Until the Violence Stops

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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.

Buy a Book, Impact a Life

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As the holidays near, it’s easy to get caught up in buying presents, visiting friends and family, and building the best snowman anyone has ever seen (out of snow if the climate permits and marshmallows if it doesn’t). It’s easy to forget that there are others out there who can’t get caught up in holiday cheer, because of, well, hard doses of life.

Today, my short story “Devour” is published in an anthology titled Christmas Lites V.

I know what you’re thinking. Another plug for your work, Tiffany? But what about all the feels in that intro paragraph? You sound all kinds of entitled right now.

While this blog post is a way for me to share the news of the publication of “Devour,” it’s also a call to action. Because every cent of the proceeds of Christmas Lites V goes to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV).

According to their website, “NCADV is the voice of victims and survivors. We are the catalyst for changing society to have zero tolerance for domestic violence. We do this by effecting public policy, increasing understanding of the impact of domestic violence, and providing programs and education that drive change.”

The NCADV works with the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery to financially assist survivors of domestic violence who may not be able to afford reconstructive plastic surgery. They memorialize the victims of abuse through their Remember My Name project. They provide tool kits, in conjunction with The Feminist Women’s Health Center and the National Organization for Men Against Sexism, to help bridge the gap between the fields of reproductive health and domestic violence, educating others about reproductive coercion. They provide financial independence materials to survivors to help them rebuild and maintain financial stability. In short, they do really important work.

So Christmas Lites V is more than a book. It’s a way to support an incredibly worthwhile organization. While you read “A Tale of Two Urchins” by A.F. Stewart, “The Krampus Tree” by Douglas Wynne, or “Keeping Christmas” by Alana Lorens, know that you’re not only enjoying great fiction (donated by each and every author) but also helping to support NCADV’s important programs.

And I’m pretty sure there’s something for everyone in this anthology. All genres are represented – romance, fantasy, horror, action, children’s stories, stories written by children, and more.

Of course, I wrote a horror story. I tried to write something light and lovely for the holidays, but it simply didn’t work. Instead, I wrote about love that’s begun to fade, dark, foreboding woods, and the dangers of skepticism. Here’s a little excerpt from “Devour”:

“Through the Plexiglas of the phone booth, Melody Halliday peered into the dark of the wood – into its empty boughs and dead promises, beyond its gnarled, labyrinthine birch wood limbs, deep into the very heart of it – and felt nothing but utter skepticism. And pity, too. Pity that the provincial town of Einn in Iceland found debilitating fear in something so banal.

‘I’m surprised they haven’t burned the woods to the ground,’ Melody said into the receiver. ‘They say the mannaeta’s spirit lives in the bark of the trees, hibernating all year until Christmas Eve rolls around. Then, it take half-human, half-wood demon form for one night to feed on someone in Einn. Happy cannibal Christmas.’

‘How very jolly,’ Eddie Beckett, Melody’s boyfriend, said from across the Atlantic Ocean. His voice sounded honeyed. He’d been drinking. Pub drafts, no doubt, frothy ones laden with hops. Melody salivated at the thought of a crisp pint. There was no beer in Einn, not around this time of year.

‘It gets better. They systematically starve themselves here,’ Melody said. ‘Begins the first day of December. They eat as little as possible. They don’t want to entice the mannaeta with their wobbly bits.’

“Well, yours certainly entice me,’ Eddie said, humor in his voice.

Melody choked on an empty chuckle and cleared her throat, embarrassment and frustration warming her cheeks. Why was she so bloody uncomfortable? Her boyfriend of three years flirting openly with her should have sent her over the moon. Throttling through space with joy. But it didn’t. Instead, his frisky jest made her stomach twitch with nervousness.”

And you’ll have to purchase a copy of Christmas Lites V to see what happens to Melody, Eddie, the sleepy little town of Einn, and its resident wood-demon, the mannaeta.

If you want a hard copy, CLICK HERE!

If you want a Kindle copy, CLICK HERE!

Purchasing this book to support NCADV is the best Christmas/holiday gift anyone could give me. Thank you in advance for your generosity and support.

Happiest of holidays to you all!

