Our Bodies, Our Hopes

Yesterday morning at my local coffee shop, I had the sudden urge to tell the woman sitting by the window that her body was beautiful. You see, her body looked like mine, and not many others do. I suspect many people feel the same way about their own bodies. And, since we can’t see ourselves except transposed, it’d been awhile since I’d seen a body like ours.

I instantly recoiled at the thought of a woman I had never met telling me that my body was beautiful at 8:30am while I was trying to work before working through my first cup of coffee. And so I didn’t.

I didn’t tell her that I was so happy to see her beautiful body. Our beautiful body.

Afterwards, I thought about writing this piece and how exactly I would describe our bodies.

The first word that came up was “womanly.”

I hate that word.

What bodies aren’t “womanly”? And what’s worse are all the things that a “womanly” body implies: Full hips and lips, grace (whatever that is, anyway), shaved, waxed, toned into submission. Soft yet powerful. Sound like a Dove ad yet?

Womanly bodies also mean womanly functions. Specifically, in a very non-intersectional heteronormative able-ist way, womanly bodies who are “built” to bear children.

My womanly body does not want children. As far as I’m concerned, my uterus is about as important to my daily life as an appendix or a gallbladder. Sure, it does stuff, but I don’t really need it.

In fact, I’m fairly sure that my womanly body was built to house me. And it’s my choice if I want to share that space with another lifeform, whether that be through penetration or impregnation. My womanly body has no responsibility to anyone but me, and I get to choose how and when to alter the perimeters of that relationship.

The second word that came up was “contoured.” No, I thought. Contouring is what you do with make-up and jet-engine designs.

But how to describe our bodies? I realized there was absolutely no way to describe our bodies without somehow drawing upon their (supposed) sexual or reproductive functions or some other sexualized or mechanized functions.

As a feminist, I’d known for a long time that it’s difficult to divorce sexualization from bodies—especially from women’s bodies. But it hadn’t occurred to me until recently how difficult it is to divorce reproduction from women’s bodies. Women’s bodies are seen as always already reproducing. In the public eye, we could be pregnant or potentially pregnant at any time. This follows the assumption of wanting to be pregnant at any time, especially those of us who are…so “womanly.”

And I don’t shame or look down on any woman who does want to use her body to have children. In fact, Western society does not do enough to support women who make this choice, and even more so the women who did not have a choice to make and found themselves in the same position.

Just as we have gone a long way in separating sex from reproduction, it’s important to begin to think of the ways we can rhetorically separate reproduction from the body.

 

 

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How did we ever come to know dandelions as weeds?

It’s spring in my neck of the suburban Midwest, which means the denizens of this fine region are finally extracting themselves from their abodes after a long winter’s Netflix binge.

Today was the first day in a long while that I sat on the back patio working and reading into the late evening. As the sun went down, I looked up at the blue and pink sky, etched with upward bound jet contrails. The birds’ calls and responses were occasionally drowned out by the neighbor screaming “you better fucking behave” to an unheard child and various SUVs emanating with cool bass beats as they drove through the alley behind my backyard. In short, it was an idyllic scene conducive to a postmodern communion with “nature.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about nature lately. Or, at least, how humans interact with nature. I am currently filling in for an undergraduate environmental literature class, and we just finished reading Wendell Berry, including his poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” In the poem, the speaker orders, “Give your approval to all you cannot/ understand. Praise ignorance, for what man/ has not encountered he has not destroyed./ Ask the questions that have no answers.”

What a charge. For Berry, ignorance is bliss; it is survival. What I don’t know I cannot hurt. And, perhaps more pointedly, what I don’t know perhaps cannot be known.

Berry is anti-capitalist and pro-environment. His work centers around a return to the land, that is to say sustainable farming, understanding the need for things like biodiversity, hard work, and labors of love. But to be anti-capitalist and pro-environment means much, much more, and for many people, his life is impossible, especially in a world increasingly predicated on debt-accumulation in order to purchase land. Capitalism doesn’t let anyone exit gracefully.

