The narrative of immigration is peripatetic—and not just in a physical sense. The experience of leaving and coming, of going and arriving, of coming to terms with and never fully accepting the elusive nature of the very experience is like a ribbon that you attempt to straighten out that curls up the moment you let go.
For a while, during the years where I felt neither here nor there, I hated having to admit where I was from. I think it may have been partly in high school, but in that circular way that our brains have of unraveling the threads of loss and fear and dread, I remember feeling this in college, too. It would come in like the tide, here now, gone later, then back again. In my mid-twenties, I spent years avoiding most interactions with Russians who were strangers to me because I didn’t want them to know I was one of them.
Even as I did it, I asked myself, why?
Saying the word “Russia” carried with it a Pandora’s Box of truth and myth that exhausted me to even think about.
It’s not the same in my head, because in my head, it’s Rossiya.
Once, I think I was thirteen, someone asked me why Russians said “Russia” in a certain way. I think she emphasized the “shia” part as sounding wrong coming from our mouths. I hadn’t noticed before, but then I began to. The answer is the simplest there could be—we have accents. We know how to say the name of our own country, but not in someone else’s language.
Another time, a boy in school asked me if all Russians carried bombs with them. I was twelve, only a year into America, and I didn’t quite have the vocabulary to pull off the pithy ‘yes, I’ve got one in my pocket right now’ response I really wanted to give. In the meantime, my sister was being asked if bears really walked around the streets of Moscow. She was in college.
The word “Russian”—these letters in this combination—evokes a picture of a country like a reflection in a shattered mirror. Sure, there are truths to that name, but they’re skewed, seen through a lens that doesn’t care for introspection or even closer inspection. It’s tiny pieces, certain slivers of truth that have lost some crucial point of a whole picture.
Russia is funny accents; mafia thugs; mail order brides; vodka; endless winters; fucked up laws. It’s Putin shirtless on a bear being pasted onto a unicorn via Photoshop; illegal music downloads and Brighton Beach in Brooklyn. It’s laughable pop music and mangled phrases that lose their meanings because no one really cares what they actually stand for, just that they sound funny. It’s the ironic hipster T-shirt with CCCP on it, a beanie with a hammer and sickle worn to set off a carefully cultivated neckbeard; it’s comrade, it’s Stalin, it’s the butt of a joke.
Rossiya—my Rossiya—isn’t that.
It’s my ordinary tragedy, a loss of what I had intended. At least, what I had expected. We none of us had planned on exile, but here we are. It sounds overwrought, overly self-important. For years, I’ve denied the truth of it. Whenever anybody asked, What was it like, to leave? I’d simply shrug it off.
It sucked. What else can you say? It sucked, but thank God we made it.
It sucked, but it sucks much less now.
We’re free here, and we’re doing well.
But the loss persists—insidious, incomprehensible, impossible to put into words. As I try to lay them down, they jump around and refuse to land in a way that would pinpoint the why of it. Why it happened, why it matters. I was only a kid, after all. But a kid is a sponge. I absorbed what it meant to be Russian before I could fully form a consciousness. And once you’ve taken it all in, there’s no wringing it out—at least not completely.
II. Missing Space
Ours isn’t even the most tragic story. As far as these things go, it’s actually a good one. When we flew across an ocean, my dad had a job offer from a prestigious university in his metaphorical pocket. We were poor as dirt, but there was a promise of a better life. He’d be paid so little we’d need food stamps, but he’d be paid. The life we were leaving behind couldn’t even offer that much, as I found out later, when my mom decided we were far enough away from it all to take me into her confidence. “If I hadn’t typed up all those dissertations on the side, we would have starved,” she told me when I was sixteen, over breakfast. Matter-of-fact.
Again, I’m trying to straighten out a ribbon that refuses to unravel. What am I really trying to get at, what am I really saying? Am I talking about leaving? Am I talking about being sad about leaving? Am I talking about leaving having been the best decision my parents ever made?
Yes. And I’m talking about how, even at eleven years of age, I was keenly, sharply aware that this was a loss that was permanent. There would be no going back.
For the last twenty-two years, I’ve straddled two countries, at first unwilling, and then resigned to simply being unable to land on just one.
When I think back, I see a gilded, liminal time when I spoke a language I had been born into and felt different in a way that was commonplace. The fears of my childhood were ordinary and, when they weren’t, were at least shared by others.
Sure, it said “Jew” in my parents’ passports—but wasn’t that normal? I learned fairly early on not to discuss my ethnicity. For the longest time, I believed that all Jews were good, because they weren’t a danger to us. They were fellow Jews. Boy, did that one annoying family friend fuck me up. “But he’s Jewish! How can he be soannoying?” I’d ask myself after yet another encounter.
My grandpa, prominent journalist of his town, was suddenly severed from a friendship with a local poet. They’d shared a plot of land for years, growing cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes, strawberries—all the staples of a Russian garden—when suddenly, his friend ended it all. Why? He’d discovered his inner Russian.
We weren’t Russian, of course. We were Jews.
It’s a tangled, spiraled thread that feels impossible to unpick even at thirty-three.
After we immigrated—how I hate that word; it feels diagnostic in its stigmatization—I would ask my dad if he ever missed Russia.
“No,” he’d shrug. “What would I miss about it?” In his overly sentimental moods, he would add that all he’s ever needed has been us, his family. The rest was pointless nostalgia. “I don’t miss places,” he’d say.
I did. I missed it viciously, in a way that felt like I’d been eviscerated at the airport.
With my guts hanging out, I was forced to go to school deaf and mute. When my mom and sister took me to the middle school to get my English tested, I’d forgotten how to even say “door.” All I knew was “mother, father, sister, brother.” They put me in Level 1 ESL.
I showed up to my first day of school with a note written by my sister: “My name is Elizabeth. I don’t speak English. Can you show me where to find the ESL classroom? Thank you!”
