Thursday, June 2, 2022

A Feminine Manifesto, or, What I’ve Been Up to Lately

It’s been four whole years since I self-published I Am Not Your Final Girl
Four years that feel like a lifetime and a blink simultaneously. Four years that I look back on with a lot of pride and, occasionally, in my more insecure moments, some embarrassment.

Especially when I hear the dreaded question, “So, what have you been up to lately?” frequently followed by, “When is your next book coming out?”

My younger self—the five-years-ago self who sometimes feels much, much farther away than that—would probably be terrified for current me. The me now, who has three or four different books in the works and none of them anywhere near completion. The me who spends perhaps too much time thinking and worrying about and planning for a podcast that only comes out every few months, has not many (but dedicated, wonderful, the best actually) listeners, and makes no money at all. The me with few concrete plans about the future, just a vague sense that things will be okay, somehow, maybe. Or they won’t.

(*Insert a shrug emoji here with your mind.*)

The last few years have been hard for me, for the same reasons they’ve been hard for everyone and for reasons specific to my own circumstances... just like everyone else. Doesn’t it feel as though we’ve all been suffering from the same sickness for ages? And yet I feel alone often. Don’t we all? (Really, I’m asking: Do we all??)

Every day, the world seems to get worse. It’s been one long, agonizingly slow ride towards the bottom ever since Trump, but each day, somehow, we lose more. Each day we’re robbed of yet another something. Our rights, our pleasures. Community. Safety. It takes a lot of cognitive dissonance to feel good about much of anything these days.

And yet.

Two things:

1) I never wanted children; thankfully, I preferred the company of animals over kids even when I was a kid myself, and so I never had to grapple with the fact that I was pretty much born assuming the planet was doomed and that people were inherently too selfish to save it.

2) When I was sixteen one of my best friends and I discovered the meaning of life, or so we believed, with all the certainty that comes attached to teenagehood: To do some good in the world, and just as importantly, to have as much fun as possible in the process.

It all felt startlingly simple then, especially because I didn’t plan on leaving anyone behind to worry about. I’d do my part and get out, scot-free. Life without strings attached.

(*Insert a laughing-with-tears emoji here, you sweet, silly thing.*)

I turned 34 last month and have joked several times since that I should only be considered 32 at this point, because the last two years were such a wash. That’s not really the truth, though. Although they’ve been spent in a strange sort of almost-limbo, the last few years have been invaluable to me, maybe more than any of the years that came before. But it’s difficult to explain why, and exactly how. Most people asking the passing question, “What have you been up to?” aren’t looking for real answers anyway. They want headlines, and frankly, there aren’t that many studding my timeline for the past few years—at least, not ones that a lot of people seem to care about.

But you’ve made it this far, so maybe you do.

Sporadically, sometimes in great bursts of inspiration, I’ve been writing. Things that I love. But not nearly as often as I know it takes to keep the machine of a writing career going with any sort of momentum. I feel the pressure to produce constantly, but I also know myself, and I know that giving in to that feeling is the surest way to sabotage my writing. I’ve tried to force things… but when it comes to poetry, it simply doesn’t work for me.

And yet, I am a writer. I’ve always known this about myself, and I don’t think it’s something I could change if I tried. I’m crying on and off as I write this, because I always cry when I write something I need to write. I worry about what would happen if I never wrote again, that all the thoughts and feelings left clutched tight and withering inside might turn into something poisonous, like a cancer. Writing is some of the truest catharsis I’ve ever known, and I love it more than most people. But the last few years have made me wonder, am I a career writer? Do I want to be?

I’ve never known what I wanted “to do.” Not in a way that would satisfy a college counselor, or an interview board. I’ve never been ambitious about jobs or wanted a career, except for a short stint believing I should “go into publishing” in some vague way informed purely by television shows. And now I’m at a phase in my life where the specific ways that I make money seem even less important, less relevant, than ever. “What do you do?” seems an archaic question. Is this little livelihood that I’ve cobbled together out of freelance work and passion projects – is that a career? Or is it just another part of life? Not even the most important part, maybe.

