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.

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it can be so difficult to be alive, and then you find words to band-aid you back

I’ve been gulping oxygen like I used to gulp drugs in my twenties. I don’t know how to be. I don’t know how. I don’t.

And then, I drink coffee with a friend who reminds me why writing is a salve. And then I read words by misfit goddess writer Lidia Yuknavitch and my wounds suddenly feel less wounded.

 

Lidia Yuknavitch, author of The Small Backs of Children writes:

“I hope that we write ourselves back to life. I hope that we double down on what we mean when we say ‘writer,’ so that the definition explodes and reconstitutes around writing as a socially vital activity, not a market-driven dead zone. I hope that when we step into our writerly lives, we can only come alive by and through each other, by and through our beautiful differences. I hope that ‘hope’ doesn’t come from looking up ever again, but from looking each other in the eyes/I’s. I hope we stand up inside our various languages with ferocious love and courage and that we aim for what matters in the world, whether or not anyone remembers our names. Let it be true that we wrote the world and each other back to life. Let that be the new book.

“We didn’t get here by accident. This is not a new brutality, it is a very old one, and every time it circles back around in a new form, we have to look again in the mirror and stand up differently ― writing can yet invent new forms of resistance and resilience in the face of brutality.

“And the wonder of that.

“And how this is our present tense calling.”

welcome to the wonderful world of misfits

Dear Lidia Yuknavitch,

Thank you. Thank you for unraveling your articulated vocabulary for all the weirdos and queers and freaks and marvelous misfits, reminding us how we are the superheroes. We are the ones who have books and beauties inside us. We are ones who remain, amidst all that scar tissue and cracked bodies. Amidst the punches (from others and ourselves).

We go to a store to purchase an article of clothing. We gather up hangers full of cotton/poly blend threads with buttons and zippers and pockets and itchy tags. We try them on, bullying our reflections in the mirrors, which seem to show angles that (maybe) aren’t supposed to be seen. But we see them. Then, we choose whatever “fits”. Whatever feels less itchy, whatever has enough room for extra meals, doesn’t wrinkle or stain too easily, whatever will last long.

When I read your books, when I hear you speak, I am reminded that we are these articles we wear. Yet, we arrive not always fitting into ourselves. So, we sew some patches on or rip ourselves up in order to find a better shape. Some spend their entire lives trying themselves on. I think I still am. I think. I still search for the parts of me that do not itch. Ripping labels off, smoothing myself out amidst the crumpled bits.

Lidia, you tell us of the “Misfits myth…even at the moment of your failure…you are beautiful…you don’t know this yet…you have the ability to reinvent yourself. That’s your beauty.” And I want to ask you to call me up, so I can hear your voice tickle my hearing as you say this.

As you tell of  “..weird-ass portals to something beautiful. All I had to do was give voice to the story.”  And yes, of course. These stories grow as we do. It’s just that it takes time to gather up enough ink and paper and time and words.

So, thank you, Lidia, Misfit Teacher Mother Writer Badass.

I’m working on my story too.

Oh, and if you are reading this, then click below and listen to Lidia blow your mind too at a recent TED talk

dear lidia.

Dear Lidia,

I am bloodied.

He asks, “Paper or plastic,” and I choose noose.

Dear Lidia,

Somewhere between page five and the end, you mishandle my organs; I’ve put up four dozen MISSING posters all over Brooklyn in search of my lungs.

Dear Lidia,

My genitals have relocated themselves to my wrists behind misspelled tattoo and fourteenth scar. I rub them against humans shaped as time machines traveling me away from here.

Dear Lidia,

That photograph.

Dear Lidia,

How many ways can a child die and still breathe through teeth.

Dear Lidia,

I’ve lost track of all the mattresses which turned into monsters.

Even with all that flailing, I still count bed sores.

Dear Lidia,

The painter.

Dear Lidia,

That gun.

I’ve got a bullet hole beneath my right knee from that time that time that time.

Dear Lidia,

I’ve hemorrhaged out your ISBN.

Someone should have cradled my tongue before I castrated it.

Dear Lidia,

Napalm.

Dear Lidia,

The one with eyes, color of my childhood lampshade or emerald.

Dear Lidia,

The Vietcong man with the mosaic’d brain.

Dear Lidia,

My mother.

Dear Lidia,

Me, dressed as Charlie Chaplin, age 8.

Dear Lidia,

The photographed soldiers near Brooklyn Bridge, wearing masks to cover the missing in their faces.

Dear Lidia,

Each time I took my clothes off I became less of an onion and more like a shallot.

Dear Lidia,

How many languages speak the same version of ‘no’ and yet I an never quite master the accent on the right syllable.

Dear Lidia,

The writer.

There was that time that time that time that time.

Dear Lidia,

There is no such thing as a happy ending, even when giving a happy ending.

Dear Lidia,

The filmmaker.

Dear Lidia,

How to love.

Dear Lidia,

The womb.

Dear Lidia,

How to heal what rots what blooms.

Dear Lidia,

Did I ever tell you that I title my blood, war, because my body is in battle and yes, my cells rent their hunch to soldiers looking to punish my gender.

