The House with the Painted-Shut Windows

Photo: Tiago Rodrigues

A few months ago, my wife and I spotted a house we found for sale on Zillow. We ran some numbers and we went to see it and we loved it in person, too. We did a walk through and then drove around the area for an hour, talking. This was right after Rosh Hashanah. The air was still warm, summery even, and the apple orchards near the house were abundant with fruit. It was easy to feel like the whole thing was just meant to be. We made an offer the next morning and it was accepted by noon.

A week later, we returned for the inspection. We began with benign stuff: A missing gutter, the faucets in one of the bathrooms reversed, and other signs of work done too quickly. At first blush, the bathrooms and kitchen looked like they’d been transplanted from the nearest IKEA showroom. A closer look revealed a lack of permitting and corners cut. We’d be buying a house priced as a four-bedroom that was legally zoned as a two-bedroom.

The off-gassing from the materials used to install the lower-level flooring — it was a raised ranch with a finished basement that we planned to use as a bedroom and home office — was so strong that my sister, who’d come to help suss out the place, had to go upstairs after a few minutes. My wife started having breathing trouble. I stood there thinking: No.

The corner downstairs “bedroom” had a single bed in the corner with some butterfly decals on the walls. This room had no windows, though it looked like a child slept there.

Before I go on, let me back up a few days and hope this next part doesn’t make me sound stalkerish. Really, I’m not. I’m a curious person, and a writer, and someone who assembles stories in my head. I Googled the address to see if I could learn anything about its history and its current owners.

It belonged to a couple. Presumably, based on the child’s room and the bundle of balloons in the corner of the kitchen that said, “It’s a boy!” they had a daughter and were expecting. The man had a prior court appearance for domestic assault, from a few years ago. None of my business, I know. But if I told you it didn’t color my perception of the house, I’d be lying.

The morning of the inspection, we saw the woman leaving the house with her little girl, clearly trying to get out of there given that four strangers were now milling around her driveway. As she leaned down to help her daughter into the carseat, I tried to catch her eye to smile. She quickly looked away. Had I not read what I’d read, I would’ve thought she was having a rushed and stressful morning trying to get to daycare and then work on time. Lord knows, I’ve had thousands of those myself.

Instead, I saw a woman who looked like she was doing her best to be as small and invisible as possible.

But this wasn’t the worst part. The worst part came about 25 minutes later. We started with the visual exterior — roof, gutters (or lack thereof), deck, foundation, trees. Then moved inside — kitchen, bathroom, living room, dining room. This didn’t take long, and no alarm bells went off. So far, so good. I wandered into one of the two upstairs bedrooms, the rooms that would belong to my own kids were we to proceed with the purchase.

That’s when I went to open a window. Huh. Strange. It wouldn’t budge. A further moment of investigation, and a quick survey of the other upstairs windows, then later downstairs, exposed something we found odd at best and chilling at worst. They were painted shut. All of them. I touched the paint. It was a recent job, and my wife and I exchanged a sinking look. It appeared that he had literally painted her in.

Of course, we cannot verify this. We are not investigators. We know nothing of these people’s lives, nor was it any of our business. But we knew in that moment — even aside from the lack of permits, the shoddy work, the chemical hazard of off-gassing that, unbelievably, is still not considered a “health and safety” issue in the inspection report — that we could not live in this house.

I wished I could slip a note to her somehow, with the number of Safe Passage, a local shelter for those fleeing domestic violence. But I knew I could not nothing but hope she would have the courage and means to get out.

Maybe she thinks she deserves it. After all, dinner was cold the other night. She’d forgotten to take out the recycling. She spent too much on groceries. Or he’d just had a shit day and that was her fault, too. Or maybe she was just too terrified. She was pregnant. They had a little girl. Keeping them safe — she had to. He loved them. He said so. He was sorry. He said so. Besides, who would believe her, anyway? He made good money. They had a nice life. She was lucky he took care of them. She was making it up. She was making him look bad. She was crazy. She was exaggerating. She was selfish.

We drove away, $700 lighter, knowing we would pull our offer. Knowing this house was a bullet dodged. And knowing that there was nothing we could do with this knowledge that a battered woman and her abuser might live there.