* * *
I’ve been having a lot of sex. That’s the kind of thing you really can’t say when someone asks, “What have you been up to lately?” But it’s the truth.

The last few years have been all about losing the shame I’ve carried around sex and other parts of myself for my whole life, mostly without even realizing it. The Sexy Books Podcast has existed, slow but steady and a constant bright spot for me, for over two years now. We don’t have a huge audience, and perhaps only an even smaller group get what my co-host Blythe and I are going for, but nonetheless it’s been one of the most personally affirming projects I’ve ever worked on. Through frank and nonjudgmental conversations about our sex lives, fantasies, pleasure, and much, much more, I’ve deepened my knowledge of myself by leaps and bounds. I also have it on good authority, from folks who have spoken to or written us, that the podcast has helped some people, whether it be with their own shame around sex and masturbation, or with other wellness issues. I’ve made friendships that mean everything to me.

If you listen to the podcast at all, you may know that sex didn’t come easy to me. I’ve dealt with a plethora of chronic gynecological issues ever since puberty, including hormonal imbalances, endless bleeding, and worst of all, excruciatingly painful sex—secrets that I hid from almost everyone in my life. Secrets that became my partner’s to bear as well, because I couldn’t stand the humiliation of explaining these problems that I couldn’t face or put a name to. It took me years to find help. Far too many, plus a lot of terrible doctors and a couple of good ones, two specialists and a pelvic floor physical therapist, to get where I am now.

(There’s surely another whole essay inside of me regarding the tragedy that is the U.S. healthcare system, but that’s for another day. For now, just remember to put it on the list of reasons for the impending apocalypse. For posterity.)

Now, I have incredible sex, as much as possible, and I shout about it from the rooftops because I fucking deserve to, I worked for it, and because life is too short for all this embarrassment, these rules we pile on ourselves and each other. I want people to know that these problems are not uncommon, even though almost no one ever talks about them. I want people to know that their sexuality is beautiful, transformative even, and it isn’t something to fear but to embrace wholeheartedly.

I have a newfound reverence for my body; for what it looks like, sure—I feel comfortable in my skin in my 30s in a way that seemed impossible earlier—but mostly for what it can do. This body may be riddled with issues, but it’s also pretty damn amazing. This body moves, it hikes and skateboards and fucks. It loves, and it enjoys. It seeks out and revels in pleasure without guilt. Sometimes this body even dances, when I let it. Not often enough, but just like my idol-in-anxiety Kristen Stewart, I’m working on it.

When I feel good about myself, I take the photo I want to take, because I know this body is mortal and if I’m lucky enough to live to be old I’ll want to look back on it and think, “Hell, we had some fun, didn’t we?” Sometimes I blow off entire days of freelance work for pleasure, for fun, for sex, knowing I’ll have to scramble later and not caring, just to feel good for a while, to feel alive. And then sometimes, afterwards, I write.

That’s what I’ve been doing. More than anything else these last several years, I’ve been living. I know it may seem like a luxury, but it was hard-won, and I won't apologize for it. For any of it. On the one hand, I feel like I have the next fifty years to write another book, and on the other life feels shorter than any of us can truly comprehend. When I’m on my deathbed looking back at things, will I regret my wanton years spent screwing more than writing poetry? Maybe. It’s possible. But I doubt it. Anyway, it’s my life to live. You have yours.
* * *
It’s a millennial cliché at this point, the fantasy of running away and thriving off the grid somewhere. To forage for berries and do nothing else but read and fuck and enjoy every last day in the sunlight. To never worry about money or productivity again. It’s a cliché because in a country where capitalism is king, it feels laughably impossible.

