Aren’t bodies like road trips? Rotating needs from fuel to rest to wonder and even occasional souvenir purchases. The scars on my body are just that—souvenirs—from all the shapes I have been and the ones I needed to adjust. And the ones I gave away. And the ones collecting dust. And the shapes I have yet to give a name to.
“Words change depending upon who speaks them; there is no cure.” –Maggie Nelson
You say it is uncomfortable. Words are a puzzle without illustration guiding you in and it would be so much easier if we stopped changing our minds about what we are.
You say there is a choice and when you throw those two letters up in the air, you just cannot fathom why heads shake and bodies want to hide because choice should not be determined by strangers.
You say pink or blue but not both and never other shades such as taffy or aegean or flamingo or admiral. You say that department stores separate their fabrics for a reason.
You say there is a book which decides what words mean and one cannot change meanings without consultation but but but.
What would happen if we just stopped worrying about inconveniencing others and spend a day, week, month, hour, rest of our lives living inside the vocabulary, accessories, music of who we are determined by the source that matters most: ourselves.
first published by great weather for MEDIA
I am waiting for the 4 train at Fulton station. Bodies surround me like a parade of run-on sentences. We are all experiencing this madness of human congestion together. I am pressed against the wall because there is nowhere else to lean. A human walks past me wearing legs longer than Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. Another passes me by and if I were to press adjectives shaped as boxes into their skin, they’d all combat each other. Some humans just cannot be labeled. They are rare; they are unclassifiable.
Or. Maybe I am looking at this all wrong. All humans cannot be labeled. We are all rare; we are all unclassifiable.
In a recent article by Laura Haines about the complexity of gender, “Not as Simple as XX or XY”, she wrote, “…rare is not a reason to dismiss possibility or to dismiss a real person’s humanity. Rare still exists. Rare walks around and has feelings, faith, needs, and rights. If anything at all, rare should move us to expand our horizons along the planes of love, grace, and acceptance.”
I spread this quote onto the board at school and ask my students what this means to them. We break down the various meanings hidden inside rare: unique, different, other, special.
I ask them: Are you rare? Do you want to be rare?
This conversation comes out of one that arrived a few weeks ago when we were discussing the openness of identity. Can someone choose their identity? I asked. And can it change? Or must it be static?
When we are approached by something or someone we do not understand, it can be difficult to know what to say. It may feel like a challenge to learn them. Sometimes we just walk away or we make assumptions. This just creates a further gap between us.
A student answered, “It’s confusing when I don’t know how to approach someone.”
I said, “If we judged every book by its cover, we’d be severely disappointed. The best parts are the words. You miss out when you don’t even take a moment to peer inside.”
In an interview, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates said, “You are your body” and in class we talked about all the ways we are pushed out of it. When we do not look like someone recognizable, we are isolated. Called names. Misunderstood.
In a world where we are replacing our tongues with loaded guns and speaking through them, I fear that we are forgetting the beauty of rarities. When I don’t understand something, I ask questions. A lot of them. I want to understand. I want to learn the language of as many identities as I can; in fact, I am still learning mine.
I want to be rare and I want to live in a world where oddities are celebrated, not removed.
Just think of every time you learned a new word and it brought you closer to seeing more clearly, to articulating yourself more and the world around you. People….especially the rare ones…can offer you that too.
Colorado-based writer, j/j hastain, is a flood of words. An ocean of energies and crossings. In j/j’s newest collection, Priest/ess Trilogy, worlds are entered and examined. Gender is questioned. Body becomes a new alphabet. After digging through these texts, I sent along some questions to j/j and was lucky to receive incredible words back.
AIMEE: With all that is troubling our country these days–doors and walls and STOP signs and HATE crimes, I want to know what keeps you here. What allows you to endure?
j/j: Here is where?
You mean what keeps me on planet? Not taking my own life and not yet having had it taken by another? Or here—on the precipice of vitality? Here—intentionally inhabiting body as it grows me through from Richter (various rough realities in on-planet trajectories) to psychic, material and energetic riches (realties which exceed on-planet rough patches)? Here—as in legs wide open to the oncoming matter? Mouth open to the gale? Hands open to the pelting hail? Here—the tender pride of complex gender between lover and me—between me and inner circle? Here—in the bedchamber where the light is taking over—finally leading to unconditional love songs of merge undeniable? Particles burgeoning to touch other particles in a manner conducive to both on-planet and off-planet versions of heaven?
