where do we find our teachers?

silhouette of a dancing person, before a multicolored backgroundGood morning this morning. I’ve got a green Earl Grey tea this morning, which is nice and odd. I woke up from a difficult dream that involved my mom, and I only captured the very end of it, where I was in a bed making, spelling out the word AMAZING using my finger dipped in frosting and letting the letters dry on some hard surface. I was looking for housing in Crete, Nebr.

How have your dreams brought you into this day?

This morning I am thinking about other mothers, about teachers, about who we learn from when our parents aren’t able to be the ones who give us the lessons we need to move into and through life.

Anne Lamott talks about this in her book, Traveling Mercies. She describes the women who weren’t her own mother, mothers of friends, who took her in, who told her she was beautiful, who brought her through girlhood and womanhood with a steadfastness and encouragement, people you felt accountable to, whose opinion mattered to you, even when you were going to go ahead and fuck up anyway.

I am thinking about who we learn from.

Last night, I listened to a little of the Republican convention — I know, I know, but still — and there was Chris Christie, talking about his mother. He was giving his working class street cred, which, good for him– and then he described what he learned from his mother. He said she never expected any extra credit for telling the truth — and that he ought to always go for respect instead of love, that love without respect would wither, but that respect could grow into a real and lasting love.

And I thought: now, why did he get to have someone in his life to teach him that? I thought about the lessons I learned from my own mother, which, as I drove around the lake toward home, I could only remember getting indirectly from her: swallow your tongue, ignore your instincts, sublimate subsume submerge your children in service to a man, ignore signs of trouble all around you in order to keep an abusive spouse happy — now, I learned these lessons, and these are not the only lessons my mother taught me. She also taught me the importance of a garden, how to leave a bad marriage and follow your instincts into your best work, how to eat well, how to stand up for yourself in a conversation with a man who was insulting you. She showed me how to fight, and she also showed me how to lose that fight. It’s complicated, of course, the lessons I got from her.

I know Chris Christie has speech writers galore; maybe it’s so that many of the lessons that people describe learning from their parents also came indirectly, weren’t conveyed during private sit-down moments after school or on the weekend when the kid is struggling with some interpersonal problem and they finally get the courage to ask mom or dad and mom or dad is afraid of saying the wrong thing and tells a story from their own life and eventually conveys something really vulnerable and important and teaches both directly and indirectly: here’s how to make it in this lifetime as a man or a woman or a human you can be proud of.

Did you have those times with your parents, or with other adults: maybe tutors or teachers or aunts or uncles or foster folks or parents’ friends or…? Who were your teachers, the ones you learned necessary and positive life lessons from?

I got to thinking about this last week at FemmeCon 2012, too — one of the sessions I attended had to do with intergenerational conversations among femmes, about mentoring, about how we are there for one another — specifically, how older femmes can/could show up for younger femmes and help them to learn lessons about how it’s ok to be in this space of a fierce and vulnerable queer femininity: more than how to put on a face or keep your seams straight or anything about our surfaces (but yes about our surfaces, too, sometimes), we wanted femme mentors/foremothers/friends to tell us how to hold our own in relationships, how to kick ass on the street when we got harassed, how to not feel so fucking alone all the time when it was our job to be the emotional center of our relationships and we were holding so much and still being ignored by our communities as doing any “real” work, how not to be the butt of a joke, how to call out oppressive behavior, how to build real community, how to earn a living, how to find a bed, how to navigate different ways of earning money or finding that safe(-ish) place to sleep.

I wondered if the younger femmes in the room assumed that we older femmes had had someone to teach us those things.

We were asked where we found mentorship, what our models of mentorship were — and I said/realized that, while I had had peer mentors, friends who identified as femme to whom I could turn when I was coming out and terrified and felt skinless and utterly incapable of making it as a girl — that most of my mentors I’d found in books. I was one of those nineties survivor dykes who came out through seventies and eighties second-wave feminism, and through the writing/teaching of the sex radical “side” of the Feminist Sex Wars/Barnard Conference — my forefolks and mentors included Dorothy Allison, Pat Califia, Cherie Moraga, Gloria Anzaldua, Alice Walker, Gloria Steinem, bell hooks, Valerie Solanas and the SCUM Manifesto, Chrystos, Carol Queen, Barbara Smith, Minnie Bruce Pratt, Audre Lorde, Gayle Rubin, Amber Hollibaugh, so many more. This Bridge Called My Back, Pleasure & Danger, The Persistent Desire — I turned to anthologies for the multiplicity of voices, for the reminder that there were so many different ways to find self and community.

My mentors have also been the people I was in intimate relationship with — the lesson I learned when I was in high school was that the only people I would be allowed to be close to were those I was fucking; I wasn’t allowed close friends, and had no access to family outside of the nuclear-implosion that lived in my stepfather’s house. And I have been blessed with amazing and respectful significant others, folks who could mentor me around human interaction, who could hold space for me during the times that I could not hold space for myself, who could show me how to dress, who could hold me while I fell apart, who taught me the good things their parents had taught them.

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Who have your teachers been, who have been your characters’ teachers? What are the lessons you’re still waiting to learn, about how to be in this lifetime? Who can teach you these? Can you give yourself ten minutes and write into the sorrow around what we should have been taught and weren’t, what we shouldn’t have been taught but learned anyway — and into the joy of getting to learn other ways of being eventually?

Thank you for the ways you are still open to learning, for the openness you offer to others, for the ways you, yourself, have been and are mentor/teacher/fierce support to others — both directly and indirectly. Thank you for your generosity today, and thank you every day for your words.

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