Teddy Bears and Tears: My First Trip to Mingus Mountain Academy

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A dusty, unpaved road in the hills of Prescott Valley leads you to Mingus Mountain Academy, a court-appointed rehabilitation facility for troubled girls aged 12-18. Last Wednesday, I jostled along in the van with two ex-convicts and two enthusiastic Gina’s Team interns to the campus. In the back of the van, we towed trash bags filled with stuffed animals, cookies, and candy canes. For the girls of Mingus, Christmas came early, just like it does every year.

For the past five years, Gina’s Team volunteers have traveled to Prescott with donated stuffed animals and treats to inspire the girls of Mingus and spread a little holiday cheer, which is something they need in spades. Many of these girls have struggled with addiction, domestic issues, living on the street—you name it, they’ve probably experienced it. And they’re babies—grade, middle, and high school kids who are struggling to get it right.

So you can imagine how a small gesture, like a stuffed animal (and the people who care enough to give them), can make a big impact.

In the gym, we unloaded the stuffed animals—teddy bears, unicorns, gorillas, and more—across six fold-out tables. We lined them all up so they could smile at the girls sitting on the bleachers across from them, an assembly of cuteness and cheer.

Some of the girls came up and introduced themselves, with proper handshakes or heartfelt hugs. Some surveyed the tables, mentally picking out their new friend ahead of time. I fell in love with all of them immediately.

Sue Ellen Allen, ex-convict and the co-founder of Gina’s Team, acted as our emcee, and the girls absolutely love her. I don’t blame them. I’m pretty sure everyone who meets Sue Ellen is instantly smitten with her. She’s 69, bold, beautiful, honest, and her charisma is palpable. Most importantly, she knows how to talk to these girls. She knows how to tell her story.

Sue Ellen has done time for securities fraud. She knows what it’s like to make a bad choice and pay dearly for it. And the girls at Mingus? They’re on the precipice. If they aren’t rehabilitated, if they don’t work past their issues—be it a broken home situation, a lack of self-confidence, an addiction, a psychological or emotional compulsion—they’ll continue the cycle and wind up behind bars as soon as they can be tried as adults.

So our job at Mingus on Wednesday wasn’t just to make these girls happy by giving them presents and boatloads of sugar; it was to inspire them, to applaud how far they’ve come already, to show them that even though they’re going through hell, there’s something on the other side of it: hope.

When Sue Ellen asked how many of the girls were experiencing their first Christmas sober or off the streets, about 90% of the girls raised their hands. And that’s when the tears started for me.

They continued as the rest of the volunteers who traveled up to Mingus—most of whom have experienced time in prison and have found hope and stability on the other side—spoke to the girls and shared their words of love and wisdom.

I’m proud to say that I added my voice to the chorus. I asked the girls how many of them had a dream or something fabulous they wanted to do with their lives. Again, about 90% of the girls raised their hands. I told them that they need to keep thinking about what they want, because those thoughts can turn into actions, and those actions can pave the way for the rest of their lives. They just have to believe that they can do it, that they deserve it, and that if they work toward it, they can make it happen.

I told them I would continue to think about each and every one after leaving Mingus. I’ve kept my word. I think about those girls and the energy of hope and rehabilitation that cloaked us all that day. I hear their voices singing Christmas carols. I imagine their smiles and know that they have so much promise.

I look forward to seeing them again. I hope next time I can share stories of what I’ve overcome and what I’ve been able to accomplish despite adversity and my own internal struggles. I hope that I can help just one of them feel like she’s enough and she’s got it in her to change her own life and reshape her destiny.

A dusty, unpaved road in the hills of Prescott Valley leads you to Mingus Mountain Academy, a court-appointed rehabilitation facility for troubled girls aged 12-18. I can’t wait to go back.

Last Night, I Went to Prison

Photo by flickr user "mikecogh." Note: not a picture of Perryville Prison.

Photo by flickr user “mikecogh.” Note: not a picture of Perryville Prison.

So, what should I wear to prison tomorrow?

Trust me, it wasn’t a question I ever thought I’d be asking, but I found myself emailing that inquiry to my good friend, Sara, a few short days ago.

Her response: I should wear something I’d wear to a casual business interview. Dark jeans or slacks were good. Minimal jewelry. And I might consider wearing a sports bra, because underwire has the annoying habit of tripping the metal detectors at the entrance. Beyond that, the only things I would need were my driver’s license and my copy of The Book Thief.

