water, a timeline

~11,000 B.C.E.: an infant glacial river is formed. The river proves an invaluable source of life for the people who settle on its banks, as well as the game they hunt.

1650s: at the height of the fur trade, Iroquois hunters push west, bringing “fire and war” to their Algonquin neighbors. They call the river “Cuyahoga,” meaning crooked; they call the territory “Ohio,” meaning beautiful.

1795: the Treaty of Greenville is signed, ending the war between the Western Confederacy of native peoples and Anglo-American settlers. For a brief period, the Cuyahoga River stands as the western border of the United States.

1796: Moses Cleaveland and a team of 50-odd workers dock their boats on the eastern bank of the Cuyahoga River to begin exploring what they call “New Connecticut.” He reports that the water is clear, and the land is excellent. With the completion of a 10-acre Public Square, a city is established that will become a capital of transportation and industry. They call their city “Cleveland,” for their leader.

cleveland_ohio_1937

1860s: industry, like the people who call the city home, is booming. Population in Cleveland increases 150%. Businesses, like Standard Oil, Sherwin Williams, and Public Steel, blossom on the banks of the Cuyahoga.

1868: the first fire is reported on the Cuyahoga River. The volume of oil in the water is so dense that steamboat captains are moved to caution as they shovel coals.

1881: the Cuyahoga River is considered “an open sewer through the center of the city.” The river is no longer treated as a source of life; it is valued only for its economic potential.

1912: a spark from a tugboat catches an oil spill from a leaking cargo ship, igniting a devastating series of explosions and killing five. Noxious gasses and foul-tasting waters are seen as mere side-effects of progress. All environmental regulations are ignored.

1936: the Cuyahoga river burns for five days straight.

1952: oil leaking from Standard Oil creates a two-inch thick oil slick, spanning the width of the river. On November 1, a fire begins in the Great Lakes Towing Company shipyard that causes over $1 million in damages.

riverfire.jpeg

1969: “Some river!” declares TIME Magazine after the polluted Cuyahoga ignites for the last time. “Chocolate-brown, oily, bubbling with subsurface gases, it oozes rather than flows.” There is no visible life in the waters near the city, not even leeches and worms. “What a terrible reflection on our city,” mourns Mayor Carl Stokes, as Cleveland citizens tell a joke with a grim punchline: “Anyone who falls into the Cuyahoga does not drown. He decays.”

1971: as Cleveland celebrates its 175th anniversary with a reenactment at Settler’s Landing, 20 people from the Cleveland American Indian Center attend to the event. As the boat crew tries to disembark, the group blocks their passage with an organized picket line. Citing over a century of destruction enacted on the banks of this very river, they propose that all the money spent on the celebration be reallocated to rescue the Cuyahoga from the perils of progress. “We might be 175 years late,” calls their leader, Russell Means, as a gussied-up Moses Cleaveland stands at the railing of the boat, “but we’re imposing an immigration law. Go back.”

Screenshot (7).png

The story of the Cuyahoga River joins us in 2016 in the midst of rebirth and restoration, thanks to federally funded environmental protections and decades of hard work. It would be easy today to walk along its banks, whether surrounded by reclaimed forestland or riverside bars, and think our work is done…but history is never a closed book, and we are always in danger of repeating it. How many of us read The Lorax as children, but grow up to be the Onceler?

I am thinking, now, of the Dakota-Access Pipeline, and wondering when we will stop treating cancer and poisonings, oil spills and wildlife extirpation as the unlucky results of progress when they are, in fact, warning signs that we are killing ourselves with greed. I am thinking, now, of the brave native people at Standing Rock who have not allowed dogs or pepper spray or fire hoses to intimidate them into submission.

In Ohio, we grow up sheltered from the oppression and poverty of native people in our country, but it is a mistake to portray American Indians as relics of the past. They are our neighbors, our co-workers, and friends. Despite over 500 years of violence and cultural suppression, the first people of this land remain proud and stand their ground. The same goes for our environment–the first and best source of life. A clear stream may flow from our sinks today, but that doesn’t mean our health is secure tomorrow. Fish may have returned to the Cuyahoga River, but it is wrong to believe our fight ends here.

This Thanksgiving, I urge you to read up on the Dakota Access Pipeline and consider the story of the Cuyahoga River, a beautiful, life-giving waterway with soft, round curves throughout its 100-mile journey to Lake Erie. We choked it nearly to death with oil and waste and allowed the plague of human industry to spread into the Lake. That was almost 50 years ago, but we cannot grow complacent as the struggle continues elsewhere.

There are people on this very day who are standing in the freezing cold, standing up to a longtime bully that has tried to strip them of their dignity for centuries. Cleveland, perhaps more than anywhere else, should know the value of our rivers. Cleveland, perhaps more than anywhere else, should understand that, though our environment is the first victim of unchecked progress, we are the second. Water is life, plain and simple, and history is a dire warning to do better or perish. This Thanksgiving, I stand with Standing Rock, and I hope you will, too.

tgiving-twitter

 

 

flint.

It is Tuesday, November 8th, and I wake up at 5am like it’s Christmas. I won’t have a sip of coffee for another two and a half hours, but my mind is already buzzing. I put on some of my best clothes, an outfit that has been ready for this day almost as long as I have. A purple sweater–“the color of loyalty, constancy of purpose, and unswerving steadfastness to a cause”–drapes gently (perfectly) over a white blouse–“the emblem of purity, symbolizing the quality of our purpose.” The feeling of equal rights is in the air, and I am breathing deep.

