When I was my students’ age — seventeen, eighteen — I didn’t know what a strike was.
I had never witnessed one. In U.S. History, a teacher must have mentioned one of the famous ones — the labor strikes of the 1800s, maybe, or the post-WWII auto strikes. But to me at seventeen, a strike sounded simple: the workers refused to work, the owners tried to hold out, the workers kept refusing to work, the owners tried extreme measures (police, water, threats, firings, replacements), and usually, the workers won. The end. I was a farmer’s daughter when I learned about strikes for the first time, the daughter of a man who daily labored for himself and for his land, and who could not refuse to work a single day, because the hogs would suffer, the corn plants would wither. It seemed a kind of privilege to refuse to work.
On the Friday before the Denver teachers finally went on strike on February 11, I stood before a class of high school seniors and tried to explain to them why I would not be standing there on Monday if the district could not reach an agreement with the union. The students listened quietly, a little warily. The Denver Public School PR machine was regularly cranking out emails to the community insisting the teachers were refusing “millions” on the table and demanding more. The real story — that Denver teachers wanted a traditional salary schedule with dependable annual base pay, limited incentives, and respect for what we already do as professionals — was a more nuanced and thus more-difficult-to-craft soundbite.
I told the students I wanted them to apply to the events of the strike all the college-level research skills we’ve been learning: stay curious, formulate your own deep questions, evaluate each source for credibility and originality, question everything again, compare what you’re finding so you can discern the truth. Still, they watched me from the corners of their eyes.
“You’ll remember this,” I said finally, “far more than you’ll remember any college research skill I could teach you.” This made them laugh, and the room relaxed. Because of course they would. All their teachers were marching out of the building and refusing pay, starting Monday. They’d be in these classrooms with district-paid substitutes, staring out the tall historic windows at us on the picket line. I told them I’d wave, which made them laugh again.
It is a privilege to refuse to work. My family had enough in savings that I could afford the pay cut for a few days, but what I meant was more profound: I work as part of a collective group. I am no single farmer cultivating fields alone. I show up every day to teach in a classroom that is next door to ninety other classrooms, and our school is united with 161 other schools in the district. I’m not alone. When working conditions are unacceptable, it’s our great right to link arms together and demand more. Alone, it would be impossible. That’s what I didn’t understand at seventeen — what my students, each engaged in his/her individual battle for college and future, do not understand.
It’s what the Denver Public School District did not seem to understand, either. It’s what any group of powerful bosses does not understand. They tell us what to do, what to accept, what to swallow, until one day, we rise up as a group and shout “No!” and the bosses realize they never actually had power, that their power all along was dependent on our acquiescence.
On the Tuesday of the strike — day two — hundreds of teachers dressed in red marched down Denver’s Colfax Avenue to Civic Center Park, where we gathered with more hundreds, our signs aloft. The signs said it all. “You can’t put students first if you put teachers last.” “I choose to change the things I can no longer accept.” “More education, less administration.” “Pay us a living wage.” The one I carried asked, “What is the value of your child’s education?” On the other side, I alluded to the 1912 Massachusetts textile workers’ strike: “Teachers deserve both bread and roses.”
On all sides of us, members of other unions marched, too: firefighters, steelworkers, truck drivers, plumbers. My colleague Nick, from Michigan, often insists that ours is a blue-collar job, which seems strange, since we all have college degrees and many of us have master’s degrees and PhDs, but in these days of marching miles and miles through the city, chanting for fair pay and respectful working conditions, I understood how right he is. The teachers who marched on either side of me just wanted the chance to buy a house in this city; they wanted to have some money to save for their children’s college educations; they wanted to emerge from three decades of teaching other people’s children and find some kind of rest. They are also the most hard-working people I know. They are people who stay late to tutor students, who step out into the hallway to comfort students, who wake early to give students meaningful feedback on papers, who spend all weekend planning lessons that will light learning in students’ minds.
Without teachers in the schools in Denver, the city was eerily silent. True, the schools are open, but most students stayed home, waiting for us to return. Some marched with us. One student’s sign read: “I march because our teachers love us.”
