Beckoning & Becoming
Monthly Mixtape! February 2016: In-FORMATION
FEBRUARY 2016::::: IN-FORMATION
This month’s mix is a tribute to Black History Month, Black Future Month, and most of all Black Excellence. Black Excellence, contrary to the opinion of some, does not need White Recognition, Validation, or Understanding. Black Excellence is visible all around all the time, but the last few weeks, I, and so many others, have been inspired by the work of musicians who have used their art to celebrate blackness; to illuminate, to challenge, to expose systemic racism and oppression; and to advocate for change in powerful ways.
This includes Beyoncé’s “Formation,” her performance of it at the Superbowl the day after, and all the wonderful writing done by black writers and scholars on the video and its significance.
This also includes the striking performance by Kendrick Lamar at the Grammy’s. He and his backing band came out wearing chains to the sound of a saxophonist playing jazz inside a cell. Then, backdropped by a bonfire, djembe players played African rhythms as dancers performed traditional African dance movements (rooted in different communities and countries in Africa). He referenced the death of Trayvon Martin (“On February 26, I died too”) and in the set and the lyrics, he pointed to the racism of the prison industrial complex. A strobe light flashed across his face as his rapping sped up and the camera switched back and forth to reveal him from different angles. Then the music stopped and he was silhouetted against a cut out of Africa with “Compton” written in the center.
I feel grateful for the Black Lives Matter activists who have, through their brunch sit-ins and human barricades across bridges and so many other actions, have provided disruption (here is a wonderful On Being episode with Black Lives Matter Co-founder Patrisse Cullors and public health expert Dr. Robert K. Ross). Their actions disrupt daily routines and regular messaging to demand that people pay attention to the way in which systemic racism is impacting communities of color in this country. To me, the addition of these performances by well-known and well-respected musicians, is another kind of disruption, one that activists and artivists of the #blacklivesmatter movement paved the way for. As a white person, I have learned much over the last decade about my own privilege and systems of oppression and I still have a lot to learn. I’m grateful for all the writing and discourse and art happening now from artists and activists of color that allows me to expand my understanding and grow.
This mix of 29 songs for the days of February is a way of paying honor and tribute to some of the Black musicians whose music has moved me, allowed me to open and experience joy, and given me the chance to see things in new expansive ways.
For fun, here’s a video of President Obama leading a crowd at the White House in a Ray Charles song.
Here’s the playlist:
- Beyoncé: “Formation”
- Alabama Shakes “Don’t Wanna Fight”
- Laura Mvula “Green Garden”
- Nina Simone “Mississippi Goddamn”
- Janelle Monae “Hell you Talmbout”
- Kendrick Lamar “Alright”
- Trombone Shorty “St. James Infirmary”
- Santigold “Chasing Shadows”
- Alicia Keys “Girl on Fire” (feat. Nicki Minaj)
- The Pinettes “Ain’t No City Like the One I’m From”
- Leon Bridges “River”
- Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee “Born and Livin with the Blues”
- Ray Charles “What’d I Say”
- Etta James “Somethin’s Got a Hold of Me”
- Allen Toussaint “Yes We Can”
- Otis Retting “Try a Little Tenderness”
- The Supremes “Come See About Me”
- The Four Tops “Baby I Need Your Lovin’”
- Stevie Wonder “Superstition”
- Kermit Ruffins with the Rebirth Brass Band “It’s Later Than You Think”
- Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong “Dream a Little Dream of Me”
- Tracy Chapman “Give Me One Reason”
- Sonny Boy Williamson “Keep It To Yourself”
- Sam Cooke “A Change Is Gonna Come”
- Aretha Franklin “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman”
- Angelique Kidjo “Malaika”
- Lauryn Hill “Everything is Everything”
- Whitney Houston “My Love is Your Love”
- Michael Jackson “Man in the Mirror”
Monthly Mixtape! January 2016: Of Rivers & Rising
For over five years, I have been making a monthly music mix—not precisely a mixtape because I’m not using my old Sony boombox, the big black one with two tape decks. I don’t live the agony of calling the radio station to request a song and waiting there patiently, finger poised over the button, so that I can press record and miss as little as possible of the song I needed. But a mix, yes. Making a monthly mix has become a ritual for me. The time spent culling and curating, listening and listing offers a way for me to reflect what is happening in my life and the world outside and to send emissarial messages into the month for me and those I love. The songs envisage, forecast, echo and reflect inner and outer landscapes. I find solace and redemption in music and so too in the curation of a mix that honors the beauty and complexity of life in a particular place and time.
I’m careful not only about the songs I include: trying to include a broad range of styles, content, tempo but also how they end and blend into one another. Where does each song fit? How can they serve as complements and as foils? Where do I want soft blurs? Where hard edges?
