The Political is Personal

I’ve held my breath so long because, let’s face it, it’s scary to be a woman with a political opinion on the internet. Maybe the answer to the epidemic of misogynistic trolls is herd immunity. What if every woman with an opinion got on the internet and said what she thinks? They’d have to start recruiting new trolls, or working double shifts, just to keep up. Or, one would hope, they might even bore of the enterprise once they realize their harassment and vitriol aren’t deterring opinionated women anymore. So maybe it’s just as important to be showing up online as it is to march in the streets.

I’m never going to get the words right, so I might as well just use the ones I have.

The second wave feminist mantra, “The Personal is Political,” has long held a lot of meaning for me. I pretty much stopped following government politics at a national level in 2004, when the president I’d so vehemently opposed since 2000 was re-elected, mere weeks after my father died.That fall, I lost all capacity to process events that were happening at a national level, and I decided the politics of national government were no longer worthy of my interest or energy—I chose to focus, instead, on directing my actions and intentions locally, on a personal level—making the little choices that, if a helluva lot more people made them, would make a helluva lot of difference.

“The personal is political,” for me, has meant choosing not to own a car, commuting instead by bike or bus or walking. Except for the rare occasions when I rent a car for travel, I never buy gas. If more people made that personal choice? Think of what decreased demand and consumption of fossil fuels would mean for our environment. Think of what it would mean for foreign policy if the U.S. economy didn’t depend on imported oil.

I shop local whenever I can. I work for a public university. I volunteer in my community and help to lead an organization that provides a platform for women’s voices and stories. I read books and poems and articles, and watch films, and listen to music made by black people and indigenous people and trans and gender nonconforming people and queer people and disabled people and neurodiverse people and poor people, and I seek out these voices because they are not other, they are us. I am working, albeit slowly and without much to show for it yet, on a writing career that expresses an explicitly intersectional feminist viewpoint. I’m 38, unmarried, no children. All of this is political, and none of it has to do with national government or electoral politics, which has been no concern of mine over the past twelve years.

But today?

Today, and since the November elections, the political has become personal, for me. I hate conflict. My heart races and my chest gets tight when people disagree with me, in real life or on the internet. But I am working on that. It’s embarrassing to admit. But maybe if I admit it, other people who feel the same as me (too fearful of possible repercussions to make political statements on the internet) will be courageous enough to take a step as inconsequential as this little blog post here that nevertheless terrifies me to publish. Herd immunity doesn’t work when so many opt out. Until a whole bunch of us are willing to assert our political authority on matters that are important to us, the wrath of trolls will prevail.

Today the political is personal because the new federal administration poses direct threats to the freedoms I hold dear.

Tomorrow I march. Many are characterizing the Women’s March on Washington (and its satellite marches, including the one in downtown Tucson I’ll be joining) as the bitter tears of sore losers. That’s not what I see, and it’s not why I march. My concerns are bigger than any one candidate or elected official, and I have no interest in arguments that reduce the issues to a zero-sum game of winners and losers where everyone has to pick a side, conservative or liberal.

I have dismissed politics, for so very long, as a game no more sophisticated than the high school popularity contests we called “student government.” Are we as a nation incapable of nuanced discussion? Can we start a new conversation that isn’t about picking teams, insulting the opposition, and scapegoating our society’s most vulnerable– poor folks, immigrants, indigenous people, religious minorities, people of color and the disabled?

Do not reduce my concerns to mere disappointment in the openly misogynist, xenophobic, anti-intellectual individual with no experience in government who has just been elected chief administrator of the executive branch of our national government. He is a symptom of a diseased democracy, and we have to stay focused on the disease and not the distracting antics of this individual if we want to have any hope of finding– perhaps not a cure, but at the very least, treatment for our ailing democracy: in the form of community-building, education, empathy, and the elevation of discourse.