Instead, looking past Berry to decolonizing our local environment, the place we are here and now instead of where we dream we will be, is a better place to begin. As the golden light of evening fell on the eastern fence of my small city backyard, I looked across the small patch of land that is my “farm”—to be fair, we’ve tilled up half of it and have two active compost piles. In the middle of the yard, a bit of preserved grass increasingly turning to weeds has bloomed with dandelions and other small flowers. A few dandelions stems stood tall among the rest, half-used globes of white fuzz stretching upward to give its seeds the best chance at strong trade winds.

I felt ashamed for thoughts earlier in the day. I had been admiring the beautifully manicured lawns of the neighbors, cognizant of the discipline and punish fertilizer and seed regimen necessary to birth such perfection. At that moment, I looked out over where I was now and wondered: How did we ever come to know dandelions as weeds?

Because we are told so.

 

 

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On the Bodily Pain of Protest

 

Martyrdom is easiest when you know the ending. It’s the waiting, the continuing struggle toward a diminishing goal post, that is one of the hardest parts.

I am part of a group that has been occupying the administration building of Purdue University in protest again the lack of administrative outcry against fascist posters put up around campus in late November. A group of students, and some faculty and staff, have been occupying the atrium of the administration building, just a flight of stairs away from the President’s office, since January 20th. We argued that if the administration did not take a firm stand against fascism and white supremacy on campus, it would continue to rear its ugly head. The fascists are here, we warned. But the administration line was, and has continued to be: we don’t really know what the posters are saying; don’t give them too much attention, that’s all they want.

And then, on March 8th, International Women’s Day, there were more posters, anti-feminist in observance of this special day, of course. This time, they arrived with the mark of another fascist group. The fascists, it seems, are here to stay, emboldened by the current political climate. We radicals are here to stay, too.

We have clear demands. We are defiantly committed. We are unexpectedly well organized. We even have a snack suitcase.

You can read all the radical theory you want, all the books about the Paris Commune, and strikes and marches. What they forget to tell you about is the pain. Not the pain of torture, death, or imprisonment, but the self-imposed pain of protest and struggle.

How can I describe the labor of nothingness on the waiting body?

It’s the pain in your toes that refuse to unfurl, the long muscles of your neck taunt like the reins leading to a horse muzzle, the searing reminder of pulled back muscles, the vice-grip headaches from too many convenient carbs.

It’s the tightening in the small of your back that refuses to be released except by a cocktail of ibuprofen, hydration, and precise stretching that produces a crackling sound reminiscent of hungry teeth extirpating a pork rind.

It’s the daily exhaustion of rushing to sit, to occupy space, to simply be, within the confines of a harsh man-made space that was constructed to be nothing more than a linear space through which to pass.

It’s the bodily commitment to the static, and the physical and mental consequences of such an anti-human, inorganic commitment.

Four weeks in, at a public meeting, our representatives decried the fact that we thought we had been there a long time. It’s ridiculous, we echoed to each other with nods of recognition. Yet, we persisted. At the time of composition of this piece, we’ve more than doubled that four weeks. In fact, it has now been forty days of occupation: A Lenten observation for the radical soul.

When shall we rise off the floor of our discontent and step back into the light of our lives? That is not within my power to say. So, here we remain in our bodies. Working. Waiting. Existing.

 

 

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On Dreaming Escape

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When I was a young child, I would lay awake at night and travel. I had read one of those late 80s magazines about everything supernatural and, along with a young adult novel whose title I forgot long ago, I was summarily convinced that I should, at the very least, give astral projection a try.

This is not a piece about how astral projection works.

What I discovered then, though, was that if I focused enough during the day–many religions and practices call it mindfulness or extended concentration–I could recreate my environs before falling asleep every night. I could recreate not only sights, but also smells, textures, sounds, tastes. I could approximate reality, and I could direct it. Often, my visualizations led to me experiencing an area utterly alone, unaccompanied by an adult.

I can still feel the metal pole with flaking maroon paint that led up the awkwardly spaced stairs to my elementary school.

I can still smell the musty freshness of my narrow bunk in our camper–a space where I learned that sometimes close can be comforting.

I can still see the small sand castles the worms created with their waste, only visible when consistently eye level with the ground looking through the grass blade forests.

I grew up on dreaming escape.