My name wasn’t Elizabeth. But that was what I was supposed to call myself from then on.
In ninth grade, a history teacher said “Russia” in the middle of a sentence and my head snapped up.
“She wasn’t talking about you,” said a girl I’d been friendly with for years. “Calm down.”
I shrank back, lowered my head immediately. I knew the teacher hadn’t been talking about me. But it’s the cocktail party effect. You know—you’re at a party, there’s chatter every which way, and then somebody says your name and you immediately twist around, trying to see where it came from before you’ve even fully registered the movement.
The tangle goes further, even more confusing and insidious.
For years, I shrank away from anything or anyone Russian. After devouring War & Peace and all of Chekhov at thirteen, I refused to pick up Anna Karenina in high school. “I know how it ends,” I’d tell my mother irritably. “That’s not the point!” she’d fire back, giving me a look like what she was really saying was, Whose daughter are you?
While she couldn’t get me to read any of the English books she’d picked out for me at eleven, at eighteen I was ignoring her pleas for me to read in Russian. “You’ll forget the language,” she’d fret.
Good, I’d think savagely but bite my tongue before it could come out and start a real fight. And anyway, my parents were the ones who’d made the decision, the ones who’d picked up our lives and dumped us in the middle of the unknown—why were they fighting so hard to stay un-American? It was like the Borg—we’d be assimilated sooner or later.
“Russia” was shameful, it was unpolished, backwards. It was weighing me down and refusing to let me go. In the grand tradition of teenagers everywhere, all I wanted was to blend in and disappear but I couldn’t, because I still had traces of an accent, my parents’ English was worse than mine now, I had gaps in my cultural knowledge, and I hated all of it.
I was a mass of quiet, vicious rebellion.
Why wasn’t I getting all A’s, wasn’t I their daughter? But I was “doing my best,” I’d argue, parroting back the values that newly swirled around us like smog and were roundly rejected by my parents. Why weren’t B’s enough for my parents?
Because even with their gold medals for stellar grades they couldn’t have gone to the best universities. They’d both been marked as “Jews” and made to crawl to earn the same rights as those whose passports proclaimed them to be Russian.
I missed my town with an ache I couldn’t seem to fill. Stateside, we had everything—a good place to live, eventually two incomes, friends, food aplenty, relative security. Even my grandparents made it out, two and a half years after us.
It wasn’t enough. I carried that ache, that shameful love I couldn’t seem to shake, like a brand. The push and pull of it was exhausting.
Russia had taken more than it had given. From my grandmother, it had taken her father when she’d been a girl, imprisoned and later executed in secret for the crime of being a “Polish spy” (a Polish Jew, of course). It had taken her mother and thrown her in a labor camp for ten years, aging her to the point of no recognition upon release. It had stripped my grandmother of rights and forced my grandfather to later make a choice: divorce his “enemy of the state” wife with whom he had three children or get fired. It wasn’t any kind of choice, and he found a good job in a different city, but it had followed him all his life. He was a Jew, and he looked like a Jew, but at least his last name didn’t end in “shtein.” Of course, when he was born, the clerk at city hall refused to believe that the name his parents wished to give him was Jewish enough. “No,” he said. “He’ll be Meier in his papers.” How much easier to point him out then, you see.
From my sister, it took away the chance to not be terrified when, on a staircase of our apartment building, someone yelled, “Kill all yids!”
From me, it took away the chance not to live with constantly simmering fear and confusion. It took it away from all of us. When I was ten, before we left, life was pretty good, it was normal. I had friends, I had art school, I had music school, and I was happy. I had regular school, too, and I was doing well in all my subjects, except I couldn’t seem to get ahead in Russian and Russian Lit. My teacher was young, just out of university, and from her, unlike from everyone else, I never got a single A. One day, I came home, slumped against the door, and told my mom, “I can’t do this anymore. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.”
My sister talked to a good teacher of hers. Something happened behind the scenes. I started getting A’s from a tight-lipped, pissy teacher. It was never spoken out loud, but it was known, anyway. She didn’t want to reward the Jewish girl.
I can’t stop loving the memories, I can’t stop being myself, shaped as I am by the values ingrained so deeply that they’re etched permanently under my skin. Values that fuck me up as I endeavor to evolve into something manageable, values that are like a yoke pulling me back—and sometimes, a prod that’s shoving me forward.
I have to battle myself every time I take a risk, because who do I think I am to believe that risks pay off? Risks are too dangerous, aren’t they? Better not to stand out. Better to immerse yourself in philosophical thinking, surround yourself with art and culture, so as to fill the space that’s telling you this is all you can do, because all other doors are shut to your ilk. We don’t investigate our own emotions, we glance off of them like a flinching touch because if we delve any deeper, we’ll never crawl out.
I’m slowly learning you can embody it all—because, of course, philosophical thinking and cultural pursuits do not in and of themselves preclude you from taking bigger risks. Maybe avoiding taking risks was not something I learned in childhood, after all. Maybe it isn’t cultural. Maybe it’s mine.
Whenever the anniversary of us leaving rolls around, I call my parents and say, “Congratulations!” Inevitably, my mother will argue: “It’s tomorrow.” “We left today,” I’ll say. “Yes, but we arrived tomorrow.” We’ve danced this dance for twenty-one years.
This love is heavy; it’s a burden. Even now, there are bills being presented to the Duma that would further stigmatize and flat-out prohibit homosexuality. I’m queer. What would have happened to me had we stayed?
I have little doubt that I’d already be married to a man, with children, living a life of more fear and bleak unhappiness—existing, but not the way I do now. The picture is blurry and gray. I think I would probably be surviving, at best. I’m sure I would love my children, maybe even my husband. I would also have invisible chains binding me, invisible maybe even to me. The ghost of that self haunts me almost daily, the potential loss like an abyss I stare into, flinging mental pebbles just to see how far down they’ll fall. A pebble for the loss of the identity I am free to own today, another for the loss of the future that now unspools before me, open and hopeful. Sometimes I wake up in a cold sweat, dreaming about the might-have-beens.