But those painted-shut windows have haunted me. Knowing a little girl slept in a room with no windows in a basement stifled by chemicals has haunted me. The statistics haunt me.

None of my business?

Maybe that woman I saw in the driveway’s personal life is none of my business. But it is my business that in the last 20 years, 17,700,000 women have been rape victims. It’s my business that 99% of sexual violence perpetrators face no lasting criminal charges. It’s my business that we live in a culture where a history of sexual violence does not keep men from attaining positions of power, prestige, and wealth — and that these, in turn, protect them.

It’s my business that many women, especially children and young women, don’t report their abusers, attackers, or rapists, for fear of retribution and their safety, as well as the common fact that they will very likely be questioned if not blamed.

It’s my business. Because I am a woman. Because I am a parent. Because I am a human.

And it’s your business, too. It has to be. And if it’s not, I wonder why. Are you frightened? In denial? What are you protecting?

Not one of us hasn’t been touched by sexual violence, knowingly or unknowingly. It is so widespread that you might not even be aware of how, or you might know exactly how and have spent many years honing your coping skills and compartmentalizing the truths your body and psyche carry.

When I was in high school — think late 80s — I went to a presentation about violence against women and the advertising industry. The images of women dehumanized, made into body parts, made into objects, seared into me. For women of color and trans women, and especially for trans women of color, the representations and realities were — and are — even more degrading.

I have had my share of near misses, but I have not been a victim myself of rape. I am not here to tell anyone else’s story, except to say that my life is filled with friends, family members, and writers who can’t say the same. Women for whom sexual assault and violence is woven into their cells.

I believe them. It’s my business to believe them. It’s my business to believe you. It’s my business to write what I can and then to stop writing and to listen, to make room for your story, if and when you feel ready to write it.

It’s my business to never shut up. To smile only when I feel like smiling. To keep doing my own work of healing a nervous system that cranks up in a millisecond if I feel scolded or scared.

And so I’m here. To tell the story of the painted-shut windows. To bear witness where I can and to refuse anything less than our full humanity, our full safety, and a reckoning the likes of which this country still hasn’t seen.

It’s time to get out our chisels and hammers, to break the seals, to break the windows if we have to. They cannot paint us in, ridicule, or scare or into silence.

trust women

trust women
because we know when to push
& when to pause

○○○

trust women
because love & light are not an option
when there’s so much burning at the stake

●●●

trust women
because every day is the first day
every birth the first birth
every victory the first victory
the salvation of laughter
inseparable from the battles we wage

○○○

trust women
because our memories are as long
as the dusky shadows our children chase

●●●

trust women
because our bodies contain the dna
of foresight & afterthought & moments
between

○○○

trust women
because our friendships form such a tight weave
you’ll be safe against the bracing chill

●●●

trust women
because women know when to fight
when to fold
when to write a love letter to a terrorist

○○○

trust women
join us or move aside
for we have a revolution to tend to
for we are the fire stokers
& the water bearers
& the soothsayers
& the truth tellers.

●●●

trust.

○○○

International Women’s Day. Every damn day.

Why I Didn’t March

“One of the things that has to be faced is the process of waiting to change the system, how much we have got to do to find out who we are, where we have come from and where we are going.” ~ Ella Baker

I was drinking my coffee in bed when Aviva texted me. “I’ll totally understand if you say no,” she wrote, “but could you bring my curling iron?” She was at her dad’s, getting ready for the march in Northampton and, right after, the bus to visit her peeps in NYC. I made a quick decision to tie in the favor with a walk in the woods near her dad’s house, and said I’d be over around 9:00am.

I didn’t march on Saturday.

Instead, I walked. After I dropped off the coveted hair implement and gave V a big hug, I walked up a hill and then took a right onto the Robert Frost trail. The woods were snowy and silent, and the solitude and physical movement felt like their own form of radicalism. I followed the trail around the pond and across the road. I walked over a little footbridge, pausing to take a short video of the rushing creek below. A bouncy pitbull stopped to say hi.

