Good Morning, Sunshine

He has an aura about him, as if he were famous. The kind of person who orders vaguely off the menu, but his drink is specific- Dark and Stormy. I fiercely ignored him.

“The best rum in town is in your glass.”

I shifted my shoulders.

“What are you, a Sommelier?”

“Yes, actually.”

I turned my head away, but stopped. His eyes teased me.

His crow’s feet told me he was older. When he looked at me he studied me- watched my lips move and eyes flutter at a joke. His breezy hair hinted at the grays I’d eventually tickle on his chest.

“I go by Sunshine. I used to live with models who coined the nickname.”

“I go by Lily. My parents wrote it on my birth certificate.”

He was polite and hungry- we chatted kindly about our meals.

He just recovered from a motorcycle accident, but there isn’t a scar on him. He’s the kind of person who would ask what day it is, then reference my offhand comment from hours earlier. He told me he loved my lips.

“So Lily, wanna get another drink?”

I didn’t say yes, but I didn’t run away, either. He’s the kind of guy who must walk on the curbside.

We walked into a bar that looked too upscale to actually function as a bar. I used to work in a bar. The smell of them always gives me this exhausted, broke feeling. I could gauge the time of night by the tip jar. 8PM- empty. 10PM- mostly empty. 12AM- still seeing the bottom. Maybe I was just a shitty bartender.

Anyway, it gave me a taste for good beer. I scanned the taps.

Really? Natty Boh?” I scoffed a little too loudly.

I settled on more liquor.

Instead, the bartender slammed down a glass of his cheapest beer, overflowing with passivity. Well, fuck it. I promptly gulped it down, watching Sunshine stare, stunned.

Something about sitting on the other side of the bar got me feisty. I didn’t like being in bars if I wasn’t earning spare change and tip jar lint. So I talked shit.

He laughed a half measure too long at my off-color comments. His eyes lingered on me, flinching at every curse word I uttered.

But I was Teflon. Every chide comment rolled off my back, slick like a seal’s. My glances were choreographed. I rationed my laughter and swore excessively. This is not the Lily I know. And we’re pretty tight.

“So what do you think your odds are with me tonight?”

I don’t even remember the words leaving my brain and sliding out of my mouth.

We stumbled, fumbled, and snickered home. His eyes were glued to mine. There wasn’t another sound that could creak his neck half an inch. He had fascinating half sleeves- I studied them as he gazed over me.

The next morning, I expected him to slip out. We got breakfast instead. He’s the kind of person who asked to use my comb.

Over eggs, he told me crazy stories. He’s the kind of person who hits on girls with rappers and smokes up celebrities.

Sunshine kissed me on the street corner and headed home on his motorcycle, taking my fearless alter ego along with him.

“95.”
“Huh?”
“Last night you asked me a question. 95.”

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Sitting Still

We associate a fresh start with newness. Graduation. A new job. A cross-country move. These changes are tangible: When we graduate, we ogle over our framed diploma. When we consider a new job, we weigh the pros and cons with loved ones. When we take the plunge and start our move, we instagram every landmark in our travels. These types of fresh starts are considered life changing. But what is the big deal with big change?

When I was learning to read, my mom had me read a book, Sit Still! You can imagine what the catchphrase was. As a rather…active child, I suppose my mom was hoping to drive the point home. It didn’t resonate with me until now: I’ve lived in the same city for 5 years. I plan to work in the same industry for a very long time. And I look the same since I was 12. In some ways, I have made the decision to sit still. And while I don’t think I’m alone in this decision, I still feel a little shameful about not wanting to embrace a big, fresh, dewy change. We only count these larger milestones when ranking our abilities to take on new changes.

I think it’s time to think realistically. When people feel stagnant, maybe a big move isn’t feasible– jobs aren’t everywhere. But maybe we should consider smaller ways to evoke a fresh start– taking on a new project at work, exploring a new city for a weekend, even taking a different route on the daily commute. If you’re skeptical, I understand—it doesn’t seem like that big a deal. But I decided to give it a try.

Through this grueling winter, I was bored. The weather was at hibernation levels. My weeks blurred together with routine. I needed a change. Then at work, our team needed a volunteer to travel to Boston. I stared at my screen. At first, I was against it– I have SO much work! It would be cold! I don’t even know who else is going. But I forced myself to sit with this idea: It’s only 2 days. Maybe it won’t be that cold in early Spring. It would be a good opportunity to meet more coworkers…I volunteered, hitting Send before I could change my mind.

