne sais quoi that lifts my heart, once more, into improbable hope.

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Love in Any Language

body love

I’ve been thinking a lot about bodies lately. Something so many of us do surprisingly little consider we’ve all got one. Mostly my contemplation emerges from reading women writing about their overweight bodies.  I’ve been researching for the essay I’ve been writing on my own unruly body; a body that was difficult to mold into Air Force standards. What I initially learned from this research was that I’m not fat enough to write about fat.

The other thing that I’m learning as I’m continuing to read about obese women coming to terms with their bodies is that I’m recognizing their narrative. And I recognize the language they use in their books from conversations with my not-obese and obese friends. I recognize the language in snippets of overheard conversations. I recognize the language in the ubiquitous, image-dense media. The cruel, bully-driven culture that shames people for appearances is so pervasive it is almost the carbon monoxide around us. I am in deep need of more oxygen.

No question, the cuts are deepest for people who cannot escape their physical appearance. For my authors, that is obesity and morbid obesity. It can also be gender. It can be race. It can be height. It can be an extra-large nose. One eye differently colored than the other. A perception of difference.

My point is that the climate that encourages people to make generalizations about other people and equate those generalizations to moral shortcomings engenders a climate of discrimination and injustice that moves beyond bullying someone for being fat. However, how we treat a abhorrence of fat translates to these other forms of discrimination.

Just today I lamented to my husband that I had seen skinny people who eat so much more than me. Later, reading Lindy West’s Shrill, I learned that there really is research that shows that struggling with weight isn’t as simple as “calories in/calories out.” And we all know that, somewhere inside, yet it was reassuring to find my sessions with a dietician whose horrified exclamation, “But you can’t eat less than 1200 calories a day,” was followed with my perfectly kept food diary and weight gain on her fiber-rich, calorie-low diet. Despite the personal trainer and the perfect diet, I put on weight that was not muscle.

My sense of kinship with obese authors makes no sense to me yet.

What I do know is that my affinity is most strong when they write about how other people feel justified shaming someone else’s body for perceived moral shortcomings resulting in their “problem.” When other people feel righteous about telling other people how to live their lives, maybe they should more time looking at their own lives. Like someone suggesting I’ll burn in hell because I love a glass of wine, where do the critics get the right to tell people what they should do with their bodies?  I would like to take your average white male troll who tells a woman her body is disgusting because she doesn’t match an unrealistic, male-driven ideal of beauty and remind him that if he could just grow a few inches taller, he might match my own unrealistic conception of beauty.  And until he does, to take his comments elsewhere.

This one goes against the grain. Let people make their own choices. And if those choices do not result in a thin body, don’t denigrate them for that. The worn-out arguments about health and self-worth really do not apply. Perhaps if we fixed our broken industrial food system and American “overwork” ethic, we could have a tiny start in making changes that really matter.

I’m not fat and I am interested in being strong and fit. But I would like to fight for the right to be fat without ridicule. My retirement, only about five months ago, from military standards of fitness has allowed me to loosen my grip on my disobedient body. What I’m finding is that it really isn’t so disobedient. It’s older now. It hurts more as I struggle to improve my cardiovascular fitness and muscle strength so I can join my brother for a couple hundred miles of his Appalachian Trail Thru Hike next spring.

But it’s also pretty great. It grows stronger with my work. It carries a load. It can run. And even though it looks different than that younger version I used to despise so much for its smooth muscles and tight arms that seemed to be mounds of unwanted fat at the time, I’m finding beauty in its unexpected willingness to conform to my demands after all.

Most of us have heard of love languages. My body has a love language—one that I think more of us would benefit from embracing. My body wants to be accepted for what it is by its own standard. If I set aside the images bombarding me from all sides, from the waif a strong wind could blow over to the power athletes nearly all pure muscle, and try to picture my body, independent from the others, I begin to see a beauty in a place that has only known a struggle.

