The Roar Sessions: A Good Week to Start

Do you follow The Roar Sessions, the weekly series of guest posts by women of diverse voices and backgrounds? This would be a good week to start.

Today’s guest is Cristina Spencer, whose piece I’m Not Really a Waitress begins with a big fuck you to Donald Trump.

cristina-spencer2

Before leaving for New York City I decided to go to the nail salon on a whim.  The salon staff moved in short dashes from here to there, bustling through space in their black uniforms.  I turned toward the wall of polishes and for the first time in the sixteen years I’ve been married, I was struck by the urge for red.  I considered the rows of tiny bottles, colorful and perfectly uniform like a kick line of Rockettes from Radio City, and picked up a bottle of shimmering garnet.  The name of the color was “I’m Not Really a Waitress,” which seemed to suggest a rouse or a mystery—the woman associated with this color was more than she appeared.  I brushed a small swatch of it on my thumb, admired how it contrasted with my pale skin, and made my decision.

A few days later, a photograph of these nails appeared on the internet.  It was late at night and they were giving Trump Tower the finger.  The caption read: Trump’s Tower, Cristina’s finger.  Within an hour or so, the image had generated as many likes and comments as anything I ever posted on Facebook, but still a backwash of nerves and shame at having posted an image so lacking in decorum convinced me to pull it.

This is the story of the woman who pulled that image, told by the woman who put it back up online. 

Continue reading here. And be sure to “follow” The Roar Sessions to receive a new post every Monday morning (just scroll down to the bottom of the page to sign up). And if you’re ready to roar, please consider submitting your words.

Woman Walking

woman-walkingI had a moment today.

I was walking on familiar trails, at a conservation area that was particularly crowded this morning; runners, walkers, dog-owners, parents and grandparents with young children, all outside to enjoy these last days of spectacular foliage and warm-ish temps. Earlier, I’d asked Mani what her three words would be for the day — an intention-setting of sorts. Mine were “spacious,” “pleasant,” and “restful.” I wrestled with including “productive,” then decided that this could be a lovechild of the others.

As I set out, a young couple walked ahead of me; I took several photos, knowing it’s impossible to “capture” these colors but still unwilling not to at least try. A group of five young male runners zoomed past me early in my walk; they looked high-school age and I guessed that they were on a cross-country team out for a long Sunday morning trail run. A little girl played on the bridge before hopping back over to her mom by the brook. “Hi!” she said. I smiled at her and said “hi” back.

I admired the thick ground cover of mostly yellow leaves. I thought about how the past literally gets covered up, and how by the time we can see it again, it will be something new. I reached many small choice-points: left or right? Up or down? I knew I didn’t want to hike up to the top of Mt. Orient, though surely there would have been a beautiful view of the valley. Instead, I turned onto a trail that leads to some No Trespassing signs; I’ve walked it before, and knew setting out in that direction that I’d simply turn around when I reached the warnings.

I was singing out loud a bit; that’s probably no small part of why I chose the trail-less-taken. It was a melody from the Yom Kippur service, and while I couldn’t remember all the Hebrew words, the great thing with Jewish songs is that you can just substitute “ya-da-dai-dai-dai” for the words when you don’t know them. So I walked, enjoying the feel of the soft earth, pine needles, and leaves beneath each step, and ya-da-dai-ing my way along.

But I really, really had to pee.

Now, like I said — these woods were pretty packed with humans. I’m not squeamish about peeing in the woods, but I’m also no exhibitionist who goes purposely looking to expose my bum. I did a quick assessment — eyes and ears in a kind of 360 — and decided to go for it. I bushwhacked a little ways off-trail and found a big tree to crouch behind, then unbuttoned my jeans. Immediate relief. I stayed crouched there for a moment to drip-dry, and the moment I stood up, heard voices.

I recognized them from earlier. It was the group of young men, running.

As I walked swiftly back to the trail (not singing out loud, mind you), acting as if it had been perfectly natural for me to have detoured into the unmarked woods, my mind took an unexpected turn.

Suddenly, I  was a woman walking alone in the woods. It didn’t matter that I knew the parking lot was filled with cars. It didn’t matter that I’d walked these trails dozens, maybe even hundreds of times before. It didn’t matter that these boys looked all kinds of raised-in-good-homes (as if this is something we can ever, ever tell — and also as if that is any kind of ultimate safeguard against violent action).

