toward a future we have been / before

It’s Trans Day of Visibility. Soon, April will begin, and we will inaugurate Autism Acceptance Month. Around us, annihilatory actors and institutions pop up and strangle us like weeds. What, then, is our project, as we indeed project our selves and spaces into the future? If we have decided we are not going anywhere, out of neither sight nor mind, then where are we going? How do we reckon with where we’ve been?

There’s something so absurd about having these special days and special weeks to think about how many of us are dead, to see them used as jumping-off points for blog posts (this one included), pride merch, and meet-ups, as if the bodies of those lost constitute sustenance for those of us still here. Last April, I wrote a tribute to the then-recently deceased Mel Baggs (z”l), and today, in a cruel irony, I acknowledge hir passing in advance: on the anniversary of hir death, April 11th, I will receive my second dose of Moderna’s COVID vaccine. In this case, the side effect –– or affect, or, if I wanted to be That Guy, æffect –– is untreatable and irreversible. It’s easy to say that Mel endured all manner of abuse in hir pursuit of disabled recognition and liberation. It’s true. It’s easy in these moments to visiblize moments and ongoing conditions of crisis; still easier, perhaps, to coat them in “although”s and “despite”s, and turn a narrative of suffering into one of overcoming. These are, of course, narratives seized upon by ableists, cissexists, and all nexes therein, after all, in order to name bodies like ours –– rather than normitivising institutions –– as problematic. Under the auspices of positivity, they do a grave injustice to our lived realities. They twist memory into a kind of forgetting.

We have watched these narratives trail trans youth to sites of clinical violence, treatment refusal, and medico-legal abuse and erasure, entwining and multiplying by factors of autism, ADHD, neurodiversity, and and more markers of difference, long tying unspeakable threads between the gender-transgressor and the trans(ed) subject, not in pursuit of unity or possibility, but final and complete destruction. While receiving much-needed media attention at this current moment, denials of trans autonomy, more often than not grounded in ableist, anti-child ideology, are as old as medicine’s attempts to name us.

After all, the reason anyone bothers using these labels in the first place is continuity. We need to be able to pass information from one person or one lifetime to the next: my collection of traits now summable as “autism” need to trans(late) me into someone else’s language. They need to connect me to autistics past and future, near and far, so that the way I exist becomes relevant to social life more broadly. Shared labels, shared language, generate ties between us that are indeed “generational,” whether they serve to (re)generate the power of hegemonic actors or deliver us epistemic justice. More than that, our language often walks in advance of our selves, setting scenes still yet to come: speaking to my cohort-mate, Willy, today about the perennially-relevant topic of language and trans identity, we recalled the massive shift that took place over the last decade, wherein nonbinary went from a linguistic placeholder for ways of life often materially unrealized, to a concrete, painfully-marketable and somewhat unavoidable phenomenon. It still baffles me to compare my early nonbinary experiences in 2013 to my life at present. I used to trawl social media sites for ways to explain myself; now, everyone’s already read about me in the New York Times. A world in which I not only exist, but, in the future, will continue to exist alongside similar others, is assumed.

And that’s what I’m really thinking about today, and will continue to think about next month. The future. It tends to be a gated event. Otherwise, why would everyone try so hard to ensure we don’t see ourselves in it? If we correctly acknowledge recent and ongoing anti-trans, and particularly anti-trans youth, legislation, as well as longstanding c/overt efforts to genetically detect, isolate, and destroy this nebulous monster called “autism” in ever-younger children as well as fetuses in utero, as eugenics, we see that efforts at “curing” autism and denials of trans childrens’ bodily autonomy are not merely efforts to stymy individual behavior, but efforts to shape a future in which we never existed in the first place. To make, that is, a sterile locale in which hegemonic ideas of life and sustenance can proceed without disruption. Again, crucially, this is not merely a matter of securing the eventual destruction of other modes of existence, but in erasing what has been and continues to be. It is disremembrance.

The future. It tends to be a gated event. Otherwise, why would everyone try so hard to ensure we don’t see ourselves in it?

If we acknowledge that eugenics is centrally a project of future-invention, we see both the cruciality not simply of remembering, but of of weaponizing –– making militant –– the project of public, collective memory. This project is, I argue, in part accomplished through the practice of visibility, though not fulfilled through individual media presence alone. Rather, processes of remembrance can manifest through our shared participation in them, through actions as simple as public stimming, refusing to “pass,” in mourning those whose names would otherwise be erased. There is a practice of trans and neuroqueer remembrance in the simple act of refusal: refusal to resuscitate “man” and “woman,” making the decision instead to map a space in which a world free [of/for/against] gender is possible. Autistic people, myself included, find ourselves drawn to what is pathologized as “stereotypy,” as well as the repetitive vocal process known as “echolalia.” With our bodies, we make and thus become echoes of what motions have satisfied us in the past, what words of others’ we can remix as our own. We take ourselves by the memory and make what comes after.

Here lies the exciting, dangerous power of trans, neurodivergent youth, the crux of public panics around puberty blockers and Lil Nas X and everything in between. It’s the reason that annihilatory, anti-autistic “Autism Parents” attack autistic activists for revealing what it really means to live –– to thrive –– with autism, surrounded with autism, crammed chock-full of it in a quantity unmeasurable in Scoville Units (huh?). Our very existence, our continuation and our recall of those who came before us, is cause for panic, because it promises that we will continue to be. Youth are the bearers of this continuity, these promises we make to ourselves that we deserve to survive. Thus, for eugenicists, “think of the children” means “think of the future,” and more specifically, to think toward a san(e)itized future in which defecting children will not exist. In which they/we will never exist again. In which, really, have we ever “been” at all?

Efforts large and small like these carry on the memory of precisely what those in power seek to foreclose. “Think of the children” means “think of the future,” and more specifically, to think toward a san(e)itized future in which defecting children will not exist.

Mel Baggs (z”l) referred to this process as Xing, a term significantly more generative than the tired “cancelling” and more flexible than “social death.” Xing is the rendering of a person as an unperson. Not a nonperson, an unperson, whose existence (so defined) is antithetical to personhood. An unperson (to use Mel’s example, quite literally) shits the bed of personhood, recalls itself as the “person”‘s dirty underside, and terrorizes personhood, polite society, sanity, and sociality so as to invite the aforementioned eugenic efforts. Mel based hir theory of Xing off of hir lived (nearly-died) experiences in and out of hospitals that enthusiastically pushed to kill hir, and on hir observations of institutions designed to incarcerate Xed people –– children included –– and thus to build a future in which it is not possible for us to have ever existed.

The Judge Rotenberg Center exists on a continuum with ridiculous claims to have rendered a child’s autism undetectable –– both seek to erase all evidence of its existence, so that no one may replicate it tomorrow. Both efforts to block children from engaging with biomedical transition, and hysterical attempts to eliminate or vilify representations of trans people in public life, exist on a continuum with the industrialized killing we traditionally think of when we use the word “eugenics.” To make explicit an implicit connection, I turn this Passover to a Jewish politic of remembrance, wherein the general injunction never to forget is a universal cornerstone in a tradition lively with disagreement. Saying that, after all this time, they still haven’t figured out how to get rid of me, is part of how we ensure that statement remains true. We manifest it.

[W]e need to make every single day of our shared transMadness, our shared neuroqueerness, a part of the architecture of a future in which someone will remember our names.

All this is to say that, today, and for this upcoming month, we should think not only about visibility, awareness, or even acceptance of neuroqueer modes of being. We should not only advocate for the autonomy of trans, ND youth for the sake of what they or we need today. Rather, we need to make every single day of our shared transMadness, our shared neuroqueerness, a part of the architecture of a future in which someone will remember our names. Not only that, but the architecture of a future in which someone will carve an existence not out of the carceral confines of gender nor of the fascist contours of sane neurotypicality, but instead out of the echoes and gestures and, indeed, movements that came before them. This does not happen through a process of overcoming, nor through one of remaining in place. It happens when we live every day as if it is a lullaby to a trans autistic youth, sung so that we might have the energy to be together tomorrow.

Much of the analysis here is indebted to M. Remi Yergeau and their phenomenal monograph Authoring Autism. So too is my work in continuous debt to and honor of Mel Baggs hirself, whose articulations of trans disabled survival made possible this future from which I type.

correspondence nostalgia (part 1: dear diary)

As is true for most of us, my email inbox count has increased in direct proportion with my age and academic status. There was a time in my early emailing years that I fetishized the clean inbox, and would sit down in front of my computer until every new message had been replied-to. Deleting messages was (and remains) a blissful feeling. Of course, now one inbox has turned to four –– five if you count the Stone of Madness editorial box –– and zero languishing messages has turned to ten, minimum, per inbox. I mean, at least I’m not someone with a thousand unread messages –– I think that to experience such a thing personally might actually kill me, and then who would clean out my inbox?

