Why I wear the iron maiden: One woman on dressing modestly in everyday life

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wound roots

Since I have approached the root of my wounds in life after being used to putting a bandage on the issues, sometimes it feels even harder to live in my own skin, hear my voice, write down my words, and feel comfortable and safe. I haven’t seen myself as a woman in years and years. Not since I was quite young. I think I began to dissociate from feeling “like a girl” sometime during fifth grade. Time in the queer community validated this feeling as innate or normal, and so I have been living detached from important aspects of myself for quite a long time now.

Yesterday it felt like so much was spilling out of me. I haven’t had that kind of anxiety in years. The fear seemed to invade my body and by the end of the day I felt like I had the flu.

Perhaps other women have also felt overwhelmed, too.

I remember having a similar kind of anxiety before I wanted to start T. I had spent so many years obsessing over my body shape whenever I felt the pain of being me. The fantasy of being a man kept me thirsty and hungry for a new, better future. Like I could float above the pain forever if I could keep reaching away from myself in those moments. I could just keep reaching away, imagining the real me, and maybe one day I could create that “real” person, that safe, strong, happy man.

To not take the anxiety I sometimes have and move to a mirror and examine all the “too girly” parts of me like I have too often done is a challenge. To stop the episode of hate termites from gnawing at my mind is nearly always a serious feat that I always, always realize I should practice more for before it happens. To allow the grief in my life to color my world when it needs to be seen but not to overtake my world is another important skill. When the grief is too much, I don’t have the fantasy anymore of being a man in a man’s world. So much of my pain is of a woman. That acknowledgment has done so many wonders for my healing. To sit and think about where all of these feelings really came from in my life, what their history really is, is hard in a way I’m not always so comfortable with. And to get up and greet the day, to remain curious, to draw, to cuddle, to go outside, to make music, to meet friends, to try a new recipe — that’s just about as important as the archaeological dig.

I can’t float above the pain with my fantasies right now. I just have to sit on the ground and be there for myself. Renewal takes years but it also happens now.

Last night ended up being okay. I settled down eventually. I made dinner and the cat and I enjoyed our evening routine of playing with her wand toy on the steps. I listened to S talk about her social work program. She has her own anxieties in life, too. I’m not the only one! And so it was important to listen to her and get out of my own little matrix of Problems. I rubbed her new “kind of” shaved haircut. We fell asleep like we often do, with our backs touching. My cat meowed at the door. The summer bugs sang. I found love for myself.

Memorization

I have been reading some of Audre Lorde’s essays and poetry. She talks about how she struggled as a child to find the words for her feelings. She began to memorize poetry and would recite fragments to reply to somebody speaking to her instead of creating her own sentences.
This ties in well with what Lorde says about patriarchally induced “aphasia” and “amnesia.” We forget our histories because they are too painful or male supremacy is invested in us misremembering their brutality (amnesia), and what we can remember, we struggle to articulate with words (aphasia).
Another person who did something similar to Lorde is Jeanette Winterson. Memorizing her favorite lines in books and poems was her pillar while growing up in an abusive home.

I have struggled lately with articulating what I feel inside. So I thought I would give this little tradition a hand. Perhaps it would help me with something. Maybe it would help me with things I didn’t really know were problems, too?

The first poem I tried this with is Mary Oliver’s “Trilliums.” It’s a poem that has been close to me for a few years now. It struck me immediately when I first read it. It has a haunting quality and describes the isolation and the self-discovery of childhood misfits in the most beautiful way imaginable.

Memorizing requires a certain amount of brute force and willpower. It reminds me of all the Quran I was told to memorize as a child. My aunt, quite religious and um, a bit nutty, used to always say, “When you memorize Quran like this, you know God’s words by heart. By heart! And God’s words are inside you forever! You can speak the words to him before you go to heaven, and he will know you belong there! (She also gave us little turtle figurines and creepy dolls from good will as prizes for memorizing chapters. And we would jump on the couch while we memorized it. Hah! Good times.)

As a child, I imagined that this process of learning something “by heart” would carve some kind of tunnel between my brain and my heart/soul, and from the heart/soul a tunnel was created to God. Sometimes it still feels like that, but not as literal, since I’m not religious now. But it’s still as if somehow having words you revere permanently inside of yourself can mystically fortify you. Maybe it’s an old superstition of mine that holding words that you need in your body can transform you or at least help you turn your face to the sun and see life through new eyes if you forget how to.

