I was raised with the idea of valuing abilities -- that who you were is mostly an amalgam of what you can do, and do well. Since then, my matrices of what makes good have been expanded, reordered, even: how; the manner in which; the kindness and sincerity that can be literally life saving; the shits you give, not what kind you can make; my journey from ravenclaw to hufflepuff. I could talk about this all damn day, but I won't.
This said, at no point have I truly centered on appearance as the determining factor in self worth. This seems to be at conflict with the world around me, and I tend to do my part in sabotaging the prevalence of the conversation by simply not having it. It's a thunderdome and I don't like to shout. Howeverandbutso, I got some feels.
Maybe it was being raised by a strong woman who lifted boats above her head, carried the ailing and elderly with compassion and with the strength of her legs, and danced her jiggling belly all across that floor. Maybe it was being myopically concerned with feudal systems and sketching beetles and memorizing the cadence of rhymes, and passing the test, and by passing I mean acing or else who even are you; maybe my mind was full of the garden and the seeds I got to plant and the trees I'd climb and look down from and the sea I swam in every day. Maybe it was, less lyrically, not having a live tv in our house. I simply was ignorant, shielded from a lot of the women laughing while eating sad salad while we, women, grew turnips in our little suburban wild, wearing sweaters we'd made that did not flatter and stacking firewood. I can't say.
I am grateful for all this. I'm also tired of being told how weird it is. I really just can't agree? I think that uncommon is fair -- it is, tragically, uncommon for us to dress children in clothes that they like in a variety of colors and shapes and sizes, and to praise them for how they do things, and what they do. Teaching littles these past four years, I've been slam-dunked into a world of the traditionally feminine and nurturing; I've been expected to wear nice blazers (we get puked on, y'all) and told, verbatim, to "smile even when you don't mean it, you look too serious." I'm in a privileged enough position to flaunt my abilities (I can teach) and my contract (here I am, my conventional cis white femme looks got me this far, and now it's legal) and push those envelopes. I've been called mannish and direct.
More heartrending though is the children. Mostly, I bike to work, get sweaty, wear workday clothes (soft, clean, modest) and practical, ugly clogs for standing and squatting and standing some more. Somedays, I'll come in swathed in a flowing turquoise dress, with earrings, with hair shining (I showered!), and a premonition of spring. Without fail, the army of little girls dressed head to toe in pink descends with praise: ooomg you're sooo beauuutiful. Normally compliments make me rumplestiltskin disappear in a flaring poof of discomfort, but I've learned to say, "thank you, I like this color, too" or, "yes, we are both wearing dresses!" and to accept the warmth of their excitement; I remember thinking my elementary teachers were the most amazing creatures in the world. But the varied interest troubles me; I wonder if they retain memory of their role models on the flannel soft grunge days when I am just as present, just as caring, just as capable; and what about the boys, dressed all in sharks and skulls? Who can they call beautiful in the hopes of someday becoming?
I know that it's trite and will weaken everything I've said, but #whatever: I truly believe everyone is beautiful. Not all the time, and in all ways, but it's the portrait artist lens of seeing people for the way they turn their head, for the strength in their smile, for a broad back, for the incredible softness they carry. I can't fully internalize the thin is perfect mantra, though I obviously am well versed in its canon by exposure to this so dominant religion. I bear witness to the many different, imaginary, stupid problems we each face as our bodies preface our identity through the world; when a stranger approaches, we first see them and their form, and immediately go from there. This is obviously an issue of race, of sexism, of classism, and some extras on the side. But I think plenty has been said here before me; let the record state that I too feel it is bullshit.
