Saturday, February 10, 2018

Who Do You Love?

I contemplate sending out a request for lesbian fiction and films while debating if the request should contain a (feminist) or the fact I have committed to reading only novels by people of color this year. Among the books I read last year, reading only women, only Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music narrated the lives of queer women, and honestly the Alaya Dawn Johnson's YA dystopia was more interesting with the heroine tangled in a bi-male love triangle. I wonder if reading the suggested texts would offer a roadmap to re-imagining how I move among men and women in the world.

I never met (to my knowledge) an openly queer woman until after I married. By then I had made out with a handful of women, but it had never occurred to me that a lesbian or a bisexual was something I could be. 

Lesbian was a slur thrown by classmates when me and my bookish bestie wore matching Renaissance Festival pendants. In my tiny, stoned teenage social circles in the rural Midwest, the performative flair with which girls kissed girls made me uncomfortable. My boyfriends asked alternately excited and worried questions when I floated my hypothetical interest.

Around the time television’s early iconic gay characters shifted public opinion, I unplugged from television. By the time my younger sister went to prom, she could go with another woman, but I had a man, so I read books and watched boys play video games. I married. I birthed and raised two children, earned a master’s degree, and read feminist theory while stoically watching a whiskey-wrought spider grow on my husband’s back.

This was the work of a decade: a supreme court ruling that legalized gay marriage and a salaried white-collar job when a newly single mother needed it the most.

In most versions of that story, I emerge from that decade smarter and wiser, grieving the loss of a man I loved, but regretting few of my choices. We had a good run. I am grateful, but now I am free.

If I lived in a big-hearted Netflix original, I would play the plucky, poetic woman in her 30s bumbling her way toward lesbian love. My show would have such a splendid, thoughtful soundtrack and folks would honor one another’s emotions between gags. My face would be capable of making more than three expressions.*

In the real, I have no idea how to be. I’ve written at length on heteronormativity among the American naturalists and the ways dancing bodies inscribe a literalized Écriture féminine in space—thereby escaping some problematic essentialism of early French feminism. In other words, I am an armchair lesbian. It is embarrassing, but since I may also be living in a syndicated comedy, that information is comparatively safe to make public knowledge. The part that unravels me lives in my muscle memory where shoulders hunched against raised fist and the perpetually snarled “whore.” 

If as a teen, I did not know queer women existed, I learned as a married women that being a queer made me an easy target for drunken rage. If as a teen I shied away from physical contact with other girls, as a woman I policed my interaction with my growing network of sister-friends fearfully. I composed endless explanations: I was not actually bi. Our culture’s infatuation with girl-on-girl action and early internet exposure to internet pornography made me think I was. Alternatively, our society hyper-sexualizes women the way modern scholars misinterpret the economically savvy, chaste women in Boston marriages. I rewrote my identity by deciding that an angry person’s accusations had re-written my desire.

Being single again, having dated a handful of men in divorce land, I wonder: who could I be loving a woman? I wonder if after having lived quietly closeted for 30 years, anyone would have been surprised if I had made some digitally public declaration on National Coming Out Day. I worry the results both ways: with a big yawn (drama queen) or a sudden shift in public opinion (particularly at my children's school or my workplace). After all, this is a time when people joke "everyone is bi," but bi women experience increased threats of intimate partner violence and mental health problems.

Somehow articulating this long-hushed aspect of myself seems both trivial and cataclysmic, and I have reached the point in my life where I am bored or wary of any event at the extremes of the emotional spectrum. Meanwhile, the ever-critical voice in the corner of my brain wrestles with years of internalized shame and bi-phobia. I agonize over how to interact with a woman I love and the crippling shyness that paralyzes my hand every time it reaches out for hers. In a more playful mood, I contemplate cutting my hair or buying a dapper lady-suit in hopes the world might obsessionally see the shift I have made in how I see myself.

