a list poem for working-class girls trying to grow up and into themselves
1. It is okay to leave anyone and anything and anyplace that makes you feel like shit. It’s hard, but it’s okay. And fuck explaining anything to anyone, unless you want to. Let them fucking wonder.
2. Know who the fuck you are. Not just on some touchy-feely fuzzy pretty-on-the-inside tip, but knowing who you are racially, culturally, in relationship to your sexuality, gender and your class- is a source of your power. You define that for you. Don’t ever let anyone else tell you who you are. This may change in time, as you grow and learn more. That’s okay. Manage any shame or guilt you may feel through acts of accountability.
3. Be accountable for what you do. This means owning up to how you fuck up, just as much as it means owning and defending the contested space you fill. You will fuck up, and only you can seek atonement for this. You will need to defend yourself, and rarely will anyone do that work for you. Acknowledging both your mistakes and your rights is equally important.
4. They will call you crazy. You are a woman. There is no way of going through the world in the moment we live in and not get called crazy by someone, often someone you wish would see you as deeply sane. You are not crazy. The world is fucking crazy. If you are affected by this imbalanced, unjust world, it only proves that you are a sentient being with some sense of empathy.
5. Empathy is built. You need to learn to really listen. This means listening without thinking about how it relates to you, or planning the next thing you are going to say. This means seeing everyone, regardless of who they are, as a human being. You cannot really be a human being unless you regard everyone as such, even your greatest nemeses and the gravest perpetrators. All of our damage comes from somewhere. Yours and everyone else’s. Learn to listen to others. Learn to listen to yourself. Empathy cannot exist without really, deeply listening first.
6. You are going to have moments of unbearable pain. It takes time to learn how to heal yourself. And healing sometimes still leaves scars. Healing is sometimes incomplete. Think of your scars as battle-wounds – evidence of how much wiser you are now- maps of where not to return. Cherish these scars and honor them. There will come times when they are the only reminder of where you have been, and how much you still need to grow.
7. You are going to have moments of unbearable loneliness. You need to learn how to love being with yourself, because ultimately, no one has the potential to love you like you can. It is beautiful to love and be loved, but these are just hints as to how to regard yourself. If you regard yourself highly, and learn to turn loneliness into soothing solitude, you will be capable of giving and receiving truly transformative love.
8. Find something that makes you feel like the world makes sense, even if you can’t justify it intellectually to yourself or anyone else. Personally, if I don’t rock a wall, get up, get laid, get down on a dancefloor, read a good book, write a poem, listen to a mind-blowing record or have a soul-shaking, satisfying conversation at least once a week, the world doesn’t make sense to me and I am unmoored. If I don’t get these things for a month, I become a total, inconsolable, incomprehensible wreck. This wreck can easily snowball into all kinds of self-destruction. Find what works for you and be loyal to it as a loyalty to yourself.
9. The world you live in is sick. This sickness creeps into all of us, and in many it manifests as an inability to love oneself, let alone others. Some of those afflicted with a parasitic strain of this illness will latch onto you as a host. You may believe it is part of your nature to nurture and support endlessly. These people will eat your love whole, and you with it, and leave you as a husk. You can grow again from your husk, but it will be hard, and it takes time and the training of betrayal and heartbreak to learn to trust yourself enough to determine who is worthy of your trust. Do not let anyone ride you. Only walk with those who will walk side by side with you, as an equal.
10. Do not fuck with lovers that don’t prioritize your pleasure. That can look like a lot of different things, and you’re probably still figuring it out. Don’t put up with lovers that don’t give you room to explore, to express, and above all – if a lover is only focused on using you as a vessel to reach their plateau –be out. This doesn’t mean to ignore your partner’s pleasure, but rather to see yours as of equal worth.
11. You are not responsible for the actions of those who hated themselves so much that they hurt you on purpose.
12. Collectivism is a beautiful concept, and something worth constantly striving toward and building. Collectivism has radically changed and challenged unjust structures and institutions. But if you sacrifice your own survival for the benefit of the whole, you will find yourself wringing your hands and questioning the meaning of your life and doubting the worth of others in light of their unabashed self-interest. Find a balance.
