the first couple days

Hi all, this is my very first blog post from South Hadley and I am thrilled to be back. I’ve had numerous people ask me, “wouldn’t you rather be in Amsterdam?” Although when I listened to a podcast the other day on which a Dutch person was speaking, I felt a little empty ache where Amsterdam used to be in me (or I in it), I’m happier here than I was there. No shade to Amsterdam; I just prefer routine.

I moved back in on Saturday, 9/01, a day before most of the returning students at MHC, and I’m always extremely grateful for my early move-in accommodation with AccessAbility (AAS). I’m also happy to continue my tradition of speaking openly about being registered with AAS. Perhaps it does nothing, but I’d like to think it’s a reminder to all the ~normal~ people on campus that, surprise! The Disabled Are Just Like You!  Not to mention that it’s a reminder to the other registered students that there are tons of us registered, and that it’s nothing to hide.

On Sunday, while everyone else moved in, I spent an enjoyable morning at Thirsty Mind, the coffeeshop* across the street. So far, I’m feeling pretty good about meeting all my obligations this month, despite the ridiculous busyness of these next two weeks. Part of this, I think, has to do with my decision not to pursue registration in a course I originally wanted to get into: Critical Psychology. It seems perfectly suited to me, and it’s at another college in the consortium of which Mount Holyoke is a part. If I had gotten in already, I’m positive I’d keep the class, but it was full by the time I tried to register. Back then I was convinced I would do what I’ve done for several other classes: email the professor and act intelligent and put-together (which I did) and then come to the class looking extremely eager, ultimately stealing the spot of a less-eager counterpart (which I’m not doing).

I had reservations about Critical Psychology from the start, even when I was sure I wanted to be in it. The varieties of people one might find in a class like this can include Thomas Szasz-types and orthodox psych-majors who hope this class will be another place for them to study the fascinating crazies or talk authoritatively about biochemistry concepts they’ve never actually learned. I also trust very few professors to teach a class like this with fairness, compassion, and respect –– let alone a professor whose reputation I didn’t know.

Why, then, would I take a class whose material I, between lived experience and independent study, likely already know; when taking it necessitates more energy than the class’s substance likely deserves? I had no answer to this, four other classes, and several jobs. So, no Critical Psychology.

I’m extremely excited about my other classes, though. I’m taking third year Chinese this year, after initially signing up for it as a first-year, when I was woefully behind in the character-writing part of my study of Chinese. I feel a sense of pride now that I’ve dug up the textbooks I bought two years ago and cried over, now no longer insurmountable.

I am taking Political Ecology this semester, too. I spoke with a friend briefly about this; I assumed that it would be an anarchist-leaning class because of the relationship between the eco/philosophical concept of the rhizome and the spontaneous revolutionary acts that feature so heavily in some anarchist strands. My friend told me, though, that the professor of this course actually had more of a Marxist bent, so I’m hopeful that I’ll get to learn a Marxian perspective on political ecology that might help me develop my own argument and opinions for anarchism. Maybe I’ll even incorporate some of his beliefs into my own politics. I’m excited that I don’t know things. I’m excited to learn. I’m even excited to be corrected and “proven wrong.”

I’m also taking a course on Narrative Medicine, the first session of which is this evening. I’m not entirely sure what I’m getting into with this class, but it looks very promising. On a similar note, the other class that I’m taking this semester is creative writing –– like this past summer, it looks like my fall semester is going to be creative writing-heavy. Despite the amount of “creative writing” I do, I’ve never actually taken a formal class on it. Recently I’ve been craving outside perspectives on my work, and have been trying to become more comfortable with showing my work to others before it’s been published –– that is, approved by some outside “authority”. I liken this to the stress others feel about disclosing disability (or transness!) without “formal diagnosis”.

I return to the middle of this blog post after a day, as my writing time was abruptly cut short by the fact that I realized I lost my lanyard and needed to go on a wild, sweaty search for it. The search was relatively brief, because some kind stranger left it for me at the info desk in Blanchard. Later, a friend drove me to pick up my course pack and to drop me off for what I thought was my first session of Narrative Medicine: but as it turned out, I had misread the schedule. My seminar was actually only on Thursdays, not Tuesdays too: I was heartbroken when I found that out, not because I desperately wanted the class that day but because it felt like one more thing that had gone wrong on a warm and exhausting day.

I took the bus back to Mount Holyoke as the sky darkened and the air cooled, willing myself to cry as I listened to Against Me! (as I always do when I’m upset). I had dinner with my co-editor for the Mount Holyoke News, Kate, and together we went to see Christina Henriquez discuss her novel “The Book of Unknown Americans.” Between dinner and the talk, and some unexpected positivity from my friends (who always seem to know what I need, even when they had no idea at the time that I was in a bad mood!) my evening improved beyond what I could have imagined.

That leaves me here today, Wednesday, my first actual day of classes. On my agenda is not only classwork and my work-study jobs, but also my “What’s Your Story?” zine (the proof of which I finished this morning!) my wrap-up work with my internship at Not Dead Yet, and my personal creative writing pursuits, which I really hope won’t fall by the wayside as the year carries on. I think I have a good chance of continuing to work on those projects, especially because I’m taking creative writing this semester.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll continue to follow along with my posts –– and that I’ll have the wherewithal to keep posting in the first place –– now that I’m back at MHC!


*Actual coffeeshop, not the Amsterdam kind.

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A white & brown hobbit house, in front of which a woman washes and hangs linens to dry. Trees surround it all.

et tu, cottagecore?