My own body has changed some, not in particularly impacting ways since puberty. I have, to my best understanding, the same body as my mother. Small and wiry, late blooming, strong thighed, quick to build. This is arbitrary. It is also arbitrary that during the last ten years, aerobic super model neon spandex fashion went on the outs and being tiny and a little weird was like, so hot; I've gotten attention from this and deserved none of it, I've been frustrated and charmed by the allowances my body elicits from others. During my childhood and adolescence, my mother became severely depressed and gained a lot of weight, fast; she was always still strong and agile, but the sadness coalesced around her like a protective layer. When she died, my 18 year old body similarly armored itself, and for a few years, I was bigger, more solid, more to move. Change is terrifying, and loss ... is everything. Bodies aren't foolish. They know. Through a grief that could not be rushed I healed with a body that was still healthy, still young, still sexy, still strong and fast, and larger. It should also be noted that this is just my body's mechanism; other people lose weight when they're stressed and gain robust size when they're happy. Etc, etc, etc. Since then, I've gradually recentered to what I looked like before, and behaviorally, come closer to that lightness as well, with some additions (sadness, forgiveness). This makes sense; this is a natural cycle, fitted to the circumstances of my life. What I hate is that people evaluate or even praise me on it appears via my biceps. When you say, you're so fit now/thin/norm-core, I hear, I valued you less when you were bigger and if another change comes, I will accordingly deflate my opinion of your worth again.
Which brings us back to worth, and identity, and why this has been ragging on my mind lately. What connotes does not follow. Context is story is everything. We contain multitudes, and deserve the space we take up. Whatever the fuck size that is, however it is maintained, dressed, presented. I guess I don't have a thesis statement; but just a rambling narrative, and a plea, which is to be kind. Perceive beauty in your world. Love well, and often. Give kids whatever clothes they're drawn to, toss them into the vastness of the sea (for perspective, for salt) and reinforce kindness and joy, endlessly, whenever you can, even when it's a stretch.
"Are these yours?" shouts my neighbor
twirling a pair of black, sandy sunglasses
by pinched fingers, the other hand shielding
her eyes as she looks up to the nextdoor porch
The grandma who lives there grows roses,
amazing, full, fragrant, heavy headed roses,
spilling over their five foot garden plot and chain link fence,
Such roses, as my grandma might have said
She hollers something back in Greek
I do not know Greek, but know these families
love each other and every season pack up
this thing and that, yours or mine? Such love
And travel together and come home to complain about their children,
some of which I can understand as they talk
together here, standing in the street.
If sunshine were happiness, a light external
that causes everything to warm, to flash
And sadness were water- fluid, filling any space
permeating up as humidity or freezing the pipes
and giving life when the roots of you tap down
into understanding and then
in the mingling of bright summer days,
a gurgling, greening, growth
copyright 2016, Sarah Hirsch.
What is it about windblown
that we find so enticingly romantic
The public library lawn is dense
with bodies, reading, sprawling, naked
There is sun, once more returned
and we, creatures of the north, rejoice
A dog large enough to be a hairy horse
shakes under the sprinkler rain
Children of it-doesn't-matter-whom shriek
wild with water, with grass underfoot
I can feel each blade imprinting my belly
in the flagrant space where my shirt rumpled up
A man I have met once before appears
stepping closer into my nearsight with hello
He works for the radio I learn
and immediately all I can hear is the voice
As if tuning in from some other place
the children and sprinkler and wind as static
copyright 2016, Sarah Hirsch.
let spring bring growth
like allowing the sap to rise
and my blood to thunder quick
may the dragonswing leaf unfurl
dark, fragile, impossibly strong
let it be so
please forgive the magnolia,
the apple and cherry, for bursting forth
the grass arduously pining through every sidewalk crack,
my skin, still present after all these months
tumult has a clanging need to be heard
and I've never been good at waiting
April 2016, copyright Sarah Hirsch.
In which I make friends with a cactus when traveling to the desert where my friend found love
I think of the near impossibility of life in the desert
as we hurtle through space, alarmingly high up
and looking down I see glowing networks of cars and homes
following the curves of the rivers and mountains
We fly west toward the receding sunset, and west some more
gaining against time until we overtake it, plunging into the future dark
Below us the delicate web of pulsing cities is growing holes
of dark purple nighttime, of the great barren empty.