I didn’t know how difficult it would be to strike. It was far harder than teaching all day. Every day, I woke early and put on my long underwear and then my jeans and my three sweatshirts, stocking cap, two pairs of gloves. On the picket lines each day in the cold, we walked nine, ten miles. My hips and lower back ached. And yet: every day it became clearer that if we did not strike, the bosses would continue to do as they please. This was our reminder of who was in power.
In the end, the Denver strike was the shortest in the city’s history: only three days. The district awarded us the salary schedule, and raised everyone’s salaries to meet surrounding school districts’ levels. By Thursday, we stood in our classrooms again, exhausted and exhilarated. By the middle of Thursday, it seemed we had never left; we were badgering students about turning in assignments on time; we were trying to motivate a whole class to care about our content areas; we were again fighting the relatively smaller battles between teachers and administrators. But there was this difference: starting in August, the pay we receive for this hard work will actually allow us to put down payments on houses in Denver, save for our kids’ college years, and maybe travel a little. In Denver, teachers will have enough to buy both bread and roses.
A few naysayers visited us on the picket line. One man squealed the brakes on his shiny silver BMW and jumped out, shaking a fist and shouting, “Get back to work! Get back to work!” I’m sure he believed his tax dollars fund our salaries and that we shouldn’t complain. I’m also sure that, if he had chosen to make a living as a teacher, he would have likely been out there marching with us, too.
The Friday before the strike, a student in one of my colleague’s classes rolled his eyes at her and said, “I don’t know why you’re so upset about the pay. You chose this job.”
True. And most of us teachers, at some point, frustrated by student apathy or by parents’ vitriol or by administrators’ hoops or by the long hours of grading papers and planning lessons, have said we wish we could quit. It’s a small salve sometimes in this hard job we chose. But it’s also true that most of us don’t quit. Most of us keep slogging on, because of the shining moments when a student gets it, and cares, because it is actually wonderful to plan educational experiences for teenagers each day — far better than working in an office would be.
Now, in Denver — and in Los Angeles, and in West Virginia, and hopefully soon in Oakland — we’re paid fairly for that work, too, because we chose to walk the picket lines for a few days. It’s connected us. When the bell rings to start each class, we wave at each other down the long high school hallways, and then step into our classrooms, to begin.
The idea of self-care sounds, well, selfish. And to be selfish is bad.
At least that’s what we’ve been taught since we were toddlers. We were told to share even when we didn’t want to and to apologize whether or not we felt it. We, as women especially, are told by our parents, caregivers, teachers, and society to hold our tears, lower our voices, and take one for the team. The idea of putting others ahead of ourselves becomes more and more ingrained as we get older. To love someone is to put their needs above your own. We are taught, either directly or indirectly, to sacrifice in all the roles we play: wife, partner, mother, colleague, friend, daughter.
All my life as a Palestinian-American I was taught to put others before myself. It is a good lesson. It is a noble endeavor—and yet it can go too far. There never seems to be a limit. Even when I want to say no, I am embarrassed and feel compelled to say yes. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. There have been so many times over the years that I’ve stayed up all night preparing food for a dinner party, the whole time berating myself. Or the countless times a friend has called to ask me to visit or to go out or to let their kids come over, and I just said yes. Because that’s what I do. It’s what I’ve been taught by my parents. The culture my father and grandparents brought with them from Palestine was very clear: people come first.
I grew up in a house that seemed like it had a revolving door. We always had guests over. Relatives would stop by for coffee and stay for hours. We’d serve a set menu of “courses” that we all knew by heart. From the moment guests entered the house, we all took our positions. Our parents would sit with them in the living room, and me and my sisters would head to kitchen to start making tea. Tea was served with biscuits, followed by fruit, followed by American coffee with an assortment of cakes, followed by mixed nuts and water or more tea. Sometimes visits went into overtime, and we’d find ourselves pacing the kitchen asking, “What else can we serve?” Last thing was always Arabic coffee. When you served Arabic coffee, it meant the visit was over.
