I Am Woman

A girl should never have to choose, so I never did.

I have a friend whose grandmother once reasoned that people can’t hear a woman unless she has her lips on. The southern, self-proclaimed sage was referring to the power of lipstick, and I remember feeling like the statement relegated my paintless adolescent face to that of a Ms. Potato Head whose mouthpiece must have gotten knocked off in a football game that my brother and the neighborhood Rat Pack begrudgingly let me play in.

Fortunately, I have a mom who told me that she didn’t like putting bows in my hair growing up because she didn’t want me to look like a present. Instead, she never hesitated to remind me that I was a gift as I was and so is the life that we’re given.

One of the few, most prized possessions of my nomadic existence is a bright orange, wooden stool that I sat on in my parents’ bathroom nearly every morning of elementary and middle school, waiting for my mom to curl my hair, watching her get ready, staring at our reflections to see how close I was to becoming a woman, and having conversations about what that even meant.

Right now, both ironically and unceremoniously, the stool is serving as a coaster to a stack of academic research about the relationship between language, gender and identity. The central debate is whether English limits and mislabels those who speak it or if we hold ourselves back by how we use and abuse it. What is a woman when not defined in relation to a man but by what she alone brings to the table? Who is anyone when not set up in comparison?

I recently went to see a moving exhibit about women, violence and art titled “Off The Beaten Path” that is currently on display at CDC’s Global Health Odyssey Museum. Although a heartbreaking topic, I was inspired by the way these women not only made themselves and their subjects be heard (regardless of their shade or lack of lipstick), but how they’re changing the dialogue as well.

Of the exhibit, curator Randy Jayne Rosenberg writes, “Avoiding tabloid and sensational imagery, we ask the artists to help us create a new vocabulary—new representations—through their artworks and, in doing so, heal us, transform us and help us feel and understand the essence of the problem of violence against women.”

The image below and its accompanying caption have stayed with me since touring the museum:

“In some communities, where direct intervention is culturally impossible, women respond to severe domestic violence by assembling outside of the household in question and bang out an alarm on pots and pans. This informs the man that the spirit he attempts to break belongs to many, not one.”

I hear these women and I’m sounding off, as best I can, in solidarity.

"Untitled" by Yoko Inoue, Japan

In some communities, where direct intervention is culturally impossible, women respond to severe domestic violence by assembling outside of the household in question and bang out an alarm on pots and pans. This informs the man that the spirit he attempts to break belongs to many, not one.

Click here to see virtual exhibit.

Here I am

I came out to my parents at a Cracker Barrel.

Before meeting them halfway between the town in which I’d been born and the place where I’d most recently experienced growth, I lost it at the opening of a butterfly garden I was covering for the local newspaper.

It was my first week back to work after a trip to the West coast with my then girlfriend. The purpose of the journey had been to explore the city we might call home together. When I got back, I knew it was time to tell my family where I’d really been for the past year when avoiding phone calls, offering up generic answers to their questions, and losing my temper over the tiniest things because I didn’t want to face what was really making me angry.

It was June 1, the Lowcountry was a sauna, and the PR director giving me a tour of the butterfly sanctuary ironically and obliviously crushed a monarch under her shoe at the exact moment she began lauding the green space as a haven. I wanted to laugh, but the symbolism felt too close to home, so I remember focusing hard on writing the word “larvae” instead while choking back hot, angry tears.

On the way back from the interview, I had one of those ugly cries behind the steering wheel and called my mom and dad. They agreed to drive two hours to meet me for a late lunch, even though none of us were really hungry.

When the waitress came to the table and asked us if we wanted biscuits or cornbread, I remember feeling unusually affected by the question. I wanted to scream, “Isn’t it OK to like both?!?! IS THAT SO ABNORMAL?!” Instead, I just requested that she bring back some grape jelly.

It’s funny how I don’t remember the specifics of such a heavy conversation, but I remember the feeling. Some people describe it as like a weight being lifted off their shoulders, but to me, it was more like thawing. Slowly, I could feel my fingertips again.

