A Letter to My Daughters

A Letter to My Daughters,

This week, the Republican majority of the United States Senate forced a vote to confirm Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court against incredible opposition. The Republican majority party even had to change the rules of the game to win. They cheated. This man’s judicial record threatens women’s access to healthcare for years to come. Women and girls have not been this threatened in this country for decades as the right wing faction continues to chip away at that which makes society civil. 

I am teacher; an artist; a writer. I am your mother. I can’t build a wall around you, or send you to Mars. I can’t force you to think like me or make one decision over another. My words are your shield.

However, I’m not going to show this letter to you yet. As you are only 10 and 13 at this writing, you still have some growing and thinking to do about who you are before you need to learn my secrets.  Perhaps, you’ll find it one day as you peruse the web and Google your mom. And that’ll be fine. I’ll leave the discovery up to chance for now. In the mean time, I hope other readers will appreciate my story and allow me to disperse its details, like ashes, amongst both detractors and supporters.

I’ve been pre-occupied with this letter for months, if not years, but with our American democracy at risk, the environment under attack, and human rights being taken away from women, children, immigrants, people of color, non-christians, working dads, brothers, and uncles everywhere, I feel like it is finally time for me to put a chapter of my life down in words as a gift to your future. My private story is no longer mine to keep.

Perhaps it begins with my mother’s need to leave.  But, that’s her story and I won’t go into it. Being creative, depressed and constricted in a small town in the early 1970s can’t have been much fun and I try to see it from her perspective. Yet, it did leave a confused 7 year old in the care of a grandmother, a dad, and a new mother.  I’d like to make it clear that I think everyone did their best. It is a tall order to replace the gaping hole left by a missing mother. My years between 7 – 17 were intertwined with the challenges of adolescence, growing up in a Catholic household, and the politics of the time – those of which I was barely aware. 

At 15, I was an unhappy, glass-half-empty teenager that felt misunderstood and unwelcome.  I listened to Jimi Hendrix, Chicago, Simon and Garfunkel, the B52s. I was pretty, funny, artistic, a bit of a loner. I was a cheerleader for a losing team just to get out of the house.  I tried to run track for the same reason. My safe place was Mr. Sanfilippo’s high school art room.  I was a risk taker and irresponsible, the neurological standard for anyone under 25; a dreamer with my eyes on a future far, far away from home.

I found the love and acceptance I was craving in the attention of boys and eventually got me a handsome football-playing boyfriend.  He was flirtatious but very polite, had beautiful eyes, and paid attention to me. I needed attention. His gentle touch was a positive introduction to my sexual being – it was safe and loving and magical.  This part of the letter is of particular importance. I want you to know that sex is not bad (I realize you’d both use the word “gross” right about now). Feeling intimate with someone you love is a critical part of being human and links us together. Mutual respect, generosity and caring is a good thing.  My “first time” having sex was a positive experience. That said, I do wish for you to wait – until you gain the knowledge, confidence, and self-awareness you’ll need to manage the consequences of young womanhood.  

My first love’s attention was not enough – I needed more. Maybe because I had a deep hole in my heart that needed to be filled. And so, I moved on from the handsome football player to another who was just as flirtatious, and darn those beautiful eyes. We had fun and I got pregnant just as I was about to graduate from high school and get out of town.

Prior to this, I had no education around my changing body, sex, birth control, or relationships. I think there was a sex education class in school but I have no memory of its contents or paying attention. I didn’t know that I was too young to have sex – it felt perfectly natural. Birth control was not a priority nor was it accessible. And I certainly did not know what to do about being pregnant.  So I did what most small town, naive, teenage girls, who don’t feel comfortable talking to their parents, would do – I asked my friends’ older sisters (reminder that Google was not a option in the early eighties).

Having a baby at that time in my life was not an option. I would have done anything to return that tiny birdlike being back to the universe. Just as other mammals, as well as insects, fish, amphibians, and birds have done since the beginning of life on earth – abort offspring when it is not the right time to bring it to fruition. Rather than a selfish act, as many accuse, it was an act of mercy for both of us.

So I borrowed money from a friend, got a ride to a clinic in Buffalo, New York, and had an abortion at the hands of guy who wore brown clogs. That’s about all I remember.  Another important moment in this letter – I do not regret this action for one minute.

