On the need to write and to be brave (back to saying what I think)

Some days I feel like I am literally choking on a waterfall of words dammed up between my brain and finding a time and place to release them. Some days there just seems to be so much to say and my body and the hours of the day seem to be so limited at expressing everything there is to be said. This is when I know I need to write. Not that I should sit down and write, but that I actually need to. Usually this feeling overtakes me after reading something particularly good, but sometimes it just sneaks up because I haven’t written in a long while or I haven’t had very strong outlet for releasing everything I’m thinking about in speech.

I have the sense that my brain is tremendously active and tremendously verbal. I don’t mean to say that I think I’m smarter or better than anyone else; actually I think as a culture we over-value verbal facility as an expression of something we call “smarts” that I’m not even sure exists outside of racist classist sexist elitism. In point of fact the tremendous activity of my brain is often painful and troublesome. The inability to find time to actually process everything I’m thinking about can be crippling, along with the accompanying thirst for knowing and understanding more. All this thinking and need to verbalize is basically a neurosis in and of itself, and it certainly contributes to other neuroses (I am exhibit A for what it means to “overthink” anything concerning my body, for example).

Actually I suspect deep down most people could cultivate this same ability/affliction, and sometimes I wonder if they don’t because they are smarter than me and want to avoid the constant rollercoaster that thinking critically constantly can bring. My dear coauthors and I are not, as it were, poster children for the joys of the examined life.

Today I came across the blog of a brilliant sociologist Zandria F. Robinson, and I fell swiftly in love. For me, being in love means the urgent need to a) tell everyone you know and b) talk a lot about why l love what I love. Robinson is not only a gifted, incisive, and funny writer, but I have the sense that she never holds her tongue. Reading her blog I don’t know that I was shocked by any opinion or even way of putting something, but I found her blog shocking because she says what she thinks, without first making it palatable to the uninitiated, and not only uses her real name but often names names. I suspect that from this very radical act she derives not only freedom, but the kind of security that can only come from operating openly in the sunlight.

By contrast, I spend a lot of my time couching what I say in terms that will be palatable to those hearing them and essentially afraid of the force my own words can have. Maybe this is why sometimes they torture me.

Reading Robinson’s work I not only feel like a stodgy, unfunny, timid cultural commenter, but like a cowering mouse, afraid to use my real name or name my university and afraid of discovery in a world where discovery is inevitable.

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Binge watching nuns

Every free minute of the past 2 weeks, I’ve spent watching youtube videos of nuns. I’m obsessed with these women: there is light and joy and peace radiating from them, and they burst into peals of giggles at the slightest provocation. As Oprah said in one of the youtube videos “what are they doing for their skin? They glow!” They disarm me with their humility and humor. This is who I want to be. But what is their secret, and is it possible to backward engineer and replicate their joy?

The nuns say God is the secret of their joy. They say the vow of chastity, poverty and obedience are crucial. Obedience is especially important – to negate self, and to bow to the will of a higher power, and to believe that earthly bosses/colleagues/circumstances are vehicles for Godly commands, and to obey, completely and radically. As I watch them prostrate themselves, my body aches to do the same; it is the same reaction I have to the motions of Namaaz; kneeling, bending, prostrating, raising one’s hands to the heavens in acceptance. They say community is crucial, and they have 2 hrs every day when they break their silence to laugh together as they play volleyball, hockey and cards. They say silence and prayer are at the heart of everything; time spent with the Lord listening, being still, allowing for space in a cluttered mind to listen for the still, small voice.

I am struck by the fact of these women, who’ve given up everything the world teaches us we need, and are more joyful than anyone I’ve seen in the world. No makeup, pretty clothes, no tweezing, no pretty shoes, a lot of silence and prayer, no children, no husband, no intimacy, no sex, no pay, no personal ipads, ipods, laptops, computers, and of course, obedience.

What would life be if one overturns a lifetime of assumptions about what one is supposed to be striving for, and simply stops and throws all of these out the window?

Rage away Friend!