What mattered was that there was one of me and there were four of them, and we live in a world where it’s not unthinkable that this could be unsafe. This could be considered unwise on my part, the walking alone. It is not preposterous that not having ever been raped is “lucky,” because the statistics are not in our favor as girls and women. Or, as Alice Sebold wrote in her unforgettable 1999 memoir, “Lucky,” lucky is also what you’re called when you survive a brutal rape. There is no winning this one.

The boys ran right by me; they were running at a good clip, all young muscles and camaraderie and easy conversation. I was fine, I was safe. But the fact that in that instant, a rush of memories came recalling all the times I’ve felt unsafe, all the times I was “lucky” that nothing worse happened, all the times I felt bored or gross but engaged sexually with some guy anyway, all the times I walked alone, all the trains I’ve ridden, all the houses I’ve stepped foot in — in New York City, in Boston, in Tucson, in Prague, in Salamanca, in Oxford, in Burlington, in St. Petersburg, in airports, in subway stations, at night, in the morning, on workdays, on weekend, and yes, even here in Amherst — assault happens everywhere. I thought about how I’ve held my head up high and felt untouchable.  — but this wasn’t really true, never has been. And still isn’t.

I was imminently touchable. We live in a world where women are touchable. Women are supposed to be careful. Women should dress appropriately, not be “suggestive.”

As I walked the remainder of the way back to the parking lot, I thought about how I’ve been “lucky.” And how sad and angry it makes me that “lucky” is a word that comes to mind as a response to the fact that I haven’t been raped.

I would estimate that at least half of the women in my life have been raped, molested, or sexually assaulted. I would estimate that ALL of the women in my life have been demeaned, diminished, sexually objectified, overlooked, or looked at too closely and in ways that felt like shit at best and were scary at worst.

I think about situations I got myself into and out of as a much younger woman. I look at my daughter in middle school, and consider how much has changed in 30 years — and how much hasn’t. All the things we accept, swallow, downplay, and brush off. The male boss who asks if I’ve been working out. The female boss who tells me she worked full-time with twins and I had nothing to cry about (this was when Aviva was four months old and I was distraught about returning to a 40-hour work week). The Spanish bars and smashed bottles and no, I don’t want to go home with you. The blow job I wish I didn’t remember.

To be a woman in this world is to continually assess the trail. Is to have eyes in the back of your head. Is to develop powerful intuition. Is to watch out for other women. Is to have “finding your voice” be a thing in the first place. Is to be lucky if you haven’t experienced sexual violence.

I made a little blessing over those boys as they ran by, that they may be kind to women. That they will live as champions of women’s equality of mind, body, and spirit. That they may speak up when their friends or peers are being jerks or worse; that they will know that their power, their masculinity, their beauty, and their ambitions do not rely on women being lesser in any way. That they will treat their female friends, lovers, teachers, and leaders with deep respect.

I’m so floored by the stories pouring forth from the women in this country right now. I ache. I’m angry. I love us so hard and am so damn proud of our individual and collective courage. Let’s win this thing.

Boobs or Butts: The Art of Becoming Booti-ful

Photo: V. Potemkin

Photo: V. Potemkin

“Mama, boobs or butts?”

“What?” I ask, unsure of how to appropriately interpret the question — and appropriately hesitant to share my sexual proclivities with my 13-year-old daughter and two of her friends, who are coming to our house after school for a night of pizza, the town fair, makeovers, and movies.

“Boobs or butts. Just like, in general. Which are you?”

“Which am I, as in, which do I like better or have more of?” I ask, laughing now.

“Just answer!!!” They are all shrieking. I think seventh-graders spent a lot of their time together shrieking.

“Boobs!” I blurt out. There! I’ve said it.

**

I’m lying in bed, my mind drifting later that night. Suddenly, I have a vivid recollection of my paternal grandfather. Grandpa Max used to send cards for our birthdays; even into his 80s, he remembered. I picture the plastic crate in the attic, the one with whatever letters I kept — not many — when I finally dumped most of the journals, letters, and other debris from lives past, in the midst of moving across state lines four years ago. I close my eyes and can see his neat, slanted handwriting.

Max Schwartz was born and raised on the Lower East Side. He worked at a steam press in Brooklyn and married Lena Baruch, aka Grandma Lee or Nona. My dad, Murray, and his identical twin, Al, were born in 1942, while their dad was in the South Pacific, a pharmacist mate on a navy ship. Later, Grandpa will recall those navy days fondly. I can picture his tattoo — a faded band around one of his wrists. In my imagination, it connects him to a band of brothers. Then he returned home, had a third son, and supported his family into an upwardly mobile move to the neighborhood of Laurelton, Queens.

