Thursday, March 14, 2019

The Grief and Artifacts of Russian Interference (Or: What Did I Ever Do to You, Barbara Kingsolver?)

A few nights ago, I got to officially sign up for Kamala Harris’s presidential campaign. ( I’ve had her bumper sticker on my car for weeks (First primary sticker I’ve seen in my neighborhood!) and I feel so lucky and happy to have her as a choice, but before I can get truly excited about 2020 (Or even the awesome election work I have slated for 2019!) I need to process some stuff. My thanks if you’re kind enough to read it!

I hate to even type the name, but I really, really wish that Bernie Sanders were not in the primary race. Right after he joined, I could see that a few friends (Who I guess have less-curated feeds than I do) were already annoyed/beleaguered by Bernie Bro/Becky posts and comments. I felt the bullying fear and loss wash over me even as I declined to engage with those threads. After a few days of NOT TODAY, PUTIN-ing ( I broke down and cried. Suddenly, it felt like the Blue Wave was over, like the most diverse primary in U.S. history had been irrevocably colonized by Russian troll farms and a racist, dead-hearted, misogynist hate monger. And the worst thing about it is that that hatemonger is our own.

Even as I mourned the lost of that brief and wonderful Bernie-free race, I knew that friends and family members were getting excited about him (or that other, dreamier, but equally white guy), not even reading the women’s platforms. I knew that the quest not to engage about Bernie, not to explode about him at family gatherings, would be intense and long-lasting, and that the assumption of “reasonableness” would be placed only on the males in the conversation. I knew that the burden to “behave” and “be civil” would be on me, and that foreknowledge made me want to be preemptively shrill, unhinged, and hysterical. (I’m reclaiming all of those terms, thanks.) All of the 2016-to-present election PTSD made me feel crazy, trapped, and hopeless, even as I should still be enjoying the progress of the last three years and the promise of 2020.

The cult of Bernie Sanders has done unspeakable amounts of damage to America. This week, my feelings of fear and pain found a new level in, of all things, the new Barbara Kingsolver book. I HATE the practice of accusing powerful women of betraying women (while dudes get off scot free), but abandonment and betrayal are the emotions I feel. Until she hurt my heart in Unsheltered, I hadn’t realized she was one of my heroes, one of the brain-mentors out there in the world looking out for us, with her ecology and her love of nature. It stings that she turned on the kind of woman I am, so forcefully and blindly. Maybe she never would have thought of me as a worthy person, who knows?
(Before I get to my main point, I want to cover the fat-phobia in the book: Kingsolver indulges in the trope of using fatness as a symbol for hateful, brainwashed, selfish, Trumpish capitalism. She accuses fat passengers of “oozing” into a character’s airline seat and suggests that thin, small people are the next phase of human evolution because they fit more neatly into airline seats. All of that stung, but what she did historically and politically was way, WAY worse.)

Unsheltered is novel about climate change, late capitalism, frightened Americans’ eternal battle against science, and the erasure from history of a real-life female scientist. I like all of those themes, that’s why I finished the book even though it vilified my fat body and erased my own place in history.

The book is set in 2015-2016, and the rise of Trump (Whom she refers to as “The Bullhorn,” the use of which nickname seems like its own form of protest-shaming and civility-policing.) punctuates the story. We see hopeful, peaceloving Bernie supporters, whom Kingsolver calls simply “The Revolution.” (Relatedly, in the novel we see present day Cuba as a utopia, which I guess it might be, I’ve never been. Kingsolver apparently missed One Day at a Time episode that explained to white people why Cuban Americans don’t necessarily love seeing Che Guevara on a t-shirt. Here’s an old article that explains:

What we DON’T see in the book is Hillary Clinton or her supporters. The closest Kingsolver comes to mentioning Hillary is when the protagonist sadly realizes that Trump “or someone like him” seemed bound to win the election.