I owe my past success with inbox-clearing entirely to the fact that, until high school, email served the near-exclusive purpose of correspondence. Really, it wasn’t just correspondence, it was journaling, but journaling-as-(semi)public-performance not unlike this blog. I had a small circle of friends with whom I emailed almost daily, as well as a wider circle of penpals (acquired on a now-defunct somehow-still-active and profoundly sketchy early-2000s-era website, on which I was lucky not to meet a forty-year-old man posing as a fellow tween) with whom I exchanged denser, less frequent messages. I wish I could see the full archive of messages I sent between, say, 2008 and 2013. The ones I have seen since confirm my own memories of the time. I spent middle school thinking about religion and agnosticism, about the nature and limits of friendship (which are especially relevant topics when you’ve had a life of chronic-friendlessness, or, worse, chronic, mocking, and (you say retroactively) ableist faux-friendship tinged with disdain. I wrote about what I was reading, about the musicals I was performing in at the time, about what I was listening to (complete with the requisite YouTube links). My clearest memories are the debates I’d conduct with friends over email, mostly around philosophy and religion. Such was life for an agnostic of the fedora-wearing variety at a Catholic school.

There’s a lot to be said about the differences in emailing-Sarah and irl-Sarah, especially back then, when I didn’t realize I was allowed to be my textual self in the “real world.” In another post, I’ll probably spend more time talking about this, about what it means for autistic writing, etc. In the moment, the differences were most significant because my correspondents noticed them. They’d comment on how (and I’m forgetting the specific adjectives they used) unserious and even immature I was in real life. How silly, and even how coarse and rude (they, being neurotypical, would have phrased accusations of rudeness in a way that neatly elided similar accusations toward themselves) I was in person, when it was my mouth speaking instead of my hands. I became a little obsessed with having these hidden, inner depths, being a secret Old Soul that no one understood. Really, I was just obsessed with being heard and taken seriously. About having a place to express my innermost still-externalizable thoughts.

To write as I did and send it to no one would be the equivalent of putting on real pants for a Zoom meeting, to dress up for a day at home. I know plenty of people who do it and say they dress for themselves, but I’ve never understood it. I dress to be looked at. I speak to be heard. I write to be read, and not by some non-entity named “Diary.”

Plenty of historical figures did this with their actual diaries, writing them in order, it seems, to be read. Honestly, they probably meant for more people to read their innermost thoughts than I ever did, considering that my emails were for my and my correspondent’s eyes only. Still, there was a certain degree of effort I put into the emails, effort unavailable to me offline for brainweird reasons. Via email, I could curate Sarah, and in the body of the text construct myself anew. Plus, they (the emails and the curated-Sarah) were just fun to write, and that fun was rooted in the knowledge that they would, indeed, be read. To write as I did and send it to no one would be the equivalent of putting on real pants for a Zoom meeting, to dress up for a day at home. I know plenty of people who do it and say they dress for themselves, but I’ve never understood it. I dress to be looked at. I speak to be heard. I write to be read, and not by some non-entity named “Diary.”

At the same time as I was emailing my pseudo-entries to friends, I also kept a nightly journal. This ritual began when I was around eleven, and I don’t think I’ve missed an entry since. What, exactly, I write in this journal has varied wildly through the years, from doodles and descriptions of original characters to heartfelt teenage melodramas to compulsive projects uncannily similar to that one chapter of Fun Home. None of it was publishable. Some of it was, quite literally, illegible, whether by my poor handwriting or by purposeful and (see above) compulsive obfuscation. Theoretically, the journal and the email served similar purposes: keeping track of my life, the dates particular events occurred and the dates at which they were recorded. In practice, at least at first, I used them for opposite purposes: while my diary kept track of myself –– a psychological ass-wipe regardless of an individual day’s relative shittiness –– my emails (re)presented an archive of possible redemption from public shame.

[M]y emails (re)presented an archive of possible redemption from public shame.

Writing-to-be-published today is still about trying to outpace shame.* Instead of emails, I have this blog; while I retain my diary, into which go occasional drafts that, if lucky enough, later become Real Pieces, I’m not anticipating some archivist to be particularly interested in its contents, nor –– and this is key –– do I expect to be judged on their basis. Yet, even as I write that, I acknowledge that I happen to be journaling in interesting times. Since the emergence of COVID, my genre of journaling has undergone a fairly drastic transformation, owing in part to early-quarantine diary assignments suggested by educators on Twitter and elsewhere. Funnily enough, given that these were in many cases mandatory class assignments, the journals students kept were functionally identical in style to my old emails, though initially intended as an easy, meaningful, and potentially-critical alternative to Real School. We’re living through a world historical event, the likes of which precious few alive today have ever seen before, they said. You Are Going To Want To Remember This. And if you don’t, someone else will, so you’d better have your say.

After all, what is “Dear Diary,” but an invitation to dialogue?

Unable to disagree, I started by actively jotting down a given day’s news and my thoughts on it, interwoven with fairly-unexciting descriptions of my hygiene anxieties, cabin fever, and bewilderment at the pace at which everything I’d thought was normal in my life simply collapsed. After a few months, it was coming naturally. At this point, I look forward to writing a page or two in this new style. My entire approach to journaling has changed, and now I write in my journal not as if the whole Internet will have access to it, but nevertheless as if someone (maybe future-me?) will want to join the conversation. I wasn’t exactly anticipating a blog reader or email correspondent, but I was still packaging my experiences in an intelligible way. I implied future consumption, even reply. After all, what is “Dear Diary,” but an invitation to dialogue?

I guess this is the time to make a confession: up until COVID, I had a tradition of annihilating my daily-diary selves as soon as a given notebook was complete. I’d rip out the pages, shred them with a machine or (more often) with my bare hands, and sprinkle the detritus into the recycling basket, right on top of the day’s old newspapers and empty cereal boxes. I was the anti- (more like ante-, really, given the way I journal right now) archivist, making sure that the shamed, unpublishable pieces of myself were profoundly mutilated as to be indecipherable. It was cathartic to rip up the diaries, not necessarily out of a particularly-uncontrollable surge of self-hatred, but because, like clearing out my email inbox, I derive(d) so much pleasure from the cleanness of it all, posterity be damned. I keep my diaries now, and they stink up my room, itching like lice. I hope another version of myself will be glad they stuck around.

In both the case of my emails and my early ill-fated diary pages, my words were going to their preferred audiences: friends and nobody, respectively. Early Internet blogging efforts that began before I was born pioneered a fusion of both –– described as an Internet diary, the blog was a living archive. It spoke to contemporaries as (if they were) descendants. Even the language of “following,” more than merely of “readership” or “[message-]recipiency,” implies that a given reader is simultaneously after and alongside the author. Readers had the responsibility of consumption –– sharing in the archive-of-self presented by an author –– as well as judgement and interpretation. It’s like I’m emailing a friend, stripping the personal salutation (or implying some sufficiently-universalized alternative in its stead), and spicing generously with carefully-curated personalisms. Blog readers are to Blog as the front row is to performance. Yet Blog is also personal. Blog is (or, given the form’s steep decline in popularity over the last decade, was) curated and semipersonalized intimacy, the process of CC’ing personal reflections to a hundred or a thousand of your closest friends.

The linkages and breaking-points between emails, diaries, and blogs, as well as old-fashioned letter writing, are hard to fully disentangle. Efforts at self-preservation, self-promotion, and self-protection blur. All of them seem a little bit precious nowadays; as this post’s title suggests, the thousand-word missives I used to write to my friends are now something to be nostalgized-after. Even as I write this on a blog, I notice that the form is waning in popularity. Is the blog something I’m already nostalgic for, even as I post this question onto one? What, exactly, do I miss, if I’ve already acknowledged that my childhood emails were as concerned with public performance as this post is, albeit directed at a smaller audience? If the email and the blog are becoming obsolete, what is the purpose of the diary? If the blog is no longer popular, yet the need for public, documented performance of intimate archives remains, what comes next, and what is that form’s relationship to other now-“defunct” forms?

Basically, what I’m wondering is, what are the historians –– if applicable –– going to turn to when they wonder about the ’20s? If aughts nostalgia lived in emails and tens in blogs, what comes next?

I’m no expert on trends, technological, social, or otherwise, but I’ve been watching the way that the already-hybrid blog-form has further blended with more traditional forms of correspondence. In the last six months especially, it seems like everyone and their girlfriend’s picked up a Substack, allowing interested readers to sign up for performed-personal, bloglike updates sent directly (and, it appears, “exclusively”) to their personal email inbox. These messages often, though not always, document world and personal events. They’re designed to be remembered, but also to be deleted from one’s inbox once read. Like the traditional diary, they invite transtemporal dialogue without expecting a direct reply.

But, like, they also cost MONEY.

What are Substack’s (and similar services’) implications for the performance-documentation-consumption nexus? What does it mean to send regular messages not-unlike those I once emailed my friends…for a monthly price? Wither capitalism? What is Substack trying to be, and where in this weird landscape of (im)personal self-representations and (quasi)private social experiments does it sit? Should I have a Substack? Have I used too many question marks in the last two paragraphs?