I explained to my parents that I didn’t feel comfortable giving my orientation a label because it seemed to discount the relationships I had leading up to this one. I told them, “I think you love who you love and who I love right now happens to be a woman. Who I love next might very well be a man.” Either way, I knew that as long as my feelings remained unspoken within me, I could not love myself or anyone else properly. Fully.

Since then, I have agonized over the right time or way in which to tell my story and always stopped short because I couldn’t answer why I needed to share it. I’ve made a career out of trying to help others see the value and volume of what their lives have to speak and am only recently beginning to accept and embrace the value of my own chapters.

Last week, I began volunteering for StoryCorps, an organization I’ve followed and obsessively shared with friends for years. Since 2003, the nonprofit has recorded conversations between friends and family members in booths across the nation. It’s one of the largest oral history projects of its kind and the stories that are broadcast on public radio each week have been like a balm to my soul. At the end of the month, StoryCorps will host an event to celebrate stories of love and community from Atlanta’s LGBTQ community, which is what finally prompted me to put this to paper.

When StoryCorps came to Savannah a few years ago, I taped a meaningful conversation with a dear couple who served as mentors to me when I first moved there, but I remember wanting so badly to share that intimate exchange with my girlfriend at the time and being too scared. I wasn’t prepared to say what I felt outloud. I wasn’t ready for the permanency of recording it.

But regret, like fear, is such an unproductive and debilitating emotion and this is my attempt to stop putting it on my toothbrush, mixing it into my cereal, and spelling it out using the cracks in the sidewalk every morning. I’m telling my story now because as generations before me, I finally understand the purpose of this tradition is to learn, to calm ourselves to sleep, to heal and to preserve.


If your life depended on my ability to correctly answer a trivia question, my apologies, rest in peace, good luck. Along with jumping jacks, map folding, and tanning, conditions would have to be hyper-specific—and by hyper-specific I mean rigged—in order for me to be successful in any or all of these activities.

I once cost my friends free beer and a rare first-place finish at Wednesday night trivia when they wagered all of our points on my ability to answer a final question about the U.S. Census Bureau. I was employed by the organization at the time and paid by the hour to read manuals about its inner-workings, but we missed the question. More specifically, I missed the question and was relegated back to my role as time check girl and giver of moral support.

I am waiting for the day when I will be able to redeem myself and actively willing the universe to supply one of the following categories at said moment: underappreciated movie candy, negative side effects of Neosporin, and/or Beverly Hills 90210. I may or may not have spent a quarter of my life alternating between the desire to date Dylan McKay and be Dylan McKay. This may or may not still be a struggle.

Were pride something I was in great supply of right now, I would not admit to the following, but I’m feeling inside-out these days so what the hell, here goes. While starting my morning with Dr. Bronner’s magic peppermint the other day, a particular episode of the show came to mind in the midst of a “What’s next for Mo?” reflective shower moment.

Somewhere in my parents’ home in South Carolina is a worn-out VHS tape labeled “THE Decision,” on which is a recording of the ultimate season finale of California’s favorite zip code. Kelly is faced with the choice to marry Brandon or travel the world with Dylan and his scarred eyebrow and the drama leading up to this moment is basically what Aaron Spelling used to drive the show. With bated, angsty breath, I remember waiting for what ended up being Jennie Garth’s “You had me at hello” Jerry Maguire moment. “I choose me,” she said, while handing back the ring and round-trip ticket to the beautiful boys. “I choose me.”

Of course, the decision was one to be applauded. It was a rare departure from television and pop culture’s tendency to romanticize relationships and paint independence in a negative light. What troubled me mid-lather when remembering this moment, however, was thinking about the times when ”I choose me” is not deemed heroic… when the world isn’t waiting to hear what your decision will be and the only option you have in front of you is self-sufficiency and a search for self worth. Not tickets to travel the world or a marriage proposal.

I’m finding it much harder to muster the strength and excitement to choose myself when it’s the only thing I can do right now, but I know it must be done.

“Finding Her Here” by Jayne Relaford Brown

Handwriting courtesy of the cutest ginger in town. Happy Momma’s Day…

Broken English

I used to be that student. The one who would have a private conniption over anything less than an “A” and stay up late into the night to obsessively create a cover page. For everything. As a result, I graduated first in my class and first in nervous breakdowns.