Arid didn't mean much to me,
coming from an almost spongy island
wrapped in water, shrouded in mist
with creeks as veins and salt marsh as a heart
but stepping foot off the plane,
I swear my hair released its curls
and dropped straight down my back
and I felt my skin tighten in yearning.
We make our midnight way to the house and
I roll the windows down for the relief of wind and pressure,
for evidence of moving viscerally through space,
for the reassurance of land, as yet unreal
I breathe in the warm, dusty air and it is somehow full,
dense with orange blossoms and the scurrying
of creatures with large eyes who know the wisdom
in prowling after the sun retreats.
The humming doesn't stop as we pull our luggage out,
and the moon balances on the finest, uppermost spike
of a towering cactus to the left of the driveway.
It is a strange silhouette to me, almost cartoonish
in its foreign familiarity. It is tall, almost ten feet high,
and I cannot resist going up to lay my hand gently
in between the spines, where it is surprisingly cool,
and smooth and heavy. I tap it with two fingers
and a deep reverberating thud strums through
the chaotic night, the hidden water echoing
with our secret understanding. I go back to the car
to shoulder our bags. The cactus winks.
march 2016, copyright sarah hirsch.
In everything, I see water
gazing at the mountains,
purply blue swells
lapping at the curve of the earth,
fading into the distant nothing
which is everythingness,
I feel the tug of an old tide,
the undeniable call of gravity, of moon,
of women, of salt
Some might call this home sickness, but
it's deeper than that
and stronger, its channels
coursing with life, countless
impossibly large ancient things,
like no withering sickness I know
Even in this crisp snow, frozen spectacle
I feel adrift, a thousand waves suspended,
broken into particles
waiting for the melt
there is felicity in motion
a simple, thriving joy
in the catch of ready hands
and the pulse that lifts all
feet to crash
a release, whirling, dizzying
within the soft weight of trust
in cradling arms, yes
and the pull of
copyright january 2016, sarah hirsch.
The beauty of bell curves, and the power of both-and
I'll start by stating my bias, just to clear the air: I love bell curves. They're everywhere I look, they're lovely, and they can do (mostly) no wrong.
A bell curve is the shape of a distribution graph, one you're probably familiar with:
Named for their bell-like shape, the curves are largest at their exact middle (the median is also the mode, and the mean) and taper on both ends. Used in statistics and mathematics and so on, there are many specific rules that distinguish these curves from other bell-like distribution curves… but my observations are more about their general shape, and what social inferences we can wildly extrapolate from their properties.
Some years ago, one of my favorite college professors sat at the wooden seminar table, chin burrowing slightly into his steepled hands. His signature expression -- a blend of empathy, intelligence, worry, and humor -- creased his forehead and he pursed his lips and exhaled. We held our breath. As a small class of senior English majors, we looked up to this man and his (infuriatingly always correct) views on the world. One of us had just offered up an observation on the text during our typically heated group discussion, when a small but distinct cough stopped us.
"Has it ever occurred to you," he mused, as much to himself as to the hapless undergrads in front of him, "that it is so very seldom a question of either this, or that… but rather, almost inevitably, yet another instance of both-and?"
He glanced around at us each in turn, and we stared back. Not sure where you're going here, prof. He sighed. "Consider that when you examine any binary, any polarizing view, any dichotomous pair, any unyielding choice between good or evil, poor or rich, right or wrong, and so on -- you are almost certainly facing both this and that."
I have quoted this story ad nauseum (sorry, friends and family, this was probably the zenith of my education) in the years since because it has not yet ceased to be revelatory to me.
Often, we present ourselves with a dichotomous choice of how to view the world because it is easier, and perhaps because it seems helpful in the moment. It is difficult to act on both-and, in the chaotic and turbulent waters of grayscale, so we stick to simplified black and white. Absolutes do give a general idea of the range of reality, after all. It is just that in between those poles, there is so much more -- perhaps even, rather, almost inevitably, most of our human experience.
Back to bell curves. Let's take gender for our first example, shall we? Oh good, my favorite.
An opinion that exists: there are men and women. Boom, a binary! We found it.
