“I thirst.” The fifth word in the Seven Last Words Good Friday Service at Allen Temple Baptist Church
preached by Sandhya Jha on April 14, 2017:
Last summer, I spent a week in Flint, Michigan.
On Sunday, a local pastor invited me to preach.
I don’t know why, with all they are dealing with in Flint, Michigan, that God told me to talk to them about refugees. But that’s who God told me to talk about.
I stood there in a church full of people who had been living six months with the knowledge that their government had put lead into their drinking water and then done virtually nothing about that fact when it came to light, and I talked to them about a man named Willie whom I had just met.
Willie has lived in northern CA for 20 years. A few years ago his sister’s husband was kidnapped in El Salvador; they called him and demanded $5,000 in four days for his release. Willie, who earns very little, could only come up with $500. They killed his brother-in-law. And then Willie’s nephew. Terrified that 3-year-old Stephanie might be next, 13 members of the family escaped, traveling on tops of trains and buses. At the US border they were detained and held in refrigerator containers for 13 days without blankets, where sleeping on the floor would have caused frostbite. Willie found out they were here and gathered money for 13 greyhound tickets so all 14 of them could live in his tiny apartment. Thanks to a faith organization, they have been granted asylum status.
I also told the people at Woodside church in Flint, Michigan about One of the organizations at the Oakland Peace Center, called the Mustard Seed Project. It provides legal assistance to youth seeking refugee status in this country because if they are sent home and refuse to join the gangs and drug cartels there, they will be murdered…or worse. The attorney who runs the Mustard Seed Project came into my office straight from the courtroom one day and said, “Babies. I am literally defending babies in the courtroom. Babies who cannot even speak their own names yet are supposed to defend themselves in our court system.” She had been in court with a toddler that morning, a toddler that the US government needed to defend himself in a court of law to make the case that if he was sent back to Honduras he would be killed.
I told them that the longer I worked at the Oakland Peace Center, the more my understanding of prayer merged with what I had heard Pope Francis say not long ago: You pray for the poor, and then you feed them; that is how prayer works.
I talked about our nation’s need to repent deeply for our policies in central and south America as well as our policies in the Caribbean and throughout Africa, and that part of our prayer of repentance was to act as God would have us act to our refugee brothers and sisters who are fleeing nations whose violence we created for the profit of a handful of people who today profit far more from war than from peace.
And after we had said our amens and given our offerings and sang songs of praise, we went to the fellowship hall. And the adults talked to me about more faithful immigration policies that we could work on together, and the little children played at our feet. And we had cookies arranged carefully on trays by the church mothers, and we drank coffee and lemonade…made from bottled water.
But everything about worship and fellowship time afterwards felt so normal that it was Wednesday before I realized, every person I was talking to, every little child playing at my feet after worship, had likely absorbed so much lead into their systems that they would suffer permanent harm, from irregular brain development to memory loss to uncontrollable tremors that would emerge over time, rendering them ineligible for the work that was already so scarce in that community that had nurtured them and destroyed them in equal measures. All because their government decided to take away their clean water and replace it with dirty water and then decided not to treat it, so that the pipes corroded.
I do not know thirst like my savior knew on the cross that day. I have always had access to water to drink.
I do not know thirst like my savior knew on the cross that day. But Willie’s family did, when they were held in refrigerator containers for 13 days by our government, including that three year old girl, Stephanie. Stephanie knew what it was to thirst and suffer at the hands of a government that did not consider her human but considered her a threat. Just like Jesus her savior knew what it was to thirst and suffer at the hands of a government that did not consider him human but considered him a threat.
Our brothers and sisters in Flint did not know what it was to be thirsty. They had access to jobs, and then they didn’t. They had access to opportunity, and then they didn’t. They had access to a safe and vibrant and thriving community, and then they didn’t. Some of them knew hunger. Many of them knew humiliation. Some of them knew redlining…intimately.
But they always had water.