Recently, you’ve probably noticed cottagecore-related content, especially on Tumblr. As someone who already has a deep devotion to farm animals (especially sheep), mushrooms, and cabin-homes stuffed with knickknacks, the cottagecore aesthetic was and is one I gravitate toward. It’s easy to scroll mindlessly through blog after gentle, peaceful blog; reblogging jars of honey and golden sunlight and teddy bears and picnic baskets; right alongside assorted farm animals and wide, vast vegetable gardens. It’s impossible for me not to project myself onto their hazy, golden façades (literally!) and feel, for a moment, like that picture is my life. Unfortunately, I recently met with the reality undepicted in those images, and had to confront the practicality of my dreams, the genuineness of my desires.

Screen Shot 2018-08-19 at 4.50.20 PM

In the background, a blurry pastoral scene of grass, flowers, and weeds as well as a wire fence sit in the afternoon light. In the foreground, a sticky pot of honey is ladled, so as to keep some honey suspended in the air to reflect the sun’s light.

I’m already a person prone to planning for a future that could only exist several decades from now. Ever since I was a child, I knew I wanted children of my own, and spent much of my childhood paging through thousand-page baby name books, making lists that I was sure would turn to children. Soon, plans for my perfect home emerged, too: usually a tiny house on the beach or in the woods or in a field whose endpoints can’t be seen from my someday-home’s window. It was always a pastoral scene that never seemed to get so far as to ask, “how do I get my groceries?” I suppose I’d grow all of those, though I think veggie burgers and chewing gum would be difficult to grow on trees.

Aside from the limits of my hypothetical trees, there are numerous other flaws in my dreamy future plans. As someone whose hypersensitivity to noise and need for personal space gains them access to a single room in college, thanks to AccessAbility Services, I sincerely doubt I’d do well living with a wife and kids in a sub-1,000 sq. ft. space in the middle of nowhere. Just a hunch.

In addition, my dream almost always includes me helping to design and supervise the construction of my tiny home. Where will I get the money for this? On whose wide stretch of land will I be allowed to plant my home? These questions, too, remain unanswered. As someone in a relationship, and as a Capricorn Moon & Venus, thinking about and sharing my dreams for a future with the one I love feels like the ultimate sign of devotion. It’s not so much the content of the dream, it’s the idea that there is one. But ever since the beginning of this month, I’ve been wondering just how much real, practical thinking is required for the dreams I want (or do I?) to bear fruit, and how aesthetics seem to be altogether hijacking my dreams.

Of the many things I was excited to do with my partner, Kayla, I was perhaps most excited to visit a farm with them. The farm represented an aspect of our theoretical future that we loved and love to discuss: oh, the animals we’d care for! The love we’d have for them! The endless space in which they could run and play! The mass numbers of Instagram accounts catering so specifically to my dreams of animal-parenthood only furthered this desire. The reason I follow so many (almost 600) accounts on Instagram is that many of them are about certain animals and farms I’d like to keep up with. There’s nothing I love more than watching their latest videos with whomever will agree to watch them with me. I had never been to one of these sorts of farms in real life, and I have to say, I was ready for a relaxing time.

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A moodboard. (R-L, top to bottom:) houses with high-peaked roofs amongst high grass and shrubs, a forest ends in a hole opening into a blue-skyed clearing, chickens stride about on a house’s front lawn, a golden-brown pie sits on a wood block, a close-up of a bucket of red & green apples, a photo of a basket of fresh eggs, a dimly-lit bedroom featuring fairy lights and a skylight in its dormer ceiling, a better-lit loftlike bedroom featuring a bed with white sheets and a window revealing trees in the distance, another, this time large, bedroom whose bed faces a tall and wide window embedded into a dormer ceiling.

Farms –– I’m sure you never could have guessed this –– are, in fact, dirty! As in, there is a lot of dirt, and animal poop that is easily mistaken for dirt, all over the place. There are bugs, too; especially flies in the vicinity of the aforementioned poop. It didn’t fully register with me why Kayla and their mom were slathering themselves in bug spray before walking into the covered structure in which some bunnies and (separately) some small pigs lived. If you were to tell me, “There are bugs here,” I would have replied, “Of course there are!” But it isn’t until a several land on your legs as you attempt to replicate a pristine, loving Instagram video with your new pig friends that you fully accept it.

This situation was unsettling enough in the face of my romanticization of farm life, due both to my consumption of Instagram videos and from my love of cottagecore aesthetics. But it got worse: when we went to visit the goats (who were extremely pleased to see us!) we had the opportunity to spend time with them in their pen. We did. Goats, much like dogs, will get up on their hind legs and put their two fore legs on your thighs, hoping for pets and scratches. In their excitement, these goats managed to spread their poop not only into the ridges on the bottom of my Birkenstocks (and dangerously close to the synthetic straps) but also onto my thighs and the groin-area of my shorts. For all my excessive talk of wanting a farm, I booked it out of the pen after that, standing uncomfortably outside as Kayla and their mother continued to spend time with the goats, significantly less disturbed than I was. When they were done, we visited some kittens and cows. All that time, I was praying,  please let me transfer my consciousness out of this soiled body and into something cleaner. I can’t say I even really enjoyed the rest of the visit, as I was so distracted by the mess.

When it finally came time to clean ourselves off in the farm’s bathroom before driving back to their home for full showers, Kayla let me go in first* and I doused the entire lower half of my body in a mixture of soap, water, and hand sanitizer, all rubbed into my skin and clothing by a massive wad of paper towels. When we got back to their house, we had a delightful time hosing down our respective shoes. Then, finally, it was time for me to shower (first**).