I’ve decided to try adding to the ritual of curating the music with curating thoughts about the mix. I listened to the individual songs as I wrote about them so the descriptions are infused with the bends and lilts.
Here’s my mix for January 2016: Of Rivers & Rising
TRACK 1 : Up Above My Head, I Hear Music in the Air/Sister Rosetta Tharpe with Marie Knight & The Sammy Price Trio
In December, a video came through my stream of Sister Rosetta Thorpe wielding her electric guitar and singing “Didn’t It Rain.” I’d heard her and heard of her, of course. But I hadn’t seen her sing and there was something transformative about watching her belt out that song. Called The Original Soul Sister, Tharpe was gospel’s first crossover artist. Her guitar-playing, her voice, her expression: pure and powerful emotion. Up above my head/I hear music in the air. This is a perfect first song of mix for the first month of the year because of the promise delivered in the music in the air, overhead.
TRACK 2 : Stay/ Maurice Williams & The Zodiacs
I was home for the holidays. Home is New Orleans. Growing up in New Orleans is a huge part of who I am but I always feel this the most when I’m home. The city stews in me and I feel it most palpably not when I’m driving under wild oaks dripping with Spanish moss or walking cobblestoned streets or staring up into ornate ironwork in the quarter but rather when I’m listening to WWOZ or out seeing live music. I was with some friends passing by a bar on the way from Frenchman Street to beignets at Café Du Monde when I heard the wail of brass and the solid heartbeat of a sousaphone pouring out of a corner bar and I couldn’t stop myself from dancing in the middle of the sidewalk. The friends I was with were first-time tourists and I didn’t want to deny them the pleasure of 2 a.m. beignets but I also could not walk away from the music. The pull was magnetic. The doorman kept trying to coax me inside, but let’s face it, I was already in there. So we went and listened as the brass band played a rendition of “Stay,” most memorably for me from Dirty Dancing (You know, the scene where Patrick Swayze—man of my dreams when I was ten, and, let’s be real, still now—and Jennifer Grey are walkdancing on the log high over a body of water.The innocent and the bad boy. She’s in white jeans and a white shirt. He’s all in black—pants and a tank that reveals his muscular arms, swoon—and he’s trying to show her how to meld her feet into the bark of the tree.) The brass surges through the air and the people can’t keep from moving. This memory layers upon that one and I’m home, here, home, here. Stay.
(I couldn’t find a brass band version of the song online—somebody, get on that!—so this is the original)
TRACK 3 : River is Waiting/Irma Thomas
I shazammed this song which a DJ played on WWOZ while driving around New Orleans on the days following Christmas. As always, conversations at home involved some degree of talking about before the storm, during the storm, after the storm. The city is changing so much now and I, like many others, am wary of those changes that seem to benefit everyone but New Orleanians. Property is being bought up way over asking from people coming from out of state and the jump in asking prices and rent is pushing people who have lived in neighborhoods for generations—many of them historically Black and/or working class communities—out of the city. Culture is being commodified, sold to the highest bidder, for those who love it here but don’t have roots here. The city and people need the money. But is the cost a diluted version of what was once real here? One of the things I appreciate most about and am grateful about New Orleans is its realness, its genuine quality—in both celebration and struggle this rings true. The light, the grime, the brass, the missing street signs, the power of a river that could drown you but also provides what you need. Something about Irma here—the Soul Queen of New Orleans—and the voices corralled behind her, ushering into her as her voice lifts higher, provide me with a palpable feeling, a quivering of something like trust and hope. For the city. For all of us. I have always, for as long as I can remember, loved ships, loved sailboats, loved the sea. Most of all, I have loved the idea of a physical and a metaphorical journey over and through water, one we are all one, alone together. Sail On/Sail On/River Sail On.
TRACK 4 : Hoy Hoy/Johnny Jones
Baby’s kisses taste like cherry pie/My baby’s kisses taste like cherry pie/Hoy hoy hoy/Hoy hoy skip. I assumed that hoy hoy was one of those words people make up to try to convey those emotions that feel so hard to encapsulate. I didn’t realize that Hoy Hoy was the name for a certain genre of music. According to Urban Dictionary: “the jumpier subgenre of rhythm and blues from 1948-1954. created by wynonie harris. mixture of gospel, blues, and rnb. also known as the earlier form of rock n roll.” Hard-driving keys and drums, fierce sax, and the singer who sure as hell sounds like he has a “baby” in mind while he’s singin’.
TRACK 5 : Lisa Sawyer/Leon Bridges
She was born in New Orleans, New-ew-ew-ew Orleans, Louisiana. Branded with the name Lisa Sawyer. My name is Lisa. I was born in New Orleans. Also, I can’t get enough of Leon Bridges. I found him on a music site and put him on a music mix last month but I had no idea that he was a new artist. I assumed that with the smooth sound his voice, the chorus of backup singers, the cool pull of the brass in the back, he was an artist from the late fifties or early sixties that I’d never heard of before. They are love, love, love, rich in love. Heart warm like the Louisiana sun, voice like a symphony.
