be my 19th-century galentine

“…my heart has just been called back to the time when we used to sit with our arms around each other at the sunset hour & talk & talk of our friends & our homes & of ten thousand subjects of mutual interest till both our hearts felt warmer & lighter for the pure communication of spirit.”

(ABB to LS, 1848)

Anne Shirley longed for a kindred spirit. Leslie Knope inaugurated Galentine’s Day. Loving female friendships have been a defining part of womanhood for centuries, opening space for strangers to become sisters. This was especially true during the 1800s, which set the doctrine of “separate spheres” on a collision course with women’s education.

Often, ambitious female students were sent to female-only colleges and seminary schools, where there could be no risk of any indiscreet behavior. Even at Oberlin College, my alma-mater and a leader in co-education, social interactions between men and women were met with trepidation. For fear of being labelled a den of debauchery, Oberlin made very sure to keep its female students under a strict behavioral regimen. No matter where you went to school, this was the rule: no boys allowed (until marriage).

While most heterosocial interactions were discouraged, there was no limit, no curfew, on sharing time with other women. In this environment, female friendships flourished. Although homosexual acts were illegal, our modern fear-mongering over same-sex relationships wouldn’t reach a fevered pitch until decades later. Women’s sexuality, especially, was so poorly understood as to be thought nonexistent. So there was no harm in walking together…dancing together… sleeping together…

It is in this era that Antoinette Brown met Lucy Stone in Oberlin, and where Lucy discovered, as “dear Nette” would later write, “the key to my soul.”

Both women were ambitious, dreaming of a potential beyond their assigned gender roles. Lucy had plans to speak publicly for the abolition of slavery and the rights of women, and Antoinette wanted to become a minister. At a time when women were not permitted to speak in churches and the few who found an open podium were pelted with stones and insults, they imagined (and achieved) the impossible.

From their hometowns in Massachusetts and New York, Oberlin must have seemed a shining oasis of unrestricted knowledge, having conferred the first official bachelor’s degrees to women in the United States in 1841. What they would find upon their arrival, however, was not quite all they had hoped.

Lucy Stone arrived first, a brash, stubborn Garrisonian, who (at best) could be described as conflicted about religion. She was short on funds, stretched thin, and resented being policed by the ostensibly omniscient Ladies’ Board. There would be no speaking in public for her, no debating the young men in her classes. Although Oberlin was against slavery, Lucy was chastised and patronized for her more radical beliefs. These were not the happiest of days.

Meanwhile, en route to Oberlin, Antoinette Brown took a stage coach from Elyria. During the journey, a man, who also happened to be a trustee of the College, bestowed some advice upon the young lady: stay away from Lucy Stone. She was bright, he allowed, but “eccentric…and far too talkative on the subject of woman’s rights.” As Antoinette would later remember it, “I resolved then and there to know more of Lucy Stone.”

The close, intimate relationship that blossomed offered the two women the necessary security to explore their sense of self, validate their ambitions, and push through hardship. Together, they convinced a professor to let them debate each other in class. When that experiment ended with the Ladies’ Board’s extreme disapproval, they founded a women’s debate club in secret, in the woods. When Lucy graduated and began her oratory career, Antoinette urged her to “speak as though you had a right to.” And, although Lucy felt very strongly that Oberlin and religion would crush Antoinette’s spirit, she knew her dear friend would succeed, despite being willfully overlooked and discouraged by many male theology professors.

Their relationship continued and evolved for decades. First, as sworn spinsters. Later, as sisters-in-law and mothers. As their writing styles matured, they continued to reminisce happily of the times when “you waded through mud and rain, after 9 o’clock P.M. for the sake of sleeping with me.”

Although they were never lovers in a sexual sense, their letters are rich with passion. In an era of dating apps and hook-ups, I think it’s easy to discount the importance of our friendships. Lucy Stone and Antoinette Brown sure loved each other – and they weren’t shy about saying it! So, in the spirit of Galentines Day and in honor of this beautiful homosocial relationship, I present some examples of true sisterly love:

“Dearest Lucy, It is a beautiful morning warm & pleasant as Spring & about as muddy in the roads…When I was passing along the board walk on Pleasant street, I thought of our evening strolls together & your favorite quotation ‘how shall two walk together except they be agreed’ sounds so naturally in my heart that I half looked around expecting you were beside me. Thoughts of you steal over me every time I walk that way particularly if it is evening & at no time is your memory brighter sweeter & dearer to me than then. O how glad I should be to have your arm around me & my arm around you & to walk with you again on that narrow plank even at the risk of slipping off into the mud.”

(ABB to LS, 1849)

“There is not room to write how much I love you but it is a great deal. Write Lucy very soon–a long long long letter–tell me everything and let us be sisters forever wont we. How I do wish I could hear from you to night.”