And then I was clean. And mildly disturbed, because it didn’t simply feel like shit had gotten my my legs and shorts. It felt like it had gotten all over my “future,” simply by shoving its reality into my face. It has forced me to (re)consider whether or not I actually desire other things, like a garden (hard, hot work with unguaranteed results) or a tiny house (a truly limiting amount of space that would be more likely to drive me to a divorce than anything else). There has been much written on the potential harm that life lived through a camera lens or an Instagram account can be, especially now that people are using these as reasons to alter their physical forms. But significantly less has been said about the way that popular aesthetics have taken and run with our future plans, leading only to disappointment when we come up empty, frustrated, and unsatisfied.

…[S]ignificantly less has been said about the way that popular aesthetics have taken and run with our future plans, leading only to disappointment when we come up empty, frustrated, and unsatisfied.

A lot of people, especially fellow lesbians, have bought into the ideal-farm-future wholesale. It’s especially tempting because it offers an alternative to a society that is usually either hateful toward you or pretends you don’t exist. Perhaps also to help something or someone grow in ways we have been denied; to nurture other living things in the ways we wish we were nurtured. This is especially true, it seems, for lesbians who don’t want children –– but these dreams tempt us all.

I think I really had myself convinced that this was what I had always wanted, when in reality, what I wanted was the pristine version I had set out in my head. Visiting the farm animals with Kayla, I had assumed, would be a peak into my future: a partner; a farm; a sense of freedom derived from both. But as I stood, panicked in the bathroom, goat shit on my bare legs from eager goat feet, I realized that if this was living my future, I didn’t want it.

It’s impossible to tell the difference between a “real” dream (one that came “only” from inside one’s head) from a dream installed there by some outside source –– namely, because almost everything is a combination of those two. But it’s important to acknowledge outside and personal implications for those dreams, if realized, and to allow oneself to enjoy an ideal but know the reality is not for them. I’m still learning this.


*However lucky you think I am to have Kayla in my life, multiply that by a factor of ten.

**See above.

Sarah, wearing shorts and a t-shirt, stands bent over in the lower right of the frame. Sarah is also wearing a purse and a baseball cap. They pet a sheep in its open stall with one hand.

in a shocking display of productivity

This is a post in two distinct and pretty disingenuous parts. I had a flash of writing-desire on Thursday when I made myself as busy as humanly possible for most of the day, and another flash tonight, the night I publish these two halves. I’m calling this a roundup in the hopes that that will explain/excuse that the halves of this post have nothing to do with each other.

Part I: Thursday.

Anxiety woke me this morning at 6:30, and this anxiety I wouldn’t trade for the world! I recently visited and stayed with my dear partner, Kayla. Of all of those days, Wednesday was the only one in which I got out of bed and dressed before 11:00. All else was put on hold and I’m glad I could focus on my time with them and their family. Prior to that, I had been bearing down hard on my personal writing and the thankless lit. mag submission process, as well as tasks relating to my internship. As the days went by, and especially while at Kayla’s, a thought lingered in my head: Are you spending enough time on Chinese?

I stopped going to Chinese language tutoring last month and I’m glad I stopped, I felt and still feel comfortable self-studying for two months before going back in the fall. But without weekly appointments in which I had to review the past lesson’s homework, Chinese somewhat fell by the wayside as I put my energies into writing and internship work. This morning, that realization kind of fell on my head: I woke up after less than five hours of sleep by an alarm bell screeching “STUDY!” in my head. I briefly tried to bargain with it; it was 6:30 in the summer, after all; but I came to the conclusion I always come to with these things: the best solution to something acutely anxiety-provoking is just to do it.

So I did it. I got up, I made coffee, I reviewed my character writing and vocabulary, I listened/watched a Chinese drama while I made a new Quizlet study set. I was feeling so good after doing this for a couple hours that I hung up clothes in my closet, photographed items to sell on Depop, and did a couple hours of work for my internship –– all before noon! As I write the first draft of this blog post, it’s 2:09 pm, and I’m feeling good; not nearly as tired as I was expecting, and I still have many hours left in the day before I usually go to bed.

What else did I do today? I listened to a LibriVox recording (and LibriVox is very cool, by the way: it has a selection of public-domain books read aloud by volunteers, and available to stream or download. This obviously isn’t sponsored; I really doubt LibriVox has that kind of money, nor I that kind of internet presence) of Mr. Spaceship by Phillip K. Dick. PKD is best known for “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” (or, as a movie, “Blade Runner”). Although the term “cyborg” wasn’t coined until 1960, he more or less turned an old man –– presumably also disabled –– into a cyborg, by combining its intelligence with the “body” of a spaceship. This spaceship later comes to represent the collective “body” of not only humanity but all living things, and I think it’s a wonderful meditation on the discursive possibilities available for disabled/hybrid/chimeric bodies as we talk about the future of…everything we know, love, and hope for. It really turns that whole idea of “disability as antithetical to futurity”* on its head. I mean, what’s more futuristic than making your body a spaceship?

Part II: Saturday.

I was so, so energized on Thursday, and as I mentioned then, it’s those times when I feel at my best and at my most confident. Since then, things have gone back to normal, and I’ve been sleeping in (and sleeping much better, now that I’ve returned to a study/work schedule). I don’t think I’m cut out for vacations as such, but that’s another thought to wring my hands over in a different post.

In addition to continuing all the aforementioned activities for the next month before school starts, I’m contending with two relatively-significant changes in my life: one recent and chosen; the other a bit older and unchosen. First, the chosen change: I made a new group for “What’s Your Story?” (WYS) that is open for all (not just Mount Holyoke students) to join. I think I’ve been putting off doing this because it’s a terrifying reminder that I only have two years left until I graduate from Mount Holyoke. Although the future of my studies looks exciting, Mount Holyoke is the first community in which I’ve felt the degree of security that I do. I don’t think WYS would have been the same had it started anywhere else, with anyone else; because of this, I’m feeling all of these anxieties around the character of the group/event changing once it’s open to more people.