These and other questions I plan to address in part 2 of this post, which I’m hoping to get around to in the next month or so. I want to think further about the ingenious (and sinister) implications of a service aping the personal significance of a diary and the polished conceit of the blog, all packaged as paid intimate correspondence. I’m not anti-Substack (some of my best newsletters are Substacks!) but I am anti-capitalist, so this is a development I’ll be keeping an eye on for a while. And blogging about on my dinky little WordPress, which, to be honest, I actually kind of like as a platform.

*At least for me. Maybe this is a Zoom pants situation. I kind of doubt it, though, given what I know about writers.

**For example, I drafted the points I’m covering in this post in my journal on January 10th, with the comment, “excited to get this one down when I get the chance, I’ve been wanting to write it for a while. Maybe a journal[-specific]-themed one, too.” It feels strange, and also gratifying, to visibilize that process. I think it also marks a shift in me that somewhat parallels this “Substack turn” in media, this (e)mergence between correspondence and journaling really rooted in traditions much older. But that’s for part 2.

when good things happen to bad years

Do you like my new theme? It’s still a work-in-progress and I’m open to suggestions. Leave me a comment and let me know what you think!

If pressed, I’d call 2020 the best awful year I’ve ever had.

It’s a weird place to be. On the 18th, the night before I turned 22, I took to my daily journal (a practice I’ve been meaning to blog about but haven’t yet gotten-around-to) to list the things I’ve accomplished this year, both in spite of and, at least partially, as a result of COVID-times.

The excitement started before March. Within the first two months of 2020, I began dating my wonderful girlfriend, Molly, finished a nightmarish set of graduate school applications, and received the first of several graduate program acceptances. Most exciting among them was my offer from UC Davis, of which I was first notified by a personal phone call from the program director, one I had at first assumed to be an admissions interview.

Upon my formal (emailed, far-less-exciting) acceptance to the program, I was invited to a mid-March (ha) campus tour/program pitch. One of my best friends, Sarah Paust, had just received her own Anthropology PhD acceptance from UCLA, complete with its own tour offer. She went. I, with much FOMO and creeping COVID-anxiety, didn’t. Cases in Washington. Cases in California. Sarah flew back just in time. We know what happened after that.

I had the dubious* privilege of a safe return home, whose continued existence was as assured as was heat, food, and, most importantly, access to hand sanitizer and toilet paper. It was under these conditions that I focused on my research and writing, completing several short stories, essays, and poems while finishing my monstrously, unnecessarily-long honors thesis. Once I turned the thesis in and finished pointedly ignoring my sham of a “graduation,” I received the first of what would be several 2020 “dream pub” acceptances: one in Electric Literature, one in 3:am Magazine, and, very recently, one in Bitch Magazine. I also completed and edited my hybrid-genre-speculative-novel manuscript, FINALLY, after two and a half years of slogging.

That summer, between protests, moving-preparations, and level of literary consumption that can only (unfortunately) be described as “unprecedented,” I became a reader, and then an editor, for Stone of Madness Press. My “day job” as a research assistant was remote, interesting, and rewarding, providing me with a salary I ended up spending only semi-irresponsibly. I also received a chapbook acceptance from Sword & Kettle Press, for a story I’d been toying with, submitting, and reshelving for several years before finally arriving at the version I have now. Soon after, I received another acceptance from giallo lit –– I still can’t believe I went from someone with no chapbooks to someone with two forthcoming chapbooks in the space of a few months.

The cover of A HOLE WALKED IN, featuring a grey face dripping with flesh and blood. In the head is a small clock without hands.

I never thought I could become someone with individual published works like that, always assuming that chapbooks, and, later, full-length books, were artifacts exclusive to Real Writerdom™, a state I’d forever be short of achieving. I thought similarly of the PhD: to my knowledge, no one in my family before me had ever even started a PhD program. This has been a year of surprising myself, not only with what I am capable of –– thriving in a PhD program that I really love; balancing freelance writing, editing, and curating with both coursework and personal research; moving out of my parents’ house and across the country mid-pandemic –– but that these conditions of stress have facilitated in me more creative and intellectual growth than I would have ever thought possible.

I’ve always known that we, as people, are capable in-the-moment of things we cannot “plan” to be capable of. Our shared survival this year is evidence of that. Yet, for me, this year has gone above and beyond my standard measures of change and possibility. What does it mean that a year so personally auspicious has been so cosmically devastating? That in 2020, a year in which I’ve accomplished more than I have any before, celebration is not only dangerous but dangerously-inappropriate? Writers celebrating their debut novels this year have spoken at length about this quandary. There are no good answers. I will say, though, that I’m more grateful for a continuous onslaught of new reading material than ever before, given that maintaining a semblance of stability throughout this year has necessitated constant distraction.

Now that the year is winding down and the quarter is over, and particularly today, in the wake of my twenty-second birthday, I’m glad to be taking a moment away from my distractions to attend to the year that was. It was impressively good and impressively bad, and here we are at the end of it, dreaming of a better 2021. Normally, I’d write some hopes and resolutions below, and I do have some. But since I’m feeling especially superstitious (and profoundly cynical) about the future of (*gestures vaguely*) all of this, I’m going to keep them to myself.

Anyway, the only prize I’m really gunning for in 2021 is that sweet, sweet Corona vaccine.

*Given that this should be a right, not a privilege.

dispatch in the midst/math

This post began in my brain at the beginning of the week. I held it there, and now it’s Sunday –– the start of a new week. It’s Sunday, the midst/math is over (though I still love the term –– see, it’s a pun, because we were in the midst of what seemed like an eternal election and doing vote-arithmetic the whole time), and I finally feel together-enough to post.

Like everyone else, I watched the slow creep toward and through this election period with fascination and dread. All things considered, election week itself went less terribly than the rest of 2020 seemed to foretell. Now that I’m living in California (still a strange thing to say, and something I hesitated several times before typing) I was able to get a ballot automatically mailed to me, along with several Turnpike Buyer-looking voter guides far more difficult to understand than the results of a Google search, within plenty of time to return before election day.* I mailed it out with my Halloween cards, replete with wonderful stickers (the cards, that is, not the ballot). I’m relieved to be able to carry on the card-sending tradition, even though I’m no longer at Mount Holyoke, and even though mailed letters, like mail-in ballots, now carry an entirely new valence.

Elections do, too. I spent last week in an odd mental place (as did everyone, but it seems my genre of odd was somewhat different from others’). While everyone else was freaking out on Tuesday, I was…freaking out, yes, but over my work, work I didn’t even have to be doing: a classic Cavar displacement of anxiety from uncontrollable things onto controllable ones! (See, who needs a therapist?) I scrolled Twitter, Googled “election results” a bunch of times, and even felt a slow creep of anxiety that may well have been more of a 2016 flashback. But the panic I witnessed in others simply refused to come. I think my body was sick of it all. Like, okay, you can have your normal (though arguably unwarranted) school-angst. You can even have some writer-angst. But you’re just too weary to do the trump-angst thing, too, and instead, you’re going to watch this process like it’s somewhere between a nightmare, a video game, and a car crash.

The fear took somewhat greater root as Wednesday turned to Thursday, though I made the wise decision to continue putting most of my energy into my work and repeating the mantra “Red Mirage,” one pundits and laypeople alike seemed to forget during those first days. By Friday, I had gone from a sense anxious-numbness-overwork to a place of limited hope, and then impatience, and finally deep sympathy and respect for the poor Pennsylvanian vote-counters.

Saturday arrived with a lightness. I woke to the Washington Post‘s announcement, the result I’d known was coming. I walked to the living room and was unsurprised to see at least twice the usual number of pedestrians and cyclists in the street and to hear stray cheers from the park. They continued through the day. I found myself suddenly more lucid and more productive in my writing, more social and generous in my interactions, and realized that this wasn’t the addition of some new muscle but the release of a tension I hadn’t known was there. Four years of it. My entire adult life, I realized, I had been working, studying, protesting, surviving, all while being constantly kneecapped by this administration. While I don’t consider Biden’s win a “victory,” per se, I see it as a path to survival. We can move from crisis-control to prevention and transformative change. I mean all of this literally, too: the “single issue” that got my leftist ass out to vote was the bare reality of the pandemic, and the knowledge that, under a Biden administration, fewer people will die of COVID than under trump. If checking a box has even the smallest potential of saving innocent lives, I’m probably going to do it –– even as I roundly and openly detest this absolute farce of a democracy we call a “country.”


Apart from this, how am I doing? Not bad! After some initial weeks recalibrating my schedule to accommodate more weekly readings than I was used to –– and several moments of stressed speed-reading after underestimating my reading load –– I write now from a Sunday night in which there’s plenty of time to blog. (If people are interested, I can do a separate post on managing time, or at least, my personal advice in that area. I devote some time each day to personal writing, to my still-shiny-new editorial position at Stone of Madness, to personal reading, to Duolingo (the owl and I have just marked our 500-day anniversary, registry details incoming), and also doing my coursework/attending to classes and commitments. That said, time management is a personal thing, and it’s hard to graft advice from others directly onto your life. Either way, let me know.) I’m definitely feeling…not quite more confident, but less-not-confident, than I did at first, mostly because I’ve decided to wholeheartedly embrace** making public mistakes, potentially misreading texts, and doing miscellaneous other things that threaten to make a fool of me. I’m trying to embrace studenthood and all it entails without hesitation, even though studenthood implies a certain constitutive level of ignorance that I struggle to accept from myself.