(ABB to LS, 1850)

“Dearest Lucy, it is a fine pleasant afternoon just such as one as makes me think of you. Dear Lucy if you were here now in this pleasant little room in the old boarding hall why then–I dont know what would happen; but I believe I should sit down and cry for joy. Yes here we are in the same room that I occupied at the time I came from home with the artificials in my bonnet, and you came in and cried over me for sorrow. Dear dear L. I love you better for those tears than I should have done without them, and I have no artificials in my bonnet now; but am just as much determined as ever to think them pretty… I said ‘we are in the same room,’ but poor room! It has almost lost its identity, through the abundance of paint, white wash, and paper till not a particle of its former brown countenance can be discovered.”

(ABB to LS, 1850)

Here’s to female friendships!

*Selected correspondence from Friends and Sisters: Letters between Lucy Stone and Antoinette Brown Blackwell, 1846-93 by Carol Lasser and Marlene Merrill (University of Illinois Press, 1987)

**LS was not known as a prolific penpal, and on at least one occasion requested her letters be destroyed, then later many of those she did keep burned in a fire… hence, the major quotations from ABB only

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ode to a joyful place (now gone)

“You don’t know anything about bowling.”

He said this, not to be mean, but to state a fact. I knew nothing about bowling. Still, with the confidence of an eighteen-year-old who had been denied very little in life, I entered the interview wearing mom jeans and an old, ratty sweater, sure that he would hire me.

My gut feeling wasn’t wrong. He didn’t hire me to work at the bowling lanes. That would have been a disaster. But he saw something in me–maybe it was hidden potential, maybe it was a sad and desperate search for someplace to belong–and he called me with a job offer later that afternoon.

Wilder Desk Attendant.

I left Oberlin with a glimmer of optimism. Next year would be better.

“Meet at 9 a.m. Wear comfy pants.”

The e-mail that went out to all new and returning Wilder employees was vague and cryptic, perhaps on purpose. We all crowded onto a rumbling yellow school bus, delayed because some students were held up buying drinks and peaches. I remember the smell of the brown plastic seats. I was still young enough to be nostalgic for the clear boundaries and expectations of public high school. Old worries crept in to ruin the excitement of this new beginning. What if I still didn’t fit in?

There was a boy, tall and skinny with a shock of hair that seemed to defy gravity. I remember going to sit near him, because I felt like he was worried, too. When the upperclassmen appeared with bushels of fruit and glass bottles clanging in green plastic bags, he didn’t step up to greet them or admonish them jokingly like the others. I can’t remember the exact moment when we first spoke, or the exact words we said. They were likely uttered in that awkward, halting way when your voice is somehow caught off guard, the connections between your brain and mouth severed by racing, anxious thoughts. Still, we became friends. Not just for that weekend. Not even just as co-workers. Real friends who went jogging together, cooked meals and watched Twin Peaks together, played board games, sent letters, went bowling together.

He wasn’t my first college friend, but he might have been the best.

The Wilder Orientation Lakeside Retreat weekends have passed into legend over the years, a relic of a more open budget, but they were the key to my happiness in college. Wo-Ho-Mis lodge was our headquarters for all the standard ice breakers and training activities you would expect on a work retreat. It was also the headquarters for late night games of The Floor is Lava and dramatic readings of hyper-religious teen self-help volumes that warned of Flirt State University, followed by early morning yoga and meditation with our boss. From there we were given free reign to explore the town–unlimited shuffleboard, mini golf, ice cream, movies, and lake swimming.

You may be thinking “wait a second–this was for work?” Well, you’re right. Without meaning to, I had fallen into one of the best jobs on campus, working for and with some of the best people in Oberlin. These retreats weren’t just meant to spoil us and show us a good time. They were meant to help us bond in meaningful ways–to teach us the basic expectations of our jobs, but also to nourish our whole selves in a way that recognized our humanity. We weren’t just employees. These trips emphasized that we were a family. We arrived back on campus ready to share the love.

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For those unfamiliar with Oberlin, Wilder Desk was located immediately to your right as you entered though the Student Union building’s main doors. One side of its green counter was always full of student handouts or free food leftover from meetings. There were usually a few people gathered around that area, backpacks slung over one shoulder, casually discussing class assignments or study abroad plans. From a computer behind the desk, quiet strains of music (any genre–pick your favorite) drifted out into the common space, barely heard over laughter echoing in the halls or the stampede of mandatory discussion groups tromping up and down the stairs every hour. When you stepped into the building, someone at the desk would greet you with a quiet smile (or a boisterous “hullo” if you were familiar). It was a simple, but powerful, acknowledgement of everyone’s shared existence. Our boss called it “stellar customer service.”

