Photo: Kheel Center, Cornell University

Women We Read This Week

Rebecca Solnit’s “The Mother of All Questions” in Harper’s

Solnit’s essay opens, as so many do, with questions—but this one in a literal, external sense. The first question is asked of Solnit during the Q-and-A of a talk she was giving on Virginia Woolf, when several audience members want to have an extended discussion on whether or not Virginia Woolf should have had children. After a substantial response, Solnit is pretty sure she just said “Fuck this shit,” which moved people off the topic. But the insidious question circles back to any childless woman, as it did for Solnit during an interview, one that was supposed to center around her recent book. Instead, the male interviewer “insisted that instead of talking about the products of my mind, we should talk about the fruit of my loins, or the lack thereof.”

It’s an old story, in a way, an inescapable narrative of what it takes to lead an acceptable female life, and Solnit talks not only about motherhood but partnerhood, family-hood. And the essay opens even further than that, questioning our culture’s obsession with happiness more broadly, and our narrow views on routes-to-said-happiness—not only in terms of women, but in terms of queer love and families, even our cultural response to Edward Snowden—and wondering what is lost when a great mass of people become obsessed with old, well-traversed trails that lead to a single goal, “happiness,” which might not be as important as we seem to believe.

Maybe our obsession with happiness is a way not to ask those other questions, a way to ignore how spacious our lives can be, how effective our work can be, and how far-reaching our love can be.


Emily Badger’s “The Government is Trying to Make Walking American Again” in The Washington Post

In “The Government is Trying to Make Walking American Again,” Emily Badger says the Surgeon General’s “call to action to promote walking and walkable communities” is a profound idea very different from just asking people to exercise more. She explains that people in the US walk less today not just because cars are faster modes of transportation, but because the way we designed communities “didn’t just promote driving; they precluded walking.” And this causes not only access issues (to shops, places of work, and other destinations), but also health problems (obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes have been shown to be reduced in walkable areas).

The ‘call to action,’ a rare science-based edict meant to shape national discussion on major public health threats, implicates America’s car culture and ‘sprawling land use patterns.’ The paper, though, is a little coy on the main culprit: ‘Large distances often exist between home, school, work, stores, and other frequently sought destinations,’ it reads, ‘and this distance can limit people’s ability to incorporate walking into their everyday activities.’

That language makes it sound as if distance itself were to blame and not the decisions we made to create it. Distance, though, was never an accidental byproduct of suburban design; it was the feature that enabled spacious lawns, mass-produced single-family homes and vast shopping malls.

I’m currently teaching a composition class at the University of Pittsburgh focused on walking—my students take a different type of walk each week (this week it’s the collecting walk), they read about walking, and in their writing they connect and analyze their experiences and the readings. Badger notes that Albert Einstein “believed that the mind functions best at 3 miles per hour, the standard pedestrian’s pace.” I’m asking my students to accompany me on a semester-long walking adventure to see if that’s true for them. I’m asking them to slow down and explore life close-up and on foot.


Kerry Headley’s “No Way Out at The Welfare Office” in The Rumpus

Slate’s recent article on the rise of the “first-person industrial complex” of harrowing personal essays online—where click-bait headlines invite you into someone’s most shameful/grotesque/raw/intimate moments—sparked some lively discussion and response articles this week. And while such essays clearly have their place, it’s always refreshing to find a piece that could have easily been just another one of those, but, thanks to phenomenal writing and a fully self-aware author, has risen to another level. Here, Headley uses her lowest moment to artfully illustrate the disconnect between government assistance requirements and the complicated reality of people’s lives. She finds her financial situation becoming more and more grim after a work-related injury leaves her with chronic pain. As she waits to see if she can qualify for food stamps, she recalls the shame she felt when her mother once sent her to buy milk with food stamps as a child. This essay is a study in observation skills, as the author continually makes astute, highly detailed and intuitive observations about all of the people around her. The story is thoughtfully rendered in difficult-to-pull-off second person. Here, second person works perfectly: it makes you imagine yourself in the author’s position and creates a kind of empathy in the reader that might not otherwise be there. It also serves as a way to show the level of distance the author would like to have from her current situation; acknowledging that she finds herself in such dire circumstances is almost more difficult for her than the circumstances themselves.

The coffee you downed at breakfast snips in your gut like scissors, and you don’t like the way Gwen looks at you. It’s the way you’ve looked at men you’ve caught trying to peek up your skirt on the subway: I don’t think so. Still, your story makes sense. Your need is temporary. You can bring her any piece of paper she needs—doctors’ notes, the name of your physical therapist, how many times you can do the press-your-hand-on-the-ball exercise without whimpering (none). So you proceed because you have to and because you’re not convinced that Gwen hasn’t made a mistake. … You stumble over your words as a lump settles into your throat. Where is the space on the forms for you to write that you were the one looking for a job with your arm in a sling? What about the weeks you spent in a Disability Services classroom learning a speech recognition software program so you could do coursework without typing? But there is no box to check for your circumstance. Therefore, there is no solution.



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