I know it’s a novel and not a history book, but still. I knew that the erasing of women (particularly women of color, which many of Hillary’s supporters were/are) from history happened, but its horrifying to see it happen almost in real time! It is maddening and creepy to see Hillary and her supporters written out of this 2015-2016 story that I know so many people will read and love.

The erasing of women’s work makes me apoplectic, whether it’s past, present, or future. Not only does Kingsolver (like everyone who equates Hillary to Trump) erase a former Secretary of State’s lifetime of service AND HER ACTUAL POLITICAL PLATFORM from the author’s version of history, she is erasing the majority of Americans as well. She is dismissing the women, people of color, LGBTQ folks, disabled people, and ALL of the other Americans who worked, sacrificed, fretted, and took near-constant online abuse from all sides in order to try and move America’s future leftward, heartward, equailityward.

Where is the payoff from erasing the majority of Americans from history? Is it worth this much disinformation to continue to convince herself she’s right, to continue hoping that all of us who don’t present as socialist enough will be headed for the firing squads, to keep propping up the white-supremacy-serving idea that “identity politics” (i.e. the concerns of every group that isn’t white, straight, cis, able-bodied men) should be silenced in public debate?

I’m supposed to be giving out more benefit-of-the-doubt this year, so maybe she made the book so lady-erasing on purpose. Maybe her characters were monstrous fat-phobes to show how bad that kind of prejudice is. But three years of election traumaand 30 years of regular PTSD means I know how to spot gaslighting when I see it. I’m almost certain that one of the authors I love can’t be trusted anymore. I hate when things get all Invasion of the Body Snatchers in my brain, but I think Bernie and the troll farms (NOT a good name for a band) only teased out a misogyny, a Stockholm Syndrome, a gentle white supremacy that was there in all of us. Still, it’s a loss. It hurts to unfriend and unfollow, but maybe this loss will free my eyeballs for more humane books.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Open Letter: Medical Fat-phobia

To the Management Team at Mount Airy Family Practice;

When I first started coming to Mount Airy Family Practice, I found Vincent Tyson to be a very helpful caregiver. He gave me great advice for navigating my way out of Acute Stress Disorder and helped me find a lifesaving treatment for my depression—I will never stop being grateful for his help.

However, some things were just not right. During exams where a second person was required to be in the room, he would joke that “They just don’t trust us to be alone together.” What’s the joke there? That harassment precautions are silly?

And then there were the reports: Although I have never been treated for anything weight/heart/blood sugar related, I always had to read the phrase “morbidly obese” on my reports. (I understand that that may be a requirement of the insurance companies, but it still reads as a reminder to feel “less than.”) Though I’ve never visited Mount Airy Family Practice for vein trouble, “varicose veins” were always listed on the reports as well. Those two factors combined gave me the feeling that I was being assessed aesthetically rather than (or, I guess, as well as) medically.

Then, a few months ago, I did have a question about weight. I had gained a bunch of weight without significantly changing my exercise or diet routine, and I just wanted to make sure that all of my other vitals were okay. Weight gain is a common side-effect of Prozac, and it seems like a small price to pay for mental health. I did not ask Vincent for any help with dieting or losing weight.

Nonetheless, my report said that I had “weight gain from excessive calorie consumption” even though I had just finished explaining to him that my diet and exercise had not changed.

This is a common problem, often discussed in the body positive community worldwide. Physicians often dismiss and ignore true symptoms, data, and information from patients, listening instead to their own biases about fat people being lazy, gluttonous, and stupid.

I wrote to him on the Patient Portal to inform him that this was not okay, suggested some reading sources on the consequences of medical fat-phobia, and reiterated that I was not interested in dieting, citing the fact that the workup he had just done pointed to health. I told him what I still believe, which is that ignoring my actual data in favor of preconceived biases is just bad science.

Vincent then ignored the boundary I had just set and wrote back to again suggest that I go on a diet.

I then called my insurance provider to switch to a different PCP within Mount Airy Family Practice, but was informed by the practice that I would no longer be allowed treatment there.

