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.

day 30: to be.


“Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”   …Oscar Wilde.

It can be difficult to stick out, but boxes can be so small sometimes and there may be a need to bust up the perfect right-angled corners and redecorate what may be expected of you. Just because you identified as one thing yesterday, doesn’t mean you need to be exactly the same way today. Minds and bodies are subject to change.

You may meet someone who actually celebrates your inconsistencies and box-shattering moments, rather than bullying you back into an identity that never felt quite right.

When was the last time you asked someone how their day was and then remained to hear their answer? And have you ever (brace yourself) walked up to someone who was experimenting with the language of themselves and thanked them for the bravery of being out?

Who are you living for and how accurate is your existence? Are you mirroring the ones around you or are you creating a true reflection of who you want to be.

here, there is life. here, there is body. here, there is awareness that we are always in draft mode.

You hold yourself far differently when you present your body in a way that expresses all your letters. Twenty-six in the English alphabet, but on you, there are symbols and instrumentation, breath work and ingredients poured into skin. On days you go nude, you hunch a bit more. On days you flatten, your shoulders are flag-wavers, saluting sky.

All of this is intentional.

On that evening you entered dark bar wearing placards of body parts not quite attainable or desired by you, you explained in silent gait that not everything on a body needs to match. You think of the moment you first fell in love with collage. The cut-up of images and texts, glued together to create something else. When you call yourself performance artist, you channel this medium. Your bones are uncut, but everything else has become a hodge-podge of imagery and experimental discourse of gender and identity on skin.

Everything is deliberate. Nothing means nothing. All of this makes sense because it arrives on you from you.

the bone structure of yesterday.

“you’ve got to burn
straight up and down
and then maybe sidewise
for a while
and have your guts
scrambled by a
bully
and the demonic
ladies,
you’ve got to run
along the edge of
madness
teetering,
you’ve got to starve
like a winter
alleycat,
you’ve go to live
with the imbecility
of at least a dozen
cities,
then maybe
maybe
maybe
you might know
where you are
for a tiny
blinking
moment.”

—–Charles Bukowski, from Bone Palace Ballet: new poems

Where you are may include obscurities but if the footnotes are still attached, one may find clarity in what is further explained.

Where you are may be damaged or sprained.

Where you are may require a chest x-ray or formal apology.

Where you are may include a defend of language and after all the booze has been broken into, you may mumble out: ‘you’d be surprised what stalks inside bodies’.

Where you are is a desert in the west of what is central. You thirst for articulate shoulder blades and coffee.

It was only yesterday, when you offered up your waist waste. It was intimate only because you read that poem but in all of your nude, you realized that line breaks and italics can be far more intimate than exposed bones. A spectator will call this a rough-up, when you finally come to terms with the discrepancies on your body and come out about what is no longer true about you. And it’s ok if you decide to forego political vocabulary and just call yourself human from now on. Where you are is forming. 

on being.

The world has accused you of not being a world./You retort with an acceptance speech/scripted by beautiful gangsters. You live under/the thumb of contracts hoisted/like minarets. Landslides court you/with a hospice of deserted/checkout counters and comic strip altars.[1]   

My identity doesn’t fit on a napkin. I tell this to the well-dressed poet etching out a diagram of his thesis onto paper meant to wipe faces. He makes identity sound so easy and maybe it is for him, so I keep listening. Soon, I am lost in the distraction of his neck, whose tie seems birthed from its skin while the one around my neck seems far clumsier. I tell him it is not so easy to figure one’s self out and that even when we think we’ve got it down, something shifts. We are not static beings, I explained. And for the ones who think they are, I speculate on their true level of actualization (or their rush).

I am not the same me as I was ten years ago. Or five. Or even last week.

The lover who sits beside me gazes at my fingertips pressing into alphabet. This lover is tattooed with my handwriting across the lines of its skin. We gain splinters from each embrace and sift through our varying degrees of lust. This courtship of elocution does not have to end. Instead, we leave each other mid-sentence so we always have a reason to go back.


[1] Italics by poet, Vincent Torro

Your/map/is marred/by borders/that become a sieve/of history, straining the wild/from the willing. Missions and malls encroach your sun swathed/villitas where flowers battle and murals proliferate like thirsty brushfires. 

How much of this you can read, I am not sure. How much of this you already know, you do not need to clarify. I have recently been solicited by an atlas. I am wooed in river slang and late-night mountain chants that chisel away the moan of my loneliness. At each border, we dislodge our jagged wounds and squat over the evidence of our whispers. Some things do not need to be shared with those in search of clues to our existence. Instead, we sift and call this a lung excavation or gender bending or self-love.

this is where we said goodbye.

You wanted to know all about risk. I drew you a map of my bloated feminine. You kissed your atlas into my pockets. I responded in a self-addressed explanation of why I long for you every day that I breathe fog from beneath my tongue. You moved in; I moved away. I take the ink climbing out of my cells and force-feed you a portrait of my bones from different points of view. You tell me that you preferred me when I was soft and still. I shake. I fed you lentils. You fed me your mother’s Spanish. We decided to form a band where we played music from our scars.

This one, I sing, is from that day I told you I’d remain if you did. 

Then we said goodbye.

And yet, I still follow your crumbs; they’ve become my meals.

tell me your preferred adjective.

heartily stacked in bone’s architecture                                                         
red like a Woody Allen film                                                                                      
gravitational pull of queer and smudged                                                                        
cloud of clarified girth                                                                                                     
of two, or fusion, amalgamation of synthesis                                                                                                                                                                              
mind of ample and hybridity
equation / equate / equity of / equilibrium
gender-less or less gender and more compound
semi-colon
other
ambiguous or androgynous
yellow
newsprint’d
gathering of suppertime in early mist of ancestral sun
fondant
almond extract or, extraction
fruit
butch
limp
queer
 
linguistical postulation
epilogue
epigraph
elevated hunger strike
slick(d) back
strung theory
sexy
sex.y
sex.tree
trunk of earth stained barbiturate
caffeinated and whiskey’d
wind chime
sensitive
solvant salve
ointment of campfire mist
gathered and
lovely
and what ease it is to 
and how about we
yes, love
and handsome.