Then, I became that girlfriend. The one who either held too tightly for fear of losing or kept my eyes to the ground, carefully planning and watching every step in hopes of not making any mistakes. As a result, I made a lot of mistakes.

Now, as a teacher, it’s been interesting to witness the learning and growing that can take place when perfection is not the goal…. when the birthplace of the eraser and coloring outside the lines keeps the mission of exploration and discovery both valued and sacred.

This semester, what I believe to be my greatest classroom success was not found in a brilliantly written essay about Romeo and Juliet or a perfectly executed presentation about The Odyssey. Ironically, I nearly wet my pants in amazement over a student’s request for a restroom pass and beamed with pride as he walked toward this routine destination. He was a student whose voice I didn’t even hear during the first few weeks of classes because he could not and would not speak a word of English when we first met. We stared and nodded and smiled and worked our way slowly through picture book pages.

I’ve read and heard hundreds of sentences from immigrant students this year that are often the source of tasteless jokes and others’ impersonations. Yet I have to say that I’ve never been more in love or impressed with the English language than when I’ve had the opportunity to hear it spoken or used by these teenagers, whose broken but intentional words are the pieces I have used to put together my identity as a student and educator.

Last week, I watched the sun rise and set from the same seat at my kitchen table for more than three days in order to complete my portfolio for graduation. I had to reflect on, justify, evaluate, scan, compare, contrast, and analyze more than a year’s worth of lesson plans, assessments, and student work as a summary of my graduate experience. Tucked in the front cover of my notebook was this quote from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness that I had written on a scrap piece of paper years ago when I was working on my first documentary in Portland, Maine:

“She was nothing so solid in make, and rather less pretty in shape, but I had expended enough hard work on her to make me love her. No influential friend would have served me better. She had given me a chance to come out a bit—to find out what I could do. No, I don’t like work. I had rather laze about and think of all the fine things that can be done. I don’t like work—no man does—but I like what is in the work—the chance to find yourself. Your own reality—for yourself, not for others—what no other man can ever know. They can only see the mere show, and never can tell what it really means.”

I’d hardly say I’m looking my best these days. I think it’s safe to say I could come out with my own line of sweatpants for grad students and they would not say “Juicy.” But I don’t think I’ve ever worked harder or been as proud as I am now of the imperfect product of this journey.

From my doppelganger to God’s ears

Should I ever have the pleasure of birthin’ some babies, this will be framed above the crib in my daughter’s room. Let the crocheting project begin…

A Prayer for My Daughter 

(From Bossypants by Tina Fey)

First, Lord: No tattoos. May neither Chinese symbol for truth nor Winnie-the-Pooh holding the FSU logo stain her tender haunches.

May she be Beautiful but not Damaged, for it’s the Damage that draws the creepy soccer coach’s eye, not the Beauty.

When the Crystal Meth is offered, may she remember the parents who cut her grapes in half and stick with Beer.

Guide her and protect her
 when crossing the street, stepping onto boats, swimming in the ocean, swimming in pools, walking near pools, standing on the subway platform, crossing 86th Street, stepping off of boats, using mall restrooms, getting on and off escalators, driving on country roads while arguing, leaning on large windows, walking in parking lots, riding Ferris wheels, roller-coasters, log flumes, or anything called “Hell Drop,” “Tower of Torture,” or “The Death Spiral Rock ‘N Zero G Roll featuring Aerosmith,” and standing on any kind of balcony ever, anywhere, at any age.

Lead her away from Acting but not all the way to Finance. Something where she can make her own hours but still feel intellectually fulfilled and get outside sometimes and not have to wear high heels.

What would that be, Lord? Architecture? Midwifery? Golf course design? I’m asking You, because if I knew, I’d be doing it, Youdammit.

May she play the Drums to the fiery rhythm of her Own Heart with the sinewy strength of her Own Arms, so she need Not Lie With Drummers.

