Rape is Not a Joke


I am guilty of taking the path of least resistance. In my Women’s Studies classes we have been talking about sexual harassment, specifically street harassment or cat calling, which my students tell me happens every day in their lives. They say it happens all the time on our campus as they walk to class. This week I was walking across campus and I witnessed such harassment. A group of guys shouted at a young women walking by them: “Hey, baby. What’s your phone number…” She kept walking. I kept walking. When I was a little distance away, I turned back, thinking to myself that if I don’t stand up for women on campus (as a teacher) then how can I expect my students to stand up for themselves. By the time I walked back to the area the group has disbursed and I wasn’t sure who had made the comment. I felt guilty for not intervening in the moment—telling the young men that it is not O.K. to harass female students. In my classes we talk about how we all have many choices each day about whether we support the status quo or resist and try to change it. I felt like I took the easy way out and took the path of least resistance. Next time I will intervene.

In today’s local newspaper, there was an extremely offensive column by Bud Stevenson. He calls his column “Mr. Nice Guy,” although he is the opposite of nice. His columns are usually full a hate and bigotry, and I find myself amazed that a newspaper would give him a platform. Unfortunately, he represents some in our community as evidenced by others who similarly write hate speech. Today his column hit a new low for me, as he joked about and mocked a new law intended to prevent the rape of women on college campuses. I did not take the path of least resistance today. I wrote back. Here is my letter to the editor. There was much more that I could say about the messages in Mr. Stevenson’s column (Ugh), but I kept it brief in hopes that the newspaper would print it in full.

Dear Editor,

One in five young college women will be sexually assaulted during their time in college. It is not alright to joke about this issue. Bud Stevenson’s column, mocking and belittling new legislation that aims to decrease campus rape, is deeply offensive to me as a college professor working with young people and to all women who are victims of sexual violence. The legality of consent is not new: it is illegal to have sex with another person without their consent. It is unfortunate that there is such a strong myth in our culture that when a woman says “No, it really means Yes”, that legislation was necessary to clearly define affirmative consent as, “Yes means Yes.”

Mr. Stevenson is correct that SB 967 clarifies that sexual partners must give “affirmative, conscious and voluntary agreement” in order to protect individuals from sexual assault on college campuses. And yes, a person can withdraw consent at any time during a sexual encounter—that is coded in existing law. Mr. Stevenson states that affirmative consent “fits in the world view of our governor” and jokes about “saving” a young woman’s “wholesomeness.” I believe that rape prevention initiatives are part of a world view that all decent people share in our community, all people who care about the safety and wellbeing of women and girls. It is unconscionable for Mr. Stevenson to suggest that rape prevention is some sort of weird idea from a weird governor, and efforts to protect women from violence (“wholesomeness”), is something to joke about. Mr. Stevenson concludes his column by talking about himself as the “victim of aggressive young women” in college, attempting to disqualify the whole problem of the rape of young women—a sobering, one fifth of all women in college.

Mr. Stevenson leaves out important information about SB 967. This new law gives campus authorities new powers to effectively deal with sexual assaults and has opened up new education campaigns for campus communities, male and female. This California law is part of a larger effort to address the problem of sexual assault on college campuses. President Obama has initiated a campaign at the federal level and campus safety provisions were added to the reauthorization of the Violence against Women Act. New federal guidelines will follow soon to assist college campuses in developing meaningful strategies to prevent sexual assault and to provide support to victims. The Chief of Police of my college district is working hard to implement these new initiatives to make positive changes in women’s safety—we are not laughing or joking about this important issue.

My students use the term “rape culture” to talk about the ubiquitous nature of messages in our culture that sustain this cycle of violence against women. When Mr. Stevenson, a leader in our community, and our local newspaper support messages that denigrate and make fun of efforts to protect women from sexual violence, this is clearly an artifact of rape culture. I will show my students Mr. Stevenson’s column as sad evidence of rape culture in my own community. It disturbs me greatly that such messages come from those who have a public platform that could be used to educate and work towards ending violence against women.

Immediate Benefits of New Law

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My Student’s Call to Care about Gaza


Follow Laila El-Haddad on Twitter: https://twitter.com/gazamom

I received an unanticipated email from my Women’s Studies student, Samantha:

I was going to write you soon because my friend is visiting Palestine for the summer and she is close to Bethlehem. She is in the middle of the war. I honestly can say that before taking these classes I wouldn’t of understood or maybe even cared, but I am posting things on social networks about trying to end it for the children and women because the Israelis are targeting little children and women. It sickens me to have to listen to this. My friend said that they are spraying tear gas every night into homes in Bethlehem and she told me that the media is making it seem like Israel is only defending themselves when Palestine is so poor they barely are attacking. She said their missiles go off and hurt maybe 1 person and Israel missiles go off every day killing dozens . . . I just can’t believe that media and broadcasters are trying to make Palestine the bad guys. I thought about the class after hearing about this. I don’t know if you have an Instagram but I follow a guy on there that has graphic but truthful things they don’t put on the news that should be on the news—his name is freemind_1. I wish this wasn’t going on no matter who is it is against. I just want peace for the innocent children. Hope you receive this, I had a great semester and I hope I get to work with you in the future. Sorry for the long message, I thought to vent to someone who actually cares about this situation . . .

Samantha was in my Global Women’s Issues class last fall when we were fortunate to have Laila El-Haddad visit with us. El-Haddad provided an insider perspective on what it is like to live in Gaza under the Israeli occupation. Her book, Gaza Mom, based on her blog, captures her daily life in Gaza as a citizen, woman and mother. Her story is not the one we receive in sound bites from U.S. media. In considering my curriculum for my fall Global Women’s Studies class, I thought about assigning Gaza Mom and then changed my mind. Samantha’s email has caused me to add Gaza Mom back to my reading list for the class. Thank you, Samantha, for caring and thinking critically about what is happening in Gaza, for compelling me to bring the Palestinian story to my new group of students.

Unlikely Settler

I recently read and highly recommend The Unlikely Settler by Lipika Pelham. Pelham has an interesting insider perspective; as someone from India who has lived in the Middle East, Pelham shares her first-hand observations and experiences as she gets to know people who are involved in different ways and who have different perspectives on the conflict and occupation. She captures the complexity of identity, political alliances, and of life on the street, through her observations and reflections.

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Our Siege: My Mother & Me


Vignettes . . .
Our Siege
“Just Pain”
Jennifer & the Black Cat
Pain Meds
The Deer
Dr. Metwally
The Buddhist Monk
Crappy Nursing Homes
More Crappy Nursing Homes
Old Women’s Breasts
Sara’s Little Class
Prayer: Getting It All Wrong
Abandoned by Feminists
Her Life
Mothers & Daughters

Mother 2

Our Siege

My mother asked me this morning, “How long has this (she pauses, searches for the right word), this siege been going on?” I responded, “That’s an interesting way to think about it. Our siege has been going on for almost 5 weeks.” We both laughed a little, it certainly does feel like a siege, although that word would have never come to mind for me. I think of a military action, I think of Gaza. Later, back in my motel room I Google the term siege to check the definition. I discover that a secondary definition is “a prolonged period of misfortune.” Yes, my mother’s choice of words is brilliantly accurate.

“Just Pain”

I am afraid of pain. It feels ridiculous when I say it, like saying I am afraid of fire. I am with my mother in the Emergency Room and she is in excruciating pain. Things seem to move in slow motion in hospitals, the perspective of one who is suffering. The nurse has questions, needs to assess. Can you give her something for the pain? We must wait until the doctor assesses her. More waiting… More pain… Then, the doctor has to take time to assess. I tell the story of the injury one more time. Can you give her something for the pain? The kind and concerned young woman doctor explains that she has ordered pain meds but cannot administer medication herself; that must be done by a nurse. I’m thinking, “On the doctor shows on T.V. the doctors always give drugs!” More waiting… More pain… A male nurse comes in to assess and order an IV. He addresses my mother, “So, it’s just pain?” My hand is in my mother’s vise-like grip because she does not know what else to do but to squeeze my hand as a lifeline, hoping somehow to relieve the intensity of her pain. “JUST PAIN?” I incredulously repeat back to the nurse. He explains that a patient might be having a heart attack or stroke, something life threatening. Just pain is a good thing in an emergency room. This makes sense in the part of my brain that is still connected to rational thought. My hand has lost all feeling. Yes, it’s just pain. It feels ridiculous when I think it, like thinking it is just fire.

