Sari Botton | Longreads | April 2017 | 9 minutes (2,349 words)
HappyAdenomyosis Awareness Month! Never heard of it? Allow me to enlighten you about this painful affliction, which is similar to endometriosis, and something of a mystery to modern medicine. I know about it because it wreaked havoc on my life for 25 years before a hysterectomy at 43 — an operation I had to fight for, and almost didn’t receive — gave me the relief I needed.
At one time, women’s education included critical training in needle arts like sewing and knitting, which were “not only necessary skills but also political tools for the women involved in resisting authority.” At PBS, Corinne Segal reports on pussy hats and brain hats as just two examples in a long line of handmade symbols of women pitting themselves against the status quo. Then and now, knitting circles are perfect environments in which to sew the seeds of political and social discontent.
In October 2014, Sewell and Payne helped form the Yarn Mission, a knitting collective aimed at fighting racial injustice through community organizing and by supporting black creators’ work. The quiet setting of a knitting circle has helped them discuss difficult topics, Payne said. “A lot of times what we’re talking about is really traumatic,” she said. “It’s the only way I’m able to talk about a lot of the things that have happened in Ferguson and continue to happen in St. Louis.”
Recent marches such as the Women’s March on Jan. 21 and the March for Science on Saturday have brought knitting into the international spotlight and lured newcomers to a symbol of activism that dates back hundreds of years.
Academics and historians say that these new knitters are tapping into a long history of needle arts in the U.S. that is inextricably bound up in race, gender and class issues. Its recent popularity is only the latest chapter.
And during the movement for abolition, sewing circles continued to serve as a place for women to exchange ideas and talk about political work. The Liberator, an abolitionist newspaper published by William Lloyd Garrison between 1831 and 1965, wrote on Dec. 3, 1847:
“Sewing Circles are among the best means for agitating and keeping alive the question of anti-slavery. … A friend in a neighboring town recently said to us, Our Sewing Circle is doing finely, and contributes very much to keep up the agitation of the subject. Some one of the members generally reads an anti-slavery book or paper to the others during the meeting, and thus some who don’t get a great deal of anti-slavery at home have an opportunity of hearing it at the circle.”
The memory exploded in my head in the dark, quiet classroom, and suddenly, a recurring nightmare I’d had for years made sense. In those dreams, the lower half of my body was made of kid’s construction toys, and pieces kept breaking off as I frantically tried to keep myself together. I began sobbing at my desk. The teacher kindly told me to catch my breath in the hallway; she thought I was upset over the images I was seeing in the video. Later, at lunch, my white girlfriends talked about being relieved that sort of thing doesn’t happen in America.
Only it does. It happened to Tasneem Raja. At Mother Jones, Raja shares her story — she was cut as a child — and explains why it’s so hard to stop the secrecy shrouded tradition.
For many women, the idea of ambition is complicated. Too often when we’re are described as ambitious, it’s hard to tell whether it’s a compliment or a criticism. Often, it’s an all-out accusation. For the essay collection Double Bind, editor Robin Romm tasked 24 women writers with considering their own relationships to ambition. Hawa Allan‘s essay “Becoming Meta” is a meditation on the mantra of I’ll show you that drove her to achieve—first as the only black student in her elementary school’s gifted and talented program, then as a law student, and finally as a law firm associate, hungry for the validation of the “rainmaker” partners whose ranks held no one that looked like her.
A noun is the proper denotation for a thing. I can say that I have things: for instance that I have a table, a house, a book, a car. The proper denotation for an activity, a process, is a verb: for instance I am, I love, I desire, I hate, etc. Yet ever more frequently an activity is expressed in terms of having; that is, a noun is used instead of a verb. But to express an activity by to have in connection with a noun is an erroneous use of language, because processes and activities cannot be possessed; they can only be experienced. —Erich Fromm, To Have or to Be?