I wound up on the train tracks, where I did an impromptu photo shoot. It reminded me of being a teenager; remember being totally immersed in where you were and what you were doing? That kind of fun and creativity that feel effortless? Like that. Then — my ass cheeks cold through denim from crouching against steel — I stopped in at the Cushman market to get a latte and a breakfast sandwich. I bumped into a friend and chatted for a few minutes.

By the time I reached my car, it was 10:30am. I’d been out for about two hours, and suddenly it hit me: The tired. The whole body ache. The warning signals. LAY LOW, my body whimpered. I came home, took a hot shower, and climbed into bed.

Did I decide not to march because I wasn’t feeling well? That would be an easy conclusion to draw. Not untrue. But also not the whole truth. And to claim otherwise would be a lie, one I can only imagine telling out of fear that I am being a lousy feminist, and that my many friends who marched — folks of many genders, races, ages, and creeds, people I love and respect — will criticize me or, worse, think I’m criticizing them. That is not the case.

In fact, it is the very ferocity of my feminism and my belief in our collective commitment and ability to grow and change and do better that underscored the decision, which I had all but made even before the vague cold symptoms began. I write this trusting that this isn’t an either/or. It’s an opportunity to expand and push the conversation, and so as not to coddle my own — or anyone else’s — fragility.

*  *  *

I’ve spent a good amount of time over the past two days, looking at photos from marches around the country and reading various articles and essays — particularly those by women of color about pink pussy hats, and how they continue to symbolize a movement dominated by white cisgender women. Pieces like If you have a death grip on your pink pussy hat, you’re marching for the wrong reason by Lecia Michelle and this powerful poem by Leslé Honoré.

I read and rested for the remainder of Saturday. I looked at my daughter’s photos on Instagram of herself and my son, proudly holding up the signs they’d made. Rising Voices Not Seas, read Aviva’s, her original artwork and lettering filling me with pride.  At 15, my girl wears her rainbow flag around her neck, draped behind her like the cape of the superhero she is. Pearl, 11, smiled behind his sign: There is no one alive that is youer than you. And yes, he wore a punk pussy hat, a fact that wasn’t lost on me.

Does he know that to many women of color and transwomen, the hat is an offense, proof of a defensive refusal to listen to our sisters (and, as Desiree Adaway writes, “not just cisters”) of color when they point out that “feminism” has for too long meant “white” feminism, and that without true intersectionality, without addressing white supremacy and the ways in which white women are in fact protected by the very patriarchy we’re protesting, we are not ever going to get anywhere new? I don’t think he knows this.

My children are continuously learning that their voices matter, not more than other people’s and not less, either. Marches and protests can be great infusions of energy and help remind us we’re not alone.

But it’s the conversations we have in our homes, over breakfast and dinner, in the car on the way to the mall or a game, and in response to the situations that arise daily all around us that are the real basis for sustainable change.

*  *  *

One thing I have learned is that marching, for me, doesn’t require any courage. But to be trans, to be a trans woman of color, to be black in a country where being black is something the white gaze will define for you, no matter your class or gender or station in life, no matter the decade or zip code or salary — these are realities that many white, cisgender women simply do not face.

Does that  mean white women shouldn’t march, protest, resist, write, holler, lobby, run for office, and fight like hell? Not even a little bit.

But it does mean that we need to recognize that by NOT recognizing the impact of our whiteness, we’re maintaining a status quo that desperately needs to change. And by desperately, I mean: Lives are at stake. Freedom of expression is at stake. Physical and emotional safety are at stake, for all women, yes, but compounded by race and gender norms for women of color and transwomen in ways that need to be believed, valued, and centered in our efforts.

My whiteness absolutely informed my decision not to march this weekend.

I admit, I felt a twinge of guilt, a pang of “should.” What kind of example am I setting for my kids if I am not there, fist in the air, boots pounding the pavement with them? (And in full disclosure: They were with their dad this weekend; he went with them to the march, along with my middle sister, my brother-in-law, and some of their other family members. If they had been with me on Saturday, would I have gone to the march? Most likely, yes. Would that have changed anything I’m writing tonight? No. Would we have talked about this? You better believe it.)

