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Archive for November, 2015

We all say careless things. Things we mean, but only in the moment. Or things we haven’t thought through a great deal. If we’re lucky nobodies, we probably feel an instant of annoyance at having blurted out a less than well-turned phrase. For celebrities, I’ve always imagined that they must hear a tiny, distant siren in those moments, right as they realize their words will be plastered all over the place. I wonder if that’s how Caitlyn Jenner felt after her interview with Buzzfeed.

Maybe she didn’t even know what was getting ready to happen as the words left her mouth: “The hardest part about being a woman is figuring out what to wear.”

Jenner_hijabNo sooner had she spoken than the internet rose up with a furious vengeance to correct her. How dare she? fumed the outraged women (and men) of the internet. (The worst of them said, How dare he?) And then, as we do now, they whipped up a bunch of memes, pointing out all the things about being a woman that are harder than sartorial decisions: being raped, being beaten, giving birth, raising children, breast cancer, being underpaid, having your opinion dismissed, having your feelings belittled, having your existence diminished, revoked, erased.

Often when we’re speaking, we forget to use qualifiers, or we assume that the hearer will insert the necessary qualifiers, so when Caitlyn said, “The hardest part about being a woman is figuring out what to wear,” I seriously doubt she meant that as a sweeping statement on all women everywhere. Is she coming to where she is now from a place of privilege? Of course. She’s a wealthy white woman with platform and security. There’s privilege there. Does she honestly believe that the hardest part of being any woman is picking out clothes? For herself, maybe she does.

The qualifier she didn’t say is the one we should all remember to insert when we listen to people.

“(for me) The hardest part about being (the woman I am) is choosing what to wear.”

We are each free to choose our own narrative, and the least we can do for everyone is to accept their narrative as valid, for them. We don’t have to accept anyone else’s narrative as valid for ourselves, but we also don’t get to force someone to accept our narrative as the only one.
So before you get angry and say, “She doesn’t know anything about being a woman,” remember that there are lots of things about being a woman that you don’t know anything about. I’m a writer, so I understand that everyone has their own perspective on the world. I know it’s useful to spend some time considering other people’s perspectives. As a writer, I specialize in using my imagination, but even non-writers are free to use theirs.

Imagine how hard it must be for women who are subjected to genital mutilation, or who live in countries where they’re prohibited from driving or voting or owning property. Imagine how hard it must be for women in war zones in danger of being kidnapped, raped, and impregnated by soldiers, or who are sold by their own families to become child brides or prostitutes. Imagine how hard it is for women who have spent decades in bodies that don’t represent who they feel they are. Imagine how hard it must be for women who risk dying every time they become pregnant. Imagine how hard it must be for women whose children die due to lack of food, water, or medicine. Imagine how hard it must be for women who are murdered just for being women.

For me, deciding what to wear isn’t the hardest part of being the woman I am, but I know that there are many hard things I’ve never experienced. So I’m not angry at Caitlyn Jenner. I’m not angry at any of the women whose narratives don’t match mine. I am a little angry at a culture that still seeks to divide and conquer women. What we need is more concern and compassion for each other.

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When I was a kid, the thing I remember most about the drive from my house to my aunt’s house in Manhattan, KS, was the tree that stood by the side of Kansas Turnpike between the El Dorado exit and the Cassoday exit. It had been struck by lightning, causing one of its largest branches to separate from the main trunk. The branch hadn’t fallen to the ground, though. It toppled over, crown first, and stayed there.

 © Copyright Chris Upson

© Copyright Chris Upson

Two branches embedded in the ground kept the base of the large branch propped against the tree. Over the years, that severed branch lost its bark, and by the time I was making the drive by myself, between my parents’ house and college, it was a bleached white bone.

That white limb, as big as the living tree it leaned against, took on an echo of the lightning strike that severed it. Stark and jagged, it caught the eye. It became a landmark, to let me know how much further I had to go. I marked it every time I passed.

After I’d been away, first to Japan, then to Florida, it greeted me on my return. A quick flash of white, an act of violence frozen in time. It’s amazing that it stood there so long–at least 35 years by my reckoning. It’s not surprising that it fell. The progression of decay. That relentless Plains wind. A series of grazing cattle using it to scratch their rumps.

When did it fall? I don’t even know. Was it there that Friday when I drove by on the way to my dad’s funeral? I couldn’t swear to it, because my mind was elsewhere. When I drove down for my mother’s seventieth birthday on the 4th of July? No. It had fallen by then. Finally become what it was. Not the glinting white echo of a bolt of lightning, but a half-rotted dead tree branch. I slowed as I approached and scanned the field. Craning my neck to see over the grass in the ditch, I located the branch in the muddy edge of the cattle watering hole.

Just like that, one of my landmarks was gone. Really, it was two. Not just the tree, but my pop, too. In the year since then, it has started to dawn on me that this is what life is about. Landmarks aren’t just things, they are people and ideas. They are guideposts that you use to make decisions about your life. You base your decisions on the landmarks around you, but the older you get, the fewer landmarks there are.

I became a secretary, just like my grandmother. She was one of my landmarks, pointing the way for my decision to take that first secretarial job. There were other decisions, though, that pulled me away from her. When I chose not to have children, when I ended my marriage. Those things toppled that landmark. I couldn’t use her as a guidepost for a lot of the decisions I made after that.

The grade school where you learned to read will be torn down. The grocery store where you had your first job will go out of business and become a Family Dollar store. Someone will blow up your favorite café. All the people who made you who you are will die. I’m sorry, but they are going to die. But you will tear down your own landmarks, too. You will walk away from the life that was laid out for you. You will turn your back on relationships. You will make different decisions than your grandparents did.

It’s painful, losing those landmarks, but you’ll find new ones. You’ll make new ones. Those will disappear, too, but you’ll get used to it. You’ll realize the older you get that we’re always at the edge of what each of us knows. We’re always looking at a fork in the road and trying to decide which way to go.

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Well, as you can see in the sidebar, I officially have my cover for the new book.

ALL THE UGLY AND WONDERFUL

I got the news in the old fashioned way: somebody texted me and said, “Hey, did you know your book is live for pre-order on Amazon?” No, I didn’t, but sure enough, it is. With a small publisher, the writer tends to be intimately involved in cover decisions, but with a large publisher like St. Martin’s Press, there’s a whole team of people behind the scenes doing stuff like this. Like publishing pixies coming in the night to put my book on Goodreads.

Speaking of which, there’s a giveaway for the book on Goodreads (those publishing pixies again!) You should definitely go enter.

About All the Ugly and Wonderful Things

As the daughter of a meth dealer, Wavy knows not to trust people, not even her own parents. It’s safer to keep her mouth shut and stay out of sight. Struggling to raise her little brother, Donal, eight-year-old Wavy is the only responsible adult around. Obsessed with the constellations, Wavy finds peace in the starry night sky above the fields behind her house, until one night her star gazing causes an accident. After witnessing his motorcycle wreck, she forms an unusual friendship with one of her father’s thugs, Kellen, a tattooed ex-con with a heart of gold.

Surrounded by addicts and a culture of debauchery, their relationship doesn’t set off any alarms until a well-meaning aunt steps in. Facing a charge of statutory rape, Kellen may not be completely innocent, but he’s the one stable companion Wavy and Donal have. Instead of playing it safe, Wavy has to learn to fight for Kellen, for her brother, and for herself.

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