Pussycat, pussycat, where have you been? I haven’t seen you around, and you never replied to my texts.
Pussycat, pussycat, where did you go? Are you feeling okay? Is there anything wrong?
There, there little mouse, no need to be frightened. For I am the new queen, and today, we begin again.
TAKE MY HAND, COME WITH ME.
On the inside of my tiny wrist, purple vessels spread like electricity across my skin that, unless I am burnt or blushing at something you said, stays milky white. Though it must have felt nerve-wracking to pierce a needle of ink into such a paper-thin ivory canvas, a man in Miami once lured $200 out of my pocket to do so. Now, I read the same three tattooed words every day. Serenity, courage, wisdom.
I struggle with courage, though. When I hit this publish button, my heart will inevitably skip a beat, questioning whether to panic. I fall down this impossible rabbit hole and wonder why I write at all, and then I remember it isn’t a choice. By nature, I take in the world around me in fragmented pieces, only able to consume so much before I need relief from the pressure building up inside. I am not content with taking life as it comes every day and letting it all go each night. I crave change and creation, and for the life of me, I cannot find satisfaction without it. The process is an unstoppable cycle, and without fail, I consume on autopilot until my patchwork doll mind is bursting at the seams and my kaleidoscope eyes are starving for sleep. Eventually, words spill out on the exhale and my lungs remember their purpose. Capillaries expand with satisfaction, pumping oxygen through my bleeding heart in exchange for carbon dioxide and creativity. I feel every stitch as it comes undone, and finally, I can breathe again.
I am not content with a life of consumption because without the necessary expenditure of energy, I would not be able to process what I’ve absorbed, nor would I be able to take in anymore of the world. It just so happens that generally, this energy, consumed and dissected and swirled around in a creative mind before emerging with purpose, often becomes incredibly beautiful. We humans call it ‘art’. And some of us are born to use this
curse gift to translate the world around us. We cannot choose what we are born to be, but we can choose how much of ourselves we give away. I was born to be a writer. I choose what to share. I respect the power I have to make you feel alive – with my stories, to inspire you, to make you feel angry, even. I respect the written word, and I understand the power it has to speak for those who need to be heard above the noise.
IN OTHER WORDS, WHAT I HAVE TO SAY IS IMPORTANT
Even if it tumbles from my messy mind, beautiful, but fragmented. Even if sometimes I ask you to feel my sadness, just so you know you are not alone, and even if we tackle the dark subjects with overwhelming intensity or contagious belly laughs. Even if it doesn’t always make a lot of sense, my story, and telling it in my voice, is important.
Of course, I struggle to remember that, too.
One year ago, I ran my pretty little mouth on national tv about being authentic, and publicly burnt thousands of bridges to my ‘career’ as an ‘influencer’. I was bitter, and tired of pretending to be so happy. When I began my parenting blog, I had just quit my corporate office job with benefits to become a stay at home mom, and I was juggling a violent relationship with an identity crisis. None of that mattered when I was writing posts targeted towards Pinterest-users about my secret to the juiciest chicken, using sponsored sauce, mind you. I carefully curated my life, seeking connection, and finding validation from brands willing to pay me for being their ideal image of a modern-day millennial woman running an American household. I didn’t have to reveal my double life because everything in the world of mommy blogging is filtered. I purchased an $800 macro lens and mastered blurred background photography, shooting up close, just to avoid capturing the full frame picture of my broken family.
In September 2015, I strapped three children into carseats and drove sixteen hours across the country, and still, posted on Instagram how cheerful our life was. In October, my lifestyle blog saw nearly 350,000 page views, and I was on the brink of homelessness. But the pressure of a perfect image was nothing in comparison to the new disconnect I was facing. I thought for sure that moving back to my all-American hometown in the Midwest would somehow translate to genuine stories pouring from my heart, thriving in the heartland where I was born and raised, writing about my picturesque life in rural America. My children would play in the woods, and in the summer, run barefoot to the honeysuckle bushes, back by the muddy creek that ran to the Ohio River. More importantly, I was in love with my very best friend, John, and I couldn’t wait to tell you all about our fairytale teenage romance revival on a ghost-town Main Street in the middle of nowhere.
