Friday, July 6, 2018

When everyone is hungry, you build a bigger table

Last week, I met up with my sisters at a Chik-Fil-A. My 18-year-old nephew, Finn, and I were chatting (probably about something obnoxious) when Laura shushed us. 

"You're being too loud," she whispered.

I don't know why Laura would've thought Finn was being obnoxious.
I raised my eyebrows at her and, smirking, proceeded to ask, at a higher volume, if I was being too loud now? She shushed me some more. 

I laughed and told her I didn't think we were being especially noisy (well any noisier than three moms surrounded by nine children ranging in age from 11 months to 18 years old would be in a crowded restaurant at lunchtime.) But I could tell she was uncomfortable. She was frowning as she kept scanning the restaurant. Her shoulders were hunched and her body tense. She was worried that we were attracting too much attention. That somehow our mere presence there was akin to a three-ring circus setting up in the most inappropriate of places. 

In year's past, when we'd get together whether in public or in private, we didn't pay too much mind to how much our how loudly we talked. We didn't really worry about whether a particular topic - say, the joys of the incontinence gifted to us by our baby-ravaged bodies or how amusing it is to flare our nostrils at each, especially since we both know that we’re both self conscious about the unusually large size of our respective nostrils- might be annoying or offensive to those surrounding us. I think we kind of just figured that our self-depreciation might make someone else giggle or feel a little less self-conscious about their own leaky bladders and unwieldy nostrils. We weren’t, like, extra loud on purpose. But we’re sisters, so there was always a certain level of say, boisterousness to the proceedings.

But lately, things have been different. My sister has been living in this ongoing state of anxiety about the future. She’s a single mom of eight kids, six of whom are still living at home, and four of those who are under 10. In the past two years I’ve watched her grapple with massive change and trying to navigate a world not at all soft for someone in her circumstances. It’s all broken-down cars and doctor visits and scrambling to pick kids up from day care on time and never quite being able to make ends meet. There are no easy answers. No magic wands lying around.

Her life, she says, is just an itchy sweater. And recently, she’s been wearing that itchy sweater while living under an oppressive heat dome. 

When I asked Laura for her blessing in sharing this story, here was her response:

"I certainly don’t mind you telling this story. It might need more explanation ... all the reasons I think I’m less ... I can’t pay my bills... I am missing three teeth ... I’m heavy ... my legs are gnarled with varicosities ... I don’t remember birthdays ... I fail the people I love."

I share this not to make anyone feel sorry for my sister. She would hate that. HATE it. She acknowledges that life is challenging. But will quickly point out that it is challenging for many, many people. She would find an appropriate quote from Mother Teresa or the Dalai Lama. She would quickly change the subject to find out how you’re doing.

It’s not about pity. What makes Laura’s struggles especially frustrating for me is that I see them reshaping her as a person. It’s like she no longer feels as if she deserves to take up as much space in this world because of her circumstances. She wants to blend into backgrounds. To fold herself into small spaces. To not be seen or observed. 

Her shushing my nephew and I at the Chik-Fil-A wasn’t about us at all. It was about Laura’s worry that we’d draw attention to her. And that just by looking at her, the rest of Chik-Fil-A would know the amount of money in her bank account or the state of her home life or the entire contents of her character and they would judge her negatively for it. They’d question her decision-making and her abilities as a mother and her contributions to society and begrudge her in some way.

In a quieter voice, I told Laura that nobody was looking at us. That nobody could possibly know anything about her circumstances just by looking at her- just as she couldn’t know anything about there’s just by looking at them. I told her I wouldn’t be loud, but that it was OK that she was there- that we were there, surrounded by all of our amazing kids. That just because she felt like life was spinning out of her control, that it didn’t mean she couldn’t take up space.

I’m pretty sure she just nodded in agreement to shut me up. 

After Laura's speech at my wedding,
during which she also broke my heart.

It breaks my heart. Because my sister is right. Maybe not that everybody at the Chik-Fil-A that day was staring her down and tallying up her inequities, but that it happens. Frequently. To all different types of people. 

We’re constantly assessing each other based on limited observations and past experiences and assumptions. We do it to poor people for one. And wealthy people. Homeless people. Overweight people. Skinny people. Black people. Brown people. People who are missing teeth. People who are attractive. People with lots of children. People with no children. People in prison. People addicted to drugs. People who are physically disabled. People who are mentally ill. People with intellectual or developmental disabilities. 

People who are different than us.

It breaks my heart to think my sister sees herself as someone who should be scrutinized and criticized and ostracized into occupying a smaller portion of this Earth. And while I think about it, it breaks my heart that really anyone should feel as if they should be reduced.

I just read the memoir “Hungry” by Roxane Gay. You should probably read it, too. In it, Gay writes about being gang raped at 12 and how the trauma of that day has led her to a lifetime of eating and eating and eating. Eating her way into a body described as morbidly obese by doctors. She dissects the why behind her body- how eating allowed her to turn her body into a fortress that could protect her from the type of invasion she suffered at 12. She writes with candor and rawness about moving through this world in her body.  How for her family her body is a problem to be solved. How for her, it’s a reality she’s tried for decades to find acceptance in. How for the rest of the world, her body is something to be assessed and commented on and pilloried.