I have been to a few Madonna concerts in my day, so I may or may not have been straining to get a view around the pillar planted in front of my discount seat when I beheld the superstar kick up into a forearm stand in the middle of the stage. For non-initiates, a “forearm stand” is a yoga pose wherein you balance your entire body on your forearms—lain parallel to one another on the ground, and perpendicular to your upper arms, torso, and legs, all of which are inverted skyward. Imagine turning your body into an “L.” And then imagine Madonna doing the same, except spotlighted before thousands of gaping fans in a large arena.
I hadn’t done any yoga at that point, so the irony of Madonna flaunting her ability in a discipline meant to induce inner awareness was totally lost on me. I just thought it was cool. Precisely, I interpreted Madonna’s forearm stand as a demonstration of power—power that was quiet yet fierce. An expression of power that I immediately decided I wanted to embody. So, not too long thereafter, I went ahead and enrolled in a series of free, introductory lessons at yoga studios across Manhattan and Brooklyn. My modus operandi: take advantage of the introductory classes and skip to another studio (once I no longer had a discounted pass). I was doing this, I told myself at the time, to test out different teachers—to find “the right fit.” In hindsight, I can see that this was just an excuse for being itinerant and cheap.
We’re taught that all narrative conflicts boil down to one of three stories: man versus man, man versus himself, or man versus nature. So what about women? Megan Mayhew Bergman takes to the pages of The Paris Review, looking for depictions of women acting and exploring with agency—from fictional women like Judith in Artemisia Gentileschi’s famous painting, to modern explorers like Rahawa Haile—and finding not nearly enough, and not much range. Still, there are inspiring examples of women taking on nature, and the hopeful note that women will continue carving out large spaces in adventure art and literature.
In the midfifties, Emma “Grandma” Gatewood, sixty-seven years old and mother of eleven children, became the first woman to hike the Appalachian Trail. She carried her gear in a homemade knapsack and slept under a shower curtain. She wore Keds. Emma was a survivor of domestic abuse: she had been nearly beaten to death by her husband more than once; when she divorced him, he threatened to commit her to an insane asylum. In 1955, she turned to her kids and told them, I’m going on a walk. She completed the 2,168-mile trail three times, the last when she was seventy-five years old.
In the sixties, Audrey Sutherland, who was raising four children alone on Oahu, would leave for weeks at a time to take solo expeditions. She explored the northern coast of Molokai, swimming in jeans and pulling her camping gear behind her in an army bag. From 1980 to 2003, she explored over eight thousand miles of waterways in Alaska and British Columbia, traveling with an inflatable kayak.
Being a woman was helpful. I say that with caution, because some of the most revealing and sensitive stories on rape have been done by my male colleagues: Jeffrey Gettleman on male rape in eastern Congo and Adam Nossiter on the rapes inside of a soccer stadium in Guinea, for example. Both stories put important issues on the map. But I could get these girls to open up by telling them, Somebody very close to me, in my own family, was gang-raped as a teenager. I was raised with her story. I’d tell them they should not suffer any shame for what happened to them. It was not their fault. I tried to make it clear to them that what they’re about to describe is something quite personal to me, given my family’s history, and I do not come at this with some morose curiosity.
Callimachi also discusses her process as a writer.
I tend to fight. I think I’ve been a pain in the butt for some editors. Because writing is so hard for me, when I find a formulation that I love — moments of inspiration usually happen when I’m going on a run; I’ll have an ah ha! moment — it’s painful when editors cut that very thing. I know that the editing is obviously a very important step in what we do. It’s why The New York Times is what it is. So I am trying my best to push less and to be less attached to the specific phrasing.
I don’t editorialize. Sometimes people ask why I don’t condemn ISIS. Why don’t I say this is terrible? I’m like, Are you kidding me? Why would I need to say that, when it is so transparently terrible, right? It’s so obviously horrible and what do I, Rukmini, this writer from America, have to add by saying, This is awful? I think that gets in the way of the narrative.