For three years they did not know that the water they had was poisoning them.
They did not know at first where the rashes came from as they showered. They did not know why their memory was getting worse. They did not know why they experienced tremors that stopped them from being able to work.
They sought water and were given hyssop.
It boggles my mind that in his last moments, suffering so, Jesus was still teaching us. The scripture says that he said “I am thirsty” in order to fulfil scripture. The scripture was Psalm 69, in which the psalmist famously states, “They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.”
But that psalm was not only about being thirsty. It was about being overwhelmed and hated.
1Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.
2I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.
3I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God.
4More in number than the hairs of my head are those who hate me without cause; many are those who would destroy me, my enemies who accuse me falsely. What I did not steal must I now restore?
Willie’s family had enemies. They had to flee people who extort money from the poor. Their government would not help them. They came to a country that treats foreigners as less than human.
The people of Flint had enemies. Their own government poisoned them slowly for the sake of a few dollars and did as little as possible for them. Many of Flint’s residents were both poor and Black. Their government had treated them as enemies since before they were born.
And Jesus, on the cross, with one phrase passing his cracked, dry lips, “I am thirsty,” spoke a word of solidarity with Willie’s family and the families in Flint, and a word of solidarity for us in a city where police pass around young girls instead of participating in their liberation, where city officials spend more time talking about potholes than about the growing number of homeless people and the diminishing number of Black people.
When Jesus tells the crowd, “I am thirsty,” he hearkens back to the ancestors who had borne so much suffering that they wanted to give up. He let them know that he understood that feeling, that he felt it too. That our Lord and Savior does not condemn our fatigue but feels it with us might be scary to some, but to me it is immensely comforting, as my own South Asian community along with our Arab American brothers and sisters fear attacks in the streets because of our government’s barely veiled threats on Muslim lives in a nation that cannot tell Christian from Muslim from Sikh from Hindu when all they see is Brown. I do not know how to reconcile myself to living in a country where at any point someone could beat up by Indian father or kill him because they hate brown people and pretend it is about religion. Sometimes I am overwhelmed by how many enemies we have. And I know Jesus knows that feeling.
With that simple phrase, “I am thirsty,” Jesus hearkens to the plea of the Psalmist:
Do not hide your face from your servant, for I am in distress—make haste to answer me.
18Draw near to me, redeem me, set me free because of my enemies.
19You know the insults I receive, and my shame and dishonor; my foes are all known to you.
20Insults have broken my heart, so that I am in despair. I looked for pity, but there was none; and for comforters, but I found none.
21They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.
In that barely whispered phrase, “I am thirsty,” Jesus stands with Willie’s family who knew literal thirst but also knew what it meant to thirst for basic human dignity, to thirst for freedom from fear, to thirst for a place where children can grow up. In that plea, “I am thirsty,” Jesus stands with the people of Flint who did not even know they were thirsting for clean water and also for a time when their best and brightest did not have to dedicate all of their energy to campaigns of resistance and fights for basic rights.
When all he can utter, hanging from the cross and suffering, is “I am thirsty,” Jesus stands with the indigenous peoples, the Water Protectors in North Dakota who proclaim “Mni wiconi,” “Water is life” even when their homes are taken from them and their people are arrested for protecting the water for all of us. Jesus, like the psalmist he quotes, thirsts for a time when the world will be made right.
He thirsts for a time when this country is liberated from its founding sins of conquest of land, attempted genocide of indigenous people and the dehumanizing and destructive enslavement of Black people for profit, sins that have not disappeared but have evolved and adapted as only evil can.
Jesus feels the despair creeping in, the seemingly unwinnable fight and lets us know that our despair is reasonable, that our enemies are real.
But he also quotes the psalm because he knows that despair is not the end of the story.
30I will praise the name of God with a song; I will magnify him with thanksgiving.
32Let the oppressed see it and be glad; you who seek God, let your hearts revive.
33For the Lord hears the needy, and does not despise his own that are in bonds.