I pull into the parking lot in the dark. Dawn has yet to beak over the eastern horizon, and there are still thirty minutes before the doors will open, but I get out of my car and wait outside. I am first in line at my polling place, and, though my breath hangs visible on the morning air, and the cold sinks deep into my bones, my spirit remains untouched. Democracy has never let me down. (I realize now this means I am lucky.)

My ballot number is 0002. Some old woman who lives in the building cut in front of me, and I let her, because I am not giving karma any fodder today. It takes me longer to vote than I expected. What if I forget how to read? I worry. What if my eyes get crossed and my markings are all shifted? What if I am overpowered by a brief and sudden urge to self-destruct? Working slowly, I use my finger to help me find the right bubble, and I fill it in until I think the paper might tear. Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton. I feed my paper to the scanner, and I wonder if the machine knows how much this matters to me. It beeps and boops and lights up unfazed.  I think of the men in my life, and I wonder if they know.

Screenshot (3).png

Everyone at work was nervous, and, for maybe the first time in my entire life, I am not. As I settle in and prepare for a long night of election coverage, Donald Trump is already winning. I ignore Google’s 30-second updates and instead practice the face I will make when Hillary Clinton finishes the final stretch victorious. My friends begin to doubt, but my heart beats steadily on. I turn to jokes and inspiring quotes when times get tough, because I am sure I am only moments away from true and unparalleled elation. I look up and post pictures of Hillary Clinton in college to lift my spirits. I listen to her commencement speech on endless loop. Her voice rings out clear–unpracticed, but true: “Fear is always with us. We just don’t have time for it. Not now.” My heart swells with pride, and I realize in these moments that I love her. I love her for her nerd glasses and her intelligence. I love her for her courage and unwavering dedication. I love her, also, for those moments when society let her down–when the world required her to ditch those glasses and her last name, when she had to brush her hair and talk about furniture before anyone would listen to her ideas. I realize in these moments that I would fight for her–kicking, scratching, screaming–like I would fight for myself. I realize that, for me, there is no distinction now between her dreams and my own. There can be no other outcome. She. Will. Win.

Screenshot (4).png

It is Wednesday, November 9th, and I wake up at 5am like I do sometimes when my mind is a broken record of dis-ease. It has been only three hours since sleep took me away from disbelief against my will; yet, already, my newsfeed is ablaze. Already, I see men writing that this would never have happened if Bernie Sanders had won the nomination. I am tired, and what I hear, instead, is that this never would have happened if Hillary Clinton had been a man. I still have not successfully divorced her defeat from my own, and the fact that I started my period only deepens the disconnection I feel between myself and my male friends in this moment. It has only been three hours, but some of these friends are already picking candidates for 2020, as if this mind-numbing, blood-chilling outcome were so easily put behind us. Most of the women in my life are deadly silent.

What my friends don’t know is that, while they put her loss behind them, I am still wondering if Hillary Clinton is okay. I am embarrassed to admit this, but I need to know. Did she sleep? Did she cry? Will this always be the fate of strong women who dare to dream beyond their prescribed destinies? For a brief moment, I am reassured by an image of her, taking herself out for cannoli in big, purple sunglasses and a heavy scarf to disguise her all-too-recognizable face. “It’s okay, girl,” I tell Imaginary Hillary Clinton as she wonders whether or not she deserves the sweet treat. “You’ve earned it.”

The week moves on, but I do not. For two days straight, I am at work and offline until almost 10pm. As my friends type out their reactions, analyses, and predictions for the future, I try to come to terms with the election while learning the symptoms of child abuse. Between worrying about event attendance and laminating things like my life depends on it, I must reconcile what I know society thinks of me (young–lazy, female–emotional) with what I know to be true (young–energetic, female–driven). Hillary Clinton concedes as I am held hostage by the responsibilities of employment. I must set aside my heartache, keep my eyes off my phone. I chide myself for being selfish. It is the only way I can survive.

I learn how to start a fire with flint and steel, and I feel my spirits lifting with each strike of stone on metal. Flint is a beautiful, natural stone, ranging in color from rosy pink to obsidian. It is an entity sturdy enough to withstand time, hard enough to carve steel. When broken, flint becomes sharper.

Sparks fly as stone strikes metal. It is not long before one of them hits their mark, and, a few deep breaths later, my little pile of sticks is on fire. The flint in my hand remains in tact. The steel is one tiny piece smaller.

“Every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger,” wrote Audre Lorde in 1981. “Focused with precision, it can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change. And when I speak of change, I do not mean a simple switch of positions or a temporary lessening of tension, nor the ability to smile and feel good. I am speaking of a basic and radical alteration in those assumptions underlining our lives.”

As I breathe deep the smell of smoke and burning tinder, I realize that we are, all of us who suffer, made of flint.

Screenshot (6).png

Watching Hillary Clinton concede the election to Donald Trump, I am torn between a sense of pride and an overwhelming sadness. Looking out over her purple-clad shoulders, both her husband and her running mate are red-faced, on the verge of tears. She stands in contrast before the microphone, her spine straightened by necessity, her trademark smile stretched wide for the haters. I wonder what they would say if she cried like the men who stand behind her. (Emotional. Weak.) She speaks of faith in the U.S. Constitution and the dreams of little girls, and I wonder, now, if those two things will ever be reconciled.

