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.
Every bridge I have ever jumped from has talked back to me.
The story of my body has seven alternate endings and a fold-out atlas stapled to the middle. It’s like a choose-your-own-adventure novel, but when I turn to the page I want, it is missing.
The first time I jumped, it was several hours past midnight. Somehow the sun had confused itself again with the stars. The sun fractured into neon confetti and fell from the sky. As I jumped, what appeared to be illuminated starfish stuck to my skin. I survived with two scraped knees and a cracked tooth.
Have you ever spent an afternoon weeping over the dismemberment of Pluto? I have.
The story of my body can be unwrapped in chapters, but they are disordered, of course.
The second time I jumped, the cables and bolts from the Brooklyn Bridge came undone. I slid down, down into the water and climbed toward the ocean’s floor. I ate lunch with a mermaid with braided buildings in her hair. She begged me to stay forever; her voice sounded like smoke and hummingbirds in love. When I ran out of oxygen and conversation topics, I floated back up dripping a trail of salt and sandwich crumbs.
first published by great weather for MEDIA
It all began with an eyelash. Perhaps poison ivy found in Marquette, Nebraska. Or maybe some dust mites.
After returning from a two-week trip out west, I found myself in the ER of a hospital room in Brooklyn, covered in curious and extremely itchy red marks. As usual, I do my best to pretend away my body but when the blotches spread to my eye, my spouse insisted on a medical intervention.
As we waited, I tried my hardest not to itch, so I forced my attention toward the television above me. A new game show where contestants could win up to one million dollars just for naming that tune! I had twenty dollars in my wallet and two college degrees.
I always know I’m really sick when my appetite goes away. I usually dream about dinner while I’m eating lunch, so after spending an entire day with maybe 100 calories in me, I knew something was wrong.
I stared at the welts of varying shapes on my arms, legs, two on my belly, gathering beside my hairline. I imagined being this itchy for the rest of my life.
The smell of the waiting room was a mixture of fast food, sour cologne, and August sweat. I turned toward my mate and said, “Remember that eyelash? I can’t remember what state that was.”
“Minnesota, I think.”
“Yeah,” I paused. “I wished I were dead.”
I’m unclear where the tradition started that a stray eyelash gave permission for one wish if blown off the tip of a finger. But I feel like it had always been there.
I started to cry or maybe I hadn’t stopped.
“Do you still feel that way?”
“Not right now,” I spoke.
“I think it was from the dog’s fur, actually. I don’t think it was an eyelash.”
When my name was finally called, the nurse weighed me and asked about height and habits. Then she sent me back to the waiting room until the doctor was available.
Recently, an almost-stranger grabbed my forearm and asked about the state of my skin. “You get attacked by some zoo animals?” they asked.
I can’t remember any time I understood my skin. It was never smooth and unbothered. And if it was, those memories have all dug themselves away.
When my name was finally called again, I was sent to a room with beds beside each other. “Take the second one,” a nurse instructed.
A young, long-lashed physician assistant approached me. I removed my sweater, so she could observe all of my itchy constellations.
I watched her burnt caramel eyes approach a diagnosis.. “Any idea what this might be?”
Suddenly, I panicked. I’m paying $150 to diagnose myself?
“I’ve been traveling the past two weeks, so I’ve experienced different environments. Been outside a lot. Maybe…poison ivy? I’m extremely allergic.”
“Everyone is, really,” the doctor said.
“I don’t know. Maybe bug bites?” I don’t mention the eyelash and my fear that wishes (if wished enough) do come true. I don’t mention my fear that these welts are the beginning of my end.
“I’m gonna put you on steroids for a few days and some Benadryl.”
“But you don’t know what this is. But—”
“They’re all treated the same,” the doctor interrupts.
I used to be allergic to milk. Then, perfume. For a significant portion of my life: men. On and off, I’m also allergic to any derivative of happiness.
I’ve wished on eyelashes my whole life. Over three decades of birthday candle wishes. Two or three shooting stars. I have no memory of any wishes coming true.
Day three of these unconfirmed mountains of itchiness and I do my best NOT TO ITCH. My spouse tells me they are fading. I wish I could wish this itch away, but I’ve sworn myself away from fallen eyelashes and my birthday is a long way off.
Measure two humans marinated in childhood trauma discourse. Add in a heaping scoop of resistance, fear, curiosity, desire, and a pinch of ready.
Build a bar or cafe or library or meeting place where people can walk through doorways freely. With windows. Several bathrooms. Strong, but not aggressive, lighting. Paper tablecloths.
Stop blinking. Get used to the way eyes begin to scream, begging for a nap. But you can’t because suddenly there is a human who makes you feel color blind. Because everything you look at is suddenly the color of them.
Introduce your fingers to theirs. Let them fumble against each other. Call this holding hands. Call this an opportunity to read the morse code of their calluses.
Swap stories, spit, and recipes.
Fill each other’s mailboxes with letters because you each like to watch your words in flight.
Leave your toothbrush at their house. A week later, carve a poem into their pillow and let it submerge into their knots.
Learn how to kiss for the first time even though you’ve been kissing for decades. Even though some even called you good at it.
Run away. Because that’s what you do. That is how you communicate that you are scared. Because you are feeling something.
Allow yourself to be found.
Kiss some more; learn how many freckles sit on their shoulders. Tell them the weightiest secret you’ve ever kept and feel the mass of your body shift.
Get used to what it feels like to be heard. To be understood. To be loved. Without cracks or disclaimers.
Read a newspaper; learn that even though you’ve been human all this time–just like everyone else–suddenly the law opened up to include you. And this person whose hand you hold, whose mouth you’ve memorized but still learn from, whose brain cells are like fireworks you are in awe of, this person, your person, is the one you stand beside each day. And even with the government involved, you still tempt each other’s wild. But now you call them spouse. And you still call them friend. Partner. Pen Pal. Love.
Against hip, an odometer.
My bones go twenty-two miles above speed limit but no one is watching.
My blood is without signal, so the only music I hear is static and a hum of talk radio.
The check-engine light blinks against my knees and I wonder what would happen if I never turned left or right but just remained forward. Would I fall? What corporate chained coffee shop might I crash into?
It is too easy to write that I am in search of the wild I buried in Nebraska and Colorado.
It is far too complex to mention that I’ve contemplated jumping off a diving board made from rainfall and seaweed.
I threw a party for my feet somewhere between Chicago and South Dakota but they never showed up.
I collected fourteen speeding tickets while living in New York City and I never even owned a car.
When we look up and the moon is being chased by its shadow and everyone from above and below has traveled days just to see it and the one who lives beside me kisses me back into calmness while the earth grows dark like underneath soil and the water still waves even from far away and everything seems possible again.
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.