But what about gender identity (how you feel)? What about gender expression (how you present) and presentation (how you are perceived)? What about biological sex (birth assigned)? What about sexual orientation (who you like)? …… and on and on? What about humans?
Humans (as you know, you are one) are messy, and both a little bit of this and a little of that. And that. We are composite, complicated, beautiful. On top of all that, we are constantly growing, changing, and in flux.
Somewhere along the spectrum of gender identity, society places labels so that we can quickly (note that I do not say easily) navigate. These markers denote this or that. Everything else is grayscale. In reality, we exist all along the spectrum, and I think more to the point is that the majority of people do not identify purely as an arbitrary societal pole. We are the middle. This is what rainbows are all about, people.
I'll borrow this tumblr image (thanks artivismproject.com!) to illustrate:
Yes, those pink and blues exist, of course they do. Those either/or options are part of the both-and spectrum, and those are valid lives, too. But if you perform all the role expectations that a binary identity demands, you risk denying various and sundry aspects of yourself. Spectrum means that there exist people who happily fulfill these roles, no more no less. But, for so many, gender expectation means that nonconforming aspects get tucked out of sight, suppressed in nascence, dismissed by others, or outright squashed and oppressed. In my mind, so much of gendered violence and oppression and injustice stems from just this:
We are uncomfortable with both-and because it means that us vs them is actually us-them, as we are all somewhat us.
Gender is just an example I chose because it is relatively familiar and accessible. This is everywhere, though, in all facets of our lives.
I am allowed my prejudice and my privilege only if I believe that fundamentally, I am different than you. This is not only dangerous and dismissive to others, it's also unhelpful to growing your self as a person. Dwelling safely within the proximal limits of a label (I am only this) denies all that you also are, and might be (unknowns are scary, possibly threatening, possibly unwelcome). It attempts to distance you from all the other lives you might have led (a near miss, or the narcissism of small differences, or jealousy, fear, sadness...), and still may yet (there but for the grace of god go I). To view ourselves in mid trajectory is frightening; it's that falling off a cliff realization that nothing is static -- except possibly the ground. But we are always amidst, in some way or another, if we are honest with ourselves.
This is the power of both-and; to enable this growth and accept it, in ourselves and others. To acknowledge and revel in us. To let live.
Everywhere along that curve of the bell is us. And what's more, it isn't just one curve. In the many roles we play, on the many developmental platforms we traverse, in the relationships we forge and through the skills we learn, we are constantly evolving and placing ourselves in new relation to everyone else. We exist at the intersection of so many gradients, so many distribution curves. That one speck of modality, that axis of symmetry, is us -- each of us, as individuals.
And, rapidly panning out here (catching a solar flare across the tipping curve of the globe), it is all of us, too. We exist in this thriving throng, shifting along a series of intersecting spectrums, and changing moment to moment. The crux is the human experience.
And it is so important to accurately understand the wealth of difference within that curve, and to have our world reflect that shape by allowing space for everyone in between two polar ends to exist. Because that is all of us.
january 2016. copyright sarah hirsch.
of the water
Being close to the water,
--or I should say, maybe,
being of the water--
This is home
I sit watching the waves
lapping gray and foaming
against our buzzing awareness
a murmuring presence
asserting what is level,
what is vast, what is
strong, by simple magnitude
and repeating tides
merging into the winter horizon
that bodysoft curve hints at a world
continuous and wet, irretrievably
connected and alive
as the waves curl powerful green
onto mirror damp sand, gently grinding
the smallest pieces of life, fragmented
star stuff, bioluminescing carbon bits
and this, the biggest sky, tips
open like a spilled bowl
shot through with watercolors,
seeping orange into blue
december 2015, copyright sarah hirsch.
the ability to be loved
to be, loved
There was a time when I could not say the simple sentence, "I deserve to be loved." I broke down. I cried and shook with the visceral dissonance of what I knew was a reasonable hope and basic human tenet, and what I could not allow myself to grasp.