I want to focus on getting better about sharing knowledge in both formal and informal ways. I want to improve my capacity to have productive conversations with family members, coworkers and acquaintances who share differing worldviews. I want to get past my stubborn investment in being right (or, more to the point, avoiding conflict), and find a way to prioritize boring-ass conversations about public policy (ugh) and the responsibilities of citizen activism. I want to start having real discussions about my deeply held personal values, even when doing so betrays truths I’d rather keep private.

I want to model an engaged citizenship that goes beyond defaulting to party lines or passively expecting one elected official or another fix what’s broken in our society. I want to begin modeling the kind of vocal and persistent participation in our democratic republic–at the local, state, and national level– that it is going to take all of us to own as a personal responsibility if this dream of a more perfect union that we call the U.S.A. is ever to be realized.

Tomorrow I march, because today we are a less than perfect union. I march to make vocal and visible my support for the institutions, individuals, and communities which appear to be threatened by the new administration, but especially:

FOR Freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and a free press that functions as a fourth estate providing checks to government overreach and misconduct

FOR Freedom of religion and AGAINST Islamophobia

FOR Separation of church and state

FOR federal investment in public education, infrastructure, healthcare, climate change research, environmental protection, and the arts.

FOR criminal justice reform and the abolition of the prison industrial complex

FOR rights of undocumented migrants to live and work in dignity without fear of violence, harassment, or deportation.

FOR Black Lives Matter and FOR the Water Protectors at Standing Rock and AGAINST White Nationalism

FOR women’s right to reproductive choice

FOR freedom of gender expression, and the entire rainbow spectrum of sexual and romantic preference, and AGAINST homophobia, transphobia, and heteronormativity

Now I exhale, and hit publish. This is only step 1. Family, friends and strangers, by all means, feel free to disagree with my positions. Tell me how wrong I am, whether for being too liberal or not liberal enough. My skin is thin but with practice, I think I can build resilience. Bring it on.

And family, friends and strangers who agree with the opinions I’ve posited here– please don’t bother agreeing in the comments. I’d appreciate your affirmations, but what I’d appreciate even more is YOU saying what YOU think on your little piece of the internet (if this post inspires you to do that, I’d love seeing a link to what you produce in the comments). Let’s overwhelm the internet with women’s opinions. It’s herd immunity time.

Don’t just settle for, as I have long done, sharing the articles you agree with on the like-minded echo chamber of social media. I ask you to take the time to articulate, in your own words and on a public forum, what you value and what you want from your government and what you oppose, provided you have the capacity to withstand whatever backlash such proclamations may provoke. Know your limits, but know also that you are likely capable of more than you realize. This isn’t politics as usual, this isn’t normal, and THIS IS PERSONAL. We have to keep making it personal. Take the first step, then the next. Then the next. I will be marching right alongside you.

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2016, Rear-view Mirror Edition

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In 2016, I accomplished some things I am proud of (in no particular order):

I summited Wasson and Picacho Peaks, and hiked lots of other trails around Tucson– Pima and Ventana Canyons; Douglas Spring, and some trails in the Tucson Mountains.

Every full moon with a few exceptions I night-hiked with my friend Abby.

I participated in two writing workshops, Annie Guthrie’s Oracular Writing at the Poetry Center and Rae Gouirand’s ScribeLab.

I explored more of Arizona in my free time, visiting Camp Verde wine country and the erroneously named Montezuma’s Castle and Flagstaff on my summer vacation, and stayed at a cabin in the Chiricahuas with friends for my birthday

I traveled for work like I have never traveled before, visiting Austin, Portland, Seattle, Chicago, and Phoenix for various meetings and conferences.

I got a promotion and a raise.

I took a summer school class on Desert Plants and memorized the identifying traits and common and Latin names of 30 species, and still remember like 4 of them.

I curated 10 FST! shows as the chair of the storytelling committee, and performed in 3 of them.

I also told stories at Odyssey and Gridley Middle School (guess which was the tougher crowd).

I read memoir contest submissions for Kore Press.

I made friends with a group of wise and powerful women through Warrior Goddess training.