Especially during moments of stress and self-doubt, I’ve been really enjoying my work as an editor for Stone of Madness, even (and sometimes most of all!) during moments of menial work, clearing our inbox, updating our document of pieces to read and comment on, and even soliciting submissions on Twitter. Between September and the end of October, I was also a reader at Split/Lip Press, looking at nonfiction/hybrid-genre manuscript submissions, another incredibly fun way to take a breather from academic readings! Most exciting of all is the opportunity to send acceptances and make wholehearted, enthusiastic comments on works I’ve fallen in love with. Knowing how much these “small” and “everyday” complements mean to me makes gifting them that much more enjoyable. Not to mention, the pleasure of reading new or new-to-me voices whose story, eloquence, and passion confound all known forms of praise. There is no good story –– no story of any kind at all! –– without both teller and witness. In that way, every reader is an active participant in the making of a story, in the production of a sublime work of writing. To take on the job of a reader and editor is to make that truth acute.

Luckily, I’ve also been surrounded by many other amazing writers and artists, both in my own capacity as a writer and as a consumer of media. My chapbook, A Hole Walked In, is forthcoming from Sword and Kettle Press, as part of a suite of feminist speculative chaps that I can’t believe includes my work! After seeing their incredible thesis project and the rest of their oeuvre, and knowing them for years as a friend and artist, I recruited Levi Booker to design the cover of my chap. Just wait until you see it.

Just today, I also hopped over to what I now know is a biweekly Sunday craft fair in Downtown Davis’s central park. I had been seeing signs advertising it all week and wasn’t sure what to expect, but I had a wonderful time and definitely spent more money than I should have. I got a keychain, some stickers, a small print, and an adorable little Cinnamoroll storage pot (I will work on getting a link to this person’s online shop, if they have one!) that I’m planning on filling with something either sparkly, (artificially, it has a lid) botanical, or both. The whole place reminded me of the Northampton Print and Book Fair, whose necessarily-tight indoor confines are difficult to imagine now. Luckily, it’s still warm enough in CA to have this sort of thing outside. When not going to the park for quiet walks, the farmer’s market, or this latest threat to my financial security, I’m being a safely-masked Writer™ on Saturday afternoons with Elsie, a new friend, fellow grad student, and now-treasured crit-buddy. The park truly has been a lifeline for my creativity and my general well-being for the last 2+ months!

As the weather (somewhat) cools around here and I inhale the contents of my Yankee Candle scratch-n-sniff Holiday catalog, I do feel a tinge of homesickness. New Englandsickness. The trees won’t ever turn here, we’ll never get snow (rain is a rare luxury, not a regular and often-torrential occurrence) and the holiday season –– that is, the christmas season, around which I still hold an embarrassing load of sentimentality for a newly-, uh, christened Jew) (even as I lowercase the c to stick it to the [Jesus? Santa? Should I lowercase those, too?] man.) I’m sure I’ll do a lot more navel-gazing on that as Mariah Carey trills the sweet sound of christian hegemony into each of our car radios. For now, I know I’m at that punchy point in any blog post where it’s probably best to stop writing and schedule this post before I say something too spicy.

*”Election Day” is traditionally capitalized. I’m going to keep it lowercase until it is, indeed, treated like an actual holiday, with paid time off work for all employees. If we’re going to play at genuine democracy, we need to actually try.

**I don’t need to tell you that this is a lie.

3 weeks in

I never believed one, and two, and three weeks would happen like this.

Yesterday, my friend Noam and I met to catch up and celebrate Rosh Hashanah, spending the late afternoon in the UC Davis Arboretum, a place I’d visited twice before. As the clock neared 7, he suggested we return to my apartment for Zoom services. I agreed, saying we should probably go home. And then, I laughed, because –– home?!

I guess this month is the beginning of me, eventually, becoming a Californian, or maybe one of those people who has “New England Transplant in [x]” in all of their bios. Three weeks in, things feel not-quite familiar, but not-quite-strange-anymore; when I wake and see this new bedroom, I don’t feel as startled as I did before, though I’ll still be slightly surprised sometimes to find suitcases in my closet.

My mom and I flew out here the afternoon of August 30th. Mask-usage depended largely on location (we went from Connecticut to Georgia to Sacramento) and I was somewhat surprised to see that, in both Georgia and Sacramento, the overwhelming majority of counter-service/take-out food shops –– including anywhere I could acquire coffee! –– were still shuttered. The only place we ran into any issues was Atlanta, where our flight was multiply-delayed, ultimately resulting in a midnight arrival in Sacramento and a 1:00am collapse into a hotel bed. It was strange to see so many airport passageways, particularly the long, wide hallways with slow-moving tracks, completely empty. My mom had only flown once before this, so she couldn’t join in my marveling. She was, however, appreciative that she could experience her first layover-having, cross-country flight in a less-busy airport.

The following day, we made the quick walk, luggage in tow, to my apartment, retrieving the key from its former occupant. We spent that first day (which, if you can believe it, is already somewhat faded in my memory) unpacking what we could. Some homewares we’d ordered in advance, including, thankfully, my bedding, had already come. We finally satisfied our shared need for coffee at Peet’s, which is objectively better than Dunkin’ Donuts in every conceivable way, except it (and any other superior coffee) will never hit my nostalgia-button in quite the same way.

By that afternoon, I was thoroughly ready never to speak to another human being ever again. My mom returned to the hotel and I stayed in the –– now my –– apartment, alone. I’d never been alone like this, no dorm or friends or anyone, before. When I woke the next morning, still somewhat surprised to be Here, I realized I was still alone, and would be until my mom arrived, and that in several days she would no longer be arriving, and this would be It –– I would be alone until my roommate, currently visiting family before the fall quarter starts, returns.

In the following days, my mom and I tag-teamed unpacking, getting mail, and cleaning the sad remnants of tape and cardboard that crept to every imaginable corner of the living room. We built two Ikea bookcases together, a feat only outdone by my successful SOLO desk-building adventure a week or so ago. There are few things I’ve been prouder of than that, given that I’ve never felt particularly (read: at all, under any circumstances) handy when it comes to actually building things.

A white wayfair desk with attached bookcase. On the bookcase is a white desk lamp and a notebook. On the desk is a laptop and planner. In front of the desk is a yoga ball chair topped with a back pillow.

During those first days, we made trips to the store between projects. When we could, we walked, attempting (with limited success) to navigate my new neighborhood. Days later, she left for Connecticut. Thinking about that goodbye-moment still makes my heart drop, joy and excitement be damned.

I like to leave the curtains in the living room open so I can see my little leaf-strewn balcony and the cars and people below. As at home, or my “parents’ house,” or my “childhood home,” I suppose, I try to leave all the electric lights off for as long as I can, let in all the sun. The weather here truly is exactly the same everyday, minus changes in heat and air quality, and every day when I watch people I also watch the green trees not-shed their not-colored-leaves and really, really want to be physically surrounded by the foliage at Mount Holyoke, or, at the very least, the foliage in my hometown. It’s not that I miss my hometown itself, I don’t. But I miss the feeling I know some of the neighborhood strangers feel, because this town is someone’s remembered-place. Someone made memories here, though given its status as a college town, the “downtown Davis local” is certainly on the rarer side.

An image taken from the couch. A paved balcony overlooks several cars and businesses, shaded by green trees.

What I mean to say is, I know that this is a transitory space. I’m surrounded by cars and bikes and pedestrians; I myself am a short walk from a campus that (now virtually) churns out classes and cohorts of students who never plan to stay forever, myself among them. Still, I envy those who have homed this place still impossible to call Mine.

All that being said, I do love exploring. Mask, shorts, and tank-top (in September!) I’ve done as much exploring as I can amid terrifying days of smoke and neon-orange skies buttressed by afternoons past 110º. I’ve been to the farmer’s market, a conveniently-located staple with such an incredible variety of fresh produce available I audibly gasped when I first saw the sellers. Any fruit, any vegetable, grapes and berries and peppers of every variety. Eating the tomatoes here, I realized that they were, in fact, fruits, just fruits whose sweetness has been tarnished beyond all recognition by pesticides and cross-country trucking. Every blackberry (I came at the very end of the season) tasted like candy. Likewise with the strawberries I’m currently working on! The garlic, the multi-colored assortments of carrots I’ve been buying by the pound, the green beans that have me kicking myself for ever having claimed to dislike green beans… these are flavors I never quite registered could be derived from a plant alone, one to be amplified, not created, by cooking and seasoning.

I’ve visited one of several local thrift stores and finally purchased the oversized earrings all the lesbians seem to be flocking toward, as well as a UC Davis sweatshirt that saved me the money and trouble of a trip to the ~official campus store~ (maybe when you affirm #COLA4ALL, UCD!). I’ve successfully navigated to and from the UCD campus, though I’ve always needed to use Google Maps on the way back –– every trip out I’ve gotten a little bit lost, but that lostness usually brings me to interesting places, so I’m trying to embrace it.