After that, I received a letter from Vincent (whom I had told in no uncertain terms not to contact me again) gaslighting me, calling me a liar, and saying that I had been “unfair.” It seems that he felt it was unfair that I expected him to hear and respond to information that I gave him (and that medical tests gave him) about my body.

Though I have found a kinder and more humane doctor, it still makes me so angry and sad that your practice refused me medical care because I expected to be treated like a human being, because I didn’t want to be shamed for my size anymore, because I refused to accept Vincent’s skewed version over what I knew to be true. I was afraid, after that, that I wouldn’t find a doctor, that I couldn’t be treated medically without learning to apologize for taking up space in the world.

Your team put me in a dangerous, unfair place, but it seems I am one of the luckier of Vincent’s patients. When I reached out to neighbors about my experience, one woman wrote to me that he ignored her symptoms for months, and because she was losing weight, he “even joked that feeling crummy sure was a great diet.” This woman turned out to have ovarian cancer—due to Vincent’s dehumanizing refusal to hear her symptoms, this neighbor of mine could have died.

Not all forms of harassment are shocking and Weinstein-esque. Some forms of harassment are more mundane, the everyday reminders that we are expected to feel less-than, to apologize to our size, that we must reach a culturally acceptable weight in order to have our symptoms treated at all. They are dangerous and deadly habits that most medical practitioners accept and most insurance companies require.

Everyone can do something about this problem I want to urge you to find ways to remember to treat fat patients with the same dignity and respect that you give to normatively-sized people. The book The Body Is Not an Apology by Sonya Renee Taylor is a wonderful place to start.

Sharon Wiedmann

Monday, December 31, 2018

2018 in Protest Art (For Heather Heyer)

HOPEFUL was my word for 2018 and I definitely honored it every day.
Philly Women's March!

First art after Parkland.

More for Parkland, now and forever.

Seriously read this book, it will save your life!

(Except staple guns!)

The kids made me feel so honored when they used my posters for their walkout! I felt like a mini Shepherd Fairey but more importantly I was awed by their power and dignity. 

March for Our Lives, Washington, DC

This little girl was the best thing that ever happened to my art. 

Mourning Stephon Clark.

People will always be trying to convince Hillary supporters that she was (and we are)  no good, but we will always know better.

Remember Kesha at the Grammys?!

My love for Taylor Swift abides. 

Work epiphany!

My Say Her Name series helped me learn a lot about women of color who were murdered by the police. Committing to always learn more. 

 The absolute best thing that happened all year--protesting for Immigration Rights with my sister and nephew!!! (and my bff of course) 

We yelled at Mike Pence when he came to town,

Trans people continue to be targeted and terrorized by I.C.E.

Inspired by the Dietland show, I give my silhouette some love!

Counter protesting Unite the Right in D.C. We 100% WON this protest.

Ohhey remember how the Blue Wave turned out to be a thing?!

Hope she declares her candidacy for 2020 soooooon! 

Dirty Computer is the boss of my life forever. 

Two seconds away from being unhinged at the Capitol the day of Kavanaugh's confirmation.

Sobbing on the Capitol lawn but not giving up.

She survived Hitler but not Trump.

For the Proud Boys counterprotest in Philly--another time we  100% won.

Pausing on the Philadelphia Art Museum steps to listen to the Women's March rally,
I heard the crowd singing this to the tune of "We Will, We Will Rock You." It seems like a manifesto for the entire year.

I started off the year wanting to lose 40 lbs, but I got Fat Liberation instead. Thanks "She's All Fat" Podcast, "The Body is Not an Apology", and "Dietland." I hope to never again regret taking up space.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Faith, Anger, and Heart: Part Four (MAYBE DON’T CALL PEOPLE FREAKS?!)

As I rage-hovered off my pew at the back of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration, Substitute Minister called the children up to the front to join him for the Story for All Ages. On the big screen up front appeared…P.T. Barnum?!