I took up a running habit in the summer that I dropped in the fall, but I think I’m going to pick it up again (I ran 1.1 miles today, so that’s a good start!).

I attended a National Lawyer’s Guild training and then volunteered as a Legal Observer at a demonstration on the U.S./Mexico border in Nogales, and at a student-led post-election rally at UA.

I attended a Black Lives Matter rally.

I supported the arts, especially locally, as much as I could by attending shows and openings and readings and plays.

I performed in the Winter Solstice show at ZUZI Dance Theatre for my second year.

I’ve compiled this list to help me remember that I’m doing good work. It doesn’t feel like enough, but it never will, so I wanted to be sure I at least can look at this list as a reminder that I’m going the right direction, but I need to keep going, and I need to be willing to speak up about the causes that matter most to me, like human rights and racial justice.

When I compile such a list of accomplishments for 2017, may it have more books that I’ve read and writing that I’ve published. May it have more concrete ways that I have committed my time and efforts to help empower others. May it have more meals cooked and trails hiked and friends I’ve held space for. More art. More love. More wholehearted creative, civic, and intellectual work.

Mel Madden, Mel Madden

I grew up in the 80s and 90s, meaning I was among the first generation to take for granted a home video library. Among my family’s VHS collection was Always, starring Richard Dreyfuss as a dead pilot who haunts his wife. I remember watching that movie with my dad. In one scene, Dreyfuss talks to an aged Audrey Hepburn in a forest clearing. I considered myself a pretty savvy audience for a thirteen-year-old, but this scene confused me because Hepburn’s character comes out of nowhere, as does the forest. Dreyfuss talks to Hepburn like he knows her, but without the benefit of context, their conversation baffled me.

“What is going on? Who is she supposed to be?” I asked Dad from the couch. He was good at explaining plot points quickly.

“God,” Dad answered from his recliner, still watching the TV screen.

“No, seriously.” I was frustrated that I wasn’t grasping the plot and thought Dad was making fun of me by refusing to answer.

“Seriously,” he said, and my irritation grew. Then he looked away from the TV and noticed my agitation.

“Haven’t you ever imagined God as a woman?” Dad asked.

“No-o!” I was sure he was setting me up for a joke.

Instead of a punchline, he just said “I have,” with a shrug, and we went back to watching the movie like nothing had happened.

From that day on, I never thought of God in the same way. Or Dad, for that matter.

Dad loved a hammock in the shade. And the green-grass lawn he battled the desert to grow.

Once, he terraced an entire hill in our backyard all by himself over the course of several weekends, slowly but steadily.

“This is how you move a mountain, kiddo. One shovelful at a time.”

Dad loved Snoopy. Goofy. Christmas lights. The Dodgers, Farmer John Hot Dogs, and Vin Scully’s voice. He loved blackjack and golf and God, country, and family.

More than anything, and he loved so much, Dad loved his family.

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Dad dabbled in college, taking classes at East Los Angeles Community College, but never got a degree. He was smart enough but he just had other priorities. Work. Family. Church. Life was college-optional for him. It wasn’t for me. From the time I was old enough to write my own name I knew I was going to college.

After I went away to college, whenever Dad came to visit, he remarked what wonderful places college campuses are, and how he should go to college. How he should just quit his job and go to college.

“You should do it,” I always said. “You should just quit your job and go to college.”

When my parents came to Davis for my graduation, I took them to the food co-op where I worked part-time as a cashier to pick up a bottle of wine and some fancy cheese to take home for later. Working at the Co-op, I was learning to appreciate things like wine and fancy cheese (Dad loved Kraft singles and macaroni and cheese from the box), and maybe I was showing off a little, but wasn’t cultivating taste one of the reasons my parents sent me to college?

Mom wrinkled her nose. “I don’t like brie.”

Later that evening, back at my apartment, I couldn’t find the wine.

“Oh no? Did we leave the wine in the car?” I worried how it would fare after the oven of an automobile interior in Davis in June.

“No,” Dad said. “I put it in the fridge.”

“Da-ad. You don’t refrigerate red wine.”