At this passage, I found myself tearing up:

"Part of disciplining the body is denial. We want but we dare not have ... My body is wildly undisciplined, and yet I deny myself nearly everything I desire. I deny myself the right to space when I am in public, trying to fold in on myself, to make my body invisible even though it is, in fact, grandly visible. I deny myself the right to a shared armrest because how dare I impose? I deny myself entry into certain spaces I have deemed inappropriate for a body like mine- most spaces inhabited by other people, public transportation, anywhere I could be seen or where I might be in the way, really. I deny myself bright colors in my daily clothing choices, sticking to a uniform of denim and dark shirts even though I have a far more diverse wardrobe. I deny myself certain trappings of femininity as if I do not have the right to such expression when my body does not follow society's dictates for what a woman's body should look like…

"…Punishment is, in fact, one of the few things I allow myself. I deny myself my attractions. I have them, oh I do, but dare not express them, because how dare I want. How dare I confess my want? How dare I try to act on that want? I deny myself so much and still there is so much desire throbbing beneath my surfaces."

Just as my girl Florence Welch belts in her new single: We all have a hunger.

Though I’ve never been much more than a few pounds overweight, I heard my voice in Gay’s lamentations. Because of all the times I’ve wanted to fold myself up in public spaces for one reason or another. Because I didn’t look a certain way or have the right degree or just because I’m a woman in a world often hostile to woman. Mostly, when I’m out in the world, I want to not be seen, lest anyone get the false impression that I think I deserve to be seen. Lest anyone look too closely and actually see the disastrous person lying just under my scarred up skin. 

And I hear Laura’s voice, too. Laura who denies herself and shrinks herself because she believes the state of her affairs right now makes her some how inferior. Second class. I actually hear the voice of a lot of women I know. People who for this reason or that accept less. Expect less. Minimize themselves out of habit. Because of this feeling of futility that the world will ever make space for a person like “X.”

In “Hungry” Gay writes about the time she shared a stage with Gloria Steinem. How there was a sign language interpreter on stage and how audience members were grumbling about her for blocking their view of one of the world’s most famous feminists. Because of her own experiences, Gay reassured the interpreter. She told her she should stand exactly where she was in order to be the most visible to the people in the audience who needed her services. 

Reflecting on the incident, Gay realizes the power her body gave her.

"… This was one of those moments when I had a greater sensitivity that could only be brought about by the realities of my body. It was a moment when I understood that all of us have to be more considerate of the realities of the bodies of others."


“All of us have to be more considerate of the realities of the bodies of others.”

And not even just bodies that are overweight or blind or wheelchair bound or poor or frail, though certainly those people.

But the bodies of anyone we encounter.

This whole idea of the space we allow ourselves to occupy- the space we believe others should occupy- got me thinking about the state of the world. Actually, the state of our country.

Because this is at the root of so much of our conflict right now. 

Actually, it’s probably at the root of all conflict in all the history of the world. Humans are nothing if not consistent when it comes to our conflict making. 

But way back when the colonists set sail from Europe to the new to them world, well that was about (among other things) not having space to be who they were, where they were. So they found a different place to be. 

Sadly, their experiences being ostracized in their homelands did not prevent them from ostracizing others in theirs. Americans have spent generations being less than considerate of the realities of the bodies of others. (See U.S. History chapters on Indigenous people, African people, female people, Italian people, Chinese people, Irish people, Japanese people, etc., etc., etc.) 

We have such long memories of our altruism- an entire nation built on the idea that all men are created equal. Where the huddled masses go to realize their dreams. The land of the free and the brave and all that. 

But the memories of the times we’ve failed to live up to our stated creeds … well … we have some collective fogginess. A little amnesia about it. 

So it happens again and again and again.  

Like right now, for instance. 

I have to believe that if we were able to be more considerate of the bodies of others, that there wouldn’t be thousands of children waiting to be reunited with their parents near the border. That we’d collectively dig into our own histories of feeling forced to shrink into the space given to us by other people’s judgment and assumptions about who we were as people and we’d find a solution that didn’t involve inflicting short and long-term trauma on children and their parents. 

I know, I know. 

I’m always doing that.

Being like, “hey ya’ll, I’m gonna talk all about my personal life and books I like and stuff I heard on the radio” and then all the sudden I’m off on a tangent about our immigration policies and you’re, like, “Whoa, slow down there Tater” (for some reason the “you” in this scenario has kind of a twang. Did I mention I'm reading "Hillbilly Elegy"?) 

Anyway, I all the sudden got self conscious about my weird extrapolating. 

It’s just that in my head, our experiences as individuals are connected to our experiences on a larger scale. As neighbors and cities and states and countries. It’s all fluid. It all relates to each other.

How we see ourselves as individuals, how we treat each other as individuals is just a microcosm of who we are as a collective. 

And I think we can all do better for ourselves and each other and the rest.

We need to remember that, as much as it feels like the space we occupy currently is ours and ours alone, our time here is impermanent. That none of it is really ours. Or was ours to begin with. That thousands of years ago, something else claimed this space. And hundreds of years ago, another something claimed this space. And decades ago, something else. 

It’s all shared space. It’s a shared existence. 

There’s room for everyone. 

And if you start to feel self-righteous about a particular person or circumstance. Start to feel your eyebrow doing that twitchy thing it does when someone different than you does something other than you would do, don't assume the worst. Try to put your body in their body.

My sister Laura says it best:

"In my mind .. as soon as you begin to understand someone it is much harder to not love them."

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