Once you finish the process of memorizing something exactly as it is written, you feel like some part of your mind that was lying inert has been forcefully shifted over to make room for this new addition that you intentionally, painstakingly carved into your mental landscape.

I’m not sure that all of these established parts of my mind should be there anymore. Some of those old cinder-blocks up there are hateful, abusive self-concepts. Some of it is just dead weight, artifacts of boredom or time wasted fretting over something minor. I like the thought of pushing them out with the words of gifted women that I have grown to admire. I know it isn’t really possible to literally push out parts of your mind like puzzle pieces, but I’m enjoying the imagery anyway.

That’s all!

Six arms and legs

I think and talk a lot about dark and painful issues relating to womanhood and lesbianism. But I want to focus on how processing and addressing these issues in my life has created avenues for genuinely healthy and even creative/unconventional women-centered connection.

My partner and I have a new friend, “Lor,” who is a lesbian from the Dominican Republic. She’s outgoing, laughative, and outrageously flirtatious with us both. S (my partner) and I have always been a fairly easy-going couple, not generally the kind to become jealous or possessive as long as we trust that the other person is being transparent. We have guidelines for this and we communicate often and openly about our boundaries in the context of our long-term partnership. It isn’t that we’re polyamorous. We don’t seek that relationship configuration in our lives. We’re just flexible and open-minded about giving and receiving affection as a principle. S is exuberantly affectionate to a lot of people in her life, and I can be like that in my own subtle way, so it works out.

Every time we have been together with our friends and Lor, she has been touchy with one of us in a lighthearted, flirtatious way, or she makes some kind of borderline lewd comment. It’s all in good fun. We enjoy it because our relationship is equipped to deal with it and because Lor is bursting with this special kind of sunshine and charisma that neither of us can help but embrace. She has this way of making dirty lesbian jokes without either of us feeling offended or objectified. It’s all pure Lor fun.

This Sunday she came over to mine and my partner’s new apartment. She has been struggling lately with a sudden breakup, so her exuberance is punctuated with shards of true sadness. I really admire how she allows the sadness to come through. One moment the three of us are laughing and joking around, and the next moment she is saying how some detail of our conversation really reminds her of this woman she loved. We all took a moment to allow her to feel that way, and then she said something like, “Okay enough, girls, fuck this. I didn’t come here to cry! Get me another beer!” We all laughed again and S reminded Lor that she had ten years of social work experience and more to come, so she would be damned if she didn’t let Lor talk it out.

A few beers into the evening we all sat on the couch to look at cat pictures, watch Bjork videos on Lor’s phone, and share a pint of Ben and Jerry’s together with three spoons. At some point we found ourselves intertwined. Six legs and six arms going every which way. S had her arm around Lor, and I was sprawled out over S’s and Lor’s lap as Lor played with my hair. We caressed each other and bathed in a warm glow surrounding us, entertained by Bjork while creating space for Lor’s moments of sadness.

I laid there in my drunken state feeling like somehow this was a small arrival point, a gift on my sometimes challenging journey through life. There have been times when I have been exceptionally lonely and isolated from people, specifically women. There have been times when I have been so disconnected from myself that I couldn’t connect with others very well. I’m keenly aware that at any moment we can experience immense grief and loss. I can lose my loved ones or my health. A country can erupt into war. Our own mental illness issues can rob us of any enjoyment we would normally have for a moment. The people who are supposed to love you and take care of you can abuse you. All those things are made harder when you are conditioned to hate yourself. There have been times when I didn’t want anybody to touch my body or even look at me because it overwhelmed me and brought on waves of discomfort and trauma. So when I was laying there surrounded by two women I have connected with in very different ways while experiencing the support and openness and huge amount of respect and trust the three of us women had to offer each other, I was overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude and immense satisfaction. It was pure contentment. I belonged in that moment. Do you know that feeling? You just belong in that moment, with those people, in that spot, doing that thing. No justification was needed. No explanation or analysis. It just fell into place for an hour or so, and it worked.

I don’t know what Lor needed that night or if she had planned all along to have a bit more of an intimate bond with us than more traditional friends, but I hope she felt respected and safe. It hope it felt as warm and sincere for her as it did for me. I don’t know what comes next. Probably more lighthearted, inexplicable moments between us. More friendship. More instances of women supporting each other in my life. Amen to that. I’ll take as much of that as I can.