America has given us all a chance. I’m married to a woman—married on my own terms. I’m in love, and I’m free to be in love, for all that homophobia is alive and well here too. I’m free to write this, free to think in any way I do. I was free to get upset and pissed as hell when my parents expressed a dislike for the idea of this marriage because I had finally been told, by an entire society acting as an institution, that me being queer was not a moral issue, nor was it an evil thing. I was free to be mad at my parents because I knew that I was right and they were wrong.
They’ve since changed their views, and that’s another thing America has given us.
In America, I may be suddenly Russian, but I’m also white. I can say the words “I’m Jewish” and not be terrified of the consequences.
But in America, I also hear the underhanded comments. Jews run Hollywood. Your people are good with money. She’s such a JAP.This hasn’t changed—it’s just become less overtly dangerous.
Even still, I love the place where I am from. I love it for all the ways in which it’s doomed, the ways in which it tried its best to crawl out from under a dictatorial shadow only to be thrown right back into that endless, horrid void of xenophobia, terror, and propaganda.
“Vile country,” my sister said once over the phone when I called her about some particularly awful new homophobic law. “Just horrible.”
She lets herself feel the anger I wish I could feel, but I can’t. When I think of Russia, I think of our small town, just outside of Moscow. I think of the books that shaped me, for better or for worse, the artists whose works shone despite all the efforts to tarnish them with claims of treason and perversion. So many quotes and phrases float to mind every day that I simply can’t translate, can only mull over and cherish. I think in English, but there are these words, these Russian words that have no translation, and I think in those, too.
I love that they are a part of me. I love their meanings, I love the history behind each and every single one. When I think about Russia’s history, I see it all—I see the ugly truths, and I see the pursuit of greatness, of betterment, of enlightenment. The anger that I allow myself to feel is not at the country itself, but at the system that has shaped it. At the men at its helm who’ve done everything in their power to not care for the people they’re meant to be leading.
By all logic, there shouldn’t be much love to retain. What love could there be for a country that takes its brightest minds and exiles them to the coldest ends of the earth, sentences them to certain death, and then erects monuments in their honor like a guilt-ridden lover? A country that poisons and assassinates as a matter of political strategy? What could you possibly love about a place that gives you scraps and tells you to be happy with what you have because it could be so much worse?
I feel like I have floated all my life in different spaces, and I’ve rarely settled. But the idea of my childhood grounds me at the same time as it cuts another nick in my guts.
I know where I come from. I know that it isn’t here. I know that all the contradictions within me were not placed there by any single society, but were born out of who I am and who I’ve always been outside of external influence.
What would I have been had I been born on American soil? Another duality: the idea of existing in a place that gave me life feels singularly simple, uncomplicated like air, yet I would never give up where I came from, nor where and who I am now. It’s an impossible task to make sense of this. So I continue to exist on two separate planes.
Several months ago, someone asked me after a typically circular conversation about the whole experience: “Did you even want to leave?”
And with no preamble, I burst into tears—the sort of uncontrollable sobs that humiliate and empty you out. It hadn’t been my choice to make. My parents did the only thing they could have done, and it turned out to have been the best decision of their lives.
But I was eleven, and I have never fully forgotten.
There are a million ways to be Russian: there are millions of Russians. Those still living within its borders and those scattered around the globe. There are so many of us. I see us everywhere. I recognize our faces, I know our clothes, the looks in our eyes. I see us where I least expect to and hear us everywhere.
We left. We left because there was so little to stay for. But we gather in groups, we stockpile our nostalgia in movies, books, music. Some of us deride America even as we use its resources. Some of us pretend that our microcosm of Russians is Russia, that we can carry on like we never left at all. I reject this way of being Russian in America. But it’s still a way to cope.
My love for Russia is one that I hoard mostly inside myself, never fully letting it out—because if I let it out, it will get hurt. I protect it as I flinch away from others’ comments, hide it in the smallest pockets of my heart.
VI. Street View
In my darker, more masochistic moments, I open up Google Maps and search out my hometown. I look up our address. Every time I do, it sends a jolt of ‘Why is the building still there?’ through me. How is it still there? How has it not disappeared along with us? How can I look at it and not be able to touch it? How can it simply exist? It still looks the same, but some surroundings have changed. Instead of woods and pavement, there are restaurants, car dealerships, newsstands.
Incredibly, like a throwback, a reaffirmation of the other of it, the steam baths are still across the street—just sporting a new overhead label. An old tradition dressed up in new corporate clothing.
I scroll through the streets and think, This is where we walked and saw a family friend for the last time. My sister said, after we parted, “We’ll probably never see him again.” Now I look at that street and think, she was right. And that fence is new. I can’t get past the fence, just like I can’t get past the last of the forward arrows. I can’t fall into that world, I can only look in from outside, separated by thousands of miles and a screen.
I look up my school. The street with our old apartment isn’t on street view, and after I discover this, I dream about it that very night. In my dream, I’ve got my wife with me and I’m trying to show her all the places that have been locked up so long inside me. I even dream about the playground that is now, at least according to Google Maps, a parking lot. This is where I fell, I tell her.
Every now and then, I’ll call my parents and say, “Hey. Thanks for taking us out of there.”
In the end, this love is one-sided. The country never really wanted us. For all that the small petty bureaucrat tortured my parents when they went for their refugee visa interview, for all that he told them they were making a huge mistake, that America was awful, that his daughter was there and she hated it, so really, You’re better off just staying here, they don’t want you—it wasn’t America that didn’t want us.
I’ve learned this lesson over and over. I learned it when Russia officially sanctioned a neo-Nazi party after we left, and I learned it when it slowly began to cut off the small freedoms it had gained post-USSR. Step by step, anti-Western sentiment sowed the now-blossoming seeds of fascism, ethnocentrism, homophobia, and we, Jews, simply feel grateful to have escaped.