Jennifer & the Black Cat

We are back on the 5th floor after my mother’s big surgery on her hip and leg, after two days in the IMCU (that’s not ICU, but Inter-Mediate Care Unit, a slight step down from ICU). She was in a lot of post-op pain. I’ve experienced post-surgical pain a few times in my life, that awful void between the anesthesia and the pain medication, a knife of pain that seems unsurvivable in those moments. The IMCU nurses struggle to get my mother’s pain to be bearable, trying all the heavy hitters.

My mother has not fully awakened since her surgery. One of the nurses asks her about her name: “Oh, your name is so unusual, Burnice. Is that how you pronounce it: Burnice?” My mother: “Well, yes, it was my father’s name. I have never really liked my name.” The nurse: “What would you have liked your name to be? Is there a name that you really like?” My mother: “Well, Jennifer.” The nurse: “Would you like us to call you Jennifer?” My mother: “Well, yes, I would.” The nurse writes on the white board in my mother’s hospital room – “Likes to be called Jennifer.” So that’s what we all call her for the next few days, until she loses interest in the game.

My mother looks at me with a mother-daughter frustration, as if I am not doing what she thinks I should be doing. She bats at her legs with both hands as if she is trying to shoo something off of her. My mother: “Would you get him down?” Me: “Who?” My mother: “The cat. Get him off of me.” The black cat has been with my mother since surgery, a figment of her morphine haze. It’s not an unfriendly cat and she doesn’t dislike him, but she does not like him on her hospital bed. I pretend to pick up the black cat and take him into the hallway. The cat is persistent and just comes back in to be with my mother. The nurses tell me that some people have really scary hallucinations on morphine . . . we are lucky.

Pain Meds

A male nurse in the IMCU is giving my mother a dose of IV pain medication. He is thinking out loud and says to me, “It is such a shame that many parts of the world don’t have any pain medications, when here we just throw much of it away. I am surprised by this unanticipated comment and don’t understand what I just heard, “What do you mean?” He explains that the IV pain meds are packaged in predetermined doses in the syringes that are used. If, for example, my mother gets a smaller dose than what is in the syringe, the rest is simply thrown away. This information disturbs me and I wish I did not know it.


My mother is visibly shaken when I arrive at the nursing home one morning. She tells me that she had a really bad nightmare. She was being chased and there were helicopters and horses. It is one of those bad dreams that stay with you through the morning hours. I ask her the first question that comes to my mind, “Were you running away? Was your new leg working?” I thought a dream where she was running on her new leg could be a harbinger of good news to come in her recovery. She doesn’t remember anything about her leg, just how scared she felt with all those helicopters and horses chasing her.

I had a terrible dream the night before my mother’s big surgery. One of those bad dreams that stays with you for a long time. I was leaving my mother for the night, traveling down the elevator from her room on the fifth floor. As I exited the elevator in the hospital lobby I could hear my mother’s voice calling my name, her voice an urgent echo coming through the elevator shaft. I needed to get back up to the 5th floor but the elevator would not work, there were no buttons for the 5th floor, the doors kept shutting on me, you know the kind of dream I’m talking about. I frantically looked for the stairs. When I find the staircase the stairs were too narrow and I could not fit . . . I continued to hear my mother’s cry to me but I could not reach her. Her voice had the same distressed and pleading tone that she had used that morning when I arrived to find that she had had a terrible night. She was sitting up in bed with her hands up in the air while two nurses were trying to get her comfortable. “Sheryl, Sheryl, please make them stop!” She desperately believed that I would know how to relieve her suffering.

The Deer

We like Robert, he is my mother’s CNA during some of the days we spend on the 5th floor. He is cute, friendly, talkative. He tells us how his father kicked him out when he was still in high school, but it was really a good thing because he got his own place, finished school, learned how to take care of himself. He is 27 and wants to have his RN by the time he is 30. I like his positive attitude about life. He is kind to my mother. One morning as Robert is assisting my mother, he tells us that he has had a crazy morning. He hit a deer on the way to work in the early morning hours and had to drive all the way back home to leave his damaged car. I wonder about the deer: “Did it kill the deer?” Robert emotionlessly responds, “It was hurt really badly. I had to put it out of its misery. I didn’t have a gun or anything, so I just took care of it.” He gestures with his hands to indicate that he did something to kill the deer.

Dr. Metwally

Dr. Metwally has given my mother a second chance. Really, Dr. Metwally has given my mother her life back.

My mother was transported by ambulance from her small hometown hospital to a large regional hospital about an hour from her home. She was admitted through the emergency room in the evening and we waited until about 5:00 p.m. the next afternoon before seeing her doctor. We were weary from the waiting, when Dr. Metwally and Steve, his PA, suddenly appeared and started talking to my mother without introducing themselves. My mother’s RN for the afternoon, Ryan, even slipped back in her room to hear what the doctor was going to say. “Berniece, this is really a BIG surgery.” Dr. Metwally’s voice is loud. “I guarantee that you will lose a lot of blood and need blood transfusions. You might die during surgery…Then it will be a long difficult recovery with some time in rehab.” My mother does not know if she can go through such a big surgery. “What other options are there?” I must ask. “Well, you really don’t have much of a choice. You could do nothing, but you will lie in a bed and die.” Dr. Metwally asks my mother what her wishes are if something happens during surgery—would she want them to save her life? He does a little mental status check by asking her a few questions: “Berniece, what month is it? Do you know where you are right now? Who is our president?” His voice is loud, as if he assumes that my mother is hard of hearing. She ends up saying “O.K.” The surgery won’t be tomorrow, it will be the next day. Another day of agony and waiting…

I am stunned by the sober reality of our situation, my mother’s situation. I try to read Dr. Metwally’s face and tone of voice and the faces of those who have surrounded him to hear what he is planning for this unusual case. I stop my mother’s nurse in the hallway, I like him, he has taken the time to understand my mother’s story: “Ryan, what do you think? There really seems to be no choice?” His response is grounding, “I think of it in terms of her quality of life. With the surgery there is at least a chance at some quality; without the surgery there is no chance.”

My mother’s hometown orthopedic surgeon once told us that my mother’s x-rays would freak out any emergency room doctor, this after my mom was taken to the ER after a fall. This small town doctor, and I mean SMALL in many ways, told my mother that there was nothing that could be done to fix her leg. He told her that the only option would be to cut it off. This statement has haunted her. She will not let anyone cut off her leg. My mother has lived in pain and on pain medication for many years. She had a hip replacement a long time ago; because of her severe osteoporosis her bones did not hold the implant in place. Over time it has shifted downward, so that over the past five years or so she has lived with chronic pain as the shaft of the implant that is in her femur has been literally breaking through her bone. I feel shaky describing my mother’s situation because it is so awful. Finally, the implant shifted enough so that my mother was incapacitated with excruciating pain and unable to walk or move.

The day between Dr. Metwally’s visit and the surgery, this space of a day, is one of our most difficult. My mother is not sure she can do it, go through the surgery. She is exhausted from the pain, from the cruelty of her life story. She is spent. I wonder how on earth she will find the reserves of energy and emotional strength to do it. I ask for the doctors to speak to her again, as I am not sure what choice she has made about the surgery. She has changed her mind. She really has no choice. Choiceless choices. By the time Dr. Metwally’s PA, Steve, comes in to see us my mother is calmer, her pain is bearable for a little while. I am thankful that he pronounces her name correctly—he addresses her as Burnice. He takes the time to know her name. He is respectful. She tells Steve, “I’m not ready to not be in this world. Yes, I know I have to do the surgery.” She also tells Steve that if something goes wrong, she does not want them to save her life. She has decided to be a DNR.

