From a place of hurt.

I’ve written out an introduction to this post four or five times now, so I’m just going to come out and say it: I was denied the opportunity to teach Creative Writing next semester, despite my clear qualifications for the position (an honor afforded only to third-year MFAs in my program), because I am one Professional Development Day behind. There are scores of explanations and arguments I have offered up, personal and professional; there are issues with the Department’s lack of transparency or consistency in regards to ramifications for such offenses. But I’m not going to use this space to continue making a case for myself, though, of course, it’s tempting. Who doesn’t want to be heard when they feel they’ve been treated unfairly? Mostly I’m not going to do it because, honestly, I’m tired making the case. What I do want to talk about, though, is power.

This is the tail-end of my fourth year as a graduate student. I earned my MA in English prior to attending this three-year MFA program, and I’ve always prided myself on my work ethic, my dedication to my students, and my willingness to take on voluntary work or positions in order to make my Department and professors look good. Sure, working on literary magazines adds a nice line to my CV and attending Department lectures and faculty readings is edifying intellectually, but ultimately the reason I do these things is to contribute to and foster a sense of community and to express my gratitude for being seen and appreciated. I’ve certainly not always been the best student, even during my graduate career, but when it comes to teaching and to professional engagement, I’ve never been one to skate by while doing the bare minimum.

It’s become apparent to me in the last six months or so, though, that despite the level at which I sacrifice my personal time, energy, or finances to contribute to the Department community or its affiliated entities (our literary magazine, our local reading series, our visiting-writer series, et. al.), what matters, ultimately, is what is quantifiable–the checked boxes, as it were. There is apparently little-to-no metric for quality or content at this level (or, what I hope is not the case: any level) of academia. It’s been made plain, in this particular situation, that I’m being made an example of; I am the cautionary tale. I’m being shown my powerlessness in order to teach a lesson.

But what is it when a graduate student (being paid $9,000/year and enrolled in Medicaid) is punished for, in one year of three, falling just shy of an expectation (though doing her best to make exceptional reparations for said lapse) while exceeding expectations in other voluntary (though still professional) ways? What is it when a graduate student is shown that, despite her dedication to a department and the taking up of unnecessary roles (leadership and otherwise), her box remains unchecked in the black-&-white sense the authority would prefer and therefore she must suffer the hand-picked consequence?

I expected more, and I suppose this is naïve of me. I expected to be seen as a whole person, for my character and perseverance and dedication, and instead I am a single highlighted box on a sheet of paper so easily lost amongst the chaos of an administrator’s desk. But we are not so powerless as we are made to think. What were to happen if we withdrew completely? What were to happen if when the system stopped working for us, we stopped working for the system? What would happen if–when it’s made clear that ultimately what it comes down to are the two-hour sessions once a month on our day off (when we might be working second jobs or visiting loved ones or exercising self-care), and not countless hours spent reading through submissions and leading meetings and selling magazines and attending readings and recruiting people to the program (or else keeping our mouths shut about it)–we simply stopped doing anything more than is contractual?

Why keep working for a system when it stops working for you?

I suppose I expected more for the simple way I was taught to assess composition papers: You grade for content. You mark the misplaced commas and run-ons in red (or green if you’re trying not to be aggressive about it), but you focus on the big picture. An “A” is occasionally a paper that is spot-on in regards to structure and content, but more often it’s a paper with heart, courage, empathy, and boldness that’s a little bit of a mess.

I expected to be seen as a whole person. And perhaps the only way to be appreciated, to be seen, is in retrospect; is as a result of someone else’s regret; is by falling off completely.

Should I be crying or something?

“Things are not always what they seem; the first appearance deceives many; the intelligence of a few perceives what has been carefully hidden.”

When I moved to Marquette I established care with a doctor in town, and she put me on a new medication for depression and anxiety, Paxil, as the one I’d been taking for the past year, Lexapro, hadn’t been cutting it for some time. My first week on Paxil was just as severe as I’d been warned it could be. The doc had said, If you start having thoughts of suicide, stop taking it immediately and call us. The pharmacist pulled me over to a special window where she warned me of the same possibility, as well as manic and depressive mood swings and insomnia. And I experienced them all. But because I knew what was happening I was able to push through, acknowledging where the thoughts, feelings, and compulsions were coming from, and though it didn’t make it feel any less like hell, I knew, at the very least, they would abate eventually.

Things evened out for a while, but depression is a powerful, relentless motherfucker—anxiety, too—and when it came time for my checkup with the doc to see how the medication was working, I knew I needed to up the dose. But when she asked me, straight up, if I needed to, I said I was fine. She pushed, asking if I was sure, said I seemed like the kind of person who would probably say I was fine even when I wasn’t. She called me out, but I insisted I was fine. Still, she said if at any point I felt like I needed to up the dosage that all I had to do was call.

