Fear & Speaking

Earlier today I read a NY Times article by Kathleen McCartney, President of Smith College, entitled: For Women, Glass Ceilings, and Glass Walls, Too. I’m trying to be selective about the post election articles I read, because it can take up a lot of time and often leaves me feeling sour. Here are a couple of quotes where she touched on topics that I’ve been chewing on this month. They relate to the behavior and comportment that is expected of women:

The psychologist Raymond Cattell coined a phrase — “coercion to the biosocial mean”… Society punishes people who deviate from culturally expected patterns or push boundaries. …Once, for example, a colleague told me that he thought I was “scary” when I voiced a strong opinion about a job candidate during a faculty meeting. I went home feeling chastised. The next day I checked with a few female colleagues; they had found me convincing, not scary.

[During the campaign] Reince Priebus, the current head of the Republican Party and future chief of staff for Mr. Trump, tweeted that Mrs. Clinton needed to smile more, a coded reminder that women must project beauty and deference to the male gaze.

I am reminded of occasions when I donned that Amazon cloak, precisely because I was fearful and ended up being criticized for “coming on too strong.” Damned either way.

So, today I’m asking myself: “Why do I write? Why am I ‘doing’ NaBloPoMo again this year?”  I struggle to say anything worth reading. No one is more surprised than I am when I reread a paragraph and find something in there that makes sense or is a good use of words to describe a sensation. Of course that can only happen if I do write down some words. So is that the point of writing? To occasionally surprise myself with some insightful (hopefully not merely clever) string of words?

I’ve always been keenly observant of people, a skill born of self-preservation as a child. Self-preservation and to be honest, fear. If someone was angry, I needed to know, almost before they were aware of it themselves, so that I could avoid the explosion. Then and now, if someone is sad, I feel compelled to tune in and too often, compulsively try to ‘help’, which really just amounts to butting into things that are not my business.

As a child, I was always fearful that someone might hurt themselves – or me – because they were hurting emotionally. Bad logic. Kid logic. Eh, I’ve never been very capable of logic. I am a gut instinct kind of girl. That can be good sometimes, I suppose, but it seems that my gut is just as likely to lead me down an unwise path.

Now I’m going to close this disjointed post with another quote. audrelordeMaybe I can use that as the topic of my remaining NaBloPoMo posts… quoting the writers that I admire, whose work has influenced my life and writing.

The late, great poet and activist Audre Lorde wrote:

I was going to die, sooner or later, whether or not I had even spoken… My silences had not protected me. Your silences will not protect you… What are the words you do not yet have? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? We have been socialized to respect fear more than our own need for language.

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Safety

LET US GO FORTH WITH FEAR AND COURAGE AND RAGE TO SAVE THE WORLD

                                                                                                 Grace Paley

 

Safely becoming. Already becoming. Always becoming. It is safe to become who I am. That sounds weird, but what I’ve been addressing lately was the un-safety of becoming a young woman; the un-safety that I experienced as a girl. I am really tired of re-plowing that ground and want to move on to something a little lighter.

And I do feel lighter, as if by sharing that story I’ve spit a stone out from my gut. Which implies that I once swallowed that stone. Did I? Or was the stone something that grew inside me like a kidney stone? Anyway, yesterday was a little rough, but by evening I began to feel that I had successfully regurgitated the stone. I am lighter and feel relief.

I got my first car, a 1966 Volvo wagon, just before I turned twenty-one. It was namedvolvo122samazon Amazon, not just by me, but by the Volvo company. No joke. When I checked out the owner’s manual, passed on to me by the guy from whom I bought the car, there it was. The manual was tiny, just over an eighth of an inch thick, compared to the volumes that come with cars today.