He believed that goodness was contagious–that, from the Desk, we could radiate a spirit that touched everyone who walked through the doors, who would then take that goodness out to the world, and the world would reciprocate. That doesn’t mean we never cried at the desk. I was perpetually tearing up over assignments or loneliness, embarrassing as it was. But he intentionally hired people to create a community of caring. We lifted each other up no matter what. It wasn’t “the customer is always right.” It was “the customer is a human, and so are you, so let’s work together.”

As a Desk Attendant, you had to keep track of everything. My boss called it “driving the bus of Oberlin.” We were the starting point of every question about department office hours, mail room hours, directions, local landmarks, lost IDs, college radio shows, club membership, ticket sales, event schedules, and more. I once took a phone call about a chicken crossing the road (literally). We had an answer for everything, and, if we didn’t, we knew where to look. We rented out frisbees and board games, and sold banner paper, stamps and envelopes. We were a hub for friendly activity, chugging along to the tune of a noisy cash register with chunky buttons and a proclivity for beeping when poked the wrong way.

Wilder Desk was the literal keeper of the keys. Any room you scheduled in the building, whether it was for a dance rehearsal or knitting club, you had to stop by the desk. The keys hung from little golden hooks on a wooden stand that made a metallic rolling sound when it turned. We exchanged IDs for keys and keys for IDs. I learned a lot of names that way, made a lot of pleasant small talk with all sorts of people. Slowly I began to feel connected to the Oberlin College community. I was no longer an island in a sea of inexplicable adolescent sadness. I had found a place to belong.

Over the course of my three years at Wilder Desk, I grew to feel loved and cared for in a way I never would have expected after the disaster of my first year at college. I made friends that were like family. We visited each other during our respective shifts, gorging on free leftover pizza, playing contentious games of Connect 4, once even hosting a mini tea party with finger sandwiches and piping hot mugs of tea. We had holiday gift exchanges and ridiculous dance-offs. No matter what happened, there was always someone there at the Desk. Goodness bred goodness. We were all different, but we all got along.

Even after we graduated, that community of caring persisted. I remember visiting the Desk during my five year reunion. The faces were different, but the same spirit and camaraderie were there. They drank in our stories of former desk attendant glories and shared some of their own. Our photos were still on the computer, joined with hundreds of other photos of later generations of students, all of us one community. I posted an update for my former co-workers who were unable to attend, and we were all reunited virtually in our love for Wilder and sweet memories of the Desk. Again, I felt connected. Again, I felt rooted.

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For better or for worse, Oberlin College decided to demolish Wilder Desk over the past summer. Student workers were advised to find other employment and a longtime college staff member was laid off. The decision came amidst a lot of other routine decisions–the closing of a dining hall, the retirement of outdated college rental apartments–but, despite the apparent normalcy of the act, it still felt like a betrayal. Frustration burned hot in my belly as I watched a video of the Desk’s deconstruction online. Bigger and better things to come…but what could be better than Wilder Desk?

I recently visited Oberlin for an unrelated committee meeting. I got a coffee and a bagel from The Local and sat out on Tappan Square, soaking in the memories. It was 9:15 am, in the middle of class for a Wednesday morning, so the square was deserted. An older man on a bicycle clattered past on the brick walkway, but that was it. I finished my bagel and crumpled the foil in my hand. With time to spare before the meeting, I stood up and walked to Wilder Student Union.

The Desk is gone. Replaced by empty chairs and a newly-painted orange wall, the life and vibrancy–the camaraderie and community–that were the heart and soul of my Oberlin experience have vanished without a trace, wheeled out with the last speck of evidence that anything but a clinical coldness had ever existed in that space. No one gathered around the counter. The counter wasn’t there. No one smiled at me when I came in. There was no one to smile. There was no one to drive the bus.

Wilder felt dead.

RIP Wilder.

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“You don’t know anything about bowling.”

Sometimes I think back to that first interview, and I realize how lucky I am that he hired me–that my first job was at the Student Union, my first boss a man who believed in validating and supporting his employees as people. Oberlin College taught me a lot of things, but maybe the most important was the philosophy of stellar customer service. (Or maybe it was open-handed gestures–my Wilder folks know what’s up!)

The Desk may be gone, but it will remain the epicenter of a giant ripple of goodness in my life’s story. It was the end of my isolation in college and the beginning of my blossoming. Without the family I found there, I would have likely thrown in the towel. I am strong because of the three years I spent being supported by wonderful people. I am competent at my current job because of the three years I spent learning from good supervisors how to serve an entire community. The skills and self-confidence I learned at Wilder are equal to (if not more than) any I learned in an academic course. As my alma mater seems more and more intent on chipping away at the heart of its community, all I can do is take that spirit and continue to spread it. That will be my act of resistance.