Cavar poses with their head tilted to one side, showing their fanta bottle dangly earrings.

Most of my time here has been like that: trying and error, figuring out what I can make routine and what won’t work. I have a couple gems already: a secluded little Moroccan-run teashop whose mint tea takes me back to 2018, a volunteer-run used bookstore that takes donations and whose revenue goes entirely to the local library. I’ve found myself drawn to the arboretum again and again, to the ducks and the river and the way it all reminds me of Mount Holyoke, except with cacti and palm trees.

I don’t think I fully believed I would be Living in California until I got here, and even then, it was iffy. It didn’t exactly feel like a vacation, but more like a dream: a dream (sometimes a nightmare) I’d been having since I accepted Davis’s offer. How could I begin to make a life in California, when I had never been before, when all my images of the state belonged to someone else? Especially given COVID (a clause I’m Especially Sick of Writing), the idea of moving felt foreign even as I packed boxes, suitcases, and myself to send west. I truly didn’t think I’d come. I didn’t think I’d be able to. Nothing is imaginable until it happens.

While days themselves have ranged from sad to ecstatic to homesick to relieved, I’m glad to be here, and incredibly excited for the start of the fall quarter. This is a new space, and adjusting to new spaces is usually more difficult for me than the average neurotypical person. That said, as I complete this blog post at my self-assembled!!!! (and make no mistake, I will be milking that accomplishment until the day I die) desk, caramel pumpkin swirl candle lit, items old and new around me, I can feel this becoming a room of my own. And I’m really excited to see the Cavar I am already / becoming.

things I hope to remember

Yesterday, between spirited rounds of suitcase-packing, my mom and I went to say goodbye to my grandparents. Tomorrow, we leave for Davis, California. Several days from now, she will return to Connecticut, and I will be someone who has Moved Out.

We met them in the driveway. The day’s second or third round of rain had just ended, the sky blearily sunny, the air thick and wet. My grandfather, wearing a simple blue mask, leaned against the car he is no longer allowed to drive himself. My grandmother stood beside him in her usual uniform of all-black, wearing a studded mask not unlike this one. Knowing her penchant for shopping in the Junior’s section for anything glitter-, stud-, and rhinestone- heavy, picking pieces so gaudy that they only work when matched with the absolute shameless pleasure she takes in wearing them, this did not surprise me.

We talked about everyday things. We talked about how much we wished we could hug. We spoke about the move, the sorry state of the year and world and future, about our favorite at-home activities (my grandmother has been chopping wood and practicing with power tools). I left with money and well-wishes, unsure when I would be back again.

I haven’t seen my grandparents in person since before COVID hit. Though as a child I spent almost every day at their house while my parents worked, by the time I was a teenager, I simply stayed home alone. Their house has only become less familiar as years pass: some of it has to do with the things they change (a new TV; a moved upright piano). Some simply reflect changes in me, or, more accurately, failures of memory I only realize when confronted with an artifact long-forgotten.

Having recently read John Elizabeth Stintzi’s (JES) masterful novel Vanishing Monuments (keep an eye out for my interview with JES, forthcoming in The Adroit Journal), the function of objects as ciphers of memory –– and thus, as inventors of the pasts by which we define ourselves –– has been at the forefront of my mind. The novel’s title alludes to the Monument Against Fascism, unique in its relationship to its visitors, who are invited to sign their names to the Monument’s declaration denouncing fascism, and to time itself. As visitors have written their names, the Monument has descended deeper into the ground, retaining, but now occluding, the identities of those who have signed it.

Today, all of the names are underground, immortal and invisible. Only the original text of the Monument remains. Those who publicly proclaimed opposition to fascism now simply have to remember.

In Vanishing Monuments, narrator Alani attempts to preserve their past by mapping out a memory palace, associating certain rooms and objects in their childhood home with specific memories. Their palace, though imperfect (as is memory itself) is complex and thorough. While I have never chosen to build a memory palace, I now realize that I identify with Alani’s pursuit. It seems I’ve built one by accident, and standing in my grandparents’ driveway has burst open its proverbial doors.

Wildflowers litter their lawn. So do roots, attached to towering trees somewhat unique to their property; other neighbors have long since cut them down. The flowers grow most thickly at the base of two trees, both within view from my place in the driveway.

The first bunch mark the edge of their lawn. When I was young, drunk on Fairyopolis

A purple, florally-printed book, dotted at the edges with abstractly-drawn fairies. In the middle is the title "Fairyopolis," written in calligraphy as if on a scroll.
We all had these books and we all absolutely adored them.

, I came to my grandma demanding we leave out fairy food. I didn’t actually believe in fairies, but wanted to believe that I believed, because I knew other kids my age did, so I went through the motions until I as good as did. The following day, I found not fairies but slugs. I gagged at the sight, but was privately glad someone appreciated the food I left.

Then, there are the weapons. Not guns, thankfully, but their medieval counterparts, mounted on the wall. I remember walking past them down the hall into my grandma’s room, where together we’d lay on her bed and read, or take stock of my impressive doll collection, or look at our faces in the canopy-mirror above.

When I arrived home, I was similarly nostalgic. In my parents’ room, walls painted purple by my father “and me” back when I was six, the phrase “GIRL’S [sic] RULE” is painted on the wall parallel to their bed. Today, the irony makes me smile. Back then, I was thrilled to be given free rein and a paintbrush.

In my own room, across the hall, I am surrounded by monuments to a prior self. My walls (as nearly every Zoomed-in guest manages to comment!) are light green, the color of the leaves I see outside my window. (The leaves themselves hold memories: I remember “running away” into the thinly-wooded area with only a book and my iPod. I returned for dinner, but only after meeting trees that made me grimace with their tangled shapes. I’d never known a tree could grow that way.)

But back inside my room, inside the green, my furniture is white. With my grandparents’ generous help, I ordered a desk, bookcase, desk chair, nightstand, jewelry box, and bedframe. My seventh-grade self was so excited she could hardly bear the painstaking process of assembly. The furniture, now a decade old, has long since lost its novelty, now collecting dust at its corners. When I look at the edge of my desk, just beside my left wrist, I see a tiny carving: “My desk,” made with boredom and a pencil. I guess I like to mark my territory.

These are moments from a life I will never have back in quite the same way, even in my memories; I know the images in my head now differ from those of last month, last year, and certainly the long-past years shortly after they were made. But I also know that, even if not constitutive of the person I am today, they are members of the Sarah that was, who, like it or not, is folded into the Sarah –– Cavar? –– whoever, I will continue to be.

I complete this post only hours before my flight takes off. In about half an hour, I’ll drive to the airport. I don’t know how to say goodbye to this house, not only because my memory keeps it close, but also because it hasn’t quite sunk in yet that I am Moving Out. I don’t think it’s even sunk in yet that I was ever eighteen, never mind twenty-one. It hasn’t quite sunk in yet that I’m moving in with someone I don’t know –– my new roommate, yes, but also with a self I haven’t been yet –– and it will likely take days and weeks in California before I get accustomed to them.

Until then, I’ll carry my palace on my back like the stamps and envelopes I use to write my grandparents, who lack both computers and cell phones. And like the luggage barely-under the fifty-pound maximum weight, because I don’t know how to downsize.

Almost time to go now, so I think it’s time to sign off. Talk to you soon!



cavar, sarah, & the they we are

So, my name. I haven’t changed it. I’ve kind of just… moved it around and attempted, maybe in vain, to reprioritize things. Perhaps that’s enough of a change to warrant the label “name change,” but I’m so self-conscious, both about becoming someone I thought I wouldn’t be, and (relatedly) about becoming a cliché.*

Though I dislike the passive voice, I’ll say that I have “been asked” before why I haven’t changed my name yet. Yet, as if the mythic name-change is this necessary element of trans teleology, a step without which I’d surely plummet back toward cisness, never again to grasp the trappings of true trans. That’s certainly how it seemed when, shortly after my top surgery, a nurse asked if I’d decided on a new name (yet). Yet.

All this in the wake of the consultation question: so, honey, is that your preferred name? 

Yes, I said. It’s my name.

During the initial consult, they misgendered me both as a “he” and as a “she.” Though I appreciated the variety, it was clear that deep-seated cissexism belied their performance of niceness, done through the language of “love” and “honey,” genres of misgendering all their own.

And now this, the yet, an axe hanging over my head, the implication that, transness aside, someday I’d be normal. I tell this story often because it changed the way I thought about being trans-among-others. I realized that, even in receiving “gender-affirming” care, cisnormative predictive impulses still remove my autonomy. The trans I choose to cultivate is one of radical choice, from body composition to social affiliation. It is not a trans to which I was, by some accident of birth, condemned, but a framework I’ve since taken up to live a satisfying and intellectually rigorous life. Trans is the way I think, move, and connect with others. The imposition of transnormative narratives that seek to essentialize and regulate true-transness erase the very goals my gender works toward.

