On Saturday I went to Wordstock, a literary event in Portland, and I attended three separate panels, all made up entirely of women. Well, technically it was two panels and one “conversation,” but the end result is that I spent my day listening to 10 immensely talented women talk to each other with not a single man on stage to interrupt or mansplain or do…anything. It was glorious. I regret nothing.
(Okay, I do regret missing out on seeing Michelle Tea. A lot! I should have woken up earlier and made it to her morning panel about YA sequels, or I should have not gotten lost on the way to her pop up reading in the afternoon…sigh. I guess nothing can ever be TRULY PERFECT. One day I’ll meet Michelle Tea and fangirl over Valencia and mermaids. It won’t be weird…)
Before I say anything else I should note that if you haven’t read After Birth or The Argonauts, you should do yourself a huge favor and read both, immediately. They are my two favorite books of the year, and guess what? The first panel I attended at Wordstock included both books’ authors: Elisa Albert and Maggie Nelson! It was honestly like a dream.
The panel was titled Triple Threat: Art, Ambition, and Motherhood, and if you think a conversation about those topics (plus writing memoir, revealing oneself versus protecting oneself in narrative, and feminism) with four genius women is the stuff of my deepest fantasies, congratulations on knowing me very well! The third author on the panel, along with Albert and Nelson, was Heidi Julavits, whose work I was not familiar with prior to the panel but whose book The Folded Clock I cannot wait to read, and the moderator was Emily Chenoweth, author of Hello Goodbye. At the very beginning of the panel, after each woman had read a passage from her book, Julavits said, “I’m so thrilled to be on stage with these three other amazing women that I kind of want to lock the doors and stay in here longer because the remaining amount of time isn’t going to be enough to get to the bottom of everything.” She was right, of course – the allotted 50 minutes wasn’t nearly enough time to get to the bottom of anything. I would’ve stayed in that room for weeks listening to those women talk.
There is something so powerful about allowing four women to sit together and just talk, particularly when that talk is about writing and motherhood and things that women are expected to just do. Or not do, actually. We are supposed to have babies and not complain at all and magically know how to be perfect mothers, but we’re not supposed to write our stories – when men write their stories they are Telling Important Tales, they are Doing Important Work, they are Articulating The Universal Experience. When women write our stories critics complain that we’re always crying on bathroom floors, complaining about having babies, stressing out about casual sexual harassment…at the very beginning of the panel the mic wasn’t picking up moderator Chenoweth’s voice, and eventually Albert pointed it out to her. Chenoweth turned to the audience and chided us: Not one of you was gonna tell me you couldn’t hear me? Not a single one? Oh well, it’s a woman talking, doesn’t matter what she’s saying anyway! Just kidding… She was kidding but she also wasn’t kidding. We are all kidding but also not kidding. We’re just trying to fucking tell our stories.
I could go on forever (clearly) about all the things covered during that specific panel, and I hopefully will get a chance to write more about it soon. There are many aspects of Wordstock that I think would be worth writing about: the exhilaration and inspiration I felt being surrounded by so many talented writers, the growing pains the event is experiencing and the kinks that will hopefully be ironed out for next year, the disappointing lack of POC in the panels I attended, the strong East Coast urges that rush into my psyche when I’m confronted with crowds and logistics and Getting Shit Done…the list goes on.
But what I specifically want to focus on for this blog post (you know, besides the 800 words I’ve already written about other stuff) is a topic that came up during a panel titled Unexpected Family: Finding Home with Kathleen Alcott, Mary Gaitskill, Claire Vaye Watkins, and moderator Allison Frost.
Near the end of the panel, the subject of chosen family came up. This is a subject that is close to my heart, and that is also really painful for me, because I’ve been let down by people who I considered chosen family, and I think I have let down people who considered me chosen family, and it’s something that I don’t think we talk about very much in queer communities (being let down by or letting down chosen family members), even though the idea of chosen family is so widely accepted among us.
Alcott, who I should say right now just totally blew me away for the entire duration of the panel, really knocking it out of the park on every single answer and making more than a few people in the audience (and on stage!) sit up a little straighter in total shock and discomfort (in a great way!), said, “The beauty of the chosen family is that they’ve also chosen you.” Which of course immediately punched me in the gut, as a statement, because I started thinking how bad it feels when your chosen family unchooses you.
There have been several powerful essays about the end of female friendships floating around the interwebs these days, but I don’t think any of them have touched upon the queer perspective, and none of them (so far as I know) have talked about how deeply painful it can be to be rejected by a community. A friend breakup is a very specific kind of pain, but a friend breakup that involves multiple humans or layers or shifting group dynamics is so specific, and I was just starting to feel really fucking sad when the moderator followed up on Alcott’s statement by saying, confidently, “[A chosen family is] unconditional love.” And then Alcott was like, “No, I think it’s very conditional.” And that’s about when I fell in love with her, for the record. But seriously, everyone seemed kind of taken aback, and then Alcott expanded on the thought: “The danger in the chosen family…it’s not dependable…there’s greater vulnerability…these people don’t have to love you for the rest of your life like your family would.”
I think some of you are going to inherently disagree with this statement. I can hear some of the arguments, maybe. Maybe you want me to know that the family you’re born into isn’t necessarily dependable, isn’t necessarily offering unconditional love, will not necessarily be there for you for the rest of your life. To which I say, that’s true. It fucking sucks that not everyone is guaranteed unconditional love and acceptance and dependability from their family. I understand why we make chosen families. The family I was born into is incredible (hi mom, please don’t be offended by any of these words, I love you a lot, I love our family a lot) and I still find myself making pockets of chosen families. In a world where many people remain single or get married later in life, many people live alone, many people (especially queers, especially POC, especially young people struggling with debt) do not have the material resources to stay afloat: of course we look for chosen families. I don’t think that’s weird, or bad, or wrong, or anything like that. I think it’s beautiful.
But fuck, I’ve never heard anyone articulate the flipside of those relationships. How having a falling out with your chosen family can be just as painful as being rejected by your biological family. How you can think you’re fine but wake up some days and still feel so sad, so mad, so helpless. How the love can feel so fucking conditional.
I thought it was really brave and really honest of Kathleen Alcott to say that. I’ve been thinking about it for days now, and I have a feeling I’m going to be hanging on to it for a long, long while.
To conclude on a note that is not a total bummer, I will tell you how I was also lucky enough to hear Cheryl Strayed interview Diana Nyad later in the day, and I stood in line to have Cheryl sign my copy of Tiny Beautiful Things (again!) afterwards, and when I got to the front of the line I said to her, “You signed this in 2013 in Brooklyn, and I was so sad, and you held my hand and told me to close my eyes and picture a time when things wouldn’t suck, and now I live here in Portland and I’m so happy!”
And I’m sure nine million humans have said some variation of that to Cheryl Strayed over the course of her life, but she was so gracious, and after she signed my book she took my hand and looked at me and said, “See, I was right,” and I said, “Thank you,” and then I stepped aside to let the next person have their turn and I flipped my book open to see what she had written.
“Trust your wild heart.”
And I do. And I will. Unconditionally.