I knit, I wait, I drink Diet Coke, I watch the people around me and wonder about their stories. I chose to wait by myself, not wanting to deal with the emotions of family members. They text me periodically, “Any news yet?” “No, still waiting.” I know that if the doctor comes out too soon it will mean that my mother died during surgery or that maybe they could not do anything surgically to repair her leg. Part of me hopes that she will be taken during surgery, that her pain will end, that at least her death won’t be in pain. It is a horrible feeling and thought. It is a long wait. After several hours, I don’t think she is going to die during surgery. Finally, after about 5 hours, Dr. Metwally comes through the double doors. We sit down and talk in a small room. His voice is quiet. She did well during surgery. She needed blood. This was really a difficult surgery. Dr. Metwally had never seen bones like my mother’s, he said they were like wet paper. He gestured as if he was remembering how it felt to hold her bone between his fingers. Her femur bone was almost nonexistent so they built a new femur with a metal plate. To get enough bone to hold the hip implant, the shaft goes almost down to her knee. “What about the hip joint?” I ask. Her small town doctor said that her pelvic bone could not hold a new implant. “Oh, that was no problem at all,” says Dr. Metwally. “Do you want to see the x-ray?” he offers. He shows me the x-ray of my mother’s new leg on his phone. I see the plate that is now her femur, I see the new metal hip implant, and I see the dozens of large metal screws that hold it all together. Dr. Metwally wipes his brow with the hand not holding his phone and says, “Wheh, that was really a hard one…” He is tired.

Dr. Metwally walks with me down the corridor to show me the way to IMCU where my mother will be taken. He says that he hopes the new leg will be more stable for her, that she will be able to walk around her house again with her walker. That would be a successful outcome. I try to read his face, his tone of voice. He is worried, not sure how this will go. She has a long difficult recovery and rehab ahead. I ask, “What do you think? Will she be able to walk again?” Dr. Metwally responds, “Well, look at what she has lived with. That says a lot about who she is.”

The Buddhist Monk

Buddhist monks. They seem to float, like bald apparitions in long flowing brown robes, in pairs or threes through the lobby and parking lot of the hospital. I know a bit of their story. My mother’s caregiver also works at their monastery taking care of an elder monk there. One of the monks is having open heart surgery, so they are here to support their friend. My mother has been in the emergency room for hours. I am returning from a short break to grab something to eat. A monk is standing outside my mother’s room. An older woman. I am shocked by her shaved head. I am taken a back, I don’t know how to interpret the monk’s presence here. I’m exhausted with this new crisis that brought my mother back to the hospital within 24-hours of her discharge. I introduce myself and ask her why she is here at my mother’s door. Her face is kind. She tells me that our caregiver had told her about my mother. She had come to see her. We walk into the room together. My mother is turned away from us in the hospital bed, she has been coping with horrible pain. “Mom, someone is here to see you.” She turns toward us. When she sees the monk my mother’s face softens and she smiles and welcomes her. They hold hands and talk for a few minutes. My mother embraces the spiritual presence of this woman. The monk’s presence eases my mother’s pain. It is a momentary gift.

Crappy Nursing Homes

It is a real life nightmare. My mother has spent one night in the rehab facility/nursing home. I arrive in the early morning to find my mother sitting in a wheelchair eating her breakfast. She looks good. I feel hopeful. She asks for help to be put back into bed. A pretty young CNA named Taylor says that she needs to weigh my mother before she goes back to bed. Taylor takes the foot rests off of the wheelchair and wheels her into the long hallway. I follow them. All of a sudden my mother bends over in agony and cries out. I kneel beside her. Her foot went down to the floor when she was being propelled forward, her right foot, jamming her entire leg from ankle to hip. The leg that just had all that surgery. Oh, god. I am a witness. I recall a flash of premonition, the image of my mother’s feet very close to the floor. I should have known. I should have prevented this. Oh, god. She is crying in pain when she is helped back into bed. I go to get the nurse and explain what happened. I ask for pain medication. I can’t believe this is happening. The pain meds don’t touch my mother’s pain. I find the nurse again. She decides to call my mother’s surgeon. My mother is taken by ambulance to the emergency room at the hospital as ordered by her doctor. She has a new pelvic fracture. Six hours later, we are back on the 5th floor overlooking the helicopter pad.

I go back to the nursing home to speak to someone in charge. The administrator and Director of Nursing meet with me. They don’t ask me to sit down in the administrator’s office. The nurse remains standing, leaning against the small conference table. I am exhausted and almost ask if I can sit. They are not happy that I am there. The Nurse is defensive. I explain what happened to my mother, what I witnessed. I ask for a copy of their report on this incident. I question their practice of moving patients without footrests, especially someone like my mother who has had recent hip and leg surgery. They tell me that they have no reporting responsibility. I am incredulous, “You mean, one of your patients is taken by ambulance to the hospital due to an injury that was caused by your staff and you do not have to report it?” I am told no, only if it is abuse or neglect. I am confrontational, I am honest. I tell them that I will be making my own report. I call the Long-term Care Ombudsman, who in turn makes a report to the state licensing agency. I am right, although unintentional, this was an act of neglect and must be reported.

More Crappy Nursing Homes

After four more days on the 5th floor, watching traumas come in by helicopter, my mother is discharged to a different rehab facility/nursing home. We feel hopeful that this one is a better place. The admissions coordinator assures me that my mother will get very good care, but I can’t take my eyes off her white lipstick, like the first lipstick my friends and I used in 8th grade. She is very sweet and sincere, “My mother-in-law is here right now and I don’t even visit her every day because I know she is getting such good care.” I arrive at about 7:00 p.m. on my mother’s first night in “paradise” (my name for this facility). My mother was admitted at about 3:00 in the afternoon, her discharge paperwork forwarded by the hospital earlier in the morning. My mother is in pain. She has not had pain meds since her last dose in the hospital at 1:00 p.m. She is supposed to get meds every 4 hours and it has now been 6. I find the nurse. His name is Norm, he’s a stalky bald guy. I don’t like him. I hate that look—why do men shave their heads anyway? Norm is scattered and anxious. 8:30 – 9:30 – 10:00 still no pain medication. Norm says he is trying: he says it is the pharmacy’s fault, then it is the doctor’s fault for not signing the prescription, then he is faxing the doctor (do people still fax things?). I am frantic, I am angry. My mother is turned on her side in the bed grasping the sheets in both hands rocking back and forth. She is in agony. I pace the hall in front of the nurse’s station. I don’t know what to do. A woman sits in the nurse’s station with Norm and looks at me with a strange sneer on her face. She thinks I am causing them grief. I want to slap that expression off her face. I keep pacing. 10:30 I call my mother’s caregiver who lives 45 miles away. I don’t know what else to do. She calls the hospital and talks to a supervising nurse. The nurse pulls up my mother’s records and says that the facility nurse can call her directly. I tell Norm to call her. My mother’s caregiver gets in her car and drive over the mountain to be with my mother. 11:00 Another nurse comes into my mother’s room, asks me if they can substitute Norco for the Oxy that my mother is supposed to get. I can’t believe they are asking me. I tell them that I am not a medical person, I cannot make this decision. I want my mother to have the prescribed drug. I am beside myself. 11:30 Norm says, “We may just have to sort this out in the morning.” This is beyond belief. I fall over the cliff. I tell him that I am ready to call an ambulance to take my mother back to the hospital. My mother’s caregiver arrives, lies beside her in bed, and helps her take deep breaths. 11:45 Norm comes in and gives my mother her pain pills.

I meet with the Director of Nursing the next morning. She is apologetic, “I’m so sorry. This just never happens.” She is very sweet, like the admissions lady but without the distracting white lipstick. I make another report to the Long-term Care Ombudsman. The next day, Adult Protective Services is investigating my mother’s case. We don’t feel safe leaving my mother by herself. My mother’s caregiver agrees to stay with her overnight at the nursing home so that we don’t have to leave her alone. She loves my mother a lot. We spent three weeks in the nursing home with my mother, advocating, trying to ensure that she was safe. What we learned: nursing homes are crappy places with a few good people.