In 1798, Charles Brockden Brown (perhaps America’s first feminist ally) wrote Alcuin, a short drama in which a male schoolteacher asks a woman whether or not she is a Federalist. She answers, in a prescient nod to the 21st Century: “Even the government of our own country, which is said to be the freest in the world, passes over women as if they were not…Law-makers thought as little of comprehending us in their code of liberty as if we were pigs or sheep. If they generously admit me into the class of existences, but affirm that I exist for no purpose but the convenience of the more dignified sex, that I cannot be entrusted with the government of myself: that to foresee, to deliberate and decide belongs to others, while all my duties resolve themselves into this precept, ‘listen and obey;’ it is not for me to smile at their tyranny, or receive as my gospel, a code built upon such atrocious maxims. No, I am not a Federalist.”

Hillary Clinton is a woman with over 30 years of experience in government, who has traveled the world, who hugs crying children and tells them they are brave, who has nerves of titanium. Donald Trump is a man with no political experience, who makes fun of other countries, who treats other people–especially women–like dirt, and who banishes crying children from his presence (which is ironic because he has the temperament of a baby with a full diaper). If the differences in experience and personality are clear, so, too, are the differences in gender. Now, more than ever, I am reminded that our government was forged exclusively by men, for men, and of men. Now, more than ever, I am reminded that, as Audre Lorde wrote almost two hundred years later: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

Atlantic Center for the Arts

I am back on social media, but I cannot find a balance. On one hand, I reject the joke that a bunch of disappointed Americans will be assimilated into Canada or move to Europe when actual refugees have been largely denied this same welcome. Has your disappointment left you blind to your privilege? On the other hand, I reject the idea that I should peacefully accept election results that threaten the safety of myself and the safety of my friends. The more people tell me to swallow my anger in the name of democracy, the more I lash out. The onus of change does not rest on the backs of the marginalized. I am not responsible for your education, your actions. I wonder…is it my anger that you fear or the realization that it has been your heel on my chest?

These are questions I must wrestle with as well. I realize now that I cannot allow myself to sink back into the complacency of my white skin and financial stability. I must strive to remain present, no matter how difficult it becomes. Hillary Clinton may have conceded the election, but she did not concede the country. “Let us have faith in each other,” she said, her voice clear–pained, but true. “Let us not grow weary and lose heart, for there are more seasons to come and there is more work to do.”

Now, more than ever, we must be vigilant and engaged. We say that “love trumps hate,” but those words are meaningless if they are not accompanied by action. When was the last time I called or wrote to an elected official? (Kindergarten.) When was the last time I shared a meal with a homeless person? (One week ago.) When was the last time I joined in a religious celebration that was different from my own? (One year ago.) When was the last time I finished a book written by someone different from me? (Last night.) When was the last time I read the U.S. Constitution in its entirety? (Seven years ago.) The point is, we can all strive do better. And we all have to.

At this crucial moment in our country’s history, I am emboldened by a story I was told in Ireland. I had been enjoying a lovely  evening stroll across Galway city with a cute boy when he suddenly stopped at a nondescript stone wall and instructed me to kick it. Now, kicking the wall at Salthill is a thing people do, but the Irish had a funny little habit of lying to me and then forgetting to tell me it was all a joke in the end. It is likely he was only testing the depth of my gullibility when he told me that the wall had once belonged to an Englishman’s estate. “It’s a symbol of British tyranny,” he said, affecting solemnity. “We Irish have been kicking it for centuries, chipping away at its foundation with every thrust.” As if to illustrate his point, the toe of my boot met a crack in the wall and a small piece of stone bounced down to the pavement.

Perhaps it is ironic that I am inspired by the image of a wall in an election season where the walls–physical, metaphorical, and potential–that divide us seem higher than ever. Sexism and racism continue to exist in the United States of America. Our president-elect may or may not bolster these walls, but we have the power to kick them down. Women in the 1800s, when confronting the evils of slavery, did not let their disenfranchisement stop their voices from being heard. Civil rights activists in the 1960s, with their lives on the line, did not allow threats of violence to silence their calls for equality. We do not “survive” a Trump presidency by sitting back and waiting for 2020. We “survive” the next four years by holding ourselves and our friends accountable for our actions (or lack of action). We “survive” by empowering ourselves and our friends to speak out. We “survive” by walking right up to those walls that seek to divide us and kicking like hell.

giphy-9

stories that matter

A few days ago, someone posted a story about Lucy Stanton Day-Sessions on Facebook. In case you didn’t know, LSDS graduated from the Oberlin Ladies’ Course in 1850 and is generally considered the first black woman to complete a four-year college course. Her speech, A Plea for the Oppressed, is a resounding call for solidarity and civil rights. I didn’t read the article, because I’ve read her actual letters, but I did watch as the post was overwhelmed by likes and comments. “Inspiring!” people gushed. “Who knew!”

Lucy_Stanton.jpg

And this is where my blood pressure began to rise, because I knew. I’ve known for years. I took the time to learn about my community and the wonderful people who lived there and tried hard to inspire people to care like I did. One HuffPo article and suddenly everyone does? Why even bother? At this point, it was all I could do to keep  myself from digging through decades of Facebook posts to find the exact moment I shared the same story and no one noticed. “Guys, look,” I wanted to instruct, “I’ve been saying this for years so if you could all direct your praise to me now, where it obviously belongs, that’d be great.”

I can be horribly petty at times.