*  *  *

The first photo I have of myself marching is from 1991. North Pleasant Street in Amherst, Massachusetts, protesting the Gulf War. I felt powerful and mighty. Feminist bumperstickers from the hole-in-the-wall hippy bookstore covered the inside of my bedroom door. I was woman: Hear me roar! I am as disgusted and outraged by the current state of affairs as my pussy-hat-wearing sisters.

But if we are not equally disgusted and outraged by the way racism gets sidelined, the way women of color are silenced and muzzled — often by white women who want only to celebrate a “oneness” that is, quite simply, not a reality for non-white, non hetero, non cisgender women — and the way many self-identified liberal white women call any criticism of the movement “divisive” and “counterproductive,”  we’re in even deeper trouble.

I don’t have answers. I am as complicit in a society that favors and protects me because of my skin color — I can, after all, choose whether to self-disclose my identity as a Jew or as a gay woman. But I am seeing, more plainly with each passing day I devote to reading, learning, listening, and self-reflecting, that denying the power of my unconscious whiteness perpetuates oppressive systems. Systems that need to be named and, brick by brick, dismantled.

*  *  *

Instead of marching, I read When They Call You a Terrorist by Patrisse Khan Cullors and asha bandele, co-founders of the Black Lives Matter movement. I saw a brain-candy movie with my wife and went to bed early. I reposted photos of my kiddos on Facebook. They looked good out there and I was unabashedly proud of them. I also pray and will do everything I can to ensure that they both continue to become ever-more invested in the collective liberation from misogyny, transphobia, and racism that hurt us all — but not equally.

Without intersectionality, we’re just making our voices hoarse.

It is time to take a step back — sans pink hats — not from confronting and overturning the powers that be, but in the name of shifting a power dynamic that has centered whiteness for… ever.

Strangled Roots and More Than One Kind of Silence

Photo: Kyle Ellefson

So often I begin with morning light. Today, I began with Facebook video calling me — after I had snoozed the alarm. A 14-hour time difference makes scheduling calls with a writer in Australia an interesting challenge; my client was in her bed, sleepy after an evening meditation, just as I was leaping out of mine to throw on a robe and pour some coffee.

One of the things that struck me most in our conversation was this: Too many of us wait. We wait until we feel more confident, more qualified, more ready. We wait because we’re afraid that not everyone will like what we have to say or write (they won’t). We wait because there are other people saying and writing these things better than we ever will. We wait, and in the waiting, our insights, our observations, our wisdom, our lived experience, our questions, and our ideas all stay in our heads.

I picture roots in a too-small pot, growing around themselves. While some plants prefer to be pot-bound (my mom told me this recently, when she stopped by and saw the succulents she’d transplanted years ago, thriving in their original pots on my windowsill), others will eventually suffer from confinement, strangling themselves rather than having room to grow. I imagine the same may be true for what is inside of us. At what point do thoughts need to be transcribed, translated, shared, and explored outside the container of inner exploration?

Never, perhaps. There’s no rule here, no should.

But this morning, I’m considering the very real possibility that the gnarled internalization of self-doubt is a form of collective gaslighting, particularly among groups who’ve experienced outer oppression. If you’re told enough times that what you have to say isn’t true, what you’ve experienced isn’t real, and that when it comes to what you see happening all around you, you’re overreacting, little by little, you’re bound to start questioning your own voice. What could you possibly have to contribute?

* * * * *

As the masks come off, as the veneers chip away, as the statues come down, and as the ugliness around us is more and more exposed, it’s inevitable and necessary to face the ways in which we’ve unknowingly swallowed the poison and internalized beliefs that hurt us and each other.

As a white woman, this means looking at my own racism — the thoughts, beliefs, and actions that may be so unconscious and so subtle that I would have denied them altogether in the past.

It means looking at the fears I’ve had of speaking up, the way my own nervous system goes into high alert in the fact of perceived conflict. It means acknowledging that I have experience I can trust, and also there is much I don’t know. Both are true.