Fast forward a month. I was in a new city that I needed to navigate. I was forced to pay attention to my surroundings and accept the fact that I didn’t know my way around—for the first time in a long time. I know I could have clung to the familiar aspects of the city, be it a chain restaurant or a well-known beer. But I thought about why I volunteered to go to Boston in the first place—change. I ate at local places, where the servers called you “hun” and know most of the customers. I drank local beer. And I did something I haven’t done in years—ventured to the Suburbs.

Our family friend lives in Boston. I hadn’t seen Jon since I was 13, and he was now married and with child. He generously invited me to his home for his family’s Friday night ritual—pizza and Finding Nemo. Needless to say, this is not my usual Friday night itinerary. I was nervous, but excited to dive into this new environment. I don’t have much experience with children, so I had to learn how to play with a toddler. I had to let myself leave the city, take a commuter train, and venture into the quiet abyss of Boston suburbs.

Being in a new place forced me to tackle newness and pin down the anxiety in my way. I forced myself to sit with these new feelings—riding a commuter train, saying grace at the table, rejoicing when Jon’s charming daughter peed on the potty. It was perfect. The trip wasn’t permanent, but I still started fresh in a new town. The feeling still resonates with me.

***

I recently had dinner with my friend, Beth, who enlightened me with her idea of a fresh start. Every month, she chooses a resolution to work through—a different approach to a problem, a new ritual, a fresh change.

This intrigued me—a change that doesn’t require a dollar! She told me about a few of the resolutions she’s invented and the lessons that came with them.

One month, Beth started counting her calories. Not because she wanted to lose weight, but because she really didn’t have a sense of what she was eating. She made the resolution for a month. She quickly discovered her nutrition was imbalanced. Even though she made the resolution for a month, she exemplified her first lesson to me—being flexible.

Sure, the change was supposed to last 30 days, but she sought resolution in about 10. It didn’t make sense to waste time counting calories for the rest of the month, just because she promised herself she would. Her need for change was fulfilled; so was her new and balanced appetite.

Beth’s flexibility with time took both sides of the spectrum, too. There was one month where she decreed she’d tackle one nagging task every day. While the first few days started with ease–paid some bills, made a few phone calls–she grew exhausted with the thought of undertaking a pesky item everyday.

Beth took a step back. She thought about her intention for this resolution. Her goal was to alleviate the guilt for not starting tasks; Her goal was not to simply check things off a list. So, rather than hanging her head and giving up, she simply extended the resolution. She wasn’t bound to 30 days—after all, she was both player and referee in this game.

Through this resolution, Beth taught me to consider the intention behind the change, not just the change itself. I thought back to Boston—I wanted to visit a new place, because I wanted to challenge myself. I wasn’t going just to say that I went, or to post a bunch of pictures online. With that ideology in mind, I viewed my fresh starts as reflective moments—time to reflect on what I value, what I don’t care about, what makes me tick, regardless of time or place or task. I didn’t feel bound to the tangible task, but rather the time to reflect and sit with a new situation.

The next time you’re craving a fresh start, think small and sit with it. See what happens.

 

Dirty Little Secret

The first steps on your run. The 6-minute walk on your morning commute. Working out. Ordering in. Your jams are always playing in the background. They penetrate your eardrums—you shove speakers into your ear canal to seek the pleasure of music most intimately. It’s a relationship.

You are so caught up with your cassettes CDs Mp3s iTunes Spotify libraries that you craft playlists to enhance every moment of your life. They are your companions, perfectly designed to compliment your mood, activity, time of day.

Music is my favorite significant other. It’s the dance partner who accommodates my signature dance move. It’s a shoulder to lean on after a long day. It’s my personal trainer when I really don’t want to go another mile (actually, that might be Beyonce).  And if it gets too angry, I can always turn it down.

As I type this now, I’m on a plane. I am in the center seat, and the Captain has just turned on the fasten seatbelt sign. It’s getting shaky, and I need a friend to distract me, other than the mouth-breathing sleepers nearby. I queue up my Spotify playlist, and boom! Phantogram caresses my eardrums.

I’m lucky Phantogram just came on. I feel much cooler than if a song from the You’ve got Mail soundtrack played first. We are very self-conscious about our musical selections. Anyone with Spotify can tell you they are very deliberate about their public Spotify profile. To keep up appearances, they’ll include a few unknown bands, classics, Beyonce, and a few tasteful 90s rock classics. To the masses, their public playlist is fine; their Spotify relationship is going super amazing, so much fun, but there’s like totes a deep connection, too. On the outside, our playlists take us bike riding, shopping, fro-yoing.