I slept for a day at the friend’s house and then went to my bedroom in my parent’s house. Eventually, I began to bleed and became very sick, was hospitalized, and had an operation.  I won’t go into these details. Thankfully, my parents were home and got me to a hospital for medical care. I survived.

Any residual anger about this experience is towards the culture of religious fundamentalism that represses the education of young women and forces them to go underground with their sexual desires, their questions, and their abortions. That is what made me sick.  Had I access to a local Planned Parenthood clinic, quality sexual education, an open relationship with parents that could have sensibly guided me – perhaps the outcome would have been different.  Perhaps I would have delayed having sex until I was better able to handle it responsibly. Perhaps I would have used birth control. Perhaps I would have moved on from this time in my life with my self-respect in tact and with the support and love I needed to heal. Instead, I ended up with staples in my stomach and then I just moved on.

Of course my story from this point onward fills many pages and takes many twists and turns – eventually I did heal and found your father. I was able to experience a profound love and unbreakable commitment with a person of exceptional character, strength and intelligence.  And when the time was right, we had two perfectly wanted babies that are growing into powerful young women.

I want you to know that I will talk to you about sex; I will talk to you about causing a pregnancy and ending one; about self-respect; about consensual intimacy; about what it means to be a good friend and partner; about religion; about independence; about violence; about justice; about your rights; about your responsibilities; about your joys and fears; about blue hair and tattoos; about your potential.  

I found my power by running away, by hard work and persistence, and by opening up to the many mentors that accepted and encouraged me along the way.

Every night, I ask you what you are thankful for. I love this part of the day. Sometimes, we are tired and grumpy and annoyed with each other, but each of you in your own ways manage to end the day with gratitude. However, I rarely tell you what I am thankful for.  I am thankful for you. I am thankful for my younger self that knew what I needed to do to get here to be with you. I am thankful for your father for pointing out that the glass is actually half full. I am thankful for the work ethic and the sense of responsibility that I gleaned from my father. I am thankful for the drive of self-preservation and the insight of an artistic mind from my mother. I am thankful for an appreciation of music, good food, and a clean house from my 2nd mother. I am thankful for the unconditional love of my grandmother (with whom I was able to talk about that abortion). I am thankful for my grandfather’s Sicilian heritage. I am thankful, so thankful, for all the teachers in my life that have truly shaped who I have become as an artist, a teacher, and a thinker.  I am thankful to all the scientists and doctors that have toiled for years to make healthcare accessible to women who both want and don’t want to have children. I am thankful for all the politicians and activists that are fighting against the interminable wave of oppressive thinking that insists that women are property and do not deserve the right to control their bodies or plan their families, perpetuating the cycle of poverty and violence that continues to afflict women.

After a period of hope and improvement for some (and the environment!), the United States has now entered a period of darkness shadowed by even more ignorance, inequality, fear and violence. People of color, the economically depressed, and women have long felt the affects of this shadow. There are many problems for us to solve – never mind the avoidance of war that this current president may trigger with his carelessness.  But my mother-focus is on you. If the US further constricts safe abortion access, this country will align itself with Chile, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Nigeria, where abortion is illegal in most cases (in Chile there is no exception for the health of the mother). Abortion still happens in these countries at high rates – but it is unsafe and women are criminalized.  Yet, the data proves that teen pregnancy and abortion rates go down with good sex education, frequent and honest discussions with parents, and access to reproductive healthcare (including safe abortion procedures).

When does life start? It doesn’t. It is continuous. It is in every leaf, in every bird and bee that flies below the living stars and above the breathing ocean. It is in the struggles of a growing teenage girl and the wisdom of an old man.  Life sometimes starts in death.

with all my love,

Your Mother

International Women’s Day 2017 with My Daughters

Today, we played hooky. No work and no school for myself or my daughters in order to honor the Women’s March action A Day Without a Woman. Instead, we collaboratively wrote a letter to our State Representative and Senator and went to the State House in Boston to hand deliver it.

