It seems impossible (and in hindsight, sheer folly) but three weeks ago someone in the chat during our streaming church service mentioned how they would miss our annual women’s retreat. By the time we were moving from our YouTube channel to the Zoom coffee hour, we were requesting a breakout room to talk about the possibility of an online retreat. Three weeks ago. And this weekend, it happened, and it was good.
As I recall, it used to be like this: a rush hour drive to a peaceful, nicely-appointed retreat center, gathering with thirty or so other women to share stories, take long walks, and enjoy a break from the everyday. This would be different; no driving was involved. But other than that, couldn’t we still share, walk, and create a sense of separation from...whatever we needed to get away from? Instead of the snack collection in the break room, we were limited to the contents of our own cupboards. Most of us had to figure out how to maintain a retreat state of mind while occupying a household going about their own business. For me, this meant setting myself up in the bedroom of our four-room apartment, with access to the master bath, while my husband had free reign of the three other rooms and the second bath.
I filled a pitcher with ice water, brought in my journal and pens, and made sure I had a small supply of snacks: dark chocolate, a pear, and some granola bars. It felt right.
We had a website to organize the schedule and invite interaction. We had a yoga, a craft activity, and even a Zoom dance party, and lots more. We had Zoom gatherings for meals, with small group breakout “tables” to replicate the cafeteria experience at the retreat center, a setting that many women remembered fondly as locations for creating and deepening relationships. We had a profoundly spiritual opening and closing. If you build it, they will come; we had over sixty registrations. Not everyone attended every session, but that was true of our earlier retreats. (I was notorious for “playing hookey” from retreats and heading to nearby brewpubs.)
So this afternoon, I am basking in the glow of a weekend well-spent. I am grateful for my community, for technology that can bring us together in hard times. I am grateful for the fearless women who stepped up to do this crazy thing, and for the trusting women who signed up t9 come alone for the ride, no matter how bumpy it might be.
Was it a real retreat? My friend Janne caught this screen shot of me during the closing meditation. It certainly felt like it.
I wasn't sure I should write this post. I have been corresponding with an inmate at a federal correctional institution for going on five years now, as part of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Larger Fellowship's Worthy Now ministry. We exchange letters every few months, usually just sharing notes on the weather, books we are reading and other mundane topics. But this week I got a letter from him that I feel compelled to share. I am not going to reveal his location, name, or any information that might help identify him.
The unit he is in is low security, for nonviolent offenders, many of whom are also over fifty.
The virus hit [low security] first, brought in by the guards. At first, they did nothing - several people (including me) went to medical with shortness of breath, hard to breathe, no taste, no smell, aches...we were all sent back to our units - if you didn't have a temp you were fine! Consequently the virus ended up running rampant thru our building. 10+ went to the hospital on ventilators, 3 died.Then, in their wisdom, they ... put people with temps [together in one unit]...distributed [people already in that unit] to other units.
The people in those other units were then effectively locked in; no outside time at all. They were also informed about the need for "social distancing" and handwashing, and given a 4 ounce bottle of soap every week. Imagine an open space with a TV and tables for four, surrounded by open "rooms" (cubicles with no doors) furnished with bunk beds for 2 or 3 people.
After [several] weeks they issued two disposable masks; after a month and a half they gave us...cloth masks. Most of the guards have them - some don't wear them at all. [Nearly 30] guards are infected here. Not sure how many inmates since the Board of Prison numbers don't match the union numbers and none match the local hospital numbers.
They haven't tested that many. I had it and I know most in my unit had it. They did pull out ... guys with temps and moved them into the quarantine unit but unless you had a temp they did nothing. I was one of those. It got so bad my fingers were blue and I had a very difficult time breathing.
He is better now, and has learned that his release date has been moved up by six months, so he will be moved to a halfway house in about 18 months.
Every day, I feel more ashamed and angry. I just channeled some of that emotion into a donation to the Center for Prison Reform.
It’s one of my favorite poems: Marge Piercy’s “To be of Use”. The last stanza shaped my work for nearly forty years.
The work of the world is common as mud.
(Read the entire work at the Poetry Foundation.)
As a teacher, I always tried to make student work useful. Every little exercise was designed to build on the last, moving towards a semester project that could be added to a writing portfolio, or used in an application to grad school. Everything I wanted them to learn was something I hoped they could use in real, everyday life.