But I didn’t say that. I left the post alone and silently stewed in my own misery. If one HuffPo article can reach 100+ people I may never get the chance to engage, that’s amazing. These stories, the stories of driven people in small communities, are too important and far too often overlooked for me (or anyone else) to get possessive and clingy. Look at any era in U.S. history, and I bet the first three names that come to mind are men, and I bet those men are white.

(This is when some jerk is going to comment that, no, the first name that comes to mind when they think of the American Revolution is Phillis Wheatley. And, sure, yes, I’ve definitely been that jerk before but, in all honesty, despite years of studying everyone else, I still think of George Washington.)

Phillis_Wheatley_frontispiece

The point is: representation matters. Lucy Stanton Day-Sessions is empowering because her story is so often erased from traditional narratives. She is inspiring because she fought against the very same odds in life that her story now faces in remembrance. George Washington is many things, but he is not a black child growing up in Cleveland. He is not a woman fighting just to be heard. Sometimes I think our narrow definition of what it means to be an American–white, middle-class, straight, male, Christian–stems from our narrow study of our country’s history. Stories like these matter because the more we learn and teach our children, the richer our understanding of our communities and the people who live in them.

Now that I’ve convinced you (hold your applause, please), I would like to share a story from my city’s history that fits in perfectly to what I’ve been trying to say. 100 years ago, a tunnel exploded five miles out and 250 feet beneath Lake Erie. Nine workers were trapped inside; no hero who entered the tunnel returned until one man arrived on scene: Garrett Morgan.

Garrett A. Morgan

Morgan was born in 1877 in Kentucky, the son of two former slaves. Like many black Americans, one of Morgan’s ancestors was a white slave owner who had had his way with a woman he considered his “property.” Born in the wake of Reconstruction, a botched and aborted attempt to get the South on board with civil rights, Morgan came of age in an era of Jim Crow in the South and de facto segregation in the North. When he moved to Cleveland in 1895, he beat the Great Migration generation by about a decade. In 1910, the black population in Cleveland was still only 8,000 strong. By 1925, that number had grown to nearly 34,000.

Morgan’s life took off during the Great Migration era. He married his wife, Mary, in 1908. She was a Bavarian immigrant he had met doing handiwork in a garment factory in the Warehouse District. Forbidden from fraternizing across racial lines, the couple quit their jobs and faced the world together. Mary was disowned by her family. Morgan struggled to find work, but his active mind and entrepreneurial spirit carried them through hard times. Before 1910, he had already sold his first invention and opened a thriving sewing machine repair shop in the heart of the city. By 1915, he had also created a complete line of hair and beauty products for African Americans and patented a safety hood for firefighters. He also invented the first traffic signal to include a middle warning between stop and go.

Untitled

Morgan had a keen eye for marketing. To get the word out about his hair products, he bought a bus and installed an organ inside. He would drive around the city blasting music, and when people asked him what all the commotion was about, he took the opportunity to direct them to drug stores that sold his product. Knowing his safety hood would be less successful in the South if the race of the inventor was known, Morgan hired a white actor to portray the genius, while he played the role of assistant. He would create huge spectacles in which he demonstrated the effectiveness of his hood by running into burning buildings and coming out unharmed.

Garret Morgan’s success made him a hero of his community. He was a founding member of Cleveland Association of Colored Men and used his influence to lobby for civil rights in Cleveland. He was a member of the Phillis Wheatley Association, which filled the role of the Y.M.C.A. and Y.W.C.A. in black communities where these entities did not exist. He created the Cleveland Call & Post, a newspaper devoted to reporting the news of the black community without prejudice. He used his money to buy land in Wakeman, Ohio, to create a safe space for black people to recreate and enjoy the outdoors. He was the first black man in Cleveland to own a car. He was a Big Deal…which ultimately brings us back to July 25, 1916.

At 3 a.m., the police arrive at Garrett Morgan’s house and explain what has happened in the tunnel under the Lake. Without hesitation, Morgan grabs as many of his safety hoods as can fit in his car and arrives on the scene barefoot and in his pajamas, ready to help. Of the dozens of people who had gone in to rescue the workers, Garrett Morgan was the only one to return. He saved lives, and his life was immediately forgotten.

Untitled

Despite being called on by the government to do his civic duty, Morgan’s name was not recommended to the Carnegie Hero Fund for a medal of honor. Instantly outed as the inventor of the safety hood (which, by the way, had saved thousands of fire fighters’ lives), Morgan’s sales in the southern states immediately dropped. In 1917, he wrote to Mayor Harry L. Davis that, “the treatment accorded me…is such as to make me and the members of my race feel that you will not give a colored man a square deal.” In the 1950s, Morgan was still struggling for recognition of his heroism. “I was paid only in promises,” he lamented. “Nothing was ever done for me.”

The good news is that Garrett Morgan was eventually recognized by the city for his many contributions, and he was (thankfully) alive to receive most of the praise. The bad news is that stories like Morgan’s still aren’t told in equal proportion to those of men like Rockefeller. When asked “who built Cleveland?” the most common answers you’ll get are Tom Johnson, Amasa Stone, John D. Rockefeller, or (more likely) I Don’t Know.

Representation matters…Black stories are stories that matter. When all we see is a white [male, Christian, heterosexual, etc.] legacy, that’s all we’ll fight to protect. I’m not the first person to say it, and I won’t be the last. It’s time to change that.

Poetry.