Grant her a Rough Patch from twelve to seventeen. Let her draw horses and be interested in Barbies for much too long, for childhood is short – a Tiger Flower blooming Magenta for one day – and adulthood is long and dry-humping in cars will wait.

O Lord, break the Internet forever, that she may be spared the misspelled invective of her peers and the online marketing campaign for Rape Hostel V: Girls Just Wanna Get Stabbed.

And when she one day turns on me and calls me a Bitch in front of Hollister, give me the strength, Lord, to yank her directly into a cab in front of her friends, for I will not have that Shit. I will not have it.

And should she choose to be a Mother one day, be my eyes, Lord, that I may see her, lying on a blanket on the floor at 4:50 A.M., all-at-once exhausted, bored, and in love with the little creature whose poop is leaking up its back.

“My mother did this for me once,” she will realize as she cleans feces off her baby’s neck. “My mother did this for me.” And the delayed gratitude will wash over her as it does each generation and she will make a Mental Note to call me. And she will forget. But I’ll know, because I peeped it with Your God eyes.


Here Comes the Sun

When I was a slightly shorter girl with much less than a baker’s dozen of years tallied on my bedroom door, I used to welcome the beginning of Spring with a new Easter dress and hat worn Minnie Pearl style.

For those who were born above the Mason-Dixon Line (and in Florida), Minnie Pearl was the lifeblood of Hee Haw, a deep-fried version of Saturday Night Live meets Salute Your Shorts for adults and children without access to cable. She was the original gangsta who proudly kept the price tag of her hat on display and delivered the signature line, “How-w-w-w-DEE-E-E-E! I’m jes’ so proud to be here!” For a time, I liked to mimic her every Sunday in March and April.

As the first in a long line of female comedians who unknowingly encouraged me to fly my freak flag, Ms. Pearl came to mind this week while heralding the arrival of my 28th Spring. Only this time, instead of donning a wide-brimmed hat of fake flowers that cost less than $2, I listened to a poem about subtlety and went to an experimental math rock concert. This will make sense. I promise.

Months ago, when life felt like it was in the midst of a premature and seemingly perpetual Winter, I found solace in a poem by Tanya Davis called “How To Be Alone,” which I posted on this blog. Hibernation is necessary sometimes for healing, and Davis beautifully touches on this idea in her video. I heeded the advice and closed myself for renovations. I spent a lot of time alone and liked it. Mostly.

But just this week, I came across yet another poem by Davis that will serve as the gospel of my Spring, a season that aptly shares its name with a verb that means “to be released from a constrained position, to take an upward course, or to come into being and life.” The piece is titled “Subtlety” and in her spoken word performance, Davis talks about how the art of understatement and hesitation will never be her specialty, even though some say she should try it. Like Ms. Pearl, she keeps her price tag on and says, “I want people to know me/That means the whole me/The true soul in me/All the many parts in me.” She will always be the one who says too much, but isn’t that so much better than not enough?

After watching Davis’s video, I joined a friend for a Marnie Stern concert in a basement bar filled with crusty punks and smoke and the kind of volume that moves through your veins and makes even the hair on your neck stand at attention. Although the scene was not entirely mine and the lyrics are still a mystery, there was something just so very right about being in the midst of all that thrashing. During one of the songs, my friend leaned over and said, “Some call this noise, but at least it’s noise. They’re not afraid to say something.”

I couldn’t have planned a better way to begin this season. How-w-w-w-DEE-E-E-E, Spring! I’m jes’ so proud (and fortunate) to be here. Here comes the sun.

Bridge to Nowhere

Roses are red

Violets are blue

I want this lesson to be over

Just as much as you

Last week, I started a unit on poetry with the high school ESOL (English to speakers of other languages) class I have been student teaching for a few weeks now. Although my lesson on figurative language seemed to be a success on Tuesday, Wednesday’s focus on the poetry of Langston Hughes proved to be as much of a train wreck as the Shake Weight. Eyes glazed over, sweat appeared, and desperate pleas for a time check occurred every five minutes… and that was only my reaction.

Naturally, the sad affair was caught on camera. Had the file not been accidentally deleted, it’s the kind of thing I’d watch with the shades drawn while drinking a beer float. Or, mute and sync with Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” in hopes that something significant would surface in its replay.

