In the sixth and seventh sections of This Bridge We Call Home, four essayists, two of whom are the editors, discuss the process of becoming whole and moving the personal into the political sphere. The activism they speak of stems from a spiritual component to life that comes from within people (Keating 521). It allows us “imaginatively to feel [others’] conflicts and pain” (520). It allows us to “change on both personal and collective levels” (521). Unlike “conventional religion, which relies on external standards and authorities, this spiritual activism has its source within the individual” (520) and allows for difference to exist “as a catalyst for personal and social transformation” (519). These “spiritual components of life cannot be divorced from politics, sexuality, writing or daily living” (529, author’s emphasis). This spiritual component allows us to move from being fractured to being whole, and in this process our personal experiences become political statements made in our everyday lives. In addition to analyzing four essays, this paper will show my journey from fractured self to wholeness and how I have begun to make the personal political.
In “The Body Politic,” Elana Dykewoman describes herself as “a dyke, a butch, a Jew, a writer, an ex-mental hospital inmate, a teacher, a former printer, middle-class, fat, disabled, middle-aged, an anarcho-separatist with an analysis of power relations” (Dykewomon 452). From her experience as a fat activist, Dykewomon states that “culturally [fat people] have been ‘identified out of existence’ – they are ‘only’ one thing, and they serve only one purpose – cautionary” (453). There are “power relations around body size” which “force…us to compete for male approval” (453). In addition, Dykewoman says that “fat people, mostly women, are scapegoats for a myriad of cultural sins – fat means taking more than your share, a lack of intelligence, the moral failure to embrace ‘discipline’ and ‘will power,’ laziness, indolence, sloth, greed” (454). What she says is true. How many times have I looked at an overweight person and thought how lazy she must be not to at least try to lose some of the weight. Yet again I have made someone feel like an Other, but “how do we distinguish between claiming the identities that make it possible to make common cause and clinging to identities (both for ourselves and others) that reinforce hierarchical power structures?” (454). Surely the othering of overweight people reinforces the culturally dominant belief that all the most successful people are thin (or blonde or under thirty or have perfectly straight teeth). Our consumerist society (453), with its lack of comfortable and stylish and affordable clothes in larger sizes shows just how much a part of us this type of othering is. “Reality belongs to the one who tells the story. . .But we seem to carefully limit the stories that reach us to those stories that won’t push us to change,” Dykewomon says (454). The dominant narrative in America for a fat person would be for that person to lose weight and suddenly become successful, not that the person would become successful regardless of size. “our identities – our stories – are not only what we look like, but who we are,” and the way to change that is to “struggle to change the slots we occupy” (455). Dykewomon does this by noting the “dissonance between their [her students’] images of teachers and fat queers” and by using the “power to identify ourselves with as many labels as we can” (455). “Identifying ourselves – not as one thing, but as many” allows for “simultaneity – the discomfort of having to allow that identity is both fixed and fluid, both singular and multiple” (455-456). This is the “both / and perspective” Keating discusses in her essay “Forging El Mundo Zurdo,” (526) where “if you hold opposites long enough without taking sides a new identity emerges” (Anzaldúa 548).
A “both / and perspective” would have availed the hosts of a feminist conference that Diana Courvant was invited and then disinvited to speak at. As she explains in “Speaking of Privilege,” Courvant is a male-to-female feminist who does anti-domestic violence organizing as her life’s work (461). She discusses in detail her “struggle against trans oppression” (459) and does this by examining various ways privilege exists in America and by sharing what “dialogue” occurred before a feminist conference. It is a privilege not to see racism (459), to not be harassed (460), and to not be resented for the time it takes to board or leave a bus (460), Courvant says. It is also a privilege to be “able to find clothes that fit in materials I find ethical to buy and wear” (460). But this is where her privilege ends. Courvant relates the shocking tale of othering that occurred when the hosts of a feminist conference insisted that Courvant attend. She had turned the offer to speak down, but the hosts insisted. She was then told “that no penises would be allowed” and was asked “to describe [her] genitals so that it could be determined whether or not [she] was welcome” (461, author’s emphasis). We would never think to ask a biologically born female to describe in detail her genitals; why would anyone expect a transsexual to do the same? The invitation and rejection were told and retold, but those who spoke of the situation failed to ever discuss the matter with Courvant. “Without ever once contacting me, without having to consider my story, my feelings, my self,” Courvant says (451), the organizers and her so-called friends variously discussed the situation but never considered her or that the stories would get back to her. This is backstabbing in addition othering. Thus, Courvant “cannot trust that [she] will be allowed to do feminism in feminist institutions,” and she “cannot trust that [she] will be considered the authority on [her] own life.” (460). “Isn’t it privilege that we can freely claim that there should not be different treatment of people with different genders or sexes, when it serves us, and also claim that there are inherent differences between men and women that demand different treatment, when claiming that serves us?” Courvant asks at the end of her essay (462, author’s emphasis). After reading about Courvant’s experience with feminists, it is not a wonder that “murder and suicide take almost half of those[in trans community] who manage to be noticed?” (463). With friends like these, who needs enemies?