35For God will save Zion and rebuild the cities of Judah; and his servants shall live there and possess it;
36the children of his servants shall inherit it, and those who love his name shall live in it.
My brothers and sisters, Jesus still thirsts for the prisoners to be freed, for strangers to be welcomed because we were all strangers in Egypt once. Jesus still thirsts for a world where love is love and Black lives matter. Jesus still thirsts for a world where our governments partner with us in building a Beloved Community here on earth, where there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free.
Do you thirst with Jesus?
Do you seek to rid the world of hyssop and replace it with pure, thirst quenching water?
Do you want to build a Beloved Community where all of God’s children are welcome and equal and thriving?
Then in the name of our thirsting Lord and Savior, let us be about God’s work until all of God’s children’s thirst is quenched.
NOTE: I was asked to submit a piece to a powerful advent devotional called #F***ThisS*** and was assigned this title and passage from Matthew. The clergy who launched it feel a sense of urgency in this moment that I also feel, and they have incorporated strong language to convey that urgency much as the prophets in the Hebrew Bible did in the parlance of their own time. The situation in which we find ourselves, with Black and Brown and poor people’s lives and labor treated as disposable or exploitable or turned into commodities to be bought and sold, is far more dire than the language in this piece. That said, for a PG version of this online devotional, seek the hashtag #RendTheHeavens instead. With deep gratitude to the Rev. Tuhina Rasche for inviting me to be part of this.
“SHUT THE F*** UP.”
And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. –Matthew 24:31, NRSV
At Thanksgiving, the Sherwood Forest ring tone kept sounding, as if the horns were calling us to a fox hunt.
It was one person’s text message ringtone, another’s voicemail ringtone, and a third person’s work phone ring tone.
I sat across from a man who voted for Trump because he was tired of corruption, and who wanted to be protected from people who look like my father.
I heard those quiet, awkward comments knowing that a good family friend, a well-educated Hindu woman, voted for Trump for the same reasons, seemingly not concerned that the people threatening the lives of Muslims can’t tell the difference between Sikh, Hindu, Muslim or Christian; they just see Brown.
It seemed like a good reason to sound the alarm.
Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; (1 Kings 9:11-12a, NRSV)
There is so much noise right now.
There is noise about the theater and illegal votes and illegal people and terrorist skittles and protecting people through stop and frisk. Noise about Dick Cheney, Darth Vader and Satan as role models for power. Noise about “economic nationalism” as opposed to “white nationalism.”
Noise that drowns out the murder of William Sims by white supremacists. Noise that drowns out the death threats sent cowardly and anonymously to mosques across the country. Noise that drowns out the barricades being built by police to stop emergency vehicles from entering Sioux territory.
and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. (1 Kings 9:12b-13a)
We need to shut the fuck up.
The trumpets are sounding and we don’t hear them.
God is calling us with trumpets, bugles, and fox hunting horns.
God is calling us with prayerful people standing on sacred ground.
God is calling us through a boycott of injustice.
God is calling us with faithful Muslims inviting into conversation the same people who threaten them and people committing to protect the mosque from attack.
God is calling us with White Supremacists waking up to the harm they are causing and repudiating that harm.
But we can’t hear it or respond to it unless we stop listening to the wind and the earthquake and the fire, the tale told by an idiot signifying nothing.
We can’t hear it as long as we generate more noise.
We may be the elect from the four winds, or we may not. But we have a role to play in these coming days as God ushers in the birth of a baby born under the eyes of a brutal ruler controlled by a foreign empire. And we need to shut out the din around us and shut down the din inside us to hear the trumpets call.
For the sake of God, we need to shut the fuck up.
What’s that phrase you use…the one when a friend’s just been unceremoniously dumped by a man, or is afraid to let go of a man for fear of being lonely?
I ask because I just took a bus. It was a bus that picks me up near my friend’s apartment in Albany, my favorite Indian place in Berkeley and my niece’s house in the same town, the day center for homeless seniors I often visit and then literally drops me off two blocks from my home.
