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An Axe for the Frozen Sea

Learning to Throw Axes in 2018
DISCUSSED

Ursula K. Le Guin, Stabbing Something 3000 Times, Depression, Ikea, Tomahawks, Splitting Mauls, Learning the Choreography to Every Beyoncé Song, Rage, Cursing the Mayor of Chicago, Jason Momoa, Queen Elizabeth, the Imagination as a Dangerous Place

by Megan Stielstra
September 28th, 2018

The ways we find to fix ourselves do not always look like fixing. Sometimes they fail, but they are never wrong.
—Melissa Febos

1.

I throw two-handed, fists stacked at the base of the axe handle. My right foot is at the line, my left just behind, and I rock, my weight shifting forward, back, forward, back. This strength is mine. This body, mine. The target: concentric rings painted on 2X10 pine boards and drilled into the wall. It’s fifteen feet in front of me. Fifteen feet is the full rotation of an axe. When I started throwing axes I read articles by physicists about velocity and angle and centrifugal force. I read governing rules from the National Axe Throwing Federation and the World Axe Throwing League including etiquette, scoring, and foot faults. I watched countless instructional videos, the majority featuring dudes in fields, and one where the actor Jason Momoa nails a bullseye while drinking a very large beer.

I watched that last one many times.

Feet still staggered, I bring both hands back over my head. The blade is straight. I’m leaning back. My elbows are at my ears and I’m gripping the handle and everything in me—I don’t know how else to say this—sighs. The knots in my neck untie, brambles in my back untangle. This is what child’s pose used to feel like—the relaxation, the release—but yoga isn’t working for me right now. Neither is bourbon—I’ve been drinking too much—or sleeping—not much at all—or deep breaths or petting dogs or social media breaks or any of a thousand things we do to stay calm, don’t tell me to be calm. I am not fucking calm. I could explode this city with my rage.

I let go of the axe.

Sliced air and the gunshot of steel on board. The blade sinks and sticks in the splintered wood, just to the right of the third ring. That’s okay. I don’t care about points. I’m not here to win. I’m not here to compete in a league or hang out with friends or even hit the target.

I want to split open.

2.

Rage is nothing new. But the policies and rhetoric of our current administration have kicked it screaming into the center of things. There are moments from this time that I will never un-see: children in cages under foil blankets. Hundreds of pairs of shoes left at the Capitol Building in Puerto Rico, belonging to people who died during Hurricane Maria but weren’t counted in the official death pole. A statement by a tiki torch manufacturer saying they didn’t support white supremacists. A child-sized bulletproof backpack in polka dot pink, sold for a hundred and fourteen dollars on Amazon. A photo of white men in suits congratulating one another as they legislate womens’ bodies. A photo of Merrick Garland. A photo of Sandra Bland. Christine Blasey Ford saying that she remembers the stairwell, the bedroom, and “the uproarious laughter.”

Last March, I spent an hour on the floor of my office when the university where I teach went on lockdown due to an active shooter. My son’s elementary school a mile away was on lockdown, too, “because of something happening at Northwestern.” Later, once he knew I was okay, once he could see past the terror of his own imagination, he had a question. He has a lot of questions. Why don’t people want his uncles to get married? Why did we have to wait until the first of the year to go to the doctor? Why can he play with squirt guns in the front yard and his cousin cannot? What is treason?

This time, he asked if I was scared.

It already felt like another lifetime: lights off, door locked, under my desk. I watched my students share information on social media. I memorized the carpet, the bookshelves. I tried to breath. I don’t do well with shootings—I don’t think anyone should do well with shootings—but no, I said to my son. I wasn’t scared. I was angry. I am angry. I think anger is a logical response to the world. I think it’s beneficial; a warning siren that something is wrong and needs our attention. It shows us where the fight is.

When anger isn’t heard, it turns to rage.