Nona was all bosom, cigarettes, and yaprakis; Sephardic cooking was her love language, and my memories of visiting their house as a child consist mainly of sitting at her kitchen table — we children eating while she chain-smoked and offered us seconds and thirds. I remember being totally intrigued to learn from my father that his parents spoke Turkish and Ladino at home; these were the languages of “we don’t want the kids to know what we’re talking about” — which also means they weren’t passed down all that much. A shame, in my book, though also likely part of what propelled me to begin learning Spanish from my dad, as much as he knew, at our own kitchen table beginning around age eight.

Nona

With Nona, 1974

Nona’s boobs must have been the kind of boobs that were more like one than two; boobs that fed three babies, two of them simultaneously. Boobs that, in my memory, hung to her belly. Boobs that surely weren’t called such. She was a seer, too. A psychic and a seamstress whose own mother — I learn this from my mother, her daughter-in-law — was a bona fide, old-country healer. Nona died of pancreatic cancer when I was 10 1/2. Before my dad even spoke, I knew; he had picked me up early from day camp on that hot August day, and instead of getting out of the car at the bottom of the steep gravel driveway on Harkness Road, he just sat there.

“Jenn, I have something to tell you.” (I was Jenn then, for a time).

I waited, but knew. Hers was the first death close to me, not counting a beloved cat or two. I didn’t know what to say. “When?” I asked. That seemed like a mature question. I had seen her once when she was very sick. She was in their house, a downstairs room with metal TV trays tinted gold. Maybe it was a guest room; maybe she was resting, convalescing, dying, on a pull-out couch bed. Her skin, the whites of her eyes, were yellowed. I was not frightened but sad, and — at least in memory — silent in the face of sickness.

**

“You are booti-ful.”

These three words, every year within days of January 14. Grandpa Max never forgot my birthday, long before birthday alarm email services, long before Facebook reminders, long before email or Facebook were even concepts we would have been able to grasp.

Now, I’m sure Max knew the actual spelling of the word “beautiful.” He certainly wasn’t referring to “booty” in the “boobs or butts” sense of the word! I’ve come to think of his spelling choice as a chosen way to convey his affection for us, his grandchildren. There was a gentle side of him, one I associate to this day with my father, his first son by a matter of minutes.

**

Booty full. Full booty.

Not skinny white girl booty. Not the no-booty of living on caffeine and nicotine, of lowfat food “products” that make a killing on the slow killing of fullness, of embodiedness, of ease with cellulite and heft and weight and taking up room. These things on the killing floor of American industries, and how America has spread eating disorders like a plague the world round.

Booty full. Full booty.

The kind of booty that other cultures — abroad and right here at home — find womanly, sexy, healthy. More to love, mama.

Booty full. Full booty. Booty than means belly that means fleshy that means maybe even soft, jiggly, round.

**

When I first came out of the closet, the shock of it catapulted me into the kind of rapid weight loss that had some people quietly wondering if I was terribly sick. I was thinner than I’d been since graduating high school.

At 17, I was deep in a cycle of daytime caloric restriction and nighttime bingeing and purging. I’d stopped menstruating my senior year of high school and wouldn’t start again until I was 22.

I shut down my womanhood. I shut down my sexuality. I poured myself in the life of the mind, dated here and there but was either bored by men or enticed by the thrill of being wanted but ultimately unavailable to take anything beyond a few weeks of flirting and messing around. I graduated from Barnard Summa Cum Laude, having spent my senior year immersed in the world of Soviet Jewish immigrants. Advisors suggested I pursue this or that fellowship. “What’s a fellowship?” I remember asking. I wanted to go to Israel, to become a rabbi.

I thought if I felt passionate about something, that meant I had to go “all the way” with it. So far, I had gone all the way with my studies. Now I had a beautiful degree. Still no booty. I was no longer bulimic, but had maintained a very controlled relationship to food and my weight still hovered around 100 pounds. If you’d told me I still had an eating disorder or even body dysmorphia, I would have disagreed. I probably would have even felt defensive. I would have secretly known you were right.