AnaLouise Keating wrote “Forging El Mundo Zurdo,” but it is in her biographical note that we find the labels. She is “a bisexual, light-skinned, mixed-“race” queer” (602). It is important to note these labels as they permit a start in finding the “complex points of connection that negotiate among sameness, similarity, and difference” (519). We cannot “ignore differences among women” (519), but “it’s not differences that divide us but rather our refusal to openly discuss the differences among us” (520). Keating writes of spiritual activism. This spiritual activism rejects the status quo (520) and allows for “alternate mode[s] of perception” (521). Keating supposes a “radical interrelatedness” to “all that lives” (522). Because of this interrelatedness, we have a responsibility (522) to understand that “language has tremendous psychic and material power” and that the “enemy is our urgent need to stereotype and close off avenues of communication and vision” (523, author’s emphasis). Working with what we know (524), we “go. . . deep into the self and. . .expand. . . out into the world” (522), creating change as we move through our social, academic, and cultural circles. This allows for a “variety of worldviews” in which “identities are shaped relationally” (526). As we exit from the old world view of a white, masculine, Christian-dominated society, we need nepantla, who “act in the everyday world” where “words are not enough” and who “perform visible and public acts that might make [themselves] more vulnerable” to othering (529).
Finally, Gloria Anzaldúa, in “now let us shift. . .the path of conocimiento . . . inner work, public acts,” is a queer woman with diabetes (552, 602). She discusses the seven stages of conocimiento, or the urge to act based on knowledge gained (540). When we redeem our “most painful experiences [we] transform them into something valuable” (540). Our “need to understand” allows us to “confront what [we]’ve programmed [ourselves]” into thinking” (540). Conocimiento is a “form of spiritual inquiry…reached via creative acts” (542). It opens gnosis, or knowledge, to those who search and allows our attention to become multileveled (542). “In all seven spaces [of conocimiento, we] struggle with the shadow, the unwanted aspects of the self” and “all seven are present within each stage” (545). Much like a phoenix, “bits of [ourselves] die and are reborn in each step (546). As nepantla occupying the between spaces where binaries collapse (541), we value all types of knowledge (541), from the scientific to the spiritual. Anzaldúa states that “nepantleras know their work lies in positioning themselves – exposed and raw – in the crack between these worlds” of binaries (567). We “[use our] wounds as openings to become vulnerable and available (present) to others [which] means staying in [our] body. Excessive dwelling on [our] wounds means leaving [our] body to live in [our] thoughts, where [we] re-enact [our] past hurts, a form of desconocimiento that gives energy to the past, where it’s held ransom,” she continues (572). I disagree with Anzaldúa’s statement that “the evil that lies at the root of the human condition is the desire to know – which translates into aspiring to conocimiento (reflective consciousness)” (542). She discusses the biblical story of Eve and the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, among other cultural tales wherein a woman has desired “knowledge” and has been punished for it. I am not as familiar with the other tales as I am with this one, but it is not simply about knowledge; it is also about obedience. The woman’s and the man’s disobedience were both punished, but it wasn’t a simple case of desiring knowledge. While other feminists will cite problems with the story from the Bible due to its patriarchal overtones, it is not simply a tale of the male in domination. Read as a whole, the Bible is a tale of redemption that occurs much later in the book.