Maybe when, in my darkest hours, I decided to rebuild my life without abusers and overwhelmingly without men, I also became more open to unconventional friendships and relationships. These completely divine, undefinable moments among women seem to find me more often now. And I’m completely, completely okay with that. It doesn’t always look like a half-drunken cuddling monstrosity. Most of the time it isn’t that. But on Sunday night that’s how it materialized and I’m really thankful that I was in such a healthy place with myself, my body, and my relationship that I could enjoy it.

When I allowed my love for myself and my love for other women to fully emerge, oh my god, I can’t put it back in a box. And isn’t it so lovely that increasingly I am choosing people who don’t ask me to? It’s hard to talk about this without feeling twinges of guilt, because somehow it seems like other people might find some sort of fault with it all. It was easier to enjoy what happened before I tried to talk about it, but I really wanted to share what felt like an uplifting scene for me.

Duet

I have been throwing around some ideas for blog-posts — continuing the “women in my life” series, starting the “men in my life” series, talking about appearance, and so on. Lots of things to think about, but I when I have started to write about these topics over the past few days, I haven’t found a natural voice or flow.

I thought it would be fun to share some music instead.

This is a duet that my partner and I played this June for her recital tour. She performed a full program, and then I chimed in partway through her program to play this Dvorak Slavonic Dance in E minor with her. This clip is of both of us playing together. I’m in the lower register and she is playing the higher register. There was a lot of crossing-over of the arms.

 

 

 

 

The women in my life, part 1

I was fourteen when I saw a lesbian, S, for the first time and it registered as such. It was my first day of high school. The subject of my infatuation was a junior, and my sister and her friends were seniors. She was sixteen, laughing, and being obnoxious around some of my sister’s friends, including S’s then-girlfriend who was also my sister’s good friend.  The first lesbian ever had short black hair. Korean-American. Glasses. Exuberant and god, so confident. She seemed so care-free and laughative. I became obsessed instantaneously. She opened a door. I didn’t even know people had doors before then.

This revelation happened about seven days after I had managed to escape the invasion overseas and arrive back in the States. I’m impressed by this series of events. I’m impressed by the absurdity. The magnitude of those experiences being crammed into such a short period of time at an age when I wasn’t exactly self-aware or great at psychologically processing events was something I felt viscerally. Sometimes it was like everything in my body was flung upwards, and I was going to leave my body and become air — like when I saw S. It was like my blood changed the way it moved around inside of me. Sometimes my blood curdled, harrowed, waves of this substance inside of me heaving and mutating and sticking in all the wrong places, suffocating me. Sometimes the blood became so many needles flowing through me and pricking me with shame, guilt, and self-loathing. At any moment I would be seized by a specific emotion accompanied by natural disasters or flocks of birds or falling trees inside of my body. Before all of this, my body had just been a simple container. Now, reality was too forceful, and my body was trying to keep up as I very hurriedly became an adult.

My infatuation with S was agonizing because I had no idea how to approach her. Two years passed of me thinking about her all the time and only timidly acknowledging her when we happened to be in the same vicinity at school. Before one of our first outings together, I still remember writing out note-cards to put in my pocket of topics to bring up in case I got nervous and couldn’t think. Eventually, though, I became braver about approaching her, and then we became lovers. It was a living piece of art, the two of us. She made me feel like being a lesbian was the most natural, most precious gift anybody could be given. Her confidence was my confidence when I was with her. She drew me when I played piano and cello for her. I showed her Liszt and Chopin. She talked and thought about sex like she had been having it for decades. I was not ready, I was not ready to be vulnerable and naked, but I wanted to be, and so she drew me into that world and she tried to make it sacred for me when she could. And she drew me wearing only my prized boy briefs on the floor of her apartment when she went to art school. How could I hate my body then? How could I believe my father’s viciousness then? And the faceless F-16 pilots who dropped bombs in my neighborhood a few years before and nearly killed me? What idiots! I’m not ugly gun-fodder! I’m a beautiful, strong lesbian with ten new nicknames and a notebook full of animal drawings and portraits my lover gave to me. I disappeared into her.

