February 2015 Editor’s Letter
We have had a month.
We had a party that launched us high into the air.
All month, I keep thinking: This site is relentless. It’s happening and it keeps happening and I can’t believe the energy and goodwill, the writers and the writing.
There are metrics and numbers that purport to speak to a website’s success, and they are important and should be looked at. Tracked. They don’t tell me what I want to know, however, which is: Are there conversations?
I don’t mean, are there comments. We’re working on that. I mean the kind of conversations we don’t overhear. Murmurs and nods, and frowns. Two people, or nine, around a table in a bar, or one person alone at a desk or on a sofa with Doritos crumbs falling out of her mouth because she caught Janice Shapiro’s David Yurman reference. I’m thinking about recognition and discomfort, which are kinds of conversations the way I figure it.
One of the best conversations I’ve had recently was with a man on an airplane, when I flew back to Atlanta after the launch party. The man told me all about his work. He’s from Jordan and he’s a veterinarian. But okay, dogs and cats? Not dogs and cats. Chickens! He is an expert on chicken diseases, and was traveling to Atlanta for a conference, where he will have given a talk about a new vaccine that he’s tested in the field and in the lab. He has 4 billion patients. And that’s just chickens for eating, so then there’s 400 million more that are the mothers of those chickens for eating, and 137 million more that lay eggs. 4.537 billion chickens in his care. I learned a lot. I learned about the limits of my imagination–for example a farm, one contiguous property in Sudan I think he said, that slaughters 1 million chickens per day. I can’t imagine that farm.
So conversation is something I’m thinking about, and when I saw some tweets that Leigh Stein wrote about the ethics of a private (secret Facebook group) conversation among women being publicly shared by a non-participant, an interloper, I was interested, and I asked Leigh (via Twitter) to write about it, and to my surprise and delight, she did. She talked about the difficulty of protecting spaces that are just for women.
This morning I hosted a brunch to welcome the brilliant writer, and my beloved friend, Kalpana Narayanan, back to Atlanta. I served wild rice pancakes with smoked salmon, leek/mushroom/Gruyère quiche, yogurt with caramelized apples and date-walnut granola (a variation on the gift bag granola of the launch party), and a salad of spinach, arugula, radishes, avocado, and pumpkin seeds, dressed with a citrus-caper-garlic-parsley-cilantro slurry that I’ve been milking all week. And I invited women only. And I kept explaining why, why women only, to people who didn’t ask or seem to wonder at all. So it must be that I’m still be convincing myself that it’s okay to want to create, and be in, a woman-only moment.
Except also, I’m already convinced, and I know I’m convinced because of the formidable women of Real Pants. The site isn’t woman only by any reasonable definition, and the word feminist is in our hearts but isn’t on our About page, and of course we welcome readers of all gender expressions and identities. But we do have these formidable women of Real Pants and their moments on this website are so very theirs. Theirs in a “they totally own it” way, sure, but beyond and above that, theirs in breath, light, and muscle.
When I was between the ages of 13 and 15, ish, I was hard at work figuring out my personhood, young-womanhood, and selfhood. So, as an accompaniment to near-constant journaling, I duly subscribed to Self magazine. (Also Vogue, but that’s another editor’s letter entirely.) Before you laugh, know this: Self magazine now—all 10-minute perfect abs and weight loss and sheer lip gloss all the time—is an entirely different magazine than it was in the mid-1990’s. It used to be good. For real good. I know I remember that accurately because I recently unearthed a small trove of one-page Self magazine articles from 1996-7 that I tore out, so gingerly, and preserved twenty years ago, back when I thought a lot about: horses, babysitting, boys, country music, Braves baseball, and what my life would be, and how to be a writer, and whether to become a Buddhist.
And they are good articles for real y’all. I saved the following articles, all by writers whom I’d never heard of then but whom I’ve read since:
Lorrie Moore, “Surprise” (October 1996)
That difference between surprise and astonishment is something I think of often in my life; it seems more than a pedantic trifle; it seems a cultural and emotional truth. In a world where, at this point, so little can astonish, we are still continually taken by surprise. Astonishment is a moral response. Surprise is the very engine of narrative and of life.
Susan Orlean, “Car” (August 1996)
I love my apartment, but sometimes it’s overstimulating. My car is tranquilizing. Also, what other part of your property affords you constantly changing scenery? Especially while simultaneously providing the illusion of being absolutely private? Sometimes, in my car, I feel that I think martians must feel when they hover over the Earth in a spaceship: I see everything and everyone, but no one can see me.
Lee Smith, “Trust” (March 1996)
If someone has to ask for our trust, then that person is not sure he or she deserves it. And if we find that we need to say “Oh, it’s okay, I trust you,” then probably we don’t.
“I love you” is a phrase that needs to be said a lot. “I trust you” is a phrase that need never be spoken if it is true.