Although this is the only logical way to move forward with WYS (assuming I don’t want to abandon it come 2020, which I don’t think I will) I’m feeling this sense of nostalgia; this urge to cling to “the good old days” of WYS that are actually still happening. Nostalgic feelings are strange like that: the real pleasure (?) that comes from them isn’t in the actual thing you miss, it’s the way you dress up the thing you miss until missing it feels good on its own. WYS has always been a healthy combination of stressful and rewarding for me, and there is no reason for me to think that it will be any different once a new set of voices are ready to be featured in it. As more and more of the initial members graduate, I’m already wading into the new WYS talent pool, and it clearly hasn’t disappointed.

On a technical level, Facebook doesn’t make it easy to change a group. I couldn’t figure out if or how I could make the original WYS a group that was “outside Mount Holyoke,” so I had to start a new group from scratch. Fresh starts are great and even necessary at this point, especially as I have a better knowledge of how to make the group as accessible and as smooth as possible now than I did when this was new to me. As for the zine I’m editing, I’m still soliciting submissions, but I’m also planning to host discussion/creative meetings early this fall as ways for people to brainstorm responses to my prompt on disability and spacetime. We can be so much more generative when we’re together, plus, WYS group meetings are always a highlight of my semester.

Speaking of being generative together, there is the unchosen change. I’m going to have to switch therapists, as mine has taken a new job. My next session with her will be my last. I have never felt attached to a therapist before, and it is very much a privilege (although it shouldn’t be) that my current one is good enough to warrant that kind of attachment from me. She’s been with me through a lot, and has turned from a mere tool to get me access to transition, to a resource and semi-mentor for me in several parts of my life. I know that my experiences with her, especially as I’m a lesbian and trans person as well as psychosocially disabled, are rare. I have received nothing but support and respect from her. I fear that she is as much of a unicorn in her field as the most cynical part of my brain says she is –– and with the state of psychiatry as it is, even the “rational”  part of my brain has no reason to be optimistic.

Given the progress I have made in critical metacognition around my life, thoughts, and feelings, as well as the amazing steps I have taken in my transition, I am so glad this person has been part of my life, even though she’s moving onto something new now. No matter what happens with the next therapist –– as with the next iteration(s) of WYS –– I’m always going to have the amazing things I’ve learned already and the things I can remember forever. In the meantime, I have plenty to keep me busy until I move back to Mount Holyoke on September 1st. And once the semester begins, I’ll have significantly less time to make blog posts in which I wallow in my nostalgic confusion and fear of change (although I will still refuse to get up at 6:30).


* Read more on this in Feminist, Queer, Crip by Alison Kafer.

a word of recommendation: cringy old tunes

Every now and then, when I’m cruising through Spotify, I spot a song that takes me back. It’ll be totally unexpected; I may not have ever remembered liking this or that song independent of Spotify’s prompting. It will likely make me cringe, especially because throughout my life I have been convinced of the superiority of my own music taste. Yet the impetus to make a childhood music playlist grew with each nostalgic encounter. Finally, the urge proved too much to sit with. So, this month, I made it.

It is by no means a complete (play)list. In fact, the more music I’ve added, the more the inevitably-missing songs frustrate me. Nonetheless, I currently have 503 songs saved on a playlist named “sarah cavar childhood hits” (no caps, we’re keeping it casual). The rules regarding which songs I could add to this list are relatively simple. One, the songs in question had to have been listened to at or before age thirteen. I designate my graduation from eighth grade and beginning of high school as the arbitrary upper limit of my childhood for these purposes. Two, the songs could not simply be from a childhood artist that I liked, but rather, they must be individual songs I can remember listening to.

I have this playlist on shuffle right now and I’m going to write about whichever five songs that pop up as I’m writing this post. I leave behind “Layers” by Asobi Seksu, which provided background to my introduction. Incidentally, this group was the one that introduced me to “shoegaze” as a genre. It is also a group that scandalized my young ears when I learned its name meant “play sex” in Japanese.  Their music is as dreamy as one might hope play sex to be.

1. Onto the childhood song-shuffle. I’m now listening now to “Hero / Heroine” by Boys Like Girls. This is one of those whiny sad boy songs I rarely let myself listen to both back then and today. I didn’t yet understand the mass appeal of whiny sad boy songs, all I knew was that the particular tone of this song made me unbearably melancholic. I listened to this song on the way to my grandmother’s house lived. I stared out the window sadly, as one does in these situations. I finished the song as I am currently doing. I found myself caught up in whatever deeply emotional memories, even nostalgia, I may have had a decade ago. My stomach had dropped into sadness and wouldn’t rise. Sad boy songs suck. It should be noted that, as I finish working on this blog post almost twelve hours after beginning it, this song is still stuck in my head and continues to make the backs of my eyes feel like I’m about to cry. Well done, Boys Like Girls!

2. The song ended and “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel began. I still remember most of the lyrics/historical events from this song –– I had them all memorized years ago, back before I knew what half of them meant. When Joel sings about “children of thalidomide,” I’m reminded of a particular event in fourth grade I’m still unsure of how to look at from a disability studies perspective. Ah yes, “children of thalidomide.” He just sang that as I wrote the other sentence. Anyway, I was in art class in fourth grade and (as was popular in 2009?) watching several boys in the class tuck most of their arms into their short-sleeved shirts and wave their hands around, pretending as though their arms didn’t exist. Our then-teacher scolded them harshly for making fun of children of thalidomide by stuffing their arms into their shirtsleeves. I was proud to have context for what she said. Most of my peers were confused. Had I known the infamous term “special snowflake” back then, I surely would have called her one. Present me cringes at the memory. My problematic self took home a set of her scented markers that year.