**

Present day. It has been almost 11 months since I smoked my last clove. Flavored cigarettes, or kreteks, are deceptive. They smell so good and they sound more “natural” than the tobacco-only variety. In fact, they are just as addictive and many, many times more harmful. After closet smoking on and off throughout my 20s and the early years of my first marriage, I gave up smoking for good (I thought) shortly before conceiving my second child.

But amidst the chaos and Pandora’s box of that first year after my inner genie burst out of its slender bottle, I turned back to my old “friend.” That’s what happens when you start smoking at a very young age; your neural pathways grow right up around it, and each time I started again over the years, quitting became more difficult. I’d sworn back in 2006 that I would never start again, but that one evening, sitting on the back steps of the house I rented for six months while my then-husband and I sorted through the rubble, I had a “fuck it” moment and lit back up.

Four and a half years later, life had in many ways returned to some semblance of “normal,” though my relationship to normal would never be the same, in all kinds of vast and intimate and unexpected and beautiful and difficult and real ways. I’d fallen in love with and married a woman who rocked my world (and still does!). A woman who appreciates my beauty in all of its forms, even the “parts” of myself I still struggle to embrace.

And this includes booty. My wife likes my booty. There, I said it. In the almost year since we both stopped smoking — a feat that feels nothing short of miraculous and was thrust on us by her facing a health crisis that jarred us to the core and demanded nothing less than everything — my slender, narrow, even a bit androgynous figure has shape-shifted into something slightly less buff, softer, and curvier.

We’re talking the difference of 5-10 pounds, depending on the day or time of the month. But at 5’1″, with a small frame and a disordered history I’ve worked hard to neither feel ashamed nor proud but simply accepting of, I notice every pound. I don’t like admitting this. But it’s also part of the slow and welcome process of growing up, something I seem to keep doing. Which is good news, given the alternative.

**

Before Mani and I had actually met in person, we were readers of each other’s words. She followed my coming-out journey — what I shared publicly of it, that is — and intuited from more than 2,000 miles away much of what I was experiencing. There was one day in the spring of 2011, not long after I’d started smoking again, in fact, when I sent an email to her and a small number of women around the country with whom I’d grown close through our blogs. I was struggling with a relationship and seeking the witness and guidance of women who would get it.

Mani replied.

“You will fall in love. You will fall in love with yourself,” she wrote. She wrote that it would be many things — hot, gentle, spacious, safe. Neither of us had the first inkling that we would, in fact, fall in love with each other. Already were, even. Because life is bigger than us in that and all ways, and I’d signed up for the whole enchilada.

Except for one thing: I would still have hesitated to eat the whole enchilada. Well, maybe depending on what else I’d eaten that day. Or whether I had gone for a run or not. Or I would’ve suggested we split the enchilada with a salad — and the sour cream on the side.

Mani, on the other hand, was having none of it. We met about nine months after that particular email exchange (the first had occurred in 2009, more than a year before I knew anything about anything). I’ve written plenty about the amazing weekend in January 2012 when we met and spent our first night together. How “the rest is history” and history is indeed a living thing, is happening right here under the roof we now share so gratefully.

She was a total foodie. She loved to eat. She was a mother to three daughters and had experienced significant weight fluctuations in both directions via pregnancy, depression, and fitness. She had no issues around food except that she relished it. And she relished me. And I started relishing the whole of this — her, myself, bodies, boobs and butts, girls, don’t make me choose.

**

Boobs or butts?

Yes. Both, I say.

I’m sitting here in spandex running clothes at my kitchen table. I started writing a couple of hours ago, thinking I’d just jot down some notes before heading outside to move my body. Instead, the stories came pouring out. Grandpa Max and being booti-ful. Grandma Lee – Nona – and the smoking that took her life just 20 years older than I am now. Teenage girls who are all about the booty and going braless like the neo-feminists they declare themselves to be, making me squeal (to myself, mind you) with pride and optimism for humankind. A wife who tells me every single day how beautiful and sexy I am, and even pointed out this morning that every time I am critical of my own belly folds, in a way I’m sending her a message that she’s not beautiful, since she, too, no longer has the body of a skinny, stressed-out smoker. (Thank god, I must add.)

I am insanely attracted to my wife.

Do the math, Jena.

This means embracing my own booty. Hook, line, and sinker — I am woman and all that jazz! And while it’s not in a million years what he meant with his sweet misspelling, thanks to a first-generation Jewish immigrant named Max Schwartz, embracing my booty means believing in my beauty.