There on the binding it said AMAZON in small print. As a young feminist, I was delighted. The probably mythical Amazons were strong women, fighters from an ancient matrilineal society. It was imagery that I needed and eagerly grasped. If I could take on the bearing of an Amazon, I would be safe, without the need to be protected by others.

greekvaseamazonAmazon was an image that meant a lot to me in my twenties. I stood tall as I made my way into fields that had been previously defined as male-only. I took some flak for pushing my way in, but I didn’t back down. Then, somewhere in my thirties I lost sight of the Amazon incarnation, except as it applied to my cars. Each successive (I’m currently driving my fifth, and possibly final) Volvo wagon has been my Amazon.

It seems that I didn’t need to hold that self-image during my parenting years. I was strong because I was a mother. I was the protector of my child and always told her that what mattered the most to me was that she was safe and happy. Safe was and is a really important element of parenting. But now that she has begun to guide her own life and take responsibility for her own safety, in both the literal and figurative sense, I am back to me.

So I think once again about the Amazon within. What I sense is that the Amazon no longer needs to fight. She no longer needs to strike a pose, assuming the posture of a defender. I am a retired Amazon, solid and safe, by my own design. The world is no less threatening than it was 45 years ago, but I can meet those assailants, face those battles from a less militant stance.

I am solid, I am safe, a retired Amazon, content to focus more on my inner life than battlingavt_grace-paley_9439 the nightmares of my youth. Don’t misunderstand me; I am not stepping away from the need to speak out against injustice. Among the sheroes and fighting female role models I have known, the late Grace Paley was a shining example of a woman who never quit speaking (and acting) up.

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Shaping, part two

When I think of ‘shaping’ what comes to mind is sculpture.

There is obviously a type of sculpting that is additive… I picture an artist applying lumps of clay.  But the image of sculpture that I have is, well, subtractive, which is not a word that rolls off the tongue.

Somewhere, long ago I heard or read a sculptor describe the act of sculpting as finding, exposing, uncovering the figure or object that is inside the piece of wood or marble.  That is the way I have always pictured sculpture…

Finding what is hidden inside the raw material and exposing it, setting it free.

You can see where I am going with this, I suppose.  This wasn’t a conscious motivation when I felt driven to write about the childhood experience that laid down the law for me about the importance of female appearance. But it makes sense to me today. Those ‘formative’ experiences are what shaped me.

My personal experience may be more singular than other girls’, but I can state with confidence that each of us received that layer of shaping at some time in our youth.  It still assaults us from multitudinous directions. The best that I can say is that today it is possible for a girl to also receive the message that she is more than her looks, that she has intrinsic value as a human being.

But honestly, on this November day in 2016, it is too easy to yield to the belief that the tide has shifted.  The wave has pulled back from the shoreline that we have spent so long approaching.  Okay, perhaps I’ve gone a step too far with the metaphor.  My point is that the volume of regressive voices seems so much louder than the progress we have made.  Girls now can hear positive messages about their value, but the din of female value = appearance has never lost it strength.

You know, I didn’t intend to rant like this.  I guess it is the sound of another layer of anger being scraped off.  At this point, that seems to be the essence of ‘shaping’ my life.  It is about removing each lamination that has been applied over the years, in order to expose my true self.  Like a sculptor with a chisel facing a slab of marble or a beautiful piece of wood.

Chip, chip, pause; step back and look.

What is inside there to be discovered?   Me.

I’ve provided links to the eight women sculptors that I have featured here.  Their work is breathtaking and moving.  They are each amazing. 

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Shaping

My plan was to write about shaping and living my life, as in this quote from Pearl Cleage:

My mother’s passing was so important to my own realization that I was a grown woman. I understood then that there was nobody to stand between me and the shaping and living of my own life.

But then there was something I felt that I needed to deal with first.  Then I thought that I would not post this because it is too raw and personal.  Then I said: what the heck.ike2

The year is 1959. Imagine that. It’s the final year of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s second term as President and still very much the 50’s. No Kennedys in the White House. No race to the moon. I am only seven, so if there is activity in the movement for civil rights, I don’t know about it. I barely see the news and in first grade, we don’t discuss current affairs.walter My childhood life is circumscribed, but seems okay, if I don’t focus on certain things at home. I can watch the mouse-clubMickey Mouse Club on TV and pretend that I inhabit that heartwarming and imaginary world.