For more than 49 years, the gaze coming back at me in the mirror has not wavered. The same eyes take in the same flesh. That is nothing short of a miracle. The flesh expands as it needs to accommodate life and the inevitable changes of age. As the browns emerge on my hands, the puckers evolve on my thighs, and my belly softens into a pouch, there is beauty in the colors and the shapes that make up me. Because they are me. Because there is only one that is me.

I’m learning to sing a song of love in my body’s language.

Roxane Gay’s Fangirl

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In July of 2013, Roxane Gay wrote “ What men want, America delivers,” on Salon.com. I had my first introduction to the essay while trudging on my treadmill as part of my dogged determination to be fit enough to join my brother for nearly a month on the Appalachian Trail this coming March.

To say I am becoming a Gay “fangirl” is putting it lightly.

In her 2014 book Bad Feminist, I find myself humming the lyrics “strummin’ my pain with her fingers, singing my life with her words…” as over and over again, Gay articulates the very ideas that I have never been able to put into words.

I shouldn’t be surprised that I’m slow in coming to read feminist writing. The careful line of “one of the boys” and “Stayin’ Alive,” tiptoed by all women in the military made my interest in these things nothing short of a null set. It’s really too bad I waited so long.

One moment where Gay expresses an idea I’ve had, on a different topic, is when in the course of critiquing the “sometimes no means yes” content of Robin Thicke’s song, “Blurred Lines,” she admits, “In truth, I like these songs. They make me want to dance. I want to sing along. They are delightful pop confections. But. I enjoy the songs the way I have to enjoy most music—I have to forget I am a sentient being. I have to lighten up.” She admitted to liking the song she is critiquing. What a revelation! I feel the same way.

She goes on to dispel the need to lighten up, but the problems with the lyrics don’t change her pleasure in the dance-inducing music. In another essay (The Trouble With Prince Charming or He Who Trespassed Against Us), she admits enjoying the terrible prose found in E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Gray. It makes her laugh, even when the content sometimes angers her.

Perhaps these observations are what I’ve loved most about reading Gay, and I can’t wait to dive into her memoir Hunger. F. Scott Fitzgerald has been quoted as saying, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”  My life feels like one big narrative full of this cognitive dissonance.

I love the Outlander series, most young adult dystopian novels, and some really cheesy country music. How can I feel this way and try to pursue meaningful writing and a serious life of the mind?  Roxane Gay is showing me the way.

I’m giving my own life a hard look as I’m trying to sort out how best to write my life story.  It took me 49 years of being a girl and a woman before I picked up a book like Bad Feminist, which I honestly chose for the title that seemed to describe me.

I love Gay’s bold and passionate voice whose relevance hasn’t changed even years after the shorter pieces that make up the book were published. Seeing the world through her eyes is giving me a new lens for my own experience.

I am unabashedly Gay’s “fangirl.”

Reading and Writing

20160911_085954Recently I was asked about my reading life.  That made me pause.

When asked to describe my “reading life,” one might as well ask me to describe my life.  I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know how to read, and I wouldn’t know my life without a stack of books on my nightstand informing my dreams and challenging my thoughts.  Eudora Welty describes exactly how I’ve always felt about books: “It had been startling and disappointing to me to find out that story books had been written by people, that books were not natural wonders, coming up of themselves like grass. Yet regardless of where they come from, I cannot remember a time when I was not in love with them” (5). For me, at least, that love has always extended to writing books of my own as well.  My first book, Freedom, the Spirit of Horses, won my school’s young writers’ contest and I spent one entire fifth-grade day at the Pacific Lutheran University Young Writer’s conference.  I walked away from that day with the childish certainty that this was the first day of the rest of my author’s life. Even after I attempted to major in engineering because I was an undergraduate at the U.S. Air Force Academy, one class lesson in differential equations sent me upstairs to switch my major to English. Words with their sexy rhythms, irresistible shapes, and sultry sounds, will always be the pivot point of my life.