It means acknowledging and writing from the truths of my own intersectionality. I identify as queer, and I see and feel on a daily basis the ways this sets me apart from heteronormative expectations and status quo. I am self-employed. I have no boss. I answer to myself. It was during a brief stint in the private sector that I was more aware of my gender that in any other job; women in positions of leadership were undermined in ways both nuanced and overt but difficult to call out. (It’s also the one time I’ve been laid off).

I’m acutely aware of the ways in which my people have internalized trauma and also have assimilated and benefited from being white immigrants, thus perpetuating a racial divide even while seeking to heal it.

I grew up with economic and educational privilege, and there are ripple effects to not embodying previous generations’ norms. That said, my lineage is both a gift and a burden, one I’m continuously examining and delving into more deeply. What wisdom do my ancestors have for me, and where must I peel away? When is a diversion actually a form of continuity?

Jewish tradition, in particular and in my estimation, embraces the relevance of context — culturally, politically, sociologically. We look to tradition as the basis for change, rather than as a too-small pot in which our roots slowly suffocate.

* * * * *

Privilege is being able to opt out: It doesn’t affect me. It’s not my problem. That’s awful for them — whoever “they” may be. Sometimes not saying anything is easier, sometimes safer.

There are plenty of situations where silence is self-preservation, and I feel compelled to say as much. But that’s exactly why people who benefit from systems of oppression need not only to listen to those who’ve been silenced, but also to speak up.

I’ve read a few articles lately about “call-out culture.” Last night, I found myself reacting to a post by a coach — not someone I know personally. The implication was along the lines of “we create our own reality” and that pain can be the basis for healing. My immediate reaction was, THIS IS EVERYTHING THAT’S WRONG WITH WHITE FEMINIST SELF-HELP CULTURE.

I read it to Mani. I’ll admit that it felt good for a moment, the self-righteousness. But rather than leaving it at that, I decided to learn a little more. Something happened as I read more of her copy: I saw myself. I saw the ways in which I, too, am working with women to dismantle the ways we’ve internalized the patriarchy.

And I had no choice but to ask myself: Where are my blind spots?

Calling each other out — or in, if you prefer — is critical. And we also have to keep asking ourselves hard questions. The former is just a performance without the latter.

* * * * *

There are 10,000 threads here. This stops me from starting at all. It’s too big, I tell myself. I’m all over the place. How is this helpful? I’m just another white woman taking up too much room.

But therein lies a place where the roots need to grow. On the one hand, the myth of too-much has been used to silence women. On the other hand, as a white woman, I DO need to be quiet — not because my voice doesn’t matter, but because the voices of women of color matter, too, and have been strangled, smothered, suffocated, and suppressed in ways that mine hasn’t.

This is intersectionality. This is complexity. This is not a binary of privilege and oppression nor is it a hierarchy of suffering. It’s a willingness to outgrow small spaces, to risk writing and inviting conversation even if not everything I’m saying is fully formed and perfectly expressed. It’s saying: This is a matter of life and death. This is a matter of the reality we are ALL creating — and perhaps more importantly, undoing.

* * * * *

Am I choking on my roots or are they propelling me to grow and thrive? Who is watering the plants?

* * * * *

I have no neat and conclusive way of ending this post, except to say that I’m hearing more than one kind of silence. The fearful kind, that tells me to be careful — there could be repercussions. The complicit kind, that doesn’t want to rock the boat, get it wrong, or look at the ways in which I’m responsible for this mess we’re in. And the listening kind, where I acknowledge how much I have to learn and unlearn.

Which one do you relate to most — and if you take the time to listen, what do you hear?

Spitting Out the Patriarchy

It’s hard to sit down without knowing what I’m going to write. Hard, only because there is an expectation here, an unspoken one I carry around with me all the time. Ready for it?

It has to be good. 

I don’t think of what I do as teaching, but I’m also beginning to see the cracks in this dismissal of myself. And one of the things I teach, if I am to not only state but take pride in the fact that I do, in fact, teach something, is this: You don’t have to be good. Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” has become an anthem of sorts, and my commitment to encouraging you to do that, too, in your own ways, as you can and choose to, is the unpinning of everything I bring to the world.