The world seems full of possibility, everything doable. I remember when I was a girl and would rail against some sexist thing or the other, fighting with my cousins-uncles-aunts-teachers who insisted that women were an inferior type of human (it was quite normal to hold such views in those days), who told us that if some man pinched us on the bus, it must be because we’d worn Jeans (an immodest western invention) or looked someone in the eye (more immodesty). I once bit one of my cousins, so incensed was I by his unshakable and illogical superiority over me. Another one, I refused to speak to for years after he told me proudly about how he and his friends “rubbed against” the girls on the bus. And all those awful Bollywood movies in which either the woman was burnt to death by her in-laws or was raped before her marriage and had to kill herself to protect her family from shame. And everyone else found these movies perfectly entertaining!

And this was all just 15 years ago – all of these seem so bizarre now that I find myself questioning whether these actually happened or whether I’m exaggerating. And no! This and more happened routinely. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that things would change so much, so fast. I never dared hope – I assumed the world would remain what it was, and the most I expected for myself was to escape being burnt alive or raped.

And today, I look around me, and my family whatsapp group is filled with people tripping over themselves to proclaim their support for feminist ideals. The cousin I bit – he is the most vociferous of them all! The Indian girls in my class are loud and don’t seem to feel the need to mute.

So today, the world seems so full of hope. Everything can change and will change.

None of these changes, of course, can be traced back to anything I specifically did. But I believe that all my constant fighting and arguing and railing and hoping and praying and raging and supporting those I thought were on the “right side” and sometimes-sneaky battles against those I thought were on the “wrong side”….I believe that all these actions somehow helped create the world I see around me. Today, I go into a road-side restaurant in Chennai and there are young women sitting alone at tables ordering meals – 15 years ago, I was the only one I knew who did such “shameless-forward” things. It makes me want to crow and jump for joy seeing this. And of course, this does not mean that all things are great; clearly they are not….But I feel so certain that the thankless task of arguing and fighting and raging will bear fruit; perhaps not in any direct tangible way, but it will bear fruit and much much sooner than we expect or even dare hope for. So rage away, my friend! The world shifts and changes and reforms itself every time you do.

rage not gratitude

Recently I have been thinking a bit about the role of anger in political struggle and specifically about social justice framing that seems to eliminate the constructive role of anger. Ironically my reflections have been prompted by wondering why certain things seem to fill me with rage.

For example, those “gratitude” posts a lot of my friend network is doing on Facebook. They make me roll my eyes and make it harder for me to like the friends who do them, even though I know and love those people, and I understand that in most cases my friends are just trying to search for the beauty in this beautiful, terrible world we live in. They are just trying to find their own reasons for getting out of bed every day.

Nonetheless, they have a stifling aspect as well. When people make a conscious project out of only posting – to others as well as for themselves – only the things that happen in their days for which they are grateful, it seems a bit self-righteous. It is certainly sending the message to “be grateful for what you have,” which is followed by a silent “instead of complaining about what you don’t.” I guess in some social circles complaining about what you don’t have might take the place of wanting a new toy or a bigger fancier house, but generally I use Facebook to complain about things like the fact that Black people in the United States don’t have the right not to be executed on the sidewalk by state- and public-sanctioned violence. Or the admittedly less tragic fact that capitalism makes me a sadder and more anxious person by requiring me to have a job for which I either feel a survivor’s guilt for my adjuncting friends, or in which I feel underappreciated because the state government which employs me is actively involved in ridiculing the value of what I do and teach, or where I must walk the line between “doing what I love” and allowing myself to be taken advantage of by an institution that certainly does not love me back.

I recently attended an event which honored the lives of Black men and women who have been murdered by the police across the United States. While the program was inspiring, no sooner had the possibility of anger been touched on than the (African American) organizers began to sidestep the blunt truth in an effort to make sure the police officers in attendance felt included and heard in the conversation. In fact, the officers in attendance were more profusely thanked than just about anyone else. Simply for being cops at a community event. I was personally enraged by the bending over backwards on display to make sure the cops at the event did not feel somehow personally implicated in these stories. Shouldn’t we be working to make sure that cops DO feel personally implicated so they can begin to reflect on the role they are playing in such an obviously racist institution? Don’t we need cops who can at least face the facts of what their colleagues across the country are guilty of if we have any hope of a less racist future for policing? Certainly love has a place in my ethos of struggle, but I’m not so sure about gratitude.

