Until the Violence Stops

vday

On Friday and Saturday night, I was alive, on fire, bawdy, emotional, and pulsing. I was onstage, performing in The Vagina Monologues for the first time in years. And let me tell you, it felt good. Nothing is more gratifying than those bright lights and the affirmation of a crowd, proof that you’re creating great art.

But Sunday morning, as I was scrolling through Facebook, a post from a fellow cast mate ripped through me like fire hot shrapnel. “Drag performer gunned down in New Orleans East.” That’s what the headline read. When I clicked on the article and read further, I learned that Chyna Doll Dupree, the woman who’d been murdered, was a member of the transgender community. She was shot at about 8:30 pm in front of a strip mall. “Neighbors said they heard eight to 10 gunshots.”

Eight to ten gunshots.

The tears came fast and ready, and I was unprepared. I fought to keep them at bay. They dripped down the back of my throat and tightened my vocal chords.

I wanted to scream.

Less than 12 hours earlier, I had performed “They Beat the Girl Out of My Boy…or So They Tried,” Eve Ensler’s incredible monologue about the transgender experience. This piece documents one woman’s journey from her early childhood recognition of her true gender identity to trying to mask her gender identity to fit it, through a full transition and her joy of finally feeling complete…only to have her boyfriend killed in his sleep. His fatal crime? Loving someone who was “different.”

It’s a powerful monologue, and during each performance, it was hard for me to get through it. But I pushed and struggled through the difficult content, knowing that the piece is important and real and raw. I felt it was a step in the right direction, sharing this woman’s story.

Sunday morning, my feelings of celebration and advocacy dropped to the pavement, just as Chyna’s body had. We’d lost another of our own to senseless, stupid violence. Because of misplaced fear and intolerance. Because Chyna wanted to live her true life.

Chyna is the fifth transgender woman to be killed in 2017. It isn’t even March.

Chyna’s death was a sobering reminder of why The Vagina Monologues are performed every year. Survivors (and those who love them), advocates, activists, actors, mothers, daughters, sisters, and more will annually take to the stage in an effort to end the cycle of emotional, sexual, and physical violence that so many women endure in the course of their lifetimes.

We’ll recite the monologues for your sister, who had a little too much to drink at a college party and woke up with a stranger on top of her.

We’ll recite the monologues for your mother, who has endured years and years of emotional abuse at the hands of the men in her family, her community, her life.

We’ll recite the monologues for your coworker who is considered dumb or promiscuous or “asking for it” because of what she wears.

We’ll recite the monologues for women who endure rape and violence as a systematic tactic of war.

We’ll recite the monologues for the scores of girls who are taught to be ashamed of their bodies and their sexuality.

We’ll recite the monologues for the amazing, strong women who birth new life into this crazy, wonderful world.

We’ll recite the monologues for Chyna Doll Dupree.

As for me, I will recite the monologues for every woman I know who has encountered abuse. Sadly, it’s not a short list.

Participating in The Vagina Monologues this year was an incredible experience. I made new friends, forged relationships with new Vagina Warriors (both male and female), had a brilliant time onstage, and helped InnerMission Productions raise more than $3,000 to benefit Think Dignity and Break the Silence Against Domestic Violence.

And I’ll do it again next year…and the year after that…and the year after that.

I’ll do it for Chyna.

I’ll do it for you and the people you love.

I’ll do it prove I’m more than a statistic.

I’ll do it until the violence stops.

Advertisements

Becoming “Shapeless”

utgt_cover16

Writing about your personal struggles is scary business. It forces you to release monsters you’d rather leave in the dark. It makes you own up to decisions that maybe weren’t the best for you. It’s uncomfortable and terrifying and liberating all at once.

That’s why I believe real stories about the human experience are so important. By sharing our stories, especially the difficult ones, we throw aside the invisible armor we don every day and render ourselves completely vulnerable. Why do this? To make connections with strangers. To show others they are not alone. To try to make sense of this crazy, beautiful life. To practice introspection and better understand ourselves. For me, it’s a reminder of how strong I am and how far I’ve come.

This month, I have a personal essay titled “Shapeless” in Under the Gum Tree’s January issue. As a gorgeous nonfiction magazine, Under the Gum Tree provides writers an avenue to tell stories without shame. I accepted their invitation and wrote something gritty and gorgeous and true. I wrote about my experience with eating disorders, body dysmorphia, depression, and the healing that comes with true love and acceptance.

My goal in writing “Shapeless” was to share that, in my experience, an eating disorder isn’t an isolated event; it’s a continuum. While the physical manifestations of an eating disorder can heal, psychological scars remain. And those imprints of your past life color your experience with just about everything – food, body image, mental health, relationships. For years.