TRACK 6: Work Song/Hozier
It all begins with a clap. A clap and some ooos. When my time comes around/Lay me gently in the cold dark earth/No grave could hold my body down/I’d come back to her. I was late to the Hozier train. I had seen Hozier perform “Take Me to the Church” on some awards show but was really moved when I saw Ballet Dancer Sergei Polunin perform to the song. I hadn’t heard this song until a student brought it in for an exercise where I ask them to analyze a music video of their choice. Something about the piano and his voice enveloped in claps and chorus. That and the dancing in the video, which showcases desire and longing in a way that didn’t even make me mad about the glimpses of vampire teeth.
TRACK 7: Novels of Acquaintance/Rising Appalachia
I saw Rising Appalachia for the first time this spring. They dedicated this love song to their audience. The two sisters who lead the group played twin fiddles and rotated off to also play banjo and guitar. But one of the coolest instruments was the giant half-gourd that their drummer pounded. That insistent thump filled the room like a collective heartbeat. I have always loved letters and letter writing as a medium to attempt to convey with immediacy the unconveyable: feelings of love, gratitude and appreciation, deep vulnerability and truth, intimacy, desire. The idea of whole novels of acquaintance sets me in need of a fainting couch. Fine tune me with patience/I’ll write you novels of acquaintance.
TRACK 8: You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman/Aretha Franklin
Before the day I met you, life was so unkind/ But you’re the key to my peace of mind/ ‘Cause you make me feel/You make me feel/You make me feel like a natural woman. I watched Aretha Franklin saunter over to the piano, glittering dress and fur coat, and pound the key, before she stirred the song into motion, from light to bellow, singing this song in honor of Carole King at The Kennedy Center honors. True and full embodiment. Owning everything about the song and the stage. So much so that Carole King couldn’t disguise her complete glee and the audience rose into a standing ovation long before the song ended. I’m working on walking through life like this:
TRACK 9: The Way/The Bell Rays
A local DJ Hannah Levin at KXCI in Tucson posted sometime in the last couple months about The Bell Rays, who I had never heard of, and that video pulled me into a long and winding, hours long youtube listening session. I thought about including “Anymore,” which was the first song I saw by them and which I love, on here. But it’s not really a new year song. This one opens into the way you want it to be.
TRACK 10: Coffee Pot/Big Sam’s Funky Nation
I spent New Year’s Eve 2014 dancing my ass off to Big Sam’s Funky Nation at The Maple Leaf in New Orleans. He and fellow female singer who slayed that night. I heard Big Sam interviewed on WWOZ when I was home and this song sent me smiling and into fits of car dancing. She’s hot/Hot like a coffee pot/Too hot to trot/Once you get a taste, you can’t stop/Girl’s got booty, booty galore/Feels so good you hit the floor/ The girl got legs/Legs for days/I want her so bad/I ain’t too proud to beg.
TRACK 11: Move Your Body/Rebirth Brass Band
All I really wanna do is see you do is move your body/move your body/move your body/move your body.
This is your invitation to SHAKE IT to wild brass. Rebirth yourself. You’re welcome. From hometown legends.
TRACK 12: Night People/Allen Toussaint
I heard this song on WWOZ just after “Coffee Pot” (see TRACK 10) and I was like “YES, THESE ARE MY PEOPLE!!!!” Allen Toussaint, a hometown hero who I had the privilege of meeting and who just recently, unexpectedly, passed away (a devastating loss, he was a kind and down to earth ambassador for New Orleanians), can speak for all of us: Night people/Hanging out/Looking at each other/Waiting for something to happen//Night people/While the day world is sleeping/Night people creeping/Hanging out/Looking at each other//When the day world stops moving/Night people start grooving/Hanging out/Waiting for something to happen…
TRACK 13: Tainted Love/Gloria Jones
Sometimes I feel I’ve got to—run away. I’ve got to—get away from the pain you drive into the heart of me. In November, one wonderful Saturday afternoon, I sat drinking mimosas and eating brunch with a group of fabulous friends. But unfortunately, the soundtrack to our day drinking was the “Super Crappy Emo and Pop Covers of Your Favorite, Now Ruined, Songs” Pandora Station. This included the most saccharine and depressing version of “Tainted Love” I’ve ever heard. I was in high school in the ‘90s and some of my favorite memories are jamming out to 80s hits like Tainted Love on the dance floor. Only Tainted Love wasn’t an 80s hit, a friend at that brunch told me. When I got home, I looked up this version immediately and it instantly became my favorite.