As soon as I said it I wished I could take it back. I sounded like a snob. Is that what I went to college for?

Dad was a project manager for industrial construction firms. He took the grand plans that architects and engineers designed for power plants, oil refineries, wastewater treatment facilities and the like, and figured out what it would take in actuality, with materials and labor, to fabricate those buildings. He was the go-between of the engineer-architects and the construction foremen. He didn’t make the blueprints, and he didn’t swing the hammers. His work was largely inscrutable to me. But he was a guy who got things done. Engineers and foremen don’t speak the same language. Dad translated.

When I began pursuing a career in academia, I thought I wanted to be one of the engineer-architects of culture. I thought I wanted an ivory tower. But I felt lonely there, and worried I was out of touch. The language spoken by the brilliant minds at work in the academy is a foreign tongue. I’m so much more at home with the words of all the people who make and sell and fix and clean things, people who sit on committees, wash dishes, raise families, teach children, and ride buses. I want to speak both languages. I don’t have the patience to draw the blueprints, or the fortitude to swing the hammers. But I want to make a contribution, to help get things done.

Dad was a construction worker who raised a writer.

Dad's Headstone

How I spent my summer vacation: 2014 edition

In August orange cactus flowers open

In August orange cactus flowers open

My friend Jessy Schmidt, who I met in Davis, got married last weekend. She’s moving to Tucson soon, which I was excited to hear. One New Year’s Eve a few years back, at a bonfire on a farm in Yolo County, we discussed our resolutions and Jessy’s is the resolution to end all resolutions. “I just say the same thing every New Year’s,” she told me, “I resolve to learn the lessons my life is teaching me.”

I’ve been learning some painful lessons this summer. The first, and most basic, and one I am frankly embarrassed to admit I am still working on though I turn 36 next month (as though there’s an expiration date on these milestones and I’m still behind the curve), is that I need to be kinder to myself. I beat myself up a lot for not having mastered some lessons already: self-love, setting boundaries, self-honesty. I should do more to credit myself for even getting to this point in the curriculum—I’ll admit that I had to repeat this class several times, but I can at least say now that I deserve kindness, and even love. And much of the time, I even believe it. But there are still dark times. Some days I don’t believe I deserve anybody’s kindness or love because I can’t see past my most recent mistake, or disappointment, or loss.  

The truth I’m rarely willing to admit is that I’ve learned some pretty awesome things about my strengths as a writer and my purpose in life and what matters to me. And I’ve been having some Telenovela-level meltdowns lately because I see some things so clearly and yet reality continues to confound and frustrate me.

An incredible immaturity of thought underlies this: a certain magic carried me to this point of being in Tucson and feeling that this is the right community for me, and being an MFA-holding essayist with a handful of lit mag pubs under my belt when just three years ago, that felt like an impossible dream—it was a buttload of work that helped get me here, but it felt like a kind of magic, and I lazily wanted to believe that magic would follow me into my post-graduate life in Tucson, that I would beat the woeful job market odds so many of my fellow grads fled Southern Arizona for, that I would quickly find full-time work making a salary comparable to what I was making as a marketing coordinator at the Davis Food Co-op before I came back to school—but doing something even more meaningful to me—and that I would fall easily and joyously into a profound romantic love. All very quickly, all as if by magic.

I started my summer giddily optimistic that all of these dreams would come miraculously true. And I did very little writing, except for a storytelling venue (which is good practice, but instantly gratifying and doesn’t provide the meatier satisfaction of a longer-term writing project). And as weeks and months passed and the magic didn’t seem to be happening, my fantastic optimism started to devolve into hopeless despair. At its nadir, I wrote two Facebook posts which got a lot of attention from friends who enjoyed the way they were crafted, which in a way only made me feel worse, because I wrote them as a valve for a painfully excessive feeling—I suppose I was fishing for sympathy—and no one really asked “Are you okay?” But I got a lot of “likes”! (I need to seriously rethink my relationship to Facebook. Soon. But not today.)