I’ve thought about why I did that, lied and told her I was fine when I knew I wasn’t, and I can’t put my finger on any one reason. Was I afraid she’d think I was just a twenty-something taking advantage of more medication? Was it the guilt of needing more? Or was it the fear of saying out loud just how depressed and fragile I’ve actually been? Maybe I was self-sabotaging, which wouldn’t be unlike me at all. Whatever it was—one of these reasons, each of them, or something else entirely—I left without advocating for myself.

image1 (36).JPG

It took me another month of day-and-night struggles with deep depression, anxiety, and insomnia to finally call, today, and request that increased dosage. When the woman at the desk answered she asked the usual questions to look up my account and then asked why I was calling. I told her the situation, that my symptoms have become more severe since my last appointment and that my doctor had okayed an increase. But before putting in the request she said, You just sound so happy…, and I did my best to explain to her that I have a hard time not being enthusiastic when I’m speaking with people.

I know this woman didn’t mean any harm, but the second I hung up the phone I started to cry. Because while I’m assuming, to her, it was just an observation or a novelty, to me it was an accusation. What I heard was, Huh, you sound fine to me. Are you sure? But what exactly did she expect from me? I think it’s pretty obvious and a direct reflection of how our society expects, and sometimes demands, mental disorders to manifest. When even a person who works at the city’s main hospital expects my symptoms to be identical to the caricature from the Zoloft commercial—woman staring at her feet, not noticing the beauty of the world; her tears indistinguishable from the fat raindrops falling from the dark, angry cloud hovering above her head—I think it’s fair to point out just how deeply rooted these expectations are and how quickly we dismiss the possibility of a mental disorder when symptoms don’t present to the world in the ways we’ve come to expect; in the ways we’ve been force-fed by (surprise, surprise) Hollywood, the media, and commercial advertisements, by those who are playing into these stereotypes to make money and exercise further control over how we think about the world and others, over our own behavior and preferences.

Here’s something I’ve learned: Depression doesn’t look or sound like anything. It isn’t always, perhaps even often, someone who’s discernibly miserable, and just because a person is chipper, friendly, or quick to laugh certainly isn’t indicative of depression’s absence. And, damn it, if there isn’t anything that makes me feel smaller or more defective, as a person who struggles with depression every moment of the day, than hearing, But you just seem so happy… The sooner we liberate ourselves from this narrow way of thinking about mental disorders, as a society with over 50% of the population struggling with one or multiple, the sooner we can offer a level of understanding and empathy that might prompt people to start asking for the help they need.

Not My President

image1 (30).JPG

I should be doing so many other things right now. Drafts, comments, edits, articles, bills, and more are piled and begging my attention. But to write this is all I can do for the moment. Last night and early this morning, over half of the population looked me in the eyes and said, “We don’t give a fuck about you or your kind.”

At least, that’s what it feltfeels—like.

Compulsively, today, my mind has been playing, over and again, a Celebrity Apprentice clip I saw right when Trump’s campaign was announced, one where he says to a woman at the table, “Must be a pretty picture, you dropping to your knees.”

And I weep.

I know your feeds are likely filled, as mine are, with statements of outrage, fear, pain, disgust, and also plenty of appeals for love and kindness, so I won’t take up your time with my grievances. I do have one thing to add to the conversation, thoughsomething I haven’t heard anyone say, something I believe:

Family is not more important than standing up for yourself and others.

I’ve spoken to a few friends and have seen a slew of posts from people who are dreading the holidays with their conservative families. They’re heartbroken and outraged knowing their siblings/parents/grandparents/aunts/uncles/cousins voted Trump, but still (And is it any surprise?) feel oppressed and obligated to bite their tongues, to sit through prayers thanking god for blessing America with a conservative presidency, to brush off the sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, racist comments and asides out of “respect for our elders,” loyalty and obligation to the family unit.

Last night, a relative who voted Trump told me that our political differences aren’t worth causing a rift in our family or relationship. Frankly, I disagree. When women’s rights, the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community, and Black, Latino, and so many other lives are at stake, it’s absolutely worth it.

I’m here to say it’s okay not to like your family; it’s even okay not to love them. It’s okay to call Grandpa out at the dinner table; it’s okay not to go to family gatherings at all. It’s okay to demand your family treat you, in your entirety, with the respect they’ve always demanded for themselves. If you feel like it’s “their house, their rules” then don’t go inside. Better yet, find a different house and make your own family.