But deep down, we crave the nasty stuff. We all love a few songs that no one else likes. The bands most people stopped listening to in 8th grade. The albums we’ve played to death. If one of those unpopular jams comes on among friends, we immediately take the defensive:

“I don’t know how that got on there.”

“Oh, yeah, some of that is from some mix someone gave me.”

“Well I share with my dad…he, uh…loves Dashboard Confessional.”

We get embarrassed by some songs, even though we commit to them, including them in our commutes and workouts. Those songs are the secret partner who won’t rage with your friends or buy everyone a round, but will always show up after a long night of dancing. You don’t want them to meet your friends—they wouldn’t get it. You’re not proud of your choice to let them in at 4AM, but you can’t shake it. The music is too good.

This shameful relationship is the reason for Spotify Private sessions. Private mode is an underworld. These playlists are the nerdy girls jocks meet under the bleachers, even though they’re dating cheerleaders. Spotify transforms into an alphabetized library of all the dirty little tracks you indulge during your monotonous morning routine.

The secrecy is enticing. Every now and then, you crave those jams. You’re plugged in—your roommates can’t hear a note. You close your door, just in case. It’d be so easy to get away with it now. You thumb over the privacy setting on Spotify and get those horrid tracks thumping.  You could be driving on the highway, writing a paper, pumping iron and no one knows about your unpopular music selection.

This is the part where I should empower you to listen to whatever you want– life’s too short to listen to music you don’t LOVE!  Who cares what other people think–be you!

But we’re all still judging. I saw Taylor Swift come up on my newsfeed, and I judged. I might have a few hidden Macklemore tracks in my library, but I’d roll my eyes if you’re still listening to “Thrift Shop.”

So keep it private. Keep your thumb triggered on the next button when DJing for friends. And if you get caught, make up those shallow lies—we’ll all pretend to believe them. Cause sneaking around is just more fun.

 

 

Mixed Media

I can’t remember the first time I found it.

It might’ve been the first day, when I perfectly articulated my new address in Italian. It might’ve been the first week, when I wandered home with new friends after a night out in our new city.

I was studying Art in Florence. We learned from the masters, who chiseled tradition with primitive hands and ingenious intuition—but my most vivid memory was the work of someone I’ll never know.

Once I found “Toothy”, I couldn’t shake it (I also couldn’t name it, until my friend mentioned it looked like a tooth). On morning jogs, I dodged Vespas, horses, and tourists when it leapt into my view—simple, one singular curve and a dash for a mouth.

When I discovered a bustling Panini shop, I spotted it in the alleyway, with the phrase scribed alongside, “Buoni Panini!” (Great sandwiches!)

On Saturday afternoons we shopped for things we couldn’t afford, and it popped up outside a designer’s boutique. It was impossible to overlook.

DSC04784

“Man, that thing is everywhere.”

“What?”

“Right there—haven’t you seen it? What do you think it means?”

“Uh, oh yeah, that’s really weird. It’s a shame people vandalize this place.”

In the middle of the Renaissance center of the world, I was captivated by an image most people condemned.

Everyday, I searched for more. I walked miles in 100-degree weather, sweat dripping down my back, and nowhere to hide from the sunlight. I’d crisscross bridges, wander through alleys, stumble through piazzas desperately scanning the walls for just one more glimpse.

I’d scribble down the address of each  Toothy sighting in my notepad and continue on, hoping to discover the artist’s trail. I’d imagine a hooded figure slinking through alleys before the first baker was up in the morning, carrying nothing but a spray can. I’d find a few scribbled ones, and I’d visualize the artist spotting a stranger in the night and darting off before he could be seen.

One humid afternoon, I found myself wandering along the river. The sidewalk was very narrow beside a busy street, so I had to keep looking down to get my footing. At one point I looked up and saw it. It was neon green—all the ones on this side of the river were—but it was scribbled across a window. A window.

I was fuming, and it wasn’t just the sticky air. I had been defending this artist’s work in my head—something I thought I understood. I argued that this alarming image enriched our daily commutes with its fleck of color and jarring expression. I believed Toothy was my personal Florentine Art exhibition, much cheaper than the Uffizi and Accademia down the road.

But this puke-filled monster dominated the window, a once transparent surface. It destroyed the view of the Arno to anyone looking out. This was no longer a dash of whimsy, but an obnoxious obstruction.

That night, I went home and told my artist friend about this ugly sighting.

“Where was it again?”

“Across the bridge. Along the water. It ruined a perfectly good window, it was all scribbled and shitty looking.”

“Really? That’s my favorite one.”

I just stared at her. She glanced out the window beyond our dinner table.