Old Women’s Breasts

I feel a little guilty in my voyeurism. Sara, my mother’s roommate in the nursing home, is putting on her nightgown. I don’t know her age. Sara has dementia, at least part of the time, and has told me she is 33, 77, and 88. I like the symmetry of the numbers that come to her mind. I think that 88 is probably the closest to the truth—she is quite old. My mother, who is 83, has very droopy breasts, the breasts of an old woman. I peek at Sara as she changes into her nightgown because I wonder if she has lived her long life without the tragedy and disfigurement of breast cancer. She has both her breasts, droopy beautiful old woman breasts, like my mother. My best childhood friend has lost one of her breasts to cancer; her breast cancer is now on her spine and in her lungs. I don’t really understand why they call it breast cancer when it appears in other places in the body. My friend is 60 years old, too young to lose her breast, to lose her life. These two old women have had long lives, thank god—they have droopy beautiful old women’s breasts.

Sara’s Little Class

I am spying again on Sara, as I sit with my mother in the nursing home. Some sort of therapist is sitting next to Sara’s bed and talking to her about helping “with her thoughts.” Ms. Therapist is holding a clipboard and is playing a matching game with Sara, the kind that one might play with preschool children. She is describing characteristics of different farm animals and asking Sara to identify and name them. Ms. Therapist: “What has a short nose and a curly tail?” Sara: “Hmmm. Let me see. Let me think about that. No, not that. How about a kitty cat?” Ms. Therapist: “Well, no, it is a pig.” I’ll go with the kitty cat, I am thinking to myself. This game does not allow for individual interpretation. The game goes on with Ms. Therapist describing different types of barn yard animals. “What has webbed feet and likes to swim?” After Ms. Therapist wraps up her mind games with Sara and leaves the room, Sara addresses me through the thin fold-out partition that separates her bed from my mother’s: “How did you like my little class?” Sara is quite perceptive and she seemed to know that I was listening. I said, “Well, Sara, it all seemed a little silly to me.” She retorted, “I’ll say!”

I don’t know much about dementia or how to understand what Sara is experiencing. She is fully aware of her challenge at remembering specific things and sometimes will say things like, “They think I’m just a crazy woman.” Or when she can’t remember something, I will say, “That’s O.K.” and she will respond, “No, it’s not.” After three weeks of being around Sara, I observe that her dementia is a part-time affair. Sara is witty and funny and observant. Her responses are usually quite appropriate to the conversation, her sense of humor is dry and hilarious, and she is in touch with what is happening to others around her. She is very sweet. One morning I walked in to find my mother covered up with Sara’s special crocheted blanket; my mother had gotten cold in the early morning and Sara offered her own precious quilt. Sometimes Sara strings together her words in ways that on the surface don’t make sense or that seem incongruent with the current conversation or moment. She would be an interesting study for a cognitive linguist, because, although her words come out all wrong, there is usually a thread in the thought that is perfectly coherent, even though masked by the way the words are strung together. There is a pattern to the way Sara expresses herself, but I can’t quite unravel the puzzle. I find Sara’s voice, her unique expressions, playing over and over in my mind. I have sort of gotten into the unique rhythm of Sara’s thinking. Perhaps Sara’s “little class” is useful in exercising Sara’s brain, but I can’t help but wonder how she must feel being treated like a child. What if Ms. Therapist sat and talked to Sara about her family, current events, or about things that interested Sara? Why not exercise her mind in a meaningful way, why not express a regard for the richness of her long life? Sara is going home today. She has become my mother’s friend and we will miss her.



Grace is one of those ineffable words that I have never really grasped. What does it mean when someone has grace? Is it a quality? Is it an action? Is grace present only in bad situations? I believe that my mother has given me a glimpse into the essence of this term, grace. I like the feel and sound of this word. Even when my mother was in unbearable pain, she acknowledged and thanked those who were trying to help her. “Thank you, Sir.” “Thank you, Mam.” Grace. My mother’s hospital room on the 5th floor overlooked the helicopter landing pad (that may explain the helicopters in her nightmare). From her bed she could see the helicopters fly in and out, from my perch at the window I watched as they unloaded trauma victims and brought the stretchers into the hospital. Like watching a train wreck, I could not look away. I wonder about their stories. It has to be a very bad story to be brought in by helicopter. As I watch out the window, my mother reflects, “Well, there are people who have it a lot worse.” Grace. My mother’s roommate, Sara, has dementia. My mother does not miss a beat in communicating with Sara, she shows no reaction to her dementia. My mother allows Sara her full humanity, she treats her like a friend. Grace.

Prayer – Getting It All Wrong

My mother is laughing. As I get ready to leave the nursing home for the night, she presses one of the buttons that positions her bed. The whole bed jerks and shakes as it moves higher and higher. She laughs. It is funny. She presses the button again to prolong the humorous experience and keeps laughing. I don’t remember ever seeing her laugh like this. Funny things do happen in the nursing home. One night Sara pushed the wrong button on her bed and could not stop the bed from folding her in half—she became trapped in her bed like bologna in a sandwich. The look on her face was funny. She was stuck. I asked her a stupid question, “Do you want me to do something?” To which she responded, “Well, YES!” My mother kept asking me to tell other people the story about Sara getting trapped in her bed so that she could laugh again at their sometimes bizarre circumstances. Sara’s pants feel down in the dining room—they laughed about that.

I don’t believe in god, at least not in the ways that religions conceive of him or her or it. When someone I know has something bad happening I will sometimes say, “I’ll keep you in my prayers.” I say this in notes to my best friend who has cancer because she does believe in god. I can’t think of anything else to say. I don’t really know what I mean when I say that. I guess I mean that you are in my thoughts and I hope for the best. When my mother was in surgery, I thought, “If there is a god, if there is anything kind in the universe, then my mother will be taken during surgery.” I hoped that her pain would end. I prayed that she would die in surgery.

I could not have been more wrong. These matters of god or the universe or other peoples suffering are not for me to know or have any say about. I know that my prayer was really about wanting my own suffering to end. I did not believe that I could bear my mother’s pain any longer. My mother is laughing, she is walking again. Dr. Metwally was right, she is laughing, this “says a lot about who she is.”

Abandoned by Feminism

My mother is not the kind of woman that is of interest to feminists. She was a 1950s housewife who has always been dependent on a man, spending her life taking care of my father. I have never felt close to my mother. From an early age I wanted to be everything that she was not. I have disrespected her passive role in her relationship with my father. I saw her as weak. I have spent my life hating the emotional abuse that she has put up with since I was a child. When our siege happened this summer, I was supposed to attend a curriculum institute sponsored by the National Women’s Studies Association. In preparation, we were asked to read articles about transgender studies, decolonizing feminist pedagogy, conceptualizing the nation. I was looking forward to these discussions, to seeing what my colleagues were thinking, what kinds of questions they were asking. I enjoy theory. I call it “mind-fuck” because so much of theory is one theorist talking to another theorist, arguing complex intellectual points that rarely trickle down in a meaningful way to the Women’s Studies classroom. I sat in hospitals and nursing homes while my colleagues were talking about how to trans/decolonize/denationalize women’s studies (I don’t really know what they talked about, but this is how I imagine the conversation). Old women are not interesting to my field, they are not an emerging or edgy issue. They are virtually invisible in feminist work. I did not find solace or perspective in my feminist lens during our siege. I had it all wrong, that my mother was weak, a passive and dependent woman—a woman that feminists, that I, could not respect or admire. I have learned a lot from my mother. My mother’s inner strength, incredible agency, and yes, grace, have garnered my deepest respect and admiration. My feminist lens has been shifted by my mother, now allowing in more light, more options for what it means to be a courageous and strong woman.