You see, I wasn’t going to prison because I was in trouble. I was going to prison as a volunteer, a book club volunteer.

When Sara approached me about volunteering alongside her at Perryville Women’s Prison, there was an instant tug in my belly. Half of that tug was nervousness, because let’s face it, I’d be going into a prison to interact with inmates. (And you might as well nickname me Ms. Paranoid—just ask my boyfriend.)

But the other half of that tug was instinct, something in me that said, “Yes, this would be a good thing. It’s something you have to give. Share your love for the written word. And do something that challenges you.”

Last week, I got the email from Sara letting me know that my background check had cleared, they were meeting next week, and the group was reading The Book Thief, would I come?

Last night, it smelled like a petting zoo when we got out of Sara’s car, because Perryville is situated just down the road from a dairy farm on the west, west side of town. The sun was setting, painting the horizon pink over the coils of barbed wire around us. Little squat buildings sat behind gates and uniforms. And there were women on the yard, walking around in bright orange clothing, probably enjoying the cooler weather.

We made it through the metal detectors without issue (go sports bras!), got our temporary badges, and walked into the cafeteria.

What came next was not the scene from a horror film. It was not an episode of Orange is the New Black. It was pretty, well, normal.

It was a regular book club, a collection of women who genuinely love the written word, who pine for it. Women who are intelligent and have opinions. Women who smiled at me even though they knew absolutely nothing about me. Women who I had an easier time picturing as mothers, sisters, and daughters than hardened criminals.

As we dissected the love letter to the written word that is The Book Thief and pontificated on the healing power of books, the women of Perryville shared with us that books help them to escape. The book club is something they look forward to. It’s a spot of hope in a blanket of bleakness.

And I realized that these women each have a story that led them to Perryville. Some are stories of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some are stories of terrible mistakes, the stuff of nightmares. Some are stories of struggle, addiction, and abuse. Some are about the women they used to be or the side of themselves they are fighting to overcome.

And I decided that we can’t let their stories end there. Prison shouldn’t result in blank pages for them.

So that’s what Sara and I and all the other Perryville volunteers are doing. We’re coloring these women’s pages with words and feelings and reminders of what it’s like outside the barbed wire. We’re making sure their stories continue to breathe and develop—so that when they get out, they can confidently continue to tell their stories and perhaps rewrite themselves into new, rehabilitated lives.

Last night, I went to prison. It won’t be the last time.

Break a World Record? Check!

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So, this past weekend, I did something pretty cool. I helped to break the Guinness World Record for the most hunger relief kits assembled simultaneously. Thanks to Valley of the Sun United Way (VSUW) and Arizona State University, I was one of nearly 2,000 people who assembled 1,993 WeekEND Hunger Backpacks in three minutes, smashing the previous record achieved by a school in Canada of 1,000 hunger relief kits packed.WeekEND Hunger Backpack materials

I’d never actually assembled a WeekEND Hunger Backpack, but I’ve heard a lot about the program through my work with VSUW. In the Valley of the Sun (fancy name for most of Arizona), there are approximately 82,000 families struggling with chronic hunger. Think about that number. 82,000 households who may not know where their next meal is coming from.

Even more alarming, within the Phoenix schools that VSUW partners with, around 80% of the kids depend on school-supplied meals.

And this is where the WeekEND Hunger Backpacks come into play. The packs help chronically hungry youth get the nutrition they need over the weekend—a time when they can’t depend on school-supplied breakfasts and lunches.

During our official welcome to the World Record to End Hunger event, VSUW reported that they distribute more than 2,000 WeekEND Hunger Backpacks each month to hungry kids at eight Valley schools.

That fact hit me hard, because it put into perspective what a pervasive issue hunger is in Arizona, especially for our youth.

Yes, this world record attempt would quickly replenish VSUW’s supply of WeekEND Hunger Backpacks, but our end result would only help keep kids healthy and satiated for a single month at best (they only had room for 2,016 volunteers to participate). And that’s only the 50-some odd kids at each of the eight schools with which VSUW partners.