Here’s something I’ve been trying: when I feel it—the lightning bolt zipping up my spine, yelling what the actual fuck at my newsfeed—I think, “How can I be of use?” A DIY sort-of classical conditioning: turning the visceral, often ugly emotion into a positive response. Working with young people. Donating what I can. Supporting local organizers and progressive candidates, listening to their expertise and amplifying their efforts. The seemingly small stuff, too: shoveling my neighbor’s sidewalk. Writing YOU ARE TALENTED AND ATTRACTIVE in the snow on all the car windows up and down my block. Paying off other people’s library fines. Carrying around extra hand warmers for people who are cold. Carrying cash to tip. Tipping well. Listening well. My writing and my parenting and my body in the street.

3.

And yet—the lightning bolt. What the actual fuck.

I’m trying to understand what is happening to me. I’m reading about the difference between anger and rage, about what happens when the basic feeling goes unattended, when we don’t listen to ourselves, our bodies. If anger is the siren, rage is the tornado. If the siren goes off for centuries, for millennia–and we don’t pay attention to the blaring goddamn noise–we will be struck by full force winds. Ferocious. Destructive. Medieval Latin rabia, from Latin rabies or “anger-fury,” akin to Sanskrit rabhas or “violence.”

I get stuck on that last part.

I’m pulling out clumps of my own hair. I’m gnawing the insides of my cheeks. I’m “accidentally” dropping dishes; the satisfaction of the crash, bare feet bloody on the kitchen floor. Here is my body: spiked adrenaline, skewed temporal perspective, and high endurance, like when I was eighteen working night shifts at Arby’s and I stuck my hand into the deep fryer. My jaw is locked. My pulse on fast-forward. Lately I’ve noticed that my butt hurts; a physician-friend explained that we hold tension in our pelvic muscles and everybody’s walking around with their asses clenched. I’m always hot, my internal thermostat cranked. Someone on the internet suggested it was menopause and I killed him with my brain. I am doing a lot of awful things with my brain. I am Dark Willow in Season 6 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I am Jean Grey, Phoenix, when she atomizes The Professor. I am a woman in America in 2018. My imagination is a dangerous place.

In an interview about her book Anger and Forgiveness, University of Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum named something that felt vital, like she was reaching through the words and talking just to me: “With lots of things—say, having good health, or having a fit body—we think it’s worth working on that every day. But somehow, we give ourselves a pass when it comes to anger.”

I don’t want a pass.

I want to split open, my guts on the table. I want to see this rage.

4.

I have recently started therapy.

5.

And axe-throwing.

6.

It began, yes, at the Bristol Renaissance Faire, a thirty-acre Elizabethan village at the border of Illinois and Wisconsin. For twenty-five dollars you can walk straight into 16th Century England, complete with period costumes, elaborate jousting matches, and spit-roast chicken on a stick. There’s a professional whip-cracker who apparently holds twenty-three world records including Most Candles Extinguished With a Whip in One Minute (102, if you’re curious). There are under-the-radar sub-narratives like Queen Elizabeth’s anniversary party abruptly cut short with urgent business from Don Guerau de Espés del Valle, Court Ambassador of Spain. There are hundreds if not thousands of people in chain mail and corsets and Musketeer hats with large curling feathers including, Google tells me, a Games of Thrones invasion weekend by a cosplay group aptly and brilliantly called Midwesteros.

It’s bonkers.

I loved it.

My friend Sarah worked there in college—she played some sort of singing minstrel maiden-wench—and now takes her family every summer. Last year, my son and I tagged along. I was nervous. I’m not good with crowds. I forget to breathe. My skin turns weird patchwork red which is a terrible gauge of a panic attack because it also happens when I’m furious or embarrassed or turned on. Probably the last place I should be with my various anxieties is a heavily-populated tourist re-enactment of English Feudal society, but Sarah asked me to be there. Her five-year-old daughter, Sophia, had a week off from a year-long chemo regimen and we were going to celebrate. We were going to enjoy ourselves. We were going to the goddamn Ren Faire.