3. A middle school song is on now. “Everest” by Ra Ra Riot. I discovered Ra Ra Riot while sitting on a pink beanbag with my iPod touch, hungrily scouring iTunes for good music on which I could spend a new gift card. I was smugly satisfied that I had discovered such indie bands such as Arcade Fire, of whom I was convinced no one else had ever heard. I was devastated when “The Suburbs” received critical acclaim, convinced that my beloved “indie band” had lost all its rarity and thus all its value. Ra Ra Riot was a recommended band beneath the option to purchase an Arcade Fire album on iTunes. It had received significantly less notice; fewer reviews. Well done, Sarah! I thought to myself. One of your indie bands may have been discovered, but there will always be another for you to dig up and hoard for yourself!

4. I’m listening to “Chocolate Chips” by Zoe Boekbinder now. I discovered the Boekbinder sisters via their act Vermillion Lies. I downloaded several of their albums from Bandcamp. I was very confused as to why people liked these quirky woman singer-songwriters who half sang/half spoke along with some strange instruments which likely weren’t instruments at all. This confusion grew as I discovered both CocoRosie and Regina Spektor, both of whom I shunted into this (admittedly too-broad) category. When I was trying to add music by the Boekbinder sisters to this playlist, I was struck by 1) how little of their work had made its way from Bandcamp to Spotify and 2) how deeply I now adored their music. I’ve been listening to the Boekbinders as often, now, as I listen to their half-siblings: Tune-Yards, Superorganism, etc. If anything, to me, this quirky girl music is antithetical to the sad boy music I bemoaned in item (1). It constantly makes you wonder, “Is this music? Is she just banging pots and pans together and speak-singing along with the sound? Either way, why do I like it so much?” I just do.

5. Lastly, the song “Noise” by Tokio Hotel comes on. I had a next-door neighbor I’ll call V. V introduced me to all kinds of things; among them were Invader Zim, Tokio Hotel, and the idea of “bandom” in general. She had a cardboard cut-out of Robert Pattinson in the corner of her room. Robert stood watch as we listened to the Hot Topic hits she had downloaded on LimeWire (RIP) and I forced myself to like them. Tokio Hotel’s music often strayed into sad boy territory, but this was one of the few songs that didn’t make me feel like I was melting on the inside. “Noise” was my go-to favorite Tokio Hotel song, the one I’d bring up when making conversation with V’s friends as I stared longingly at their scene apparel and prayed for the wherewithal to someday enter my mall’s Hot Topic all by myself.

Music has an uncanny way of possessing us; at least, possessing our memories. From this Spotify adventure I find myself learning, if nothing else, that the songs from my childhood I consider to be “cringey” weren’t so in and of themselves, but rather became that way through the memories and experiences I associate with them. Each time I turn on my playlist (and a “private” listening session) I’m struck by the way the public presence of these songs, charged with memory, force me to relive what I might prefer to keep hidden.

As I conclude this piece, “Kingdom Come” by The Civil Wars comes on. It’s a good song, from the first movie in The Hunger Games series. I (age thirteen) went to the premiere with my friends. I wore a black pinstriped fedora with a white ribbon, and my prescription glasses were thick-rimmed and tortoiseshell (“geek chic”?). Although I have destroyed all photographic evidence of that time, the song remains and forces me to encounter its redeeming qualities; perhaps even the redeeming qualities of my cringey, young self (though I’m still not sure there are any). 

A white, strawberry-blonde toddler sits in a plastic toy red car beneath a Christmas Tree.

baking gender from scratch

There was a period of time in my life –– specifically, prior to my first contact with trans-supportive physical environments –– when I regarded gender creativity as such with suspicion. This was true even and especially once I myself was trans. I could not understand people my age and older whose genders were not so much documentable features of themselves but rather glitter-covered, purposefully obstructive, and necessarily defiant and even antagonistic toward gender-conformity and its observers. It was around this time that I found the blog Raising My Rainbow. Several years later, I found the blog of Martie Sirois, the mother of a gender-nonconforming child and all-around effective accomplice to trans people at large.

I read her blog with fascination, often fantasizing about what my life would have been like, had I been raised explicitly outside the gender binary. Of course, looking back today I realize that the hegemonic position of the gender binary means that merely having parents who disagreed with wouldn’t free me from its clutches. But back then, I didn’t know what “hegemony” meant and still held the entry-level view that there were two discrete things, “sex” (which is “real”) and “gender” (which is socially constructed), and that one was beholden to sex but could discover new possibilities with gender. The fact that I held this view –– as many did in 2013 and 2014 –– made me even more enchanted by this mother who gave birth to a child and then chose to ignore that child’s “sex” in favor of a degree of gender freedom.

Something I find interesting about Sirois’s blog is that it does not only use “gender creative child” but also “gender creative life” –– perhaps a swing at those medico-social systems that claim desperately that transness in kids is temporary; disregardable. Semantics notwithstanding, though, these were resources through which I could scroll for hours –– especially Raising My Rainbow, which existed back when, despite my emergent identity, I knew next to nothing about transness and was looking for answers.