You are booti-ful. Don’t forget it.

**

Enjoy this post? Read The Art of IntuitionThe Art of Detachment, and Already Rocking This (ART). And don’t forget to subscribe to Fierce Encouragement (for Writing + Life), an occasional newsletter. 

The Roar Sessions: Nicki Gilbert

Nicki_ImageWriting My Way Up
by Nicki Gilbert

It was an unremarkable October morning. Nothing to distinguish it from countless other October mornings, except I don’t think the sun was shining as it usually does in October. Gray, dreary. Unusual for October, but I didn’t much notice or care given that I was in a gray, dreary state myself.

I dragged myself out of bed that miserable morning, shuffled down the stairs, my flip flops barely leaving the ground (I do hate the sound of shuffling flip flops). I dejectedly made breakfasts and school lunches, and sent them out the door and down the street, with an audible sigh of relief. Dragged myself and my flip flops back upstairs.

I found myself, a few hours later, hunched over my phone hurriedly typing a Facebook message to a woman I’d never met and didn’t know. Still in my car with the seatbelt on, I frantically typed these words to this stranger: “…really enjoy your writing… wonder if you’d take a look… not sure… don’t know…”

Feeling very loser-ish and almost despairing, I hit send and unwrapped myself from the cocoon of the car. The fog was starting to lift. Just a teeny bit.

The day could not have been less wonderful. Less great. Less brilliant. It wasn’t even an ordinary, unremarkable day. It was a shitty day. They’d been going on for weeks, those shitty shitty days.

I longed to be somewhere and someone else. Somewhere I didn’t wake up in the morning and have to toast waffles and make cream cheese sandwiches and curse myself for unknowingly using the last square of toilet paper.

Somewhere I didn’t hate the sound of my own voice, pitched high with annoyance as I told them to “hurry up” and “brush your teeth” and “you’re going to be late.” Somewhere I didn’t hate the sound of their voices, as they nonchalantly chatted to each other, ignoring my constant, frantic reminders. Oh how I wished they would leave already!

I longed to be someone other than a mom, a wife, a nag, a caring friend, a woman trapped in this deceptively unfeminist time. Yes, you can have it all, if all is cooking and cleaning and grocery shopping and exercising and Target runs and teacher conferences and doctor appointments and endless carpools and mommying and losing yourself in the mind-numbing minutiae of every single day. A never-ending downward spiral of purposelessness and loss of self. All for you.

It usually takes a painful jolt when you hit the bottom to realize how impossible it is to live this way. And there’s nowhere to go but up once you’re at that dark, stinky bottom.

She wrote back, this woman I didn’t (and still don’t) know. She is a writer I admire and follow online, one who writes with honesty and truth about things I understand: parenting, living away from family, death, love, friendship. She is a writer and editor for a site I enjoy and wildly imagined writing for myself.

It was an unremarkable morning in October, except the sun was not shining as it usually does. And I had hit the very hard bottom.

Nowhere to go but up.

She was mildly encouraging, the anonymous editor, but very rushed and not at all bothered with my personal angst and insecurities, with my trepidations and desperations. She didn’t care that I was struggling to find my way. She didn’t care that I was a stay-at-home mom or that sometimes I didn’t eat for days at a time and always enjoyed one cocktail too many. She didn’t care at all.

And for once, neither did I. I didn’t care that she wasn’t attentive or full of praise and validation. I didn’t care that she didn’t respond to my email, or follow up or check in. The password she sent so that I could log into the site and publish my work was all I needed to breathlessly climb out of that wallowing pool of self-pity, to leap off that ledge of doubt, to write my own soaring way through this new somewhere I found myself.

And just like that, I was no longer a mom, a wife, a friend, a carpool driver, a grocery shopper, an unhappy woman trying to find her way in a dark and twisty labyrinth that has no beginning and definitely no end.

What I became in that moment was who I am today: a writer.

**

NickiNicki Gilbert is a writer and country music lover who lives in the Bay Area with her husband, four kids and dachshund puppy. She writes a monthly parenting column for J. the Jewish new weekly of Northern California, and her work has appeared on NYT Well Family, Mamalode, Kveller and The Huffington Post. One of her luckiest moments as a writer was when she found Jena online. Read and follow her blog, Red Boots.

**

The Roar Sessions, a weekly series featuring original guest posts by women of diverse backgrounds and voices, began in June 2015. Read them all