My maternal grandmother is spending a lot of time with us in NJ, because my grandfather is in Europe for his job. She refuses to fly in an airplane, so they live apart for many months at a time. I suspect that suited both of them. He was a dapper, worldly man and by all accounts, he thoroughly enjoyed his traveling adventures. She did not have a domestic bone in her body, so the relief of not having to make and maintain a home for him was, I suspect, quite pronounced. I will never know how having her mother around so much was for my mother, but since they never seemed cozy close, I suspect it was a strain.

So Nanna, as we call her, is essentially living with us, for a week or so at a time. Then someone will drive her back to her apartment for a week or so and then back she will come. Because she is so often with us, she has become a patient of our family doctor. What her ailments are, I do not know. Dr. P. has been our backyard neighbor all my life, with his office on the first floor of his home. He has just recently moved his practice into a new high-rise apartment building a few blocks away.

Nanna goes to see the doctor at least once a week and I go along with her. Whatever. I don’t suspect anything the first time they weigh me, but when they begin to track my weight on a weekly basis, I am a little confused. What’s up? Neither my sister nor my brother is being measured. Then, one day, Dr. P. who is a very large man, sits me down to explain. Nanna sits across the room, nodding approvingly.

The problem is that my size is wrong and unacceptable. He passes judgment, invoking all of his power as a medical man, to tell me that I am five pounds overweight and this is a crisis. Soon, he tells me, boys will start to pay attention to girls and I will be rejected, unwanted, because of my size. This sentence of doom is passed on to me as if by an oracle. This is my future: to be unwanted, ignored, unchosen.

I’d like to say that I didn’t get it, that I didn’t understand these dire predictions. On some level that’s true, since I wasn’t yet thinking of a future need for boy approval. But part of the message came in loud and clear, with every weekly weigh-in and with the change in my treatment at home. I was not okay. How I looked was not okay. My appearance was what really mattered, not my behavior, not my thoughtfulness, friendliness, kindness, sense of humor, intelligence or any other aspect of me. It was all about how I looked. My value, my worth was measured by a scale and tape measure. And they were telling me that as a little girl I was failing.

So, what does this have to do with the topic of shaping? Well, this was pivotal for me, this moment and the years that followed. In the bosom of my family I was repeatedly reminded that as a girl, what was most important was that I be attractive to boys. Doctor, parents and grandparents shaped me, with their attitudes, into a girl and then a woman who was stifling her own anger at the same time she was trying to live up to their expectations.

The ability to shape shift, to change my sense of self, did not really open up until my mother died, as Cleage notes in her essay. By that time, my rage at their ignorance and cruelty had been bottled up for decades, with occasional minor eruptions. After she was gone, there was only my father, who never stopped his misogynistic rants, never imagined questioning the belief that female value is based on appearance.

Yes, there are echoes of the revolting attitude and statements of PEOTOS here. Yes, I am angry. The cutting edge of that anger has been essential in my ability to begin “shaping and living my own life.”

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Breaking the Contract

“…Break[ing] the contract you signed when you were three years old, promising not to ever, ever tell the truth, promising your family secrets would go with you to the grave.”                                           Annie Lamott

Breaking the promise not to tell secrets. Breaking open the entire, so-often-toxic idea of secrets. Transparency has become a buzzword in the public sphere over the last couple of decades. Not that it has gone very well in that sphere, of course. The nature of the beast, public life, seems to include secrecy and behind-the-scenes manipulations in every public arena, from politics to business. But that’s not where I am going with this commentary. I’ll leave that to others who are more knowledgeable about those worlds. Mainly white men and those who have chosen to study and infiltrate those realms… women and people of color, for instance. Although learning a bit about those machinations intrigues me, I’m definitely not willing to invest my time to gain a thorough understanding.   jersey-girl

