Imposter

first published by great weather for MEDIA

 

You worry you enter rooms just for the free coffee. 

I write this into my notebook and leave it there, unattached to anything else. I try not to think about all the times I have walked into spaces I didn’t belong, or didn’t think I belonged. But this is not a story about coffee. Although, I am drinking some as I write this. No, this is about my life as an imposter.

I am approached by seven doors by the time I get to work. Some open and close without my hands pushing on them; some need to be messed with. I have a key to two of the doors, yet even when I’m inside, I’m not quite sure how or if I should be there.

I am a teacher. Some call me professor. Though that word sounds way too buttoned-up and makes it sound like I brush my hair or wear deodorant (I often forget).

Three days a week (sometimes four), I head into the Bronx and teach at a community college. Throughout the hour and fifteen minutes commute there, I read. Write in my notebook if there are enough words collected inside of me. Sleep. Stare at people staring at their phones. Marvel at the ways in which our lives can twist and turn us into so many different variations of being.

Every other week, I receive my paycheck and still grow astonished that I am getting paid to swell minds.

Growing up, I always thought teachers were aliens. Like flesh-covered dictionaries and encyclopedias. I firmly thought libraries of every book and fact lived inside their bodies, pressed up against their organs, which of course they knew all the names of. Ask a teacher anything and they knew the answer; this is what I believed.

My parents never put my report cards on the refrigerator like my sister. She was in the extra-advanced classes; I was in the low self-esteem club (yes, there was such a thing).

I wanted to be a veterinarian until I figured out I’d have to deal with blood and death. I thought about being a hairstylist, and then changed my mind to a pastry chef until I became a drug addict and that took me away for a bit.

I have been a nanny, a house cleaner, a barista, a bookseller. I’ve worked in a movie theatre, a diner, a dollar store, a fast food chain, a bagel shop. I’ve sold jewelry; I’ve sold my body.

Ten years ago, I never thought I would call myself teacher. What am I saying? Five years ago, I wasn’t sure I could call myself this. For most of my life, I never quite knew how to be. How to sit straight, how to socialize, how to be a girl, how to study, how to be bad, how to be good, how to remain.

I tell my students that doors represent an opening. An engagement with another side, land, perspective. I tell them that our bodies contain doors of varying sizes. Doors with padlocks; doors with police taped ribboned around; doors with broken locks. Doors with windows, screens, metal, wooden, translucent.

Even an imposter has a door to their insides. The problem is that sometimes they just don’t always know the way in or through.

I carried around an EXIT sign sewed into both my wrists from all the times I tried to walk out and jump off the ledge of this body. Yet I always found a way to get up and keep walking. But this is not a story about my mental illness and all the scars creating an alphabet on my skin.

I am an imposter. But maybe we all are? I mean, what qualifies any of us to be in any room? I want my students to remain and get their degrees, but that paper doesn’t necessarily get them into a room. Because then there are other STOP signs, which might assault their path like gender, race, class, religion, sexual orientation, must I keep going?

When I walk into the classroom, the students have no idea how nervous I am. Are they really going to listen to me? Me? But I almost flunked high school. I was a restless mess in college. And when I pass by the other teachers, I wait for them to ask me about my credentials. How many books I’ve read and if I’ve gotten through the literary cannon (definitely not).

In New York, where I teach, suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death for those ranging in ages of 15-34. Every semester, my students tell me about their depression. Their anxieties. Their losses and their fears. I do not tell them all the times and ways I tried to walk off the ledge of this body. How I still feel this urge…

I do not tell them because what I show them is far more important: I always come back. At the start of every class, I welcome them as writers (because they all are) and remind them to be as present as they can be. At the end of the semester, I tell them I will always be their teacher, even when we are no longer walking through the same door.

And yet, I still cling to this word of imposter. I’m not trying to deceive anyone, as the definition often suggests. It’s more about how I feel.

I scratch hate crimes into the death of my skin, dry from winter fornicating with its oils.