I read everything: the backs of cereal boxes, the labels on pill bottles, the small print in advertisements, New York Times notable fiction, war literature, and the in-between books that family and friends give me. I frantically shovel in the book before a movie, add the suggested reading from memoirist Donald Anderson to my stack, and follow rabbit trails down links while waiting for medical appointments.  I listen to books in my car.  I’ve been known to bring my iPod with me to finish the book while cleaning my house. In fact, I hold only two times sacred from the stimulation of stories: when I muck horse stalls every morning and when I go for runs.  Even then, I find myself narrating my own life.  I notice stegosaurus clouds stomping on sunrises as I scoop manure, and, on an early morning run, the women cupping their mouths to call ancient gods out of the South Korean Han river. I’m always sorting through word choices, seeking out rhythms, and contemplating the malleable nature of memory as I form a record of my own past.

A dear friend shares a joke with me that I’m a strict rule follower, except for when I’m not.  My mother insists that I am the only person who could become a military officer, then figure out how to have the bureaucracy pay for advanced degrees in English literature and hire me to be a professor.  I’m enamored with the idea that I’m a rogue, and I take that identity to heart in my reading and writing.  Yet, somehow, I followed the rules when it came to my unusual military career path. Why didn’t I pursue a writing career in 2002?  I was afraid I would never teach again if I asked the bureaucracy to fund me in studying my greatest passion: creative writing. Instead, I took the only path I thought I had available to me: academic literary study.  To serve in the military and live in the world of words and ideas was the perfect dissonance. And while I’ve successfully published critical work for the last 10 years, my heart isn’t in criticism. I’m much more interested in the craft that produces the big ideas than in analyzing those ideas in the context of literary theories. Instead, I appreciate the way the writing stands on its own.  In the end, I’ve always read as a writer.

Yet, as a writer, I don’t regret following “the rules” into the world of literary criticism.  Admiring Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, Mary Hunter Austin, and Ellen Glasgow enough to write about them in my dissertation has only improved my own imaginative literary world. I studied the pliable boundary between fiction and autobiography in my doctoral work, learning the value of memory as a fictional tool and the value of creativity as a memoirist’s right in nonfiction. Joan Didion’s grief-stricken, abrupt sentences in “After Life,” and JoAnn Beard’s gear-shift collie under the plasma of the night sky in “The Fourth State of Matter,” are the ultimate examples of the type of writing I would like to achieve. Teaching war literature from Sophocles to Diane Ackerman to Brian Turner gave me context and a lexicon for my own military experiences. Discovering the genre “food literature,” and teaching several iterations of a topics course, shaped my positioning within our larger social, cultural, and economic world.  I have grown to appreciate a greater breadth of nonfiction writing, including research-based books such as Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. I’m still charmed by stories, though, and I prefer Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle over the more politically charged books, and I prefer M.F.K. Fisher’s The Gastronomical Me over Kingsolver.

My favorite authors interpret the world around them, not only in the context of their own lives, but also in an effort to wrestle with the human condition. Well-written nonfiction lets us slip into someone else’s skin and Jill Ker Conway insists that this experience enlarges and instructs our lives. If we humans supposedly suffer from an existential loneliness sourced from the subjectivity of our own experience, then at least memoir is an attempt to inhabit other perspectives, realize the shared points in our human existence, and perhaps, in the end, feel less lonely.

M.F.K. Fisher has a famous passage from The Gastronomical Me that begins with people asking why she doesn’t write about “power and security and about love.” She explains, “It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it … and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied … and it is all one (353). Fisher’s approach to writing about food as a metaphor for life, the subject that holds her greatest passion, is the same as my approach to writing about my own life, even if I find that this writing, in the end, is always a hunger that cannot be satisfied.  Let others slip under my skin; I’m eager to have them recognize their own world in my words: both familiar and yet fresh.

In the end, it comes back to words, whether we are writing them or reading them. They sashay before us on the page, inviting us into their secret chambers, and enchanting us into a better world than our own.

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