My love for America is the flipside of this coin: intrinsically humiliating, because I’ll always be its charity case. It’s given me so much, but when asking for my loyalty, it looms over me and casts a shadow so large it absorbs me whole. This love will never be equal, either. I will always be subservient, groveling at its feet, enduring endless debates about whether or not outsiders like me have any essential value.
But when I came out to my parents, it was a million miles away from where I could have been. When I married my wife, it felt even farther.
Now Russia exists to me in online news sites and Twitter accounts. It exists in the futility of following the Russian LGBT Network on Facebook, knowing there isn’t a single thing I can do to make any of this easier on the people I’ve left behind. It exists where it can no longer hurt me, but it taunts me with its slow descent into abject horror.
That was my country once. It’s where I’m from, where I was born, where I was raised, where I have an entire mental map of my town as if I’d only seen it yesterday and not over twenty years ago. It exists in Technicolor stereotypes on my TV, in jabs from well-meaning people who want to show they care that I’m not American and stifle my ability to define myself for myself.
It’s no one’s fault, not really. Why should anyone care, much less know all the detail of, what it’s like to have been born into a country that would nearly devour you whole, then reluctantly spit you out? It’s unanswerable. I only know my own experience—I can’t speak for anyone else. But it never leaves. I try to have a sense of humor about it, I mock and I despair, and while I think in words, I remember in pictures.
I remember the present I got for my eleventh birthday: a shiny pair of white sneakers. I’d never owned sneakers before, and this was momentous. I’d be able to keep up with the other kids, the kids whose parents weren’t a barely paid nuclear physicist and an administrator. I vividly remember opening the box just as John Lennon’s “Imagine” played on TV (we had access to music videos by then; we even had a color television set) and I remember the feeling of being unable to imagine anything better than my new pair of sneakers. I took a walk later that day by myself, and I watched my new sneakers glow as they pounded the familiar pavement, and I thought, what language do they speak in America? I don’t even know. But I memorized each crack in the pavement, each street corner, each place where I had had memories.
We left two months and seven days later. I’ve never been back.
Liz Jacobs came over with her family from Russia at the age of 11, as a Jewish refugee. All in all, her life has gotten steadily better since that moment. They settled in an ultra-liberal haven in the middle of New York State, which sort of helped her with the whole “grappling with her sexuality” business.
She has spent a lot of her time flitting from passion project to passion project, but writing remains her constant. She has flown planes, drawn, made jewelry, had an improbable internet encounter before it was cool, and successfully wooed the love of her life in a military-style campaign. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize for her essay on her family’s experience with immigration.
She currently lives with her wife in Massachusetts, splitting her time between her day job, writing, and watching a veritable boatload of British murder mysteries.
When people think of love, romantic love comes to mind. It is often tied with sexual attraction and the act of sex, seemingly inseparable.
As a result, asexual people who experience romantic attraction but not sexual attraction have a hard time explaining their identity to potential romantic partners as well as friends and family. In Claire Kann’s debut young adult novel Let’s Talk About Love the main lead is a Black biromantic asexual girl named Alice who is learning to redefine and appreciate the several types of love she experiences.
When it comes to asexuality, it is important to note that it exists on a spectrum that consists of a lack of sexual attraction as well as a lack of romantic attraction. Let’s Talk About Love features only one facet and experience of asexuality and should not be treated as a definitive text. However, there is no denying that it’s a notable book in more ways than one. Unlike most teen coming-of-age stories, this one is set in college during summer. This allows for a realistic, easygoing plot that focuses on self-discovery.
When the novel opens, Alice has just been dumped by her girlfriend Margot because she doesn’t understand Alice’s asexuality. Alice is especially hurt because Margot thinks that Alice doesn’t want to have sex with her because she doesn’t love her. Since Alice is already uncomfortable with being open with her asexuality, this breakup makes things worse. As a result, she has a hard time recognizing her feelings for her new library co-worker Takumi and dreads coming out to him.
With the help of a therapist, Alice starts to get in touch with her feelings, becomes closer to Takumi and her friends Fennie and Ryan, and starts moving out from under her parents’ career expectations. As she does this, she comes to realize the various types of love she is capable of experiencing and enjoying without giving in to heteronormative expectations. A fun aspect of this is Alice’s love for pop culture.
Although it’s not a major part of the book, Alice’s passion for pop culture is such a quirky and charming part of her character that you can’t help but smile. Thinking of love and passion in terms of how much you enjoy a thing is valuable; to see Alice do this so naturally is wonderful. She jokes about getting a degree in watching Netflix and Hulu. She cosplays as Velma Dinkley from Scooby Doo. It’s amusing and nice because it becomes something she shares with her friends and Takumi out of love for them.
In fact, Alice’s love for her friends Feenie and Ryan are just as powerful as her feelings for her love interest Takumi. In the book, she finds herself becoming a third wheel to Feenie and Ryan, slowly drifting apart from them as she spends more time with Takumi. After an incident where she feels her friends abandoned her, she and her friends become estranged until they have a talk about how they need to balance their relationships with each other.
It’s important to note Alice’s friendships.
Some young adult books focus on romance more than friendship, especially when romance is a major part of the plot. When a girl gets a love interest in a book like The Fault in Our Stars or Pushing the Limits, it feels like the girl’s entire world revolves around them. Another notable factor in this book is the rarity of having a Black female teen dealing with things like romance and friendship instead of extreme hardship. Although Alice does deal with microgressions, her personality is that of a carefree Black girl trying to happily live her life.
Meanwhile, Alice’s relationship with Takumi is notable because it evolves from friendship to romance. In fact, ninety-five percent of the book involves friendship. While this caused the romance scenes to be rushed at the end, having their friendship grow to romance works in Alice’s favor. Alice is allowed to figure out what exactly attracts her to Takumi, what type of attraction she feels for him, and how much she likes him versus how much she is attracted to him. Takumi is allowed to do the same and his relationship with Alice is all the better for it.