The Desk is gone; long live its joy.

bobby, baby II

today, on the fiftieth anniversary of robert kennedy’s death, i participated in an active shooter training at my office. shots from an airsoft gun were fired in the building. those of us in back were warned by a page over the intercom as the fake gunman fired another round. the speakers broadcast shouting voices and pounding feet all over the building. i crawled into a cabinet, next to plastic storage bins full of tempura paints, and held my breath in the dark.

is everybody okay?

the training scenario lasted less than one minute. as i hugged my knees and felt the dull, chalky smell of paint tickling at the fringes of my consciousness, an hour’s worth of thoughts raced through my mind. i considered the stiffness of my knees, the volume of my breath, the courage it would take to squirt paint in another person’s eyes…and then i heard bobby kennedy’s last words echoing in the hallway.

is everybody okay?

the drill had ended. i thought of kennedy’s dying altruism, as i, myself, emerged from a cupboard alone.

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have you ever filled a metal spoon with diesel 153 proof liquor and set it on fire?

once, as i was driving home from a bar, i attempted to conjure a scenario that might convey to my friend the feelings i experience when i study bobby kennedy’s life. it was a very physical and visceral effort–my heart beat faster, my eyes narrowed, and my brow furrowed as i chewed my bottom lip. i held my hands out, palms towards the sky. they were empty, but in them i felt the weight of the challenge.

after i graduated from college, i had a roommate who liked to set things on fire with liquor and a zippo lighter. i remember watching him one night. he poured the spirits into a metal spoon, slowly, carefully, so as not to spill on our already tarnished carpet. eager anticipation twisted in my stomach as the lighter approached the pool of liquid, and then came the whoosh of ignition. my face lit up with glee, and i clapped my hands. adrenaline surged through my veins.

then, in the blink of an eye, the alcohol had burned away. the flame sputtered and went out. and we were just two morons sitting in a dark living room, trying to remember what it was all about.

have you ever started a new show without realizing there was only one season?

not everyone plays with fire, but almost everyone watches netflix. waiting a week for a new episode to come out has almost become a thing of the past, but all this binge-watching can catch us off guard.

a few months ago, i started to watch a new show. really…”watch” is too tame a word. i was devouring it–at a rate of five or six episodes a night. the introduction was slow, as i got to know the characters, discovered my favorites, learned their demons and their quirks. but by the end of the first story arc, i had fallen, i was hooked. i planned my day around how many episodes i could fit in around errands. i made bargains with myself to squeeze in just one more–taking out the trash could wait. when i wasn’t watching, i was reading character backstories online. the soundtrack echoed through my dreams. the story had thoroughly consumed my life, and then…

…then it was over.

four days after my binge began, that was it. suddenly, all my hopes and predictions for future plot points were moot; all the hours i had booked for binge-watching were now open. i would never know if jared would marry tara or greg. lucy’s lovechild would never be born. terry would never get that promotion at the magazine. if izzy was convicted of murder, it could only happen in the courtroom of my imagination.*

it all just ends, and you’re left with nothing in the dark but a bunch of loose ends.

(*this is not a real show)

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oh god. not again.

men do not often figure in my discussions of history, but today is different. as i stewed in my selfish shame after our shooting drill, i could not shake the magnitude of this anniversary. searching for images to accompany this post, i again felt the weight of his death heavy on our nation.

i wanted a picture that showed his compassion and verve, and so i scanned the results for images of him with his family or eating ice cream on the campaign trail. (he liked chocolate.) these pictures exist. there are dozens of them: bobby getting married, bobby riding on the back of a tricycle, bobby’s hands outstretched towards the masses gathered to see him. there is so much feeling packed into those photographs that your heart swells. there is magic in them, and for a moment, you forget he is gone.

kennedy was hard and masculine, but he was intuitive and emotional at his core. his ability to escape his privilege and empathize–whether with striking farmworkers or starving children in mississippi–was off the charts. in just a few short months on the campaign trail, the shy, skulking boy in the background found his voice. it rang loud and true and unafraid, calling for unity in change, in hope, in a new day dawning.

but you cannot escape it.

ethel’s scream. her palm thrust towards the camera. that famous image of him, laid out on the floor, his own blood seeping into his shirt as juan romero–a stranger–presses a rosary into his palm and all that life…slips away. that image cuts in everywhere. between every photo of his life, his death lands a heavy punctuation mark to his unshakable energy.

that image shows up, over and over, and the bold, black headlines that ran on newspapers across the globe shoot through your heart like an arrow.

oh god. not again.