My sense is it took more to get me here than it takes to keep me here (even if I have experienced it taking quite a lot to keep me here at times in process). Pre-incarnate negotiations can be complex—and I was not positive I was going to return—not because of lack of love for Earth and her inhabitants—but because of other commitments off-planet I was busy completing. Erecting crystal castles (no joke!)—creating heaven off-planet just as Gaia’s glistening age ensures by dimensional communion with God—heaven is possible on-planet.
It came down to this: if I chose to come here I—personally—believe it only makes sense to stay here, creating.
For me, endurance is plainly about will. Quite different than being—which is what “here” is all about. So—I guess I see the two correlating but they are certainly doing different things in/as me.
A: What elicits your words and the directions they take?
j/j: In many ways it’s a kind of matured obedience (not the negative implications of that word)—as refinement in (co) cadence—that drives the language. Drives. But the direction it takes is its own. Just like East and all of its emanations are its own, same with South, West, North, Below, Above and Within. Within is its own directionality. Due to this, Within goes Within.
What elicits the words in the first place? Cross-world alchemies and the reverb (intonation/vibration) that carries information back and forth between figural ‘lovers’ across spans. Words such as these—bridges and bows. Words—conduits, conductors, creases and crimps—artful agendas. Words—‘safe words’ or “no” or give it to me as a thought-form (push me past where I perceive my edge to be while fucking me, baby) between gritty bodies in the bed. Words—carnage of forefather dying into the land and becoming the beets and other root vegetables that forefather’s offspring picks to cook for dinner.
A: Can you talk about the disrobing of your vocabulary?
j/j: I am all about the disrobing that happens in charged scenario when someone is taking these robes off of me. Heat, dizziness. The musk of animals preparing to mate. Therefore—it could happen with most pleasure for me by nakedness of content, of cadence—even of the fact of writing becoming light (life)—by another wanting to see it naked.
Sure—this is the lover—but in this way—any reader can make the page blush like a virgin so happy on her wedding night to be joined, finally, with her Beloved. The naked page a “her”—though not necessarily a traditional (or gen) female nor a femme.
A: In Priest/ess, you wrote, “We can be ethical harvesters of secrets. We can make secrets edible to that most enigmatic child: the third eye.” Can you talk about your practice of spirituality?
j/j: Both secretive and extremely transparent—like all useful tools which assist in processes enhancing soul evolution would need be. When dealing transparently in the languages of secrets what would arise? Tracts and ducts wherein and whereby Divine could_________. To stimulate divinity by divining (designing) a space? What lyrical stimulus would flow? What idea by which wisdom becomes queered? Modern mystic is so—not by their own self-distinction as such—but by the sound of their gesture coming back to them. Like in Shamanism—it is the space-made—then inhabited by Divine—that is a fullness able to be used for positive transactions, transmissions, transmutations in the world (due to it touching another).
I want to provide a place in the world, on planet—where spirit can spurt because I have been rited as a place where spirit can spurt—and spirit spurting—offering another an opportunity to be involved in such elixir, potion, Amrita—the Grail waters filling the lake.
Any act dedicated to Divine—to God/dess or “Ma”—can be her efflorescence, her flowering. Festivity of flow. It’s a love thing—an offspring thing—what comes from me vivifies in a manner similar to from whence it came.
What are my values?
The Beloved, queer aphrodisiac (queer aphrodisiac is my patriotism). Reach (through queerness or through that which is not queer: both result in knowledge having been queered), receive and offer as what make the lemniscate circuit whole. Creatrix gender the genius activator.
A: How do you harvest your history?
j/j: Following guidance from “Ma” to the “T.” Taking great care with what I am being shown must be done for the betterment—for the best foot forward and best face expressing.
Literal answer to this—I once kept all of my old journals and diaries locked in a blue chest. This chest looked like the kind one would find pirate treasure inside. I would visualize it—sinking into the deep and never being found. Covered over with sea dirt and foam—sea detritus—from the urges of the rocking. Kept—truly kept by The Mother. Keeping me a secret. Keeping her promise to me.
When I was guided by Ma to open the blue chest and begin to integrate with an urgency I had never previously felt I did as I was told. I like doing what I am told in this type of regard. It is kinky. What I found within? Overwhelm of psychic spills, love poems, wanderlust widdershins, evening renderings, seedlings of the queer manifesto. I was shocked. Who I am was gathered right there—in a compostable heap below my wide-open legs. How would I integrate this? What could be harvested? By what manner made most sense?
A: How do you feed your present(s)?
j/j: Sense of self. Moving identity. Trans names. Presence in present tense is quite infused for the multi-dimensionalist. To be—though the most basic of human birthrites—is sometimes not the easiest place to be. What brightens it? Mystical gender. Mystical gender the face —the emanation that comes off of sexual chi. How does my sexual chi dress? What are its chosen mantles, negligees?