All in all, Let’s Talk About Love is a wonderful exploration of love in various forms. Alice’s coming-of-age story is entertaining and thoughtful because it shows that friendship, romance without sex, and personal passions are filled with just as much love as anything sexual. It forces the reader to consider what makes love special to them and why certain types of love are given a higher value than others. Let’s Talk About Love both entertains and starts a conversation; more people should be reading and talking about this book.
In October of 2004, my mom picked me up from my college dorm and drove me about twenty miles up Interstate 79 to Edinboro, Pennsylvania, where we pulled into one of those perfect, Desperate Housewives-type neighborhoods with the immaculate lawns and minimalist traditional houses just a few inches too close together.
We parked in the street in front of one of these houses; the driveway was too packed with minivans and station wagons for us to fit. Also, I got the impression that my mom didn’t want to be trapped. If she felt the need to flee, street parking would enable us to up and go without any awkward car shuffling.
My mom had brought along four grocery store bags filled with photographs and memorabilia from our recent vacation to England, and we hauled them up the walk to the front door, which was opened pre-knock by a smiling woman in a red tracksuit and white athletic socks. Her grip on the doorframe made it look as if she’d slid to a stop Risky Business-style.
“Ginny! Hey girl!” this woman said to my mom, who was not a “Hey girl!” type of woman. She turned to me and smiled. “You must be Mike. I’m Mrs. Costa. Come on in!”
We followed her into her perfect home. The color scheme was light blue and cream, and the walls were adorned with photographs of a perfect family unit. She advised us to remove our shoes and led us to a door on the far side of her open-plan kitchen. We descended a set of stairs and emerged into Scrapbooking Narnia.
My mom and I gazed up at the shelf-lined walls like Belle in the Beast’s library, dazzled by rows upon rows of glittering books, sticker packs, paper sets, and collections of colorfully gripped razor blades arrayed on surgical trays.
Rows of tables were arranged in the center of the basement, accessorized with clear plastic discard bins hanging from the edges. About a dozen middle-aged women were seated at the tables, gabbing and crafting like Santa’s elves while sipping wine coolers.
We introduced ourselves and joined them at the tables, where Mrs. Costa proceeded to take us through the basics of scrapbooking. She started with the essentials: tape runners, corner cutters, die-cuts, stickers, journal boxes, paper, paper, more paper, and of course, scrapbooks. Then she showed us how to add pages to scrapbooks and how to tape paper onto the pages. We learned that nearly any mistake could be corrected with the right combination of patience, tape, and the magical fix-it tool (which is basically a piece of plastic – rounded on one end and pointed on the other – that allows for the scraping up and pressing down of tape and stickers). She showed us the best way to edit photos, both for page aesthetics and for the photos themselves, enabling us to crop bad angles, cover unwanted rumples with stickers, and make our complexions dazzling with the right color of mat.
Thus instructed, we got to work. As we did, Mrs. Costa brought my mom a wine cooler and me a Diet Coke, and we casually chatted with the other scrapbookers. Mrs. Costa herself didn’t scrapbook; instead she bopped around, helping to cut photos, choose stickers, cover pages in protective plastic, or offer any other scrapbooking assist. The majority of the other ladies were working on books about genealogy or Disney World, and generously provided us with tips and examples.
Though the typical scrapbook looks like it’s constructed page by page, the reality is that a lot of work should be done before the first photo is placed. Photos should be organized into the order that they will appear in the book, then grouped by potential page, then cropped. Paper for backgrounds needs to be pre-chosen, particularly if you plan on matting your photos before actually putting them into the book. (You should.) Supporting materials – brochures, menus, stickers, journal boxes, etc. – need to be chosen ahead of time and also cropped and/or shaped.
This all felt very overwhelming the first time. My mom and I were slow, careful croppers. We obsessed over potential color schemes, eventually choosing pink and green to accentuate the colors we’d experienced in English gardens. We looked around at the other scrapbookers’ immaculate pages, so vivid that I could practically feel It’s a Small World’s artificial river lapping at our feet, and felt jealous and inadequate.
Despite the friendly atmosphere, I felt out of place and uncomfortable. On the one hand, I was a nineteen-year-old boy in a group of scrapbooking forty-plus women. An obviously gay teenager in the heart of Republican Americana. What could be more traditional than women gathered around the crafting table? And there I was, an interloper, the opposite of traditional, bringing the stain of maleness (the double stain of male-on-maleness) to this dainty female gathering.
On the other hand, scrapbooking represented everything that a formative gay male was supposed to reject. Online dating sites were filled with guys looking for masculine guys only. Gays were supposed to be breaking stereotypes, doing manly things, not picking out stickers with our moms.
But as we cut pictures and listened to stories about football games, unbelievable Disney deals, and local politics, a Zen-like relaxation overtook me. Every group of matted photos was an individual memory, curated by my mother and me for an audience of ourselves.
We went back the next week, and as we progressed from cropping and organizing to placing background paper and arranging our pages, my feelings of relaxation turned to subtle joy. Part of this was the simple pleasure of being in a group whose only connection was shared creative expression.
But more than that, the joy began to flow from the scrapbook itself. It started as a stirring in my stomach, a giddy excitement achieved by trimming what had mostly been a lousy day trip to Dover into a beautiful one-page ode to the city’s famous white cliffs. Eventually every piece of our trip fit into the book like a piece of our own intricate jigsaw.
That giddiness grew as we found the perfect places to stick the menus, brochures, business cards, and even coins that we’d squirreled away on our trip. Scrapbooking solved some sort of organizational compulsion that I didn’t even know I’d possessed, and the ability to make the useless useful was intoxicating.