“Look, the mud pit!” she told our kids; three young boys and Sophia in her pigtails and heart-shaped sunglasses. To look at this little girl, you wouldn’t know she has a brain tumor. You wouldn’t know what this family is fighting. “The Queen’s Parade!” Sarah went on, her excitement contagious. “The Fairy Glen! The pirates!” She bought the kids Sassafras and giant pickles and introduced them to people she’d performed with years before, jesters and bards and swordspeople.

“Megan?” It was Scott, Sarah’s husband, his eyes on the chickenpox-looking blotches appearing on my arms. “You okay?”

We’d been there all day. The crowd was a lot. The heat was a lot. 2017—a lot.

“I think I’m having an acid flashback,” I whispered. Our children watched acrobats juggle fire on unicycles on a tightrope.

He studied me. “We’ll be back,” he told Sarah, and to me—“Let’s go.”

First, he got me water.

Then, absinthe.

And then, axe-throwing.

Bristol’s set-up was a big wooden booth, its back walls painted with Feudal coats-of-arms. A man in a leather jerkin hands you an axe, which doesn’t look like an axe, at least not what we think of when we think axe: hatchet, tomahawk, splitting maul. I’ve spent countless hours on the Medieval Weapons Internet trying to place it: a flat, Y-shaped slab of iron, its blade curved upwards like a whale’s tail. Was it a Halberd? A Fransisca? An Irish Gallowglass? A backwards Bardiche? Some sort of battle-axe, I guessed. Made for combat. For violence, as opposed to a tool.

I’m interested in the linguistic distinction between tool and weapon. One intended for making; the other, violence. The axe is the longest-used tool in human history, dating to the Paleolithic era. It’s also most certainly a weapon: Lizzie Borden, Trotsky, and the Villisca Axe Murders, to name a few, and Jack Nicholson in the last half of The Shining. What happens when these words are confused, like the human understanding of extraterrestrial languages in Arrival? When does the thing meant to help us become the thing that hurts us—say, nuclear energy and the atom bomb?

“You too have your tools,” wrote Kafka in a passage about fear, and I thought of that line whenever I was scared: I will get through this. I can talk to friends, write about it. Years later, I came across a different translation of the same text: “You too have your weapons.” That seemingly simple switch changed the entirety of my inner dialogue: I will defend myself, I will fuck you up, come and get me, fear.

In 2016, my son started coming from the playground with new words: bitch and shit and hell and—when the Access Hollywood tapes came out the month before the presidential election—pussy. We talked about what they meant. About context and tone. About intention and impact.

Language is a tool. Language is a weapon.

Scott slammed axes one after the other into the center of the target, then paid the four bucks for another round. His ferocity surprised me. He’s such a gentle, patient guy. He needs this, I realized. In the two years since Sophia’s diagnosis, I’d helped take care of his sons. I took his wife out to get her mind off it, as if that were possible. I’d like to say I helped with Sophia, but the opposite is true. That little girl reminds me of who I want to be in this mess of a world.

“Your turn,” Scott said, nodding at the axe in front of me.

I held it out to him. “You need it more than I do.”

He raised one eyebrow and said, “You sure about that?”

It was mid-July, a few weeks before the Senate vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act. I was terrified of losing insurance for my family and everyone’s families, on the phone every day to my reps. I was writing about women’s reproductive healthcare under Trump, reading stories that gutted me. My home state was about to enter its third year without a budget and the arts and educational communities I work with in Chicago were suffering massive cuts. I had an essay collection coming out about fear and every interviewer was asking what—in 2017, under this administration—did I think we should we do?

Listen and act and hope, I said, but what I was thinking was who the hell am I?

I looked at Scott. I looked at the target in front of me, a nighttime sky painted yellow on a dark blue shield. I looked at my stack of axes with their strange, tail-shaped blades and then—without aiming or even really thinking—I stuck each one in the center of the moon.

My ferocity surprised me.