But the fact remains: spiritual awareness is an important aspect of coming to voice as are literary criticism and making the personal political, and it is that journey I wish to share with you.
Act One: Fragmentation, Nothing Is Safe, and the Depths of Despair
A Letter to My 17-Year-Old Self,
You are fractured. You are fractured in so many ways you don’t know which end is up. It will be another SEVEN years before you get any type of real help. You can avoid so much pain and hurt and anxiety if you simply speak up now. But that isn’t how it will be. Those crying spells that you’re having, where you can’t breathe, where you feel as if you’re going to die, where you wish you were dead, those are panic attacks, and it will be another THREE years before you read an article about panic attacks that leads you to seek help from your college. And the person who provides you that help will leave you alone with no explanation other than canceling several weeks’ meetings in a row.
If you would only talk to the psychiatrist your mom takes you to see. You go only because she’s your mom, but you resist. You yell and scream, but you must obey her. Your only violence is to yourself, and that violence occurs in your head. You are awful, horrible, not worthy of anything. You don’t want the truth confirmed, or at least you don’t want what you THINK is the truth confirmed: Something is wrong with you, and that something is you are insane. If only you would talk to him. It shouldn’t matter that he has already diagnosed your brother with ADD and told your mom in family counseling to stop being the mediator between your father’s anger and you and your brother. Yes, this has exacerbated your depression. It hasn’t helped you one bit, but it has helped your mother. You need help, too, and you need help now in order to be whole. You ARE clinically depressed. It’ll be SEVEN years before you get any real help. SEVEN YEARS of lost time. What you don’t know is that the “knowledge that exposes your fears can also remove them” (Anzaldúa 553). You are at an ending, but it is also a beginning (546). This fragmentation is the end and the start; it is both and neither at the same time.
It will be many years before you read about other women’s lives. You will, in fact, be many years beyond your diagnosis of clinical depression when you start to get an understanding that all people are different but are also the same (Dykewomon 450). You’d always thought that your difference, though outwardly invisible, was a shameful mark of inferiority (Keating 519), and you did much to disguise it, even after your diagnosis. You tried to be perfect. Perfect at school, though not at the very top of the class. Perfect enough to get scholarships to the local private college. Perfect at being polite in public. Perfect and overachieving in your teaching career. Perfect on the outside. But you do not fit, you are a threat to the status quo (520); your illness is a deviation from the dominant culture (520) that says that everything is okay, that you must answer, “Great! And you?” when asked how we are, even when you face the “beast of depression alone . . .[with] no tools. . .[and feel so very] overwhelmed” (Anzaldúa 551). This is “depression’s slow suicide” (552). You are slowly dying. You are a mess on the inside, and you don’t know why. You just want to end everything. Yes, suicide. Inside everything is dark, but on the outside you show only a cheerfulness. You are a youth leader at your church, but you don’t know how long you can keep up the façade, and so it crumbles whenever you are at home, around the people who really know you. You cry. You scream. You crawl into the small space under your hanging clothes in your closet and hide.
When people see you, they see the good little Christian girl. You study your Bible. You’re prepared for the Sunday school lessons. You’ve never done anything truly outrageous, but inside you are dying and dead. “Our skins remain our first point of contact” with those we do not know (Dykewomon 450), and you have been privileged. When people look at you, they make assumptions about you just as you make assumptions about them, and while sometimes you get it wrong about others, so do they get it wrong about you (451). It’s not necessarily superficial; it’s the starting point in understanding others and ourselves (452). You carry these expectations with you (455), expectations of both yourself and others, and you fail to live up to what is expected of you. You fail to live up to what you THINK is expected of you. You’ve allowed the context of the dominant culture to take you over (455), and you don’t even know it. You’re super polite in public as a middle-class female who has learned to do what is expected of you (455), but in the privacy of the home you battle to “resist…the dark side of your reality” (Anzaldúa 554). As an able-bodied middle-class white girl trying to go it alone, you are failing miserably (Dykewomon 452). By sticking to your stereotypes in order “to anticipate social interactions and make them safe” so that you don’t experience more fragmentation (Dykewomon 454), you’ve built walls and isolated yourself (Keating 523). You’ve allowed the “hierarchies among women” to tell you that because of who you are, because your oppression is in the mind, that it doesn’t need to be discussed (Dykewoman 453).