I find this in my notebook, dated a few months ago. I have a steady job and a magical spouse who I love and a dog and an apartment and things and nourishment, but this does not mean that I don’t fall sometimes. Mess up. Relapse into old behaviors. Hence, my self-stuck imposter label.

I worry that I am an imposter in my marriage because I don’t believe in this word. I’ve had no great examples around me, and even though it’s a word my people have fought to have access to (and won), I still feel unclear by it

I am an imposter hippie. Swallowed by panic attacks at marches and rallies. Hairy but hungry for all varieties of animal. Can I still be a non-conforming subculture beatnik, and live inside this queer-stained heteronormative lifestyle?

Recently in my Women’s Literature class, my students and I watched Lidia Yuknavitch’s TED talk titled, “The Beauty of Being a Misfit.” Though I have watched this many times, I still feel emotional throughout. She said, “Even at the moment of your failure, right then, you are beautiful. You don’t even know it yet, but you have the ability to reinvent yourself endlessly.” Afterwards, I asked the students to react and one announced that she felt like her soul had been touched. So often we don’t quite have the words to say how we feel or even what we are. And then someone else articulates it as though they have been swimming inside our lives, our brains. A student asked, “But what is a misfit?” And I let the other students answer: outsider, someone unlike the others, someone who doesn’t fit in.

Maybe being an imposter is like being a misfit. It’s this giant secret I have living inside me. Like seeds of my former lives growing in my gut, pushing it out. It feels like the reason I should not be welcomed, but maybe being an imposter is the reason I should be here.

I have an exercise I do with my students each semester. It is based upon all the times we are approached by boxes: a box to check off our gender, our race, socio-economic class, educational background, religion, etc. Before the students arrive, I tape up blank pieces of white paper all over the classroom. Then, I ask them to stand up and approach a piece of paper.

This is your box, I say. Think about all the times you are asked to check boxes that may not include what you are or how you see yourself. Boxes with someone else’s language and expectations. Boxes which aim to label you with words or categories you may not feel connected to. Boxes just not big enough to include your vocabulary. I tell them that these pieces of paper are their boxes. They get to fill it in with their words. In the past, students have written: mother, battered, divorced, misunderstood, smart, latina, multi-racial, brother, son, survivor, queer, human, pansexual, Muslim, and even a question mark.

I ask them to sit down when they are done and write in their notebooks about what it felt like to choose their lexicon. Then, we get back up and walk around the room, taking in each other’s language. We notice the repeated words, what we have in common, and what words surprised us. For some, this is their first opportunity to give away their self-identified language.

I absolutely hate labels, even though I wear this imposter one across my bound chest. And I wear other labels too, which I self-imposed. Do I do this before someone else does?

Dictionaries are thicker now, and so are we. In brain stem, worry lines, and flesh stretch.

Maybe we need new definitions? To take these words out of their tightly-sealed casings and wrap new syllables around them. Make room for more meanings. Expand the width of our doorways.

sharps: notes from a dormant cutter

previously published by great weather for MEDIA

 

I spent much of my teen years in a romantic entanglement with sharp objects. I hoarded staples–stretched away out of magazines, paper clips, safety clips, razor blades. I practiced various forms of mutiny on my skin. I felt in control, even though the only thing I was in was a dark cavern of sadness. meant to wake up feeling back cover crop

When I was sixteen, I met a girl called J with short, yellow hair like bristles of wheat and criss-crosses of sorrow all over her face. She’d scratch her cheeks and forehead with her fingernails, trying to invisible her pretty away. We met at mental hospital number three and although we both starting ‘dating’ two crazy dudes also in the psych ward (mine, a hallucinogenic boy who took too much acid and couldn’t trip his way out), I was really just in love with her.

At seventeen, in the back of math class, I took stretched out paper clip to the palms of my hands, because I was desperate to feel anything but numb. I counted the shapes my blood made, dripping out of my skin like morse code.

I loved my blood because it reminded me I had something alive inside of me. These sharps were like cat-calls to my skin: Hey, baby….follow me home. How about I show you a really good time?