When I look at that English scrapbook now, it’s hard to see beyond the book’s flaws. It is a twelve-inch-by-twelve-inch pale green canvas book with a simple metal plaque adorning the front cover. The plaque consists of reliefs of dainty pink and yellow flowers. Very English. It opens to a garish title page, dominated by laser-cut, doily-like stick-on letters spelling out “ENGLAND” across the top. Beneath, a cutout from a brochure showing a rail map of Great Britain is sandwiched between bright red words – “Mike” on the left and “Mom” on the right. All of this lay atop a Pepto-pink background and surrounded by stickers of airplanes, flowers, hedgehogs, and, strangely, a giant watermill.
Our stickers are placed unevenly, we failed to mat about half of the photos, and we stuck our journal boxes in the book before we did the actual journaling, which forced us to squeeze too much or stretch too little text within them.
Despite those flaws, I have nothing but appreciation for the book, and that’s because of what isn’t physically within it. The invisible feelings and details that aren’t on the pages but nevertheless still live inside the scrapbook. There is something about scrapbooking a moment that traps the events and details around that point in time. I don’t know whether or not those details are the truth or in fact just another facet of the scrapbooking illusion, but every page still takes me back into who I was then.
The first picture in this first scrapbook is of me, looking relaxed and comfortable in my own skin, wearing sunglasses and leaning against the doorframe of the hotel my mom and I stayed at for our first few days in England. The picture itself isn’t that significant outside of enabling us to remember the name of The Ridgemount Hotel. Instead, the picture is significant because the person in the photo didn’t exist.
At nineteen I was horribly self-conscious. I was tormented by a combination the fear that came with growing up gay in a rural area and the insecurity of an effeminate, formerly obese teenager. I wasn’t someone who could “pass” for straight, and I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin.
But this picture on the first page is the first I can recall of myself looking relaxed and at ease. I didn’t even realize that I’d felt so different until we began creating the scrapbook and I saw myself in those photographs and relived the memories.
Scrapbooking revealed to me that I’d felt like my real, true self in London. This made sense – it was a place where I could be myself in public without attracting unwanted attention. Later, I would move to London for this very reason.
Scrapbooking is like a Ouija board for nostalgia. Usually this ethereal force that alternately warms and stabs our hearts, nostalgia is harnessed by scrapbooking into a kind of total recall of events. To an outsider, a beautifully constructed scrapbook might look like a Photoshopped version of events — a postcard memory. But scrapbooking allows for the opposite, at least in my experience. The process of scrapbooking allows me to fully reflect on every angle of an experience.
This reflection is hard. Like most LGBTQIA+ people, I have a lot of pain in my past. Pain suffered at the hands of bullies, of society, and of myself. Pain that often made very little sense at the time of its infliction. This is where scrapbooking can help. It allows for reflection to be coupled with action. The act of sorting through memories, painful or not, is empowering. It may seem symbolic, but it’s more than that because an actual document — an artefact – is being created in the process.
For example, I have a scrapbook my time spent studying abroad in northeast Australia, one of the most beautiful places in the world. However, this part of Australia was also at the time quite socially conservative, and gay activity was restricted to the Internet and a few gay clubs. In building my scrapbook I thought back to hurled slurs, having my boyfriend (who was closeted) deny my existence, being called “Gay Mike” by everyone, including my closest friends.
Unlike my trip to England, I did not feel at home in Australia. Scrapbooking, though, allowed me to control how I remembered Australia. It may sound as if I’m putting a rose tint on the past. But pain can’t be erased with the cropping of a photograph or the addition of stickers. Pain, shame, fear, and embarrassment are all tattooed on my skin. But scrapbooking my Australian experience allowed me to declare what I wanted to take away from Australia. I fell in love. I was independent for the first time. The nature was beautiful and I met some of the best people I’ve ever known. I frolicked on some of the world’s most beautiful beaches and saw some of the world’s weirdest animals. My brother visited, and we had an absolute blast.
Those are the things in my Australian scrapbook, and I look back on that time with joy. I don’t forget any of the bad things, but my scrapbook has allowed me to keep those bad memories at bay, to prevent them from smothering the good ones.
Beyond what scrapbooking gave me mentally, it had tangible benefits as well. The actual skills associated with scrapbooking have aided me countless times in my career, most significantly in the field of advertising.
Work took me around the world, and I spent 2007 to 2011 living in London, Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Hong Kong. In the fall of 2011, my husband and I made the decision to move to the United States, specifically to New York. I just had to find a job. New York City’s advertising field is notoriously competitive and overflowing with eager job hunters with endless reserves of creativity and technical skills.
I arranged a series of interviews and arrived in New York from Hong Kong with a briefcase full of résumés and a portfolio of great international clients. However, it felt like something was missing. When I got to my hotel in Manhattan, it dawned on me what I could do to set myself apart. I called my mother and had her run to Mrs. Costa’s and get me the shiniest scrapbook she could find. She overnighted it to me along with a heap of supplies. Luckily I’d given myself an extra day to recover from jetlag before my interviews, and as soon as my things arrived, I set up shop in the hotel’s business center, printing, cropping, and sticking my working life into a silver, star-adorned scrapbook.
I didn’t know whether I would be successful, but I was relatively sure that no other candidate for a senior role in a New York advertising job would have a scrapbooked résumé. One of the lessons that scrapbooking had given me over the years was that personal moments count far more in a scrapbook than the generic, no matter how stunning that generic moment was. As beautiful as the Eiffel Tower is, everyone has seen a picture of it. Scrapbooks are for showing yourself posing with a stranger in front of the Eiffel Tower, eating a dozen croissants, or looking awkward in a beret.
So I focused my scrapbook résumé on the personal. I had my education, agency experience, and client list, of course. But I also showed myself sitting fireside with my boss on retreat in South Africa’s Karoo desert and eating spicy soup on a business trip to Shanghai. I included pictures of myself running the London Marathon and posing with friend on Hong Kong’s Avenue of Stars.