TRACK 14: Oo Wee Baby/The Ivytones
I’ve got a girl as sweet as can be/I’m all about her, she’s all about me. I heard this song on WWOZ during the same show as Track 4. I’m a sucker for sweet love songs and solid harmonies, especially those that involve call and response and ooooohs of any kind.
TRACK 15: Lighthouse Fire/Josh Ritter
When I first saw the title of this song, I wondered if “Lighthouse Fire” was a good thing or not. Is it the fire that keeps the lighthouse going and burns brightly to guide ships safely to shore. Or was it a lighthouse on fire. The hard-driving song and overlay of vocals reinforce the good kind of fire, the hottest heat. My love is a lighthouse fire…Out where the high and the highway meets the sky meets the sky meets the sky meets the sky.
TRACK 16: Bleeding Out/The Lone Bellow
All the buildings they lean and they smile down on us/ and they shout from their rooftops words we can’t trust/like “you are dead,” “you are dying,” “you’re ruined,” “you’re ruined,” “you’re dust,” “you’ll amount to nothing like tanks full of rust”/But we scream back at them from below on the street/All in unison we sing of times been redeemed/We are all of the beauty that has not been seen/We are full of the color that’s never been dreamed.
The first time I heard the Lone Bellow I was walking into a festival in Massachusetts. People scattered over the green grass, sprawled across striped blankets and under big umbrellas. Lone Bellow’s voices carried over the crowd into the same air where yellow and red and blue hot air balloons lifted up into the sky. This song speaks to what it is to be human and always reminds me of that day and watching those balloons carried off into the air by fire and fuel and pressure. Because this song too is a kind of buoy.
TRACK 17: Lonely/Jillian Bessett
You are not alone. From a local Tucson singer/songwriter/musician whose music I’ve had the privilege of getting to know in the last several months. What it means to be lonely and alone and how we find grace in knowing that we are never alone, that opportunities for connection are everywhere—even in recognizing others are experiencing emotions and struggles as we are.
TRACK 18: Father, Father/Laura Mvula
While I’ve heard other songs by Laura Mvula, I only recently heard this song when a friend posted a dance by Alvin Ailey dancers. Now my experience of the song is entwined with the power of that dance and all that these dancers were able to convey in their movement. From the rehearsal video description: “What impact does prison have on families? Choreographer Kyle Abraham explores in his latest work for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.”
The layers of their movements mirrored the layers of voice in the song. The choreography speaks to how mass incarceration has impacted black families in United States and is an emotional complement to the Ta-Nehesi Coates’ wonderful recent article in The Atlantic. Let me love you/Let me love you…Father, father, why you let me go? Father, please don’t let me go.
TRACK 19: Moon River/Henry Mancini & Johnny Mercer
I have always had a soft spot in my heart for this song. There is such an earnest tenderness about it. A yearning. And a desire to meld with something bigger than oneself. The lyrics were inspired in part by Mercer’s childhood in Savannah, Georgia. The waterways of his home and picking huckleberries in the summertime.
We’re after the same rainbow’s end/Waiting round the bend/My Huckleberry friend/Moon River and Me.
The song was written for Breakfast at Tiffany’s. One of my favorite versions of the song is Audrey Hepburn’s, because it is the moment in in the film when we glimpse and see the woman underneath Holly Golightly’s persona. I love the simple beauty of the tune.
TRACK 20: Mourning to the Moonlight/Monica McIntyre
The first time I heard this song was when I was home in New Orleans in December of 2014. My dad and I had just visited the Cabildo where we saw Fats Domino’s piano on display. Five conservationists had worked for more than five days to restore the mold-covered piano after it was taken from his Lower Ninth Ward home after Katrina. Then they displayed it in the museum. After we drove by the old Ursulines Convent, one among only a handful of buildings to be spared in the 1788 fire. When I went to Ursuline Academy for grammar school, we were told over and over again how a statue Our Lady of Prompt Succor was placed in a convent window to protect the sisters. I could see it in my mind’s eye: the statue, the curtains fluttering about her. They said Our Lady saved the convent.
As we drove, Monica McIntyre, who I would later meet and see perform in Tucson, was being interviewed on WWOZ: talking about the making of her new record and the blending of singing with the cello. Then she sang this song.
For several years, I have partaken in a ceremony on New Years’ Eve for Shedding and Beckoning. Letting go of what holds me back and beckoning in what I want in the New Year. What I’ve realized over the years is that some things are easy to shed and other things need to be released over and over again. The ceremony of it is vital to me. Letting go and calling in. Clearing space, making room for what needs to come.
Over the last several years, different friends, healers, and artists have inspired me in their rituals around giving the earth what you cannot manage and drawing energy back up through the earth. In this song, McIntyre gives away the difficulty of life so they can be transformed: I gave away my fear to the river/Gave away my pain to the wind/Gave away my sorrow to the sunshine, I’m free again// I gave away my grief to the treefolk/Gave away my shame to the wind/Gave away my mourning to the moonlight/I’m whole again//I am the change I’ve been waiting for.