But now, I dream escape to places both real and imagined, except I can make my imagined placed real. When I desperately yearned to be out of college apartment housing, I walked my dream house hundreds of times. I knew the bedroom carpet, the corner in the garage where the spiders held their congress, the under-performing garden in the back. I harvested my doubtful bounty.

Lately I’ve been dreaming of land. As I approach it from the road access point, I can see tall scrub brush at the foot of towering pines. There are some low lying areas not too far to the right, behind the first gathering of trees; we’ll want to proceed cautiously because we’ve had a few days of rain. A squirrel chatters aggressively at my intrusion, and I obliquely apologize. I want to build a life here, a house, perhaps. Welcome anarchist scholars from around the world to visit my library barn that will be just over there on that rise to think and talk and learn. I can smell the fresh cut wood, see the shelves and shelves of books I will ship in, run my hands along their spines. The dark head of an eminent scholar over there, looking up from his reading to consider and sip good, dark coffee.

But so much detail is tiring. It’s tiring to build such a perfect life in lifetime, let alone in an hour as day turns to night.

And it’s tiring to return to a world where I can’t really escape. My dreams all revolve around isolation, a carousel of single horses with a haunting tinny tune. I’ve come to the realization lately that not only can I not separate myself from the world to live my life, if I would do so,  it would not be my life. I’m in too deep. I can’t quit now; organizing and political analysis has seeped into my bones. It has made them strong, yet fragile. I can’t live without new injections every so often.

The symptoms of withdrawal include anger, followed by depression, some crying, and staring at the ceiling. Soon, a sense of purposelessness, desperation, and hopelessness replace each strong cell in my body. Retreating within myself is exactly what I cannot do if I want to remain.

I dream of escape not because I’m not capable of leaving, but because I know I won’t survive if I attempt it.

 

 

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On Being Little

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I’m only five foot tall, but most people would tell you they’d never know it. I might be small, but I’m loud. I’ve got a high-pitched Disney princess voice that carries as far and wide and James Earl Jones’ soothing baritone. I’m the friend you have to hush in the library, the next booth over in the restaurant, the one who speaks just a little too loud, a little too much, a little too often. The one who doesn’t need a microphone at a protest or a rally.

But sometimes, when someone uses that voice with me, I shut up. I shut down. I’m out. You know that voice, the one your father, or your mother, or maybe your teacher used with you. The one that mockingly tells you that you’re stupid, that you’ve done something so incredibly offensive that you don’t deserve to be here. You don’t deserve to be you.

I’m an intelligent, educated, radical, loving, and loud woman, and that voice cuts me down every single time. It stops me in my tracks. It makes me feel as small as I am, smaller than I am. Smaller than a human can possibly be.

“We can’t be doing that.”

“I’m glad everyone’s being so quiet right now.”

“Why would you even think that was okay to do?”

“What were you thinking?”

I was not thinking, clearly, as you do. I was not expecting the talons of your hatred to come ripping me apart from this, your aerial position of trust.

I tell myself that that voice comes from a position of smallness itself. In its sarcastic, hateful mockery, it works to bring me down to its level. It is literally a voice of belittling, to make little, because little is not loud, little does not take up space, and little is never in the way of power or authority. Little is accommodating and nice and sugar and spice. Little is there to help, to be told what to do, to live vicariously through and just for you. Little gets shut up, put away, put out in the trash. Little gets left behind.

So, you see, that voice wants you and me to be little because if we’re not little, we’re big. If we’re big, we fill up the space that it can otherwise fill with hate. We’re in the way, we’re defiant and definite. We matter because we are matter, and if we get purposefully madder and madder and madder we can’t be little by being belittled.

Yet, no matter what I tell myself, what I know to be true, I can’t help feel the heat of my shame well up behind my eyeballs that are diverting their gaze to the floor. I can’t help but feel the lump of my self-hatred expand in my throat as it constricts to stop, to prevent, my voice. I can’t help but feel the aftershocks, the hot flashes of embarrassment that show up as rosy pink splotches on my face and neck hours, days after when I’m alone and stumble, accidentally, into my mind working through my most private of my most public of humiliations.

I am the loudest woman I know, but that voice is still too much for me.

 

 

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