I am and have always been, perhaps by necessity, more interested in the secrecy and lack of transparency in the private sphere. My personal analysis is that white men, white Anglo Saxon men, men in general, have shaped the rules of secrecy in our personal lives in much the same way as in the world at large. ‘Protecting their power’ and control is one way to frame it. Of course there are widespread cultural differences of degree, but I feel comfortable asserting that this dynamic exists. I was raised in a culture that was rigorously shaped by WASP men and gender roles were fairly rigid. Men did not talk about feelings and if women needed or chose to, it must be kept out of sight. Hush, hush. No good would come of airing one’s emotions, much less troubles; that was the nearly iron clad rule.

On the most tragic level, this injunction forced women to suffer rape, sexual assault and abuse in silence. The victim-blaming and victim-shaming standards held sway for centuries and despite some advances in my lifetime, still hold women in a cage of secrecy. Trauma of any kind was something to be kept private, in spite of the obvious harm this caused to generally blameless humans, even or especially children.

Here we go…

If you have already seen something I’ve written about this, please forgive the repetition. goldtreeWhen my mother gave birth to a Downs Syndrome child in 1963, my baby sister’s very existence was kept a secret. When she died a little over a year later, the (dare I say, natural) need to mourn her death was truncated**, denied by the fact that if people did not know she had lived, how was grieving to take place? I was eleven years old. The package of secrecy and denial was tightly wrapped in a final (and I do mean final) injunction: we were never to speak of her again. The rare times that a spark of self-preservation leapt from my inner self and I spoke her name or referred to her life and our loss, I was smacked down quite vigorously.

There are chronologically earlier, and equally painful, examples in my family of the denial of reality by use of secrecy and others that came later in my childhood. They continued right through to the day I confronted my 84-year-old father about his excessive alcohol use. (The Alcoholics Anonymous program states that only the addict/alcoholic can take on that label and I agree, so I do not refer to him as such.) I confronted him and told him I had taken away his car keys. I named it, his drinking, a secret that had been protected by the family code of silence for my entire life. By naming it (and taking away those keys) I took away some of his power. He was furious, cursing me and trying to hit me with his cane, telling my mother that I did not belong in the family.

Those who know me, I think, would describe me as discreet, someone who can be trusted with confidential information; a compassionate listener, a kind and sensitive person. I also love surprises and will go to great lengths to assist in the planning of happy surprises. But do not come to me with a secret that is being held in order to protect someone who has power or that has the potential to harm someone less powerful. Mainly due to my early experiences, I’ve become a vigilante against toxic secrecy, down to my very core. I will not abide by the code of silence. I am committed to breaking that dreadfully coerced promise whenever I can.

** Truncated: ORIGIN late 15th cent. (as a verb): from Latin truncat- ‘maimed,’ from the verb truncare

I had no idea that truncated was also a mathematical term; I always pictured a tree trunk, like this:    5b3fopm8f7gsmkq7ovdd12xm7dlsjbclzjqimcqa1nlrx5wsughsjrwdgqwhihsc2lmds128 nablopomo_badge_2016

Crows

I’ve always had an easier time writing out my thoughts and feelings than speaking them. I feel uncertain and fearful of being challenged if I speak. Even with close friends, I have the habit of self-censoring, because I somehow believe that my perceptions are wrong or will be dismissed.

I feel safer writing. I suppose that’s why I don’t share most of what I write, never have. Don’t want to be rejected for my thoughts and feelings. I fear the harshness when people express their disagreement. Truly harsh, or perceived as harsh by me? It matters not, it’s how I feel, my experience of such moments.

So, writing a blog post everyday during NaBloPoMo, ditdoteven with just a handful of readers, is a challenging task. As trivial as my post may be, I am putting my words out there.  Reflecting on yesterday’s self-doubting post, I know that some of my FLS project paralysis is rooted in this fear that nothing I have to say has merit. I know that I can string words together nicely, which I think is a result of being an avid reader all my life, but the validity of what I have to say is eternally in question.