That doesn’t mean I’m good at it. Ironically or not, it’s the thing I struggle most with, this not being good business. I think there may be a hint in the word “business” here, since the last thing I want is to be a cog in the billion-dollar self-help industry, that preys on women believing we can be better, even if “better” means “you don’t have to be good.” It’s not a sales pitch.

It’s the real life stuff of days when the sun is shining but you feel off, unable to pin down why. It’s a racing mind at 4:00am. It’s a vague feeling of not being all the present, but also knowing there’s nowhere you could possibly be but right here, and the rest is a rabbit hole of overthinking.

After last weekend’s Unfurl retreat in Wisconsin, one of the participants who’d rented a car gave me a ride back to the Minneapolis airport. We stopped in Maiden Rock, one of the wonderfully quirky, artsy towns along the Great River Road, picked up a couple of still-warm, buttery scones from a small, crowded bakery, and quickly did some shopping for our peeps back home in a store bursting with Mexican and Peruvian art.

In the car, driving along the Mississippi and ooh-ing and aah-ing at the brilliant foliage on both sides, we had a chance to reflect on many aspects of the weekend. At one point, I pointed out that I wasn’t sure I’d “done” all that much. She lovingly and powerfully pointed out that this was the patriarchy talking, and I was startled by but appreciative of her keen ear.

Why patriarchy? Because we’re conditioned not to take too much credit, not to draw attention to ourselves, and by all means not to take up too much room.

“So tell me what you’re proud of,” she said, an invitation that at once made me feel shy and seen (oh, how these so often go together).

And I did. I told her I was proud that the nine women who’d spent three days on a hilltop farm together, writing and connecting, all seemed genuinely glad to have come. I told her I was proud of myself for letting my other work wait, trusting that all would be well and bringing my wholehearted attention to every individual in the room. I was proud, I realized, that I’d set aside my own judgment and expectation, truly opening to the experience and allowing it to unfold.

This was a lot to be proud of. And none of it diminished my gratitude for the woman who hosted us, without whom there wouldn’t have been a midwest Unfurl retreat in the first place. It didn’t overshadow my awe at the fact every single woman there co-created the experience by showing up and stepping into the unknown, not letting fear drive the bus. Why on earth would I have hesitated to feel proud of myself?

Self-doubt is a learned behavior, one that’s reinforced by cultural norms and capitalism. We grow up steeped in comparing ourselves to others, expecting more and more and more, always trying to get somewhere else, somewhere bigger and better. This seeps into our souls. It corrodes our inherent creativity and dampens our spirits; it keeps us silent and second-guessing rather than shining, taking risks, and growing more confident. It teaches us to be careful lest we slip and offend someone, to hold back lest we overstep, and to curl inward upon ourselves rather than unfurling outward into a messy and broken world that needs us. The world needs us.

Listening deeply — when it’s derived from a place of presence — is not the same as swallowing your voice. And being proud, when it’s borne of the recognition that we get to be proud of our work, our bodies, our choices, our families, our rough drafts and our imperfection, is not arrogant. It’s self-worth. It’s love.

I teach. I do. I am proud of my work. There is still some discomfort here — a not-so-small voice in my head saying: Fine, but why do you need to make an announcement about it?

That voice is why. Because this, too, is my practice. The practice not only of writing but of acknowledging the places that I’d sooner not mention. Every time I delete my own words, every time I wrestle with a single sentence trying to perfect it rather than just writing some damn thing and moving right along, every time I belittle the impact of my work, I am modeling shame. And that, my friends, is the opposite of what I’m here for.

I’m here to celebrate myself exactly where I am today, which is recalibrating and reflective (not to mention unshowered), keenly aware of how it feels to hold so much, and also knowing that we are designed to do one thing at a time. I’m here to remind myself — and maybe you reading — that what I’m doing here counts. It will change and grow and deepen and evolve, yes, but it is also, already, real. The tyranny of always getting somewhere else? It’s a racket.

Let’s opt out by encouraging each other to recognize where we’ve internalized so many lies, so much damage to the psyche, and death by a thousand cuts of our innate gifts. I want nothing more than this realness, this place to practice., this permission to be proud of myself.

This is how we spit out the patriarchy. This is how we become truly free. Now tell me: What are you proud of?