“I never get tired of telling people he was Unitarian,” said the Substitute Minister. I’m skeptical whenever any old-timey (or new-timey, for that matter) white dude’s face is up on the big screen at church, but sheesh-o-rama this was the WORST.

Substitute Minister had seen The Greatest Showman the night before and was inspired to talk with the congregation’s children about it. (For a good accounting of what makes The Greatest Showman so problematic, check out this surprisingly woke episode of The Flop House: Substitute Minister was impressed with how Barnum had uplifted the “freaks” in the movie and convinced them they were good enough, as if that were up to him.

The. Idea. That this man. Who OWNED AND EXPLOITED HUMAN BEINGS, who called people who looked different “freaks” and CHARGED PEOPLE TO COME LOOK AT THEM was somehow a doer of good, was some white angel there to redeem them?! Was too much. This was the story he was telling the children, and everybody there was just LETTING IT HAPPEN.

This was the day that Trump’s trans erasure memo began circulating, the day we all learned of the impeding registry of genitals, the day my friends across the gender spectrum became even more afraid than they already were. On that day, Substitute Minster thought a song from the “freak” Bearded Lady was what was called for. She was just beginning her song on the big screen as I steamed out the door.

It’s hard to talk about that morning in church without becoming incoherent with rage. The weight and sum of my fear and anger and disgust at the white male entitlement that allowed Substitute Minister to think he had the right to 1. Stifle political announcements and 2. Bestow worth upon those he viewed as beneath him thought his proxy the fictionalized Barnum is heavy to carry and hard to parse. It’s garbage. It’s everything wrong. This kind of institutional white cis male supremacy needs to be stifled at every level, in EVERY edifice, in EVERY way if the rest of us are truly ever going to thrive.

I wrote to the non-substitute minister and heard back pretty quickly. Valid, he said, and offered to talk when he got back from travelling. I headed off, not wearing warm enough clothes, to our local Democrats’ campaign headquarters with my BFF. We picked up our door-knocking lists and settled into our Blue Wave work. But I felt hopeless that afternoon, the things that were wrong and broken seemed so vast and embedded that I worried they could never be healed.

That hopeless feeling would pass, but this brush with Institution, like all others for me, would steal a big swath of time and leave lasting scars.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Faith, Anger, and Heart: Part Three (Singing and Seething)

Not long after I started trying Restoration monthly, they welcomed a new minister. I’d been a fan of McKinley Sims (Okay, full disclosure: He’s super-dreamy. I had a crush. Sometimes the body leads the soul places, what can I say?) since about six years ago when he did some of his seminary work through the Unitarian Society of Germantown. He was always someone I felt like I could learn from, maybe because (as I later learned) he’s from Lubbock, Texas just like my ex-wife/BFF is. Something about that accent just makes explaining go down easy, I guess.

Still, I wondered why a congregation that had a stated goal of inclusivity and a Black Lives Matter banner out front would choose, in 2018, a white, cisgender straight man, albeit a presumably progressive one.

Encouragingly, McKinley’s first sermon as Restoration’s new minister gave me lots of hope. He said “siblings” instead of “brothers and sisters,” which suggested that he might be trained in the ways of the gender spectrum. He made it clear that he is committed to immigrants’ rights and his first month’s theme was “sanctuary.” He talked about how building sanctuary takes work, takes facing problems rather than sweeping them under the rug. He even acknowledged those harmed by church-enabled sexual abuse, which I have NEVER EVER heard a preaching minister of any denomination so. NEVER. I’ve been alive for 44 years. That’s a big deal.

One Sunday a few weeks ago, McKinley went out of town. The Substitute Minister, the layperson leading the service, was a slight, middle-aged white guy. He seemed nice enough, so I felt safe to settle in.

