Today is Malala Day, the birthday celebration of Malala Yousafzai, the girl the Taliban shot in the head because she wanted to go to school. That was two years ago, and I am still moved by everything she does. It’s so easy to let life unravel in the face of horrible circumstances, and yet she kept going, keeps going. Her continued existence would have been enough to fight back. Going back to school would have been enough. But Malala skyrocketed, becoming an advocate for girls’ education and a role model for girls all over the world.
Her brave yet peaceful response to the Taliban, and to all who try to hold girls back, is a great lesson for our warmongering leaders, if they took the time to really listen to girls. She doesn’t fight violence with violence; she fights it with education and, more precisely, books. Check out this new video where she explains how books are stronger than bullets.
Malala just turned seventeen. My niece is going on fourteen, and the night before she came to visit us last week my partner and I watched The Punk Singer, the movie about Kathleen Hanna. It got me all fired up about making a mix CD for my niece. (Side note: since the 80s and 90s are back in, will kids start making mix tapes again? Pretty please?) My partner and I started talking about how so much of our values and world views came from the books we found at the library or borrowed from friends, the records we collected from thrift stores and out-of-the way shops, and the zines we traded when we were kids.
My feminist life, for instance, started when I cracked open The Bell Jar and discovered that someone had put my feelings into words. The Color Purple started me on the path to racial and economic justice. When I listened to “Rebel Girl,” Kathleen Hanna was the queen of my world. I devoured these books and records and then I learned about the women behind them, and I finally had an image of the kind of woman I wanted to be.
I wanted to create, to agitate, to express myself. Each book or record was like a window to what could be.
By the end of my niece’s visit, we walked out of a used bookstore, arms piled high with books and CDs. Malala had to face gunmen to get to books; we only had to stroll into a shop the size of a warehouse and take our pick.
Though we in the US are lucky to have access to free public schools, there are a lot of arguments about the state of education here today. Teachers have their hands tied by nonsensical standardized tests that leave children of color further and further behind. To make matters worse, attendance and performance here are affected by everything from street violence and school attacks to dating violence and bullying.
But there is one way we can help young people get at least a little of the education they need. For Malala Day, think about the things that helped you find your way when you were younger, that helped to define who you are today–a book, record, print, poem–and give a copy to a kid.
Books are #strongerthan bullets.
Sometimes I get in a serious crafting mood, like if I don’t make something with my hands soon, my overloaded brain will collapse. This happens when I’ve been spending too much time on work that’s based on analysis, problem-solving, and decision-making, when my eyes are bugging out from typing and reading spreadsheets or marginalia, and when my neck is nearly frozen from stress and intense focus. My brain feels like it’s made up of all hard lines and sharp edges that will keep filling up my skull like Tetris pieces until my head explodes.
Because I wrote my undergraduate thesis on goddess archetypes in the novels of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker (and, clearly, am a little bit of a dork), I like to think of this kind of experience as my Athena problem. The Greek goddess of wisdom and war, Athena appears to be all about the mind and the shield, and she even sprang fully formed and covered in armor from the head of Zeus. So when I feel her dragging her sword around in my head, I have to subdue her before she busts out with that Gorgon-covered shield and I’m stuck with her battles forever.
What most people don’t know, however, is that she’s also the goddess of weaving. Yep, wisdom, war, and weaving. She invented the horse-driven chariot but also the loom, which is a reminder that one shouldn’t just be an archetype but a well-rounded, multi-dimensional person. So I subdue her by pulling out her spinning wheel, and next thing I know the armor’s hidden under a pile of warm, smelly wool and she’s humming along to her tapping foot.
I taught myself to knit from a book about ten years ago when feminists were starting to reclaim the crafts of their grandmothers as a way to redefine what had always been seen as “women’s work.” I’d never really been into crafting before that; it was easy to write it off as an old-fashioned activity for housewives or something. But crafts like knitting were real work. Women knitted and sewed to provide clothing for their families, and they often stitched in groups, where they would support, empower, and inspire each other. If only someone would unearth an old text describing the cultural revolutions that sprouted in stitching circles. For some, of course, crafting was, and is, a livelihood.
I was the laziest knitter for a long time, making only simple projects and leaving them half-finished on a shelf for months. But then I discovered what an antidote knitting is to over-thinking, so now I dig my hands into soft skeins of yarn in many colors and feel sufficiently soothed. There’s something very zen about knitting: the measured click of bamboo needles, slow unraveling of a ball of yarn, trance-like feeling of falling into a pattern.
Pinterest has helped me branch out into other crafts. I’ve fashioned beaded bracelets and necklaces with rope, embroidery floss, and hex nuts. I’ve found new uses for the fabric scraps and triangles left over from my great grandmother’s quilting bin. I’ve recycled old seed catalogues by decoupaging magnets and boxes. I’m a little obsessed with Pinterest. I get ravenous for ideas on how to craft with random things found around my house and in my yard, and it makes me feel very self-sustainable and accomplished. Also, as a writer who has written so much that no one will ever see, it’s a relief to finish a project that’s meant to be shared, and it’s particularly satisfying in an ever-pixelated world.