I’m writing now from my role as a professor at the Massachusetts College of Art – the only state funded art college in the country – as well as a working mother of two kids who attend public schools in Massachusetts. I was not engaged in a “personal” activity with my kids – what we were doing today was advocating for public education, access to safe and legal healthcare and family planning, environmental protection, racial and economic justice. The personal IS political IS professional. Women are at the foundation of society, right along side their male colleagues. The only difference is that women are still valued unequally in most of the world. As an artist, teacher and mother, I am a “culture creator” and am called to intertwine my politics with my actions and statements.

Today, we joined with other women in the Women’s March effort and learned how to navigate the maze of representatives and rooms at the State House so that we could articulate the issues we care about while pressing our representatives to reflect the needs of their constituents.

My 10 and 13 year old daughters got an incredible lesson in their power to affect change. They witnessed the leadership and bravery of strong women. They saw their mother engaged, out of the house, and proactive. They met policy makers and citizens. They shook hands and they spoke their mind. I am so proud of them. And of myself. I’m feeling like a great mom today.

Trump and his pussy-grabbing, white-supremacist, anti-intellectual, nationalist, regressive co-conspirators are not our future.  My daughters are.

#whatistrivefor #hope #resist #engage #teach #love

Inside the Senate Chamber, under the dome, surrounded by marble busts of white men.

Day Without a Woman Lobby Day Workshop led by strong women.

Inside the Senate Chamber imaging their future.

At the State House and NOT in school!

Showing up and signing in.

With Senator Michael J. Barrett’s Communications Director, Brendan Berger, who was incredibly friendly and supportive and invited us to tour the Senate chambers.

 

Representative Jay R. Kaufman’s office

Witnessing a Day Without a Woman Lobby Day Workshop… and asked some questions too.

 

Family Politics

Beliefs
Conviction
Blinders
Tunnel vision

Break
Barrier
Extremism
Deceit

Truth

Personal is political
Politics is personal
Where privacy becomes public and public infuses privacy

About you and me
And them
About how much you value the lives of others
In relation to yours
Who do you defend?

Where do liberals and conservatives meet?
Safety
Home
Health
Love
Community
Expression
Hard work
Value

Personal responsibility

What else is there?
Equity
Generosity
Tolerance
Recognition of abuse
Sharing

Obligation is not understanding

Referendum
Executive order
Moral bankruptcy
Populism without wisdom is holocaust.

thoughts for 2017

Being non-productive is like fingernails on a chalkboard to me.

As I sit here, in between meals, at the dining table of my father in law’s home overlooking the Valle dei Templi in Agrigento, Sicily all I can do is overthink.  For many reasons, it’s hard for me to “work” here.  I can see three of the largest of these Greek temples sitting in a line parallel to the coast with the blue of the Mediterranean filling in to the horizon.  These are the temples of Juno, Heracles, and Concordia. There are several other structures and temples surrounding the area and recently a theater was discovered nearby that is currently being excavated. It’s an incredible experience to walk among these ruins and ponder the story of humanity from both a personal and public perspective.  To think of the number of narcissistic politicians, ruthless militants, architects, artists, slaves, fathers, mothers and children that rose before dawn and labored until the last possible moment to erect these monuments to human frailty. These temples desperately beg mercy from the gods –  they are symbols of humanity’s perpetual lack of control and power –  The stone itself symbolizing the weight of the unknown, the mysteries of the universe, and the cavalier handling of human suffering by the deities. 

As I write on my laptop, my daughters are both on iPads – one working on a powerpoint presentation about Italy and the other one using drawing tutorials on youtube to improve her skills at creating Manga characters. Hands are forever impossibly difficult.

Their grandfather is in another room aging.

This morning I watched a video of Jimi Hendrix playing his 12 string guitar and I remembered the feeling of hiding in my room at 16 years old listening to “Little Wing” and thinking there was a chance it was all worth it and I might have something to offer the world if I could just live through the next couple of years. A white suburban girl in Pennsylvania saved by Jimi. I did not understand my place in a racist country, my own feminism, nor the dangerous environmental path humans had blazed. What I had was personal desperation and a need to flee. I had no way of understanding all the complexity in that moment but Jimi gave me hope. Transcendent hope. I’ll take it.