It all feels so painfully childish, like this wrangling with identity belongs to folks half a generation younger than me. At 30, a mid-life crisis is the only practical alternative--and what working mother has time for that? I don’t have time to dye my hair, visit my lady as often as I would like, or unravel my image as a (formerly) married femme. Instead I curate a Pinterest board of mostly asexual lesbian art and contemplate asking folks for recommendations on lesbian fiction.

Monday, August 10, 2015

I Am Not My Hoop

Hoop love for-EVAH!
As an undergraduate, I wrote a paper on happiness. Hobbies, I proposed, are pathways to joy because they allow us to claim creative space for ourselves amid the bustle of modern life. The essay highlighted my experiences as a woman who dances with hoops and strings beads onto knotted twine. Since I posted it on-line some 5 years ago, it has remained one of my most popular ramblings. Yet it is not the essay I initially set out to write. In fact, it is the result of a professor handing back my initial outline with the declaration, “This is not a paper about happiness. It is a paper about hooping.”

Unaccustomed to criticism, much less calls for revision, I argued, “But it is about happiness. Hooping makes me happy.” We sparred back and forth, but she did not relent. I left the office, unconvinced, but followed her advice because I was a wise enough (or an A-hungry enough) student to follow her advice.

Now, however, I see the clarity of that professor’s distinction.

Because happiness is not a thing. I am not my hoop.

The first statement seems obvious. Yes, I understand that material objects do not create happiness. In fact, material objects often obscure our pursuit of contentment and joy. That is such a rote response to materialism that it functions as a platitude that often blinds us to the complex intersection of having, doing, and being.

In that intersection, hooping became a cornerstone of my identity. I made hoops. I made friends with hoopers. I taught my friends to hoop. I carried vast stacks of hoops into public spaces where they seemed to make other happy. I displayed my virtuosity in public spaces where compliments, questions, and applause made me feel talented, beautiful, important, and happy. Hooping taught me to dance. Hooping increased my confidence. I learned to hold space and strike up conversations with strangers. I blogged about hooping. I presented a paper at a prestigious academic conference about hoop dance and feminism.
Who the hell do I want to be?

Yet I also found a new job. I started working on my master’s degree. I busied myself with other projects rather than building my ‘hooping empire.’ Another local hooper began selling hoops and organizing events while I reeled between relief (I’m too busy for this, I’m glad someone is carrying the torch) and jealousy (How dare this girl spam my community page with links to her shop? Why doesn’t she collaborate with me first--I’m important!) My hooping gear aged and wore out so that I found myself in a new festival season without an LED hoop or a fire hoop.

Then I realized that without those things, those tricky oh-so-material things, I wasn’t quite sure who to be. On the dance floor, I danced with the same joy, but I was one body among many. I was no longer a singular marvel. I was no longer the girl who didn’t mind sharing her LED hoops with others; I was the girl subtly (or not so subtly) rebuked for asking to borrow someone else’s hoops. [Stop by later for a rant on smart hoops, status, and dancing at night]  On one hand, I felt liberated because I've been wrangling with the suspicious that I had "become my hoops" for a while. Yet on the other hand, I felt like less of a participant, more anonymous without a circle to empower and define me.

This summer, I sought to reconnect with myself outside the hectic academic life that dominates ¾ of the year. I vowed to myself, “I am not my to-do list” and wondered who I could be outside of due-dates and dead-lines. I assumed that hooping would again emerge as a primary current in my life, but it did not. Rather I fell in love with table top role playing games and the company of my tribe. While my tribe contains many hoopers and we often spin together, my focus has shifted.

I’m ok with that…I think. In this particular hindsight, I’m honestly more comfortable writing “I am not my hoop” than “I am not my to-do list.” In my quest to define myself outside both material objects and obligations, I’ve found that just being isn’t what makes me happy. I have yet to strike that balance between being and being lazy.