To further drive the point home, audio recordings of some of the kids who receive the WeekEND Hunger Backpacks were played for us. You’d think these kids were talking about a new LEGO set or a state-of-the-art Barbie mansion because of the thankfulness and excitement in their voices. But they weren’t. They were talking about how happy they were to have food, a basic survival need.

I knew then that this was about way more than setting a new world record. This was about smashing hunger in a symbolic and community-driven way. And I was pretty damn proud to be in that crowd of volunteers.

A few moments later, Philip Robertson, Guinness World Record adjudicator, explained the official rules for the attempt, and then it was time to assemble the packs!

As each volunteer was only responsible for packing one WeekEND Hunger Backpack, my table was finished in 30 seconds flat, and I inwardly wished we had more packs to assemble. Can you imagine if we all were creating as many packs as we could in a three-minute sprint?

As soon as the shotgun sounded at the end of three minutes signaling the end of the attempt, everyone on the field cheered. We knew we’d done it!

Official stewards, who were responsible for checking the work at each table, filed up to the stage at the front of the field and reported out their tables’ numbers.

CertificateA few moments later, Philip announced that we’d packed 1,993 hunger relief kits and thus, put Arizona on the map as a Guinness World Record holder.

The World Record to End Hunger event was truly inspiring and such a worthwhile volunteer opportunity!

But if it taught me anything it’s that our work fighting hunger is far from done. There are kids out there who have no idea where their next meal is coming from. And we can help.

Learn about VSUW’s WeekEND Hunger Backpack program. Volunteer to pack WeekEND Hunger Backpacks or deliver them to Valley schools. Become an End Hunger team member to advocate and take action to end hunger in the Valley. Donate to the WeekEND Hunger Backpack program. $20 alone (maybe four morning coffees – if you like ’em fancy!) will feed a chronically hungry child over the weekend for a month; $200 will take care of a child for a school year (40 weeks).

Because how cool would it be if the Guinness World Record for the most hunger relief kits assembled simultaneously didn’t exist—because there was no need for it?

Ever Been to a Yoga Rave?

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I experienced my first “yoga rave” this past weekend, and now I’m a little nervous to go back to my normal yoga classes. I’m going to miss the light installations, the dub step music, the sheer magnitude of what we sweaty yogis all experienced together. I’m just not sure if my regular practice can live up to these exceptional standards now! Maybe that’s kind of un-yogi of me to say, but…let me explain.

It all started when a good friend of mine posted a picture on Facebook of this wicked Kalliope light/sound installation/mammoth cool thing/I-don’t-really-know-exactly-what-it-is―and said that it complemented a yoga class. I immediately needed to research this awesomeness.

What I discovered was Walter Yoga, born from Walter Productions, a company which provides mobile light and sound installations for events. Walter Yoga seeks to create an experience in downtown Phoenix blending the amazing light and sound systems of Walter Productions with the beauty and power of yoga.

Once a month (I’m hoping more frequently in the future, pretty please!), Walter Yoga invites a local instructor to teach a weekend class. And they can use the light and sound system within the Walter Yoga studio however they choose. This means ultimate control of disco balls, projected lights, Kalliope, and a state-of-the-art sound system.

I had to experience this firsthand.

Saturday morning, I ate a hearty breakfast and then stood in line with my mat outside of the most unassuming warehouse in downtown Phoenix. Inside, I was greeted with cool air conditioning and an even cooler practice space. Check this out…

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I situated myself up front and smiled stupidly until the room was full. And when I say full, I mean my mat was about two inches away from my neighbor’s, there had to be over 100 people in that room, and the event sold out, meaning they had to turn people away.

The instructor for the day, Anton Mackey, introduced himself and then introduced A Life Story Foundation, an organization dedicated to supporting amyotrophic  lateral sclerosis (ALS) research and potential treatments for patients with the disease. Also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, ALS attacks certain cells in the brain which compromise an individual’s ability to move. Eventually, the disease progresses and ultimately causes respiratory failure. There is no cure, and after symptoms begin to surface, those with the disease live on average for a mere two to five years.

One of Anton’s friends was diagnosed with ALS at the age of 30, and so he’s become an avid supporter of A Life Story. About three-quarters of the funds collected at this month’s Walter Yoga were donated to A Life Story, because–as Anton so eloquently put it–what better way to fight this disease than by practicing something that is such a celebration of movement and breath. And so we practiced gratitude. We were abundantly thankful for our individual abilities and together we dedicated our practice to those who can’t move, can’t breathe.