TRACK 21: My Dear Acquaintance (A Happy New Year)/Regina Spektor
My dear acquaintance, it’s so good to know you/ For strength of your hand/That is loving and giving/And a happy new year/ With love overflowing/ With joy in our hearts/ For the blessed new year
Raise your glass and we’ll have a cheer/ For us all who are gathered here/And a happy new year to all that is living/ To all that is gentle, kind, and forgiving/ Raise your glass and we’ll have a cheer/ My dear acquaintance, a happy new year
This is one of my favorite songs for the new year. But the beautiful sounds of Spektor’s ethereal voice, the piano, and a choir are also interrupted with sounds of sirens and gunshots. Because there is not peace for everyone. We must remember that. And work to change that. So that all might have peace. So that all might be made whole.
TRACK 22: Auld Lang Syne/Andrew Bird
A twangier take on an old classic. Fiddle reels. Guitar pickins’. Punctuated notes.
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And days of auld lang syne.
For auld lang syne, my dear
For auld lang syne
We’ll take a cup of kindness yet
For auld lang syne!
May your cups be brimming over and spilling out with kindness in 2016 and always.
BONUS TRACK: Unforgettable/Natalie Cole I’ve been working on this mix the last several days but today, January 1, Natalie Cole died. I always appreciated the smooth, clear quality of her voice. My dad and I danced to the song “Unforgettable,” a posthumous duet she did with her father Nat King Cole, at my sweet sixteen. Rest in Peace, Ms. Cole. Thanks for your music.
One last note: You may have noticed that many of the songs on here are by Black musicians. I didn’t set out with the intention of doing this but it’s clear to me the way in which these artists words, work, songs permeate my life and enrich my way of seeing the world. When I grew up in New Orleans, the city was 60-70 percent Black and the culture of the Black community in New Orleans permeated everything. The Mardi Gras Indians, Second Lines, Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, jazz, blues, bounce music. Because I grew up with this culture, along with everpresent racism that I saw around me, I also felt (and continue to feel) a tremendous gratitude to the Black artistic expression in this city and beyond. One of the things I have been most grateful for in 2015 is the power, beauty, and activism of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. In the face of tremendous suffering and struggle, Black artists and activisms have risen up, grown community, made art, and spread awareness of racism and police brutality towards Black people in this country. I’m excited for the changes this work is bringing and will bring.
Wishing you a wonderful month and a wonderful start of 2016. May it be full of light, art, beauty, music, love, and too many blessings to count.
You can also find the entire playlist on youtube here.
Why We Must Read Women Writers To Change the World
Today, a friend posted this list on Facebook. Autostraddle published 215 of the best longreads of 2015, all written by women. And I rejoiced to have all of these pieces gathered in the same place. So I can read them. So I can share them. Curated lists like this make writing more easily accessible and harder to dismiss.
And I want to talk about why it’s important to share it widely and encourage everyone you know to read off this list. Even if, especially if, you don’t identify as female. The news we hear, the art we look at, the books and articles we read help to shape not only our individual perspectives but the world we live in. I’m not saying anything new. But we forget. We are reminded, we think about it, and then we forget how permeating misogyny is to every aspect of culture. And we forget that the devaluing of women’s words and women’s ideas shapes a world in which women themselves are devalued.
We see this in so many ways, but let’s stick to literature for a second.
As Claire Vaye Watkins explored in her brilliant Internet-breaking essay “On Pandering” in November, we have been trained to look at men’s writing as serious, good, thoughtful, as the Great American Novel and women’s writing as sentimental and domestic and emotionally driven (read: not intellectual). Men’s writing is universal while women’s writing is personal. Men write about serious things like war and not mundane things like child-rearing. This perspective makes an assumption not only that men write about certain things and women write about others but that any topic that could be associated with the feminine or female is somehow less important. That females concerns are lesser concerns. That female ideas are lesser ideas. That female imaginings are less imaginative.
Watkins’ essay takes down patriarchal culture overall but in particular in the literary world, names names, and points to a deep need to change the culture we live in to make the art we need to make. She refuses to dilute her message and also speaks frankly about how the characterizing of men’s writing as good writing has filtered both into her own style and questions she has about it.
In forays into online dating, I can’t tell you how many men on OkCupid whose profiles piqued my curiosity until I scrolled down to their favorites list. There, I read their list of favorite books and favorite authors. All Hemingway and Kerouac. McCarthy and Melville. Fitzgerald and Franzen. (Notably: most of these lists also contain only white men.) And I’m like, seriously? Not a single woman? Some might say that this is no big deal. That their selection simply speaks to a certain aesthetic. That I shouldn’t make assumptions or mountains out of molehills. But I’ve been out on dates with many guys with such lists and I’m pretty sure that a man who only thought to list male writers as those that influenced and impacted them in a transformational way shares a different view gender roles and of the world. And this is a view that is cultural condoned and reinforced: in classrooms, on “best of” lists, in who is given airtime on television in who sits on panels at conferences.