At The New Yorker, Rebecca Mead profiles Margaret Atwood, Canada’s prolific queen of literature. Mead and Atwood cover the resonance of The Handmaid’s Tale in Donald Trump’s America, Atwood’s approach to feminism, and the purpose of fiction today. Beloved for her incisive mind along with her works, Atwood uses unlimited curiosity as her approach to a life well-lived—whether that’s tenting while birding in Panama, engaging with her 1.5 million Twitter followers, or writing as a septuagenarian. “I don’t think she judges anything in advance as being beneath her, or beyond her, or outside her realm of interest,” says her friend and collaborator, Naomi Alderman.
Atwood has long been Canada’s most famous writer, and current events have polished the oracular sheen of her reputation. With the election of an American President whose campaign trafficked openly in the deprecation of women—and who, on his first working day in office, signed an executive order withdrawing federal funds from overseas women’s-health organizations that offer abortion services—the novel that Atwood dedicated to Mary Webster has reappeared on best-seller lists. “The Handmaid’s Tale” is also about to be serialized on television, in an adaptation, starring Elisabeth Moss, that will stream on Hulu. The timing could not be more fortuitous, though many people may wish that it were less so. In a photograph taken the day after the Inauguration, at the Women’s March on Washington, a protester held a sign bearing a slogan that spoke to the moment: “MAKE MARGARET ATWOOD FICTION AGAIN.”
Given that her works are a mainstay of women’s-studies curricula, and that she is clearly committed to women’s rights, Atwood’s resistance to a straightforward association with feminism can come as a surprise. But this wariness reflects her bent toward precision, and a scientific sensibility that was ingrained from childhood: Atwood wants the terms defined before she will state her position. Her feminism assumes women’s rights to be human rights, and is born of having been raised with a presumption of absolute equality between the sexes. “My problem was not that people wanted me to wear frilly pink dresses—it was that I wanted to wear frilly pink dresses, and my mother, being as she was, didn’t see any reason for that,” she said. Atwood’s early years in the forest endowed her with a sense of self-determination, and with a critical distance on codes of femininity—an ability to see those codes as cultural practices worthy of investigation, not as necessary conditions to be accepted unthinkingly. This capacity for quizzical scrutiny underlies much of her fiction: not accepting the world as it is permits Atwood to imagine the world as it might be.
At Harper’s Bazaar, Joan Juliet Buck, a past editor of Paris Vogue and author of the new memoir, The Price of Illusion, has an essay about how her grandmother’s regrets affected Buck’s own romantic choices. As she was approaching her 70s, her grandmother admitted that if she had it to do all over again, she’d have been “fast,” which is to say “loose,” as opposed to being married to one man her whole life. Buck, who came of age in the 60s, considered her grandmother’s regrets and decided she didn’t want to be tied down — a choice that was much more radical then than it might be now.
While Buck was married for a few years, mostly she wasn’t — creating space not only for many love affairs, but also close friendships with men. In her early twenties, Buck met singer-songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen and almost accepted his invitation to join him on a Greek isle. Ultimately she turned him down; years later, the two became close friends. In the essay, Buck admits regretting turning down the initial invitation, and recalls spending time with Cohen, who passed away last November.
I married a fellow journalist, a fine writer named John Heilpern. A script took him to Los Angeles in 1978, and I joined him at the Chateau Marmont, where Leonard Cohen came back into my life. The man whose voice sang what I couldn’t say became a close friend; when John was away, and he was away often, I lay on the bed in Leonard’s room a few floors below ours, chastely discussing the mysteries of love through the night. I found my voice with him. We traded stories and smoked cigarettes; he called it “gossiping about the moral universe.”
After John and I divorced, Leonard became an even closer friend. It had been 10 years since we’d met, and by then we knew each other too well for mutual seduction to work. It was richer to examine love together than to play at it; this was the complicity I’d been waiting for. I did my game of being fast with other men; Leonard fell in love with other women, most deeply with the photographer Dominique Issermann. Now we could stay up all night talking: in New York, on the floor of his suite at the still-shabby Royalton Hotel while his children slept next door; in Paris, where I lived in a garret to finish my second novel. Sometimes we discussed his broken heart, sometimes mine. He’d consider all the evidence, and conclude, a little too often for my taste, “He doesn’t love you, sweetheart.” He’d leaven the verdict with a cheery, “It’s all a vale of tears,” and off we’d go somewhere dark to eat something Japanese.