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bobby kennedy is a giant, but he is a giant what if. would he have won the democratic nomination in 1968? would he have won the election? maybe not. but his sudden death allows us to speculate, allows us to imagine the ending to his story cut all too short. he was a man of contradictions, who was constantly growing, constantly feeling. he was always putting his family over himself–eventually he would strive to do the same for his countrymen.

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.

bobby kennedy was a man who felt too deeply and fell too soon, and he left us with so much still to do. his legacy is a question mark and the answer is up to us. civil rights, workers’ rights, compassion towards our fellow man–in a world inundated with wealth and violence, have we lost sight of what truly matters? today, i hid in a cupboard to escape a fake gunman. someday, that gunman may be real. when i think of our country stagnating in fear and selfishness, i wonder about his last words.

“is everybody okay?” he asked as his life drained away.

is everybody okay?

i’m not sure, bob.

but i hope so.

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a poem for a new year

I took a walk in mid-Winter,
alone in the gloaming,
the sweet, muffled silence of snow.
Dozens of eyes,
unseen,
still see me,
a stranger they’re cautious to know.

The trees like dark sentinels
stand at attention,
wide boughs forming crisp, even lines.
The farm they once guarded,
the crops and the stock,
have passed to the mysteries of time.

The next generation of trees grows up wild.
Their seeds were not planted,
they fell,
carried by songbirds, or squirrels, or deer,
a sign that the forest is well.

I think of my footprints–
these, too, will pass on.
Soon no one will know I was here.
I am but a part
of the cycle of hours,
where seconds are not counted dear,

where moments aren’t governed
by ticks or by tocks,
but the warmth of the earth
and a woodpecker’s knocks,
and the rushing of water over
smooth, dark rocks.

Here the steps of a woman
join in the gay tune,
not as its master, conductor, or star,
but one in a harmony,
soft and cocooned,

where each voice has an equal,
and the song never dies,
and no matter what happens,
the sun will still rise.

16,480 words

From great failure comes great wisdom.

– someone, somewhere, probably

It is now December. November has come and gone, and, if you were paying any attention, someone you know probably attempted to write a novel.

I’m talking about NaNoWriMo (or “National Novel Writing Month” for the uninitiated). It’s a big, online writing challenge that has been happening annually since I was in elementary school. The goal is to complete a 50,000+ word novel over the course of thirty days…which, if that seems impossible to you, don’t worry. I totally agree.

“But, Jen!” comes the inevitable cry of the supportive masses. “You’re such an amazing writer!”

To which, I will predictably respond with an awkward facial contortion and some meek acknowledgement of the fact that I can, indeed, string together a sentence.

Wordsmithing skills aside, NaNoWriMo is also an exercise in letting loose, and that is where I struggle. The people I know who have mastered the challenge have learned to quiet the voice inside their heads that checks their fingers on the keys, that convinces them there is no merit to moving forward until every single word falls precisely into place.

(And, here, our narrator demonstrates her problem, having considered the literary merit of both “checks” and “precisely” far longer than necessary.)

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This year, for the first time, I decided to take a stab at the 50k word challenge. I was feeling inspired by a book I had just finished, and I surprised myself one morning with the seed of an idea. I had been feeling a bit down about the fact that I hadn’t written a story since my freshman year of college, and I was ready for an excuse to get back at it. I’m a very competitive person. I love challenges. If anything was going to motivate me to turn off the TV and set my fingers to typing, it was this or bust.

At least…that’s what I thought. Despite constantly telling my friends that what I was writing was not supposed to be good, that I would be thrilled just to finish the challenge, I could not–so to speak–walk the walk. I was immediately discouraged by how stiff and unkempt everything was turning out. Instead of moving forward, I spent more time rereading and editing what I’d already written. Hours would pass with only a word or two added to my count.

Less than halfway through the challenge, having fallen 4,000 words behind, I threw in the towel…but not before becoming absurdly invested in the characters I had created. Like the unfinished novels of my youth, these new characters have flitted in and out of my dreams. I developed hijinks-y side stories for them. I drew their faces (terribly) in my journal. They will remain special to me, even as they remain anonymous to literally everyone else in the world.

Their story will probably never be told, but I feel like I should give credit to the 16,480 words I managed to churn out before my computer rage quit Microsoft Office in the middle of last month. I’m going to pretend like I finished my novel, like it was picked up and published to rave reviews. I would go on a book tour, of course. All my favorite YA authors would be there. They would say I was an inspiration. They would want my autograph. As I’d take my book and prepare an inscription, I would be distracted by the synopsis on the back cover. I might smile nostalgically as I read:

“Eskis is a region long known for its luxurious fabrics, but only the mysterious master dyer, Santo Corelli, can turn those fabrics into a rainbow. When Corelli’s apprentice, Nico, disappears with the secret for brewing the perfect colors, it is up to sixteen-year-old Emery Davis to find her friend and protect him from his master’s rage and their rival’s greed. This new tale of adventure and intrigue carries you deep within a corrupt society full of dangerous secrets and just a hint of magic.”