“Shapeless” guides you through 17 years of my life, from the moment my mental imbalance began at the age of 14 to last year when I turned 31. This essay is an unflinching look at the highs, the lows, and everything in between. It’s full of horror, love, naivete, doubt, and compassion.

Here’s a sneak peek at ages 15, 24, and 26…

15

…In the mirror, I suck in my stomach, and my bones protrude through pale, papery skin. I stare and stare, unblinking, unflinching, at what I believe is a glimpse of perfection. A mountain climber could hang from my ribs and scale down into nothingness. They’d have to swing to and fro to make contact with my bellybutton. I like the sharpness, the drama of the angles…

24

I’m dating a man who delights in being able to fit his large palms around my slim waist. “So tiny,” he says on our second date, holding me gently as a coin. I feel exceptionally small in his arms. It becomes a priority to stay trim, to let his hands explore a shallow sea…

26

As the saxophone trills, I remove a silky, opera length glove with my teeth. The audience alights with applause, and I stand up a little straighter in my silver heels, pushing my chest forward. Blue feather fans shake and ruffle in choreographed movements. Prince sings about controversy, and I bask in it. I split and shimmy to the floor, then unhook the mirrored bra about my breasts. During the big reveal, my Swarovski crystal pasties shimmer, and I feel beautiful. I’m a goddess in this skin. I’ve reclaimed my curves, my muscle, my very being. I’m confident and on display, something that used to terrify me. I wink at everyone.

To see how this story began and how it ends, pick up this month’s issue of Under the Gum Tree.

 

Let’s Get Vertical!

32543

The waiver was intimidating. Maybe I shouldn’t have read it. Perhaps I should’ve just added my digital signature and gone about my business, like most people do when they sign standard waivers.

Of course, I decided to be a responsible adult and read every line, which was probably horrible for my anxiety.

I’m also aware it’s the reason I volunteered to go first at Vertical Hold. When I’m intimidated or nervous about something, it’s best to jump in and coast forward on natural adrenaline. It’s an opportunity to prove to myself that I can do something, even if it scares me.

After a lesson in tying knots, securing carabiners, and safely belaying a partner, I stepped up to the indoor rock wall and looked skyward. Little yellow protrusions told me where to put my hands and feet, but the rest would be up to me and my beating heart.

As I navigated my way up the façade, raw excitement beat against my veins. As I climbed, I was transported back to my childhood when I was a gangly half-tomboy who took to trees in dress-up high heels. Just as I did then, I smiled as I climbed higher, aware that the ground was pulling further and further away from me as I did.

At the top of the wall, I touched the rigging point, and accomplishment whooshed through me. I looked over my shoulder at my fiancé and friends, smiling. I yelled, “Take,” and our instructor lowered me down, the tips of my toes tickling the façade as I leaned back in my harness, parallel to the ground.

32549Over the next couple hours, I watched Bryan scale walls like Spider-Man, and I had to belay at hyper speed to keep him steady.  Our friends, Steve and Christina, also first-timers, defied gravity, took pictures, and cheered us on. We all agreed that belaying requires trust, communication, and some guts. Funny enough, rock climbing is perfect pre-marital counseling or a good indicator of the strength of a romantic relationship.

We watched as experienced climbers battled a boulder in the middle of the warehouse space. None of them wore harnesses. They grappled and swung and tried out different holds. Some of them made it to the top while other plummeted to the extra squishy mats below. I suddenly understood the waivers. They weren’t really for us. They were for regular climbers who were there to test their limits and push their bodies, their daring smiles challenging their mortality.

Toward the end of our session, my hands grew fatigued and my muscles started shaking during my climbs. I started to suspect rock climbers have all kinds of callus to help them hold on for dear life, along with wiry muscles that keep them balanced. I also suspect they’ve got happy endorphins soaring through them when they climb. And practiced calm in moments of turmoil. And mad trust in their bodies. And, most importantly, a zeal for fun and life.

I got a taste of rock climbing life and loved it. Bryan and I are considering rock gym memberships, because it was such a fun experience.

But more than that, getting vertical was a great reminder to tap into the fearlessness and strength of youth. To play. To challenge yourself. To look skyward and climb, climb, climb.

As Robert Frost so aptly said in one of my favorite poems of all time: “One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.”

The Greatest Achievement of Them All

bryan & tiffany1

Art by the incredibly awesome Bryan Mok.

I’m about to sound like an overly confident egomaniac. Okay, here we go.