I am agnostic about the strategy of building bridges with oppressors in an effort to bring about change. I cannot say with assurance that there’s never a role or necessity of doing so, or that nothing good ever comes of it. What I can say with confidence is that this is most certainly not the ONLY way of bringing about change and that often this is a way to de-escalate successful radical tactics.

If we’re going to survive within a poisonously racist, patriarchal, heterosexist, ableist, and classist dominant culture, don’t we need to cultivate some rage to keep ourselves sane? Melissa Harris Perry draws extensively on the metaphor of the crooked room where women of color spend all of their time adjusting their behavior to the crooked room in which they stand. While there may be a place in such a struggle of radical love for oppressors, mustn’t we permit ourselves and other to first feel the rage that surely must attend the daily insults to our sanity in order to recognize ourselves as the fully human people that the dominant culture cannot see? How can we recover our own dignity without feeling anger at the systems and people who steal it from us on a daily basis?

As I write this I notice I’m feeling somewhat defensive about my embrace of rage. I wonder if my own vacillation between embracing my rage and trying to quell it can even be untangled from all of the bullshit sexist messages I’ve received over the course of my life about being such a polarizing, shrill, person. Actually I spend a lot of energy trying to shield others from the full-on, gale-force level, shrieking harpy brunt of my real rage at the hideous and preventable injustice I see at work every. fucking. day. in our world.

Why should I protect others from outrage at injustice I haven’t caused? Fuck that; rage it is.

Religion and Feminism III

I’m on the fourth chapter of my bible study (it is amazing to me now that even though I was born and raised in the church, and have considered myself a practicing Christian for the past 8 years, I’d never actually read the bible end-to-end). As I read this book little-by-little, it blows my mind how twisted and one-sided bible teaching is. I’ve spent 38 years in the church, and I’ve heard, more-times-than-I-can-count precepts about women covering their heads and obeying their husbands, but never-ever-never have I heard the story of Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah and Tirzah (Numbers 27: verses 1-10) – a bunch of feminists demanding property rights.

In my study, it seems that it would be completely biblically correct to go over the entire bible with a marker pen, and correct every mention of God as “He” into a “She” or “Ze“, because the word “Elohim” used in the original text is plural. In fact, God says, “Let us create man and woman in our image.” So the ubiquitous “He” definitely seems inaccurate.

It is amazing-horrifying that in all these years, I’ve heard the Sodom and Gomorrah story many times in sermons and elsewhere, and it is used as the linchpin for the church’s anti-gay stance – but have none of these people ever actually bothered to read Lot’s story? Because when I finally read this story, it is impossible to misunderstand – what God condemns in that story is not homosexuality but rape. The context of Sodom’s destruction was their sin – the sin of having an abundance of food and riches but not helping the poor and the needy, and not seeking justice for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and instead practicing abominable deeds (Ezekial 16; Isaiah 1): the abominable deeds refers to raping foreigners (irrespective of gender). So the word “sodomy” should (if-one-was-accurate) refer to ingratitude-uncaring-selfishness-xenophobia-rape; it had nothing to do with homosexuality.

Is there no one to defend religion from this twisting and stretching and perverting by one side? We, as feminists (or as liberals-humanists-anyone-with-some-common-sense), need to claim religion as ours (or at least stop dismissing religion as belonging to the nutcases trying to apply selectively the norms of a different era).

Work

Everyone has their cross to bear, and work seems to be mine. Does work, worrying-about-work-jobs-losing-getting-jobs occupy other people’s thoughts to the unnecessary degree that it does mine? In literature and movies, the big challenge is finding a life partner, cancer or Alzheimer’s; no one ever appears to worry-overmuch about jobs and work. In fact, most don’t appear to even need to actually show up at work and are always available for endless hours untangling relationships with friends, parents, boyfriends. Even people in some high-stress fields like medicine are concerned most with the travails of love. Is this just stupid-TV or is that how most people’s brains work – is 90% of most people’s brains devoted to the state of their relationships, with work merely the steady background hum of their brains?

My brain, in contrast, has solid neural pathways connecting work and anxiety, and anything (even something previously enjoyable) that acquires the trappings of work (pay for instance) immediately invokes anxiety. And if I look closely at the anxiety, it usually doesn’t even make any sense – why should I feel anxious about completing a paper when I know what needs to be done and how to do it? Why should I endlessly rerun conversations I’ve had with colleagues/bosses replaying what I should have said versus what I did say?