Maybe it’s easier for me to say because I was raised a military kid and perfected the art of detachment at a young age, but this is what I want to emphasize most: You’re not saddled with the family you were born into. You’re allowed to question it, leave it, call it out, and find or make one that will stand up for you and with you. Justice, equality, and autonomy are so much more important than blood.

On “Pretty”

For as long as I can recall, I’ve known the phrase “secure in his masculinity.” (i.e. “A man has to be pretty secure in his masculinity to wear a dress… be a stay-at-home dad… let his wife bring home the bacon… kiss another man… etc.) But I can’t say I’ve ever heard the phrase “secure in her femininity,” which prompted me to wonder wherefrom we surmise masculinity and femininity are derived.

I’d say masculinity is defined by mainstream society largely by authority, winning, sexual dominance, accumulation of wealth, independence, physical and emotional strength, and the absence of what is considered feminine, among other traits. The OED gave few insights into the traditional attributes of masculinity aside from “obnoxious airs,” “grey hair,” and “high blood pressure.” In looking at the OED definition of femininity and its examples, I found virtue, prudence, manners, softness, charm, beauty, make-up, and wife, as well as “seductive, enchanting, coquettish, demure, innocent, or haughty” and “delicate.”

image4 (4).JPG

I’ve been asked multiple times in the past couple days why I shaved my head. Honestly, it all started out with a kind of joke—wanting to be Eleven from Stranger Things for Halloween. I thought to myself, My hair’s already pretty short; I could just shave it and go all out for the costume, but my innate response was, I can’t do that. There’s no way I can do that.

Now, before I took on the role of devil’s advocate in my composition classroom, before I met some of the badass feminists in my life, I wouldn’t have asked this important follow-up question: Why? 

Why couldn’t I shave my head? The answer was quite simple when I answered honestly—because it wouldn’t be pretty; I wouldn’t be pretty any more. And that answer led to some deeper reflection. I thought back to the beautiful proprietor of a pizza parlor I frequented during my undergrad years, and how I assumed that she, with her shaved head and colorful scarves, was battling cancer, because why else would a woman be nearly bald? I thought to an embarrassingly recent incident in which I saw a sweet, affectionate couple—a handsome, stylish young man and a young woman with a shaved head and very little make-up—at the bar and thought, “Wow, he must be a really good guy.”

How fucked is that? In my mind, a man would have to possess some kind of particularly benevolent quality in order to be publicly stoked to be with a woman who doesn’t conform to normative expectations of femininity. I know this stems from 24 years of being shushed and shamed—of people attempting to temper my personality and my voice and my sexuality—but, god, I’m ready to fight for a new normal.

Processed with VSCO with a8 preset
I was worried that if I shaved my head “people” would get the wrong idea, but, deep down, I was worried about losing the attention I’d grown accustomed to. There is affirmation in the sidelong glances when I walk into a room. I derive confidence from an accumulation of likes on a selfie where my hair is adequately fluffed, my make-up there but not too there, and my smile an attempt at some combination of demure and seductive (read: feminine). Because if we do not assess our worth or derive our confidence as women from the appraisal and approval of men, where exactly are we supposed to turn for that fulfillment?

I want to be better than this. Once I realize that I’m not doing something reasonable, something I have a genuine inclination to do, because I’m afraid, I try real hard to make myself do that thing. A guy at the coffee shop two days ago asked me why I would go and do a thing like shave my head. I said, “Because I was scared to.” I made this decision because I don’t like the idea that I’m afraid of existing in society without being “pretty.” Pretty is subjective and constructed and oppressive. If you want passion, opinion, and intellect, let’s talk. If you want pretty, buy a fucking bouquet.

Processed with VSCO with a1 preset
I certainly haven’t been turning many heads in the last few days, at least none with any discernible lascivious intent. Today, I walked up to the bar to get a beer, and a guy who has always been relentlessly flirty and chatty with me wouldn’t make eye contact. It’s the most apparent switch, and I feel a bit like I’m conducting a very personal social experiment. I’m not going to lie to you and say I feel “sexier than ever” or “more like a woman.” I don’t. I’ve become acutely aware of my more masculine features–my square jaw, wide shoulders, and askew hairline–and I have no way to hide or soften them; they’re just me. I feel uncomfortable and lumpy in the same dresses that used to make me feel sexy and secure.

But you know what else? I can see my father’s features in my own for the first time in my life. I get to sleep an extra half-hour in the morning. In two separate conferences with male students today, they seemed disarmed, at ease, in a way I hadn’t observed before, and we carried on conversation about life and writing in an unprecedented way. I can go to a bar or coffee shop and work without any disruptions. And when someone looks me in the eye and speaks, I feel, all of a sudden, somehow, like they’re actually talking to me.