Wisconsin author Kitty O’Meara has written “And the people stayed home”, a poem for our time of social isolation and physical distancing. In an interview a few weeks ago, she underscored her poem’s message that this time can be an opportunity to create, to produce, to be useful in ways that elude most of us in our everyday lives. Some of us are required - called, even — to real, essential work in the outside world, so that the rest of us can be safe and well. But all people cry for "work for that is real".
What work is your heart crying for? When the quarantine is lifted, what opportunity will you regret? I am not here to tell you what to do. What you must not do is kill this gift of time. Making bread is fine. Playing music is fine. Unpacking the boxes from your last move four years ago is fine. Making masks for those who need them is fine. Making masks for kids to play with is fine. Do the work your heart is crying for, and do it as well as you can.
So much for promises. I pledged to Facebook less and blog more. But then came January, and even more important, February. I did keep the first part of my promise, deleting the Facebook app from my mobile devices and only checking in once or twice a day on my laptop. But my intention to focus on my research and writing was disrupted by our decision to move to a nearby retirement community. It happens in almost exactly one month, and the last two months have been consumed with downsizing thirty-five years of stuff and getting our house ready to sell. I won’t bore you with the details. Suffice it to say it takes up significant bandwidth, no matter how organized you are or how much you are looking forward to the next chapter.
But now I am sitting in a coffee shop thinking about my research for the first time this year, and it feels good. Watch this space!
PS: If you need our new mailing address, DM or email me.
Because you need a message from a friend in the middle of all those end-of-the-year solicitations for money.
I checked my email inbox today, and it was so sad. it was even sadder than my actual mailbox, which has been stuffed with “mail” from charities, noble causes, pleas from political candidates, and grocery store coupons. (No, I have not discarded the Oxford comma, and I never will.) Here’s a some random news and speculation from me to brighten up your New Year’s Eve Day, because who doesn’t need some real mail?
“Family holiday letters are so 20th century, but I still love them.”
Jim and I are getting the hang of this retirement thing. He’s figured out when all of the major soccer games are televised, and I have binge-watched all of the Great English Baking Show. We did a bit of traveling, some together, some not. (“Let there be spaces in your togetherness”, Kahlil Gibran. Best couples advice ever.) Highlights were Mexico and Chautauqua, NY (just me), Spokane and Costa Rica (just him), and Raleigh, NC, Star Island, NH, and Rehoboth Beach, DE (both of us), topped by a week in West Virginia with family and friends at Thanksgiving.
I continue to slog away at my third book, Que Sera,Sera: A generational autobiography, about how the clothing of the last 70 years reveals how I learned to be female, feminine, and white. Don’t hold your breath for a copy: it HAS been a slog.
We both turned 70 this year (how terribly strange, as Paul Simon observed in his 20s), Jim with little fanfare, me with a backyard party with ice cream, cake, and a professional clown. (Who’s the introvert now?)
The coming year is going to be a challenge, on every level. How could it not be? If our parents were still living, we’d get a lecture about the Great Depression and the Second World War, as a reminder of the power in community and unity. The power is still there, as is the realization that we never know if it will be enough to make a difference. As Geraldine Brooks writes in March (one of the best books I read in 2019):
The outcome is not the point.
The point is the effort…To believe to act, and to have events confound you — I grant you, that is hard to bear. But to believe, and not to act, or to act in a way that every fiber of your soul held was wrong — how can you not see? That is what would have been reprehensible.
That’s a heavy thought for a holiday letter, but there’s no sugarcoating the mess we are in: our country, humanity, the earth. So I plan to hold tighter to the good people around me, and balance my need to turn inward for restoration and to direct my energy outward for positive change.
“Make new friends, but keep the old; one is silver and the other gold.”
I used to joke that I could never figure out which was which. A recent conversation finally switched on the light. My really indispensable friends - the “golden” ones - are a mix of ages, and they came into my life anywhere from middle school to last year. What they have in common is the way we fit together, the comfort we enjoy in our interactions. Sometimes it happens quickly: you hit it off at a first meeting. But you can also know someone for years or decades before you finally get a chance to connect on that magical level that leads to close friendship.
So make new friends and keep the old; cherish the ones that turn out to be gold.