I’m one of those people who, in the past, hasn’t had to struggle very hard to pick up new things. I’ve been blessed with natural inclinations, both scholastically and physically. I’m one of those annoying straight-A students who only earned one B in her entire academic career (damn that college algebra class!). I started reading at age three, writing not long after, and today, I’m an internationally published short story author. I started dancing at age 10, and thereafter, anything with a mildly physical component—running 5Ks, pole dancing, yoga, cirque, ballroom dancing—came to me relatively easily. (Yep, I totally sound like I’m full of myself; I promise, humility is coming.)

And it’s not to say that I didn’t work hard to excel at these things. I did. I can’t tell you the number of hours I’ve spent in dance studios or gyms training hard, doused in sweat—or sitting in front of a computer feverishly typing and editing and editing again to compose the perfect sentence. But in each of these instances, I never started at zero. I’ve never pursued skill sets that I didn’t take to naturally. Because who likes the feeling of being a complete novice? Who enjoys that steep learning curve? You find things you’re already good at and those are the things you go after, right?

Because of this mindset and my past experiences, I will readily admit I’m a shit adult learner. I get frustrated if I don’t grasp concepts quickly. I crave instant gratification. I want to be awesome. All. The. Time. (Type A personality, anyone?) If something challenges me to a degree with which I’m uncomfortable (like learning how to play guitar), I’ll make excuses, quit, and fall back on the things I’m good at.

Then, along came Aikido. If you aren’t familiar with the Japanese martial art, Aikido is both an exacting and subtle practice. Essentially, it’s a nonviolent form of self-defense that also teaches patience, active relaxation, spiritual strength, and inner peace. It combines joint locks, throws, and pins, and emphasizes the practice of using your opponent’s energy to fuel your own movements. The ultimate goal of this martial art is to diffuse a situation in a way that communicates to an attacker, “Hey, I could hurt you, but I’m going to choose not to.”

It requires a serene mind, a relaxed body, incredibly precise movement, and a lot of patience (which is already asking a lot of a girl plagued with anxiety). When you start an Aikido practice, you progress at a snail’s pace. It’s not incredibly exciting at first. And you fail a lot before you can even begin to understand a particular technique.

Bottom line: There’s a lot to overcome. There’s a lot to learn. You generally progress slowly. And it’s so, so, so humbling.

For this reason, a lot of people don’t stick with Aikido. Folks will wander into a dojo and see black belts throwing each other around and say, “I want to do that!”—but then they get into class and realize how long it’ll be before they can execute that kind of movement. For some, it can take up to 20 years (and often, longer) of incredibly dedicated practice to become truly adept at Aikido.

I started practicing Aikido in December—and in February, I almost quit. I was overwhelmed. And defeated. And thought I’d never be good at this particular art.

In that pivotal moment, I had a choice. Quit or eat a piece of humble pie and choose to work my ass off at something that was going to challenge everything I’m made of.

Well, there’s a good ending to this story.

Hakama

On Thursday night, I passed my 6th Kyu test. I earned my very first rank in Aikido and my hakama, a piece of traditional Aikido dress that (for my dojo) represents a dedication to the practice and a basic grasp of its major concepts. And I had the most emotional reaction I’ve ever had in reaching a goal. As my senseis reviewed my performance with me, the feelings of accomplishment welled up in my chest. By the time I made it off the mat, I was all smiles and happy tears. My fiancé was there to give me the biggest hug, and a fellow Aikidoka made me a gin and tonic to celebrate.

Needless to say, I’ve been on Cloud 11 since Thursday.

And maybe, just maybe, it’s because this accomplishment is a little sweeter than all the rest. Because I overcame my own self-doubt to succeed. Because I stuck with something that was hard and humbling and, often, made me feel like an idiot. Because today, I’m a little stronger, a little more forgiving of myself, a little more open-minded to new challenges, and a little more hardworking than yesterday.

Unexpected Numbers

 

31 2

“31” by Flickr user “duncan c.”

When I was a kid, I thought thirty sounded like a magical age. I liked the number, because it was round and crisp and seemed very grown up. Precocious little thing that I was, I would tell people I couldn’t wait to turn thirty.

Well, last year I did. And thirty wasn’t exactly what I expected it to be.

When I was little, I thought that by the age of thirty, I’d be married, have two kids, and be on the New York Times Bestseller’s List (yes, I had stretch goals). I think the word to describe the picture that was once in my head is “settled.” Little did I know, a more apropos word would turn out to be “transition.”