But the most important thing is that I’m genuinely enjoying this change, and I made the decision, first and foremost, for myself.

Life is Queer

Being raised in a Southern Baptist household, but also just being raised in our society in general, there were a few pre-filled labels slapped on my chest from an early age—female, straight, Christian, future wife & mother. Growing up, I didn’t question those labels, had no problem with them being stuck to my shirt. But at 24, I’ve shed a few.

The first one to go was Christian, and that was a long time coming. I now identify as agnostic, because I appreciate that the literal definition is “without knowledge.” In regards to God and death and the purpose of life, that definition suits me just fine. The next was mother, which I’ve already written a blog post about here. Now, I do still identify as female, and I also think I’d like to get married one day, if and when I find my person. Whether or not wife is what I’ll want written on the label, though, is to be determined. Continue reading

“Raging Feminist”

The other day I was out getting food with friends, and we were talking about sex. One of the guys in the group, a diehard romantic, used the phrase “sex as an expression of love,” and without missing a beat, I responded, “What’s that?” I said I was joking, but over the past week I’ve chipped away at that jocular veneer and revealed a thick slab of my own rotten truth: I’ve never had sex with someone and felt it was any kind of expression of their love for me. I thought about this revelation quite a bit today, as I had an appointment with a new OBGYN to get a copper IUD inserted. While it felt like someone was boring a hole in my most protected, intimate space, I examined my decision to have the procedure done in the first place. So, as I sit with residual cramps from the unsuccessful procedure, sipping peppermint tea because that’s always what people in the movies seem to offer women who are hurting, let me tell you where I’m at. Continue reading

A Fair Amount of Crazy

And now we interrupt your regularly scheduled programming of The Deepest, Darkest Corners of Brenna’s Mind: Every Thought She Has As She’s Having It to bring you a tour of her little apartment. (Okay, full disclosure: I may relapse into introspection toward the end.)

Let me show you what I’ve done with the place! Or, more accurately, what it looked like before I covered everything in sand and Pop-tart wrappers. Moving afforded me the wonderful opportunity to get rid of a lot of shit. I thrift and sale and market and am charmed so easily by the previously-loved that I always end up walking away with a few tchotchkes, and my loft in Springfield was a fair amount of crazy. It’s nice to have a new space where I don’t have much that’s superfluous. Everything has a spot, and though that certainly doesn’t mean that’s where the thing ends up, I’ve yet to wonder, “Where the hell am I supposed to put this?,” which is a satisfying feeling. Continue reading

Higher Ground

I rode my bike to the beach last night after a hike up Hogback Mountain that offered a gorgeous, expansive view of Marquette. I brought my notebook to the beach so I could get some writing done, as I was feeling particularly inspired after the day, but first I splashed in the waves a bit and watched the various kinds of living going on along the shore. Near my towel there was an odd construction in the sand the waves hadn’t yet reached, and when I approached I found the most intriguing little village—modest, open-air adobes with stone & driftwood windows and gull feathers posted at the gate. It brought me pleasure, clearly a work of imagination and care, and quickly established its parameters as a relevant metaphor in my life. Bear with me. Continue reading

Memory Foam

Yesterday evening I was out writing and drinking a pint when I spotted a new friend who told me he was playing a few songs before a poetry reading at the library in a half hour. I finished up my paragraph, downed the dregs of my beer, and made my way to the library. The little event was downstairs in a clean white room set up with tables for a few local artists and writers; it was golden hour and half the ceiling was a skylight. I admired the wares and introduced myself to a few people, actually recognizing a handful which brought me a modicum of comfort, though I’ve never much minded not knowing or being known.

The friend who invited me started his set, his rich voice filling the room with a mix of covers and his own songs, but he took a minute to preface one song in particular, a sad kind of long-distance love story between the sun and the moon. He said something, very simply and thoughtfully, just before he began to play that stuck with me; he said maybe we’re all just waiting for someone to come back. Continue reading

I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That)

Writing about loved ones is touchy, to say the very least. I’ve discussed this dilemma with many writer-friends, have read sections of craft books and whole interviews dedicated to the topic, and the same questions always seem to pop up: Who am I allowed to write about? Is this story mine to tellWhat if someone with whom I shared this experience disagrees with my interpretation? Is the possible damage to my relationship(s) worth the risk? In response to these questions, there doesn’t seem to be any general consensus, and every writer has a different set of past circumstances and complex relationships and specific fears that color their individual answers. What do I think? Well, here’s a story. Continue reading