You WILL despair for a very long time, my younger self. Unlike Dykewomon, you will not, as of this writing at age thirty-seven, have ever spent time in a mental hospital (542) and you don’t have to worry about any other ways of being seen as other: you are white, middle-class, a good student, respectful, privileged, a decent teacher. It will all work out, though. You don’t know this yet, but you will get help. It will be in the depths of despair when you are twenty-four, in the first month of marriage to a wonderful man, and he will ask you to get help. You will get help for him. To you, you don’t matter. To him, you matter a great deal. He matters a great deal to you. So for him, you will seek help.
Act Two: Call to Action (Anzaldúa 545)
Help will come in the form of anti-depressants. The psychiatrist will tell you to call if you need help. What he does not tell you is that the pills, which will work miracles the first night you take them, will only work for eighteen to twenty-four months. You will relapse, but you will have some sanity. You will no longer think of jumping out of the passenger side of a car or of driving the car into a brick wall or telephone pole. You will no longer feel the need to flee when there is conflict. Your mother will say that you behave more like her than your father, laughing instead of crying or, in his case, yelling. You will slowly tell your friends that what is different is that you have a diagnosis of depression. After the relapse and new medication, after getting a new psychiatrist who understands that he must schedule a meeting with you every three to four months or you risk relapse without anyone noticing or doing anything about it and after changing to a different high school to teach, you will begin to share with students who appear to be depressed that they are not alone. But you don’t want “[y]our activism [based] entirely on one identity” (Dykewomon 452). There is more to you. “Who you are becoming, not who you have been” is more important (Anzaldúa 556). You will begin to see that teaching really is a “core passion” (557), that when you heard God call you to teach at age sixteen that he really did know what he was doing. Though by eighteen you will enter college with a major other than education, within the first semester you will switch to English with a minor in education, and you will make a difference in some students’ lives. You “desire to change . . . [but it takes] . . . discipline” (558). You will change, and with the medication and a husband who believes it is our response to life’s situations that determines who we are, you will see that there is another way to live. No, it won’t always be easy, but there will be more good days than there will be bad ones.
Act Three: Track My Life and Blocked From Your Own Power (Anzaldúa 545)
You’ve always kept journals, but with marriage and the responsibilities of teaching full time and attending graduate school, you will eventually stop keeping a regular journal. You tell one therapist that you “got so content with your life that you no longer needed to pour out your angst.” But you will learn in a graduate level Literature by Women of Color course that “By writing about the always-in-progress, transformational processes and the constant, on-going reconstruction of the way you view your world, you name and ritualize the moments / processes of transition, inserting them into the collective fabric, bringing into play personal history and fashioning a story greater than yourself” (Anzalúa 559). You wanted to write more. You’ve always loved words and language. In fact, your dates with your husband often involve silly puns and a discussion of what each of you is reading. But it is through this class that you begin to gain clarity. You realize that you “want to be safe for the others [you] work with” (Dykewomon 451). You desire a vision of a just world (452) that builds upon the teachings of Jesus, where others are accepted instead of shunned for not being the “right” sort of people for the church. You don’t want to be a Pharisee.
You andd your husband will find a church that is quite a bit different from the Southern Baptist churches you were raised in and attended for the first part of your marriage. Most of the attendees will be relatively new Christians, and the church will emphasize doing life together in small groups that met during the week instead of in a “Sunday School.” The members will emphasize working in the community through Second Saturday service projects, Thanksgiving food drives and deliveries, and serving others through your passions. They won’t want us to “wound a sibling soul” (Courvant 459) no matter how unlike us s/he seems. Because so many come from different Christian denominations or have no church background whatsoever, there will be “commonalities without assuming that [our] experiences, histories, ideas, or traits are identical with those of others” (Keating 519, author’s emphasis).