In fact, crafting is very much about community. I love feeling more connected to history, to the women who came before me, to a handmade life. Crafting, especially with materials found in nature or repurposed from thrift stores or your home, can be a good antidote to corporate industry and overconsumption. There’s a book called In Her Hands: Craftswomen Changing the World, which chronicles the stories of women in twelve countries who turned their lives around by making and selling traditional handicrafts. Then there’s Knitting Behind Bars, which started knitting circles with male prisoners in Maryland, a project that transformed how the men saw themselves and each other. Reading about it will fill your crusty, old heart with joy.
I propose we draw up a new Athena. Perhaps she’s got a skein of yarn attached to her belt or a pair of needles stuffed in the Gorgon’s mouth. We need some way to remember that sometimes she takes off her armor and settles down with a mug of nettle tea and a basket of wool. Sometimes she drops her sword and just crafts the revolution.
It was probably my junior year of college that I went to see the chair of the humanities department for a little encouragement. Much as I loved literature, I was feeling uncertain about my studies. I had become quite the budding feminist activist, and when I read Alice Walker or Adrienne Rich, I increasingly wanted to get up and DO something. I was not content with scribbling behind a desk. That’s why I knocked on my professor’s door and asked her why we interpret literature.
Unperturbed, she gazed out the window at the blossoming dogwoods. We sat in an office full of dark, shiny wood and cloth-bound books in muted tones, but the sun lit up the world outside. She smiled. “Why do we enjoy a spring day?”
I nodded. It was all I needed to hear to get back to the books, but when I finished school, I decided to join AmeriCorps and become a VISTA. I wanted to learn through experience and to serve others. I felt a great need to make people’s lives better in some way, and my myopic poetry certainly wasn’t going to do that.
The best part of my AmeriCorps assignment in Philadelphia was my weekly visit to an after-school program for at-risk Latinas. We laughed, danced, and learned. It was their safe space in the day because outside of that program their lives were full of violence. A friendly, open senior on a fifth-grade reading level told me that she had been raped by her uncle for years. Another girl–a vibrant, intelligent eighth-grader who attended with her sister–lost her boyfriend to a bullet in the head because he had the best corner.
I loved those girls dearly. It was a profound learning experience for me, one that confirmed everything I thought about the world: oppressions converge to make the notion of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps a joke, investing in education should always be our priority, and giving is better than having.
But I had a serious hankering for a creative fix, so I went back to school and studied poetry and fiction writing. I devoured the pink-covered Vorticist magazine Blast, the stories of Katherine Mansfield, the groundbreaking fiction of Nawal el Saadawi, the verses of Sharon Olds. I studied Said and Spivak, Gilbert and Gubar. I learned to step back from my writing and to revise, revise, revise.
And what do you think happened next? I had enjoyed teaching composition to first-year students who desperately needed to learn how to write a basic argument, but I soured on the idea of teaching poetry to middle-class kids who wouldn’t do anything with it anyway. Fed up with the ivory tower, I abandoned my PhD applications and ran off to Poland to teach English as a second language.
My students came from all walks of life. One was a wealthy CEO whose wife could never travel to the US with him on business trips because officials would not give her a visa for fear that they would stay. “As if I want to move to America to work at McDonald’s,” he would say. “I am a businessman!” There was a shoe designer, a gregarious woman with curly dark hair, who came from Georgia for a better life, and a teenage girl who was frequently in trouble with her mother. I always enjoyed chatting with an amiable young man who could not marry his girlfriend because his low-wage job in a shop kept him living with his family, six people in a two-room flat. There simply wasn’t room for another person.
Every student there was learning English to improve their lives. Most planned to leave Poland for England, Scotland, Germany, or the Netherlands, where they saw opportunities they did not have at home. I felt guilty for being able to go and do whatever I wanted. I felt frustrated that the only way I could help them was to teach them the language of the people who ruled the world.
I came back and worked as copywriter. It felt amazing to get paid to write and come up with ideas with creative folks, but I hated advertising. Obviously. Then I wrote grants for a nonprofit, which led to my work in women’s advocacy–leading online campaigns, influencing legislation, developing and improving programs for women and girls. I truly love women’s advocacy, but sometimes I get so caught up in politics and analysis that the left side of my brain feels heavy. It’s like the right side is withering away.
I try to avoid binary thinking, but somehow I’ve spent my whole life trying to balance these two sides of myself–my desire to create community change and my passion to create art. Sure, writing itself can be revolutionary, but it never seemed enough for me.
Recently, I decided to devote more time to my writing. I brushed off some old poems to submit and revised a story, but writing is a solitary pursuit and I needed to connect. Therefore, I decided to start a blog where I could discuss current events that disturb me: gang rape, slut shaming, cyber bullying, the bizarre need to legislate my body to death.
And then I thought, hey girl, you don’t have to stop there. I realized I could combine politics and art in one spot. I could make my own creativity political. I could sit behind my desk or march down the street, and either way I’d effect change. That’s the birth of Saga, a place to explore feminism and creativity while engaging with other artists and thinkers and doers.
As I write this, birds in the eaves of my house, in the magnolia and pine trees out back, are singing because it’s spring. It’s rainy, and the slender sprouts in my garden are getting stronger. Even now, without much sunshine, I look from my computer screen to the window and remember why I do what I do.
I hope you’ll join me on this exploration.