“Nearly dusk. Come on, I’ll show you how beautiful it is.”

As we approached the image, I rubbed my eyes. I saw it and stopped. It was beautiful.

When I walked by it the first time, my eyes were blinded by the sunlight. Sweat seeped through my eyelashes. It was the color of a migraine. But when I saw it in the moonlight, I discovered a whole new Toothy. Reflected through the glass was a duplicate image. I saw it repeated, but this time with black outlines. The reflection looked like an alter ego—much like the one the writer embodied on his nightly runs.

It was starting to make sense again. This image, just like all of the art in this city, is not stagnant. Tradition was founded here, but it was not fossilized. It evolves with its surroundings—the light, the era, the mood of the viewer. Sometimes it’s lost on you. And sometimes, art just makes sense.

In a city nearly buried in artistic convention, I found change. And that’s one memory I’ll never lose.

DSC05154

Mixtape

“Reorganization.” That’s what Shelly Matthews calls it. In her book, Reclaiming YOUR Life! she instructs newly divorced women to “Reorder your morning routine. Reenergize your bookshelf with new magazines and knickknacks. Reshuffle those stale memories and place any items in a Reorganization Bin. Then take that bin out with your trash!”

Reorganization means cleaning. And cleaning is the best aging elixir—back strains, skin-crinkling chemicals, and fumes that convince your lungs you’re a chain smoker. I don’t feel reenergized after I clean, I feel like a vodka tonic and a nap. Do other 30-something divorcees believe this psychobabble?

Shelly preaches, “Today is the first day of a centered you. Reorganize old habits, unpleasant memories, and focus on simplicity.” I interpret that as the day I “reorganize” all my ex’s treasures to the incinerator. Ha.

Tom never dusted. Neither do I. Dust covered my CDs with a layer of hazy antiquity; my CD tower looks like a prop in a play about an old, haunted Border’s. Younger me would eat that shit up.

The dust camouflaged a cassette, nestled between the original Now compilation and Chicago: Greatest Hits. I reorganized the ancient compact disc tower; it toppled in a cloud of dramatic dust. I found a tape player among its remains.

“KELLLLLLZ! I made this for you and I know you wish I played the guitar but I don’t and didn’t play any of these songs—but I still think they’re great and you’re great. You’re my favorite, Kell.”

Newly pubescent Tom had such a wholesome voice, before the whiskey and chain smoking of his college years. His voice was much raspier when he told me he was leaving. And track number one,

Tangerine, Tangerine, Living reflection from a dream;
I was her love, she was my queen, and now a thousand years between.

Ha. Smartass. He thought he was so clever with my citrus allergy. I’ll never forget his terrified face when he stabbed me with an EpiPen—The Orange Julius Incident of 1997.

And what it all comes down to, Is that I haven’t got it all figured out just yet.
‘Cause I’ve got one hand in my pocket, And the other one is giving the peace sign.

I think we both had a crush on Alanis Morissette. We used to blast Jagged Little Pill when we’d take drives. Tom always insisted on keeping the windows up til we got to Route 40 cause he didn’t want the rest of the Rugby team to know about his infatuation with a Canadian songwriter.

I’ll make love to you, Like you want me to, And I’ll hold you tight
Baby all through the night, I’ll make love to you, When you want me to
And I will not let go ‘Till you tell me to.

Only we would choose Boyz II Men for our wedding song. No regrets.

We’ve come a long long way together,
Through the hard times and the good.
I have to celebrate you baby,
I have to praise you like I should.

Our go-to hookup song. It also slipped into the Honeymoon playlist. If Fatboy Slim only knew the memories he helped us create…

We ran our town in high school. Dodging all the small town gossip because we were sweethearts and everyone knew it. Rock solid. Not that I’d care if we were the talk of the town. I didn’t care about anything, other than Tom. It’s a miracle I even made it to State on a full-ride with the Diving team.

Nightswimming deserves a quiet night…

He came to every Diving competition. I was head rally girl for the Rugby team. Jesus, the time spent at each other’s games, competitions, practices. Hours we can never take back. I wonder if he regrets those. I don’t really know what else I’d be doing—mm, well maybe drugs. Probably kept me outta trouble.

Baby’s black balloon makes her fly.

No, not this song. This was on after we lost the first one. I’ve never cried so hard in my life. He pulled over on the turnpike and just held me. His state champion hoodie was soggy with my tears and snot and confusion over a situation we both weren’t taught to deal with. We were 17.

Damnit, Tom. I dug his new address out of the reorganization bin. Mailed him the tape with the note: I’m sorry.