“WA-HOO!” Sarah screamed from behind us, the best of any cheerleader. I turned and, next to her, in a Von Trapp sort-of line, were our boys—mouths hanging open because who knew mom was such a good shot?—and Sophia, who’d taken off her sunglasses to watch. “That was good, Megan,” she said. “Very good,” said her dad, taking dollars out of his wallet. “You want to go another round?” And then, because not fifteen minutes earlier I was freaking out, pounding absinthe and swelling up like a balloon, he leaned in close and asked, gently, “How do you feel?”

7.

I could answer that question a hundred ways and all of them would be true.

Lucky.

Exhausted.

Terrified.

Like I could get under the covers and stay there forever but then I remember the times in my life—I’m thinking specifically of the first few years after my son was born, on the ground with postpartum depression—when I could not get up. Other people got up in my place. They fought and taught and tried and helped. I can do that now. Others can’t, with good reason. They have to take care of their families, their health, or it’s dangerous for their bodies in our current political climate in ways that it isn’t for me with my various privileges so I will get up. I’m up. I’m here.

And I’m fucking furious.

 

8.

Competitive axe-throwing goes back to lumberjacks in the late 1800s, but its contemporary indoor equivalent was started by a guy in a Viking metal band. He threw parties in his backyard in Toronto with axes and booze, and people showed up via word of mouth until they had an informal league. Scoring was added—each ring around the bullseye holds a different points value—and in 2011 they moved into their first warehouse. Now there are dozens of axe-throwing centers in Canada and across the United States.

Of the two in Chicago, one is twenty minutes west of our apartment. I learned this in September on the day Betsy DeVos rescinded sexual assault protections on college campuses. I’ve been teaching creative nonfiction for twenty years and long ago lost count of the young women and queer and gender nonconforming people who put their hearts on pages and hand those pages to me saying please, please, please don’t tell because they don’t trust the systems that are supposed to protect them. I choke on that word: protection. We shouldn’t need protection. We should be able to walk into the classroom or dorm or boardroom or bar or park or grocery store or anywhere without needing a bodyguard or a wing person or a knife in our goddamn pocket and while the protections under the Department of Education weren’t perfect, they were something, a start, a way of saying we see you and you matter and we’re trying.

My husband found me crying in the bathroom and asked how he could help.

Vote. Donate. Teach our son to dismantle the white cis hetero patriarchy.

“I would like to throw axes,” I said.

We got a babysitter.

Thunderbolt Chicago is a double-lot storefront in Portage Park.[1] There’s a mannequin in the window—it has a beard—and an enormous Chicago flag hanging the length of the wall, blue horizontal stripes at the top and bottom and, between, four crossed red axes replacing the red six-pointed stars. I paid for street parking, silently cursing the mayor for leasing our parking meters to a private hedge company that’s always jacking prices. I am constantly cursing our mayor. I do it instinctively and automatically—ugh, Rahm—like how Catholics cross themselves when they enter a church.

Inside, the place was packed; people across the spectrum of age and race and gender. There were dudes in shredded Slayer t-shirts and direct-from-work in fancy suits. There were obvious first dates, both queer and straight, trying to impress each other, like well, son, your mom threw that hatchet and I knew she was the one. There were grandmothers with their granddaughters and full-on Girls Nights Out. While axe-throwing started out as a boy’s club—everything I read about its origins emphasized the word testosterone—my Thunderbolt instructor told me that over 60% of their clientele are women.

I’m not surprised.

There were ten throwing lanes, built of plywood and separated by chain-link fencing. Target-boards were drilled into the far walls and replaced several times a night, “depending on how good you are.” Music was blasting but I don’t remember what; all I can hear is the delicious thwump of the axe, the yaaaay if you stick it, the awwww if you don’t. The ground was a layer of sawdust and splinters, with colored lines painted at various distances in accordance with the National Axe Throwing Federation. “Fifteen feet from the target,” our instructor explained, tapping his toe on the black line. He went over throwing basics and safety guidelines. He was patient and helpful and very shy. I don’t remember his name. Let’s call him Jerry.