Obviously, that’s all a daydream, but I figured I would post an abridged version of what may have been my masterpiece for interested parties to enjoy, mock, and/or print off and burn for warmth… Spoiler alert, tl;dr, &c., &c. Here goes…

Continue reading

i found a rainbow, baby

cw: sexual assualt

On the morning of Friday the 13th, I woke up to the Internet. This is a bad idea on a good day, but, on this particular day, it was poison. I am surrounded by some pretty decent people, blokes included, so I will forget, sometimes, the nasty thoughts people hold in their hearts.

What I watched was a video of American Indian women talking about their experiences with rape and sexual assault. What I read were the comments. All of them. Every single one, even the threads that had replies in the hundreds. It was like falling down the stairs in the dark. Suddenly the floor disappears beneath your feet. As you tumble into the void, each step rears up and beats your body. You cannot stop it, and the end comes just as unexpectedly as the beginning. You sit at the bottom, bruised and throbbing, wondering how you got there, knowing there is no good reason; and, yet, here you are…

Man after man (and yes, men, this is endemic in your gender–don’t blind yourself with #NotAllMen–do something about it) questioned their stories, suggested the women should have murdered the perps, placed blame on “illegals,” argued against the statistics, wondered if they had been asking for it, demanded to know why they hadn’t reported the crimes immediately, &c., &c.

This frequent digest is not new for me. Over the years, I have sought out and processed dozens of narratives of assault (not least because they have come up so frequently in the recent news). The truth is, I have been struggling to come to terms with events that happened to me years ago–struggling to define it, to contextualize it, to put a name to it and move on. I remember every single detail, and, yet, I still grapple with the question: What actually happened?

Was it assault? No. Yes. Maybe. I don’t think so. Probably not. 

Was it nothing? No. Yes. Maybe. I don’t think so. Probably not.

Should I tell people? No. Yes. Maybe. I don’t think so. Probably not.

The statute of limitations for feeling bad about this is up.

– Christina Tesoro, “Not So Bad”: On Consent, Non-Consent, and Trauma, The Toast

After unsuccessfully relating these experiences to two friends–coincidentally (or not) these friends were both men–I decided to wait to speak up again until I knew the answers, until I could look back and be sure. Rather than talk it out with other people, I scanned article after article, my face a bright moon in the dark of my apartment, reflecting the blue light of my computer screen. Some of these articles were written by people I knew. Still, I lurked, always silent. I did not want to cheapen their narratives with my not knowing.

It has been exactly four years and five days since the first incident. I still haven’t found the right words, but I did find a very unexpected rainbow amidst the bewilderment and confusion.

I don’t remember when, exactly, I stumbled across Kesha’s story. I never downloaded or streamed any of her music. It was fun to bop around to in the bowling alley or processing film in the darkroom, but I preferred tunes of the acoustic variety. I sought lyrics that told stories and used words like “gloaming.” I was neither hot nor dangerous. I was, honestly, quite dowdy and very safe. The wildest thing I ever did in college was steal toilet paper and pizza from the dining hall.

That said, I noticed her absence.

When I learned that she was embroiled in a legal battle against her producer, Dr. Luke, over alleged sexual assault and verbal abuse, that she had sought treatment for an eating disorder, I immediately felt connected to her. I read article after article about power dynamics in the entertainment industry, the gaslighting and shaming of strong and vibrant women. I devoured any new information about the case that leaked. I cried (softly, briefly) alone when she lost.

The first single from Kesha’s new album dropped a few months ago, and I hesitated to click. While I had identified strongly with her struggle, I wasn’t so sure I’d be able to say the same about her music. Weeks went by before I finally took the plunge.

I was at my parents’ house. It was late and everyone had already gone to bed. I was reveling in the experience of surfing the net from the comforts of home. I clicked. I listened. Time stopped.

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Praying is not just a song. It is a powerful declaration of agency in the midst of uncertainty, an unequivocal proclamation of self. Stripped of the usual, often robotic trappings of pop music, Kesha belts out her strength and endurance in such a raw and human way that I was taken off guard. My eyes watered as she quietly sang of pride; a chill shot down my spine when she screamed the high note at the dramatic climax of the ballad; but my favorite moment by far was the sigh at the very end, so soft yet alive. I heard that sigh, and I felt relief.

If the morning of Friday the 13th started badly, it ended sweetly.

