For those of you that are new to the blog, the Taboo Tab section on shaunanagins.com is dedicated to showcasing individual stories on subjects deemed “taboo” in polite conversation. With the help of storytellers willing to share their experiences, we have been able to help people relate to each other better, build awareness, and create compassion. It’s place for listening, for reminding one another that we aren’t alone…and that, whatever our stories are, we aren’t broken.
It was 2011. I suppose that wasn’t so long ago, really, but it feels like forever now.
I was sitting in the basement of a local Unitarian Universalist Church, surrounded by regular attendees. I hadn’t been to any kind of worship in at least a decade, and felt like a fetus surrounded by middle aged church goers. I watched as the Minister passed around markers, telling us to “draw our spiritual journey.”
(I realize this may seem strange, but trust me–it’s business as usual at the UU.)
I drew and labeled tentatively across the page. When we finished, I partnered up with the woman across from me to go over the designs. She showed off her intricate, curving pathway–marriage, born again Christianity, yoga, Wicca, kids. It was a beautiful timeline, and I smiled back at her story as she scanned my drawing curiously.
I hadn’t drawn a timeline.
I had drawn a tree.
A group show-and-tell circled around the room. One by one, everyone began revealing their timeline. Curves, corners, arrows, paths, this-thus-that. Even the Minister illustrated his journey with thick, chronological lines.
And there I was, with my frizzy short hair and limited life experience, clutching an image of twisted branches while everyone poured out their major life events.
On some level, it probably had to do with my age. When the Minister said “spiritual journey,” all my young mind could think of were moments and relationships, good meals and great ideas, quiet places and loud families. These were the things that made God seem just a liiiittle closer than usual. So I drew roots. Branches to represent friendships, leaves to represent moments. Some of the leaves were falling off of their perch; others were growing flowers. Text and little hearts explained (or refused to explain) what it all meant.
Basically, it was hyper-symbolic. It was not so simple –> as –> this.
And maybe it was a little strange, maybe it wasn’t quite what the Minister was looking for, but…I was proud of my tree. I liked the openness. There were “big life” events on the tree, of course, markers of birth/death/love/war. But there were other things, too. The tree represented my life as a work-in-progress, with multiple facets. One big, bright leaf reflected a long, peaceful silence I shared with a close friend. Another represented the first time I got absolutely engrossed watching a play.
The tree let those things matter.
Looking back, my favourite thing about the tree is that it was strong, but not rigid. It was alive.Parts could grow, or break and fall right off, and it would all be natural. As a young person, that was important. I think it might stay important as I get older.
(It’s also possible that I’m just kind of a hippie. Feel free to raise an eyebrow.)
By nature, timelines present our memory and our identity as rigid. They present our lives as one big story, instead of millions of imperfect experiences. I don’t know if that’s fair. I don’t think we should restrict our identity to the things that “count” as milestones. We aren’t necessarily tragic heroes with a beginning-middle-end. Nor are we self-aware folks on a direct journey through life. “That was a really hard time in my life,” or “That was the happiest I’ve ever been.”
Too simple. That’s just too simple. We aren’t timelines. We can’t stop at chronology. I don’t want to compartmentalize your life, or my life, not like that.
Yes, yes, I realize all this might sound odd coming from a History student.
Let me be clear: Timelining is a great way to establish context. It’s not a crime to treat events as “things that took place,” or even to consider people as empty, reactive vessels that “things happened to” at first. I absolutely devour the nothing-but-chronological unfolding of the world through the lens of time.
But I also don’t, and can’t, stop there.
Even in History, reality often comes in trees. Family trees, for example. Essay outlines. Complex international relations maps.
We have to branch out. Timelines are great at telling base, simple stories…but they’re not so great at telling the whole truth.
And when it comes to our own identity, our own History, we deserve the Truth. We deserve to represent ourselves as more than a timeline–more than what happens to us, and certainly more than a few life events that people have decided are “important.”
Maybe, just maybe, we could use the wisdom of trees to start looking at that.
(I know, I know. Hippie alert, part two. You can raise your other eyebrow.)
The Taboo Tab is a a community of writers and readers bravely putting faces and stories to subjects society seems to skip over.
This month, that subject is sexuality. Whew. Not exactly a small topic. And it’s a serious one, too–just look at what has been in the news this week.