A: While reading your books, there were times I would just flip to a page and follow its language in the way I did when I read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. It felt like stones toward a path, guiding me. What was your intention in writing these books?
j/j: Intention has the word tent in it. Refuge. For whom? For whomever comes with open heart into the tent with intent to enable hearth. It is less the “who” and more the “how” of orientation. An ape would do well in here—loving the world it loves. This notion—of “toward a path” is aligned with what I want. Living pages leaning. The full forest of trees—the mouth full of songs—the body full of moans—the being full of promise finding itself in a state of promises fulfilled.
A: In Priest/ess 2, you described your blood as ritualistic. As adornment. As worn. You wrote, “…my blood does not indicate my gender but my animality, blood remaining that which heals various dysphorias (like virginity being taken) rather than causing dysphorias.” Can you explain what you mean by this? In what ways are you animal?
j/j: I am an animal like an animal sweats—like sex has a particular smell to it depending on the way one’s lovers and their hormones mix. She calls the way mine smell, “salted caramel.”
I am an animal like it keeps walking even with a broken or missing leg. I am an animal in the way the consciousness meets with the physical/material dimension to refine/revise/play out pre-incarnate commitments and by that adds consciousness to planet. There is more to put in than to take out. We need not deplete our phenomenon of a planet (Earth) just because we are depleted. There is life-force to be found. Howl at the moon—not a cliché but an animal ritual in which very real moonlight shines back down and into the outstretched mouth.
I am the kind of animal that knows what I need by living closely with Earth rhythms. Fuck when it is time to fuck. Breathe deeply in the afternoon sun as the nap happens—let the body be what it came here to be. Drink water (resource) freely from resource. Draw both intentional and unintentional shapes (both beautiful) as the path. The path followed was always also the path created.
A: I love what you wrote about the pronouns in your body. You wrote, “I constantly do psychic surgery on myself: trim this here, add that here.” Can you speak about the process of this “surgery” and how it has become part of the ceremony of your evolving self?
j/j: It is nip and tuck by my own hand. I go to myself for revision. To what future versions of me do I want to be aligned? What is required of me orientationally in time and space to manifest the highest frequency vision I can see for myself? Who am I?–replaced by I am. I am is not a state in time and space. It is a vibration, self as vista or environment. In this I have every right to dead-head the roses that are depleting essence, weakening the functionality of my stem.
How is it a ceremony? I am intent with it. Intelligent design with an end-result in mind—result of which is vitality increasing—versus aesthetic. Ultimately I want my aesthetic to be inspired by what is going on inside me. Gender musks in the gender folds.
A: Something I ask my students each semester is to draw a STOP sign in their notebooks (the shape) and then fill it with all the words that STOP them from completing their goals, their desires, their dreams. What holds them back. I explain that writing it down offers a release. A way out of it. To move through and past. If I were to ask you to do the same, what might fill your STOP sign (words or images) and can you explain your process of moving forward?
I love what you wrote about indulgence in Priest/ess 3. “…doing so is not simply some pleasurable indulgence. This isn’t eating cake. It’s a mouth-full of putrid water from which it is hard to discern the future from. Within the mouth-full are tadpoles swimming. Are new rules begging? It is challenging to go completely into the scream: rite-like exhausting.” Can you speak on this challenge. The shape and smell of this “scream”? What is gained from this indulgent ritual?
j/j: (I want to start by saying I don’t regularly spend time doing releases that affirm what is holding me back—because affirming I am being held back is not useful for my manifestational agenda— though I do understand the value of cathartic releases of many types). This process, for me, would be more physical. Through somatic abundance being increased by dance in physical plane—it would be more like no thoughts, no words or ideas—simply fiercely shoving my own chi through the vessel of body (physical world) as a way of amplifying consciousness within it—then holding that kind of blowing-into-the-balloon—until I can feel it is on the edge of what it can currently contain—balloon-skin stretched out completely. Red balloon looking almost orange or even see-through. From that point—my toxins kept in the satchel made buoyant by my intention with breath—I let go. It is a mystery what happens next. Sometimes—the balloon slams to the ground and breaks open—toxins leaking down the niches and into the river to be purified by its curves and pounds. And sometimes—that laden balloon actually floats. Such floating state might be how a poem is made.