August 9: and sometimes, you get so angry you have to break furniture*

*sometimes, people leave trash next to your house because you live in an alley next to the trash cans. sometimes that trash is perfectly good furniture. and sometimes, you get sick of someone’s perfectly good desk because it’s been sitting outside of your house for over a week with no hope of being taken by anyone, and so, after a particularly frustrating night, you kick it. and stomp on it. and kick it some more. and thrash it and trash it and it still isn’t good enough. if only furniture would bleed. that might help. (22 likes)

August 16: If you’re ever in a really low place, I mean just a no-good, rotten, miserable howling ache of a place, I highly recommend a sunrise ride on the Rillito River Bike Path.

Not because of the damp creosote smell of the desert waking up, or for the gentle sound of water (actual water!) coursing through the usually dried-up riverbed among the vibrant plants rejoicing in their monsoon relief, or for the changing colors of the Catalinas and Tucson Mountains as the light rises and intensifies, or for the drama of pink and gold and silver of the eastern clouds kissed by these changing rays;

do it so that when the cyclists and joggers and dogwalkers pass you with their bright greeting of “Good Morning!” you can scowl at them because beauty and exercise don’t fix everything, and those smug fuckers need reminding. (47 likes)

I’m glad when I express sentiments that people can relate to, or when I turn a phrase that is pleasing to one’s ear, and I believe that these qualify as authentic expression, but I regret the feeling behind them. Senseless destruction, even of abandoned property, isn’t like me. My deliberate facial rebuttal of strangers’ well wishes this morning, however good it felt to indulge that little black cloud when my heart was feeling especially tender, did little to increase the presence of love in this world.

And one point that the global and national news has been driving home this summer, and which has been bumming me out in almost equal measure to my personal frustrations and disappointment, is that the world is suffering from a critical dearth of love. Not fake Hallmark greeting card/TV reality show love, but the kind of radical, world-changing love where humans accept one another’s differences and acknowledge common humanity, where people support one another’s right to pursue happiness not just in theory but in material fact. Where people like me do the actual work we were put on this planet to do, and do it joyfully, because it is a path chosen of love not fear, and guided with the intention of creating more love (and therefore justice) in the world.

But while I waited for things to get better, locally and globally, I got lazy, I got slack, and I let fear beat out love in my life. And this is how I wound up with the melodramatic outbursts I saw fit to chronicle on Facebook, land of the smiling, curated life.

I’m telling this story to make note. To help myself learn this lesson, and get past it. The only way to make your own magic is to do the work. It can be a challenge to discover what that work is, for any given individual, so I’ve already got a huge advantage—I know my work is to write. My job prospects, my romance prospects—these are variables beyond my control. But I can control my creative output. And I’ve been choosing not to. And I have suffered as a result. Note to self: keep up the creative output. If you’d done your work this summer, nothing would be different now in the money or sex department, but you’d certainly feel a lot better about life. That’s a valuable lesson. Let’s learn it and move on to the next one.

The next lesson, by the way, will be to balance writing with my new job. I start as an adjunct English instructor at UA next week. It’s only a one-semester contract, and I may have stated, vocally and vehemently in the past, a certain distaste for teaching 101, but I have to believe that this, too, is one of those lessons life is going to just keep teaching me until I get it right—to bring my practice of teaching more in line with the standards of my ideals of teaching. This is one I’ve struggled with in the past, and it is with gritted teeth that I express my gratitude for this opportunity to work at it again so I can develop this skill set. I have an opportunity to make a difference in a bunch of young writers’ lives this semester—when I think about it that way, my jaw relaxes a little. It’s a pretty remarkable place to be.

And though it’s not at all what I had hoped or expected, it is just a little bit magical.

Counting Down to Graduation

Counting Down to Graduation

I have less than a month left in the creative writing MFA program at the University of Arizona, and everyone wants to know:

What’s next?

I’m still figuring that out. But I have some exciting ideas. Ridiculous schemes. Grand plans. Lofty ambitions. Stay tuned.