And it made me push a little harder. It make me stretch a little further. It made me realize that despite all of the issues I’ve had with my back the past few years I’m lucky that my body still has agency.

The dub step music may have helped, too. So did Anton’s proclamation that we could dance our asses off if we wanted to. Pretty sure he said we could twerk at one point. While twerking didn’t ensue, laughing and swaying sure did.

At the end of class, we formed concentric circles throughout the space, knees touching knees, and thanked each other for the experience together. I hugged the strangers who’d practiced next to me. And as with any rave, I left feeling high–on gratitude, on life, on breath.

Check out more photos (professional ones!) on the Walter Yoga Facebook page. “Like” them to get notifications for the next Walter Yoga session. Check out Anton’s yoga page to see where he teaches and why he’s a spiritual gangster. And, of course, check out A Life Story Foundation to donate to a truly worthy cause.

Namaste, y’all!

A Special Swim Lesson

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I had a pretty special reason to volunteer at the Special Olympics Arizona Fall Games October 19. His name is Matt and he’s my cousin. Matt has a very severe case of cerebral palsy. He’s wheelchair-bound and has been his whole life. He’s been in and out of the hospital for corrective surgeries and procedures since he was little. His reading comprehension and other intellectual capabilities—his book smarts—decreased significantly after elementary school.

By societal standards, Matt is considered disabled, but I know better.

Matt and I have spent years playing video games together. Donkey Kong was always his favorite—or at least it was when we played together. He’s memorized and can sing along to almost any song performed by Barry Manilow, Journey, or Neil Diamond—which I didn’t appreciate when I was younger, but I absolutely love now. There was even a Neil Diamond cake for his birthday one year! Matt worked at a pizza parlor in his hometown in Ohio during his teenage years and he was a favorite among regulars. Despite his learning difficulties, he has his high school diploma. He’s had a girlfriend or two, too. And to this day, he’s got the best smile I’ve ever seen.

What Matt has taught me through the years is that when the “abled” have faith and give opportunity to those considered “disabled,” everyone wins. Those with physical or mental disabilities are given the chance to thrive—and they do. Often, we don’t give them enough credit for what they’re capable of, but when we do, they succeed and their happiness is contagious. They provide such joy—and much-needed perspective—to everyone around them.

Volunteering for the Special Olympics Arizona Fall Games was a no-brainer. I knew what I would see, feel, and experience. And deep down, I knew I’d be doing it for Matt.

I arrived at the Surprise Aquatics Center for the swimming events around 9:45 am and clearly, I was late to the party. There were tents set up everywhere with games, information about healthy living, and free giveaways. Special Olympics athletes were walking around wet, meaning they’d already participated in morning heats. The energy was awesome!

I was there for lunch duty. Two other volunteers greeted me and explained that we had three major duties: to keep three kiddie pools in front of the tent stocked with ice, water, and Gatorade to keep everyone hydrated; to hand out free samples of Snapea Crisps; and to deliver prepackaged lunches to the competing teams.

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Hands down, the best part of my day was asking athletes about their races. They were so excited to show me their gold, silver, and bronze medals. Most of the athletes reported their individual times down to the second and recounted their races from the day before. All of them got high fives from me.

I, luckily, got to escape my booth to check out a few of the races. The dedication and determination of the swimmers reminded me of international Olympics athletes. They were there for the gold and they would try their damnedest to make it happen. The way they cheered each other on was really something, too—so supportive of each other.

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Back at my booth, I watched athletes walk by with brand new shoes either on their feet or in boxes. Turns out, volunteers from Midwestern University were on site to give the athletes free foot exams. If the podiatrists-in-training determined the athletes needed a new pair of shoes, they gave them a new pair—absolutely free—courtesy of Famous Footwear. (Yes, add that business onto your list of karmic places to shop!)

When I got home from volunteering, I was exhausted, but I also knew I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

My cousin Matt lives in Ohio with my extended family, but when I was slinging Gatorade and listening to stories of swim meets and personal successes, I felt just a little bit closer to him. And to me, that’s more than enough reason to volunteer.