Friend, I hope 2020 brings you good times, resilience, community, and golden friendships galore.
A couple of weeks ago, I decided to delete the Facebook app from my mobile devices. Besides being too much temptation to procrastinate, the shady “news” practices and generally evil attitude of Mark Z. were getting on my last nerve. This was a tough decision; I was a very early adopter, way back when it was being rolled out campus by campus and you could only connect with other users from the same email domain. It is also my main connection with far-flung friends, family, and former students. But now that is going to change a bit. Here’s how:
Facebook is still on my laptop, but I am only going to be checking it once a day. So time-sensitive messages will have to get to me by other means. My nearest and dearest know that I detest telephones and voicemail with a white hot passion, so please use that as a last resort, and be prepared to wait while I steel myself for the ordeal of replying.
Better alternatives: Fb Messenger, text, email. Even better: buy some stamps and write me an actual letter. Stamps are so cool.
If your main interest is my professional stuff, follow my Jo Paoletti, Author page instead of friending me. If you think you might need to contact me for collaboration or a recommendation, I am on LinkedIn. For those nice people who said they will miss my pithy and insightful posts on Facebook, you can find a smattering of those on Twitter and Instagram. (Yes, I know Facebook owns Instagram, but the political air is less rancid there.)
Finally, I promise to blog more regularly here in the future. See ya around!
I have no idea what to say
or who might be listening
or might want to listen.
If they knew I had something to say.
If I had something to day.
The Great Dismal Swamp has nothing on you.
I am in the throes of writing a chapter that is KICKING MY ASS. But I have also been reading Robin, by David Itzkoff, a wonderful biography of Robin Williams that unexpectedly offers parallels with Indian star Shah Rukh Khan (my not-secret obsession). They both share layers of sadness, deep loneliness, manic tendencies to overact, and a genius for hiding themselves in their characters. Not to mention their movie choices (“one for the masses/money, one for me”). And somehow I ended up rewatching “Oh Darling Yeh Hai India” (available on Netflix) and “Jab Tak Hai Jaan” (Amazon Prime, as "As Long as I Live". There can not be two more different films, but such was my mood. I adore ODYHI for all of its Brechtian Dr. Strangelove craziness, for Amrish Puri chewing the scenery, the fountain scene, and SRK’s magnificent jail monologue. Not to mention Javed Jaffrey’s dancing. And I watch JTHJ mainly for the soundtrack — not just the songs, but the underlying score, which is so amazing (yesssss A.R. Rahman is a genius!!). It’s also great fun to watch knowing that SRK and Anushka finally get together in JHMS. (The airport scene in JTHJ is even better now that you know…)
Thinking: how hard it is to stay grounded in ordinary work and life while the world is burning up and our leaders have lost their minds.
Too dark? C’est la vie…
I will leave you with a fun happy song from Jab Tak Hai Jaan!
A long time ago (sometime in the 1980s), I gave a paper at a regional Costume Society of America meeting. I can't remember the topic, and it isn't even listed on my CV. Only one thing stands out in my memory: I was introduced by Richard Martin, at that time one of the brightest stars in the fashion studies firmament. Only one year my senior, Richard was an established curator and scholar, producing several blockbuster exhibits a year at the Fashion Institute of Technology. He had graduated from college the same year I graduated from high school, and earned two master's degrees while I was still waiting tables. In short, he was brilliant. He was also gracious and generous; there are many "stars" in academic fields who are willing to lower themselves to occasional brief appearances at conferences, where they hang out with the other stars and ignore everyone else. Richard was not that person.
So it was that Richard Martin (THE Richard Martin) was at a regional meeting presiding over a session of papers by junior scholars and graduate students. I was probably the most senior presenter, but still an assistant professor; my very first article about boys' clothing and gender had just been published in Dress. And he introduced me not just with a list of my degrees and positions, but a description of my work. WHICH HE CLEARLY HAD READ. And he called me an iconoclast. On my secret, imaginary business cards ever since, is the line "Richard Martin called me an iconoclast".
Yesterday I got this message via Linkedin from Rob Smith, founder of The Phluid Project, a gender-free store in New York.
So: iconoclast icon? Iconic iconoclast? I think what it means is "don't stop". So I won't!
My Gender Mystique blog focuses on my work on clothing, sex, and gender. That's not all I do, so this blog is about everything else.