There isn’t a chapter in Shelly’s book for this. This whole re-centering thing is selfish.Shelly, I can’t make it alone.

I reorganized that book to the trash.

My Ode to You.

I’ve met many characters in my 23 years.

I’ve learned the trials of deception— friends who turn a blind eye when my battles grow uphill. I suffer moments of clarity in my murkiest states when I must abandon a friendship, for it wasn’t one to begin with.

But you?

You’ve always been by my side. My parents relish the story about the first time we met. They told me how nervous they were as they choreographed the walk to your place—speaking in shrill tones about a new friend I would meet all by myself. You were alabaster and impressible; I was two and a half. We meshed immediately, and I knew then that you and I would be BFFs.

I’ve sauntered into your room an average of 57,500 times since that fateful day, and you still look just the same. You’re plump but not in excess. You’re softhearted, but firm when I need it. You’re a constant in my life, and for that I thank you.

Nowadays, I can still hurry home and know you’ll be waiting to unwind with me. Every morning, you’re waiting for me to plop down and face the day.

Coffee really brings us together. I can always find you at my favorite coffee shop. After sipping my daily dose of saccharine-saturated caffeine, we get to start our morning together. It’s a tranquil part of my day, before the manic haze of meetings, events, and to-do items.

There are times when the stress is too much for me to handle. It’ll be Saturday night; I’m drinking draft beer with potential frenemies. I’m persuaded to “get on their level” but I don’t consider the consequences of my actions. Soon, I start to feel the pressure growing inside. I start to squirm and my body overrides my mind. I race, dodge, shove past strangers to find you. Sometimes I have to wait—you’re a popular one—but the waiting only makes it more worth tracking you down as you coddle me, reminding me I made it through the night without a breakdown.

Now I must confess, that you aren’t always there for me. Sometimes the moment will hit me outside. I’ll be in a dark forest, away from view. I search for you, but you’re nowhere to be found. I wouldn’t dare call out for you—you’re not one for attention—but in those moments, I kind of wish you were a better friend.

I guess I can overlook it, considering you’ve seen a whole other side of me. You’ve seen me at my worst, like that time I got food poisoning or ate too much cheese.  It’s hard for friendships to come back from such unpleasant moments, but you’re so flexible and comfortable with everything I dump on you.

You, Charmin Ultra Soft, are my softest rock.

This is Your Brain on Standby.

“I dreamed I was a butterfly, flitting around in the sky; then I awoke. Now I wonder: Am I a man who dreamt of being a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming that I am a man?”
-Zhuangzi

 When we sleep, our bodies shut off. Our heart rests at a steady pace; air whispers through our lungs, and our eyelids begin their nightly dance. But our minds enter the world of our subconscious—a labyrinth of fantasies and urges we pay professionals to interpret.

And when we wake up, sometimes for a minute our minds blend. Our eyes might be open, but there are a few lingering seconds when we peer over our covers, scanning the room for the creature we’re hiding from or the loved one we’re still trying to embrace. This colliding of worlds is reminiscent of ancient beliefs.

Back in primitive times, people assumed dreams were how the supernatural world spoke to humans. They believed dreams were intentional figments of our brain, as if our subconscious minds were a paranormal channel of some kind. Today, people still believe dreams are purposeful. Some even believe they predict the future:

“In this dream I had, I was out with work friends. I don’t really remember the details, but I vividly recall ending the night with a cab ride. I was sitting next to one of my coworkers. I didn’t think anything of the dream at the time—I’m not one to take cabs or go out with coworkers. But sure enough, a few weeks later, I found myself out with a big group of them. It got late and a few of us split a cab home. When I got in the back seat, I looked up and saw that same coworker from my dream, looking at me with the same expression! Crazy, right?”

–Anonymous

Psychologists have tried to debunk this theory with the notion of self-fulfillment; we fabricate a memory as a means of fabricating foresight (the I knew it all along moment), but still it bears questioning—why do we want to add purpose to our subconscious fantasies? Why are there are thousands of dream interpretation websites, paperbacks, and even interpretation services in our society?

Freud chimed in on this one. Overall, he defined dreams a means of wish fulfillment. We want to add purpose to our subconscious as a means of completing goals or satisfying desires we cannot otherwise experience.

This all makes sense for those dreams you never want to wake up from. The memories you cling to as you groggily find reality again in your bed, recalling the time, repositioning yourself in Monday morning. But how does one explain nightmares?