There were days, weeks, even months, I tried walking away from sharps, from the bellows of scars which had begun to howl off my skin. But any addict knows wanting to stop and actually quitting are two very different movements.

One may reference the state of my forearms, where sharps and I dated on-and-off for fifteen years. We had a tryst two years ago, but the whole time I was thinking about someone else. Someone I hadn’t quite met yet.

They diagnosed me: cutter. Called me manic depressive, though I never reached those highs. My mom locked up the knives and suddenly sharps and I were like Romeo & Juliet, sneakily searching for ways to tangle in the night. I became very good at picking locks.

Razor blades were my mistress, disrupting relationships. We made love in numerous positions, invited in other toxins called pills and cocaine and called it an orgy. It was thrilling, but I was dying.

Now, it seems New Yorkers are hoarding box cutters, altering people’s faces and (false) sense of safety.

I will always be a cutter, just like I’ll always be a drug addict. But I’m not active. These tendencies are dormant and though I’m hopeful that they’ll remain asleep inside me, I work hard to keep away from the taunt and flirt of their haunt. I never thought I’d be frightened of something I was once so in love with. But I am. Immensely.

Sometimes, I envision it. Sitting, sandwiched between two other commuters, on the 4 train back to Brooklyn, with chalk dust on my fingertips and pant legs. Some human brandishing a box cutter, corroded in anger. Why are so many of us so angry these days? Some take it out on others with knives, just like I used to do on myself.

In this imagining, I can feel the unzip of my flesh, parting, making room for the rush of my blood. The panic. The true pain.

I asked my creative writing students to channel Baudelaire and Virginia Woolf in “A Street Haunting” and become flaneurs. Their experiment was to go to The Strand for a pencil. But if they never made it there, it didn’t matter. The emphasis was on wandering. Getting lost. Viewing life not from the glare of a cell phone, but from the unencumbered gaze of their eyes. Most of them had never been to this epic book shop before, so I was excited for their adventure.

At the end of class, a student came up to me and said, “I don’t think I can do this assignment.” I asked why. They explained that due to the slashings, their dad didn’t permit any trips outside of school and work.

On the train ride home, I traveled with fear curdling my veins. I became hyper-aware of the humans around me, particularly jumpy each time someone dipped their hands into their pockets.

I broke up with panic years ago; I’d rather not revisit its sensations of terror. I don’t want these slashings to stop me from existing. From traveling underground with strangers. From being a flaneur. I spent far too long trying to carve my way out of this world. I will not allow someone else to try to do the same.

it’s ok….actually…..please don’t smile.

WARNING: This post may cause abdominal pain. And it may increase digestion. And those who read this may develop bed sores on their bed side. Side effects may also include: increase of oxygen to most parts of the brain, teeth whitening, freckle recognition, harmonized memories and unambiguous thoughts.

******               ******               ******                  *****

Resting against my face is not a smile. I used to take pills to push one into my skin like the imprint a foot makes in the sand. But there were all those side-effects and suddenly a smile just wasn’t worth all the small print tumbling me into nightmares, dry mouth, loss of sexual appetite and on and on.

I walk on Utica Avenue in Brooklyn from home to subway and three different humans (all male-bodied) stop me and say, “Smile!” as though I had forgotten how.

On the train, I study the commuters who travel like I do and try to decipher the language of their faces. I realize that my lips are turned downward. I lift one side, not quite into a smile but less than a frown. Then, I stop myself. Who am I manipulating my lips for?

I enter a room and collect a bouquet of “How are you’s”. I answer wisely: “Well” or “Good, thank you.” But what I want to utter is: “Troubled, at times” or “Feeling stifled by language which I cannot connect to myself” or “Traumatized by my trip here” or “Okay, but I’d really like to be better.”

My father reads my blog. Tells me my posts have grown sad. I want to tell him that my words are all from the same seed. That the soil they live inside is sometimes colder and sometimes rotten and sometimes neglected but always feeling. I want to tell him that I am a writer and words cannot all be yellow with three dimensional, rotating suns singing in unison. Sometimes syllables shake and have to sit down.