Since then, I’ve simultaneously become more academic in my transness and more creative (although it should be noted that those two attributes neither must nor should be in opposition to each other). As the jargon I use to discuss my transness becomes more comfortable in my mouth, so do “creative” statements that my prior self would have dismissed as meaningless. For example, I remember telling my therapist last year, “My gender is vengeance.” There’s no way to articulate what precisely that statement means for me, but it’s a felt reality and I’m learning to speak it. Even in spaces in which being transgender was not deemed morally wrong, being trans is seen as just as concrete and “unfun” as being cis is: merely a fact of life rather than a creative pursuit. As we know, gender is never “merely” a fact of life: it’s a mark, an action, a material position, a transgression, a recognition, and so much else. Why not an act of creativity, while we’re at it?

As we know, gender is never “merely” a fact of life: it’s a mark, an action, a material position, a transgression, a recognition, and so much else. Why not an act of creativity, while we’re at it?

Much of what young-trans-me feared about gender-as-creation, I think, was the accompanying knowledge that gender was a weapon dealt to us that we can not shrug off under present conditions, however intensely I and others might identify with genderlessness. We can’t choose to wholly disidentify with gender, or live in a parallel universe to it: our options for living gender on a daily basis range from complacence to deviance, but no matter what we are in the belly of the beast. When I first learned about being nonbinary, I thought I had found some enlightened “middle road” wherein I wouldn’t be subject to gender’s vice-grip. In order to stay “respectable” and away from gender, then, I would have to be politely and quietly trans. If I was too, dare I say, “flamboyant,” my cover would be blown and I would be a girl once more. But no: I was still in the belly, still subject to cissexism, still misgendered, still forever seen as doing-girl-wrong, doing-boy-wrong, and never as doing [whatever this is]-right.

As I’ve grown and studied the myriad ways in which we dance and die with gender, I’ve come to realize what all marginalized people (hopefully) come to realize: that being respectable won’t soften the violence of oppression. All it might do is transfer that violence onto people more visibly de(v/f)iant than oneself, and even then, no one is left marked yet unscathed. It would be a contradictory statement; a contradictory way of being. If I saw something wrong with utter gender insanity in myself and others –– and I mean that with wholehearted solidarity and respect –– then I was simply seeing something wrong with the bogusness of gender itself, and was choosing to project my hatred of gender onto those who clearly resist it, including me.

I realized that this was a topic I wanted to discuss earlier this afternoon, when I was texting my friend, Leo. He’s been on testosterone for about two months now, and we were discussing are vastly different relationships with and uses of the hormone. While he injects a “standard” dose of T and views T as necessary for his survival in the way I view my mastectomy, I have periodically used and not used a low dose of T, in gel form. Although I’m coming to feel it as more of a natural and good part of my life, for a long time I felt little at all about it. I began with one pump of the gel, then two. I stopped for a time, went back on. In Amsterdam, I stopped using it entirely for several months, and then began again near the end of my trip, using three pumps a night instead of two so I could use up the bottle and not have to carry it home with me. Gender-creative. Hormone-creative.

There is something intoxicating about looking at that T every night and thinking, “I can do whatever I want with this.” I never have to use it again. I can ask for an increase in my prescription if I want it. I can stop using it for a year and begin using it again next year (this particular bottle expires in 2020, after all). Whatever choice I make won’t make me “more” or “less” of whatever gender-word I decide to align myself with, and my authenticity doesn’t ride upon my use or non-use of certain aspects of medical transition. Instead of feeling as I did in middle school art class –– forced under penalty of failure to make whatever drawing or painting Mrs. – decided I must make –– I feel today more like I’m writing in my journal and doodling in the margins. Gender creativity never exists outside its social context, much as we wish it did, but to create one’s gender-body-self by doodling rather than by following classroom rules is liberating nonetheless.

Gender creativity never exists outside its social context, much as we wish it did, but to create one’s gender-body-self by doodling rather than by following classroom rules is liberating nonetheless.

There are groups of trans people who sincerely believe in (boring!) essentialist ideas about transness: these are the types who will spout “born in the wrong body” narratives and insist that everyone else must relate to those narratives, too. Some will go so far as to side with leading medico-psychiatric bodies (and siding with institutions in power is generally not a good sign) that transness (more precisely, dysphoria) is a disease which physical transition must “cure.” The very nature of these statements, which young-me came to internalize and current-me is unlearning, flies in the face of creativity. It traps you in precisely the same way that cisness traps you: by many of these logics, if I am not a woman, I never was and never will be, and thus must be a man. And to qualify as a trans man, I must go along with preconceived notions of manhood, and any evidence of vestigial femininity can and will be used against me as I transition.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because this is the same trap into which people of all genders, including cisgender people, fall. This is not only me, the nonbinary person whose increasing creativity is allowing them to reclaim femininities that I (was) denied in myself. This is the cis woman who questions her womanhood because she can’t give birth to children (notably, a struggle which many cis and trans women both share). These are men of all relationships to manhood who find themselves unable to access their emotions beneath the logics of patriarchy. It feels as though we as a society are trying, albeit unsuccessfully, to liberate ourselves from gender doctrine.* This requires a shared understanding of gender-creativity, as well as people willing to fuck (up) gender merely as a way of exposing its ridiculousness. Exposing gender requires being ridiculous ourselves. It requires gendering ourselves as vengeance, as punk, as a flower, as a piece of art or music, etc. It requires us to be glittery, obnoxious, boa-wearing queers…or whatever equivalent is desired.

To refuse the possibilities offered by gender creativity, as I did years ago, would be to forgo the frankness and wonder I projected onto the gender creative children a large part of me longed to be. I kept up with that blog so as to live vicariously through someone who was less afraid of making fun of gender than I was; who was more used to laying its issues bare. My time at Catholic school may not have made me a Catholic, but it did make me an agnostic who loves rules, and reading these blogs gave me an escape from the rules around gender non/-conformity that I felt I had to follow in order to gain respect.