In that moment, in that time of my life, love was dangerous, volatile. Love meant you had everything to lose.
I began college saturated with grief: over losing my mother to sudden illness and my grandfather to prolonged illness, in mourning my childhood and family as I once knew them, and in trying to reconcile the abuses which that home had meant with my permanent loss of it never being there, in its imperfections, ever again. My adolescent first love had evolved and become foreign to me, and my friends of many years were scattered, dispersed to different campuses. On top of it all, I had done the leaving, by going abroad, so I was accountable for this distance. I was adrift, or submerged, or awash depending on the day. I was sodden, soaking -- there was too much.
To defend myself, I subconsciously twined love and loss together, a terrible sisterhood to be avoided. Dry and protected by actions and achievement and wryest of wit, people saw that I was Strong. Strong is bullshit if it isn't permeable, flexible, livable, lovable. We must bend and grow and let it all in; or else, we suffer. There is no life without water.
That was 7 years ago. Gradually and fearfully, I placed my trust in the hands of those nearest me. And with kindness, with gentleness, with forgiving, they held me and allowed me to open up. My friends saved me, and I will be forever grateful for them, and that I was with them. We are only so much as the good that surrounds us.
My challenge mantra, "I deserve to be loved" was posed by our college therapist, a warm and patient woman. My friends had prodded and promised me that it would be ok, and I finally succumbed to the terrifying prospect of talking to someone. She asked all the right questions, and listened as the hills accept the climber -- even though the climber is relentless, struggling, lost, a mess, crying on a rock. You name the metaphor, she faced me with my own truth and waited for me to see it, too. For me, it was allowing myself the trust and vulnerability and self worth and extreme chance to love and to be loved, and to risk grief. We do have everything to lose -- but it is with or without love. Choose love.
Today I witnessed a different kind of unfolding that brought me back to my own unraveling statement, on lovability and trust and vulnerability, during a Professional Development session with a group of teachers. As professional care giver types tend to be, the whole group of us are predominantly outward facing. We see you, and her, and them, and we care about how you feel, what you are doing, what you might do. We see you and we feel for you. We believe so fervently in the many tree branches of luck that await your growth. And yet, we are often less kind to ourselves.
One of my fellow teachers broke down during a moment of personal struggle during the morning exercise. Later, she bravely shared with us that she felt like she was failing, that she wasn't enough -- and worse, that admitting it made it real. Our facilitator asked her if she felt comfortable asking for, and receiving, help. She, and several of us, exhaled sharply, and laughed in short, harsh bursts.
This was the mantra of her learning edge today: "I can ask you for help." She said it three times, locking eyes with one of us each time. The effort of saying a simple truth is astonishing, as is the sheer power of our language -- she was shaking, and crying, and could barely get the words out. And as she claimed the words, her body softened in forgiveness and raw honesty. It was a simple sentence, but that is all it needed to be.
And I remembered. I know what it is to feel your body vibrating with the need for validation, for hope, to be heard, to be loved. To feel that and to have it thrumming inside you, silent, is a terrible pain that, somehow, we live with. All of us do this, with different things, different stories in which we trap ourselves. We move carefully and breathe shallow to not muddy the deeper waters, that lurking potential disguised as fear. We brace ourselves for our own failings, hold ourselves rigid, or we fall completely apart. We allocate a modicum of happiness, of love and live with that limitation as "enough."
Speak out. Break that stranglehold and whisper the words you need yourself to say. Say them again, louder. Say them to someone you trust. Promise them to yourself as you walk along the street, measured by strides that witness the effort of being human, of growing and trying, and failing, and moving, and being beautiful. Revel in your ability to love, and to be loved.
december 2015. copyright sarah hirsch.
A blog of mostly poems, some prose. Recent works will be added to the top, and older pieces are backdated. Please write me a note if you have any questions, etc!
All works are original and copyright Sarah Hirsch, 2016. Please contact me directly if you would like permission to use any images or words. Thank you!
Follow me on instagram to see paintings going up in real time: www.instagram.com/sarahghirsch