A day after my thirtieth birthday, my fiancé (who was only my boyfriend at the time) and I got into a car and drove to San Diego. We were ready to build a whole new life together in California. There, we had a hip new downtown apartment, greater proximity to family, and the promise of salty sea air. Two days later, I started a new job in a new industry in which I’d need to learn new skill sets.

Quite frankly, nothing was settled. Everything was just beginning at thirty.

Okay, thirty isn’t the age I was thinking of as a kid, I thought. I was off a year, which makes sense. Let’s face it, you’re no good at math.

I knew thirty was going to be a rollercoaster, so I strapped myself in and tried not to hold my breath.

Now, a week away from my thirty-first birthday, I’m experiencing some Twilight Zone sort of déjà vu, because nothing has slowed down, and the adventure is continuing at a breakneck speed. My man and I got engaged on Christmas morning thanks to a Nancy Drew book and a Victorian ring, so wedding planning is a thing now.

A week and a half ago, we moved into a new apartment in a neighborhood that we love. Our new place has hardwood floors, ample space for my writing desk (hooray!), and is walking distance from … I believe we’ve counted nine breweries so far?

This past Monday, I began my dream job with a small, independent academic publisher. I’m creating content like a madwoman, they trust my writing and marketing expertise, and I have agency for days. This company offers intramural sports every day of the week (yoga, volleyball, bocce ball, basketball, and bootcamp) and encourage you to work hard, then play hard. I had to buy new jeans to fit their casual dress code (score!). They have a monthly book club. I’m completely in love.

Me and my fiancé, yeah, we’re anything but settled right now. Rather, we’re standing on the precipice of uncertainty again, throwing rocks, trying to gauge just how deep that big expanse of unknowing is.

But there are a few things I do know. This year, I’ll be thirty-one. I’ll be planning a wedding. I’ll be working my ass off in an industry I’m passionate about. I’m going to fail, and I’m going to win. I’ll be inviting friends over to dine al fresco on our fabulous, second-story outdoor patio. I’ll be making more effort to build friendships and find my people in this dynamic, gorgeous city. I’ll battle anxiety and depression. I’ll also enjoy unbridled happiness and buckets of excitement.

I’ll breathe—even though I’m airborne. Upside down. Taking curves at unnatural speeds. Screaming. Laughing. Crying. My belly will drop. My head will spin. I’ll beg to go again and again.

Thirty was a magical age. Thirty-one will be, too.

Let’s ride.

 

Confessions of an Almost Quitter

2013 - HALO Show-13

Photo by Rachel Hawkinson. All rights reserved.

A couple weeks ago, I almost quit. I almost threw in the towel. On just about everything.

During a particularly challenging Aikido class, I found myself biting back tears. My body felt foreign and incapable. I was grappling with concepts far more advanced than my training. I was overthinking absolutely everything. And I was operating on fear and ego (not a good combination).

By the time we bowed out, I was convinced that I wasn’t progressing, and instead, regressing. I was scared to be on the mat. I was scared to fall. I felt like techniques I’d learned early on had abandoned my muscle memory. And though I hate to admit it, my ego was bruised. My confidence puddled at my feet.

As soon as I left the mat, the waterworks began. I hid in the ladies changing room while all of the frustration of the prior couple of weeks poured out. Because it wasn’t just Aikido.

Work had been particularly stressful. I’d decided I needed to start saving a little more, budgeting my finances more effectively as Bryan and I try to figure out the next place we plan to move in San Diego. At the same time, we have a wedding to plan now, and holy crap, venues and events are expensive. I’d received word that a friend from high school was diagnosed with breast cancer. After a year of back-to-back writing successes, the rejection emails were streaming in, and I had some crippling writer’s block. I had a tough moment with my mom when she came to visit the weekend prior.

And now, I felt like I couldn’t do anything right on the mat.

Fuck.

Everything just felt so…heavy.

And, in the midst of this post-class emotional crisis, I decided quitting Aikido would take some of the pressure off. Why was I causing myself additional stress trying to learn something new? Why was I subjecting myself to something that made me feel stupid and confused and incompetent—especially at a time when a little confidence boost could’ve gone a long way?

My fiancé saw the state I was in and refused to let me drive myself home (thank God). He drove us somewhere, parked, and patient saint that he is, let me talk and cry and get my frustrations out. Afterward, there was a burger and a cocktail and lots of hugs.

The next day, the two of us went to the dojo alone, and he worked with me one-on-one to jump start the process of banishing my fear and getting me to accept that it’s more than okay to be a complete and utter beginner.

That was all a few weeks ago.

