This week you hear from Jenny Forrester. Jenny runs a reading series in Portland called Unchaste: Women Speaking Their Minds and even though this series occurs in my own town, I met her in Minneapolis at AWP, the giant writers conference where 15,000 introverts try to act like extroverts. And then I went and heard some of her readers—she carefully curates every month so that the readers and stories build even though she has no idea what a particular reader is going to do—and I was hooked. These writers tackled everything from queer rhetoric and breakups to mass shootings to spoken word poetry about trying to jump in the river and drown.
Here’s what Jenny said about why she calls the series “Unchaste” in an interview done with Literary Arts: “We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t, so we may as well be ourselves. We are Unchaste by default because we’re women. Let’s be that then and embrace our many ways of navigating our wondrous and frightening and complex experiences and our many realities.”
So grab a cup of coffee, sit back and read how Jenny navigates the wondrous and complex experience of being sensitive.
The Authenticity Experiment, the sensitivity edition. My mother said I was born sensitive. My brother said I had “fragile problems.”
“You’d cry if I looked at you cross-eyed,” she said. “You still cry about every little thing.” I heard the words “Sensitive” and “Oversensitive” often – when we hung the deer to bleed in the barn, and I cried, when we plucked the chickens, and I cried, and when anyone said “I was only kidding” and when anyone called me a “city girl.” My sensitivities covered issues animal cruelty and childhood bullying injustices. I saw injustice everywhere and cried over it.
The struggle with my sensitivity has been a lifelong endeavor, a tangle of trying to be sensitive and trying not to be, of learning when someone else’s sensitivity is
more important than my own, of not claiming all sensitive issues as my own, and of learning the difference being fragile, like my brother said, and being sensitive, like my mother said.
As a teenager, struggling with sensitivity as my near-sole identity and wanting to see it as a good thing, I told my mom, “I think being sensitive makes people nicer.”
She said, “I think being sensitive makes people tender so they know how to hurt people more.”
She was a tired single mother, working as a teacher and as a waitress. Dealing with my sensitivities and what my brother called “fragile problems” couldn’t have been easy. She needed me to be easier which meant less sensitive because the lives we were living then didn’t have the space for it, but I didn’t understand that then, being fragile.
I ran to my room and cried.
I tried to change. I tried not to take things personally. I tried not to cry.
I learned to “take a joke.” I watched horror movies and movies with what we called “Boy Humor” to desensitize myself. I prayed to God to make me stronger, braver. For a time, I faked being less sensitive, pushed it down to a corner the way you do and heard boys say things like, “You’re not like other girls” and “You’re like one of the guys” which gave me a twisted kind of feeling of pride. They could say anything they pleased around me. I learned to laugh, even laughing at their “rape jokes.” I kept my mouth shut about the fears I had around guns, ubiquitous to the rural lifestyle.
Then I left rural Colorado and went to Phoenix, Arizona just before my 21st birthday and then to Portland, Oregon before my 31st birthday. Sometime in my becoming a city girl, the language of political correctness entered my awareness, and it was the language of sensitivity I’d always been seeking. It seemed to me to be the language of kindness, of seeking to be culturally sensitive and ethical in speech. It might mean other things to the rest of the world, but it was an idea that gave me words to break away from the bigoted bootstrap mythology of my childhood.
My sensitivity can make me sharp at the edges—my mother was right about that—but I want to use it to good purpose, to be a more authentic and compassionate human being because of it. I don’t know if I was born this way, but my sensitivity and suffering are intertwined. I’ll be forever working out the knots of it, being sensitive to every little thing, trying to be politically correct, getting hurt, and crying and listening to the sensitivities of others without being fragile for myself.
Jenny Forrester has been published in a number of print and online publications including Seattle’s City Arts Magazine, Nailed Magazine, Hip Mama, The Literary Kitchen, Indiana Review, and Columbia Journal. Her work is included in the Listen to Your Mother anthology, published by Putnam. She curates the Unchaste R
eaders Series. Her book, Narrow River, Wide Sky: A Memoir, will be published by Hawthorne Books March, 2017.
The manuscript for The Authenticity Experiment: Dispatches from a Season of Grief is at the publisher. Whew. And I’m going to start posting again soon. Meanwhile, feel free to buy a copy of Objects In Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear. If you buy during December, I’ll donate 25% of any sale to the Southern Poverty Law Center.