Jerry handed me the axe.

It’s important to note that my son and I had just watched the movies Thor and Thor: The Dark World in preparation for the wide release of Thor: Ragnarok. If you are not up-to-date on Norse mythology and/or Marvel, Thor is the God of Thunder and he has a hammer named Mjölnir and if you stamp its handle twice on the ground it can summon lightning and rain and when I took the axe from Jerry I imagined—for one glorious, cinematic second—squatting in the sawdust, stamping the axe, and bringing forth the storm of all storms that would reach to the White House and wash all this bullshit away.

I know an axe is not a hammer. I know I’m not a superhero. I know a story can’t save us. But it can show us how to save ourselves.

“An axe,” wrote Kafka, “for the frozen sea within us.”

I stacked my fists on the axe handle like Jerry had showed me and set my foot at the line. Forward, back, forward, back. My strength. My body. I lifted my arms over my head, leaned back, and—I missed. Again. And again. I’d expected to feel frustration, that the satisfaction would come from sticking the target, like sinking an eight-ball in the corner pocket or bowling a 7-10 split. Instead it was the release, like I’d been carrying around a big heavy suitcase and could finally put it down, if even for a single hour.

Proper etiquette is five throws, then pass the axe to your partner. I kept trying to pass the axe to my husband, but he wouldn’t take it. “You need it more than I do,” he said from behind the yellow spectator line.

He is worried about me.

I am worried about me, too.

9.

Maybe I’m writing about axes because I don’t want to write about therapy. Maybe I’m writing about rage because I don’t want to write about depression.

I don’t want to be back here.

The year after my son was born is blurry at best, but here’s a memory in 3D/XD: we were at IKEA (fucking IKEA) for cheap Swedish baby furniture, up on the third floor for lunch. We were having a hard time breastfeeding. My son was screaming. He was starving. Milk was squirting everywhere. I couldn’t feed him and was kicking the shit out of myself because of it. My body is supposed to know this. At the next plastic green table was another woman with her baby and her nursing-scarf-thing and her perfect little plate of meatballs, all of it so easy and peaceful, and I gathered a chunk of the inside of my cheek, bit down and drank my own blood. Later, when he was safely asleep with his dad, I leaned over the rail and stared down three stories to the concrete floor of the warehouse at the bottom. So easy and peaceful.

I remember weaving my fingers through the side of the shopping cart to make sure I didn’t jump.

“One view of clinical depression explains it as sourced in suppressed anger,” wrote Ursula K. Le Guin in her essay “On Anger.” “If so, no wonder a lot of people are depressed, and no wonder so many of them are women. They are living with an unexploded bomb.”

10.

I threw axes throughout the fall, waking up every morning to new impossible cruelties—the Muslim Ban, Charlottesville, DACA, the shooting in Las Vegas—and my own personal mountains: insurance, depression, and like many women, the lockbox in my head that opened when the Harvey Weinstein story broke. That day I taught two classes, plus six student conferences and a thing at my kid’s elementary school. I couldn’t rush off to Thunderbolt. It’s not socially acceptable to carry an axe around in your bag, not to mention awkward as hell, and anger isn’t something you can plan for in advance, though by now I should expect the feeling. In Chicago, we pack umbrellas even when Tom Skilling says it’s sunny. In America, we’re ready for rage.

I locked myself in my office and looked for something to throw (books? papers? paperclips?), but instead I read Twitter and sobbed. I am lucky to have a door I can shut, a private place to break apart. In my last job, I had a cubicle in an enormous room with fifty other people. When I needed to cry or rage or punch things, I’d ride the elevator, up and down, up and down, and then back to my desk. Back to work. Hold it in, push it down, set it aside for a more “appropriate” time and until then, honey, smile. We’ve been trained for this our entire lives. “Anger is treated in our culture as a particularly masculine expression of emotion,” wrote psychotherapist Laura Kacere. “Women are often taught to turn anger inward.”