We were highly romantic and emotional adolescents, but I still see some kind of stable truth on the path we walked. S helped me glimpse my lesbianism not as a burden, but as a portal to something otherworldly. It was hard to be a lesbian in the South in a Muslim family, but even after we broke up, I carried with me this stone she gave me. Lesbian Truth Stone (lol!). I turned it over in my figurative pocket. Between us, two women loving each other felt like a mystical union, a gift. What we had was infused with love and compassion that we had not been given enough of before. It is where we felt our own strength and created something through one another with each other’s goodness, our purity and curiosity, and also our darkness and confusion. Sometimes we just created ugly stuff, or even stupid penguin drawings after a drawn-out conflict, but no matter what, she made me believe that two women loving each other is rooted in the same thing art and music is rooted in, something beyond our world, and that two women together is a life-giving force. And no matter what my rational mind tells me, she turned a disillusioned atheist into some kind of spiritual lesbian — forever.

We broke up after some time. It was ugly because we were broken kids that didn’t know how to take care of anything properly. But soon after, my mother asked me why S wasn’t around anymore. I said, “We broke up. I’m a lesbian.”

And she goes….”Well, just please don’t shave your head.”

I didn’t for years. I didn’t cut my hair. I really love my mother and have been making peace with her opinions, even her accidental meanness. In retrospect I think her response, though insensitive, is hilarious and also reflective of reality. She knew what she was saying, even if her remark was flippant. You can be a lesbian as long as nobody else can tell you’re a lesbian. You can even secretly think being a lesbian will help you access some mystical alternate universe, and you can even secretly know that you would never push a “Become Straight” button if you could, but just don’t let the world know that via your appearance, please.

It has been the greater part of a decade since S and I were together. I have been gradually cutting my hair shorter. I kept my hair at a gender-conforming length for a long time. When I finally cut my hair very short — the kind of length that gets me sir’ed about 75% of the time — I liked it so much that I resented myself for waiting so many years. But after reflecting on S, I realize that my appearance protected who I am for long enough for that part of me to grow without being destroyed too badly. Perfect strangers could not take that Lesbian Truth Stone I had if they didn’t even know it was there. Of course, men in school tried to take it all the time when I told them I was a lesbian. Straight friends disrespected the stone all the time. But I could battle that.

Now that my hair is short and I’m with someone who kind of dresses and looks like Ellen Degeneres, people throughout every crevice of my life frequently try to take away the love I have for being a lesbian. They know I am a lesbian woman now. They can see it. I resemble their stereotype, so some people are rude and hurtful. Other people who fancy themselves as visionaries thinks it means I’m a man, or I’m at least not a woman — I’m something in between. Somehow my entire life of living womanhood just doesn’t matter now that I have short hair, and can’t I see that? That I’m not this?  That this body isn’t meant for me? But I am this. I am a lesbian. I am a woman. This body is not a simple container anymore. It hasn’t been since I was fourteen, since life happened, since I woke up and opened the door and had to struggle with this body endlessly. It’s mine to struggle with, and it’s good enough. On top of that, I have carried and cherished that metaphorical lesbian stone for a long time. The stone is buried inside of me now. Not snatchable. People snatch handfuls of dirt trying to get to it, and it’s painful, but nothing more than that can be truly taken.

I was lucky enough to be a part of S’s life, even if it was a short and tumultuous relationship. I have no idea how a young woman whose father beat her furiously with a belt for being a lesbian the year before I met her had such enthusiasm and self-confidence about loving women. She didn’t teach me anything that was separate from who I am. She just showed me something all of us can access with time and maybe more practice than she ever needed: Acceptance of ourselves. Peace with ourselves. Enthusiasm about all the opportunities for connection and healing that loving women affords us in a world that is too often cruel. Compassion and support for our partners and lesbian friends. Creating art and ideas with and through them.

 

Fragmentation

There is something addictive about being frantic. I can draw connections among all of these experiences and behaviors I have had and exhibited that involved this frantic, holding-breath feeling.