Except that it no longer drops me off there. The bus that comes to my immediate neighborhood takes me on a meandering route that ends up in the Oakland hills where I never have a reason to go.
The other bus I used to use all the time because it got me to the church in East Oakland and also to the monthly meeting of Faith Alliance for a Moral Economy in Berkeley no longer exists.
My favorite bus that used to get me to Alameda and the Fruitvale and also to my favorite Indian place is now two bus lines to make sure the line runs more on time, except it runs LESS on time.
I do not think that saying men are like buses will ever bring comfort to those of us who rely on public transit. Because all that tells me is that they’re often late, unreliable, changing routes with little notice, and leaving me stranded in random places I didn’t intend to visit, forestalling my more immediate and meaningful plans. And that’s just not true. Right?
Last weekend, people started reaching out to me because they were afraid, and they didn’t want to stay that way. They didn’t want to rage or burn things down; they wanted to find a way to contribute to their community, to help others overcome fear.
So with the help of a PHENOMENALLY gifted intern, the Oakland Peace Center created a resource fair. The goal was simple: to help people feeling a sense of urgency discover that they have a power to make a POSITIVE contribution in their community, that they need not dwell in anxiety and fear but can overcome it by coming together.
The reason I’m writing this is that within four days, we had thirty organizations agree to table and four hundred people attend (in the rain!!!). Check it out!
What this tells me is that people are hungry for positivity, and that people are hungry right now for a sense that they are not alone.
Now, the Oakland Peace Center is made up of forty organizations who are working to create equity as the means of creating peace, so we had a good baseline. But our partners are mostly small, scrappy organizations working to help people at a local level. We wanted folks to connect with them, but we also wanted to provide resources for people looking to get engaged in work we didn’t have covered: advocacy with Muslims, health care access, learning how to intervene when someone is being assaulted (verbally or otherwise), women’s rights, environmental justice. So we needed to reach new organizations as well as new people.
Here’s how we did it:
We listened and we checked in: On the Friday and Saturday after the election I got several messages from people saying “what do I do to engage in protecting people’s healthcare?” or “a lot of people are asking me what they can do to protect immigrants’ (or refugees’ or LGBTQ people’s or Muslims’) rights. Where do I point them?” Then a facebook friend shared an event happening in LA that weekend and asked if anything like that was happening in Oakland. I said no, but it might help me field the questions I was getting. I was at an OPC partners’ retreat so asked them what they thought, then spent another day or so asking organizations what they thought. We began to sense that people were hungry for the opportunity to do something pro-active. Youth were walking out of school; people who had never marched were marching; whole congregations were wearing safety pins so they could express their solidarity with people for whom they feared. We had a sense that this could be meaningful and helpful to the community. In our community, we felt a need to capture the energy of the present moment, so we moved quickly (four days!!!! whew!), but we might do another one in January or February. Another listening we did was during the event: we thought our next event would be more about training people, but what we heard was people wanted another of these resource fairs so that their friends could come and so other organizations could be in the room. So we’re shifting focus from what we thought was best to what the community has told us would be best.
Our message was positive: In both our email blast, our flyers and our facebook messaging, we didn’t focus on hostility or negativity or anxiety. Truthfully, many of us feel those things, and they are valid feelings. But we believe at the Oakland Peace Center that what we are building is even more important than what we are tearing down, even though there are things that need to be torn down in order to build. Our facebook message read “If you feel a drive to do something about the environment, immigrants’ rights, healthcare, Black Lives Matter, indigenous rights, reducing bullying, increasing a culture of peace and inclusion, or any other issues to make this community better, please come to this gathering and learn about the ways you can participate! Whether you are a long time activist or have never attended a rally in your life, your contributions matter!” My sense is that right now, people are feeling negative, powerless and isolated. So our message was positive, reminded people of their power, and reminded them that they were not alone. And the event reinforced those themes.