When we understand that gender isn’t something we can simply dismiss or fold up and put away –– however rightfully we might hate it –– we might find a way of weaponizing gender against its own interests like the creative, colorful, and brilliant people we are. But first we need to find the child in ourselves and view (trans)gender norms with fresh eyes, letting go of the social expectations we so desperately cling to.

 


*Which is impossible while still using gender as a system of social management and classification, but that’s a different post.

the distinct odor of 1837 hall, and other recent things

I have heard several people comment recently on how quickly June is going by, and I agree –– May seemed interminable, and at first June was just an extension of that month. Now we’re nearing July, the middle of summer, and the last month-and-a-half feel like a blur in hindsight. When people ask me what I’m up to this summer, I will first mention my internship and next mention my Chinese work; then, perhaps, I’ll mention something vague about “reading and writing for myself”.

That phrase, “reading and writing for myself” feels so weak, so feeble. In reality, sometimes it can be. But it’s one of the things I love most about the summer; about all breaks from school, really. For the rest of the summer –– in fact, even beyond the rest of the summer –– I’m considering writing updates on what I’ve been reading. Let me know if you like that idea! I’ll begin today: I’m working on Humankind by Timothy Morton. Although its subtitle is “Solidarity with nonhuman people” it is, in fact, not a vegan polemic! Imagine! It has more to do with philosophy; corellationism* versus object-oriented ontology (OOOh!)** and how those different ways of considering materials in spacetime might allow us to consider the agency of nonhumans. There’s a lot to it and it’s pretty slow going compared to how I usually read, but it’s really an enchanting book.

I’m also working on The Archaeology of Knowledge by Foucault. It’s amazing how much easier it is to get through an otherwise-dense work now that I already have some basic knowledge of Foucault’s ideas at large. I don’t think I’d be enjoying it, and certainly I would not be able to read it as casually as I am, without having read and written about his work (and the work of his intellectual disciples, i.e. almost every theorist alive today, whether they agree with him or not).

Fiction-wise, I’m working on a fantasy novel called Uprooted by Naomi Novik. It gave me Beauty and the Beast vibes at the beginning — and in the bad, stop-doing-things-for-this-abusive-man type of way –– but it’s been surprising me pleasantly since I’ve gotten over that initial hump. I’m reading, in small chunks, various other books, too. But I’ll keep my book talk to these three for now, because the number of things I read concurrently is embarrassing.

On the subject of writing, or more precisely, curating and editing, I’m continually finding myself excited each time I see a new person express their interest in the “What’s Your Story?” zine I’m putting together. However, with each event or zine I do, I find myself more concerned with the….ironically enough, accessibility, of this work. When it comes to the logistics of the materials I provide, I have not heard any complaints about inaccessibility. But socially, I fear that my projects are not accessible by many disabled students who would otherwise be qualified to/interested in submit/ting. We live in a culture in which disability is only discussed in relation to its cure and/or its burdensomeness, and almost always through a medical lens. This is what makes self-narrativization so important for us; it gives us a way to “speak back” at those who attempt to speak for us.

Speaking back is important when any disabled person does it, but I’ve noticed in “What’s Your Story?” that the same people –– and the same types of people –– tend to be the ones contributing every time. Those who represent my project, including myself, represent the sorts of people who “represent” MHC at large: white domestic students, either cisgender women (mostly) or transmasculine people (closer to the fringes). I’m considering the possibilities that might allow me to solicit a more diverse body of work from a primarily-MHC demographic. This must be done without tokenization or pressure, but at the same time, must be done with more energy than I’ve previously been using (considering that my recent efforts at including more voices have had such limited effectiveness). If anyone has curated before and had similar struggles, please message me! Also, of course, if you’ve never submitted to WYS before and are interested, please get in touch by August!

In unrelated news, I’m pleased to report that I have finally been able to (somewhat literally) reap the benefits of my family’s having signed up for a farm share for this summer. Recent days have been awash with strawberries (that I picked myself!); fresh tomatoes, spinach, romaine, herbs, and more. We’ve never been enrolled in a CSA before and only have the smallest share offered, but I recommend it already.

And as for the most recent happenings in my life: About two hours ago I arrived home from an overnight stay with my friend Chloe at Mount Holyoke, where she’s working this summer. I had a great time and so deeply appreciate friends like her, with whom I can talk and talk and talk, and we can entertain ourselves by talking for hours and not get bored. 1837, the hall in which all people spending the summer at MHC are staying is the only hall I have ever stayed in at Mount Holyoke and the only hall I plan to stay in; walking (back) into the hall was such a comforting experience. Even the smell of old food and unpicked-up garbage quintessential to each floor’s kitchenette made me feel as though I had never left.

It was very nice to have a change of scenery for a little while –– to be away from my laptop, to read and write in a new space around someone I don’t usually room with. Next week is already the beginning of July. For now, I’m going to spend a bit of time missing Mount Holyoke since I just got a taste of it, but I’m also excited to keep on with my normal summer activities, potentially add new ones, and have air-conditioning in my room.


*Correlationism: When I (a human subject) see the laptop, the laptop comes into being. We can never know that it exists any other way.

**OOO (speculative realism): the laptop is itself more than I (a mere human subject) can ever think it to be, and exists whether I think it or not.

the story of “what’s your story?”

I mentioned here that I was considering writing the history (and even future!) of “What’s Your Story?” on this blog, both for the edification of others and also as a keepsake & reminder for myself.