Reading the newspaper this morning, I found that I am reflexively refusing to read any of the articles about GOP plans for the future, the progressive protests again those plans or analysis of the American electorate. I just won’t look at them. I don’t need or want that information in my brain right now. The same goes for the endless FB posts, shared by people who are angry, looking for or offering some form of hope or just generally struggling with the change that is upon us.

But I did read a piece about the Comics Come Home event last night at the TD Garden. A white, male comic made jokes about raping women on the cobblestone streets of Boston and tossed out anti-Semitic comments. And people laughed.  Meanwhile, comedienne Wanda Sykes, a black lesbian, was booed for her commentary on the election. Here’s a link to the Globe article. One thing that I find interesting about the coverage is that there is video of Sykes, but none of DiPaola’s routine is included. What’s up with that?

I don’t want to talk about the damn election, but it creeps in and provokes rage and sadness. I don’t want to give up my energy, my life force, to this negativity. I want to hoard my time and my fire and use it creatively.  Time is of the essence.

After I wrote that, I had to look up the expression. It comes from contract law. Oh, boring. The Urban Dictionary defines it as meaning: Time is the most important thing in the world. I’m not sure about that.

Crows. I heard crows this morning and I felt space open up around me, evoking the same sensation, in a way, as the stones I wrote about the other day. As a child, I heard crows in the morning while at the farm in Vermont. It was so quiet there and then I would hear the crows. My body and heart still respond to their cries with a rush of those childhood feelings of safety and spaciousness. I know that many people consider them ‘a bad omen’, but for me those cawing cries offer a promise of serenity. Funny, is it not?    nablopomo_badge_2016

Time

The rhythmic drumbeat of the opening has always sounded like a ticking clock, which is probably not coincidental. The Chambers Brothers 1967 hit Time Has Come Today was playing in my mind this morning… Tick tock tick tock, its election day.  i-voted

It was followed by the 1976 hit by the Steve Miller Band, entitled Fly Like an Eagle, which contains the mesmerizing opening line: ”Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’ into the future…” Well, the future is here, now.

Then the earworm of old music shifted to the more hopeful lyric “Time is on my side, yes it is…” Ah, the Rolling Stones from 1964, the earliest of the three songs. I am sixty-four-years-old, raised with mores** of the 1950s, solidly in the middle of the Boomer generation and the second wave of feminism. I feel honored to have lived in this country during Barak Obama’s presidency. And I am ready for our first woman President, hopeful that time is indeed on our side.

My mother died suddenly in the late spring of 2008, so she never knew Barak Obama as POTUS or the magnificent Michele Obama as FLOTUS. I am pretty sure that she would have admired them both, because she truly valued civility, intelligence and taking the high road. Besides, she had been secretly voting for Democrats for decades, subterfuge of the 1950s housewife, to cancel the vote of a Republican husband. She would have been delighted to vote for HRC today.

That Republican husband, my father, lived on, through the first five years of the Obama presidency. The best I can say to soften his sometimes-ugly bigotry is that its foundation was (willful?) ignorance. He was more vocally racist in his comments about black newscasters than about the President; his misogyny was so deeply rooted in white male privilege that it was hardly personal, although it irritated and injured me personally. In brief, he would have loved DT and I suspect our already strained father-daughter relationship might have collapsed during this campaign, unless I had been able to summon up extraordinary tolerance. Well, I am grateful that I didn’t have to go down that road. Three years since his passing, I am able to occasionally have a pleasant memory of him. Eighteen months of trumpisms might have soured me beyond recall.

So, thoughts of my parents on this Election Day 2016… I have not been able to take a truly deep breathe (and release it) for weeks. I hope tonight that I can do so.

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**Mores: the essential or characteristic customs and conventions of a community

Wood

Have you ever had the experience of being in a conversation and hearing yourself say something, which you suddenly realize is a previously unarticulated, but basic truth about yourself? What I said was: “I feel more comfortable when I am somewhere where there are more trees than people.” Oh so very true, to this day. I love trees, in all seasons. And, as you probably know, wood comes from trees.