Luckily, there were five of us, so there was always someone to help or cover for whoever needed to study or work. But someone had to cover that kitchen. Now that my mother had teenage daughters, she was free to work and socialize, and we took over the household duties. But she never took time for herself. My mother worked full-time. She commuted from Brooklyn to Manhattan and back every day on the subway. But she never came home and locked herself in a room for some quiet time. She never took a Saturday spa day. When we shopped for clothes, she never bought anything for herself. Or if she did, she left herself for last.
It’s a common story. Most women can identify with this. Once I became a mother, I fell into the same pattern. My husband worked, and I stayed home with the kids. I breastfed and we practiced attachment parenting. My five kids are all two years apart. I was stuck in a cycle of breastfeeding, weaning, and potty training. My entire day was filled with children, housework, and cooking. If friends came over, it meant more of the same. It wasn’t that I was unhappy—just unfulfilled.
Again, it’s not a new story. Many women can relate to this. In my case it was babies and cultural obligations. To someone else, it’s a demanding boss or husband, an overwhelming friend or sibling. We all have stresses in our lives. But we don’t know what to do about them. We know we need to take better care of ourselves physically; we diet or go to the gym. But we don’t take time for ourselves emotionally or mentally. We don’t prioritize ourselves.
Self-care is literally defined as anything you do to care for yourself. It can be anything: a walk, a deep breath, a quiet moment of reflection, or a full-on spa day. And yet very few of us take the time. The problem isn’t just the physical, it’s the mental. Whenever I did get a chance to have alone time, I’d spend most of the time watching the clock or thinking about how the kids were doing.
Until recently. Once my youngest started going to school, I didn’t really know what to do with myself. I started taking yoga, and it was the first step toward finding my center. After every class, there would be a kind of prayer to remind us to set our intentions for the day, to be mindful and gentle with ourselves. Just those simple reminders resonated with me. I felt lighter. I felt hopeful and empowered to take on the day. But then I’d leave and go back to reality and get bogged down in the routines of the day.
Then I was invited to join a women’s circle by my yoga instructor. It was a workshop of sorts for women to discuss the idea of courage. I am not one to try new things, but I was intrigued. When I entered the room, it felt like the first day of school. Everyone was just looking around at each other, unsure of what to say or do. We sat in a circle and began to introduce ourselves, and as we did, the anxiety began to fall away. It became clear that we were all looking for support in some way. We all wanted to feel like we were not alone. Because the reality is, we all feel like we are. We buy into the lie that we need to do everything. We are afraid and ashamed to ask for help. The more we feel the need to accomplish on our own, the more we tend to neglect our own needs.
The purpose of this women’s circle was to learn to be our most authentic selves—to break out of living by habit, the tendency to just go through the motions, and truly listen to our needs. Emotional distress tends to settle in our bodies in various ways; we feel anxiety in the pits of our stomachs or our necks and shoulders ache from the burden. But what if we could let go of our emotions instead of holding on to them? Emotions are just emotions, not good or bad, and they only need ninety secondsto course through the body. Ninety seconds! Allow yourself to feel it, and then poof! It’s gone. This idea changed my life. Before, I would get angry with my kids for something which would lead to me ranting about how they don’t appreciate me or how they never listen. But after learning this ninety-second gem, I began to give myself a moment to breathe and then tackle the problem. I taught it to my older kids, too. It’s a work in progress, but it was a tangible tool I could remind myself to use.
I was not living my best life. The most helpful part of being in the women’s circle was realizing that I was preventing myself from feeling fulfilled. I have always wanted to be a writer, but I was afraid of rejection. There were so many stories I wanted to tell about our travels through the Middle East or raising children, but I wouldn’t write anything down. Forget submitting, I wouldn’t even put pen to paper! But in the circle, I realized so much of that fear didn’t come from anything real. I had never had anyone read my writing and say, “This is crap! Never do this again!’ It was all in my head, as so many fears tend to be. My wonderful coach asked me to go back to my earliest memory when I felt my voice was silenced, and I realized that while I was never told not to write, I was also never encouraged to. Culturally, while I was growing up, girls weren’t told to follow their dreams. We were told to get married, start a family, and then follow your dreams if your husband was okay with it. I internalized those messages. My writing became a dream just out of reach. I encourage you, dear readers, to sit in a quiet place and really think about what’s holding you back. What’s keeping you from following your dreams? Or simply taking an hour for yourself?