We Honored Multiple Ways of Creating Positive Change: The other beautiful thing that emerged out of who the Oakland Peace Center is (and which I believe churches and faith communities can create for the same reasons) was that we had multiple dimensions to how people could be engaged. “Get In Where You Fit In” was a slogan our intern Virginia used, and it was true: we had organizations working on policy issues national and local, we had organizations engaged in community service work (who were not afraid of the organizations doing policy work), and we had organizations connecting people to inner peace so that they can take care of themselves in order to take care of others. The OPC is committed to creating peace-filled communities, and we need different policies, and we need people engaged in service and solidarity with each other, and we need people who are able to heal from trauma and find peace within themselves. All of those resources were available, and some of them even got taught right there during the event, like intervention during assault and the basic skills of HeartMath and anti-bullying techniques.
We made sure that as many of the communities potentially impacted by upcoming policy changes were in the room as possible: we reached out to Muslim organizations, disability rights organizations, environmental groups, women’s groups, LGBTQ+ organizations, organizations supporting the Movement for Black Lives, immigration organizations, and so on. There are usually organizations doing both advocacy and social service around these communities in every state in the nation as well as in most major cities.
We created an air of celebration: People who came wanted to experience hope. And part of how hope gets crushed is by replacing joy with fear. So we created a festival atmosphere: popcorn and fun, high energy music, and a kids’ table with children’s books representing both themes of inclusion and justice (which we promoted in advance so people knew it was a family-friendly event). Joy is an underutilized tool of creating justice! We even had a woman who creates justice-oriented children’s coloring resources volunteered at the kids’ table! (Here are some of the pages we provided the children.)
We didn’t create anything new: With any issue we are concerned about, there are folks doing really good work who are underresourced. This is a moment to connect, not necessarily re-invent the wheel.
We created spaces for people to cast vision, share their commitments and offer words of hope. We had poster board where people wrote what they were committing themselves to and what their hopes were. We didn’t create a physical space for grief, although one restorative justice partner gathered people who wanted to really let their feelings out and feel heard, and that was beautiful. One of the organizations, Faith Alliance for a Moral Economy, invited people to cast a vision for a moral economy when people visited their table:
We learned some really inspiring things:
- People were so excited about this that even without asking for them, we ended up with phenomenal volunteers!
- There were a lot of young people who came because they want to become activists. But there were also senior citizens who felt that they could no longer stay uninformed or unengaged. I believe that is true of church folks as well: as OPC intern Virginia White reflected to me after the event, “people have care about these issues but haven’t known how to engage, or didn’t think they should. This is not about convincing people to do something new.” That’s who our event was for, and they came in the rain by the hundreds.
- Some people were puzzled by why we would do something like this until we explained that part of the mission of the OPC is to connect people to each other’s work. And they were also puzzled by the fact that the church (in our case, First Christian Church of Oakland) played a role in this gathering as the folks who created the OPC. What a beautiful moment of puzzlement to help the community realize that the church can and should be engaged in this work of standing with indigenous and Black and LGBTQ+ and environmental and civil liberties organizations. What a teachable moment.
- This event created hope. Let me say it again: at a time people are experiencing fear, we created a space of hope. Participants thanked us, and so did the organizations, some of whom have been in this work for decades and feeling a little out of hope themselves. At our best, isn’t that what the church is supposed to be about? Hope conquering despair, not just in the abstract, but in concrete ways.
- Over and over, people said they felt a sense that there really is a community dedicated to supporting each other. During my introductory announcement, I reminded people that “we need us. We need to have each other’s backs. In the coming days we will need to be able to trust each other, and that happens when we really show up for each other.” So I told them to talk to all of the tablers but also to talk to each other, because we have each other’s backs best when we know each other, and that can start here. And people did. And it was transcendent.