Her Life

We decide to take my mother home. She is so happy to be back in her own modest house, she yearned for her own bed. I weep as I see the relief and joy on her face as she crawls between her silky purple sheets. She has been home for an hour after a 5 week ordeal. My father is already grumbling and complaining. Being an asshole rather than celebrating the fact that mother has another chance at life. This is her life. We did it. We got her home. She still has some painful recovery ahead, but she is already walking around her house with her walker. I suspect that Dr. Metwally will be writing a journal article about my mother.

Mother’s & Daughters

I am sitting on the end of my mother’s hospital bed on the 5th floor. She says, “This reminds me of how I slept on the end of your bed in the hospital when you had your tonsils out. You were just a small child and I knew you were scared. I didn’t want to leave you alone.”

My mother is going home in a couple of days. She says to me, “I really didn’t know at times if I would make it. I wondered if this was it. My time. I was so scared and then I would look and you were there.”


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Feminists don’t spontaneously happen…

There are no sparkly Feminist Fairies running around sprinkling Feminist Fairy Dust on girls and boys. No Feminist Mindmelders transferring feminist history by osmosis. Feminists don’t spontaneously happen. With some fairly minor exceptions, people who understand feminism and identify as feminists generally get there by dint of personal need, curiosity, experience and hard work—all of which are explicitly counter-cultural. If they are lucky, they have parents and teachers who teach them. But, that’s catch as catch can. Ms. Blog May 8, 2014 Soraya Chemaly


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The culmination of each of my Women’s Studies classes is always a profound experience for me. Soraya Chemaly is insightful when she says that “feminists don’t spontaneously happen.” It is hard, critical, emotional work. Frankly, at the end of each semester I tend to sink into a contemplative state, reflecting on my teaching, and wondering if I might have done some things differently to make a more significant impact on my students. Then…my students rescue me from myself by showing me the meaningful ways that they embody the feminist knowledge that has been offered, and especially by the stunning ways that they articulate and express their own learning.

At the close of my Women’s Studies classes, I ask each student to write a letter to me reflecting upon her/his learning during the semester. I hope that this self-exploration is useful to the student; moreover, I love reading how students see their own learning process and I find it deeply gratifying to share in how students have been influenced by the knowledge offered in the class.

This semester I decided to experiment with giving students the opportunity to design their own final, hoping that a creative approach might be more interesting than a traditional final exam or paper. Students decided to do a poster project that had dual purposes: we would have a collective sharing and learning experience during our final session with each student sharing a message that was meaningful to her/him; and the posters would be displayed on our campus to educate the broader community about gender inequality. The collaborative sharing was a beautiful representation of student learning—students shared emotional personal stories and creatively highlighted feminist issues that were most meaningful to them. The experience was indeed interesting; most importantly, we honored everyone’s voices and created a kind of tapestry of our learning.

Below are selected quotes from student letters, as well as a sampling of their posters.


I would have never called myself a feminist before this class because I did not fit the “stereotype” of a feminist. But I do stand up for myself when being catcalled, when I am being discriminated against, and when people called my gay friends names. But I realized I am a feminist. I am so glad I decided to take this class. I learned not only about being a feminist but about myself and what I believe in.


Before taking this class I didn’t think feminism and gender were so important. Feminism to me was something that was only for older women, about lesbians, and was a club for only girls. Now, after taking this class, feminism means equality, respect, unity, and so much more. And I’m proud to say that I am a feminist.


Some of the most valuable lessons I learned during this class had to do with LGBT. I had a certain level of hate towards LGBT people to the point where I would completely bully them. As this class progressed my views completely changed and I feel it has been the greatest learning experience I have had this semester. As I continue through my next 5 years of college, I will take my new found acceptance of LGBT and possibly make friends and meet new people that I would have never been able to communicate with before this class!


One of the most valuable lessons that I will take away from this class is to not let stereotypes dictate how I live my life. After taking Women’s Studies, it’s easier for me to embrace myself for who I am instead of what society tells me to be. I’m pursuing my talents in mathematics and I’m considering that as my major, and I’m also learning how to fix cars which is both interesting and satisfying. I never would have thought of calling myself a feminist, but after the myths about what a feminist is were busted, I’m happy to be part of the group. I want to help change our society in a positive way.


I’ve always felt like something wasn’t right about the way gender was treated in society but I always wondered if maybe it was just the way I felt, and that nothing was wrong with it at all. When I took this class I was fascinated and learned that what I had seen and felt was not all my own imagination, but that there was a real problem. After taking this class I learned that I’ve been a feminist all along but just never knew what modern feminism really meant. What I take away from this class is inspiration and an eagerness to help the feminist cause.


Many of the things I have learned are becoming pieces of the glasses we can call my feminist lens, and I am finding that the frames fit more than they used to. I am however finding it harder to see without them, because it seems the deeper you understand power structures in our society, the more prior knowledge seems to crumble and become blurry. I now not only claim the feminist label, but also dare anyone to try to take it away or diminish it. The question “Are you a feminist?” Now sounds more like “Do you want to be truly free?” And of course one always want to be more free.

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Nancy's Painting

Painting by Nancy Guobadia

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Confessions of a Feminist Teacher: When I Was a Mean Girl

Yamaha 125

Each semester when I ask my students to write an autobiographical essay in our Introduction to Women’s Studies class, I reflect on what I would write about if I were required to do this assignment. I decided this time to meet my students in that personal space that I have created in my class—I am writing and sharing my own autobiographical essay connecting a personal experience to feminist issues. Here is my story.

Confessions of a Feminist Teacher: When I Was a Mean Girl

“Wooooman! Wooooooooman!” We taunted her relentlessly, whenever we saw her around our small town. I don’t remember what she said back to us, but I will never forget the day she ended our bullying for good.

It was the middle of our glorious summer in the mountains. Blue skies, the fresh smell of pine trees in the air, freedom! I was in high school and hating every minute, really every second, of it. Summer was my release and my motorcycle was my friend. My only redemption in this small mill town was my Yamaha 80, which my dad let me start driving in eighth grade. It was a hot bike, it was RED. As long as I rode on the alleys and logging roads and did not go on the streets, I could ride as much as I wanted to. By the time of this story, I had my driver’s license so I could also tear up the streets.

My best friend Robin was visiting for a week during the summer. The highlight of our summers was the week I spent visiting Robin and the week she spent with me. I was pretty much a loner, but when Robin was visiting, I was cool and emboldened by having my best friend at my side. We were into boys, clothes, hair, boys…boys…boys. I was like a different person when Robin came to town. We encouraged each other—we were show-offs. The Yamaha made it all the more fun—I cruised town with Robin on the back, our waist-long hair blowing in the wind (no helmet laws back then), looking for adventure.

Then we found it or rather found her. “Woooman! Woooooooman!” We yelled this exaggerated drawn out version of the word “woman” over and over again when we ran into Linda B. We taunted her, we mocked her, we bullied her relentlessly. On the day she ended it, there was a big (for a small town anyway) baseball game going on at the local park and lots of people were out watching the game and hanging out. Robin and I cruised the game on my red Yamaha 80. We spotted Linda B. walking alongside the road near the game, so I geared down the Yamaha to move slowly as we passed by her, to be sure that Linda B. would hear the epithet that we personally made up just for her: “Wooman! Woooooooman!”

Black out. It almost seemed like a black out because it all happened so fast.

The next thing I knew I was sitting in the dirt on the side of the road holding my aching head, Robin was sitting in the dirt holding her head, and the red Yamaha was laying on its side in the dirt beside us. Linda B. had had enough. When we slowly passed and called her “Woooooman!” instead of making moves to get away from us as she had in the past, Linda B. moved toward Robin and me. She grabbed Robin by the hair and dragged her off of the Yamaha and tossed her into the dirt. Linda B. was not done. I was sitting on the bike and could not assist Robin or move away from Linda B.’s revenge. She grabbed a fistful of my long hair and dragged my full body weight off the bike, the Yamaha falling in our wake, a billow of dust rising from the road. I don’t remember if she hit us or if she said anything—she didn’t need to. I have no memory of Linda B. walking away from the spoils of that scene, since my total focus was on how much my head hurt. Oh my God, she dragged both Robin and me by the hair off of the Yamaha and left us in the dirt clutching our beloved long hair and aching heads. Have you ever been dragged by your hair? It was certainly a shocker, both psychologically and physically. Linda B. had the final word. We never bullied her again.

