Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Not A Dirty Word (part 1)

"How well you used to know how to shine
In the place that's safe from harm
I have been blessed with a wilder mind
You can be every little thing you want nobody to know
And you can try to drown out the street below
And you can call it love
If you want"
 - Wilder Mind, by Mumford & Sons

I found my favorite recipe for sugar cookies and spent the afternoon mixing, rolling, cutting, and baking. I couldn't find a heart-shaped cookie cutter, so I made two out of card-stock, tracing around them with a knife. I pressed colorful sprinkles into the dough. I placed them all in a plastic container, ready for the next day. Hearts for Valentine's Day. Cookies for prostitutes.

My friends Desi and Miguel go downtown every other Thursday to visit with women and trans-gendered men in prostitution. It was 5:00 when we got downtown, full daylight. We approached women and men - some of them strangers and some established friends - and offered them each a cookie for Valentine's Day. They greeted us with smiles ranging from shy to gregarious. The way they dressed and stood, it was obvious what they were about. Miguel told me how they had deals with different hostels, so they could take in the 'johns' for a set rate. With some we talked for a couple of minutes only, Miguel always saying "Que Dios te bendiga" (God bless you) as we left. Others crowded around us on the sidewalk, and we talked for at least half an hour. Not one asked us to move along, annoyed that we were taking up their time. Desi has a dream to rent a space and offer classes and Bible studies. She told everyone that I had made the cookies and would they be interested in a cooking/baking class? They were. One woman even exclaimed how she had always wanted to learn how to cut hair and would love a class on beautician. Just as we were seeing the light and excitement in their eyes, they suddenly turned away, hiding their faces and muttering. Behind me, across the street, a man had started openly taking photos of them. We shooed the man away, standing in front of the women protectively. For a few moments, their shame was on display because of a man who thought he had a right to take advantage of them. Until then they had stood there in their tight clothes and caked-on makeup and simply talked to us as who we were: people who simply wanted to have a conversation and not judge. Friends.

Poverty, abuse, trafficking, and lack of education creates a terrible cycle. Most of the women had been trafficked or abused, but once free they had no education, no options, and had to make money for themselves and often children as well. So they turned to the only thing they knew: selling their bodies.
"I'm simply glad that I don't have a pimp. I can work for myself and chose my own clients."
Though of course this freedom is only an illusion, and they know it. They want more but have been told they aren't worth anything else, and how would they achieve it? How would "E"ever learn to cut hair without finances and time?

I keep thinking about the man who took those photos. He probably spits out the word 'prostitute' like it's something dirty, like he's so far above anyone like that. The truth is, that's what we're all taught, right? We're taught that prostitutes, hookers, women of the night, and call girls exist on the lower level of society. Yet ... if men didn't pay for sex, there wouldn't be any market. If women weren't raped and abused and told they're not worthwhile unless they are 'sexy' (in the popular definition of a certain kind of attractiveness, not what I believe it to mean: someone who is confident in who they are and in their beauty and worth, no matter how they dress or act), they wouldn't turn to prostitution and certainly wouldn't make any kind of living from it. If men would tell women, "You don't have to do this. Be confident and be free,", instead of assessing them up and down and paying to use them for an hour, there would be a change.

However it may be the trans-gendered men who break my heart the most. Miguel has talked in-depth with some of them. They have horror stories of sexual abuse. Because of that they've reacted by transforming themselves, finding community with prostitutes and paying for enough hormones to give them breasts and curves. If I hadn't known in advance that some of the women were men, I may not have known. I may not have given a second thought to the strong jawline, or seen the Adam's apple beneath the made-up face and long hair (a wig on at least one). Once I realized, I saw the gentle shyness, the fragile hope of being beautiful and accepted. It broke my heart.

As much as words and actions relating to sex are considered cool, the word prostitute is still darkly tainted. For this reason, I chose to say "women and men in prostitution", because it's something they do, not who they are. It's time to start seeing the men who buy sex as the dirty ones, more so than the people who feel that they have no other choice but to comply. What is dirty is blind judgment without knowing the circumstances. Let's change the culture. Let's have a generation where abuse is not okay, and there is sympathy in place of dirty words.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Songs And Sorrows We Share

"Could I be a boat for you awhile?
Could I stay afloat for you, and sail in your smile?
Could I be a boat for you, and ever gain this weight for you,

Could I be a boat for you awhile?"
 - Yellow Flower, by KT Tunstall

I heard someone talk once about the song "Hey Ya", by the group OutKast - artist Andre 3000 - and how it is the saddest song he knows. If you just listen to the original version, you might not get it. But take the stripped-down, acoustic version covered by Obediah Parker, and suddenly, there it is. Before the famously tongue-in-cheek lyrics which everyone boogies along to - "Shake it, shake it, like a Polaroid picture!" - or the line where Andre amusingly beseeches - "Give me some sugar, I am your neighbor!" - is the story of a love which is crumbling away. "Thank God for Mom and Dad for putting two together 'cause we don't know how", the singer cries. Andre sings it with gusto, the sadness hidden beneath the energy of the music, while in the Obediah version, it is a clearer lament. But the real grief lies in the line which everyone who knows the song surely sings along to with unburdened enthusiasm: "Nothing lasts forever!" It's only when you realize that the song is talking about the heartbreak of trying to make something work and feeling hopelessly lost as to how you could or what went wrong, that the words ring true for the struggles of the songwriter, and not just a catchy, ironic hook in an upbeat song.

Recently I fell in love with the song "Silhouettes" by the band 'Colony House'. The melody and lyrics are fun, easy to sing or dance along to. Then I caught one of the first lines:

"Have you lost something? Or someone you love?
You've still got a story, tell it every morning!"

The line stood out to me even more because I knew the history of the singer and drummer, Will and Caleb Chapman, sons of musician Steven Curtis Chapman. The brothers lost their young adoptive sister in a tragic accident. I heard an interview with SC Chapman talking about the event, and about how the car his son Will was driving backed out of the driveway and hit his daughter who was hiding behind it. When everyone realized what had happened, Will took off running in sheer horror and grief. In that moment, Chapman said that he had to choose: stay with his daughter, or run after his son. He said he realized that he might lose his daughter that day, but if he didn't run after his son, he might lose him as well. So he ran and ran, finally catching Will, telling him, "It wasn't your fault," over and over, the two of them weeping in the street.

To hear the line above, ringing with such sadness but ending so full of hope, gives me hope.

I have always loved sad songs. The one above, "Yellow Flower" by KT Tunstall, speaks specifically of the death of her father. She sings of being so glad to have a few final moments with him, painful as they are, and how she holds back her tears "as though by magic they will make me ever warmer, even after you're not here".

What is it about these songs, and a myriad of others, which speak to me so deeply? Maybe because pain and loss and grief are such deep emotions, resonating in different yet empathetic forms in everyone. Sharing joy and happiness is a vital and incredible human experience. Maybe sharing sorrow, especially in the form of a beautiful or moving or even catchy song, is an experience even more lasting.