As we enter this time named 2017, I’m thinking about being useful, being productive, pushing boulders up hill, and hope.  I’m wondering what I can do to guide these young women into the future with confidence, self-sufficiency and the desire to contribute to change.  Though I am discouraged and frustrated about the political future of the United States and the steep climb ahead, I’m also dusting off the listening ears of my teenage self and hanging on to the act of productivity as a life force, guiding principle, and meditation.

Put the iPads away, girls, and go outside and get some Sicilian sun. I’ll be cooking and listening to “Little Wing” on headphones.  We’ll figure this out too – how to connect the crumbling past with an invented future. Gods be damned.

 

 

For Danny

Letter to a Young Artist : on the occasion of his last day in the Studio for Interrelated Media Department at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design

Pozen Center for Interrelated Media
December 15, 2016
Boston, MA

Dear Danny,

This has been one of the most challenging semesters in my teaching memory.   With more than the usual dose of dishonesty, corruption, war, racism, misogyny, and intolerance, it has left some of us shattered, exhausted and demoralized.  Our community has also struggled internally – with high expectations, misunderstandings and disappointments; with not enough fast enough, and with too much too soon.

Then, one of our own, a young, optimistic, free spirit, dies in a fire fueled by the furnishings of nonconformity and risk-taking, while he was doing his job – making the sounds of imagination, expansion and mindfulness. 

And now, here we are with you, in this most forward-thinking, hopeful moment. Shaking your hand and gently nudging you out the door of art school as you finish your academic to do list in this experiment we call home. You have continued to grow, to make art, to push, pull and focus yourself forward. 

You are the reason we are here – your single voice, your signature. You are a unique moment that braids together all that came before you, all that you are, and all that you will do. You are magic. You are light. You are everything that matters. 

I wish for you all the complexities of a journey into the depths of struggle that only artists can plumb, alongside the heights of understanding and clarity that comes with your vision, bravery, and irreverence. Your smile and nervous energy will propel you. Your sense of humor and contemporary click will get you noticed. Your willingness to work hard and connect will sustain you. You are an antidote. 

Though loss is fundamental in the circle of life, in this moment, your presence fills the universe.  You are an artist. And through you we all survive.

With admiration,

Nita

Some historical precedents:

  • Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke, 1929
  • Letters to a Young Artist, by Peter Nesbett (Editor), Sarah Andress (Editor), Shelly Bancroft (Editor), 2006
  • Letters to a Young Artist: Straight-up Advice on Making a Life in the Arts-For Actors, Performers, Writers, and Artists of Every Kind Paperback, by Anna Deavere Smith, 2006

Post Election thoughts

Exhausting day of processing all this…. comforting scared children worried their immigrant father and friends might get sent away… consoling tearful exhausted students that are gay, activist, black, muslim, etc etc.. seeing comments by FBers that are pro-trump.. listening to members of our local UU church talk about how we need to listen to those that are angry and disenfranchised enough to vote for such a person.. sad that i disagree so deeply and profoundly with so many in my own family… scared of the violence that will befall on innocent people by sanctioned sexual predators, racists and militarized and emboldened police … wondering what I can DO to stem the bleeding that the country feels.

To those in the middle of the country that is are so red with anger – i do hope that trump will fix your problems. but please don’t resort to racism, hate and misogyny. No one is ‘taking” your jobs or your money away from you. You don’t deserve any more or less than the first nation people that were here before you (and mostly murdered) or the descendants of slaves that were placed here against their will (probably before your ancestors were), or the newest of immigrants escaping horrific conditions in another part of the world. We have to be smarter, inventive, and willing to change to figure it out.

To my friends (known and unknown) that are every color of the rainbow and especially my black friends, I’m with you, will continue work to fight racism every chance I get and will stand by you. To my LGBT friends (known and unknown), I’m with you, will continue work to make a world where you feel safe and accepted.

To my students, i will continue to protect your right to freedom of expression and the open space you need to grow. Art heals, expands and educates. It does change the world.

To the birds, bees, waters, and earth – I will continue to do what i can to get rid of the plastic and poisons that are killing us all.

To my daughters, we are in this together.

More than half of the vote went to hope, sharing, openness, and tolerance. I’m going to re-focus my activism, hold my family close, and remain unapologetically progressive, liberal, secular, and educated.

I’m also going to take an FB break. good night.