I got the job and took that scrapbooking experience to the agency with me, advising colleagues on how to creatively present work to clients and how to pitch for new ones. And I kept scrapbooking for myself, which helped me not only to remember what I loved about my life but helped me reflect on what I didn’t.
Which is also how I ended up leaving advertising. In focusing my scrapbook résumé on the personal, I also identified what it was that I loved about my job. I loved the travel and the people, the new experiences. What I didn’t love was the work. In looking back at the scrapbook now, the signs are all there. I reflected on educational experiences warmly and thoroughly and skipped over entire years of actual work experience. Most tellingly, I included a page in my scrapbook about how I dreamed of being an author. Who applies to a job by telling potential employers they want to be something else?
Eventually, I left advertising and went back to school to be a writer. I now teach, too, which is another area where scrapbooking knowledge proves to be a helpful arrow in my quiver, though a young male teacher telling a group of millennials that he scrapbooks is also a recipe for instant criticism.
Which doesn’t bother me much. In learning to scrapbook, I learned to focus on what’s really important. Sometimes what’s really important is cropping your midsection or ex-boyfriend out of photos. Sometimes it’s adding a hundred stickers to a page to emphasize the importance of an event. Sometimes it’s holding on to the smallest memento of a person or place. And sometimes it’s choosing to let something go.
Please. Please. For the love of God and your constituency, find a real problem to write bills about. Because transgender people in bathrooms are not causing any problems. None. Zero.
My preference would be that you spend your energy addressing pressing concerns that threaten to destabilize society and possibly annihilate the entire human race. Might I suggest: generational poverty, mass incarceration, underfunded public schools, or Donald Trump’s presidential bid.
If, for reasons I won’t pretend to understand, you insist on creating bills related to public restrooms, allow me to suggest some bills that might actually improve the bathroom-going experience of the general public:
A bill requiring “occupied/not occupied” signs on stalls. The older I get, the more awkward it is to bend over and check for feet under the stall door.
An “all or nothing” bill regarding automation of bathroom amenities. Does the toilet flush by itself? Will the soap squirt out automatically? Will the water turn on if I move my hand back and forth faster under the faucet? How long should I stand here waiting for the paper towels to emerge? An “all or nothing” bill would help me avoid quite a bit of embarrassment.
A bill prohibiting the use of 1-ply toilet paper. For reasons I shouldn’t have to explain.
I appreciate your time and attention to my concerns. And I hope your next experience in the public restroom of your choice is a pleasant one.
Dear Conservative Christian “News” Sites and Conservative Talk Show Hosts,
I imagine you and I disagree about many things. Evolution. Abortion rights. Gay marriage. Women pastors. Israel/Palestine. Military service. But with all of these issues, I at least understand where you are coming from. I can articulate the values that undergird your opposition to same-sex marriage. I can turn to the Bible passages that you quote when you champion creationism. I can even tell you all the reasons you would say that I should not be a pastor.
I don’t agree with you on these issues; I do (more or less) understand your perspective. But when it comes to your opposition to inclusive bathroom policies, I am truly and completely at a loss. I listen to your arguments in favor of forcing people to use the bathroom of the sex they were assigned on their birth certificate. I try to find some shred of reason in what you say, but every single argument I hear either says nothing or it says something that is so obviously false I can’t imagine anyone really believes it.
The say nothing arguments go something like this: You know we’ve just always . . . and we’ve never . . . and society and common sense and values.
The obviously false arguments go like this: If you let people use the bathroom that corresponds to their chosen gender identity, men will go into women’s restrooms and attack women.
Also, it has NOTHING to do with allowing transgender people to use the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity. The man was not transgender. He was not even a cross dresser. He was a creepy guy who walked right into the women’s restroom and strangled a girl. Which, by the way, is against the law everywhere.
I don’t get it. I have deep roots in the Christian tradition—Baptist roots. I’ve read a broad theological range. I’ve attended prayer meetings where people spoke in tongues. I’m fluent in evangelical-ese (if a bit rusty), and I almost always understand the conservative Christian perspective, even though I don’t often agree with it.
But not this time. This time I’m stumped. I truly and honestly have no clue why you are opposed to letting people use the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity. I thought maybe there was something in the Bible that I’ve somehow missed in all my years of study. So I did some searching.
Turns out that many relevant bathroom words are not found in the Bible at all: bathroom, toilet, pee, poop, feces, shat. None of them are in there.
But “urine” was a hit. God tells Ezekiel to proclaim the coming devastation: “Every spirit will become faint and every leg will be wet with urine.” (Ezekiel 21:7) Also, in a story repeated in 2 Kings and Isaiah, a commander declares that the defeated enemy will “have to eat their own excrement and drink their own urine”. (2 Kings 18:27 and Isaiah 36:12)
Which led me to “excrement” and a passage in Ezekiel where God relents and lets the prophet bake his bread over cow dung instead of human excrement. (Ezekiel 4:15)
Very vivid verses—but not especially relevant to the topic at hand.
I was able to find only one verse that seems at all related to modern bathroom use. In Deuteronomy 23: 12-13, instructions are given to the Israelites:”Designate a place outside the camp where you can go to relieve yourself. As part of your equipment have something to dig with, and when you relieve yourself, dig a hole and cover up your excrement.”
I think we can all agree on the basic Christian principle of covering up our excrement. Or flushing. Beyond that, perhaps we should keep silent where the scriptures are silent.
Your Sister (I can show you my birth certificate if you like) in Christ,Joanna
Dear Cis Woman in the Women’s Restroom with Me,
If I run out of toilet paper in the stall next to you, I may ask you to pass me some. I would be happy to do the same for you. Otherwise, I expect we can each do our bathroom duties in peace. Have a nice day.
Dear Trans Woman in the Women’s Restroom with Me,
If I run out of toilet paper in the stall next to you, I may ask you to pass me some. I would be happy to do the same for you. Otherwise, I expect we can each do our bathroom duties in peace. Have a nice day.