I had purchased tickets to see Kesha in Lakewood because I wanted to support her attempts to reinvent herself after her trial. When I received a complimentary copy of her new album, Rainbow, in the mail, I was even more jazzed to see her live. Unlike many young artists who transform their image, Kesha does not throw herself fully into a sober, white-clad purity. While she experiments with new sounds on the album, she doesn’t abandon the poppy beats that defined her earlier career. Rainbow confronts some heavy topics, but it is also infused with joy, irony, and reckless abandon. It is a very human album that deals as much with love, lust, and levity as it does with pain and redemption.

What I’m trying to say, I suppose, is that Rainbow belies the typical narrative we demand of women who experience trauma. A woman should not have to bear the burden of perpetual seriousness to prove themselves. Having been hurt does not mean a woman can’t still boogie.

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I arrived at the concert venue by bike, as I had planned to do ever since I purchased my ticket. As I stood in line, sandwiched between a group of chatty highschoolers in matching white bandeaus and men with more glitter in their beards than beard hairs, I realized that I may be the only person in the entire auditorium that was new to this. Unlike everyone else, I didn’t know the lyrics to the Kesha classics. I could sort of fumble my way through Tik Tok, but Take it Off was beyond my capabilities. None of that mattered. I could have arrived in a business suit and still have fit in. Everyone came dressed as themselves. That was the magic of it.

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Sadly, some people were not as generous as others. The opening band was objectively terrible, but having to hear the kids behind me complaining about it for an hour and booing loudly was really not cool. When, halfway through their set, the audience began chanting for Kesha to come on, I had to wonder if anyone in the building had ever been to a concert before. It’s one thing to be excited to see your pop idol perform live. It’s another to let that enthusiasm crush the spirit of someone else. Unfortunately, I witnessed this a million times over as the teenagers behind me disparaged the woman next to me for screaming too loudly, and the woman retaliated by calling them bitches (rinse and repeat the entire concert–Kesha’s urging us to love one another was clearly lost on them).

Despite the pettiness of my particular row, the concert was amazing. Held in the auditorium of a high school, all the proceeds from the concessions went to benefit the school’s arts program. There was no alcohol served, and I was the most sober I’d ever been for live music. The backdrop was simple–a rainbow curtain and two large, glittering gold stars, accented at various moments by showers of glitter and confetti, and–to Kesha’s teary-eyed surprise–a sea of paper-cut hearts held up at just the right moment. Exactly like the album, the concert was the perfect mix of revelry and realness.

I loved it.

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While I was standing in the audience, a glitterless void, I questioned why I had come. Was I a real fan if I didn’t like her older music? Did my understated outfit and serious demeanor preclude me from the ranks of her dedicated fanbase? I was on the verge of having no fun at all when I realized that it didn’t matter when her music had touched me. Regardless of when it first happened, everyone in the audience was there, like me, because Kesha had empowered them, had offered them a safe place to belong. Whether it was in 2010 or 2017, for all of us, Kesha had been a rainbow during dark times. We were all there to thank her.

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As I biked home, the headlamp attached to my handlebars lighting my way, I let myself coast downhill. For the first time in a while, I waited to use my breaks and let my speed lift my hair from the back of my neck as cool air filled my lungs. When the road finally leveled and my bike slowed to a stop, I sighed, so softly it was barely audible.

The world is a tough place, but some things, many things, are a-okay.

mind of a model

Almost four years ago, I entered a quiet studio in the back of an old, brick schoolhouse. I laid a blanket on a small upholstered couch, removed my glasses, stripped off my clothes, and stood naked in the middle of the room, surrounded by faces behind easels.

I wasn’t just standing, though. My right leg, which bore my weight in a bent knee, was in front of my body. My left leg stretched out to the side, and I could feel the pose pulling the muscles in my thigh. My toes gripped the paint-spattered wooden floor as my legs began to shake. Even for just two minutes, I realized, this pose had been ambitious.

Nevertheless, I was stubborn. I had bristled at the artists’ shock and gentle advice to try something easier to start. I was a dancer. I could do this, I assured them, and so I would.

When I tell people I am an art model, it is usually in coded, business-approved language. To those familiar with the art world, figure drawing is just as good as “I stand naked in a room full of strangers for three hours.” To the uninitiated masses, figure drawing is vague enough that they can imagine me sitting demurely in a chair, fully clothed. If, by chance, an acquaintance ventures to inquire further, I will respond honestly.

It’s a hobby not many understand. Thanks to that meme-famous scene in Titanic, people’s first thought is of plump lips, arched backs, and furtive, lamp-lit glances in lavish surroundings. I can almost see the scene playing in the back of their brain as their faces arrange themselves into a reaction. French girls, French girls, French girls… I can hear that iconic line echoing in their ears as their mouths form around a response.

“So…like Titanic?” they’ll inevitably ask, either fearfully or excitedly, depending on the person.