When I got home from being a civilian in war, I was about to turn 14. A few months before, I was riding my bike down hills and listening to John Mayer. Life was hard but I was kind of rugged and hearty anyway, always outside, flipping off the abusive forces in my life by just kind of disappearing all the time. But when I came home from war, I didn’t know how to do that anymore in the same way. It was too heavy. Life was permanently overcast with tornado-dark clouds. I began to read a lot of detailed information about the Holocaust, school shootings, kidnappings, and torture. It happened just like that.  A lot of the times, my eyes moved so fast across those websites that I was kind of skidding across the words, skipping a lot of them. Vacuuming in the information, trying to get closer to death, trying to understand cruelty. I think the way I moved my eyes changed a lot after the war. They moved faster. I couldn’t take in information fast enough for some reason, so I kept moving faster, trying to overcome time. Simultaneously, my memory was failing. I used to remember more, and more quickly, and that earned me attention from adults at school. Now the only stuff I could remember was about how high-school kids in Columbine pretended to be dead and hid their white baseball hats from the shooters. My mind couldn’t track information smoothly. It was jagged and interrupted every millisecond by intrusive thoughts or fears. I couldn’t remember if I ate lunch or breakfast half the time. I couldn’t remember where my stuff was. I couldn’t remember memories very well from the year before. But I had to know a lot about violent events. It was soothing.

I remember when I began to spend a lot of time critiquing myself because I really just didn’t like any of the curves on my body. I wanted to look like a little boy. That began two years after the war. The energy I brought to this monitoring process was really similar to the energy I brought to reading about devastating violence. Frantic, no breathing, very rapid thoughts, darkness, self-hatred, hopelessness. How could I go on being, how could I keep on walking through the fire, if I had a butt? I know it sounds strange considering I had survived a war two years prior, but really, that was the thinking. If I have hips that are a woman’s hips then like….how can I concentrate on my schoolwork? How can I go outside? How can I have sex comfortably? How can I feel okay? I tried all of these superstitious solutions to solve this issue of having a female body. I tried to dehydrate myself so I would shrivel and have a less round face. I tried to eat only a certain kind of food, and I tried to run but not up hills (I don’t know either….magical thinking is weird), and I even thought at some point that if I could control my thoughts a certain way, my body would realize it needs to secrete more testosterone or at least some neutralizing agent to make me look like a child or a boy. I shrank myself. But nothing really helped. I was still a woman.

A few years later, when I was 19 and trying to find something actually beautiful to obsess about, I decided I would take my moderately high skills as a pianist and become a master. Now, there is a huge difference between being a moderately accomplished pianist that didn’t practice enough growing up but really liked the release and wanting to actually transcend your limits and have total artistic control over a medium. I practiced for 5, 6 hours a day suddenly. My body hurt. I did this for three years, and then I realized that my fingers and arms would never do what I wanted them to. I did well, and my professors loved my playing, but I couldn’t ascend to pure artistic freedom like I wanted to. The same way I superstitiously thought I could transform my body into something else through sorcery and incredible levels of persistence, I superstitiously thought I could will myself to be the pianist I just wasn’t. And I thought this would save my life. It would hold all of my pain. It did, sometimes. It kept me busy during a dark time. But I brought a very fragmented, desperate energy to the whole piano project, just like a lot of my other habits and projects.

Radical feminism has been the most fortifying body of knowledge I have ever had access to. It has enveloped almost all of the grief in my life and helped me heal it from the roots. The process of finding this information began gradually. I just woke up one morning about a year ago and decided to learn more about feminism, and I just happened to check out a book at the library by the radical feminist Mary Daly. This was after leaving the school’s LGBT group for vague feelings of being let down and censored. This was after my partner and I fought last February about my desire to go on testosterone (we’re still together by the way! praise be.). I had walked a long road and felt lost and numb. Some little mystical bird must have whispered in my ear to go seek what I needed.

Her book unleashed a beast within me. I never had felt that strength before. It was the kind of strength and anger that can only come from long overdue lucidity about something painful. Lately I have been frantically reading radfem posts on Tumblr, vacuuming them up kind of like I used to do with websites about genocides and shootings. I want to fight with people online about my discoveries, which I know would just lead me into a dizzying rabbit-hole of tit-for-tat that I would barely remember a week from now. And I just need to find a way to release this pattern. To heal. To put down this sticky fucking relentless trauma and fragmentation that feels like it is physically woven into my software now. I am just tired of being in pain and in confusion. Perhaps I need to place limits on how much information I can read a day and what kind of material I read. Perhaps I can connect with radical feminist ideas by accessing these womens’ poetry and their take on the world’s and womens’ beauty/strength along with their take on the world’s misery and injustice. I’m not sure. I just know that today I have needed to collect my thoughts and redirect. The confusion has never worked before. The idea that I can obsess my way into a better reality just isn’t correct.