There were just a couple small hiccups, like oh, you know, the effect of the recession on the Rust Belt, and my legal mess of a marriage to a man who
faked cancer and spent the fundraiser money on a cruise still evades child support but would post regularly to his charmed Facebook fans that I was ‘HIS GODDAMN WIFE’ despite being a ‘selfish whore’ and ‘horrible mother’. The red State of Indiana, the place of my birth, wouldn’t let me file for divorce until I had been a resident again for six months. So the kids and I kept his last name that no white person here can pronounce, and I lost everything else. Worse, my train of delusion about flourishing in what is now known as Forgotten America was derailed entirely. ‘Welcome back to the black hole,’ all of my friends from junior high joked with me in messages. A few of them landed on their ass here just like me, but most never left. They all invited me to have beer at the only halfway hipster bar in this town, where hula-hooping is also a thing apparently. I think it’s safe to say I prefer self-destruction.
My fucking house, past the county line and across the street from an elementary school, didn’t even have WIFI or a mailbox. As a liberal millennial spoiled by the life I built in a major city, with a resume full of marketing bullshit and a Mercedes in my name if not my possession, I was entirely unprepared for life as a middle-class adult in the Midwest. I wore high heel boots to unpack my moving truck, for starters. Before I could figure out how to burn my trash out behind the house, some kind of nocturnal creature came to live on the porch, so I would stand naked and alone at 3am, googling on my phone what a possum looked like and tapping ferociously on the window. I felt so vulnerable as a single, petite woman in a place as rugged as southern Indiana, and I found a strange saving grace in men who know how to do what I did not. I forgot, in all my efforts to run away, that I am made of this same wilderness, that I too am wild and tough.
I also forgot how exclusive the conservative society here can be if you are an outsider, and by every standard, I had certainly grown into one of those. The culture shock consumed me, and the lack of financial opportunity in my conservative Rust Belt state, combined with the lack of protection and support services for single mothers and Midwestern women in general, completely changed the course of my life. The hopelessness here in the heartland, and the traditional gender role I was pressured to play if I wanted to be a part of this rusty machine built for rich white men, made me feel forgotten too. And I couldn’t yet write the truth in a way people could understand, which made it that much more frustrating. Half a year later, I was laying on the dirty torn carpet of our borrowed doublewide trailer, hands on my sweaty stretch-marked belly, and I looked up at my 16-year old garage band boyfriend, eleven years grown and offering me and my children a home in his heart.
‘I have to write something real. I can’t suffer through another exclamation mark about my fake, perfect life.’
I wrote one post. You know the one. It dropped like a viral bomb. Overnight I was slammed with a media storm. Business Insider emailed me at 4am for my comments on the influencer marketing industry, producers from national tv outlets were blowing up the phones of my family members I hadn’t seen in ten years, wanting an exclusive interview with me, and an editor at Cosmopolitan envisioned me as a potential star writer for her new millennial-targeted parenting vertical. A casting agent from The Blaze blew up my Twitter and inbox, requesting a live interview with Tomi Lahren, which I declined on impulse. Dozens of new articles about me were popping up every hour, and Good Morning America hired a camera man to meet me here, pushing unsuccessfully to let him come film my work space at home, and settling for an interview in a hotel room at the local franchised riverboat casino. Minimum wage staff watched us uncomfortably, like I was a celebrity (or maybe an amateur pregnant porn star), and the security guard eventually kicked us off the property, asking suspiciously why ABC news would be here.
And to be fair, it was a damn good question, before the election.
RUST BELT WRITER
I got my maiden name back just in time to sign it on a contract with Inkwell Management Literary Agency in NYC, and then the birth certificate of my fourth child. But then I shut down. I wasn’t ready to share my story, and there was so much that had happened, I wasn’t even sure where to begin. John, who tolerates living with my chaotic personality thanks to his bachelor’s degree in arts management, was promoted and had his salary doubled in the same week I gave birth. We live in a town were the average employee makes $8-12 per hour, if they are lucky enough to find a full-time job with benefits they need. If you don’t have a vehicle, or childcare, good luck rising above the poverty level, where a quarter of our children grow up despite the thousands of churches, and the pharmaceutical corporations headquartered here, that sponsor fireworks shows and high school athletics.
Unless you have a degree, chances are you work at one of those chemical companies, otherwise, you work for the plastics factory or car manufacturer. Everybody has at least a distant relative working in the coal mines, and on Veteran’s Day, the town shuts down. Oh, but if you’re a woman who chooses to have children, not much of this applies. Unless your husband is a doctor and you have the luxury of affording childcare, you are either a single mother working some shitty, exhausting schedule, sending your kids to government daycare and still not making enough to afford health insurance or groceries without assistance, or you live with a man whose aforementioned factory job pays the bills. Don’t have a husband or want a man in your life? Never want kids? Nah, that aunt moved to California years ago and she’s too busy getting lit with her wife to give a fuck about your judgemental hillbilly issues anymore. Have a degree, but you listened to the teachers who told you to follow your dreams, and yours is to bring arts and culture to a stagnant pool of conservative mediocrity? Well, honey, too bad our generation fucked your economy, but maybe you should get your head out of the clouds and work a real job like the rest of us to pay off those student loans.