I wonder what it would look like if we turned our anger outward.

11.

I’ve been in Chicago for twenty-two years, always in apartments, never with a yard. I haven’t needed one. There’s a block and a lake and public art and public parks and porches and coffee shops and restaurants and festivals and libraries and spraying fire hydrants and bike paths and sidewalk chalk and empty streets at night spread clean with snow under the moon.

I want one now, though.

I want a place to throw shit. To split open, to break.

My own kind of room of one’s own.

I mentioned on Facebook that I wanted a yard and within the hour, I was offered dozens. You can use mine! and Bring your axe over here! and We have a trampoline! My favorite: I have a fire pit, too, if you want to burn things.

Those comments made me cry.

12.

My friend Amanda is who you want in the apocalypse. She’s an excellent navigator, an urban gardener, and a nonprofit theatre director which means she makes things out of nothing and can effectively organize large groups of people so we don’t go all Lord of the Flies. In the car on the way to Thunderbolt, I asked if there was a specific reason she wanted to throw axes. Anger? Stress? The world is a shit-show? It was a month into #metoo and, like me and women everywhere, she carries her own stories.

There are so many stories. I want to rip down the sky.

Amanda glanced over her shoulder to parallel park. “I would like to improve my axe-throwing skills,” she said. “I would like to be prepared.”

“Prepared for what?” I asked, paying the meter. Ugh, Rahm.

“Everything.”

Jerry walked us through the safety guidelines and asked who wanted to go first. At this stage in my game, I was axe-throwing regularly, getting good, getting cocky, and I nodded towards Amanda like let the new girl go. She took the axe in one hand, tested its weight, and, with the ease of grabbing a Kleenex or pouring more coffee, swung it down past her leg, up and over her head, and straight dead center in the center ring.

“Whoa,” Jerry said.

“How—?” I said.

“I used to lead adventure trips,” Amanda said, retrieving the axe from the board. “I make my own tomahawks, too.”

For the next hour, she sunk every shot and helped me do better, which in retrospect is an excellent description of our relationship. She has directed my work for over a decade, teaching me the connections between performance and literature, language and breath. From her, I learned to listen to my body, to shut my eyes and read my own insides. It’s survival as well as art; she lives with multiple sclerosis and is tuned in to every heartbeat, what it might mean and where it could lead.

Art, survival—same thing.

“Stand back,” she instructed. “You’re under-rotating.”

“Don’t let go so soon, you’re throwing high.”

“Bend at the knees when you pick up the axe,” and more gently: “I don’t want you to hurt yourself.” She’s talking about the year I spent in physical therapy after a back injury. Or the year I spent crying after my son was born. Or this year; I’m a mess and she knows it and she loves me and I’m lucky.

We shredded the boards and Jerry came to replace them. Talking was useless over the power drill, so instead I watched her. She wears tailored dress pants that are secretly yoga pants and stretches wherever she’s standing; the stage, the boardroom, the subway. She has an enormous anatomical heart tattooed on her bicep, a heart on her sleeve. She recently had a flare-up that required hospitalization and was fighting with insurance companies. She’s always fighting with insurance companies. So is Sarah, for Sophia. So am I. So are so many of us, lives on the line.

Jerry finished and I lifted the axe, fifteen feet back from the new, pristine target, smooth wood and bright painted rings. It’s easier when you have a clean shot. It’s easier when you know where to aim. “See, that’s the problem!” I yelled at my therapist when she asked the ridiculously obvious question of what are you angry about, Megan. “I don’t know where to focus! Which target to choose! Every day there’s a new cause of fury and I’m not done being furious about the thing I was furious about yesterday so where do you put your energy and your time and your heart?

“I know what your problem is,” Amanda said, studying me as I studied the target. “You’re thinking too hard.”