I, a first-year, entered the 300-level disability studies course already sharing something in common with the professor I did not yet know: both of us were unsure as to whether I was qualified to be there at all. Luckily, the class in question was a joy to work and “prove myself” in, and became a major factor in my final decision to take up critical disability studies as an informing area of my CST focus/specific course of study and research.

Although I gradually grew more comfortable in the class as the months passed,  I grew more anxious at the looming threat of our final projects. We were heavily encouraged not merely to write a paper (the required length of which was still longer than any academic work I had written in high school) but instead to transform our classroom knowledge into an action project of some sort. I did to some of the requisite research for a paper topic, in case possible action project plans fell through (as I feared they would). I ended up writing –– for a different class –– the paper whose topic I researched, and nervously proposed “some kind of open mic, speak-out sort of thing, that I am not calling a ‘support ‘group’ therapy session.”*

I had initially come upon the idea by considering my irritation with the traditional group-therapy model: patients sit in circles to publicly confess their sins to the all-knowing professional, who then –– instead of giving them Hail Mary’s –– imposes upon them pre-determined Coping Skills as though said respective skills are a magic bullet for all people who might share a common diagnosis. The name “What’s Your Story?” emerged from a similar sense of irritation at having to divulge my (mental health) history accurately, consistently, and with gradually-increasing (not too rapidly, lest I look like a faker) degrees of self-awareness that will eventually conclude with recovery; sanity.

I have heard the phrase “what’s your story?” in myriad forms, contexts, and tones. What each shares in common is that they are coming from the mouth of someone in power. These people –– in their quest to intimately Know you, the Other –– creates the very narratives about the “causes of mental illness” and the pictures of “what insanity looks like” that they believe they are searching us to discover!**

Given this, I quickly realized I had to take my story back and share it on my own terms.

I figured that a way to radically reinvent the “story” conversation was to bring into the open –– and dare I say, “fight the stigma!” (although I always hate sounding like a highway billboard or inspirational video) around existing-as-disabled. Although I did not have much access to the knowledge and experiences of people whose disabilities are marked as “physical,” I knew the questions of “what happened?” paralleled in many ways the demands for story-disclosure with which psychosocially disabled, mentally ill, etc. people are barraged.

I made posters, sent emails, created Facebook events as well as a distinct group for attendees/participants, and haphazardly coordinated the physical space in which the event would take place. I bought allergen-friendly food, created the transcript documents for peoples’ performances, and set/cleaned up the space. My professor had generously offered extra credit to any of my classmates who showed up at my event, which only slightly diminished my then-anxiety around low attendance.

The event turned out to be as successful as it was exhausting. It didn’t run as smoothly as more recent events have (obviously) nor was I brave enough to share something of my own at the time. I don’t remember precisely how long the first event lasted, but I remember it ran far longer than I had thought it would, mostly due to the group discussion that took place after the formal readings were over. It occurs to me in hindsight that this was the first time I had experienced such a well-attended, compassionate discussion on disability. I had set the parameters clearly beforehand: abled accomplices were welcome to listen & learn, and would become unwelcome upon any attempts to dominate the discussion or claim upheld expertise.

I don’t know who it was who suggested to pass around a paper, taking down emails of attendees who wanted more events like that one. If they’re reading this, they’re welcome to email me so I can give them the hug they are most certainly due come fall. The desire to speak for myself and with others like me, instead of speaking of myself and to those who erroneously claimed authority over my life experiences, was clearly shared.

So, the next semester, I planned another event. And then there was a zine. And another zine, accompanied by an event. And then there was Amsterdam, and I was very sad to have missed out on hosting what I’m sure would have been a great event with amazing people. I’m excited to move forward now that I will be back at Mount Holyoke for four more semesters.

There were a lot of unintended, useful things that came of “What’s Your Story?”: organizing experience, planning knowledge, on-the-ground knowledge of what event accessibility can look like, learning to edit aggregated content, learning to recruit contributors, learning to publicize events via word-of-mouth and social media. My resumé has thanked me 1,000 times over. This series of events has also brought me closer to innumerable peers who I may never have known well if it weren’t for “What’s Your Story?”.  Finally, having assisted in producing, and certainly seeing, the benefits of peer-based disability organizing and the sharing of feelings and knowledge as equals and not inferiors gives me a way to talk about alternatives to institutional medicine & psychiatry in the real world.

Unfortunately, there still exist the conditions that necessitate events like this. These are the conditions that lead people, when I first try to explain “What’s Your Story?” to them, to scratch their heads. The notion of unmediated wisdom coming from the mouth of a disabled person is unthinkable when the producers of knowledge we see all have Dr., or at the very least, LCSW, attached to their names. As someone who, relative to others like me, has an increased degree of autonomy over their life, I do feel a sense of responsibility to keep organizing these events simply because I’m able to. But also, every time I (re-)read a zine, attend an event, or even simply describe the event’s ethos to others (as I’m doing now) I feel a sense of pride, accomplishment, and fun. Yes, disability can be fun; we can commune to revel in each others’ brilliant imperfections (if you will) with no need, no desire for “fixing.”


* There exist far more overlapping terms that psych-professionals use to talk about professionally-mediated spaces in which disabled people come together, and almost all of these are shortened to “Group”, which tends to be used as though it’s a proper noun.

** Obviously, I was not thinking about this as a first-semester first-year, at least, not in those terms. As I reflect now, I’m able to use such concepts thanks mainly to theorist Sara Ahmed. I’m currently reading her (2000) work, “Strange Encounters,” in which she describes the way the ego’s desire for knowledge of “the strange(r)” produces the conditions that make people “strange(rs)” in the first place.