“In a single jump he came out into the hospital night…He thought he must have cried out, but his neighbors were peacefully snoring…He panted, looking for some relief for his lungs, oblivion for those images still glued to his eyelids. Each time he shut his eyes he saw them take shape instantly, and he sat up, completely wrung out, but savoring at the same time the surety that he was now awake…”

-Julio Cortazar

Sometimes these figments of our subconscious are terrifying, like that dream we’ve all had about being chased with some barrier to running away. I can’t imagine wanting to fulfill myself with dreams of massive spiders clawing my guts apart, but maybe that’s just me. Where does this unpleasantness come from? The International Association for the Study of Dreams (yes, that’s a thing) says nightmares are our brain’s way of dealing with unresolved situations. For instance, people who consciously experience trauma need to cope to get through daily activities, so they bury their dreams far below the surface. At night, our minds are idle, so they tap into those subconscious depths in our brain and try to make amends.

This all still confuses me. How can we have some dreams that we avidly seek out for fulfillment, yet others that our brain is constantly fighting to repress?

Either way, Freud made a decent living off the subconscious mind candy.

Dreams freak me out. Our brain, the organ we use constantly, never gets a break. It’s constantly talking to us, telling us what we need, and especially in the subconscious sense, what we want. Maybe dreams mean nothing at all. Maybe it’s a way for our brain to relax without shutting down completely, and our mind just has to accept it. If that isn’t supernatural, I don’t know what is.

Falling Awake

Dawn

            the crickets whisper descants like

dynamite

            my head beats, meets

            the pillow with a

punch

            into yesterday, where I’m still

smiling

            at the sunset, now

hiding

          from daybreak with a shield that buries

trembles

            under a blanket, but the dawn

chases

            my tallied thoughts, I can’t

breathe

            my heart penetrates my dreams with

adrenaline

            hunting me with a sunlit

flashlight

             crashing into my eyelids

beep

            Monday is here.

How Subway Almost Ruined My Taste for Religion

“Pee now, then we’re running errands. Let’s go!”

It was a Saturday. One of those groggy mid mornings after a slumber party—a kid’s version of a hangover.

Errands.  A weekend must-do that generally sucked unless food was involved. Today were foodless errands. Stupid, stinking foodless errands.

After an hour of staging sit-ins in the car while my mom went to Michael’s and JoAnn Fabric, we pulled up to a different part of the strip mall. There was a Subway “sandwiched” between two other stores that 11-year-old me didn’t recognize.  The neon yellow awning of the restaurant reminded my hung over brain of its migraine.

“Where are we?”

My mom smiled, “Cristina, I’d like you to join me for this one.”

We walked in to one of the stores–all I could see were books.  But what really struck me was the odor. It was the ever-polarizing Subway stench seeping in from the restaurant next door.

Years later, I’ve voiced my protest of Subway on the single point of its smell. I have never purchased a sandwich from Subway. The smell isn’t fresh bread. It’s not cleaner. It’s something non-human and pumped out of every vent in the “restaurant.” It’s vile. And it makes me gag.

I started gagging. I sat down and cracked open a book that I think was called, A Young Person’s Guide to the New Testament. I tried to read few sentences, but the words started blurring together and my hands felt clammy. I put the book down and sat against a shelf for a while, pinching my nose.  Suddenly, humiliating church memories came flooding back in an instant—squirming in the pews in desperate need of a bathroom, loudly critiquing the wine after taking communion, and my brother nearly lighting a woman on fire with a candle.

I was trapped in this Christian bookstore for hours, suddenly remembering my most embarrassing moments. I nearly collapsed from the stench and tried not to yack all over the religious texts. I never wanted to read anything with the word Bible in it again.

***

Our family tried a few different religious options growing up. Our first attempt was at age four. We went to Catholic Sunday School, where I told everyone that Jesus was really cute puppy.  I was promptly laughed out of the Catholic Church.

Next, we went to an Episcopal Church for Easter where I dropped the notes we fervently passed during the sermon. The woman next to us discovered our running commentary and looked over in horror.

I guess that Saturday afternoon of errands was our third reemergence into religion. We started going to a new church a week or so later. My mom had the right idea of introducing faith to us, even if the last two attempts ended in humiliation.

We always brought donuts to the Sunday school kids at our new church–probably to keep me from thinking about the Subway stench. Eventually, though, we left the church over artistic differences with the youth choir director.

I avoided religion for the rest of my adolescence, because of the embarrassing memories and the Subway death aroma ingrained in my brain.  I was a quiet non-believer; I called myself Agnostic for a few years as the blanket term for not dealing with my beliefs, or lack thereof.