This is a powerful group of stories that together show the complexity and diversity of a notoriously challenging area. There are stories about judgement, outlooks, and experiences. Slut. Prude. Abstinence. Rape. Conversation. Diversity.
We don’t properly realize how things roll until they stop rolling that way…at least for a minute, at least long enough for us to gain perspective. I mean that in the simplest way possible. I never realized that most women’s washrooms were on the left until I accidentally walked into a poorly placed men’s washroom—twice. I didn’t know that my fingers automatically typed names of past friends (okay, more-than-friends) upon the first couple keystrokes, until I stopped needing to type those names. And who can blame me for thinking everyone everywhere would know what poutine is, or have the lyrics to “If I Had A Million Dollars” memorized?
(PS. Non-Canadian readers: You should probably Google those cultural gems.)
My current life rolls along relatively untouched by too-soon death, something I didn’t really consider until these “Death & Grieving” articles came along. I shouldn’t be so surprised that reading all the articles made me feel so…aware. I also shouldn’t be so surprised that this awareness felt new.
But I was surprised. Caitlin Corbett (of “On Grieving”) and Niki Dignard (of “I am a Suicide Survivor”) are two of my go-to girls in Ottawa. Caitlin and a glass of wine. Niki and a new restaurant. We talk a lot, and we laugh a lot. Sometimes their losses come up, and we talk about those.
So, how could I not know? I mean really, really know what they had gone through. And what they were still going through.
Until they wrote it down, I’ll admit that I really didn’t.
The stories in the Taboo Tab hold a truth for everyone. For some, that truth is “Wow, I’m not alone.” For others (and for me) that truth is simply: “Wow, there are people around me going through this stuff right now. [Insert prayers, love, and increased social consciousness here].”
Either way, we get to be aware of one another. Awareness is a communicative art, one that we need to constantly work at. Why? Because awareness is AWESOME.
In my view, there should be two kinds of people present with any social issue you want to address: The storytellers, who have experienced an issue firsthand (aka the people who Know), and those who try to understand the stories (aka the people who Listen).
When it comes to loss, Caitlin and Niki are people who Know–and when things get rough, people who Know are the best.
Usually, when I talk about my own pain, I wind up trying to convince people that it’s actually really hilarious and I’m really, really “over it.” These people who Know see right through that.
People who Know: The survivors, the brokenhearted, the vulnerable. The ones willing to let you be vulnerable right alongside them. The ones also willing to put you in your place, quietly reminding you of the could-be-worse. They are more honest. Less judge-y. Keeping it real, because at this point, that’s really all they can do. And aware. So, so, so aware.
Me: “I have this loss. I have these feelings. I’m going to laugh/cry/be sick in front of you now, okay?”
People who Know: “LOSS? YES. Yes, that is horrible. I Know. Chocolate? Hug? Awkwardly timed joke?”
They Know. They can comfort and relate to others who Know. And by sharing their stories, they can help turn people who don’t Know into people who Listen…maybe, even people who Understand.
If the people who Know speak up, and if we let them–if we listen (unselectively), we share, and we try, try, try to “get it,” then we’ll know enough to build compassion and community. We will gain perspective. We will realize truths.
And that is the Truth about Awareness. It is how we move forward together. Awareness is how we learn how to love each other better. And forgive each other better.
Read enough stories, meet enough people, ask enough questions, and realize: We’re all so different. But we’re all so, so, so the same.
As I walked down the neon city streets on Thursday night, the words ‘How DID I get here?’ went through my head. And they stayed there. And repeated themselves, over and over and over.
I don’t have a lot of clear, I-can-see-the-words-in-my-head thoughts, but these words were bold–big letters dripping with disbelief (sans serif letters, for you typography geeks).
‘How DID I get here?’
It wasn’t the defeated kind of ‘Ungh, HOW did I get here?.’ I know how that kind goes. That kind is behind the way-too-long minutes (hours?) spent sitting barefoot on the bed, ‘oh, I don’t even know. Maybe I should read a book or move to a different country or something.’ That kind has seen me walking uncomfortably to the edge of nowhere (which I have yet to find, by the way), face buried in cheap sunglasses. That kind powers searches for nearest place where it feels okay to cry out “Um, God? Hi. Can you or your kid or someone who knows what they’re doing please take it from here?”
No, on Thursday it was nothing like that.