A: Writing is so solitary, though I (especially while reading your work) imagine your process as a collaboration with Earth. With land, water, soil, the creatures beneath feet. Can you lead us on a walk? What you see/hear/smell and how that fuels your creative process?
j/j: Gesture is collaboration, yes. Not in a void—but very much on planet—in the ardent and marvelous realm of forms—means at any moment I am doing anything—my field is touching another’s and that touch—in and of itself—means there is no aloneness.
It is not one. It is more than one.
Come with me on a walk in my favorite of places or a walk in a place that is not in alignment with my preference fields. Come with me into me—out here on planet. Come.
All manner of creatures exist in the lights and shadows. All manner of creatures exist in the senses. My memoir was recently described to me as a piece of abstract art she got lost in. A painting of abrupt lines stripped of all lines becomes what? Space, potential. I feel I have touched a lot of animate beings in my life. I feel I am barely beginning to touch to the degree I intend to touch.
Phallic candle, incense smoke, purification maneuvers, fig pith, bruised hands, my mother’s tears falling down the bib of her dress.
Today—it was in the way the sun had everything completely quickened—like tips of grass stalks or pine needles extra poignant. How I laid on a cactus whose fruits were leaking beneath my neck while watching the once-in-a-lifetime eclipse take place. Thinking of orgasm as a soul and bodily state of abundance that can in fact be required of the material dimension.
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.
Thank you to Michael Broder and the great Indolent Books for publishing my poem:
nasty like janet or the way one feels after a seven day bath resistance but also like that moment when you figure out the perfect way to describe yourself
Below is an excerpt. For the whole poem, click HERE
I’m not sure if I’m nasty because my version of femalia is like Lombard Street, all zig-zagged and out-of-breath.
You want me to stuff my Feminist deep inside my pockets, and fix you supper. You want me shaved and simplified. You want me pink. Knees pressed. Porridgy girl.
On the other side of Woman is me. Buzzed tongue and vague.
A faint of genitals and unfinished and easily bothered and trying trying trying NOT to apologize.
previously published by great weather for MEDIA
When can we start to admit that the more doors we close on people—locking them out—the more ledges we are, in turn, building for them to jump from.
This doesn’t need to be political.
I ask my students: Raise your hand if you went to the bathroom today. They look at me, inquisitively, wondering why I would ask such a personal question.
Slowly, they all raise their hands.
Then, I say: How many of you paused at the rectangular sign announcing who gets to enter? How many of you didn’t relate to the word or image announcing a gender you may not prescribe to? How many of you just held it in because a possible urinary tract infection made more sense than entering a room that didn’t include (or welcome) you.
This doesn’t need to be political.
This is simply about a universal human function. In fact, maybe our bladders can be the thread that finally sews us all together, reminding us we are human. We are not the same, but we connect. We all just need to urinate sometimes.
In a recent article in the NY Times, Janet Mock wrote, “When trans students are told that they cannot use public facilities, it doesn’t only block them from the toilet. It also blocks them from public life.”
If you’ve ever gone camping, I mean, without the nearby showers and stalls, real wilderness without wifi signal, simply stars and moon and occasional bear sightings. You’d know that there are no separations. The earth doesn’t care about what gender you identify as. The soil does not lean toward a particular political party. It exists for you to dig your fingers into. To squat over and pee. To dig your hole and…well, I think you get it. Maybe this is why I love camping so much. Because I can be my loudest version of wild. Be naked (at times). I am not woman or man or ma’am or girl. I am just flesh. Wild and free.
I wasn’t supposed to still be here; I think this thought almost everyday about all the ways I have tried to erase myself. And all the ways government and others have tried to do the same.
I just want my students to remain. To feel embraced in a world where walls are replacing welcome mats. It is difficult enough to exist without all these question marks growing inside a body and mind.
For me, it is not UTI or bust. Though I linger at times and wish for more options, I walk into the F room. Women’s. Ladies. The one wearing the dress.
I try not to make eye contact with anyone, circa 1990s high school gym locker room.
I walk into a stall and squat. Try not to make eye contact with my vagina because we are so often not on speaking terms. I just need to pee. Wipe. Pants up. Flush. Wash hands without engaging in mirror contact.
We all do this. We all go to the bathroom. So, why not make it just a little less stressful and offer more options. Take the signs down. Or add another one like: FOR ALL.
I’m not interested in starting a campaign to investigate the obscene amount of urine splattered on toilet seats. I just want people to feel more welcome nowadays.
And I only want ledges to be homes for pigeons, not humans who’ve been pushed out, whose bodies have become politicized. Perhaps we need to take the time to ask: Who are you (today)? How do you feel? What do you need in order to be who you are for even just one more day?