This is not the first time I have heard this.

“I’m trying to figure something out,” I told her.

“About what?”

“About rage.”

I let the axe go. It bounced off the board and hit the floor.

“What if you stopped thinking about it?” she said. “What if you let yourself feel it?”

13.

I recently read an interview with Shannon Downey of Badass Cross Stitch, whose embroidered Feminist pieces have repeatedly gone viral. My favorite is an enormous red hoop she made for the Women’s March that reads: I’M SO ANGRY I STITCHED THIS JUST SO I COULD STAB SOMETHING 3000 TIMES. “I’m not trying to make these things pretty,” she told Chicago Magazine. “I want you to see the rage in my work.”

It occurs to me that even now, here, writing about my own rage, I’m not letting you see it. I’m making it pretty; reflection, scene construction, careful sentences.

The truth would look a little more like this: What the fuck. I mean—fuck. And then the word fuck repeated a couple hundred times like the Lorrie Moore story where the whole page is filled with Ha! or the part in Dept. Of Speculation by Jenny Offill where she writes SO SCARED over and over, or maybe something like “The Tell-Tale Heart,” where the madness and rage comes up from the text and into your fingers. I’d ask myself if talking about these writers was me trying to avoid my true feelings and I’d get up to pour some bourbon because the whole what are my true feelings question makes me want to drink which is unfortunate for someone who writes personal narrative. Then I’d write some personal narrative because that’s what I do. It’s how I understand myself. It’s how I understand the world. At first I wouldn’t know where to start but I’d remember my therapist telling me to pick a target, organizers teaching me to focus my efforts, and my favorite song by Dessa: If you don’t aim for the center / it’s a waste of the art. Last winter I was in a Lyft on the way to the airport and it was announced on the radio that the Silence Breakers had been chosen as Time Magazine’s Person of the Year and the guy driving said, “Fucking bullshit.”

 I didn’t say anything.

He said it again, louder.

“I can’t stand those bitches,” he said.  He was looking at me in the rearview mirror. He wanted me to react. He wanted to fight. I kept my mouth shut because it was 6am and I was tired and I didn’t want to talk to this man about sexual assault, my own or my friends’ or my students’ or the women in Time Magazine or the women and non-binary people anywhere and everywhere.

“Fucking SJWs,” he said, which if you don’t know stands for Social Justice Warrior, which is a thing I am called occasionally on the internet. I do count myself as a person who fights for social justice (or tries to, at least); but the phrase is often accompanied by insults and the occasional death or rape threat (one in particular was spelled r-a-p and it took me a minute to figure out he’d forgotten the e). I realized with that too-familiar tangle of annoyance and fear that I was locked in the back of a car with the comment section of the internet and he outweighed me twice over, was still staring at me in the rearview, still waiting for me to say something and what would he do if I did? God, I am tired of thinking about men. The times I was tending bar and assholes said things about what I’d be like in bed but I couldn’t leave because I was at work. The times I sat in faculty meetings and colleagues said things that I had to laugh off. The times I stood in my closet thinking if I wear that dress will someone comment on my body even though men have been commenting on my body since I was twelve years old and it doesn’t matter if I wear a turtleneck or a short skirt or overalls or a Hazmat suit. The times I walked from the L to my apartment and was followed and do you keep walking home because then you’ll be home and safe? Or do you turn in another direction so they don’t know where you live? Or do you turn and say something knowing full well how fast and often these moments turn violent? Or do you turn into an eagle and fly, fly away? Or do you turn bright green and your muscles swell up and split your dress and then you eviscerate the fucker like She-Hulk did to the Wrecking Crew when she thought they killed her friend The Wasp in “Secret Wars” #7? I really like She-Hulk. [2] I like how she retains her intelligence and emotional control when she gets angry, a balance between her humanity and her rage. We don’t lose our shit completely. Do you know what would happen if we lost our shit completely? If I told that Lyft driver how wrong he was, how stupid he sounded, how scared I felt in his car, how angry I am at that fear, how angry I am to be here—again—still—this is not an isolated incident, this is not new, this is a woman in the back of a cab, a woman at the grocery store, a woman crossing the street, a woman on the internet, a woman in a bar, a woman in America in 2018, and I realize that one hand has the cell phone ready and the other is wrapped around the door handle in case I have to throw myself out of this moving car. I didn’t have to think about those movement. They’re in my bones, as natural and instinctive as putting your hands out when you’re about to fall or rocking back and forth when you’re holding a baby. This is not what I want my body to know. I don’t want protection. I don’t want self-preservation. I want to go for the axe. I want to go for the throat. I want to reach my arm straight through the back of the driver’s side seat, through his body, and out through his ribcage, his oozing heart gripped tight in my fist.