I have been quiet recently because the events of this world have made me fearful. I’m not the type of person who screams when they are afraid. Once, when I was little, and I was afraid of being sick, I told dad that he would know to get mom to help me in the bathroom when I screamed, but all I could manage was a small whimper before I threw up all over the bed. Once, while camping, I saw a spider the size of my hand on the wall by my sleeping bag–literally, in front of my nose–and I didn’t scream or run or even flinch. I closed my eyes and repeated over and over in my head, “There is no spider. There is no spider. There is no spider. There is no spider…”

When I am scared, I grow quiet. I close my eyes, cover my ears, curl up into a ball, and do my best to disappear. It’s comforting to feel invisible in the darkness, to feel removed from the danger. These days, I can wrap myself in the warm security of my upbringing (of my skin color) and I can hide for weeks.

It’s surprising how easy this is.

Growing up sheltered in the suburbs was a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it is possible that I didn’t see color as a child. I knew my best friends were Indian, but that wasn’t the point, because we were all just horses or tigers on the playground. I was open to everyone, and I loved the new cultures my friends’ families invited me to learn. Racism didn’t exist in my world. It wasn’t something I brought to the table, but it doesn’t mean it wasn’t already there. What is magical in children is less so in adults, and I learned this the hard way. I wasn’t just blind to color. I was blind to everything.

230300_8156497490_1246_n.jpg

Derogatory terms were so far off my radar that I didn’t even know they existed in the 21st century. I had never heard them on T.V. and I had never heard my family use them, not once. We read Huckleberry Finn, but I had never heard the word spoken aloud, and so I thought that’s just what it was–something you read but you never, ever say, the relic of a very distant past. I remember in college, I heard someone talking about a person I knew and they called her a J.A.P. It was the only term I’d heard before, thanks to watching a lot of corny WWII movies. I remember leaning over to my friend and whispering, confused, “But…she’s not Japanese.” My friend just looked at me and frowned. “That’s not funny, Jen.”

I realized much later that the comment had had nothing to do with being Japanese. In my ignorance, I had missed an opportunity to defend someone I cared about. How many times, I wonder, had I missed that opportunity growing up? Had any of my friends tried to talk to me about what it was like being a different color, practicing a different religion? We talked about books and movies and boys and ice cream. We frolicked like champs and did science experiments together. Maybe I missed something then, too.

IMG_20141220_103017.jpg

When I was in high school, I remember hating poetry. The first poem analysis I completed my senior year was titled “NO,” and I basically failed. My gracious English teacher gave me a second chance, even after I tried giving up poetry for Lent, and I ended up doing okay, but I didn’t like it for one minute. I couldn’t connect with the medium at any level, and I refused to try because I didn’t like it. The best description for this literary Catch-22 I have ever heard comes from a scene in The History Boys. As the teacher announces it’s time to read some poetry, one of the students groans and falls forward dramatically onto his desk. “Sir, I don’t always understand poetry,” he admits. “I don’t see how we can understand it. Most of the stuff poetry’s about hasn’t happened to us yet.”

giphy (6).gif

The pain and suffering, all the life and love of poetry, wasn’t accessible to me at that moment. I was soft. My worldview was small and myopic. I didn’t possess the tools to understand and I wasn’t able to step out and realize that how I experienced the world could be so wholly different from someone else.

This entry is me eating crow.

I’m older now, and trying to be wiser. Despite the temptation to shut my eyes and plug my ears, to burrow deep into my privilege like a cicada into the earth, I have tried to remain present. I am reading what articles I can. I am listening to people grieve. My mind is opening further than I ever thought possible, and, as time goes on, the events of the world cut closer and closer to the core of my existence (the security of my white skin). The more connected I allow myself to be to the world around me, the more personal these news stories become…

A twelve-year-old boy from my city, who attended a school that sends kids to my museum, was shot and killed in less than two seconds.

Another woman is raped on a college campus and her rapist is pitied.

Men and women who look and love like some of my best friends are gunned down without apology while they were carefree and dancing.

My friends, some of the kindest people I know, are scorned and forced to answer for senseless acts of violence they had no hand in committing.

Still more friends are waking up to learn that their homelands have been bombed beyond recognition and must come to terms with the fact that most people would rather look away.

Still more friends are waking up almost daily in their own country to pictures of violence and murder perpetrated by law enforcement against people that look like them, and have to live with the realization that their lives still count for less, even in this nation of freedom.

The more I live, the more I come to appreciate the power of poetry. This world is a broken and a terrifying place, but poets are craftsmen, magicians. With an idea as pure and simple as light and a scant few lines, poets take all that pain and suffering and transform it into a thing of beauty. The meek and mourning find their souls’ grief articulated so perfectly in so few words. It’s as if the poet were holding you in their arms and rocking you gently back and forth, whispering gently, “Me, too.”

A tiny flower grows from a mountain of crap.

13423925_10154323661807491_2569467789637081305_n

The events of the past few months have shaken me, and, again, I have retreated into silence, but this time it is different. I have been silent, but I have also been listening. I may not have the words to articulate how I am feeling (she says 1000+ words later), but I thought I would share three poems that have recently brought me to tears. Read them slowly, perhaps quietly in the dark, alone, and reflect. Open your mind to the fact that violence against anyone is wrong, but that it occurs disproportionately across the world to people who may be different from you. Allow those ideas to enter your heart and to course through your veins. Open your eyes and lean in.

Allowables
I killed a spider
Not a murderous brown recluse
Not even a black widow
And if the truth were told this
Was only a small spider
Who should have run
When I picked up the book
But she didn’t
And she scared me
And I smashed her.