The celebration of male authors above female ones is a historical pattern but it is not an inevitability, although it sometimes feels like one.
Years ago, I went to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in DC, where I attended a panel featuring writers from a well-respected anthology. (This was before the VIDA, an organization committed to collecting data on the gender of authors published in magazines, journals and anthologies). When I asked why more women writers weren’t included in the anthology, the editor misdirected. Another panelist, a woman, misheard my question and went on to defend the value of women writers’ work.
At that same conference, I attended a panel about the underrepresentation of women in the publishing world. I looked around the large hotel conference room, with ornate columns surrounding us and crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. Out of the hundred or so people in the room, I saw three men. One of them left about ten minutes in. I quietly seethed in my seat. Black people shouldn’t be given the responsibility to explain anti-black racism to white people. People with physical disabilities shouldn’t have to educate those more abled about their experience. Women shouldn’t have to explain sexism to men.
During the presentation, one of the panelists talked about how a male friend of hers who lived in the same neighborhood in a large city mentioned how on every walk down a particular street he noticed the parrot visible from the third floor window. She told her friend she’d never seen a parrot. Then she told him the reason: her eyes were either cast down or scanning the periphery, monitoring her walk, listening for footsteps behind her that might threaten her body or life. Looking up wasn’t an option. It was a luxury she couldn’t afford.
A few weeks prior to reading Watkins’ essay, I watched the entirety of Aziz Ansari’s Master of None. In one of the episode, the beginning cuts between two scenes of people walking home in New York City: one is of two men and the other is of a woman walking solo. The switchbacks between the two are illuminating, if not surprising. The guys walk to the soundtrack of Bobby McFerrin whistling “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” as they take a shortcut through a pitch-black park. The woman is followed—to ominous piano music—down the street by a man whose advances she refused at the bar. He follows her all the way to her building, where he sneaks in behind her. As he pounds on her apartment door—begging that she give a nice guy a chance for once—she calls the police. “Yes,” she says into the phone, with an air of futility and frustration more than fear, “I need some assistance.”
In an interview about his show, Aziz Ansari said: “What I’ve learned, as a guy, is to just ask women questions and listen to what they have to say. Go to your group of female friends and ask them about times they’ve experienced sexism at their job, and you’ll get blown away by the things they tell you. You’ll think, ‘What the fuck? This is way darker than anything I’d imagined.’” And “Go on any famous woman’s Instagram and there are crazy death threats in the comments everywhere. No one is giving Drake death threats—only female celebrities get that. It’s fucked up. I don’t understand it. I don’t know how you can be that disgusting of a human being to write those things, and also, if you’re not aware that it’s happening overwhelmingly more to women than it is to men, you’re an idiot who’s detached from reality.”
When I watched the episode and when I read these words, I felt a swell of gratitude for bringing these issues to light.
And almost immediately after, I thought: How is it that I am this grateful for misogyny, sexism and the problems with gender norms being an overt part of the conversation in 2015?
Although I respect those of you that do, I give no shits about Star Wars. However, I understand the iconic status of the films and celebrate when people get to see entertainment they enjoy. What has been disturbing since the newest film was released is the consistent berating of Carrie Fisher (who is maybe one of the hilarious humans ever: see evidence here and here) for the crime of, you know, getting older and gaining weight. No, she doesn’t have the body she had when she wore that gold bikini. She was 19 then. And now she’s 59. She has done a great job of mediating twitter comments about her appearance with humor and poignant calling out of a culture that deems beauty and youth as success. But the truth is that there is virtually no market for women actors over 50, or even 40, and that is determined not only by executives but by the market that drives them. What movies do we show up to? What movies do we not care about? We need to be more vocal about the movies we want made.
We can gain more control of the cacophony.
So often, we are made to think we have no choice when really, we have so much choice. We get to decide when and how we speak out and name inequity. We choose what we read and see. We choose where we invest our time, money, and precious attention. And we can make the art and music and writing and film that we want to see. If we are not a part of underrepresented groups, we can support, publish, and share the work of underrepresented writers and artists. There is room in the limelight for substantial work from voices that are not being heard or heard enough. And our sharing of this work does matter.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, one of my all-time favorite novelists, has done so much to advance the conversation around feminism. Her TED Talks “The Danger of a Single Story” and “We All Need to Be Feminists” are among my favorites to watch and show to my writing students. She says, “I have chosen to no longer be apologetic for my femininity. And I want to be respected in all my femaleness. Because I deserve to be.”