I want rage.

14.

I am the exploding bomb.

15.

A friend is learning the choreography to every—yes, every—Beyoncé song. Another tells me he watches pro-wrestling, to “see dumb motherfuckers regularly get beat on.” A former student plays bass in a prog metal band: “Watching a mosh pit erupt to something you made is the greatest release.” A minister on Facebook explains that his church is a designated place of non-anger: “The first hymn in our hymnal is May Nothing Evil Cross This Door.” My cousin has been knitting the same scarf since the election. “It’s twenty feet long,” he said. “I don’t know how to stop.”

Sex. Books. Booze. Good food/bad food. Hours of video games and Netflix. Sleeping, sleeping pills, and antidepressants. Weed, mostly, but hard stuff, too. Forced relaxation. Structured violence. Several women I know have signed up for roller derby. They’re taking kickboxing classes, mixed martial arts, Ultimate Fighting, self-defense. “With so many of us feeling destabilized,” wrote Catherine Lacey for Vogue, “is it any wonder that boxing gyms and dojos across the nation are seeing a significant swell in attendance, especially among women?”

Fists stacked at the base of the handle, foot at the line.

 

16.

When I reserved the lane last week, I’d invited Sarah to come with me. She needs this. They’d spent the last three days at the hospital: tests and more tests and Sophia’s quarterly MRI, where they’d find out if the tumor was shrinking let it be shrinking please god please. There were sedatives and needles and fasting and waiting. So much waiting. “Any news?” asked her brothers when I picked them up from school, and I realized how much I loathed that word.

News.

Language is a tool. Language is a weapon.

To my surprise, Sarah didn’t want to go. She was exhausted. She didn’t want to throw things. She wanted to wrap herself around her children, laugh with them. “I promise myself that I will enjoy every minute of the day that is given me to live,” wrote Thich Nhat Hanh in his book Anger, and I think of who I want to be in this mess of a world.

It was early when I got to Thunderbolt, only two lanes occupied. I said hi to Jerry, dumped my stuff in the cubby, and stood at the line. Forward, back. Forward.

Forward.

I don’t think about the movements anymore. They’re in my bones. A lifetime since I lived in Michigan and I still reach for fireflies. A decade out of the service industry and I can’t stop busing tables. How to turn your toes in a roundhouse kick. How to turn into the slide on an icy road. How to touch yourself; the pressure, the pace. My phone is at the ready when I walk alone at night, I reach for my kid’s hand when we cross the street, I jump back when waves slam furious against the pier near my apartment. My body knows: don’t fuck with Lake Michigan. My body knows: Listen and act and hope and rage.

I let go of the axe.

I let go.

 

 

  • [1] While I was working on this essay, Thunderbolt joined the Backyard Axe Throwing League out of Canada and became BATL Chicago which is fine and all but to me, Thunderbolt is Thunderbolt, the same way that Comiskey is Comiskey and Marshall Fields is Marshall Fields and the Sears Tower is the Sears Tower and the Hancock is the Hancock and the Tribune is the Tribune. Screw you, Tronc.  ↩
  • [2] When will She-Hulk get a movie?  ↩
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