Congratulations poured in like we were set for life, so I put off writing for another month to plan our Thanksgiving dinner. We spent our Saturdays at car lots and Sundays at Home Depot, setting up an outdoor fireplace and folding tables for the 20-lb turkey. So many loved ones came, and friends we hadn’t seen in awhile, and people asked when we had plans to marry proper or buy a house, and whether we would set up the baby’s first Christmas tree the next day — all the obvious next steps in this time-warped game of temperate climate life. But I felt so happy, and in my element, hosting a party in our home, radiating love from our choice to blend our families. I watched my daughter laugh in the arms of my lover, and I knew he would teach her how a man is supposed to treat her mother, and how someday, she will deserve the same tenderness. I felt like the choices I made had come to a point where satisfaction was inevitable. I tied my cherry apron strings tight and thought: This is it, this is the American dream.
Then I woke up three days later, hungover from a weekend of being thankful for apple cinnamon whiskey. I cringed at the overflowing sink of dishes, smelling like soured green bean casserole and rotten sweet potatoes. Coffee cup cradled in hand, I stepped out to the porch for a cigarette. A quiet Sunday afternoon meant everyone was at church or watching ‘the game’ on their faux leather, cup-holder couches. I looked around our trailer park at perfectly manicured lawns still sporting MAGA signs as badges of Trump’s victory, and I was sobered by how easy it would have been for me to blend in and pretend I belong here. It took me a few more months to realize I always have, and I still do.
As the election fervor faded into December, I fell into a deep, dark hole of tacky inflatable snowmen and yard signs blinking ‘Jesus is the Reason’ next to church marquees declaring 2017 the ‘Year of Restoration’. I stopped leaving my house, because if I had to hear one more overhead speaker rendition of Hallelujah, I was going to hop a plane to Seattle and say fuck it all. My gynecologist called it postpartum depression, so I got to pop a bunch of pills, which is legal in the Bible Belt. The materialism of Merry Christmas culture in contrast to threats of Mexican border walls and Muslim bans was too much to take, and trying to solve our childcare riddle to be able to write was wearing me out amid sleepless newborn nights. Aside from a few Instagram posts and a handful of (mostly angry, ranting) posts that overflowed from my frustrations onto the blog, I quit sharing my life on the internet almost entirely. I felt so misunderstood, and told myself it was all temporary as we minimized our belongings and planned to move out west.
I lost myself in the weight of motherhood in the Midwest, regretting my choices as I realized I would never be content with them. And then one day, the air rolling in over our polluted river wasn’t so cold, and rain fell that wasn’t icy slush. Trees blossomed too early, and the earth came to this eerie intersection, not quite alive but you could feel that nothing was quite dead, either. The kids wanted to go camping on spring break, so we drove to Illinois where the trees are taller than the telephone poles and cuddled under the stars in the Shawnee Forest. An unexpected frost had stopped Spring in its tracks, painting all the leaves this surreal shade of peach and below, splattering brilliant shades of green and sprouting purple flowers where they didn’t seem to belong. Knife tucked into the curve of my hip and camera strapped around my neck, my boots followed muddy prints bigger than mine. We rolled down the windows and took the long way home, John navigating the gravel roads without GPS, the southern Illinois blood in his heart pumping through his fingers laced in mine. The giggles of our children carried across the wind and cornfields, and the out of signal radio bounced from outlaw country to religious sermons, static noise filling the airwaves between.
The problem is, you see, we belong here.
I live here too. And I want to be my creative, messy, open-minded, camo-wearing, liberal millennial, hipster af, gun-owning, part-time lipstick lesbian and pro-choice mother of four self, here in my hometown. I want my children to have a fair chance at education, and career opportunities in science and technology and art, here in the heartland. I want to thrive where I was planted, and blossom where my roots are buried. I want to belong. So we made a choice to change our lifestyle, and pursue creativity, attempting to bring culture to where we are. Like our country, I am divided, torn between my traditional conservative roots in the middle of America and my progressive views about the world. If I can cross this bridge in my mind, I could mend my internal cultural clash. If I could invite you inside my head, you could immediately understand how Americans in the Midwest feel forgotten, and that as a middle-class, millennial mother, I feel voiceless. In 2015, Millennials gave birth to 8 out of 10 new Americans. As the largest generation now living in the United States, there are 75 million of us born between 1981 and 1997, mislabeled as lazy and rebellious. In truth, we grew up striving above participation trophies amid terrorist attacks, and the rewards we received were student debt and a recession. Our generation is stronger, and more driven, than previous Americans to find purpose in productivity and pleasure in a self-sustaining life.