Stories spread fast in our small town. My parents were out of town when this happened, but when we got home my big brother was waiting for us, not so much out of compassion for our welfare, but wanting to circumvent any trouble for himself: “I heard that you got beat up at the park. I’m supposed to be taking care of things. What are we going to tell Mom and Dad?” It’s best to have our stories straight… Robin and I went upstairs to my room, curled up in my bed still stunned by the experience of being “beat up.” It was all a blur, a bad dream. Poor us, we just held our aching heads all night long.

I think that I will always be haunted by this experience and ashamed of myself for the cruelty that I inflicted on Linda B. It disturbs me that I cannot remember how the bullying started or an incident that might explain why Linda B. was the target. She was younger, a grade or two behind me, so I do not recall any interaction with her at school or in outside of school activities. In a sense, it feels like she was a random target for a bullying that somehow made Robin and I feel a perverted sense of power. I suppose there was a gang mentality, even if our gang was only the two of us. I never bullied Linda B. except when Robin was with me. I think we reinforced each other, we were showing off for each other. About this same time, I was bullied pretty aggressively by older girls in high school—they cornered me on my bike and threw eggs at me, slammed volley balls at me during P.E., and accused me over and over again of being a “snitch” since my dad was the town deputy sheriff. I fought back where I could—slamming the volley ball right back at them—but mostly just waited it out. I could not have been happier than the day those older girls graduated from high school. This explanation of my own bullying feels a little too simple—bullied girl turns into a bully—too much of a single story.

Of course, the thick coke bottle glasses that I wore when I was a teenager did not have a feminist tint to the lenses. Women’s Studies and feminist perspectives have given me new insights into this story; if not insights, at least I am asking deeper questions about how my assumptions and biases about race and sexuality influenced my behavior. Linda B. was dark-skinned—her family was Italian, I think. There were a few Black families in our town, but everyone else was white. Racist comments were made in my home, my father being a cop and all (yes, I am stereotyping cops). I think that we targeted Linda B. in part because of her dark complexion. In the absence of any education about race, she was dark and different, so we felt some prejudice towards her. Linda B. was also very tall and well-developed for her age. We called her “woman” and our expression extended the vowel “o” in the word, almost as if the sound mirrored what we were making fun of or threated by—she was developing into a woman at an earlier age than we were. Looking back with a feminist lens, I wonder if we targeted Linda B. due to the intersection of racism and sexuality, and for our own insecure need for drama and a sense of power. This theory feels a little closer to the truth.

I like to imagine that Linda B. took a Women’s Studies class sometime along the way and when asked to write a personal essay, wrote about these two horrible mean girls who bullied her for no reason. I like to imagine the ending of her story…how she had the courage and strength to stand up to two mean girls and take her power back.

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My Mommy is Beautiful

There is so much soulless clutter on social media, that when I saw Yoko Ono’s Project honoring mothers I felt compelled to join in by honoring my own mother. The project is entitled “My Mommy is Beautiful” — anyone can post a picture and write a sentiment about her mother. The online albums are beautiful collections of photos and writings. Perhaps this project touched me because I have been contemplating writing about conversations that I have recently been having with my mother . . .


The Girl with Her Father’s Name

My mommy is beautiful because she has a unique name. She is named after her father, Burnice, (pronounced Burn-us, not Bur-niece)—her name is one that I have never heard anywhere else. I wonder how she came to be named after her father… Thanks to Google, I discovered that Burnice was among the top 1000 names for boys and girls between 1907 and 1925; although my mother was born in 1931 apparently she was chosen to carry the legacy of this unusual name and to be connected in this special way to her father. The name is virtually absent today: in 2012 fewer than 5 boys and 5 girls were given this name. I sometimes refer to my mother as Berniece when talking to someone who does not know her because her name is so unusual. I feel guilty about my laziness and not making a point to honor her unique name. I wonder what it was like for her, as a girl, to have her father’s first name.

My mommy is beautiful because she remembers things about me that I have forgotten to remember about myself. We were sitting at her kitchen table one evening talking about this and that. I don’t know how the subject came up, but she said, “That was really nice, what you did for that girl. I always wondered why you did it.” She was talking about my senior year in high school when there were two of us, Connie and me, with the same GPA, tied to be honored as Valedictorian of our small graduating class. I do recall that it was a bit of an issue that needed to be resolved (I don’t know why having more than one Valedictorian as not within the imagination of the school at the time). I decided to step aside and let Connie have the top honor. I told my mother, “I remember thinking that it was more important to her than it was to me, so she could have it.” I had forgotten about this experience, I have never told anyone about it that I can remember. Yes, I did a generous thing as a young girl. My mommy is beautiful because she reminds me of who I am.

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“Ocean Child”

Yoko Ono 2

I have been thinking about Yoko Ono. She turned 81 recently—the announcement was accompanied by an image of the Imagine Peace Tower in Iceland, a stunning example of her peace activism. She also recently appeared at the Grammy celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Beatles: Ono was in the front row—a guest of honor, of course, because she was married to the late John Lennon. The video caught Ono dancing, the tone of the commentary more of caricature than admiration for a woman, although forever attached to John Lennon and the Beatles legacy, who is a remarkable artist and peace activist. Yoko Ono, as a woman in her 80s who is creating, contributing, and advocating, is an incredible example and role model for women of all ages.

From a feminist perspective, I am bothered that Yoko Ono does not receive the cultural regard that she has earned through a lifetime of creative and social justice work. While John Lennon is revered for writing the iconic song Imagine, it was Ono who inspired the lyrics and used the concept of “imagine” in her own poetry before Lennon wrote and performed the song by this title. While we tend to see Lennon as a peace activist, it was Ono who experienced war first-hand as a child as Tokyo was devastated by bombing during WWII. I believe that it was Ono who inspired the couple to actively protest war… Here is a little of what I know about Yoko Ono.

Yoko Ono

My spirit is an outsider, perhaps because I am Asian and a woman as well. There is an organic element in my work that is not easy to understand. My work is just part of my soul, but there’s no linear presentation of it.

When I make music or artworks I’m not really in control, because I’m just passing on messages in my mind.

My works are always unfinished, because my art is an ever-changing process just like life itself… I have never believed in definite things. (Yoko Ono http://www.a-i-u.net/helsinki/html)

Yoko Ono was born in 1933 in Tokyo, Japan. Her first name, Yoko, means “Ocean Child.” Yoko literally grew up bi-culturally: her father (an accomplished pianist) gave up his career in the arts and became a banker in Tokyo, working also in San Francisco and New York. Yoko, with her mother and siblings, lived in Japan and the U.S. in the early years as she was growing up. Yoko’s family lived within the upper class elite in Tokyo. As a young child she attended an elite school which was only open to members of the imperial family and she was schooled at the prestigious Jiyu-gakuen Music School, the educational site for many Japanese composers. Yoko learned classical piano and composition, received voice training in opera, and remarkably performed her first concert at age four. According to her online biography, Yoko found the context of her privileged family to be “stifling and lonely” and knew, from a young age, that she would forge a unique path for herself. Although her parents were quite liberal by Japanese standards of the times, they were “too narrow-minded to Yoko.” Yoko reflects, “It was very claustrophobic. I would have died on a spiritual level if I had not got away.” Yoko tells of her loneliness as a child, where she would ring for the maid just to have contact with someone: “The maid was not allowed to enter her room, even when summoned: she had to kneel outside in the hall and ask what little Yoko wanted. ‘When she brings the tea, she can come in but not before. The only reason I asked for tea was because I wanted some communication. And so I think that’s where I started to dream. All sorts of things come into your mind,’ she says. Yoko dreamed of breaking out but also of forging new ways of thinking her way beyond her isolation.” (www.a-i-u.net/onolife2.html)