When I began this grad program, I anticipated imparting everything I knew and loved about English to those who have a genuine need and/or interest in learning how to communicate with the language. In actuality, the teaching profession has catapulted me into a perpetual student role that has made me rethink a lot of the words I thought I knew as well as Salt-N-Pepa lyrics. Take “empathy” for example.

For my “Exceptional Children” class, I read an article titled “Exploring the Experience of Autism Through Firsthand Accounts” by Laura Cesaroni and Malcolm Garber. One of the participants in the study is a 27-year-old man named Jim who very articulately shares his experience of living with autism. When addressing the commonly held perception that autistic people lack empathy and are unable to take others’ perspectives, Cesaroni and Garber write, “While empathy implies the capacity for participating in another’s feelings or ideas, Jim believes that in practice this often means projecting one’s own feelings on to others. He states: ‘It is therefore much easier to empathize with someone whose ways of experiencing the world are similar to one’s own than to understand someone whose perceptions are very different.'” As a result, Jim says he is often misunderstood. He explains that contrary to popular belief, an autistic person actually expends an enormous amount of energy trying to connect with others while the effort from the opposite party is often disproportionate.

At some point during the course of my studies, I heard that you often end up teaching students in the same way that you learn as an individual, in spite of hearing how important it is to address all learning styles. I’d even extend this statement to include that we are often guilty of loving others in only the way we are most comfortable with and know how. We might try to reach out and empathize, but rarely do we acknowledge that to be successful in these attempts, we might also need to adjust and redefine our truths and ourselves. That which we tend to label a deficit in the other person is likely just a difference.

Before I recently chopped my hair, I often got compared to Tina Fey and, unfortunately by default, to Sarah Palin. Although Russia’s most famous neighbor is equally famous for her association with the “Bridge to Nowhere,” I wanted to share a different perspective on construction and communication that has me in a rebuilding phase. Jim, the 27-year-old man living with autism, penned this:

I built a bridge

out of nowhere, across nothingness

and wondered if there would be something on the other side.

I built a bridge

out of fog, across darkness

and hoped that there would be light on the other side.

I built a bridge

out of despair, across oblivion

and knew that there would be hope on the other side.

I built a bridge

out of helplessness, across chaos

and trusted that there would be strength on the other side.

I built a bridge

out of hell, across terror

and it was a good bridge,  a strong bridge,

a beautiful bridge.

It was a bridge I built myself,

with only my hands for tools, my obstinacy for supports,

my faith for spans, and my blood for rivets.

I built a bridge, and crossed it,

but there was no one there to meet me on the other side.

I. and love. and you.

A society that has reduced love’s mascot to a manbaby who wears a diaper and wields a bow & arrow during the coldest month of the year is hardly in a position to discuss its intricacies…  but doesn’t it make for fantastic conversation?!

Full disclosure: This week’s post boldly mentions Bruno Mars, Miranda July, Dead Prez, and Valentine’s Day, so if that makes you want to choke on chalk-flavored candy hearts, you should probably stop reading now. And also eat the one that says, “Bite me.”

Annnnd we’re back.

I am only mildly ashamed to admit that I listen to The Weekend Countdown with Billy Bush on the radio whenever possible… mostly in hopes of hearing and finding out where that one Rihanna song will land on the playlist. Not the one in which she and Eminem talk about setting themselves on fire, but the track where she keeps forgetting her name. Ooh na na na na. Yes, please.

Sadly, my mohawk inspiration and her jam were dethroned from the top spot this week by Bruno Mars, who simultaneously took over the #1 position on my “Best Worst Love Songs to Countdown to Valentine’s Day” list. I didn’t think it was possible to beat Dead Prez’s lyrics to “Mind Sex,” which include suggestions of wooing a date with “a fresh bed of lettuce with croutons/Later we can play a game of chess on the futon” and my favorite line, “When you show me your mind, it make me wanna show you mines.” However, Bruno Mars’ “Grenade” does indeed take the cake.