I just don’t want to fake it anymore because in that fake there is tragedy. I want to frown in plain sight; how terrible it feels to be in hiding.

At night, our faces can rest. No one needs clarity when the lights are turned down and we travel into REM. We can wince and we can furrow and we can twist our flesh into sorrowful sighs. And how beautiful and how real all that is. To just rest in a face you really feel without having to make someone else more comfortable.

It’s okay……really…..please…..don’t smile…..just be.

how to be found

originally posted on great weather for MEDIA

 

how long until/ the limbs become/ just/ skin’s memory 

 

I travel west to contact every doorframe and window hinge I have ever touched. I want to know if they remember my fingerprint configuration. I need to know I am impactful.

In my pocket are three words I did not know before three days ago and one references a fruit I have trust issues with: aubergine. I contemplate renaming myself this word because I like the sling of its third syllable slapping tongue against roof of mouth. Is it ever too late to retitle oneself?

My mother calls me while I am pretending to write and she goes off script. She tells me my uncle has passed away. How long until a body loses its shape? And what shape does it become? Death lay there in his body for at least three days until. Until.

How to be found.          Out.

While living in suburbia, as a teenager with a license, I walked out of my psychology class one day with a mission to drive to my favorite park and hang myself. I was without weaponry, but I much preferred DIY techniques anyway. No one noticed when I walked out, right as the teacher—with three day beard or lipstick on teeth, I cannot recall—was offering a lesson on fight/flight and the biology of mental illness (or perhaps something completely unrelated). Slowly, I walked through the school parking lot to find my car, which really my sister’s, and it was red with only two doors. If I listened to the radio, I would have searched for Nirvana to scream his suicide notes into my ear.

This was the 90’s.

This park I liked was small, with evidence of duck excrement littering the ground like confetti. I did not care enough to watch where I walked; I just wanted to find the perfect tree to keep me elevated.

I ask my mother how he died and she does not know. I use a word like autopsy because of movies and over-saturated crime television programs like CSI and Law and Order. I need to know that even after addiction and depression, one finally reaches an age of understanding and stillness. I need to know I won’t want to revisit that tree with DIY weaponry when I am in my sixties.

I was fifteen when Kurt Cobain died. Less than one year later in 1995, I will try what he succeeded at, choosing pills and knives over shotgun. When Kurt died, everyone around me draped themselves in capes of flannel. When I die, I wonder if everyone will dye their hair red or just head to work because. Because. Why not.

On my travels west, I reach a doorframe found in an old school house, now called apartment complex. I licked the doorknob to see if it still tasted of me. All I can report is my tongue felt like pocket lint and pennies for the rest of the day. There was no sign of recognition.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, an American commits suicide every 12.9 minutes. In the course of writing this, at least four people have died.

I ask my mother once again about an autopsy, sounding out each letter slowly. Don’t you want to know? I ask. But I know that I am really asking me.

The last song Kurt Cobain recorded with Nirvana was titled, “You Know You’re Right” and I wonder if we ever really do. The lyrics haunt like the loudest lover you never could get over.

Kurt growls, “No thought was put into this/ I always knew it’d come to this/ Things have never been so swell/ And I have never failed to fail.”

The tree refused to elevate me on that day I casually escaped the confines of high school. Instead, I carved my name into a bench that faced a manmade lake. I contemplated what I was contemplating. Almost twenty years later, I look up that lake on the computer, and find that it has a yelp page. People express joy for its vastness; a perfect place to picnic; a spot for fishing or handholding. I ponder submitting my thoughts on the trees and how they may have saved my life that day, when I might have contributed to the census of Americans who end their time. How many stars would I give and would I mention that I used to think this park was a perfect spot to die, but now I just think it’s the right place to remember how to be found.

but also because of this.

[for Lily.]

 

You asked me when I started writing. Where did it begin and what caused it.