I was asked to share our methodology so others can borrow from it. I decided to write it in a way that I hope churches in particular can borrow from it. It took a lot of time and effort, but it was not difficult logistically to manage. Once our facebook numbers started looking good, some of the organizations that had never heard of us before suddenly thought this would be a great opportunity.
I’m in my second day of a five day fast with night janitors for a cause most people don’t even realize is a cause: many immigrant women cleaning buildings across our country live in fear of sexual assault by predatory managers who know they are working alone and need to keep their jobs. It’s stuff so sinister you can picture one of those cartoon villains twisting his moustache as he plans the act. But it is real. It is happening to people who clean buildings we or our family members work in. And finally, despite all the risks, some women stepped forward to speak the truth about their experiences and change things for their sisters.
I first learned about this hidden crisis during a screening of the Frontline film Rape on the Night Shift a couple of weeks ago at the state building in Oakland. You can watch the whole thing online and I dare you not to cry. What moved me even more than the film, though, was listening to the stories of women who had to find the courage to risk their jobs and means of supporting their families to do what was right for themselves and for other women at risk. What struck me in particular that day was a young woman whose mother is part of the campaign. She said something along the lines of “there are certain things you never expect to talk about with your mother: sex, rape, violence at work.” She then expressed how proud she was of her mother and how proud she was to stand with her. I was deeply moved.
Last week, one of the organizers of the film told me that the workers would be fasting Monday through Friday of this week, demanding that Governor Brown follow his moral compass and sign AB 1978 into law. According to the United Service Workers West,
Female janitors face unique risk of sexual harassment and assault as their jobs often require working alone at night in empty buildings, an epidemic PBS Frontline profiled in “Rape on the Night Shift,” and in a report from UC Berkeley earlier this year: “Perfect Storm: How Supervisors Get Away with Sexually Harassing Workers Who Work Alone at Night.”
AB 1978, the Property Services Worker Protection Act would enhance the Department of Industrial Relations’ authority to prevent assault by requiring employer training and prevention plans, establishing a hotline for victims, and toughening enforcement for employers who leave workers at risk.
As janitor and activist Maria Gonzalez said,
“I was sexually assaulted at work, twice. The employer transferred the supervisor and me to the same building. With nowhere to go, I felt trapped. As survivors, we have stepped out of the shadows to fight back against rape and exploitation, because we know the bosses count on our silence to keep us vulnerable. Ya Basta! We built a movement that can’t be stopped because more and more women are coming forward to support each other and create a safe workplace. Now Governor Brown must do his part and sign AB 1978, because no woman should ever be afraid to go to work.”
I heard stories like this from the women who were fasting when I met them yesterday. One woman was assaulted, took self-defense lessons, fought off her boss with a letter opener when he attacked her again, and was fired for her efforts. Other women were assaulted, forced to do things against their will, and raped. And they said they were glad to be doing this, that they had released their fear, that they were proud to be doing this for the women who follow them into these workplaces. They were excited to be fasting.
There is something about workers fasting that hits me at my core as a person of faith as well as an activist. At a rally yesterday, a labor organizer announced that the workers would be staging a hunger strike.
Fasting has strong, ancient roots. Fasting is a critical part of the Christian faith (and Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and Jewish among others) for spiritual as well as sometimes justice reasons. But even when justice is part of it, fasting involves connecting to something bigger than oneself (and in this case praying for divine intervention to evoke right action by our state’s elected leader).
Fasting can be about community, even when it is a solitary practice. Several of the women fasting this week are Catholic, like Governor Brown. I saw some of them holding rosaries as they received a blessing from Rabbi Rothbaum yesterday. I saw some of them reading Catholic devotionals in Spanish. And I heard one of them say “Having religious leaders visit us and pray with us reminds me that we are not just activists. We are tools being used by God to make the world better.” The ten women fasting will be community for each other, and I hope that knowing I am fasting with them will remind them that there is a larger community supporting them. But most importantly, I hope that their spiritual act will remind their and my governor that our shared ties of faith call us to treat God’s children with deep compassion and dignity, and that our shared faith does not allow evil to continue undisrupted.