But it wasn’t the excited ‘WOW, How did I get here?,’ either. I have had a few of those moments recently. When Sex, Lies, and Storytime started spinning around the internet and loading up with comments, I literally ran into the bathroom and freaked out in front of the mirror: “Ohmygod. Am I actually a writer now? I’m a writer now. People are reading what I write.” (<< that is the toned-down, less embarrassing version.). Two weeks ago, I was sitting in my little DC room, practicing guitar and keeping up with some internship work, when I was suddenly overwhelmed by the power of music and ‘Wow!’ the fact that I was a part of it. I felt lucky. I felt good. ‘How did I get here?’
Thursday night was fun, but it wasn’t profoundly exciting. Nor was it profoundly upsetting. It was ‘How DID I get here?,’ a mix of amazement and…confusion, I think. Not good confusion or bad confusion, just the genuine I need to place this moment somewhere in my brain. Where do I place it? Where does it fit?
The thought wouldn’t budge.
‘How DID I get here?’
I haven’t faced those words a whole lot these last few years. I used to play the ‘How DID I get here?’ game all the time–when growing pains meet the travel bug, you rarely know completely where you are, how you got there, or what to think about it. But the last few years, I have just been living in Ottawa. Ottawa, which feels so strongly like Home. I never really had to consider my life there through the disbelief lens. It was just “adjusting,” and then “adjusted.” There were times I felt a little lost in what my life looked like, but I knew exactly how I got there. And I knew exactly where I was going.
Except, I didn’t. Because it turns out, I was going to the United States. I just never knew it.
I didn’t know I was going to end up in Washington DC….I still don’t understand quite how I ended up here, really. I know I applied for a few internships. I know I got a position at the Smithsonian. My days are spent in an office across from the National Mall. I eat breakfast every morning. By 5 pm, I have usually overdone Diet Coke and brainpower. My Saturdays are spent at the Holocaust Museum. My Sundays are spent spiritually addressing the fact my Saturdays are spent at the Holocaust Museum (easier said than done, but it’s important for me to be there).
It’s not a particularly mind-boggling lifestyle, but I can’t quite figure out how it ended up being my lifestyle.
I guess I’m asking you, then…Do those words (or something similar) ever go through your head? Do you ever go hunting for a comprehensive narrative as to why-how-why your life is what it is?
Here’s my theory: Most lives don’t fit into any sort of beginning-middle-end box. Even if they do, most of us are probably just hanging out in the “middle” looking for reasons and analyzing our lives like it’s the “end”. And most people don’t quite fit where they are, at least not all the time.
I think a lot of us look for timelines and reasons why-how-why when really, it’s not supposed to make sense. Not as much sense as we would like it to make, that is. And so I go back to this, as I always do:
“You are where you were always going, and the shape of home is under your fingernails.” – from the poem Transient by Al Purdy
I have wanted to write about this for a long time. I have so much to say about it. The problem is that I don’t have any stories about it– not that I am willing to share, at least. The world belongs to people who have the best stories. Sexual liberation belongs to women who are willing to stand up and say “I have sex! I have this much sex with this many people, and it’s okay!” or “I dress like this, so take that society!” Purity, modesty, and all that is pro-Virgin power comes from personal testimonies and Conservatively told bible stories.
And then there’s me.
Of course, I admire people who do tell their stories. They have changed my life, and the world really does belong to them. Stories have a neat way of improving social consciousness, evolving into full-blown movements. [Insert Pokemon evolution joke here?].
Me, I really don’t have a story that will change your life. I could probably make you laugh, but ultimately I’m not willing to share whether I’ve said Yes or No–certainly, I’m not telling the internet, nor my parents, nor most people I know. That doesn’t make me ashamed, by the way. I am fully comfortable with my sexuality. And I’m fully comfortable with keeping it to myself.
But since stories run the show, I will tell you the stories I know.
I know stories about women saying Yes, and it being a big problem. I know stories about women saying No, and it being a big problem. I know stories about misogyny disguised as miscommunication. I also know stories of miscommunication disguised as misogyny–God bless the little boys who receive mixed messages and lowered bars from society every day.
I know stories about people ashamed of what they have done, because that big bully “Society” told them they ought to be. Then there the people ashamed of what they haven’t done. There’s also shame in the couldn’t do, wouldn’t do–or, God forbid, like to do.
Oh, and there’s shame in what people don’t like to do, too. Sometimes, the don’t likes meet the likes and they confuse and shame each other. Fun, right?