Ever in organizing/canvassing/yelling-at-Nazis mode, the Joy I wanted to share that week was a mini book review. Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger by Rebecca Traister had saved my life and fired up my soul in the trigger-laden weeks following the Kavanaugh hearings, and I admit I was feeling quite evangelistic about it. I’d brought the book for McKinley because I thought he’d like it, and even though he wasn’t there, I carried it up through the Joys and Sorrows line anyway.

“Joys and Sorrows,” announced the Substitute Minister, “Are for matters of the heart, not for political announcements.”

I was SHOCKED! I had never heard them mention politics during that admonition before—one of the reasons I felt safe at Restoration was because it felt like a break from the politics-shaming of my family and of the world at large. Everyone there seemed political, I hadn’t yet had to feel like I was badly-behaved or a freak.

I SEETHED when it was my turn to share. The Substitute Minister shrugged and rolled his eyes as I said:

“I deeply resent being told that politics are not a matter of the heart so…NO…to that.”

(If I had it to do over, I would 100% say “FUCK that.” Live it, learn it.)

I gave my teensy book review, and the women of the congregation smiled and nodded.

As I sat back down in my pew, nearly shaking with anger, a tall and warmly hippie-ish white man, one of the congregation’s regular musicians, that “Thank you for saying that.”

The next person in the Joys and Sorrows line, an African American man who looked to be in his early twenties, made (YAY!) an announcement about the vigil for immigrants’ rights that his committee was hosting the following Tuesday.

Stoplight Guy wasn’t there that week. I missed him.

I tried to listen to the rest of the Joys and Sorrows of the congregation, but I was seething so badly I felt like I was hovering off my pew. I did the bad-habit thing of planning what I was going to write on the minister’s facebook page after the service. I wanted to start typing then and there, but that seemed beyond the pale. I tried joining in the singing, but everything felt dissonant and out of whack.

SURELY once McKinley knew about this, he would fix it, right? SURELY he would understand what the problem was?

1.      He SORT OF understood.
2.      The service was about to get even more egregiously fucked up.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Faith, Anger, and Heart: Part Two (Stoplight Guy Forever)

The week that the Unitarian Society of Germantown put “Welcome Pope Francis” on their sign, the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration’s sign said something that made way more sense to me: “Beloved Community.” I also noticed that their minister was a woman, so it seemed like it would be a safe place to be while the rest of the city (and my now-former church friends) fell in love with the pope. They put stones in water for their Joys and Sorrows just like USG did, but the congregation shared aloud if they chose to. One member shared his post-Catholic pain during that time, and that was the ONLY mention of the pope. The sermon, given by a layperson who was a woman of color, was explicitly in favor of LGBT rights (The Q hadn’t been widely added yet.) and ended with something like “Someday maybe I’ll be ready to sit down with Kim Davis and try to understand her. But not. Today.”

Still, for all of Restoration’s wokeness-before-that-was-a-mainstream-thing, it was hard to get past the architecture. Just like all of those cathedrals I’d studied in Art History, it was shaped like a cross. All of the characters on the stain glass were white people. Unitarianism, for an anti-racist post-Catholic, is like trying to break the cycle of abuse and then realizing you’re still abusing and being abused, but gently. It’s like one of those dreams where you know a place is your home, but you also know it isn’t.

But still, this spring when the voice in my Kirtan-blissed mind told me to sing in church, Restoration seemed like a good bet.

There’s a flaw in my personality wherein I’m still sort of looking for a perfectly welcoming, perfectly approving community/family. It probably comes from not having been particularly welcomed as a child, from inherited ancestor-grief in my XX chromosomes, or both. It’s a flaw that has caused me unending sorrow as an adult, to the point where if some group seems perfectly kind and safe, I should probably run for my life before I get too attached/expectant/hurt.