When the workers shout “¡Ya basta!” it is a prayer. It is the prayer of our God who will not tolerate sexual violence. And it is God’s own prayer put into action by faithful women, as has happened for millenia: faithful women have put hands and feet to God’s prayers.
I believe the saint Teresa of Avila is saying to the women fasting at the Capitol today, “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
And the workers I met, who have survived sexual violence in the workplace, are serving as Christ’s hands and feet, answering God’s “¡Ya basta!” prayer as loudly as God would wish.
If you live in California, please contact Governor Brown and ask him to sign AB 1978 today to end rape on the night shift: (916) 445-2841.
I just finished reading Lindy West’s book . Since my mother says I was born with no thermostat and no volume control, you can see why this book would appeal to me. But mostly it appeals because she is so funny and smart and she writes a whole chapter on what is lousy about living in a world where men who desire fat women often feel such shame that they end up treating fat women like a dirty secret. Having gone out with the guy who clearly liked me but kept mentioning how hot everyone thought his ex-wife was, it was nice to hear someone else had dealt with the same thing.
The passage that she wrote that moved me in particular was this one: “Maybe you are thin. You hiked that trail and you are fit and beautiful and wanted and I am so proud of you, I am so in awe of your wiry brightness; and I’m miles behind you, my breathing ragged. But you didn’t carry this up the mountain. You only carried yourself. How hard would you breathe if you had to carry me? You couldn’t. But I can.” If you know me, you know that I go through cycles: I claim who I am, every pound of it, with pride sometimes, and with frustration at others. I sometimes say it has failed me and other times find it miraculous. I think many of us do. It’s just that the world around me confirms half of that narrative. It denies that I am more active and eat healthier than some of my thin friends; it lets me know that I should embrace privation to be less gross to other people. It pretends care about my health. But it doesn’t. It cares about my size. And as I’ve written about before, I feel caught between loving myself as I am and desiring to be my healthiest self, when that’s actually a totally false dichotomy.
But that’s not what I wanted to write about. I wanted to write about the fact that before Shrill, there was Samantha Irby’s essay collection Meaty, which was also smart and funny and poignant and made me feel a little less self-loathing and a little more solidarity. I think I discovered her two years ago. (Yeah; you’ll notice I said self-loathing. My efforts to be proud of who I am have major hurdles, hurdles which are affirmed by the fact that any time someone disagrees with me on twitter, i’m wrong because I’m fat.)
In 1999, it was Camryn Manheim’s Wake Up, I’m Fat! She wore a swimsuit on the cover. Oh my gosh: fat people didn’t have to hide themselves for other people’s comfort!
And the very first time I heard someone say that my body is not someone else’s business was two sentences long, back in 1993. Bob Greene, a Chicago Tribune columnist, took two weeks of vacation. He filled his columns with things his readers had written in that they thought were beautiful in the world, to counter all the negativity. So my favorite Tribune columnist, Mike Royko, took his revenge by filling two weeks’ of his own columns with reader submissions on things that really pissed them off. They were so funny; I still remember them. “People who get to the front on the line at McDonald’s and don’t know what to order. The menu hasn’t changed in 50 years; HOW CAN YOU NOT KNOW?!” I still laugh about that one.
But that column captured the first message that if other people held my body in contempt, that was on them. A woman wrote in and said, “People who complain about fat people wearing shorts. If you don’t like my butt, look at your own!”
I got booster shots every so often, but I still think about that when I feel stares of contempt because I’ve exposed too much of myself for some onlooker’s comfort.
I write all of this to say: write things that are true. Write things that are brave. They may be about being fat. They may be about race. They may be about parenting. But someone like 17-year-old me might read that one brave sentence, and it may help them navigate the next 23 years of their lives.
Write stuff that lifts up other folks.
And if you can, be funny when you do it.