I know stories about women who proudly wear the title “sexually liberated” because, well, they have a lot of sex and they want to own it and good for them. I know stories about women who are “sexually liberated,” or “sex positive,” but don’t have a lot of sex at all. I have heard tall tales from people who pretend they have more sex than they actually do, because they want to be part of the conversation. And then, of course, there are heartbreaking stories from folks who pretend they have less sex than they actually do, because that’s what is acceptable.
To make matters more confusing, these stories can all belong to the same person. Whether you’re in a Eucharist line or a picket line, chances are your sexual history is more definitive of who you are as a person than it should be.
Yes, I know stories. And so many of these stories make want to run up and give their keepers a big hug and say “It’s okay! You’re okay! You aren’t broken.”
Everyone is just trying to figure their shit out. If sexuality was sensible, reasonable, formulated, and mundane, then it wouldn’t be so friggin’ funny. And it is funny. It’s ridiculous. It’s romantic. It’s silly.
Welcome to human relationships, friends–they’re weird. When people take their clothes off, they get even weirder. So no, they don’t need your judgement. They need love, they need information. Please leave the close-mindedness at the door.
Oh, yes, there are serious things involved in sexuality: Health. Pregnancy. HIV. Disease. Emotional well-being. Rape. Consent. And we’re awfully good at confusing people about the serious parts by making up stupid rules about the ridiculous parts. These things need to be discussed honestly, but we keep loading them down with arbitrary social standards. Why? Do we really need to make sex more emotionally loaded and confusing?
Here’s what we need to do: Care about the stories. Let them speak. Respect the storytellers. Share your own stories, if you want to. And whatever your story is, however different it is than someone elses, whatever you choose to do with it: You aren’t broken.
You’re just another person with a story and a body, and no matter what, those two things belong to you and you alone.
I’m going to describe to you a hypothetical scenario. (Just hypothetical, mind you. I am not admitting to anything.).
You check Facebook. You see a post from an old friend. This post suggests that they’re doing cool stuff, and they’re doing it well. Yes, someone else’s life is awesome.
You’re a good person, of course, so your first thought is: Hey, that’s cool! Good for my friend!
(…except that it’s not.)
You start clicking through pictures. They have really cool looking new friends (who, you assume, are way cooler than you). And they’re hot. When did everyone get hot? When did everyone start doing cool stuff? By this point, your friend has completely trumped anything hanging around your profile–three months worth of George Takei “shares” and one music video from the 90s, to be exact. You look up. You are surrounded by all the laundry you have to do, clutter on your desk, a bleak-seeming text messaging inbox, the way your hair is growing in funny.
In a few hours you might be happy for them–but right now, you’re busy being mediocre.
Here’s the thing about jealousy. Jealousy has a stage name. It’s called inspiration.
I’ve learned this the hard way (okay, here comes the admitting part). I have spent way too much energy wanting/waiting/wishing/generally being useless. I think a lot of people have. It’s easy to become defeated when you see other people doing cool things. To pick a totally random example (Judi), you could see a picture of an old friend tobogganing down volcanoes in Nicaragua (Judi). At that point, it’s very easy to say “Well, I’m not in Nicaragua.” It’s easy to feel a little bit smaller than you did a second ago, to just move on with your day.
But what if you were to take that pang of ‘This is something I find awesome. Noted.’ and turn it into motivation? You could add to your bucket list. You could surround yourself with people who live amazing lives. You could learn from them.
Every year, I have the same overarching goal: to make next year’s Me someone that this year’s Me would crumble in jealousy of…or at least dread going up against in a job interview. I couldn’t even go about that without my jealousies-turned-inspirations. The fact is, I would not be in Washington DC right now if someone (Judi) didn’t offer so many envy-inciting stories about interesting jobs in new places. And I wouldn’t even be writing this had I not been struck with admiration(-cum-jealousy) after seeing other women’s mega-blogs this summer.
“Maybe I could do that. Right? Maybe? I don’t know.”
There was literally one way to find out. Just one.
Jealousy may be ugly, but inspiration is beautiful. Is someone else is trying new things? Noted. We should also go try new things. Did someone else accomplish something big? Noted. Let’s go start something big. Do you wish your butt looked even half that good in a pair of skinny jeans?
…yeah, me too.
Skinny jeans aside, we have a choice every day (cliche alert) to get bitter, or get better. I’m gonna try to be on team “get better.”