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And, here’s the thing: it’s nothing like Titanic.

To help dispel a few stereotypes about my little hobby, here are a few things that cross my mind when I pose. It may surprise you to learn that it is neither sexy nor scary to stand naked in a room full of artists. As with anything (talking to your cat like a human, watching Netflix in your underwear, accidentally grabbing the barista’s hand instead of your coffee mug), it just is what it is.

Posing. One of the most important jobs I have as a model is to come up with an interesting pose that can be held for the intended amount of time. I cannot simply plant my feet squarely on the floor with my arms at my side and stare at the wall. The artists want a challenge; they want to be pushed to practice difficult skills like foreshortening. I have to assemble myself in some attempt at contrapposto (pointing my knees in one direction and my nose in the other, subtly lifting one shoulder to lean against the back of a chair, an outstretched arm or a bent leg), while also acknowledging the limits of my body (where are my pressure points, how long can I stand upright, if my leg falls asleep up to the knee will I be able to walk afterwards), while also appearing believable. It does nothing to splay myself out like an octopus in a desert. Instead, I think: what do I look like when I’m tying my shoes? How does my back bend right before I stand up? Sometimes I do alright. Other times I forget what real people do with their bodies, and I come out looking a little like this:

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Bodily Functions. It makes sense that most people think the most awkward thing about art modeling is the nudity. We consider our bodies private often because we are programmed to think of them in sexual or shameful terms. I have my own qualms about my body, which I have written about before, but that’s not the point of modeling. It’s not about how you compare to imaginary French girls. It’s about how the shadows fall on your flexing muscles, how your bones support your flesh.

However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t concerns. A prick in the back of my nose becomes an overwhelming need to sneeze, the deep breath of a yawn threatens to pry my jaws open, my armpits grow sticky from sweat with no fabric to absorb it. I am always wondering how to avoid these things while keeping my face schooled and holding steady. Bodily functions, embarrassing bodily functions, dominate a solid portion of my modeling experience. One, in particular, is the most menacing: the dreaded fart.

It’s hard to fart in public when you’re wearing clothes and can easily distance yourself from the scene of the crime. Farting while naked is a whole different animal. If you try to hold it in, there is the worry that the artists will notice the sudden clench in your muscles. If you try to ease it out, there is always the chance that it will be like a trumpet heralding the arrival of a king, or that it will hang on the air like an unwelcome guest. Before releasing my captive flatulence, I must consider what I ate for lunch, the draftiness of the studio, the texture of the surface below my bottom.

There is a strategic approach to every aspect leading up to the final moment. Passing gas while naked is like going to war.

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Passing time. Poses can vary from two minutes to two hours, and, while my face must remain passive, my mind has permission to wander. There are sessions when my gears are turning remarkably well. I plan my week, I make personal resolutions, I consider the issues of the world. It can be extremely meditative and helpful to engage in an activity that requires I step away from a screen and just think. Other times, it can be a chore to occupy myself as I sit in silence save for the soft whispers of charcoal on paper.

Without my glasses, the world becomes a blur, so distracting myself with my surroundings is a fruitless task. Instead, I’ll throw it back to grade school with an old-fashioned times table test. Often, simple counting exercises are not enough to fill the entire period, and so I am forced to get creative. The list of mundane mental acrobatics I can conjure for my brain is extensive. I’ll say the alphabet backwards and forwards, then I’ll try to find a word in German to represent each letter. I’ll quiz myself on all the Presidents, and then I’ll go back to the beginning to list the Presidents and one event during their term in order. I’ll try to name as many of my teachers I can remember, from kindergarten to college. I even, sometimes, recall enough about Supreme Court cases to spend time listing their various stats and outcomes.

I like to think this keeps me sharp. If nothing else, it keeps me awake.

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Once the drawing session has ended, I’ll walk around and peek at the artists’ work. It’s pretty neat to see the different styles that have blossomed out of your poses, to see how different people translate your features to paper. Occasionally, an artist will gift me one of their sketches, and I’ll tuck it proudly away, sheepishly pleased by my own image. Sometimes I look like a goddess on a mountain. Other times, I appear gracefully pensive. I do not have a mirror at home, and so these sketches are a welcome glimpse, a precious reminder, of the body that carries my overactive mind.

Art modeling is a hobby, a skill I enjoy perfecting. It is my chance to engage in the creative world, despite having nothing but thumbs attached to my hands. It is a challenge and a joy, and sometimes ridiculously hilarious. So, the next time you meet an art model, I hope you imagine a well lit, cheery studio full of artists who care more about lines and shadows than the zit on the model’s elbow. I hope the last thing on your mind is James Cameron’s Titanic, unless, of course, you are watching James Cameron’s Titanic together.

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