Queer Beauty of the Unexpected
In recent years my favorite books have centered around the unexpected and contradictory conditions of being human.
And few books take us more lovingly and poetically to the heart of that reality than Pema Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. Part Buddhist primer, part self help, When Things Fall Apart hasn’t so much pulled me out of the darkness of my most difficult times as much as it has taught me how to live in darkness with self-acceptance and gratitude at being a living, suffering being. Chödrön, an American Buddhist nun, reflects on the Buddhist principle that suffering is a human birthright, a central ingredient in the full experience of being human. This belief runs counter to the imperative to strive for near-constant health and happiness, a goal to which many Americans subscribe (I am thinking, too, about Barbara Ehrenreich’s Brightsided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America, another brilliantly counterintuitive book about the perils of nonstop happiness). I have read my tattered copy of When Thing Fall Apart countless times, occasionally convinced that I finally “get it” and should pass the book on to someone else. And as if on cue, I come face to face with myself again —my imperfect parenting, my anxiety, my selfishness—and I make a beeline for the book. Some books, like Chodron’s, break so thoroughly with conventional thinking that they take a lifetime to read.
As a queer feminist, I have grown particularly accustomed to feeling at odds with conventional thinking, especially about gender and sexuality. I don’t agree that “boys will be boys,” for instance, nor do I believe that people are born with intact sexual orientations. And yet, because I also know that our gendered and sexual desires are often deeply visceral and embodied, I want to sing from the mountaintops about another book—Sara Ahmed’s book Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others, which is a profoundly useful reflection on the complexity of human desire. Ahmed illuminates the way our bodies adapt, or “get oriented toward,” what is near and familiar in early childhood, a process that accounts for the ways that heteronormativity comes to reside in the body while queer objects and orientations are “cleared away” by parents invested in passing on heterosexuality to their children. As the conversation about sexual orientation has become dominated by declarations about genetic propensities and fetal hormones—and prideful pronouncements of “born this way”— Ahmed’s careful attention to the ways that social relationships give form and shape to the body is precisely the intervention I was craving. Read this book; it just may change your sexual orientation.
Lastly I confess that books about parenting have become more central to my life than my younger, child-free self could have possibly imagined. Many people will tell you that parenthood is the most rewarding experience of a lifetime, but in my experience, much of it is complete agony. And just when I finally got honest with myself about the agony, I found that I too started drinking the Kool-aid. Now here I am, neck-deep in love with a totally high-maintenance 5-yr old tyrant, urging my friends to have kids. There are simply no words to describe the chaos and ego-destruction of parenting that don’t devolve immediately into clichés, which is why good parenting books are hard to come by. But my favorite—a true game-changer—is Kim John Payne’s Simplicity Parenting:
Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids. Like the books above, Simplicity Parenting flips conventional wisdom on its head, inviting parents to say no to the ever-increasing gadgets, media, toys, music classes, computers, Einstein CDs, and other technologies of early childhood that are marketed to parents in the name of giving kids a “head start.” The book resonates so deeply for me as reminder that parenting is not a competition (“my kid deserves the best stuff!”) or a race to a future finish line (“if my kid can subtract at 3 years old, just imagine how she’ll excel at Goldman Sachs!”). It’s a relationship that we have with children in the present, and one that could stand to be much slower and quieter—for both kids’ sakes and our own.
If there is a relationship between the books I like to read and the books that I write, it’s that they all unmask the cultural blind spots that get in the way of fuller understanding of human behavior. The best books, in my view, help us become more intimate with the unpredictable nexus of love and agony, desire and repulsion, choice and constraint.
Jane Ward is associate professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of California, Riverside. Her latest book is Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men (NYU Press, 2015).
The image featured at the beginning of this post is by Namelas Frade.