I mentioned Lou Reed. Bob Dylan. My sister’s old boyfriend, my favorite, who encouraged me to poem and to hippie. I mentioned that assembly freshman year of high school when I read a poem that caused all the teachers to warn my parents that I might try to Sylvia Plath myself. I mentioned open mics and giving up my dream of being a pastry chef.

But also because of this.

I started writing when my razor’s blade grew dull. And I started to write when I ran out of girls to kiss. And

I write when I binge on too much food, and feel the need to purge something.

Here’s the thing:

I’ve been writing letters to this old, white guy named Richard Brautigan, who keeps feeding my book shelf.

And I think of my student who asked me: Prof, why do so many writers off themselves? 

And I said, because so many come from tragedy & addiction & too much sadness to be cured by prescriptions, and it is the writing that keeps them alive, until….it just no longer can.

So I write to stay alive. Until I no longer can. And then maybe someone who needs a reason to remain will find me. And I will feed their bookshelf. And we all can just keep saving each others’ lives. One poem, one story, one page at a time.

how to address a scar

I didn’t expect you to be here this long.

I was in math class, grade ten and you were just supposed to keep me from jumping.

When James B. told my best friend, Drew in 12th grade, that I should just kill myself already, you kept mocking me with your inability to go away.

I didn’t know you’d grow louder in the summertime, from sun baking you into a starring role on my arms.

My mother remembered a commercial for a cream that could be rubbed on scars to vanish them away. “They may not disappear completely,” she said, “but at least they won’t be so visible.” I cried that night, realizing how forbidden you are.

I was dressed in just skin and water, in a bathtub that belonged to me due to monthly rent payments and name on mailbox. When I was a kid, it was the water, which washed away my chalk drawings; I thought maybe it would wipe away the carvings on my hips too.

Hello. Yes, I remember the first time. And I also remember Rachel, from the mental hospital, teaching me other ways to push myself off ledges after all the sharps have been taken away.

No, I really meant it when I said that I find scars sexy, because it is a reminder we have given ourselves permission to falter.

Age nineteen, I am in the only car I ever owned—a green Honda Civic I titled: Quentin Antoin McKenna. At the gas station, the attendant looks at my forearm as I hand him a ten-dollar bill and he makes a comment, which reminds me there is no escaping this billboard of sadness.

I am engaging in an activity that some people call sex and the one pressed against me grabs my wrist and rubs callused thumb against what is raised. Calls it braille. Asks to read the rest of me.

You twitch each time you see others like you. Thunder against my skin knowing how similar we all are. How sad we all are. How in need of other languages we all are. How loud we all are. How brave we are. How desperate we are to survive and yet desire to die we all are. How. How. How. How. How. How. How. How. How. How. How. How. How. How. How.

cutting.

No one taught you how to cut your hair but on the seventeenth year of your lunglife, you grabbed rusty scissors from all those times your mother cut open packages of meat and cut away your knots. Your length. the girl from you.

You heard a scream and wondered if your follicles could feel. You stopped, briefly and listened to where the howls were coming from.

Scissors? Your fingers?

Your mother, just on the other side of the door, which had opened without your knowing.

Your mother, with frosted tips because that is what mothers did back then. They highlighted parts of their hair to make up for the parts of themselves they couldn’t.

Your mother, who grabbed scissors and gasped at the river of curls colliding on the floor of your bedroom, messy from an episode of rage several hours earlier.

Your mother, who bled out words of anger, spoke, “Why do you make yourself so ugly?”

You look in the mirror and then at her. To mirror, then her. See the genes of her genes in your face. Shared ears of protrusion. Shared spots on face called freckles. Shared mental illness.

You do not pause, before jumping into the pool of hair below you. You try out your swimming postures as you butterfly and breaststroke into the waves of girl against wood. You flap and spread your skinny arms, coating yourself in tangle.

And then.

And then.

You drown. Forgetting your inability to swim.

Your mother? She is too caught up in the state of your scalp to save you from the flood of your suffocation.