The week before John quit his job this Spring to become a temporary stay-at-home father while I work on my book, my own mother laughed and said “She wants to do all this writing, and she has four kids! Somebody’s gotta do the dishes still, Jo.” And she’s right, somebody does. There is a part of me that is envious of people who are capable of practicality, and people who can pour their heart into mundane tasks, finding purpose, and comfort I suppose, in repetition. I am eternally grateful for these people – they balance me out and keep me on track, but underneath, I am also envious. If my wild mind was content doing the dishes, I would happily resign all thought of ambition and settle into a dollhouse life of care taking for others. I can’t, and for many years, I have considered that a failure. I have stared at piles of laundry in tears, wondering what is wrong with me that I cannot fucking get my life together and be a goddamn adult. I would wonder why I can’t just wake up five minutes early to braid my daughter’s beautiful hair before school, and why I can’t fucking focus on my toddler’s babbling about blocks when my mind is fluttering with literary phrases, fucking up my field of vision. I can’t. I try… I can’t. So I accept.
My name is Josi Denise. I am a writer. And I live in the rust belt.
CHOOSING TO HOPE
In my year of choosing not to share my personal life online, I found myself present in my days. Even if those were bad days, I felt them, in the moment. I realized how exhausted I had been from carefully packing my real life emotions into a box with a neat little check mark just to appeal to brands sponsoring my posts, and later, to avoid legal issues during my divorce. I was so afraid of what would happen if I told the truth, that the truth consumed me, and I shut down. I came to a point where I felt like maybe I was just done. So what if people thought I just wanted 15 minutes of fame and faded into oblivion, maybe I wanted peace and quiet. I became protective of my bubble, and manually removed nearly a decade of Facebook posts and photos from my profile, shuttering my personal account. I wondered why I had ever shared so much of my life, and contemplated the consequences I had inevitably suffered in my personal relationships — what did people think of me, my real friends and family, and my life? I am not the filtered, sponsored mommy blog version of myself. I can hardly finish a sentence without the word fuck and I walk around my house pants-less, drinking sailor jerry from the bottle and dancing to punk rock and hardcore gangster rap. What the fuck had I done, pretending to be this g-rated soccer twat, selling myself for some free fucking materialistic shit? How do I fix this? And I felt like I couldn’t, so I disappeared instead. Why share anything at all?
And it took me more than six months, and countless book proposal drafts, to come up with an answer. Why do I share my life with you? We seek connection, sure, but still, why should I write about myself publicly, doesn’t that seem narcissistic? I have no fragile ego, and nothing to prove. No attention to gain, and nothing to sell you except my sad stories and sometimes, my pretty smile. Who gives a fuck anyway? And how do I choose what to share, if I am not filtering it for a parenting themed website? I am fairly certain nobody wants to see me without makeup or read my dark, twisted thoughts that spill like poetry or persuade like politics. Do I just put it all out there? The pressure to be perfect is so, so real. But I am not perfect, and I am living proof that human hearts don’t really work that way. My body is painted with silver stripes, marking the places that I grew life for a man and gave milk from my breasts. My curves are mostly real and my ass has cellulite, and my mind is an emotional rollercoaster of black and white extremes, broken and bruised and constantly battling itself. I am loud, my fingernails are always chipped, and I have this nasty habit of spitting my chewing gum out in the shower and sticking it on the shampoo bottle tops. I am real, and I am imperfect, and I am still loved. Love doesn’t work that way, and perfection isn’t required to speak up for yourself. My voice still deserves to be heard.
When we were young, dreams of equality and independence were planted inside our heads as facts. Now we are facing a crisis of patriotism, feeling as though we do not belong in a world that has yet to catch up. I choose to share my stories because I know I am not alone. There is no better feeling than reading an email from a reader, half way across the world, in tears thanking me for making them feel less alone, too. I choose to raise my voice above the crowd because I have faith that others will follow, and maybe somewhere tangled in one of my strange, messy thoughts, you will find a piece of yourself, or I may inspire you to make a positive change in the world. Maybe my courage to change the things I can, and my attempt to merge my divided cultural identities, can offer understanding, if not comfort, or at the very least, controversial talking points. I choose to dissect myself publicly because I believe creativity, is now more than ever, important. I believe that art is a bridge, and I believe that art allows us to hope.
And here in the heartland, we need hope.