At this point, my date often changes the subject quickly and clutches their wallet. Let me be clear. I am not a religion person, but that does not make me a vigilante.  I avoided religion like the plague, but I don’t hate the notion of religion.

It was around 17 that I realized I needed to start over with my religious beliefs. I saw how important organized religion was to my neighbors and friends, and I admired their dedication to believing in something. I couldn’t avoid the topic forever; the word agnostic meant less and less to me each time I said it.

I started paying attention to people around me. Through watching others’ behavior, I established my own sense of right and wrong. I noticed my classmates bullying the kids who didn’t look like they did.  I heard people talk behind girls’ backs and call them really nasty names that offended me as a teenaged girl. I read about gay bashing in the news, and I was overwhelmed with sympathy for the victims. I knew I didn’t want to perpetuate intolerance of anyone.

I also saw my fellow high schoolers having fun with boys, staying out late, telling crazy stories about their New Year’s parties, and I envied this lifestyle. I knew I wanted to uphold my moral character, but also still have fun and relax.

Since 17, my core beliefs and morals haven’t altered much. I still don’t go to church or any structured service. But I still make sure to live my life with pride and confidence in my decisions.

I read articles on some of my core beliefs. I explore theories on gender, atheism, race, and discover the parts that resonate with me. I’ve engaged in dialogues with people, where I can hear others struggle with some of the same ethical dilemmas I have, once again relying on my observations of others to help me make decisions.

To develop my spiritual side, I go to yoga. I focus on myself for an hour each session.  Though I’m only a beginner, I try to check-in with my inner self as I travel into a world beyond the 40-hour workweek.

In short, I’m not a religious person, but I still have morals. I’d like to think I found the middle ground, and I’ve been making a nice spot for myself since that day of errands.

I do good unto others, and I avoid those who give me pain. Or odor.

Changing the Conversation

“If you don’t like what is being said, change the conversation.”

-Don Draper, Mad Men

If you know me, you know that I talk about TV more than bored party goers mumble about the weather. Lately, Mad Men is the focus of my TV talks.

I think Mad Men is brilliant. It boasts beautiful cinematography and skillful editing, accompanied by a strong cast and concrete writing. I feel as though I can slip into life 50 years ago. I see chronic alcoholism spill through the hallways of a Madison Avenue office. My eyes nearly squint over the smoke in every scene, and I can feel the sticky summer air before the days of centralized air conditioning. Still, there is one aspect of the show I don’t understand: the women.

I identify as a woman, but I felt so disconnected from the women on Mad Men. The housewives spend their days gossiping between cigarettes and waiting to polish their husband’s shoes when he gets home. Yet these women feel so overwhelmed by their seemingly monotonous life that they see psychiatrists. There are some women who work—secretaries— but they mostly count calories and babysit their drunken bosses. And as soon as they land a fiancé, they leave the workforce and enter motherhood.

The women in Mad Men are close to my age, but their lives are so different from mine. I went to college. I never had time to sit and chitchat about my neighbor’s dress at the grocery store. I worry about making a life for myself in my twenties, not seeking someone else’s life to give me direction. Specifically, Don’s wife, Betty is a skinny, blonde housewife who spontaneously breaks down on her afternoon errands for no apparent reason. I just assumed January Jones was a poor actress.

And I wasn’t alone. Fans do not sympathize but rather criticize Betty Draper. They call her a little girl and sneer as she drowns in her mundane laundry list and visits a psychiatrist.[1]

A few weeks ago, I found myself bookless on a beach. My friend offered me his “spare” book: The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan.

Friedan wrote this book in 1963, after she surveyed Smith College alumni and discovered many of them were miserable as housewives. She defined The Problem That Has No Name—the term used to explain the stress and angst a housewife experiences when managing the laundry, cooking dinner, while still appearing sexy and devoted to her husband. Housewives across America cracked open this book and peered wide-eyed as Friedan echoed their feelings of emptiness: a “child among her children.”[2]

Blaming advertising and the media, Friedan fueled the protest fire for second-wave feminism in the 60s. Women read her words and found a voice. When Friedan led the Women’s Strike for Equality, 20,000 women advocated for equal pay in the workplace and social equality in marriage.[3]

As I began reading, I found myself catching up with the lives of women I didn’t understand. Suddenly, the woes of Betty Draper in Mad Men seemed real. With every page, I felt myself falling deeper and deeper into the era— imagining the cloth diapers in the laundry, the suds of my child’s bathtub in the evening and the smell of Rye on my husband’s breath when he came home long after the children’s bedtime story. Of course I would be screaming for a way out! I couldn’t imagine working this full-time job confined in the home, my only release being gossip with the neighbors and countless Virginia Slims.