I don’t think
I’m allowed

To kill something

Because I am

Frightened.

– Nikki Giovanni

A Small Needful Fact
is that Eric Garner worked

for some time for the Parks and Rec
Horticultural Department, which means,
perhaps, with his very large hands,
perhaps, in all likelihood,
he put gently into the earth
some plants which, most likely,
some of them, in all likelihood,
continue to grow, continue 
to do what such plants do, like house
and feed small and necessary creatures,
like being pleasant to touch and smell,
like converting sunlight
into food, like making it easier
for us to breathe.

– Ross Gay

928f499b35d93f77d0422a3e4b3cab1f.jpg

It goes without saying that our world needs peace and compassion and understanding. Our country–the cities we live in and were raised in–needs people to be brave and to hold out their hands to their neighbors. Poetry may not be the answer, but it does make me more optimistic that the answer is out there. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to continue. But I feel stronger knowing someone out there has the words to plant that flower in this giant mountain of crap.

How to Survive without Air Conditioning.

Things are heating up here in Cleveland. The Cavs won the NBA championship, the sun is shining, and window A/C units are popping up all over the city as temperatures climb well above 80°F. If you are one of those people who can boil water without overheating, who can comfortably keep all their clothes on, or who can sit on the couch after work without sticking to it, then this post is not for you. If you, like me, live in a third-floor apartment with direct sunlight so strong that your peanut butter liquefies in the cupboard, listen up. Whether by choice or circumstance, I have lived without air conditioning at home since 2008. I don’t even have air conditioning in my car, and I am ready to share my vast wisdom with the world. This list could change your life.

giphy (1).gif

First thing you should do is leave.  Why should you go mad indoors when you can read a book on a shady bench or drink an ice cold beer in an ice cold bar? “A resourceful man knows when to leave his home for another man’s A/C.” – Ancient Proverb

Pretend your ice cold shower is a waterfall in the rainforest. Your feet are in a stream and you’re rinsing your hair beneath the trickle of a gentle waterfall. Far off in the distance comes the call of an unknown tropical bird. Bright flowers color the peripheries of your vision. A virile man appears without a shirt…

giphy.gif

Variety is the spice of lifeIf you’re looking for a change, skip the self-help books and try switching the direction of your ceiling fan instead. The blades should move counterclockwise to promote a cool, downward flow.

Work those biceps with the following exercise routine: Open all your windows. Close all your windows. Open all your windows again. Repeat. Shut your windows and curtains while you’re away to keep that nice morning chill from flying the coop. Open them at night for a refreshing breeze.

Stop wearing clothes. Come home and strip down. Lay on the floor and vow to never move again. This is where you die.

IMG_20160623_155949

Keep a rotating stack of shirts in the freezer.  If you must wear clothes, submit yourself to this truth: there is no closet. Do not take the clothes from your closet. The freezer is your closet now. Then you’ll see that it is not the clothes that are hot, it is only yourself.

giphy (4)

Turn off all the lights. Lights produce heat. Live in the dark. Become Gollum.

giphy (3).gif

Break up with your partner. Replace them with an ice pack. Trust me. You’re better off without them. Nothing feels better than sleeping alone on a hot summer’s night.

giphy (5).gif

And, lastly, remember to drink water. There’s no quicker road to misery than dehydration in the middle of summer. Stay cool, it’s a hot one out there.

Untitled

Bobby, baby

I was riding in the car the other day, when my friend suddenly asked me: “There was this guy…he lived here in the 1970s and was elected to Congress…what is his name?” I laughed and replied that I had no idea. “Man, I don’t know. If it’s not a woman and it’s after 1920, count me out.”

I wasn’t always like this. When I started college, I could have told you anything about U.S. history. While I composed elaborate Founding Fathers fanfiction in my head, in a classic freshman move, I also attached a Suessical poem I’d written about the 1960 presidential election to the front of my research paper on Richard Nixon.  The poem was called Little Dick & Younger Jack, and I’m 10% certain it was the difference between an A and an A- on that paper.

atop the highest mountain
little Dick did strive to be
where in his mind, so dark and sad,
only he could see

but from the deepest valley
all little Dick could see
was his sweet rival climbing high
where only one could be

for all he tried to do that year
and how fast he tried to climb
the younger man had money
and a haircut that looked fine…

The point is, I’m no longer the same historian I was in 2008. The generalist passed away, and I gained a much closer, more intimate and nuanced view of social movements and women’s history in the early decades of our country. The little facts floating around in my brain that could not be tied down with relation to my studies disappeared as my focus narrowed. Teapot Dome took a back seat to the development of female patriotism. So it goes.

Sometimes you go home to visit your parents and end up digging through your old closet. You find all these outfits and tiny shoes you could never wear again. You laugh, and you throw them in a bag to donate to Goodwill. But sometimes you find a little dress from the 90s that still fits over your head and could pass as a pretty fashionable shirt in 2016. Although I rarely lament my historical transition from generalist to specialist, what strikes me most unexpectedly are the outliers that continue to be dear to me, the things I put back in the closet to save for a rainy day. What does it mean that I still relish in the drama of Marbury v. Madison? Who still feels bad that Franklin Pierce’s 11-year-old son died right in front of his eyes? Why do I still cry when I think of Bobby Kennedy?