Is it possible to retrain ones brain so that a new pathway is built connecting work to, say excitement or calm? My romance books are full of people who throw themselves into work to avoid dealing with personal stuff: for these people work invokes calm rather than fear; it is an escape How did that happen for them?

On the few occasions when a serendipitous blend of God-prayer-meditation scraped off the layers of anxiety about work, I’ve discovered a well of excitement, ideas and creativity – so many things I want to make, do, write about, buried under all that anxiety.

For a hellish 2 years I was a housewife – this was not out of choice but because of some random crazy visa issue (is there any other kind?) – and with every day without some well-defined-busyness-making-task before me, I felt myself getting smaller. I’m skinny and brown and soft-spoken, and in groups, it is easy to forget I exist. High-status work is the only sure-fire way I’ve found to counteract this effect. It is a curious problem to have – having a job makes me anxious and miserable about my work, but not having one makes me disappear. And I remember another one like me – my neighbor, another H4-visa wife, a Pharmacist in India, a housewife in the U.S. – she would sleep for days on end, the house dark even mid-afternoon, but would tell me that she was happy being a housewife and has no beef with the H4-visa rules that kept her from a job, even as she disappeared before my eyes, since her memories of her job were anxiety-ridden.

I read recently about how American’s commitment to work and the centrality of work for their identity has risen along with the increase in layoffs, temporary work, unpaid work . And the stories in this piece had a familiar desperate-clinging quality to it, with people who’d been laid off multiple times avowing their death-do-us-apart commitment to their jobs – “I give 150% to my work,” others gave 200%, 300%…an arms race for what you would give for a job. This makes no sense and is as irrational as me putting my family through hoops to hold onto a job that I know will boot me out with only the slightest of pangs, and drumming into my son the importance of working hard. Has working hard ever really helped anyone? I know we all think it helps, but are there concrete examples of good stuff that happened because of hard work? When I think back on my life, all the good stuff that happened, happened because of some combination of serendipity, showing-up, and being-at-the-right-place, and which I sometimes later spun into a story of hard-work and ability.

Religion and Feminism II

So here is my attempt to explain religion (as I see it and understand it and value it), and my hope is that others will join me in rescuing religion (or at least refrain from demonizing religion).

To me, religion at its crux (as represented by its holy texts) is unconcerned with culture; it is concerned with the more universal questions of connection, peace and joy. For instance, it is unconcerned about whether, in a particular age, it is considered appropriate to stone a woman to death for adultery, or whether, in another age, it is considered wholly appropriate to color-code your children in pink and blue. Those are matters for humans in each age to figure out. Religion doesn’t really care either way.

Or actually, I take that back.

It is not that religion doesn’t care either way about such questions or has nothing to say about such questions; it is just these issues are not the main purpose, the main concerns driving religion. These issues are the background context, and provide the setting for the larger and more universal questions about what drives our lives and why we must take the trouble to get up each morning. So in the Bible, for instance, there are stories of killings and women-taken-as-slaves-by-the victors in wars that were ordered by God. Oh horror!! But one has to read the whole book and not stop with these instances, because when we read the whole book and not just the stories of one particular age, then it becomes clear that killing-rape-victors was not the point-of-the-story – that was the unavoidable background context for the real story – the one about maintaining faith and trust and peace and joy when all is uncertain and everything is on the line.

And these stories that populate this holy book are complex and sophisticated multi-generational stories and there are layers of meaning, and if one just stops at the surface level without considering that every age has different ideas about what is okay and what is not, and that the specifics of these choices are largely irrelevant to questions about why we exist, then it is like going to the theater to watch a critically acclaimed play and then dismissing the play because we got distracted by what the actors were wearing.

And if it was a play and we dismissed it without bothering to peel back the layers and understand it, then it matters little. But if we do the same with a holy text like the Bible, then that decision, to choose ignorance, is consequential, because it hands over that entire area of life to the patriarchs; to be used as a bludgeon to beat other women down.

And it is amazing-horrifying how easy it seems to be do this – to use the complexity of religion’s stories (which is what makes them so real and true), and twist and stretch and shade and use to justify all sorts of cultural mishaps. And it makes me mad that something so true and perfect is twisted out of all recognition to justify some twisted ideology. And no one objects!!