It’s this, I realize now, that I resent: the cisnormative predictive impulse that removes my autonomy.

Aside from others’ questions and assumptions, I had and have no particular issues with my name. I mean, it was the second-most popular girls’ name in 1998, behind only “Emily.” My undergraduate institution, populated overwhelmingly by people born between 1996-2000, held a predictable surfeit of Sarahs. As a kid, I found my name boring, but never doubted it was mine, only playing around with new names like “Melody” or “Clover” for fun. I poured over baby name books, but made lists of what I’d name my future children, not what I’d rename myself.

My baby name obsession faded by the time I was a teenager, while my appreciation for my own name grew. My parents, I learned, had worked hard to select a name that would serve me well in a social milieu plagued by name discrimination. They bully-proofed the words “Sarah Lynn Cavar” in all possible initialisms, combinations, and shortened forms. I realized that “Sarah” was more than just a word they’d selected for the girl they thought I was: it grew and shifted to embody all that I and every other Sarah could be.

In high school, I gathered two new names. My Chinese teacher named me 曹晴, a name I continue to use in Chinese-speaking settings today. Teachers and some students, both in seriousness and in jest, began calling me “Cavar,” too. In college, I became “Sarah Cavar” amid an unwieldy number of other Sarahs, but was still just Sarah on my own. As my life has changed, the name has travelled with me, albeit in modified forms. It’s gone from a site of predictable girlhood to a surprise, a site of critique, and a conversation-starter between myself and people of all genders and backgrounds. It’s twenty-one years of who I am.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about severance, and not just Ling Ma’s eerily-prophetic pandemic novel of the same name. In terms of COVID, I’ve been thinking about our severance from a still-recent past. In January I made recreational runs to Target, coffee in one hand while the other flicked through book pages, sticker packets, and clearance racks. I didn’t Lysol-wipe my cup before consuming and tried on clothes without a second thought. I thoughtlessly held the handles of my shopping basket in the same hand that touched my face.

I’ve been on one trip to Target since March. I attempted to look at the dollar section as I used to, but the whole event felt poisoned. I entered only aisles with few or no people in them. January Sarah seems another person entirely. The social conditions under which January Sarah lived their life are now alien. January Sarah bewilders me. January Sarah did things I wouldn’t hesitate to condemn today. There is a distance between pre-COVID Sarah and post-COVID Sarah that I don’t think I’ll ever fully cross. There’s a detachment between me and the person who dreamed of WWOOFing this summer, of getting another tattoo. That’s a distance I don’t think either of us will cross. Sometimes I want to sever that person from my archive of self; for a moment, forgetting feels better than all this grief.

A parallel (though not pandemic-initiated) desire for severance drives many trans name-changes. For Mario Martino, a trans man whose autobiography I examined in my thesis and in this essay, a name change signified the “emergence” of a new person. “Now, it was Mario,” he said, abandoning the erroneously-named woman fruitlessly demanded of him. By changing his name, Martino marked his former self as false and inherently-sick (dysphoric). Thus, in pursuit of cure, Martino needed to excise all evidence of his false-identity. Identifying the connection between this false-person and the man he was (to become)** as inherently “sick” (dysphoric), he condemned his past along with the identifying markers that made it so.

Genders and personal names have a lot in common. Both appear at first glance to refer to individuals, but in fact refer to the complex social relationships out of which we extract an imagined “individual self.” I am told that Sarah is me, but Sarah is the me my parents marked, the one people in my life re-mark. Without these processes, the self I am wouldn’t be. Gender works the same way: I became a girl when the gender-language of girlhood attached me to the world I lived in. Indeed, I was: I willingly used (and, as all gendered subjects, was used by) this language as an avenue of personal, legal, and medical communication. Likewise, “Sarah” became the way I made myself known to those around me, and the way those people, in turn, hailed me. I become myself in that moment, one that is not only intersubjective but also laden with cultural and historical context.

Transmedical essentialism (and, by extension, the cisheteropatriarchal medico-legal system that enables it) has a vested interest in obfuscating the relationality and cultural-contingency of gender. It rejects “wrong” names in favor of “right” ones without critically interrogating what, exactly, made those names wrong and why the specific changes Martino made could “fix” them. What is it about Mario that carries him from “F” to “M”? Are these changes mutually-constitutive, or did the name change itself herald the crossing? These are questions a severance-model precludes us from asking, simply throwing one’s lived experience into the dustbin, just as “history” we believe uncivilized or archaic turns to “myth”. 

Part of sexgender essentialism is replacing the complex radically-relational nature of identity with a hyper-simplistic view, one in which a person is only “man” if they slough off every crumb of “girl” they’ve ever known.

I fully accept that no alternative to full severance was available to Martino as he wrote. Conditions at the time required him to vocally and unambiguously reject all the trappings of womanhood as evidence that he deserved access to biomedical intervention. A man who acknowledged a multi-gender history was not a legible man at all. For many trans people, this is still the case, and the carriage of names and pronouns and pasts and complex feelings calls their-our authenticity into question. Part of sexgender essentialism is replacing the complex radically-relational nature of identity with a hypersimplistic view, one in which a person is only “man” if they slough off every crumb of “girl” they’ve ever known, in this case, sever the tie between Mario and the dysphoric stranger he once was.

The tired model trans-severance I just described, I should note, is only necessary if we believe that:

  1. there exists a “true” identity inside each of us that need only be diagnostically-excavated
  2. that this “true” identity necessarily precludes the existence of conflicting identificatory information
  3. that the presence of such conflicting information renders one’s chosen identity inherently-untrue, and
  4. that, in any case, any hope of identificatory veracity rests on our ability to distance ourselves from the “false past” as much as humanly possible.

I believe none of these things, so I carve anew.

Here I return to my own name (finally!). I’m Sarah inasmuch as Sarah will always be a part of me. I’m unwilling and unable to sever the girl from myself. As a girl, I could become anything, including a gender entirely-new. There is a continuity between she and me that it would be irresponsible for me to ignore, especially given that, under different social conditions, she could have ended up as a different gender than I am now. When I’m Sarah, I bring her into conversation, I open space for her in my trans. My life is the result of her life, and that name connects us across spacetime.

At the same time, our relationship is personal. It’s aggressive; it’s dually-wounded. The people who’ve known Sarah for a long time have known a constellation of selves, none untrue but many unindicative of who I am now. The people with whom I feel best about using this name are those who I know See me, allow me to coexist in internal contradiction. Sarah is circular when they use it. It’s an infinite space. A whole one.

But I’m Cavar, too! Cavar is my professional-social relationship to myself. If and when people cite me, which I certainly hope they do, I’ll be Cavar. Cavar is gender-ambiguous in ways that, around relative-strangers and acquaintances, makes me feel seen in the ways that I need to be seen. As I said before, names have relational power, they conjure and constitute us as persons among others. It isn’t a question of “correct” or “incorrect,” but instead of both respect and self-reflection. Each of us must decide, to the extent that we can, the frameworks through which we’re known, because these frameworks discursively and materially impact the persons we become. Disrespect of this signifies a disrespect of our subjectivities –– deadnaming and misgendering are more than triggers of dysphoric “symptoms,” they are acts of epistemic violence. They claim to know the languages of us in ways we are ineligible to know ourselves.

Each of us must decide, to the extent that we can, the frameworks through which we’re known, because these frameworks discursively and materially impact the persons we become. Disrespect of this signifies a disrespect of our subjectivities –– deadnaming and misgendering are more than triggers of dysphoric “symptoms,” they are acts of epistemic violence.

It’s with all of these weighty implications on my mind that I’ve decided to use “Cavar” in unfamiliar situations, unless I am specifically using my full name. To put it simply, you may call me “Cavar” when you would formerly have said “Sarah,” but I will (at least for now) continue publishing as “Sarah Cavar.” It seems apt, anyway, considering how much of me I put onto the page! Cavar Sarah, Cavar [Sarah], Cavar, and other creative combinations are welcome and encouraged. Names are about relationships, meaning we get to be in this together!

I’ll close by citing the work that deeply informs not only this post but the way I now live my life. Several months ago, I first listened to “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer, which easily ranks among the best books I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. In it, Kimmerer (though perhaps she’d prefer to be called Robin, or something else entirely?) discusses the ways that names foretell and enact (non-)intimacies, comparing the names used to scientifically classify flora to their Potawatomi names. In an interview, which I excerpt below, she discusses the trans-formative power of names, their capacity to verb us to each other [italics mine]:

Q. One of the other things that really appealed to me, and again that I keep dipping back to certain parts of the book, is the importance of naming. […] You say in the book, “When we call a place by its name, it is transformed from wilderness to homeland.” I thought that was a really powerful thought. Also, just talk about that and also about the names—I guess the animacy, right, the “grammar of animacy,” you call it.

A. Oh, I’d love to. Yes. Naming has so much deep meaning beyond just the words that we stick onto something, right, because naming is a way, I think, that we form relationship. Very active learning somebody’s name. If you have a neighbor whose name that you’ve chosen not to learn, right, that’s a sign of disrespect or, “I don’t expect to be engaged with you. I don’t need to know your name because we have no relationship.”

