I met Leah in an elevator. I'd seen her picture in the paper Teach for America Look Book (you know, just to make the already-sketchy organization a little more like a dating website), and she had been impossible to forget. Most of the TFA Corps members in the book (self included) looked like photocopied images of each other: toothy, buttoned down, and with an expression that somehow managed to say, "I gave the speech at my college graduation. What have YOU ever done?" Leah had chosen a picture where you could see her tattoos. She was wearing a cupcake-themed apron and holding a tray of baked goods, while she stuck out her tongue like she was on the cover of a Bikini Kill poster. So I was obsessed with her before I even met her.
When we ended up in the same elevator at TFA Institute, I said, "Hey! You're Leah, right? You're the girl who picked Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World as your favorite book in the Look Book?" Leah was super enthusiastic to meet me. After establishing that we were both vegans, she also told me an abridged version of her life story, and summarized basically the entire series plot line of Six Feet Under -- and all this before we got off the elevator.
From that day on, Leah was my official antidote to all things TFA. She skipped lectures and drove me in her hybrid car (in a time when hybrid cars were hard to come by) to the underground vegan restaurants in Tempe, Arizona. I knew she was way cooler than I was, but I was determined to never let her find out.
We moved in together about a year later, into this tricked-out shotgun in Mid City Leah found on Craigslist. We had cats (three), and chickens (four), and we spent Sundays baking or listening to records. It was the most As-Seen-On-TV twee-ass living situation you could've imagined, and frankly, I felt like I'd discovered the meaning of life.
Leah grew up kinda Jewish and extremely radical. She didn't shave her legs and she didn't care what people thought about that. When people said racist or sexist shit, Leah called them out, loudly. She rode her bike everywhere, even when we had just moved to New Orleans and the landscape was alien. She had worn every hair color and gotten everything pierced, and she had tattoos of pages from children's books before Girls was even an idea in Lena Dunham's brain. She went out. She met people. She knew slang terms for street drugs.
In contrast, I had never ridden a bike, because that sounded scary. Instead, I drove a Volvo, in which I listened to NPR and on which I had a bumper sticker that said, "I Fund Public Television." I bought my clothes at Forever 21 or H&M out of naiveté coupled with frugality, and while I had a quarter-sized bird tattoo on the back of my neck, I always wore my (brown) hair down long enough so that no one had to know. I revered Leah, but was always terrified that she was going to find out that my quirky black-rimmed glasses were not a fashion statement, but a manifestation of sheer utility.
And, in fact, that fear got in the way of our friendship. I found myself feeling terrified of not being cool enough for Leah. I didn't want her to know that I was going to spend another Friday night alone in my room, watching Gilmore Girls and making food-themed necklaces out of Sculpey. I started buying clothes based on the question, "Would Leah want to borrow this?" I began to get distant. Leah noticed, and was annoyed. There was a great, wide tension between us; I had this sense that I would never be good enough. And then Leah decided to host a Passover seder at our house.
I didn't know what to expect. My (agnostic) grandparents had taken me to Passover seders before, at their (non-practicing) Jewish friends' houses. I knew the seders to be fairly traditional, very long, and to involve a lot of singing in Hebrew. I couldn't imagine Leah singing in Hebrew. It was like trying to imagine Bob Ross doing a strip tease.
But, of course, it wasn't an ordinary seder. It was something called a Rainbow Seder, which was all about accepting everyone, being open-minded, and celebrating liberation. There was singing in Hebrew (which was just as strange to witness as I'd imagined), but there was also conversation about oppression, and vegan matzoh ball soup.
There was a moment during the seder where Leah asked everyone to go around and share about a time they had been in "a tight space." She meant she wanted people to talk about times when they had been oppressors, or times when they had felt oppressed. She emphasized that this was a safe space to talk about challenges in our world, and to say things that were difficult to say.
Everyone went around saying things like, "I feel like when I am at rallies, I don't always shout loud enough so that the cops can hear;" or, "I fucking hate men who tell me I don't know shit about cars." They were all perfectly valid things to say, but no one was sacrificing their cool. Everyone was saying things that weren't scary to say; things you could have guessed by looking at them were things they believed.
And then it was Leah's turn. The thing Leah said -- which I'm not going to write here, out of respect for the safe space she created -- was hard. It was a kind of ugly truth that didn't make Leah look cool at all. She said it, and then she said she was going to notice it in herself and work to change. And then there was a very heavy silence.
That was the moment that Leah changed in my eyes. She had just given everyone permission to be explicit about the fact that, in terms of being the people we want to be in the world, we are all still learning. We are all still challenged. We all still do things we aren't proud of. There were people in the circle, I remember, who kind of shook their heads, like they felt like they were supposed to. For me, it was like an enormous weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I was reminded that the first and most important step towards true freedom and liberation in our world is honesty.
It's been five years since then, and last night I went to Leah's house (no longer one I share with her) for her annual Passover seder. This year, it was explicitly called a liberation seder. The Haggadah was filled with stuff about New Orleans; about oppression and liberation in the world of 2014; and about anti-Zionism. It was deeply radical, and also very beautiful. Leah had us go around and talk about "tight spaces" again, and I was knocked back to that first Rainbow Seder years before.
I looked around the room. There were new people there, and there were people who'd been at the first one. There were new babies and new marriages and people who had been in and out of relationships since then. This was a new house; Leah's not vegan anymore; the cats live outside now. Things have changed, but a lot has also stayed the same. But mostly, we all seem just a little more free.
I mean that as we get older, we all seem more comfortable just being the people we are. I never think Leah is judging me anymore (although I still spend my Friday nights the way I did back then -- just without all that guilt and regret). I am using my newfound self love to be more the kind of activist I want to be: loving, gentle, and loud about what I believe.
This is the theme of Passover, too: this rising up, this rebellion. To truly fight for human liberty, we have to first be grounded in ourselves and our own self-governance.
I learned that from Leah -- a person who was brave enough to be honest about her truth right from the beginning. When we talked about tight spaces this time, I tried to say the scariest things I could, just to model it the way someone had done for me five years ago. Maybe one day I'll also be able to not shave my legs. One step at a time.