Dear Cis Man or Trans Man in the Women’s Restroom with Me,
It seems only fair that if you enjoy the privileges of being a man in our society—higher pay, more respect, a wardrobe that does not go out of style every six months—then you should also experience the down sides of being a man in our society—nasty public bathrooms.
But, at any rate, if I run out of toilet paper in the stall next to you, I may ask you to pass me some. I would be happy to do the same for you. Otherwise, I expect we can each do our bathroom duties in peace. Have a nice day.
In bathroom solidarity,Joanna
Dear Sexual Predator in the Women’s Restroom with Me,
Dear Men who were in the Men’s Room when my Woman Friend Accidentally Wandered in there and Used the Bathroom and then Noticed You All Looking at her Funny While She Was Washing her Hands,
She feels pretty silly and wants you to know she was really tired and jet lagged. It won’t happen again. Probably. But if it does, thanks for being cool about it.
The last time I saw my nineteen-year-old son, he grumbled at me in the middle of the public library: “Just stop yelling at me all the time. I’m sick of it. I’m finally living my life how I want, and you can’t control me!”
For the record, I wasn’t yelling at him. I had told him that I left an Easter card from his grandma at his apartment. Also, “living my life how I want” involves not taking his medication and staying up all night playing Xbox, which means he obviously can’t be expected to go to work in the mornings.
But he’s right, of course. I can’t control him. I’m doing a whole lot of psychological and spiritual work right now to let that sink in and to create the boundaries I need in our relationship so that encounters like this don’t send me into brooding anxiety for days on end.
Being a mother is not the most delightful part of my life. And I’m not the delightful mother I wish I were. So I approach the upcoming Mother’s Day celebration with deeply mixed feelings.
Mother’s Day is often celebrated in church, but many people will come to worship on May 8 with ambivalent—if not downright hostile—feelings about the day.
There are plenty of women who are not mothers—some by choice, some who desperately want children but, for different reasons, didn’t have them.
There are people whose mothers have died, and those whose mothers might as well be dead. There are those whose mothers abused them or stood by and let others abuse them. There are adopted kids (my oldest son and daughter among them) who wonder about their “other” mothers. There are women who have given their children up for adoption. Women who have had miscarriages. Women who have had abortions. Women who aren’t biologically female and so cannot ever hope to experience the very physical and feminine reality of pregnancy and childbirth.
Mother’s Day is riddled with landmines. I was relieved to get through our last worship planning session without any mention of the dreaded date. I thought I might get away with just ignoring mothers this year. But alas, someone emailed after the meeting and said, “Oh. We forgot about Mother’s Day. We should do something.”
We should do something. Fine. Here’s what I’m going to do: take a page from my more conservative Baptist upbringing. Not a page from how they celebrated Mother’s Day—with cheap carnations and sappy bookmarks and rhyming poems about a mother’s love being from heaven above. I’m going to take a page from how we Baptists used to celebrate Father’s Day—talking about God as the great and ultimate Father.
Celebrating earthly motherhood in worship is problematic on many levels. But lifting up the maternal qualities of God is, it seems to me, a valuable way to observe the holiday. After all, the earliest roots of Mother’s Day can be found in Greek and Roman celebrations honoring the mother goddesses Rhea and Cybele. And the modern manifestation of the holiday in the United States is based on women’s efforts toward peace, justice, and equal rights.
And of course, since it’s church, we’ll read the Bible.
The foundational Biblical image of God as creator is strikingly feminine. The writer of Deuteronomy chastises the people, saying: “You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth” (32:18). And in Isaiah God says she “will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant” (42:14).
The Biblical images of God as a nurturing mother provide a necessary corrective to contemporary religious rhetoric about judgment and punishment, getting even and building walls. In Isaiah God says, “As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you” (66:13). Hosea writes these words from God’s mouth: “I led them with cords of human kindness, / with ties of love. / To them I was like one who lifts / a little child to the cheek, / and I bent down to feed them” (11:4).
And another Biblical image is a necessary corrective to our tendency to think of mothers only as gentle nurturers: God says, “Like a bear robbed of her cubs, / I will attack them and rip them open” (Hosea 13:8).
I love that some of these images are soft and comforting, while others are powerful and disturbing. Motherhood is as much about wailing in labor and viciously protecting our children as it is about kissing boo-boos and singing lullabies. In fact, some experiences of motherhood involve far more wailing than kissing.
It is important, not just on Mother’s Day, that we acknowledge the complicated identity of being a mother (or not) and the complex relationships that many people have with their mothers and other maternal figures.
It is important, not just on Mother’s Day, that we lift up the fullness of God and explore the rich and varied images for the Divine provided in the Bible and other religious texts. This broadened conversation matters not just because it allows us to understand God more fully, but also because it allows us to move beyond the strictly gendered ways we think about each other.
Many theologians will argue that God is neither male nor female. I prefer to consider God as female and male and non-gendered and multi-gendered. We could say that God is gender fluid, or gender queer: a fierce mother bear one moment and a generous father the next (Matthew 7:11); a father whispering secrets to children and a mother gasping and panting in childbirth (Matthew 11:25, Isaiah 42:14); an eagle spreading its wings to catch its young and a hen gathering her chicks to her warm body (Deuteronomy 32:11; Matthew 23:37).
Perhaps Mother’s Day can be a time to question rather than reinforce the gender binary and stereotypes so prevalent in our society. Rather than feeling shame around our own experiences with mothers and motherhood, it can be a day for us to acknowledge that none of us have perfect mothers; that none of us are or will be or would have been perfect mothers.
And if we must celebrate this secular holiday in the holy space of worship, perhaps it can be a time for us to recognize and celebrate the fullness of Divine identity; a time to praise the mothering God who gave us birth, to rest under the warmth of her wings, and to find power in her fierce love.