I’ve been working mostly on poems about sex and death – and of course, innately, life. But it’s hard not to focus on death in a world where there’s so much of it everywhere, where a pandemic and a war are raging on and yet the world keeps turning, the grind keeps grinding, and we all keep on pretending this is normal. Or salvageable. It’s that cognitive dissonance thing, the instinct to strive on no matter how hopeless the future looks. It’s how we can still go to the park, or make breakfast in the morning, or laugh with friends.

I always thought that not having kids would save me, but with each passing year, another friend or relative gives birth. Beautiful, perfect boys and girls, as yet untouched by any pain or trauma. Their innocence overwhelms me, and the love I feel for them, the painful yearning for a better outlook, reminds me that none of us make it out of here unscathed. I can't be an island, even though sometimes I wish to be.

What is my point here? I’m not even sure that I know, I’m digging it out as we speak, but I think it has something to do with appreciating the moment? But god, how cliché is that. That can’t possibly be the whole point, can it?

And yet.

There are things that can’t be taken away from us, ever. They may seem obvious, but I think they’re worth enumerating regularly: Our ability to love, and to create community. To give empathy and acceptance to others. To find beauty even in an ugly world, or to create it ourselves. And to hold onto whatever scraps of joy we can, to wear them out and wave them as flags, beacons of hope to keep us all going.

I think it’s possible I had it right at sixteen, and I’ve just spent too many of the years since worrying—about whether or not I was doing what I was “supposed” to do, about what other people thought of who I was. I still feel compelled at times, even now, to reassure people that yes, I am still a Very Serious Person, a poet, a feminist, someone you should regard highly despite the fact that I spend much of my time talking and writing about sex now. Please, validate me.

(*Insert an eye-roll emoji here, because really.*)

To care for this world, we must be a part of it. Maybe that’s obvious, but then again, maybe it isn’t. It wasn’t to me, I never found an easy place in it. I still feel alien at times, like humans are completely incomprehensible creatures… but less and less. These days, I feel all too human. Aware of my fallibility, and more accepting when I see it in others.

But I had to find my own way in, and now that I have, even just a little bit, I’m not willing to change or give anything up. To conform or fall in line for a government, or for the great god capitalism. My life now feels unpolished, a little feral, freer, if not free. I still have no idea what I’m doing, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt more useful, more like I’m contributing something to better this screwed up society, which is desperately sick and in need of some open conversation. Maybe only in small ways, one person at a time, but maybe that’s also the best most of us can hope for. Maybe small is actually the way to go.

(It feels so very millennial, doesn’t it, to wish for a small life.)

I’m still terrified, but it makes me realize that I care. It makes me recognize that I haven’t lost hope yet.
* * *
When someone asks me when my next book is coming out, I know they mean well. And honestly, I’m shocked and humbled that anyone still gives a damn. The answer is: it’s coming. And the answer is also: I don’t know. When I have enough to say, I suppose.

The world is so uncertain. The future is ephemeral, something that may never come at all, and I am so very tired of worrying about it. That’s not to say I won’t, because I will. Of course I will. I’ll also continue to fight for it, because I can’t not. But I’m committed to loving the present more than ever—and I mean loving, in every sense of the word. I want to carve out a life that gives and receives, one that is replenishable as well as benevolent. I want gentleness. Truthfully, don’t we all?

I want to speak and write honestly about the realities of the world, albeit at my own pace, so hopefully more of us can feel less alone. I want to create better, smaller worlds within this big, scary one.

Honesty. Community. Empathy. This is the only way I know forward.

I don't know your circumstances, but I hope you can find some version of happiness here, too.


I want everything.

Kisses strung between my hipbones, dropped
from your tender mouth like flowers,
purple blossom bruises,
the smudged jacaranda petals
on sidewalks in the spring
in L.A., when heat is already a mirage
over the asphalt rising in steamy waves,
pricking at your nose like sweat,
the smell of something vital and alive.

What I want is every contradiction
pressed between our bodies like flowers,

and so fragile.