But you will have been gliding until this class. Your writing has not grown in years. Earning your masters degree in education did not challenge your writing, and while you’ve learned about your writing over the last year, you’ve not been challenged. You will be challenged, though. “New knowledge occurs through tension, difficulties, mistakes and chaos” which you will face as you struggle to keep pace with the reading and writing demands of the course and your own teaching which consumes so much of your time (Anzaldúa 563). You’ve been emotionally aware for years (564), but now you must determine whether to fight, flee, freeze, or submit (566) as you hear perspectives very different from the one you’ve always heard before. There is something called white supremacy, and it isn’t the neo-Nazis and the KKK. It is a part of every aspect of American culture. You will feel attacked and will just want to speak so that you can “drown others’ voices with [your] white noise” (565). But you will have learned by this point, because God told you to stop singing so loudly in church, when He silenced your desire to be heard as the loudest singer (even though you are unable to carry a tune longer than half a verse), you will have learned a fifth tactic for dealing with the world. You will listen. This isn’t a refined technique. You will have worked for SEVEN years, since a woman at your previous school told you she never felt heard by you, at listening. But now you must “listen for both what is said and not said. . .for the opposite, unacknowledged emotion” (567), and you won’t know how to do this very well yet.
Act Four: Spiritual Activism (Anzaldúa 545)
Change will occur. In this very same semester you will teach your own high school students about coming to voice, about stereotypes, about the very things you are learning about. You will begin to teach them at the end of the third nine week grading period how to go deep into themselves. You recognize that they have very real experiences even though they are young. They get the opportunity to choose what role and genre to write it. They get to choose the topic, and in this writing assignment they must confront who they really are just as you are confronting so many of those unsaid, hidden realities of your depression. You will admit to them that you have thought of suicide. In their writing in just the past week, they will tell you their own thoughts, their own fears, their own struggles with abuse, drugs, God, parents, everything you could think of. But instead of taking it to heart, “when [you are] confronted with [their] fear, you [will] note [their] emotional arousal, allow [their] feelings / words to enter your body, then you [will] shift to the neutral place . . . You [will] detach so those feelings won’t inhabit your body for long. You [will] listen with respect, attend to the other[s] as a whole being[s], not. . . a[s] object[s], even when [they]oppose… you… (Anzaldúa 569). You will no longer see your students as “just” high school students, but as people who need to connect their “body, soul, and spirit” (570). It will be “a gift wrested from the events in your life, a bridge home to the self” for yourself and a chance for them to begin the journey (540). Instead of crumbling, you will allow their knowledge to grow as you ask them to go deep, to share who they really are as you share some of your most hidden thoughts with them. For a time, you are nepantla, a guide between two spaces: adult and teen, the hidden and the known, the dominant and the other. You are a bridge, showing others how to bridge themselves.
Your older, wiser (but not perfect) self
It isn’t really the end, though. The work that I have begun this semester continues. We have only just begun working on the written part of their assignment to find authentic voice through the creation of two texts using two different voices and two different roles. I could not have planned a better assignment, but it is a part of the new curriculum my district adopted. I could have written the assignment off and had them just write any simple piece as long as they were in two different voices, but the key word was authentic. There was no way they (or I) could be authentic unless we went deep into that which we did not wish to name. We had already discussed stereotypes, and so this assignment built on the writing they did for that part of the unit. My students, sophomores in high school and junior and senior FCAT (the state assessment) retakers, my students are writing poignantly about their life experiences and sharing them with me. It is amazing what they are doing and worth sharing my journey with them and with you.
Anzaldúa, Gloria. “now let us shift. . .the path of conocimiento . . . inner work, public acts.” This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation. Eds. Glorida E. Anzaldúa and Analouise Keating. New York: Routledge, 2002. 540-578. Print.
Courvant, Diana. “Speaking of Privilege.” This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation. Eds. Glorida E. Anzaldúa and Analouise Keating. New York: Routledge, 2002. 458-463. Print.
Dykewomon, Elana. “The Body Politic – Meditations on Identity.” This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation. Eds. Glorida E. Anzaldúa and Analouise Keating. New York: Routledge, 2002. 450-458. Print.
Keating, AnaLouise. “Forgin El Mundo Zurdo: Changing Ourselves, Changing the World.” This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation. Eds. Glorida E. Anzaldúa and Analouise Keating. New York: Routledge, 2002. 519-530. Print.