We need to read women writers. We need their perspectives into order. And we need to pay attention to further intersectionalism in our reading list. Are we reading women writers of color? queer women writers? those with a wide range of gender identities and expression? women writers of different income spectrums and with different bodily shapes and abilities? We need these perspectives in order to create a world that allows space for everyone, a world where having diverse perspectives is the norm rather than the exception. In these perspectives, we offer an opportunity for all those part of our community to be honored in their wholeness.
Some articles/essays/performances I’ve appreciated lately that are by, about, and/or including women:
215 of the Best Longreads of 2015, All Written by Women
Aretha Franklin sings at The Kennedy Center Honors to celebrate Carole King
The Great Discontent Interview with Ashley C. Ford
“The Best Anti-Racist Art I Encountered This Year” by Aisha Sloan
“This App Makes Your Phone Buzz When You Approach Places Where Women Made History”
“The Most Important Writing From People Of Color In 2015”
This post and all of the beautiful astrological writing of Chani Nicholas
“On Pandering” by Clare Vaye Watkins
“Mexican artist melts 1,527 guns, makes shovels to plant trees” by Amanda Froelich
Video about yogi and yoga instructor Jessamyn Stanley
“What 8 body positive activists want you to know about losing weight in the new year” by Katie Dupere
“What’s Wrong with the Term ‘Person of Color’” by Janani
“Yoko Ono Asks Visitors to Repair the Impossibly Broken” by Allison Meier
Writer/artist/dancer Kimi Eisele’s work (here and here) at the ArtCOP21 – global festival of cultural activity on climate change
Also from ArtCOP21: The Bureau of Linguistic Reality
Photographer Jade Beall’s recent portraits of Syrian Refugees
Article on the phenomenal Ecohybridity (a Black Feminist Response to the 10th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina)
A Radical Design Movement is Growing in New Orleans by Nina Feldman
35 Things: Listening to Life
On my birthday this summer, I reflected on the past year and all those years before. I notice that I get watery on the days surrounding my birthday. Not sad or wistful or nostalgic exactly. There is something about the transition from one year to the next: one year of life ending and another beginning. These liminal spaces allow us to occupy our lives in a new way as we move into, out, and through. Also, I think the older I get the more I realize that while so many things change, the core of who we are and what we want to express does not. Maybe we change the way in which we love and accept ourselves and those around us. Hopefully, we expand and allow for more room to authentically be who we need to be, but the ways in which we have empowered or denied ourselves don’t change the core of who we feel we must be.
Here are some things I have learned in my own journey, in life and in spirit, in 35 years of living.
One: Love and connection are what make life worthwhile. Love comes in any forms and shapes and so does connection. But loving other beings and being loved is what repositions us and shows us our place on the planet. Love offers us opportunities to awaken over and over again. Loving and being loved allows us the opportunity to become ever bigger, ever brighter versions of who we are.
Two: I owe my parents and my ancestors everything. They gave me a life and a lineage. Even my craggy, hard-to-love parts have an ancestry and in loving these parts, I heal up and down my ancestral line. In living out those passions that are at my core, I honor those who came before me and those who will come after.
Three: These years are hard won. Yes, this life and these years are given to us. For that we can be grateful. But our time is hard-won, meaning to live an engaged life in which we are trying to serve out our purpose means almost constant confusion, uncertainty, and doubt. Good thing we can pair these with gratitude, generosity, and grace. As Pema Chödrön says, “to be human is to be continually thrown out of the nest.” Life involves struggle but isn’t only made of struggle. Doors open when we least expect. Someone draws open the shades. We open a window and the whole room is aerated. One of my favorite song lyrics is from Mary Chapin Carpenter: “We’ve got two lives, one we’re given and the other one we make.”
Four: I need to be grateful for all of my experiences. This isn’t the same thing as “Everything happens for a reason,” which I don’t believe in. But all of our experiences have within them something to teach us. We never know when something is good or bad. We think we know for certain but we really have no clue. Everyone and everything can be our teacher if we allow them to be.
Five: Our dreams don’t go away just because we ignore them. Those dreams, those inner yearnings are what we are meant to follow. They will knock gently. They’ll amp up the stereo. But they will also pull up a chair and stake out our front door until we pay them heed. To ignore our dreams is not only harmful to us but is an inherently selfish act. Our dreams offer opportunities to give back to a world we are in constant collaboration with. That world wants us to be who we are meant to be.
Six: Those who call you selfish, silly, or unrealistic for honoring your call and your voice are not your allies. Wish them well but don’t allow them into your sacred circle. And don’t give them the first listen to your most tender wishes and newest goals.