While I still believe that hobbies like hooping create space for moments of authenticity, growth, and bliss, I also see how initially open space solidifies over time, how play becomes work, and possibility drifts toward obligation. With this awareness in mind, I refuse to lecture myself on the importance of hooping through plateaus or vow to reconnect with my hooping practice. Rather, I acknowledge that there is no stable self. I have called myself a hooper for a long time, but I’ve worn countless other labels too. They shift and blur into one another because identity is weird and ever-changing.

I am not my hoop.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Navigating the Circle

"We must remember that we have “permission” to succeed and to struggle in a supportive community–but only if we CREATE that community. An idealized hooping community exists in our mantras and ideology, but the challenge lies in manifesting it. We can all be awesome in the circle: awesome hoopers and awesome friends who take the extra step to say hello and get to know each other when we share hoop-space."

Read more about the importance of making introductions, sharing space, and creating community in my newest article with

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Book of Nature

In America we tend to think of science and religion as conflicting world views. This is, after-all, the land that still, despite wide-spread scientific consensus, wrangles with climate change denial.  This is the land where my home-state passed an "academic freedom" bill because Missourians still can't reconcile Darwin and Genesis.

In the late 1800s, Scientist John William Draper proposed, "The history of Science is not a mere record of isolated discoveries; it is a narrative of the conflict of two contending powers, the expansive force of the human intellect on one side, and the compression arising from traditionary faith and human interests on the other." Though contemporary scientists denounce Draper's Conflict Thesis as overly simplistic, it remains a powerful force in popular culture. Adherents on either side of the supposed conflict glare scornfully into the opposing camp and lament the willful ignorance of the other. The media (both conservative and liberal) just heightens to problem by highlighting sensational non-news stories. Politicians exploit the divisive politics of stem-cell research, environmental regulation, and abortion to forward their own political agendas.

However, both history and modern science reveal the interconnectedness of science and religion. For example, during the Renaissance, believers across the social spectrum saw two paths toward understanding God. One was the Book of Scripture--the Bible. The other was the Book of Nature--scientific observation. Thus thinkers, scientists, and laymen alike believed that the more that science revealed about nature, the more they understood God's great work and purpose.

Modern pagans are a people without a Book of Scripture. There are undoubtedly books that have become foundational touch-stones of our faith. However our sprawling, eclectic religion is better conceptualized as interlocking circles rather than a list of tenants. One of those circles is idea of paganism as a nature-centric or earth-based spirituality. As Starhawk explains in The Earth Path, "The Goddess is embodied in the natural world, and science in its truest sense is about knowing nature. Thus our thealogy needs to be empirical as well as mystical." We are people of the second Book--the Book of Nature.

In Between Worlds I meditated on the strange balancing act between my witchy self and my academic self. As members of an Outsider community, it's easy to become skeptical and disenfranchised with seemingly authoritarian systems that leave minimal space for outlying perspectives. Many folks enter paganism to validate experiences and ideas that the mechanical/scientific world-view discredits: dreams, spirits who whisper through the leaves of trees, primeval stories, and nostalgic visions of a time before the industrial revolution.

In respect to all those folks who've been told that their beliefs are "scientifically impossible" and those who prefer poetry to statistics, I won't argue that all pagans should be scientists. Since we're working from a place of personal experience rather than academic consensus, we don't have to be completely methodical, rational, and objective. We have a unique space to embrace the best of both worlds.

To best explore those worlds, I believe pagans should study the Book of Nature as naturalists. Merriam Webster defines a naturalist as "a student of natural history; especially: a field biologist." I imagine a world where pagans spend less time sitting in living rooms talking about the four elements and more time mucking about outdoors. We can speak to a trees as "Sister-Dryad" for the mythical maidens who inhabit their branches or we can name them oak, silver maple, and sycamore. We can sing to the rippling waters and take the time to learn the creek's name and how it connects to our watershed.

Names hold power (thanks, Le Guin) and I've found that learning about nature,--the names, the cycles, etc.--increases my connection to this tapestry of life that I hold sacred. Knowledge reveals miracles. The Book of Nature both enchants and explains.  Rather than getting caught up in the religion/science binary, I borrow the tools of science (primarily observation) to understand and illuminate my religion. 

Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Past is Heavy

My grandparents on their wedding day
Inheritance. Heritage. History. Legacy. Sins of the fathers. Memory.

Time becomes the photographs, heirlooms, dusty Avon bottles, and stacks of Reader’s Digest books. A life becomes the debris unearthed by grown children and sorted into cardboard boxes for disposal.

With each box carted to the hall, the weight of memory shifts from the shoulders of the dying. The hands of the living must accept their burden, but the past is heavy. The answers to time’s riddles are hidden in dust.  What objects can be discarded? Which should be left for others? What item should I take to distill and thus preserve decades of memory?

In Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote, “He was still too young to know that the heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good, and that thanks to this artifice we manage to endure the burden of the past.”

"The past is a burden we carry, heavy at first,
the slowly alchemized into something ethereal and strange,
as the heart, like a Marquez novel, distills memory into art.
I stand a few years farther along than Marquez’s romantic anti-hero on this journey through time.  I understand how the heart’s memory operates, but being new to the mechanism, have not yet learned to construct a convincing artifice.

This month my family began dismantling my grandmother’s house. It’s been a project a-long-time-coming and much delayed. The act seems like a physical manifestation of my grandmother’s illness. Like Alzheimer’s has scattered and erased her past, so we scatter and erase as we empty the old house of its contents.

I’m only a grandchild to that house. The ache is a mix of nostalgia and generalized fear of death. But sitting next door, on the same lot, the lot which must be liquidated in compliance with Medicaid procedure, is my father’s house. The house where I grew up. The house where my bedroom floor was carpeted with patchwork carpet scraps. The house with that ugly orange couch where I first discovered dust motes shining in afternoon sunlight. The house that smells like paperbacks and cigarettes will soon disappear in a dirge of “if only I’d known…”

Its loss is hard. Its loss is heavy. Neither my house nor my heart has room for all the memories, fermented dreams, and artifacts my father has gathered and inherited. And to think he looses all that as his own mother fades into the fog of age and illness…it breaks my heart.

But the past is a chain that will not be broken. It is a burden we carry, heavy at first, then slowly alchemized into something ethereal and strange, as the heart, like a Marquez novel, distills memory into art. The fragments of family history tumble through the mind until they are smooth and beautiful, until they are small and stable: a single photograph, a bedtime story, or a relic rescued from a cardboard box.

My relic to preserve the past.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Hoop Inspiration - More Than Just a Pretty Dance

"Just go to Youtube and search for hoop dance." As the unofficial 'hoop girl' of my small Midwestern town, I make this suggestion at least once a week. Folks often respond with wonder, disbelief, or confusion upon learning that a grown woman spends hours each week dancing inside a plastic circle. For those folks who haven't seen hoopdance, those who don't have a reference point, it must seem ridiculous. Do they imagine I stand for hours just keeping the hoop up around my waist? Do they translate hoop dancer into stripper in the round. Sometimes it seems that way, so if I don't have a hoop on hand to demonstrate, I send them to Youtube. 

Later I wonder what videos they found. Is Shakti Sunfire's performance at O Dance studio in Boulder still the first search result? (I checked, it's farther down the list now.) Will they stumble across some gal rocking a bikini and fishnets and instantly doubt my promise that hooping is for everybody and every body? Will their digitized glimpse reveal the transformative magic, the healing, and the joy that hooping creates? Or will they see just another pretty dance? 

In the video collection below you'll find hoop dance videos that delve a little deeper. They explore the process, the practice, the philosophy, and the sublime magic of hoop dance. Though the skill and grace of these hoopers is mind-boggling in its own right, these videos also reveal a bit of the emotion behind the motion. 

Love the Process - Sandra Safire 

It's a Practice - Jaguar Mary 

Eye of the Storm - Brecken 

This is my Flow - Tiana at Hoop Path 7 

Sacred Hoop - Hoop Alchemy