Yoko Ono 6

I am particularly interested in the feminist spirit which seems to be threaded through Yoko Ono’s life. It seems unlikely that a Japanese girl, born in the early 1930’s, would have the courage to step outside of the circumscribed cultural roles for girls. Yet, the times were as unusual as the girl, this Ocean Child. Yoko was a young woman in post-WWII Japan, a time which saw a surge of feminism and the emergence of a radical intellectual climate. Women’s equality gained some footing from post-war American influence, as women made gains in legal rights under a new constitution. In a men’s war, the men were defeated; the women “saw Japan’s surrender as simply another man-made crisis to be survived.” (Yes Yoko Ono 53) At the same time Yoko was in the midst of an unprecedented climate of social and political change in Japan in the aftermath of war and the collapse of long-standing totalitarianism: “While despair at the devastation of fifteen years of war created a post-surrender psyche of exhaustion, remorse, and despondency, and outpouring of relief, optimism, and liberation prevailed. Receptivity to new social, political, and cultural ideas created a spirit of freedom and openness unprecedented in modern Japanese society. As historian John W. Dower has written, ‘People were acutely conscious of the need to reinvent their own lives’” (Yes Yoko Ono 15).

The seed for Yoko’s creative spirit seems to have grown within a confluence of people and events: a traditional, but not quite, Japanese family who invested in her early artistic training; a context in which women possessed particular strength during and after the war; and a stimulating (even radical) intellectual time which fueled freedom of thought. Perhaps Yoko’s bicultural upbringing, the influence of living in the U.S. and Japan, also fueled her spirit with an expanded conceptualization of options for women and avenues for artistic expression. Although fate placed her in this time and place, Yoko’s spirit is very much her own and she took her future into her own hands at a young age: she shares a telling story about standing up to her father in her early teens:

The time was 1946, place: Tokyo. I was confronting my father who, as usual, sat in a deep comfortable chair with his pipe and suede jacket. I had told him that I wanted to be a composer. I would not have dreamt of making such a bold statement unless it just jumped out of my mouth, which it had. Initially, my father had called me to his study only to tell me that I should give up on being a pianist. “You’re not good enough. Just give up practicing. It’s a waste of time.” It was said in a kind and gentle tone.

My becoming a pianist, however, had been my father’s wish, not mine. I felt relieved that I did not have to practice anymore. “Actually, I want to be a composer, father,” I said. There was silence. I sensed I had inadvertently dropped a bomb, and felt butterflies in my stomach. “Well,” my father said after a considerable silence, “there are not many women composers in the world, Yoko. At least I haven’t heard of one yet. Maybe there’s a reason for that. Maybe it’s a question of women’s aptitude. I know you are a talented and intelligent child. But I wonder…I don’t want you to struggle in vain.”

How could he have known that it may not have been a question of gender aptitude? In those days, the fact that a father would discuss a daughter’s career was already considered quite unusual. Daughters were brought up to go to finishing schools and hoped to get married before people started to raise their eyebrows. I am still thankful that my father cared at all about my career.

Eventually he made me take voice lessons to sing German lieders, saying that that would be a vocation which would satisfy both my love for poetry and music. “Women may not be good creators of music, but they’re good at interpreting music,” was what he said. I rebelled, gave up my voice lessons, and went to a Japanese University to study Philosophywhile being a closet song writer. (www.a-i-u.net/onolife1.html)

At age nineteen, Yoko was the first woman to be accepted into a Philosophy course at Gakushuin University—she followed her dream. (Yes Yoko Ono 15)

Yoko Ono Art
Image by Soleil Ignacio

Fluxus: Artistic Acts—Continuous Flow

“Idea” is what the artist gives, like a stone thrown into the water for ripples to be made. Idea is air or sun, anybody can use it and fill themselves according to their own size and shape…Instruction painting makes it possible to explore the invisible, the world beyond the existing concept of time and space. And then sometimes later, the instructions themselves will disappear and be properly forgotten. (Yes Yoko Ono 22)

Fluxus is Flux: the act of continuous flow and change. During the exhibition, do not let the artists’ statements about Fluxus stay on the wall like words carved on stone. Paint over the wall with the color you like. (Yes Yoko Ono 50)

Yoko did not stay in the Philosophy program more than two semesters; she was disillusioned with academia and continued to rebel against her parents and their privileged circumstances. She moved to Manhattan, eloped with a young Japanese pianist and composer, Ichiyanagi Toshi, and joined with the avant-garde arts community. Did Yoko help to shape the New York art scene in the early 1950’ and 60’s or was the art community influential in shaping Yoko? The answer may be as fluid as the art. As a Japanese American woman, Yoko was a natural fit for the emerging trends which combined Asian thought and Western avant-garde art. Fluxus is the term given for a movement which was drawn to the esthetics of Buddhist and Jungian thought to challenge Western culture. They challenged the staid idealism of bourgeois (Western) culture and its corollary angst of subjective alienation” (Yes Yoko Ono 16-17). Fluxus was a shift from the experience of art as an object (a painting, a sculpture) by an expert (the artist), to conceptual art—art as “a presence and a sign of energy within reality. Thus, ‘Fluxus’ has functioned as a moving front of people, rather than a group of specialists, following not so much a tactic of experimentation in new languages as a strategy of social contact, with the aim of creating a series of chain-reactions, or magnetic waves, above and below art” (http://the-artists.org/index.cfm). Yoko is associated with the Fluxus movement as someone who made significant contributions through her visionary artistic expressions. Yet, at the same time, Yoko’s work goes beyond and is independent of Fluxus (Yes Yoko Ono 50).

Yoko’s independent spirit and resistance to being hemmed-in extended from her family into her relationships in the arts community. Although Fluxus associates Yoko with the movement, she articulates the affiliation with a different slant: “Even in the avant-garde I was rebellious about it all. It’s not just being a woman. If you’re a good girl, so to speak, and kind of following the tradition of the avant-garde and using their vocabulary, then I think they’ll allow you to exist. So that’s why I don’t really know if it was the woman in me that offended them or the fact that I was rebelling. It’s all a mixture of things, but women, especially, are not supposed to rebel” (www.a-i-u.net/onolife4.html). Yoko seems to have asserted her independence even in the venue of a radical arts community, as an Asian woman challenging the male dominated avant-garde subculture. I can imagine how difficult it may have been for female artists, like Yoko, to negotiate and attain influence in such a male-dominated world. This context makes Yoko’s accomplishments even amazing and perhaps groundbreaking for other women artists.


Yoko’s Instructions for Paintings seemed to grow out of the Fluxus form known as “event scores” where a performer or reader initiates a concept that is then completed by the spectator, thus, the artistic act is a kind of energy or wave that flows through the spectator. “The early Fluxus scores were characterized by clarity and economy of language…They could be performed in the mind as a thought (their visualization being performative), or as a physical performance before an invited audience” (Yes Yoko Ono 18). Two of Yoko’s iconic event scores (performance art) are entitled Lighting Piece and Cut Piece:

Lighting Piece
Light a match and watch till it goes out.
1955 autumn

The idea of Lighting piece evolved while Ono was living in New York with her parents. Her early musical training in Japan had made her so sensitive to surrounding sounds that she was often compelled to stay in a dark room with her ears covered by sanitary pads, tied in place with a strip of gauze. To cope with such isolation, she invented the ritual of lighting a match and watching it burn, repeating it until she became calm. Although this action was primarily visual, it also had something of an auditory effect on her: the sounds in her mind disappeared as the flame went out. This experience mad her keenly aware of the need for what she called the “additional act,” that was “something more than painting, poetry, and music.” For Ono, the match flame symbolizes the transience of human life…Ono felt that watching burning matches made her life longer. Through the various manifestations of Lighting Piece, Ono offers audience members an opportunity to step back and ponder their lives. (Yes Yoko Ono 72)