Last night, I participated in a brilliant Aikido class that made me sweat and work and learn. There were still times when I struggled, but I asked questions and laughed at my own mistakes. There were no tears when I got off the mat. In fact, I felt like I was exactly where I needed to be.

The rest of it—finances, wedding planning, work stress, my friends’ ups and downs (all of them—man, we’re having a rough start to 2016), the writer’s block (which is over, hooray!)—I’ve learned how to manage. With time, all of that…stuff…has become lighter and lighter. I’m in a much better place than I was two weeks ago.

So, what’s the point of this story?

Well, I’m pretty sure that if I’d gone with my ill-advised gut and quit Aikido, I wouldn’t be doing so good right now.

Because I wouldn’t have been quitting a martial art; I would’ve been quitting on myself.

Last night, I would’ve sat in front of the TV and watched something mindless while Bryan was at the dojo. I would’ve been passive and alone.

I wouldn’t have experienced blood pumping through my veins, the community and friendship that form as a result of group training, the confidence boost I got because I was throwing grown men a good foot or more taller than me.

I wouldn’t have been living.

Sometimes, all the little stressors of life can seem impassible. Suddenly, it feels like it would be so much easier to quit this or that rather than hold on and work through it. But you have to ask yourself, at what cost? What will you lose? Drive? Confidence? Love? Potential success?

We can’t let life (noun) get in the way of how we want to live (verb).

Instead of passively sinking, let’s struggle. Instead of giving in, let’s fight. Instead of giving up on ourselves, let’s be a little gentler and kinder and give ourselves room to fail. Because it isn’t failure if it leads to growth and transformation—which it often does.

And life is fickle. It goes up, it goes down, it levels out, it takes a turn…and we just have to hold on and push forward and continue to improve ourselves.

We have to continue to live.

One Aikido class at a time.

Practice Makes Progress (AKA Aikido, I Choose You!)

Aikido

At first, I was adamantly against trying out an Aikido class. I had nothing against the martial art, but my boyfriend has been practicing it for a few years now, and dammit, I’m independent and often want to do my own thing. So I took a few Systema classes and loved it, but when I discussed the classes with my boyfriend at length, we both agreed it might be a little hard on my body long term, what with my chronic back issues and list of previous dance injuries. My boyfriend has very similar injuries, and Aikido has been sustainable for him.

So, I caved. I took an Aikido class.

At Jiai, our local dojo, the art of Aikido is taught as a nonviolent form of self-defense that also teaches patience, active relaxation, spiritual strength, and inner peace. It combines joint locks, throws, and pins, and emphasizes the practice of using your opponent’s energy to fuel your own movements. A good amount of the technique is derived from traditional samurai sword practice, and even when you aren’t holding a weapon, it translates into intricate, effective open hand techniques (if not directly, metaphorically).

The ultimate goal of this martial art is to diffuse a situation in a way that communicates to an attacker, “Hey, I could hurt you, but I’m going to choose not to.” It’s believed in Aikido that if you hurt others, you also hurt a piece of yourself in the process. As a lover, not a fighter, I can jive with that.

And there’s also the fact that if you practice Aikido for long enough, you can become damn near untouchable—a complete bad ass. Of course, just like anything else that’s really worth it, it takes a lot of time and practice and education to get there. It’s a very gradual learning curve. Which means, during my first class, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.

I was terrified when our instructor, Nikki Sensei, asked us to pick out a jo—a wooden staff that’s about four feet long. My experience with any sort of “weapon” has been close to nil, so I was nervous I’d hurt someone unintentionally—or hell, hurt myself. Luckily, I didn’t.

And while we worked through the class, Nikki Sensei was so helpful and gracious and kind—as were the other students with whom I partnered to practice. I learned that night that Aikido is also about community and everyone in class working together, regardless of rank or experience. I never once felt like I was a burden or that my lack of skill was holding back the class. Even surrounded by black belts.

It also became apparent during that first class that once I lock in some basic technique and learn how to move (a lot of the movement is a little counter intuitive at first—example, moving into an attack instead of away from it), my classical ballet training and experience as a dancer will be extremely helpful. I just have to think of it as a different form of “partnering.” My comfort with motion and contact should make for graceful, seamless movements.

After my third class, I was hooked and decided to make my practice of Aikido official. I became a full member of the dojo. I now have a gi—a traditional white belt Aikido uniform—and thanks to my thoughtful and supportive boyfriend, I also have a custom weapons bag with a jo, a bokkan, and a knife. And my first test should happen in March, if all goes as it should.

Between now and then, I have a lot of work to do. A lot of practice, which will hopefully turn into progress, which will hopefully turn into a true manifestation of this warrior princess life.