The 2017 Whiting Awards honorees have been announced. Among the winners is Pretend I’m Dead, a novel by Jen Beagin, which has been among my favorite titles from Emily Books. Every time a friend or colleague seeks recommendations for a novel that has both humor and heart, I refer them to this book about Mona, a young woman cleaning houses for a living and volunteering at a needle exchange program.
For the next few weeks she mentally projected Mr. Disgusting’s face onto whatever surface she was cleaning, just for the pleasure of scrubbing it off. The procedure worked best on tiled bathroom walls. She lathered the tiles with Ajax, then, covering her mouth with the collar of her T-shirt to guard against bleach throat, she scrubbed out his left eye, obliterated his right with a furious scribbling motion, and then expanded her stroke to remove his mocking eyebrows and long black hair. She scrubbed vigorously, her hands sweating in rubber gloves, her breath moistening her T-shirt. When his face was gone at last, she doused the tiles with water from the tap. Her mind often seemed to clear itself of debris, and in its place, she felt the pleasant but slightly irritating sensation of having a word on the tip of her tongue.
A month later her anger suddenly dissipated and was replaced again by longing. So he’d almost killed her and then told her she looked like a fish — big deal, people made mistakes. She was getting over it. Besides, he’d apologize profusely via voicemail, and on her doorstep he’d left a Japanese dictionary in which he’d circled the words for contrite, shame, repentant, confession, apology, remorse, touch, please, help, and telephone. That certainly counted for something.
She dialed his number but his phone was disconnected. She stopped by the Hawthorne a few times, but he was never in his room. She checked his other haunts — the Owl Diner, the Lowell Public Library, and the Last Safe and Deposit, a bank turned dive bar — all without luck.
Other honorees for the prize, which recognizes “early accomplishment and the promise of great work to come,” include:
At Vice, Eve Peyser has an essay I strongly identify with about belatedly embracing her Jewish identity. Raised by atheist parents in New York City and educated at Oberlin, Peyser more comfortably identified as a liberal, and was reluctant to be lumped in with certain kinds of Jews—rich, entitled, Zionist, anti-Palestinian. Recently, though, the rise in antisemitism ushered in by the new administration—plus personal attacks by racist online trolls—have prompted Peyser to analyze how she’s distanced herself from her heritage, re-evaluate what it means to be Jewish, and take pride in owning it.
A recent sunny afternoon, my best friend Beck (a fellow secular New York City Jew, and college classmate) and I went for a walk to a Jewish cemetery near my apartment in Ridgewood, Queens. The grid of tombstones and mausoleums engraved with Jewish names—the sort of place that has been vandalized recently—got us talking about why it took so long for us to feel OK with (or even proud of) our heritage.
Both of us had felt the same shame at times, heard the same things. Beck remembered a time in Oberlin when a leftist activist remarked on her big, Jewish nose—a shockingly casual bit of bigotry given how “woke” our little bubble was. We had both seen a Facebook post from a former classmate of ours who quoted a pamphlet called “The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere,” a 32-page guide for leftist activists on how to incorporate fighting anti-Semitism within their movement. In explaining how anti-Semitism functions and differs from other forms of racism, the zine perfectly addressed the complicated identity of white Jews, like myself:
“Many oppressions rely on keeping a targeted group of people poor, uneducated, designated non-white, or otherwise ‘at the bottom.’ Anti-Jewish oppression doesn’t depend on that. Although at many times it has kept Jews in poverty or designated non-white, these have been ‘optional’ features. Because the point of anti-Jewish oppression is to keep a Jewish face in front, so that Jews, instead of ruling classes, become the target of people’s rage.”
It also notes that part of the reason we’re so willing to dismiss anti-Semitism is because it moves in cycles—in the aftermath of oppression, Jews are often allowed to blend in again—and atrocities like the Holocaust seem like ancient history.