In less than 4 minutes, this scorned lover expresses frustration and surprise over the fact that his lady is not impressed by his willingness to:

a. Catch a grenade.

2. Throw his hand on a blade.

3. Jump in front of a train, and…

d. Take a bullet straight through the brain.

But this is exactly what I’m talking about when I say we’ve let Cupid spike our Love Potion #9 with crazy.

In my opinion (though it is humble and covered in permanent marker mistakes), the true test of love doesn’t just lie in our willingness to go to extremes for each other but in our ability to share the everyday. Passion should be there, but also progress and patience.

To put love back in a healthier perspective for myself, I’ve started working through the 70 assignments posted on Miranda July’s “Learning To Love You More” Web site. The project, which was active for seven years, encourages people to engage more creatively with the routines and relationships in their day and document those efforts through photographs, video and text. Number 30 says to “Take a picture of strangers holding hands,” while #15 says to “Hang a windchime on a tree in an unexpected place.”

Portlandia fans, that might sound a little like “Put a bird on it,” but it’s still way better than throwing your hand on a blade. Ooh na na na na.

Hold me closer, Tony Danza

Roughly 14 years ago, I was avoiding the front stairwell of my high school because my older brother kindly informed me that freshmen would be pushed to their humiliation or death (synonyms back then) if they dared to tread the steps reserved for upperclassmen.

Just last week, I narrowly escaped being asked for a hall pass during my first day as a student teacher and had to use my lunch bag to clear a path to the classroom.

A friend has predicted that I will become the female Will Schuester of this joint, but if we’re going for Glee characters, I’d give my prime parking space in the student lot to be like Gwyneth Paltrow’s crazypants in “The Substitute” episode. In truth, my high school musical’s opening theme song has proven to be a number I never anticipated.

Since my first concert experience was an Elton John extravaganza with my parents, I guess it should only seem natural that “Tiny Dancer” came to mind as I navigated the building. But to be specific, it was only one line from the song and also one of the most famous misheard lyrics that was on repeat in my head (and continues to be every morning of my commute): “Hold me closer, Tony Danza.”

I’ve yet to see an episode, but apparently the (other) Boss has a reality show out on A&E right now called Teach: Tony Danza. Last year, he spent a year co-teaching a tenth grade English class at Northeast High School in Philadelphia and it was all deliciously caught on camera. A guest speaker tipped me off on the show in one of my grad school classes in December. Intrigued, I did some research and found a Los Angeles Times review of the series the night before I started my student teaching practicum.  Among the highlights of the article:

• Danza cries no fewer than four times in the pilot.

• The boxer-turned-actor-turned-teacher credits President Obama for the career shift.

And this gem:

• “But what Danza does have is a situational humility—not only does he cry with alarming regularity, but he also often appears in early-morning close-up with his snore-strip still in place—and the genuine desire to excel. … The story is focused on his fears and frustrations, his stunning realization that teaching is hard, that wanting to ‘reach’ kids is not enough, and most important, that this job is not about him.”

That last part was the kicker.

In anticipation of this semester, I’ve obsessed over finding the right teacher clothes that won’t make me look like a teacher-teacher but will help me pass for more than a teenager, mourned the return of untimely zits, and worried how I might be perceived by guys and girls nearly half my age. But the reality is that it’s not my turn to survive high school this time, and the stakes are much higher for my students.

In my classroom, I have kids from Nepal, Mexico, Sudan, Thailand, Congo, Vietnam, Pakistan, Tanzania, Iran, and beyond. Some have only been in the country for a month and have had little exposure to English, while others can speak multiple languages with inspiring clarity, charm and creativity. Frustrations can range from checking out a book in the school library due to a language barrier to learning how to negotiate a new culture that prides itself on consumerism.

They don’t care what I’m wearing, and neither should I. They want to hear that I know their name—their native name—and see that I cared to prepare the content of the day to meet their very real needs and aspirations. They’re less concerned about what I have to say and more interested in what I’m willing to hear. If I’m to be effective, I can’t have any pride in the classroom. I have to risk looking like an ass every day and be OK with that. I can’t fit in.

I’d say Here goes nothin, but there goes my superlative in the yearbook.