Walk on the ocean

Walk on the ocean

I’m long overdue for a new post. It’s coming. In the meantime, here’s a recent shot– I made a mad dash to the coast with a friend this weekend– this selfie was taken Saturday, May 18, 6:00pm PST in Santa Monica, CA. I’m back in Tucson now. Stories soon.

Blenman-Elm

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My neighborhood in Tucson is historic Blenman-Elm. There’s something wonderful to look at on every block. It is surprisingly green, though there are plenty of cacti (and political ads) to remind me I’m in Arizona.

At the edge of the world

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I was entirely unprepared for conditions on the Sonoma coastline. It was plenty warm when I left Davis, so I wore a sundress. It didn’t occur to me to bring a sweater. The brutal wind in Jenner drove me to purchase an ugly $25 poncho at the country store. Even that was insufficient.

But it didn’t matter. At Goat Rock Beach, I took off my sandals, walked on the sand, and put my feet in the ocean, blasted by wind and with deference to the churning surf before me. I’m sure I only lasted about 90 seconds, but it was enough.

I wanted to touch California’s edge, and I did. After hours of nosing my rented blue Mustang along the twisting rural highways that wind out of Yolo County, across Napa and Sonoma County backroads, lost and lost again, I somehow stumbled onto the exact stretch of road I’d set out to find: from Guerneville to Jenner, alongside the Russian River.

The words “indescribable beauty” don’t mean anything. I cannot tell you what I saw or communicate how it made me feel. Hills, trees, farms. Vineyards. Grasses and flowers and cows. Barns and fences. Typical rural stuff. Old towns and new ones, general stores and strip malls. In Napa, I got a caramel macchiato at a Starbucks, and bought sunglasses at a Target.

I drove through a beauty that made me ache not because it’s going away, but because I am. My spirit is thrilled because she believes the desert is where we belong, but my body absorbs the hillside cows and roadside strawberry stands and falling down barns and highways that wind between showers of sun and tunnels of shade where trees crowd in thick and moans, why? Why leave all this? Why are we trading this paradise in for strong, broad sunlight and open sky and hues of baked earth and an unwritten future?

I catch a little sob in my throat every time I approach my apartment now. It is only mine for 28 days more. Though I’ve only been here two years, it is the first place I have lived since leaving my parents’ care that has felt like my true and permanent home.

So am I contradicting myself when I say that this move to the desert has been a long time coming?

I moved to Davis in the spring of 2001 for a guy named Chris. That summer, Chris and I went on a cross country road trip that took us to 48 American states, the District of Columbia, and several Canadian provinces. The first night that we camped, we camped on the Russian River, right near Jenner.

That 23 year old self is barely recognizable to me now. But she is not surprised that the place where a river meets the ocean is precisely where I felt I needed to be, this week, while the gravity of the coming change tries to overwhelm me. This remote spot of Earth, tough to get to even from so close a distance as Davis (as the crow flies, less than 80 miles), draws me because it is so ludicrously beautiful (but so are so many places on Earth), and because it is so difficult to get to.

After putting my feet in the ocean, I sat in the Mustang and listened to the Giants game on AM radio. Another local perk. I drove down 1 to Bodega Bay then to the 101 so I could drive across the Golden Gate Bridge. Fisherman’s Wharf for dinner: oysters, shrimp, crab, and Sonoma Brut. It was no warmer in the City than it had been in Jenner. A homeless man in striped “Alcatraz” pajamas bummed a smoke from my traveling companion and said to him, “How am I the crazy one? You’re wearing shorts and a T-shirt out here and it’s FREEZING.” I shivered beneath my poncho.

I won’t let myself get maudlin about San Francisco the way I am about every precious farmhouse and golden hillside in rural Sonoma County, because I know I’ll make it back to SF at least one more time before I move.  I imagine I’ve seen the last of the Sonoma Coast for awhile, though.

I wonder how much of a resemblance there will be between my current self and the one who visits Jenner next. I wonder how many years will separate us.

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