Seven: We will fail over and over again. And we have the opportunity to try after we fail. As social work researcher and storyteller Brené Brown says, “There is no innovation and creativity without failure.” When we see someone else failing, it’s not our job to catch them; it’s our job to hold our hand out and help them up and on. When we fail, we have a choice. Let that choice be to recognize our strength and power and bravery in trying—and to try again.
Eight: Not everyone will love us or like us and we won’t love or like everyone and that’s okay. We don’t all like the same kind of music or the same kind of food, why would we expect to like every single person? That said, respect is always possible even without fondness.
Nine: Animals make life better. One of the best decisions I ever made was getting a dog. Maggie helps me lighten up, laugh, and pay attention to ordinary pleasures. Like eating, walking, snuggling, sleeping, or, ahem, every fascinating smell on the one mile path [not that this is a specific example or anything].
Ten: Bodies of water always make me feel better. And often so do trails surrounded by trees and wildlife. But something about being in touch with the movement and aliveness of water comforts me.
Eleven: It does violence to yourself to force yourself to be someone you’re not. To try to like things you don’t like or do things you know aren’t in you or for you is not benign. It is destructive of who you are.
Twelve: Being in relationship with others is hard. I will fail over and over again but I will succeed as well. Honesty is everything: I’m sorry, I love you, I’m scared, I want to offer you something. Even when it’s hard. Even when it feels too vulnerable.
Thirteen: I do not have the ability to change everything but I do have the ability to change my attitude. And changing my attitude often takes less than I think. Sometimes even the tiniest thought or action can create a tidal wave of emotional or psychic change.
Fourteen: Beauty is all around you all the time. Beauty in nature, in other people and their kindnesses, in art, in community, in love, in the consistency of the sun flooding the sky with color at daybreak and dusk. In the moon and stars sweeping light across the night sky. Beauty wants you to find it and to notice. So much of life is about that noticing.
Fifteen: Ask for help when you need it. People so often are looking for ways to be helpful and generous. But first, you have to ask.
Sixteen: Be generous. With yourself. With others. Offer help when and how you can. Offer not out of obligation but out of kindness, abundance, and shared humanity.
Seventeen: Limit consumption of suffering. Human beings of ever era have thought they lived in the worst of times. In part, this is because we are hardwired to cling to tragedy for our survival. This is not to minimize war, poverty, racism and hardships of all kinds but rather to ask for caution about how and when we expose ourselves.
Eighteen: Don’t turn away from suffering and do your best to make the worst times a little bit better. Grow your container to hold space for others’ suffering and your own. But more so, figure out ways to help. How can you be a part—even a tiny part—of making things better?
Nineteen: Read more. Always. Turn off Netflix and pick up a book. Better yet pick up a book by someone of a different nationality, ethnicity, vocation. Pick up a book by someone who has a different way of seeing the world and learn why.
Twenty: Praise people who are doing work you admire. Do it now. Don’t wait. Reach out and say “Brava!” and “Thank you.”
Twenty-one: Find joy in small things. Write them down. Look at them when you are feeling sad, overwhelmed, or disempowered.
Twenty-two: Open to love. Even when it’s hard. Even when its not practical. Even though there are no guarantees.
Twenty-three: Trust your gut. Listen to your body and inner wisdom and not your crazy-making mind. When you feel your gut say “No,” pay attention. When you feel your gut say “YES,” pay attention to that, too.
Twenty-four: Remember that everything is impermanent. That means give thanks for the moments that still you into gratitude and awe, that charge you into living, and remember heartbreak and anger and sorrow will shift over time.
Twenty-five: Gather for meals. The Buddha said if we realized the power of giving we would never let a meal go by without sharing part of it. It’s true. Invite people over for dinner more.
Twenty-six: Figure out where your gifts meet the worlds’ needs. Occupy that space as much as possible. (Some of these gifts, you will know right away. Other ones take a lifetime to discover. It is all okay.).
Twenty-seven: Banish the shoulds. Thank them and show them the door.
Twenty-eight: Art and music and story has always been what made you come alive. Remember that.
Twenty-nine: Live in the places you love that feed you. Just because someone else loves a place or you think you should doesn’t mean you will. Absolve yourself of guilt and make a home in the places that feed you.
Thirty: Cherish those you hold dear. Tell them you cherish them. Not once, twice, but every chance you get.
Thirty-one: Never stop learning. Never forget you have much to learn. Take a class. Take up a new language or hobby or job. Follow your curiosities. Don’t listen to voices, yours or others, who condemn or judge.
Thirty-two: Do the thing that scares you. But first, make sure you have the support you need.
Thirty-three: 99 percent of the time, self-doubt is fear in disguise.
Thirty-four: Friendship is one of life’s greatest gifts. Love friends, bolster them as they bolster you.
Thirty-five: Dance! Sing! Laugh! As often as possible.
And one for good measure
Thirty-six: Trust in your ability to navigate this world one day at a time.