13. Do not carry broken people who are not in the process of rebuilding themselves.
14. You are not your job. Your job is simply a paycheck, and you are probably not compensated what you are worth and it is not your fucking fault- you inherited a broken economic system, and you will not be the first generation to fight for your right to live. But you need to fucking fight for your right to live, in solidarity, with those around you who are also struggling.
15. Going to college is an accomplishment. It does not, however, make you better than anyone else. It doesn’t make you essentially more intelligent. You never really make it “out” of the class you came from, and you never really make it “in” to the class you aspired to.
16. If you cannot translate what you have learned from whatever access you’ve had back to wherever you came from, then you have not gained anything- you have changed. Assimilation is a choice. Seek to be a translator. Seek to share your access to those who you may have left behind. Seek to disrupt the structures that taught those of us who gained more access that we are worth more than where we left, and less than what we found ourselves among.
17. Never take validation too deeply to heart. This is especially true of those who came up entrenched in the age of social media. The gaze of hegemony is always on us. Find validation in the ratio between how positively you impact yourself and others versus how you fuck up and hurt others. You will hurt others. Be accountable for this, when you need to be, and always be mindful of how often that happens in relation to those you help grow. None of us can be saints, but we can be salient and sentient.
18. Take your struggle to your community, and find community in those whose struggles intersect. It is only within one another that we will make any sense of this destroyed world and it’s corrupt ideology that we’ve inherited. Fight. Fight. Fight.
19. You are inherently valuable. You have worth. Ask no one for permission for this.
‘em: Your axe will split in a cold winter.
Tell ‘em: Everyone you love will leave
for California and you will not learn the land,
so no rain will come, so no wheat will come, and well,
there goes your house. That’s jus how it is.
Tell ‘em: No one will raise up your barn.
Tell ‘em: we’ll all whisper in church.
Don’t tell ‘em: Yo mama’s so fat. Instead, tell ‘em:
Your mama never learned to keep bacon grease
on the stove, got no biscuit recipe, ain’t never
fed six children on four dollars, her knuckles
never bled from scrubbing,
you sunovabitch. Tell ‘em: Banker. Tell ‘em:
Okie. Tell ‘em: Your husband will smoke
cigars that smell like tractor smoke. Your lover
will kiss like a happy dog. Tell ‘em:
Your grandparents will die, and their sisters
will die, and their mothers will die. And you
will be left searching for family in wrinkled photographs
fulla stern mouths. Wire hanger bodies loose
inside clothes stiff with dirt, strong enough
to withstand wind. "
In the weeks before her death, my grandfather dreamed
of my grandmother twice, as if he knew the end were coming
even before it came. In the first dream she undressed for bed,
removing her blouse in the dark light of the window as always,
but this time as her shirt fell away it revealed every bone underneath,
her ribcage in its entirety, the long lines of the humerus and ulna,
no skin at all, as if she had slipped out of her soul along with her clothes.
That night they slept spooned together with his wrinkled face
pressed against the bloody raw wreckage of her exposed heart,
arms around her skeleton. The next morning he sat
at the breakfast table with cold cereal, not even looking at me.
The second time, he fell into the dream hard,
landing in a pile of orange and red fall leaves covering
the backyard of their winter cabin in Minnesota.
She was wearing pink shorts and a ruffled lace top with
high-topped sneakers, grey hair pulled back in a ponytail,
an outfit from the teenage years when he first met her.
He pulled her into the leaves, laughing, throwing fistfuls
of them into her smiling face, but when he reached
to circle his hands around her waist she sank deep
into the pile, its edges closing over her head,
and was sucked down below as if into quicksand.
When she died for real several weeks later,
my grandfather had already been prepared for her death twice,
but wept as hard as he had the first time.
That’s what I learned from my grandparents about love:
it hurts no matter how often you fall into it,
even if this is your millionth time.