Bobbie Ann Mason, “Feline” (April 1996)
Comparing a predatory woman to a cat makes for an imperfect analogy. Cats aren’t people. That’s their real hold on us, and that’s why they enchant us. If they were human, we wouldn’t put up with their tricks. Qualities that are perfectly plausible in a cat are far less attractive in a person: perversity, duplicity, furry necks, carefree vomiting.
These were all part of a back-page series called “Self-Definition,” and I, ever in the process of defining myself, drank them in like the clearest, truest water. These were my kind of women, who wrote the kinds of words I needed to read. When the back page switched to a new concept, “A Place for Herself,” I was unhappy, though not for long. The front article in my stapled packet is from that series, the place in this instance, from the January 1997 issue, being a church that a woman made into her residence (pictured at top). She said, “When I need guidance, I can go out into the nave and sit or kneel quietly, letting the stillness of the place fill me.” I wasn’t a loud or restless child, so I wasn’t often told to be still or to be quiet. The idea of pushing into stillness and silence consciously was a revelation, whether or not I, too, would one day have a kitchen in a choir loft.
Within, I continued the conversations started by those writers with me well into adulthood. If I really think about it now, I don’t want to live alone in a church, and I’m not entirely sure that “trust me” is such a giant red flag, or that it’s at all safe to pretend to be a martian while driving a car. But those are details. Bigger, and more enduring, is the cool wisdom in these meditations on single, powerful concepts, by these formidable women whom I discovered in Self magazine.
I find, in the moments etched out by the formidable women of Real Pants, that same ability to take something that appears endlessly complicated—life, love, the concept of home, who we are—and distill from it a solid, gleaming ray of meaning, the kind you can tear out, fold in half, and carry years & years.
Every Monday, Sarah Jean Alexander predicts the real weather. I asked my students if the daily forecast counted as nonfiction, and they didn’t have much to say, but they hadn’t yet read the real weather, which is true like a soft knife. Like:
Some days the air seems more solid than a mixture of gases, like you can lift it, or chew it, or wrap some up and throw it in the freezer for days when you don’t feel like you’re getting enough. You can swallow it whole. You can throw it away.
And every Monday, Leesa Cross-Smith connects the dots into the lines etched in our souls:
All right. This. What I know is this: there were always other boys, until there weren’t. When I met my husband, there were no other boys. Just him. And if what they say is “nothing is forever,” then what makes love the exception? Because Outkast. And because there has to be something, I guess. Love! And maybe a lot of things last forever. Like, nostalgia. And the hearts of teenage girls. Forever-ever, even. I think so. I feel it.
Every other Tuesday, Amber Sparks pays radical attention to living history:
Economic power is humanity. It’s opportunity. It’s the way to real, lasting change. Otherwise we are just as likely to keep dehumanizing people of color, to leaving people of color out of economic growth altogether. We are just as likely to keep leaving black people stranded on those rooftops, laying face down in those streets unable to breathe, until we as a society have finally decided that black lives matter.
Every Wednesday, Janice Shapiro does—please just look. Look at all of them. What!!
And every other Wednesday, Elisa Gabbert reorients my brain entirely by speaking with gentle logic and hard intuition about style, which sounds subjective but, by her lambent reckoning, really isn’t:
It’s funny how trends work—the preference for whatever happens to be in fashion (whether it’s skinny jeans or boot-cut) feels organic, personal; it seems to originate inside you, and if everyone in your social circle agrees, it’s because you all came to see the truth at roughly the same moment.
Every other Thursday, Shanna Compton finds rapprochement between ear and eye. Listen and see:
When a cover succeeds in its wordless articulation of what’s inside it, as this one does, it can be pretty hard to explain how. Let’s try an analogy: Just as the initial smoothness of the cover is crumpled, the phrases here resist their role as speech—”rhinovirus” is not really an answer to “wind over those crows.”
And every Friday, I tear out and staple together every sentence proffered by Kristen Iskandrian, who eats the way some people sleep—hard and right and ready—and who reads the way some people die–for love or for faith or a lack of either one.
This week, I binged on impatience. I ate prayers for good health and no pain. With my friends I drank wine. On a pillow next to my daughter I ate bad dreams and hurt feelings. I went hard on a can of Pringles. I gorged myself on humility but did it in front of a mirror which means it had no calories. I drank black coffee and served my children frozen waffles, like a grumpy TV mother. I ate some ambition and threw it up and then ate it again, like a cat. I put one daughter to bed and with the other daughter mixed flour, sugar, cocoa powder, salt, baking powder, milk, vanilla, and coconut oil in a mug, and microwaved it, and we ate it silently with two spoons, and it was she who said, immediately after, I guess this means I have to brush my teeth again.
Let the moments of these formidable women persist and encircle you in brilliant conversation.
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