When I went back to try Restoration again, my child-brain started to spin its fantasy of perfect welcome. Here’s why my mistake was both understandable and irresistible:

When it was my turn in the Joys and Sorrows, I told the congregation I was feeling scared because the following weekend I would be headed to D.C. to counterprotest the (DELICIOUSLY FAILED! Unite the Right rally. I said I wanted to honor Heather Heyer’s name. And then, the most intoxicating thing happened: the congregation applauded.
As activists, we are trained not to expect rewards or thanks (derisively called “cookies”) for simply doing the right thing. This is in spite of the fact that doing the right thing takes hundreds of hours of unpaid labor and is often physically and emotionally dangerous. Women are especially policed for this (we especially police EACH OTHER for this) and I think the phrase “performative ally” was one of the phrases most successfully weaponized by Russian trolls in 2016. Though I wouldn’t criticize another activist for being praised, I live in (misogynist) fear of being deemed too proud of myself, of being too happy to be in the struggle.

So when the Restoration congregation applauded my efforts, I felt a deep sense of relief and belonging, of sanctuary. As I sat down, I felt briefly free from the family alienation, the Bernie Bro concern-trolling, the microaggressions, the weaponized phrases. I just felt appreciated for a second—a very wholesome drug.

EVEN BETTER: A few Joys and Sorrows behind me in line, there was Stoplight Guy. Stoplight Guy is everything that is right with democracy, with spirituality, with the world. He was a tall African American man with caring-dad energy. He explained that he lived across the street and was there to update the congregation about the very dangerous intersection the church shares with him. He told us about his efforts to get the city to understand the need for a light. There were SO many accidents, he said. It really needed to stop.

If this church had a place for Stoplight Guy, it had a place for me. We sand “When Your Heart Is in a Holy Place,” one of my favorite hymns. I felt refreshed and energized, ready to let my guard down.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Anger, Faith, and Heart: Part One

It seems very tricky to be writing about how pissed I am at my local Unitarians at a time when every faith community that isn’t white, mainstream, and Christian (Arguably, Unitarianism IS a white, mainstream, Christian religion, but they certainly don’t like to see themselves that way!) must be feeling protective of their congregations and their faith homes. But at the same time, I see ways in which the fear can contract us into something evil, a witchhuntlike distrust of strangers that provides an excuse to prey upon (or at least silence) the marginalized. In religion, nearly everyone who isn’t a pro-colonialist Christian straight white male looks marginalized to me.

Additionally tricky, I’m writing from the position of an outsider. I was raised Catholic and I’m ALWAYS angry about it, I’ve been an on-again off-again (now probably permanently off-again) Unitarian for about ten years, and I’m too frustrated now with forced/performed feminine niceness to even attend yoga classes very often. Religion and organized spirituality are clearly not a fit for me, and I know I should probably just let them go like a would a bad match on OK Cupid. Similar to my need to be self-employed, I guess my spiritual life needs to be self-determined. Whatever is divine within me needs to be expressed freely, in its own way, without millennia of patriarchy, rape, and colonialism to weigh it down.  I may wonder forever if that’s even possible. I probably will keep trying.

I am still deeply, fundamentally angry at the Unitarian Society of Germantown for the abandonment and betrayal what was their welcome and celebration during Pope Francis’s visit to Philadelphia in 2015.  It still feels like a FUCK YOU to raped children, to LGBTQ folks, and especially especially ESPECIALLY to those of us who identify as women. I think sometimes of returning just once to have my name taken out of the USG membership book, where it remains like a bad spell.

The loss of the Unitarian Society of Germantown and the brunches, music nights, and other friend fun that went with it (I still ache when I remember that my closest church friend called me a narcissist. My blood still boils when I remember the lady who condescendingly told me she hopes I find peace. WHAT KIND OF MONSTER FINDS PEACE WITH CHILD RAPE!?)  still makes me so sad and angry. I probably should have steered clear of future attempts to join a faith community, but I missed the singing. I drive by the Unitarian Church of the Restoration on the way home from work most nights, and they seemed like they might be less patriarchal than USG.

Then, one night in the spring, in a yoga studio running a Kirtan sing with a friend of mine, a voice came to me: “Go back to church. Go back to singing.”