I found myself sympathizing in a way I hadn’t considered before. I wanted these women to have a voice, these women whose vocal cords were clenched, muscles yearning to scream. I could feel my heart racing with every line, every picture Friedan paints of women in those days. Women who are stagnant as “little girls”—confined to the home all day, considered too naive to participate in scholarly discussions and given a weekly allowance. Women who are unknowingly at the beck and call of the media who, “accept the feminine mystique, operate as a kind of youth serum, keeping most women in the state of sexual larvae, preventing them from achieving the maturity of which they are capable.”[4]

I had to buy the book.

I went to a well-known bookstore a few minutes away. I perused the aisles for the non-fiction section, but the non-fiction section was broken down into subgenres. And that’s when it hit me—what is The Feminine Mystique considered?

Well, the book was written over 40 years ago. And I remember hearing about it in a history class one time. It did start second-wave feminism, and that’s usually mentioned in American history courses. I searched in the American History section to no avail.

I convinced myself Friedan was a philosopher. She wrote with all the pomp and prose of those philosophers I studied freshman year, and she invented an oxymoronic term, The Problem That Has No Name. She developed theories about women that no one ever considered, while making universal connections that nearly every American woman could understand. But no luck in philosophy, either.

After about twenty minutes of frantic searching, I broke down and asked an employee. She told me they had three copies in the other room. I followed her directions, and I saw a section tucked away, with a nearly hidden label that read “Gender Studies.” Ah. Atlases and now obsolete roadmaps of every state surrounded this tiny bookshelf. As I skimmed through the titles, the words, “bitch,” “vagina,” and “lesbian” dictated the section. No man would come near this shelf, unless he was looking for a roadmap of Montana.

This microcosm of the bookstore was forgotten. Secluded. It was not easily accessible, and it was easily avoidable. With books ridden with these “taboo” words about women’s identity, why should this shelf be made convenient to the masses?

I eagerly cracked open the book, excited to travel back in time again. But this time, I didn’t feel like I was in an episode of Mad Men. I thought about where this book was displayed. It resided under an exclusionary genre that would make most people look the other way. It was confined to an isolated area, much like the women discussed within its pages.

I read a chapter on feminism and heard myself agreeing with the misconceptions about feminists today; still people stereotype them as “man-hating, embittered, sex-starved spinsters.”[5]  I felt like I was reading about contemporary women. Which got me thinking that our society has a lot of catching up to do when it comes to gender.

Today, women are still not as economically self-sufficient as men. Single mothers are the most likely demographic group to be poor, and their children are 4 times more likely to live in poverty than children of married couples.[6] Most single mothers work, but they earn 77 cents to every man’s dollar.[7] Thus, the fear of being single is still prevalent, not unlike women 60 years ago, who read articles like “An Encyclopedic Approach to Finding a Second Husband.”

Also, Congress is still debating whether women should have access to contraceptives, or if they should be allowed to terminate their pregnancy. These are valid questions, but in a government where over 80% of politicians are men, how much are women making decisions versus being told what they can do?[8] It reminds me of a woman Friedman mentions, whose husband tells her when she can buy herself a new pair of shoes and how she can spend her weekly allowance of $42.[9]

Betty Friedan comments that at the same time as men were trained to travel into space, the same time schools were integrated in the South, women were inside, scrubbing the dishes and trying not to chip their manicures. [10]

Today, we’re successfully transplanting hearts to save lives. We type noiselessly on our gadgets to communicate instantly with people on the other side of the world. We’ve been to space 168 times.[11] Still, women are trying to move up the corporate ladder and participate in political discussions about their own bodies.

After catching up with my favorite show, I inadvertently caught up with the history of my gender. While women have come a long way from earning an M.R.S. degree, we still have a lot to catch up on. We all should be reading more, talking more, and following Friedan’s lead to advocate for our rights as human beings. Even if you begin to view the women in Mad Men differently, I hope you’ll tell someone. We can all change the conversation together.


[1] It’s noteworthy that Betty’s psychiatrist does not adhere to modern patient confidentiality laws; Betty’s husband, Don calls the doctor regularly to hear updates on his wife’s “issues.”

[2] Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: Norton, 1963. Pp.138.

[3] Gourley, Catherine. Ms. and the Material Girl: Perceptions of Women from the 1970s to the 1990s. 1st. Minneapolis, MN: Twenty-First Century Books, 2008. 5-20.

[4] Friedan, 133.

[5] Friedan 138.

[9] Friedan 94.

[10] Friedan 83.