But when you learn someone’s name, it’s an invitation. It’s an invitation to know one another, and to help each other, to celebrate together, to have a real exchange[.]

This (k)new name, for me, is not a tie-cut but an invitation. If I am a house, Sarah means you’re sitting inside, in a way Cavar does not fully grasp. At the same time, Cavar is an invitation, too, to view me as a writer and scholar. My names let me parse the relationships and experiences that make me who “I” am; relational and experiential integration is crucial to my trans politic.

I, like all others, have the power to exist contradictorily and simultaneously in many languages at once. I long avoided introducing new names for fear of mischaracterizing the Sarahs I’ve been and their impact on me now. Today, though, I’m a lineage of Cavars and Sarahs collapsed into a body that needs more than one name. I am pleased to have the language to introduce all of myself.

* It’s important to note here that I don’t consider trans name changes in and of themselves to be clichéd –– they’re very common for reasons that should be obvious. I’m referring to peoples’ expectations that I, along with others, would eventually “cave” and change my name to something, they say, more gender neutral, in spite of my ideological choice not to do so.

** Paradoxically, transmedicalists assert that true-trans subjects have always been this way and that true-transness relies on a differential medical diagnosis alone. Schrödinger’s trans, etc.


Last Updated 2/04/21

[If you’re in need, find a comprehensive list of mental health resources here.]

Black people stim. Black people have intrusive thoughts — including violent ones. Black people hear and see things others do not hear or see. Black people have panic attacks. Black people have meltdowns. Black people are hyperactive. Black people live in dissociative/multiple systems. Black people yell and otherwise “act out” in public.

Black people attempt and complete suicide. Often.

Black people are unable to comply with heightened demands of “compliance” under a system of white supremacy and psychiatric hegemony.

Black disabled people, particularly Black Mad people, are routinely overlooked both within Disability/Mad studies activism and scholarship as well as in larger conversations about prison and police-abolition. This is perhaps most evident in discourses of police replacement with social workers, therapists, and psychiatrists, and the replacement of prisons with group homes and other psychiatric/”therapeutic” institutions.

Those we typically call “cops” and those we might deem “brain cops” serve identical purposes: not to alleviate suffering but to maintain social order. Vitale’s (2017) claims in the incredibly-relevant, yet deeply flawed, book, The End of Policingreflect sane/abled presumptions about the role of medico-psychiatric professionals in civilian lives. Vitale contrasts these a priori “benevolent” and “healing” professions with the police, whose endgame is social control. This is a, dare I say, “criminal” obfuscation of the realities of psychiatric violence.

In bodyminds marked in perpetual opposition to (white) rationalist idea(l)s and deemed both cause and result of their own inherent dis-order(s), Mad Black people face what Abdillahi et al (2016) call “anti-Black Sanism.” The inherent violence of diagnostic pathologization and institutionalization increases exponentially in severity, too. And psychiatric institutionalization — I cannot over-emphasize this — is carceral in nature.

Psychological professionals police (in the definitional sense of maintaining order or curing dis-order(s)) affective realities in all patients, but it is Black patients for whom requisite “social skills,” “emotion-regulation” techniques, “self-discipline,” and other therapeutic, coded language for self-surveillance remains least attainable. Not only are the so-called “social [survival] skills” demanded of Black people impossible to fulfill, but for as long as Blackness symbolizes disorder itself, the white supremacist psychiatric industry will never overcome its centuries-old compulsion to white supremacy. Perhaps it needs to see someone!

Below is a list of resources regarding the unique violences faced at the intersection of Madness/neurodivergence/psychiatrization and Blackness. By no means does this frame every person whose areas of specialization include psychiatry — indeed, Frantz Fanon (read here) himself was a psychiatrist who utilized his knowledge to disturb the hegemonic “commonsense” other psychiatrists seek, in “treatment”, to preserve. That said, the profession of psychiatry remains committed to the normalization of “aberrant” individuals, and under a white supremacist social order, the system itself remains entrenched in racism.

This is by no means a complete list — just the result of a week of searching and reading. If you have more resources, message me, and I’ll add them. Read. Share. And critically reconsider your calls to replace prisons with prisons of another name.

Racialized In/Sanities; Eugenics; Mad Black Studies

Black Medico-Psychiatric Trauma/Abuse

Depression & Anxiety


Schizophrenia, Bipolar, PDs:

Disordered Eating, OCD, Addiction, Trauma:

Fiction, Poetry, Poetics:

  • An Unkindness of Ghosts, Rivers Solomon
  • Beloved, Toni Morrison
  • Bird-Eyes, Madelyn Arnold
  • The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison
  • The Bull-Jean Stories, Sharon Bridgeforth
  • Citizen, An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
  • Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany
  • Just Another Dead Black Girl, Michelle Evans
  • Mosquito, Gayl Jones
  • The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead
  • Parable of the Sower, Octavia E. Butler
  • The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson
  • Sula, Toni Morrison
  • The Turner House, Angela Flournoy

A hearty hand-flap for Mel Baggs

I can’t tell you all of my wishes, because they are all in code. I can’t tell you what I can’t do anymore. It’s just one more room in the building, left blank and unexplored. I wish I was known for who I was and not for what I did. I can’t tell you what I’ve lost or what I’ve gained.

I can still see more than people want for me to see. I can still feel things deeper than people expect. What I can’t understand, I still can’t understand, only more. I still want things that can’t be named. I still can’t tell you any other way than this here, right now. What stays, what shifts, what’s changed.

–– Mel Baggs, 2014 [x]

It feels as if death creeps but never captures. This is especially the case with disability, a condition that appears always-already approaching death, pulling death by the hair into the abled, healthy world. Making the whole world see its unsightly face. Disability says, “kill me if you must but I will fill the space I left with brutal evidence too loud to ignore.”

Yet death occurs, even as healthy bodies attempt to disappear it alongside the bodyminds they warehouse and abandon. A pandemic such as this one is a prolonged encounter with this reality, pressing and pressing against the trappings of normal, healthy life until life cannot contain it. And then it takes. We will all, inevitably, lose someone, if we ourselves are not lost.

About two weeks ago, it was Mel Baggs, 40: blogger, activist, writer, role model par excellence. I didn’t know hir personally, though I felt as if I did. I wish more than anything that I might have told hir how much sie meant to me. This is a universal wish, I know, and it’s completely unfulfillable. I could have spoken to hir ten thousand times. Grief knows no enough. There is always the once-more and its shame.

Mel lived every day in direct defiance of death. As in, laughing heartily and heavily in the face of death, all between poems and blog posts and crochet patterns. At the nexus of multiple forms of oppression, sie was surrounded by unceasing mutters of unworthiness, currents of ableism, saneism, (cis)sexism, classism, and fatphobia. These continuously threatened, and even actively attempted to take hir life. Sie refused to be silent in the face of such injustice.

Sie was unique in hir situation, but unfortunately, not alone. It was from hir that I learned what twenty-first century eugenics looks like, first through hir insightful discussions of violent medical ableism and later through their wanton affirmation: in 2013 Mel faced widely-publicized medical pressures –– ah, suggestions –– to forgo a life-saving feeding tube. Citations of “quality of life” –– grounded in a “commonsensical” understanding that “severely disabled”* people are better off dead ––  were frequent. Mel refused to give hir life up, and medical dominance by consent quickly turned to dominance by coercion: only through a flurry of phone calls, publicity efforts, and multi-state on-the-ground efforts did the disabled community save Mel’s life.

It was experiences like these that directly informed Mel’s analysis of power, shrunk to bite-sized chunks the size of a single hospital, a single room. Disability, sie argued, was something of a “ground zero” for epistemic violence: all other forms of oppression are grounded in an a priori assumption of sickness, incompetence, madness, or other form of bio/psychological inferiority made legible under an ableist system.

As such, the doctor-patient relationship and the aide-client relationship proved a fruitful basis for Baggs’s social commentary, especially on the epistemic imbalance between the sick person and their all-powerful “caregiver”. Again and again, sie also resisted not only the belief that no good scholarship comes from outside academia and from within the life of a mentally disabled person, but also provided pre- and non-academics the language through which to know ourselves. Including me.

I discovered Mel through hir Tumblr blog, which at the time had the username “youneedacat” but has since changed to withasmoothroundstone. It must have been around 2011, and I was new to the disabled Internet, having just seen Julia Bascom’s seminal essay Quiet Hands and since embarked on a reverse-bibliographic adventure through a massive network of autistic and otherwise disabled bloggers. I knew I was autistic but no doctor had named me. I knew with increasing certainty that womanhood was, for me, an untenable future. I did not know how to shape this awareness into something readable, nor was I sure I was an author who deserved to be read.