1935559_115636757490_7588953_n

I’m no expert, but reading about the 60s, or watching a documentary, to me, feels a lot like following Game of Thrones. The world was in chaos; the country was divided; and everyone had their own idea of how best to fix it. There were manipulators, schemers, bullies, peacemakers, secret agents, and  heroes. Leaders were taken out, it seems, in disproportionate rates. On June 6, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy died in hospital from an assassins bullet. His rise was unexpectedly meteoric, and his fall was devastating. Five years after his brother’s assassination and only months after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., another hero of his generation had died. In his wake, vulture Richard Nixon finally seized the presidency.

Perhaps I feel Bobby Kennedy’s loss so strongly because 2016 feels like the cousin of 1968. A highly contested election with conventions that will most likely have unsavory results, institutional racism, a war on women. Our leaders’ present rhetoric on the specter of terrorism is shockingly parallel to Red Scare rhetoric of yore, and the rise of social media and the 24-hour news cycle has drastically altered politics. Not a career politician, Bobby Kennedy was not above confronting the establishment to shake things up where he saw injustice. Maybe he was the hero Gotham needed then. Maybe he is the hero Gotham needs now.

Kennedy-Campaigning-in-California

Or, perhaps I feel Bobby Kennedy’s loss so strongly, not for any political reason, but because of who he was–shy, introverted, youthful, passionate, overlooked and confused. Ignored by his father, he clung to his mother, but even she saw little potential in his poor grades and sullen attitude. He tripped over air and lacked the easy, debonair style of his siblings. He was sensitive and depressive and had absolutely zero game. (Jack actually stole Bobby’s girlfriend once while they were on a date.) It’s easy to relate to someone as painfully outcast as that. Baa baa, black sheep. Baa baa, Bobby.

That isn’t to say I’m blind to his flaws. He wasn’t always right as a policy maker and his religious zeal made him a conservative adolescent. Every time I read his life, I am consistently disappointed by his machismo and his initial reluctance towards the civil rights movement. When the author notes a homophobic comment he made towards someone he didn’t like, I cringe and consider abandoning interest. But, then, he’ll do something that makes my mind spin. He’ll see a child in pain and reevaluate a situation. He’ll tour a rundown community and realize the government has failed them in unforgivable ways. He’ll revise his hawkish reaction to instead counsel peace. He’ll wonder aloud why so few of the lawyers in the justice department are black. He’ll ask a journalist what their favorite flavor of ice cream is and share that his is chocolate. He’ll acknowledge that women are absolutely necessary to the election process or join a migrant worker strike and my heart will be all aflutter again.

MTI4OTcxNzM2MDI3Nzk3OTgy

As an adult, Kennedy was hard and masculine, but he was intuitive and emotional at his core. His ability to empathize was off the charts. Although he resisted at times, his moral compass was in full functioning order and usually won the day. But, for most of his life, he was the trumpet and scapegoat of his family. If Jack wanted something unsavory done, he could call on Bobby to do the dirty work. If someone criticized his father, no matter how his father had discounted him as a child, he would bristle and fight. It wasn’t until 1968 that Bobby Kennedy reluctantly edged into the spotlight left vacant and flickering after the death of his brother.

A good story has a beginning, sufficient rising action towards a climax, followed by enough falling action to lead you towards the end. Kennedy’s story started slowly and unremarkably as the neglected third son of ambitious parents. It continued slowly, as he consistently put his hopes and dreams aside for his family. He charged on after 1963, though directionless, and became his own man. In just a few short months, Bobby Kennedy, the shy, skulking boy from the background, found his voice just as the nation was ready to change its tune. It was a voice no one (not even himself) had heard before, but it rang loud and true and unafraid. “We need change,” it said. “Will you help me?” it asked, and the people of this country roared an overwhelming “yes.”

RFK is a giant, but he’s a giant what if. Would he have won the Democratic nomination in 1968? Possibly. Would he have won the election? Maybe not. But his sudden death allows us to speculate, allows us to imagine that climax, that falling action, and the eventual ending. He was a man of contradictions, who was constantly growing, constantly feeling. In such a short amount of time, he seemed to lift America’s hopes and present an optimistic future. Oh, the places he could have taken us…

So why do I still cry about Bobby Kennedy? Because he was a hero. Because he was human. Because he was afraid but he always did what was right in the end. His hands still shook when he spoke in public and he still struggled under the burden of his name, but his courage and determination are inspiring, his ability to escape his privilege and empathize with the working class is striking. As his funeral train sped through all the different landscapes of our beautiful nation, all the different people that make up that nation came out to mourn him. Overlooked as a child, hundreds of thousands of people now patiently waited by the tracks to say goodbye. That’s a powerful image, and I think it’s worth a few tears.

34118_slideshow_feature_2

And even in our sleep, pain, which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.

Do Not Attempt

I hate yoga like I hate eggs. You may think there’s little in common between the two, but you would be wrong. Sure, one is edible and the other is guided stretching in comfy pants; but when I confess my dislike of either, I am met with the exact same skepticism.

“But it’s really, really good for you.”

“You just haven’t tried it this way.”

“Ugh, you’re wrong! This is the best way to start a morning.”

“Hate is a strong word.”

I’m not kidding. If I had a dollar for every time someone tried to convince me I didn’t really hate yoga (or eggs), I could take a week off work and fly to Bermuda and get a hot summer tan. It’s always the instructor’s fault, or the style of the class, or the  aura of the location. Hating yoga (or eggs) just isn’t a thing people understand, but trust me. There’s something about stretching and then holding it as long as I can that makes me want to run away screaming. There’s something about being quiet and breathing intentionally that (ironically) makes me want to hyperventilate. I’ve tried yoga in the woods, by the lake, in a gym, at the art museum, in classes, with mom in the basement…

I hate yoga.