Dear Lidia,

I just. Can’t be. Girl. Anymore.

Dear Lidia,

I prefer to bag my own groceries because then I can understand the weight of ingredients and then it will be my city scum on potatoes and collard greens and then I will be reminded of all the ways

one attempts

to live.

Dear Rebel…

I encountered a disemboweled ice cube between china town and the east village, but it was too expensive to bring home to brooklyn. I can no longer afford old thingsbecause aged goods have increased in price and the new stuff is too much too. So I search for the discards….the free……the treasures in the trash….since that’s all I can achieve with what little I’ve got.

Often, when I find money on the street, I leave it there, knowing even though my wallet is mostly full of love notes and directions, there are others without even that.

An almost-lover I once had mailed me a book without her name attached. I couldn’t figure out who had sent it to me. By the time I realized who it was from, she was no longer accepting my phone calls.

An occasional lover sent me a different book, which I had a difficult time reading, but maybe I’m just not smart enough for Proust; what do you think?

The one I now love collects keys and coins; I collect guilt and memories, bruised like pocketed fruit.

Who should we put on that $10 bill, Rebel? I vote for Lidia Yuknavitch. Or Kathy Acker. Or Audre Lorde. And why stop at the ten dollar bill?

Rebel, I’m thinking about putting my words into melted copper and nickel; then, I can pay with my collection of syllables. As long as I read and collect more words, I will never be poor again. I will horde dictionaries and thesauruses. I will play Scrabble every night to encourage the long and obscurely short words. Then, we can collide again and finally find that yurt and live off the earnings of our speech.

what is the gender of your pen?

I recently spent a Saturday in a writing workshop trying to write like a woman. In the past, I have taken various classes that focus on gender or race or period of time or genre of writing. Anytime I approached a text or began a response to it, I never thought of myself as a woman reading this or a woman writing this.

I’ve called myself a queer writer. I’ve labeled myself as a gay writerI’ve called myself a poet. A performance artist. I’ve admitted to things that I used to be or formally was. But in all these years writing words down, I never took on that classification. I’d like to think that my genitals have nothing to do with what comes out of me. Though, I do not believe it is my/our genitals that classify our gender.

When we talked about where we write from and how our femaleness comes through, I said this: I do not write like a woman, nor a man. Actually, I don’t quite know what that means. If masculine writing is defined by grotesque language and overt sexuality, then how to explain the gloriousness of Kathy Acker, Lidia Yuknavitch, or Dodie Bellamy (just to name a few)?

I said: I think of a see-saw, with a man on one end and a woman on the other and I am balancing on both sides, sometimes in the middle. But I never get comfortable enough to sit down. I said that I write from inside my body, but it is a hybrid of genitalia and vocabularies (which I am still learning/gathering). I said that I honor the ones who came before me and the ones still around today, but it is the humans who took risks on the page that encouraged me to write. Humans: men, women, transgender, gender non-conforming.

We were encouraged to make a list. Of all the influences of women writers. As we went around the room, some of our names echoed and some learned of ones we’d never heard of. My rebellion wanted to name men as well, but I was trying to behave. But the thing is, I have been deeply influenced and inspired by so many male writers as well: Rumi, Pablo Neruda, Alan Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Charles Bukowski (that name might have caused a riot), Kazim Ali, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, James Baldwin…

But what I read out loud included some of these names:

Anne Sexton
Audre Lorde
Dorothy Parker
Diane di Prima
Rita Mae Brown
Dorothy Allison
Akilah Oliver
Eileen Myles
Sapphire
Michelle Tea
AM Homes
Kate Bornstein
Susie Bright
Gertrude Stein
Sandra Cisneros
Puma Perl
Cookie Mueller
Karen Finley
Marina Abramović
Ariel Gore
Eleanor Roosevelt
Julia Serano
Susan Sontag
Ivan Coyote
Anais Nin
…….

The list continues and never ends kind of like an ocean. To me, it just goes on and on until you reach something else.

Yesterday I said: I think about gender everytime I breathe. This is because for so many years I didn’t. I walked around in this body, ignoring what didn’t feel right. Trying to write my way out of the clog. To write is to read. And I am continually looking for writers that teach me, introduce new words and discourses into my brain, make me uncomfortable, stretch the boundaries and implications of writing. 

Beyond gender. Because it is no longer just male or female writers. We are far too interesting and complex to remain inside those boxes forever.

 

letters.

Dear Kazim.

They thought I was asleep, but I heard her scream out at that star that may or may not have been a swollen airplane. She called it another place to live. She called it a high wire pause. Or was that me.

**

Dear Lidia.

I scrubbed my hands better than I have all year, before I plunged them into my body to rip out the mail. His name is ____________ and full of papercuts and improper postage. We are already in love.

**

Dear Rebel.

How about we stage a protest this year. Eat only syllables and postures. I will continue to challenge the disobedience of my breath and you can remind me that gender is a disco ball better left rotating.

**

Dear Poet.

You owe me a letter. But I will wait for your shadowboxing bellow. As I sit here, sore from an early morning bone stretch, no longer calling tomorrow a clean slate. Instead, a movement of magic.