It was through Mel, among others, that I learned the devastating beauty of disabled, neurodivergent, and Mad lives. In delicious, long-winded yet plain paragraphs sie attributed to hir hyperlexia (and which I equally attribute to hir passion) Mel gave me my truths with such humility it was as though I had known them all along. Not only this, but (I am somewhat ashamed to admit) Mel taught me who and where my disabled comrades truly were. They were not the self-described “aspies” whose collective masturbation to their own superior intelligence and high-functionality perpetuated a eugenics of its own. My comrades, I learned, refused intelligence and functionality as forms of measurement. They enacted this refusal by producing vital knowledge through “illegitimate” digital means. We form alliances not based on what we are able to do but instead on the grounds that each of us has an infinite capacity to dream of a better wor(l)d.

Mel was the first person I had seen use the word “genderless” to self-describe, gesturing not to a bureaucratically-imposed “Other” option in addition to “Male” and “Female,” but a present absence. When asked to “pick from a list of genders” Mel refused the grounds of the question. Sie modeled a path to the gender I am (not) today: a gender-agnostic, a post-gender, a gender against gender and especially against the cold probe of medicine. Hir relationship to gender, to pronouns, and to other signifiers was ambivalent and deeply informed by hir disabled bodymind. Hir greatest material ties and the image to which sie returned in both prose and verse, were trees:


And you can hear the redwood sorrel talking to each other. They are tiny plants. They look almost like clovers, but they are red on the bottom. They taste citrusy. But what is important is they live in big clumps, they can carpet the entire floor of a forest if given half the chance. And if you are really really quiet, and really really listen… listen with your whole body, not just your ears… then you can hear the way they talk to each other. They whisper. The wind whispers through them, even a slight breeze. Nobody pays them much notice, because they are on the ground, and everyone comes to see the redwoods. But next time you’re in the redwoods, listen to the redwood sorrel. It knows the secrets of the forest floor, of the soil it is so close to. Those are secrets worth learning. 

–– Mel Baggs, 2014 [x].

I do not have enough words in me to describe how important Mel was in making me the person I am. Nor do I have enough to describe the sheer impact Mel had, and will continue to have, on generations of disabled people –– including other idols of mine, like Julia Bascom herself. Mel helped to awaken in me and countless others the unstoppable urge to seize the discourses that make us in two balled fists and shake, and shake, and shake, and stim loudly into the forever they have left me with.

* Queer disability scolar Robert McRuer explores the radical possibilities of “critical queerness” and “severe disability” in “Compulsory Able-Bodiedness and Queer/Disabled Existence.” You can find it in The Disability Studies Reader, 2nd ed. (link is a direct PDF download).

oh glorious routine

All day it’s felt like winter break. No, all day it’s felt like an interminable scene posing as winter break, not doing particularly well at it, because rather than leaving me warm it’s leaving me hollow. I did my usual routine today, the one I’ve grown intimately familiar with in this week that’s felt both like a year and an hour. I wake up late, make my coffee. Check my email. Write and/or read until the mid-afternoon. After eating something, I retreat to the outdoors –– not today, of course, but most days –– and walk my familiar street, grimace-smiling at the other isolators on the road, from whom I keep a safe, six-foot-plus distance.

(I met one fellow youth-who-should-be-on-campus on the sidewalk near a deserted neighborhood park. It was around 60º and a bit cloudy, with no young children in sight. When it became clear we were going to cross paths, I trespassed on several peoples’ lawns as he took to the road. I nodded at him. He raised his Monster energy drink to my nod.)

When I come home I take a shower. I return to my work: researching, writing, reading, editing. I keep up my daily practice of writing part of my novel manuscript. I keep my DuoLingo streak. I journal. I listen to a curated selection of podcasts, scrolling through the news-related pods in my feed and deleting them, delete everything to do with COVID, which is everything. Read a novel. Take trazodone and wait until I can’t stay awake anymore, and sleep, knowing I will perform the same motions the following day.

Many have commented that this should be an introvert’s paradise. The whole introvert/extrovert paradigm is a gross oversimplification of human behavior, a sort of “soft pathology” that allows us to participate in the act of diagnosis, removed from medico-psychiatric [author]ization; still, the label of “introvert” fits me well, and is a convenient shorthand for explaining my need to retreat from social life without resorting to the “hard” pathologization I’ve also experienced. Regardless, I strongly disagree with the idea that self-isolation of this kind is good for the introvert. Firstly, self-isolation in close quarters with excessively-social family members can be its own kind of hell, and I’m thankful not to have particularly social parents. Secondly, and more meaningfully, being quarantined by state compulsion is very, very different than choosing to “recharge.”

Perhaps a better metaphor for introversion in the face of pandemic is the laptop that’s been left on the charger at 100% for days.

Perhaps a better metaphor for introversion in the face of pandemic is the laptop that’s been left on the charger at 100% for days. I’m also guilty of doing this (right now, as I type). It’s overkill. It’s so much solace that you forget the solace around you, and thus it turns from solace to uncomfortable silence. Introversion makes itself known in the face of an inherently-social world, and without that world, such distinctions become a mockery of the former freedom they suggested. I no longer have what I now know is the luxury of retreating to a quiet space, able to emerge and move as I choose to when I’m ready. I no longer have the privilege of choosing not to attend a social gathering, of choosing not to visit my friends’ rooms. This relentless adherence to routine has been a replacement for that social time that all of us, “introvert” and “extrovert” alike, need in order to feel human.

The fact that I should be living in a dorm right now, and not in my comparatively-comfortable, quiet childhood bedroom, comes as a further blow. I am not sure how to write about this aspect of these past few weeks, but I am going to do the best I can, because it’s something worth addressing. I considered writing a post on my final semester of undergrad coming to an abrupt end, on my feelings about it and my heartbreak at being ripped from the college I called my home before I could say a proper goodbye. I think it’s an important story to tell, especially given that I got to see and participate in the sense of camaraderie that characterizes Mount Holyoke at its best in those final days of panic and uncertainty. Many tears were shed, many hugs given, and ultimately –– beautifully –– the student body, as well as professors and alumni, came together in an astounding act of compassion.

[W]e recognized ourselves not as a collection of individuals but a dynamic organism whose collective health transcended yet remained contingent upon the well-being of each component-member.

It was a beautiful, special thing. I was working with other students to plan what became the master spreadsheet for those in need of money, storage, and alternative housing as campus closure seemed assured. It worked. Students and alumni and friends inconvenienced them/ourselves for each other, as a community ought to in times of crisis –– we recognized ourselves not as a collection of individuals but a dynamic organism whose collective health transcended yet remained contingent upon the well-being of each component-member. Similar things have happened around the world and across social media, with the anarchist principle of mutual aid entering normative political discourse and the once-mocked notion of UBI being given serious airtime. Where institutions fail (and they always do, and their failure is the most severe in times of crisis which require selfless humanity at the expense of profit) we are able to come together.

More than just compiling spreadsheets, students and alumni at Mount Holyoke pulled together a Laurel Parade –– an annual tradition in which graduating seniors walk across campus in white to much fanfare –– and faux-commencement ceremony complete with live musical numbers, all within 72 hours. It couldn’t totally replace the traditions we as seniors deserve/d. We will never get that experience, even if we do get a make-up ceremony “once this all blows over.” But the scrappy imitation-ceremony we did get was something special, a real thing all its own, and I treasure it: I have grown to treasure it even more as my days now begin to melt into one another, as I look ahead to what feels more like a long summer than a senior spring.

What were these final, large-scale rituals preceding our isolated routines actually like? The Laurel Parade carried an atmosphere of frenetic joy and great, great sadness. I could not cry. I was numb. But I was also happy, and I marched with my friends and everyone seemed to walk with an attitude I can only describe as “fuck it.” We had an incredible turnout, despite already-existing suggestions to restrict group meeting numbers. I wore the white shirt I had bought to wear in May. Alumni –– notified hardly two or three days prior –– arrived at the event with blue accessories to distribute to the class of 2020. Underclassmen, professors, and parents cheered for us. It was all meaningful and meaningless at the same time. For the entirety of the event, I felt like I was screaming down an empty hole, as if making enough sound would finally fill it.

The commencement ceremony, apparently, was not supposed to happen. We did it anyway. I almost cried several times, laughed several more. That was my last day on campus, and I knew that after that day nothing would be the same –– it wasn’t, it hasn’t been. Even what would be my final week of undergrad was not the same as all the weeks before: Most of my classes were either cancelled or skipped. I watched my peers sobbing into their phones en masse. We sat around waiting for too-late administrative emails, assembling support in the face of institutional failure. Many struggled to get work done; I clung to mine like a lifeline.

I still do. I will continue to. Just like I will cling to my routine, and clung to these simulated graduation traditions as a way of reminding myself that these 3.75 years have led to something. Something, that is, other than the potential of months stuck at home, staring out at the senior spring and joyful summer I could have had. Sitting here, feeling the curl of the monkey’s paw as I remember how I wished for spring break, for relief from the relentless noise of communal living, the pressure to be “on” more than I could handle. From shared traditions we turn to the daily patterns that keep us from snapping, and from the delights of solitude we get social isolation.

There is joy here and there is humanity doing its best, and there are the comforts of what we know. But it is all against an incredibly cold backdrop. I had my graduation, but summer seems like a lifetime away.