Yoko Ono 9

Cut Piece
Performance 1964

Ono entered the stage carrying scissors. Moving to the center, she invited the audience to cut off her clothing. Then she sat down, legs tucked under her, placed the scissors on the floor, and remained motionless, silent, waiting. She always assumed a similar position, followed the score strictly, and wore her best clothes. But the audience, the context, and the environment varied in each performance of Cut Piece. Instead of offering objects to be contemplated by respectful observers, Ono delivers art as an immediate social event, eliminating the reserve of aesthetic distance. Cut Piece exposed the voluntary and incisive potential of the gaze to puncture and wound, to cut away at that which is observed. Cut Piece anticipates the gendered themes of invasion, especially of women…It also reveals an aspect of Ono’s psychological state which she expressed in The Stone: “People went on cutting the parts they do not like of me. Finally there was only the stone remained of me that was in me but they were still not satisfied and wanted to know what it’s like in the stone.” (Yes Yoko Ono 158)

The Instructions, created by Yoko, reflect elements of what became known as Conceptualism, which gained notoriety in the mid-1960’s. Conceptualism encompassed “a range of ‘art as idea’ and ‘art as action’ practices. Their common impulse was…a ‘withdrawal of visuality.’ Rejecting expressionism and the hallowed aura of objecthood, it favored a philosophical, cognitive process aimed at redefining the role of the object as a carrier of meaning” (Yes Yoko Ono 24-25). Rather than creating art through an object, the object is reduced/removed so that the aesthetic experience is embodied in linguistics and imagination. Yoko’s best known collection of Instructions are presented in a little yellow book called Grapefruit, first published in 1964.

Although many of her poems have a whimsical quality, part of Yoko’s inspiration stems from her painful childhood experiences during WWII. Although Yoko’s family lived in privilege, following the devastating U.S. bombing of Tokyo in 1945, when tens of thousands were killed, Yoko’s mother fled to the countryside with Yoko and her siblings. During this period, Yoko and her family members were at the mercy of villagers, in the midst of a country facing dire economic circumstances and starvation. An anecdote from this time explains Yoko’s affinity with sky: “Yoko, taunted by the local children for ‘smelling like butter’—a reference to her being Americanized and a city girl—remembers spending the afternoons hiding with her brother Keisuke from the irate and unbalanced world outside. ‘Lying on our backs, looking at the sky through an opening in the roof, we exchanged menus in the air and used our powers of visualization to survive.’ The imaginary realm and the sky as a calling to vast, pale freedom would later become hallmarks of Ono’s mind-centered art” (Yes Yoko Ono 13). Anecdotes from Yoko’s early life have given me some insight into the depth and complexity of her artistic expression. Her work incorporates the whimsical and the somber: Yoko seems to be a person who embodies exceptional spirit and ebullient hope while having experienced deep personal pain in her life. This personal complexity is reflected in her art.

Here are a few of my favorite Instructions from Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit:

Imagine the clouds dripping.
Dig a hole in your garden to
put them in.
1963 Spring

Think that snow is falling.
Think that snow is falling everywhere
all the time.
When you talk with a person, think
that snow is falling between you and
on the person.
Stop conversing when you think the
person is covered by snow.
1963 Summer

Cut a painting up and let them be lost
in the wind.
1962 Summer

Find a stone that is your size and weight.
Crack it until it becomes a fine powder.
Dispose of it in the river. (a)
Send small amounts to your friends. (b)
Do not tell anybody what you did.
Do not explain about the powder to the
friends to whom you send.
1963 Winter

Yoko Ono 3

Stones . . .

Make a numbered list of sadness in your life. Pile up stones corresponding to those numbers. Add a stone each time there is a sadness. Burn the list and appreciate the mount of stones for its beauty. Make a numbered list of happiness in your life. Pile up the stones corresponding to those numbers. Add a stone each time there is a happiness. Compare the mount of stones to the one of sadness. (Yoko Ono’s introduction for Cleaning Piece/River Bed (www.a-i-u.net/share25.html)

I am drawn into Yoko’s work with stones. I grew up near a wild mountain river and today I collect crystals and rocks—stones. The concept of stones is a recurring theme in the imagery that Yoko evokes. She talks about herself as stone: Finally there was only the stone remained of me that was in me but they were still not satisfied and wanted to know what it’s like in the stone. She uses a riverbed of stones in installation pieces En Trance Ex It and Morning Beams and uses the imagination of stones in her Instructions.


Wishes . . .

As a young child I used to go to temple and write out a wish on a piece of thin paper and tie it around the branch of a tree. Trees in temple courtyards were always filled with people’s wish knots, which looked like white flowers blossoming from afar. (www.a-i-u.net/wishtree2.html)

Wish Piece (Yoko Ono 1996)
Make a wish
Write it down on a piece of paper
Fold it and tie it around a branch of a Wish Tree
Ask your friends to do the same
Keep Wishing
Until the branches are covered with wishes

The Wish Tree, inspired in Yoko’s Japanese childhood, has appeared frequently in Yoko’s exhibitions in the past fifteen years—Yoko has dedicated Wish Trees all over the world: “People are invited to write their wish on a piece of paper and hang it on a tree branch. It’s like a collective prayer in a way. Some wishes are deeply personal, some global wishes for peace and a better future for humankind.” Yoko says, “All my works are a form of wishing…I’m keeping all the wishes from all the countries, although I never read any of them. I feel it’s not right to read people’s private wishes.” (www.a-i-u.net/wishtree2.html)

Yoko Ono 5 Yoko Ono 4

I have reached this final section without speaking about Yoko’s relationship with John Lennon. In part, the reason is because I have merely touched the surface Yoko’s history and artistic contributions and find it impossible to do more within the scope of a short piece. Although to conclude my work here, I need to talk about Yoko and John. It seems that in popular culture and memory, John Lennon has iconic status while knowledge about Yoko is peripheral—we know about Yoko because she was married to John Lennon. As with other parts of her life, Yoko tells the John and Yoko story with a different slant. They met at an exhibit of her art in London and both possessed significant personal histories as artists when they came together. John credits Yoko with inspiring his song writing, specifically the lyrics of Imagine, as a song which seems to have timeless resonance and keeps Lennon’s legacy alive—it was Yoko who used the concept of Imagine in her Instructions. Lennon is remembered as a peace advocate—perhaps it was Yoko’s childhood memories of war which may have inspired their advocacy for peace; after all, Yoko was seven years older than John (who was just a young child during WWII) and personally felt the fear and witnessed the devastations of war. I presume that Yoko and John could not have imagined the troubled and violent world that we experience today as they staged their famous Bed-In for Peace in 1969. Nor could they have imagined in those moments that Yoko—a woman, an Asian, an artist—would be the partner to carry the torch for peace into the future, after John’s violent murder in 1980. I think that John would be deeply proud of Yoko for her choice and courage to speak out for world peace.

Imagine Peace Tower
On October 9, 2006 (John Lennon’s birthday) Yoko Ono blessed the location in Iceland that became the site for the Imagine Peace Tower. In this location, Yoko erected a tower, 20 to 30 meters high, a pillar of light filled with people’s hopes and wishes. The obelisk has become an eternal light of peace. The inspiration for the tower goes back 40 years and was Yoko Ono’s idea. A small part of her dedication speech in Iceland follows:

This column of light in Iceland will not be extinguished. It is the eternal flame we send out to the world and the universe to give light and warmth, and the hope and conviction that our dreams can come true. I have saved all the wishes people have made and hung on my work, called Wish Tree in many different countries. The number of those wishes I collected and kept now reached over 900 thousand and they will all be placed directly under this light tower…In the map of the earth planet, Iceland is a country situated in the northern most of our world. It is an ideal location from which to cover the earth with enlightenment and love… (www.a-i-u.net/iceland_lets.html)


There is no adequate way to summarize and conclude my post about Yoko Ono. My admiration and deep respect for her artistic work and social contributions grow as I follow her contributions today. I walk away feeling a sense of hope and with a dancing heart. In affinity with Yoko Ono, the only way to close is to consider my writing unfinished.

It is extremely important that we all make things, which make our hearts dance.
(Yoko Ono)


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