When an opportunity for an open call for writers came up, I decided to do it. Whether or not it was accepted, I was determined to get over the fear. Thankfully, instead of all the voices in my head telling me I couldn’t, I finally felt like I could. So I did. And I was successful! My writing was accepted and liked. What a feeling to hear someone has read your stuff and liked it. With that newfound confidence and validation, I started going after new opportunities.
Not everyone will be able to join a women’s circle or have a coach, but we can all help ourselves. We can all take time from our days to take a deep breath. We are worth the time. This may be our biggest challenge as women yet. But healing ourselves will heal those around us. My kids have seen me realize my dreams, and it has inspired them to do the same. Holding ourselves back does not help anyone. Forcing ourselves to do for others when it is draining us only creates bitterness. It is not selfish to take care of ourselves mentally, emotionally, spiritually, or physically. It is imperative.
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.
In 2010, I was zealously playing an action-adventure Wild West video game called Red Dead Redemption by Rockstar Games.
The game follows ex-outlaw John Marston, on a quest to atone for his past and save his family from a shady government agency during the early twentieth century. It is deep, moving, engrossing, and a helluva lotta fun…everything I wanted my own stories to be.
I’d just published my debut contemporary romance under my other pen name, Vicki Essex, when the thought came to me: Why weren’t there more fantasies set in the Wild West? Why were so many magical worlds set in feudal fairytale kingdoms with castles and kings and wizards?
And so The Devil’s Revolver was born. I’d always been a reader of YA fantasy and aspired to publish in the genre. Fueled by hours of playing through bloody gunfights and long horseback rides across a seemingly endless, beautifully rendered landscape, I set out to write my story about a cursed cowgirl and a magic gun.
The question was, would anyone want to read a Western, even if there was magic in it? Despite the number of successful cross-genre stories like the Joss Whedon show Firefly (another inspiration) and Cowboys vs. Aliens (who doesn’t love Daniel Craig?), I realized that getting an audience hinged on two things: characters and world building.
I knew from the start that Hettie Alabama would have a long journey ahead of her. She was hardworking, family-centered, hard-headed—a product of her sometimes harsh surroundings with both boots planted firmly on the ground. She was “mundane,” bearing no magic gift of her own, and her only concerns for the future were ensuring the safety and security of her parents and little sister, Abby. She was also coming of age in a world where women’s roles were still limited, where brutal violence was commonplace, and where justice didn’t always mean fairness or satisfaction.
And then I handed her a legendary long-lost cursed weapon everyone was after.
Building the magical world around Hettie was more challenging than I’d anticipated. The world of The Devil’s Revolver started as one that was basically turn-of-the-century American, “but with magic.” History happened as it had, “but with magic.” Science and technology kept pace with real-life timelines for the most part, “but with magic.” It wasn’t a tough stretch—when you can imagine a spell to make something happen, you can imagine a counterspell to stop it from happening.
I kept the use of magic sparse and practical. When I started, I knew that magic had a price, that it was as precious as gold, nearly as scarce, and dwindling in intensity and supply. Sorcerers didn’t waste magic on frivolities—spells had to be as pragmatic as Hettie herself was, but also life-altering in the same way indoor plumbing might be in a rural household.
What I hadn’t really considered until well into the first draft was just how complex the system of magic would be in this world, and what it would mean to various characters and cultural groups. I couldn’t just appropriate rituals, beliefs, and ceremonies to fit into my story. To some groups of people, these magical traditions were real.
So began my own journey to decolonize my writing. As a result, “magic” in Hettie’s world, as I conceived it, couldn’t be a single overriding tradition, nor could it necessarily all come from one single source as more rigorous standards for world building might require. Every culture has its own forms of magic, whether it’s fortune-telling, prayer, conversing with otherworldly beings, healing, manipulating others…the list goes on and on. In short, “magic” allows us to trust in what is and what can be achieved through various customs or rituals without qualifying its value. Some people call this faith.
The journey’s a long one, for myself and for Hettie. I hope you’ll enjoy The Devil’s Revolver and come back for the rest of the series, coming soon from Brain Mill Press.
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.