When I think about my love of wood, as in items made from wood, a couple of things come to mind. The smell of sawdust was utterly intoxicating, from my very first whiff to my most recent exposure. My paternal grandfather had a woodshop at his place in Vermont. As a girl I would stand at the doorway, inhaling deeply and sensing that magic was happening in there.

He was retired, a self-taught woodworker and he was also a stingy old bird, holding tightly to the dictates of his generation. I see that now, but as child all I heard was his strict rule that girls were not allowed to enter the shop. Ever. It was for men and boys. There was no attempt at explaining the ban by citing safety or even his private pleasures. It was simply a matter of being excluded from this enticing space.

I grew up surrounded by old wooden furniture. A lot of the tables, beds, bureaus and such were ‘well worn’, but that was a good thing because then we children couldn’t really hurt them. It was the warmth of the wood, the many shades of brown and the patina of age that I liked. Over the years I began to look more closely at the mystery of the grain, the depth and organic designs that appeared when wood was sanded and finished.

Wooden bowls and handmade wooden spoons were crossover items, combining two loves – cooking and wood. As a young adult, it was difficult for me to resist touching and occasionally purchasing small, handmade little boxes when they appeared in shops and at craft shows. They didn’t need to serve a real purpose; I just wanted them around.

Then some friends asked to store a piece of furniture in our recently purchased house, while they were in the midst of a move. It was a magnificent sideboard, replete with carving and a silky, shining finish. I was all over that thing, clearly out of place in our hand-me-down furnished home. What an incredible antique, I thought. The ball and claw feet were gracefully carved; every detail was crisp and perfect, in pristine condition. Well, they didn’t have children yet, maybe they were just careful with it.

When I learned that my friend had made the piece, I was disbelieving. No. Furniture like that had to be an antique. Nobody made that, certainly not these days. I was forced to admit that at some point in time, each ‘antique’ had been newly made by someone, but that was a really long time ago, right? Come to find out, he had gone to trade school and learned to make traditional furniture. Wow. Really? Sparks!

I wanted to learn how to do that. The rejection I had experienced with my grandfather was undoubtedly a source of motivation and as I butted my head against further sexism when applying to the school, I doubled down on my determination. The man who initially interviewed me was dismissive. I did not have any of the qualifications to enroll. That was that, as far as he was concerned. Bye, bye.

He pissed me off and I set to work acquiring the requisite experience. I needed to learn drafting, so I left my job and got hired to do very basic floor plans of buildings at a nearby university. I enrolled in a night school program at a local high school to learn how to operate woodworking machines. Eventually I progressed to a class, taught by a very sweet young man who introduced me to the fine art of hand tools. I practiced working with chisels, planes and precise measuring tools; being naturally neat, compulsive and careful was an asset.

And wood… I really got involved with different types of wood for the first time. The transformation from rough lumber to a finished piece was truly (Truly!) thrilling. The grain was not just a thing of beauty, but an inherent quality, which I would come to know through the interaction of tool and wood. The ease of ‘working’ straight-grained pine or mahogany was so different from the more brittle and seemingly rock hard challenge of working with walnut or an exotic wood like ebony.

Armed with some skills and confidence, I marched back to the admissions office to make my case. The same man tried to dissuade me, but I was determined to gain entry to the kingdom. I was later to learn that when I had first interviewed, two years earlier, they had just been forced to admit women for the first time. The Feds said: no accreditation or financial aid unless you allow women students. It was the 1980’s for heavens sake.

So, I was in the second, very small batch of women to enter the Furniture and Cabinet Making program. Many tales to tell, but what matters here, today, is that this is a Spark of joy that is still very much alive. I have neglected the pleasure of working wood for decades, but the act of Triage, answering the question of what I have Truly loved has brought me back to this elemental joy and I intend to re-explore.

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