But I’ve also had a stressful few weeks. On top of starting a new job, working double shifts, trying to feed myself, and remembering to get gas, I’ve also had trouble sleeping. My mind just won’t stop working. It’s like someone took the nice, neat compartments I’d made for my thoughts and bombed them to smithereens. My responsibilities used to be predictable and routine. Now there’s a mess of mental rubble–memories, stress dreams, creative ideas, and endless to-do lists.

“How can I fix this?” I wondered a few nights ago, suddenly questioning my long-held bias against yoga.

I briefly reviewed the reasons I hate yoga: it makes me fart; my butt feels vulnerable up in the air; my clothes aren’t stylish enough; it’s too quiet so everyone can hear me fart; I can’t touch my toes; conspicuous wedgies…

“Still,” I mused, alone in the gloaming, “what if I tried?”

With the entire Interworld at my fingertips, I did a quick search for the top ten easy yoga poses. As I typed, I imagined myself attempting the poses and my problems falling gracefully to the wayside. My hair came out of the rubber band in cute little wisps and my shirt draped romantically over my shoulders. My face was serene, my mind relaxed. The following is what really happened:

IMG_20160517_182507099 (2)
I skipped the nostril breathing. According to one practitioner, three slow breaths from their left nostril was enough to put them to sleep each night. No, thank you! Good for you; not for me!

Without the aid of my left nostril, I went straight into what is called the “Easy Pose.” (I should mention that I will not be using any “asana” names during this post because I definitely would not call what I did correct or authentic in any way.) I won’t lie. I only held this long enough to take a picture.

Verdict: comfy.

IMG_20160517_182734404

I moved on to something familiar. I’ve been doing Child’s Pose since I was a kid and mom dragged me to her yoga class. Sure, I can curl up in a ball. I can even pretend I can feel this stretching my thighs and ankles and back. But there is a limit to how long I can stare directly at the ground before I start to feel strange. One practitioner online commented that this was the cutest pose ever because they felt like a little biscuit.

Proposal: Rename this the Little Biscuit Pose.

IMG_20160517_183017675

Now here’s a yoga pose I can get behind. The Corpse Pose is not only simple, it is also how I spent 90% of my day off on Sunday. Psshhh, yoga is easy.

IMG_20160517_182924437
Things got a little dicey when I moved onto the Cobra Pose. This was another familiar pose, introduced to me in dance class after ab work outs, but that didn’t make it feel any less awkward as I tried to remember where to put my hands. Turns out, there’s a Cobra Pose for Dummies website. Maybe I should have consulted that first.

IMG_20160517_183039558

IMG_20160517_183810826

Life didn’t get much easier for me as I tried out The Bridge and The Happy Baby poses. No need for commentary. I think my face says it all.

IMG_20160517_185410589

I redeemed myself ever-so-slightly with the Camel Pose, though (trust me), it was not without some audible groaning. It took me way longer than necessary to find my heels, too. The generic, stock-photo women doing this pose on the website looked so serene as they bent over backwards. Me? I was never more aware of how much I hate yoga as when I was doing this pose.

IMG_20160517_183310520IMG_20160517_183905933

Undeterred, I pushed on, following with a gravely impassioned Warrior and an absurdly giddy Tree. To be fair, I was confusing the Tree with the Baby. Or, maybe I was confusing yoga with Bob Ross. Looking back, it doesn’t make sense that a tree would be happy. But then again, yoga doesn’t make sense to me. Whatever. Hindsight is 20/20.

IMG_20160517_183337284

Things got weird when I tried to make a triangle with my body with my butt to the camera. I don’t know exactly what I was thinking, but it had something to do with wanting to imitate the woman on the website, and her butt was to the camera, too. This pose was a pretty decent stretch, but it definitely did a better job showcasing my burgeoning wedgie. We can’t all be perfect…

It was at this moment that I decided to attempt my Everest. Some people struggle with handstands, others with finding the perfect scenic location to record themselves being fabulous. I can’t touch my toes. (Yes, even after all those dance lessons mom paid for.) I took a deep breath and began to fold myself in half, imagining that I was doing it vertebrae by vertebrae, just like a yoga instructor would advise.

And then I hit a wall, but don’t take my word for it. In good faith, I documented everything.

IMG_20160517_184018329

Nope. No matter frequently I exhaled–no matter how desperately my arms flailed looking for something more toe-like to grab–I flat out failed. Toe touches just aren’t in my wheelhouse. Sorry, mom.

After that disappointment, I couldn’t go on. My tolerance for uncomfortably pushing my board-stiff muscles to new heights was waning, and I was feeling more and more ridiculous by the minute. Don’t get me wrong, though! Some of my friends feel and look powerful when they do yoga. Some of my friends find a peaceful quietude that helps them organize their lives and conquer their demons. I don’t doubt the benefits of comfy pants, mindful breathing, and body contortions for other people. That doesn’t change the fact that I hate it.

I may be worse than a novice…I may have only looked at pictures to do these poses…I may have been too caught up in what exactly constitutes half a fish lord…I may have thrown in the towel without really trying…But I do have to hand it to yoga: it was so awkward, I stopped worrying about work.

Disclaimer: DO NOT GOOGLE YOGA AND ATTEMPT YOGA. YOGA REQUIRES PRACTICE AND BASIC INSTRUCTION. I AM A MORON.