New Project: Chapter 17


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For better or worse, we live our lives in tandem. Our culture demands we place others before us and insists that love is the coveted object, our reason for being, the only way we thrive.

Once we have it, we’d do almost anything to keep it. Hence the recipe of which we’ve been speaking, but love doesn’t have to be toxic. Relationships don’t have to fade to complacency. We don’t have to muddy the water with compromise or rip each other to pieces with needs unmet, desires unexpressed, truths untold, and power upsets. We can love with clarity, passion, and honesty if we try.

Unfortunately, we use the word love carelessly – attributing value to people, objects, and events as if the word made them something more – but love is not gold. It is not rare or ornamental. It is the stuff of bonds, the fabric of thrill, the conviction that we belong in this world. I can have love. I can be love. I can give love and receive it because love is both noun and verb. It is mountain and river. It is sun on the shore.

Love is what, why, and how for most of us. It keeps us going, keeps us breathing, keeps us aching and reaching and giving of ourselves. It skews our motives, realigns our priorities, and knocks us off balance because we’re taught to value it above all else. In consequence, we are easily confused, often misunderstood, and regularly lying to ourselves. For love to work, we must clear the air.

I consider myself a generous, caring person. In most instances, this is something of which I’m proud. However, my generosity is a character trait rooted in an upbringing not of my choice. Consequently, it can be obligatory or manipulative and that is a flaw.

I gave Steve a massage when he needed it. That felt good. I gave a felon a chance and he stole from me. I felt betrayed, but still glad of my action. I gave one of my sons a precious afternoon to be a sounding board and felt deeply fulfilled. I let another borrow money, even though he didn’t pay me back the last time, and felt ashamed and angry.

My generosity can’t be blind. I must question what I’m giving, to whom, and why. There are no wrong answers, but I need to understand my motives so I know what I’m giving to myself when giving to others. Are my actions truly generous, or are they toxic? Am I giving to get, to be liked, or because it brings me joy? Am I giving empathy, sympathy, or apathy and why do I make this choice?

In my business, I have a 100% return policy, no questions asked. This policy has served me well because it gives customers confidence to buy. Rarely, someone will abuse my policy and return something that has obviously been used or abused. I don’t bat an eye. My customers believe they have good reasons for returning something and often do. However, when they occasionally take advantage of me, they’re not happy, but feel it’s a necessity. Once, a customer suffered a financial setback and returned two items because she needed the money. The items had been washed, neatly folded, and placed in a bag with their tags as if brand new. She blushed returning them and apologized profusely. Later, when her finances stabilized, she came back and brought a friend. Together, they spent a lot of money.

I gave her a refund on items I couldn’t resell to cement her loyalty, but the gift was more than a financial decision. It was an acknowledgement of our mutual humanity. If I never saw her again, I would have been comfortable with my choice. The little bit of money I lost saved her shame, anger, and embarrassment. That alone made it worth it.

When I loaned my son money, however, I did us both a disservice. He is just learning to be an adult. By loaning the money, I enabled him to shirk his responsibilities. In addition, asking for and accepting money from mommy can be humiliating for grown children. In the short term, he needed it. In the long run, he resented me for it and I resented the fact that he didn’t pay me back again. I should have been stronger and held my ground, but when I really looked at my action, I realized I gave to him to stay important to him and that was wrong. Had I been honest upfront, I would have known that giving to him in that instance was disrespecting both of us.

I love my sons. I am thrilled with who they’ve become. And yet sometimes our relationships get stuck. It’s hard learning how to be adults together, hard to know the boundaries or how to behave when we haven’t seen each other in awhile. More, no matter how old they are, they’re always my babies and I’m always their mom. These are the love lines we know, blood-etched on hearts like acid etches stone.

So, when one of my sons needs something, I can create a mess. Give for joy or give to get? Sometimes, it’s hard to know the difference. Still, there is no joy in solving someone else’s problem for them. The attempt is a power grab, a way to be important. Even when the situation seems dire, if they don’t fix it themselves they’ll repeat the pattern. I know this and yet I keep making the same mistake because Love, that big, capital L word, screws with me at least some of the time.

I love you.

I’ll do anything for you.

You are my world.

What you want, I want for you.

What you need, I’ll try to provide.

I’m here for you.

You can count on me.

We’re in it together.

I love you more than life.

Ah, the catch phrase, the lover’s sound bite. The deepest truth and boldest lie. We feel all the things we say, mean them even, but the action associated with the words dissolves everything for which we strive. Love is not a catchall or a sound bite. It is courage personified even as it evokes generosity and demands trust. For without courage, love can petrify. Brene Brown says, “Courage gives us a voice and compassion gives us an ear. Without both, there is no opportunity for empathy and connection.” Without empathy and connection there can be no generosity or trust. Understanding this, and acting upon it, is what keeps love alive.

New Project: Chapter 16


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To view previous chapter, click here



Most life forms just survive. They eat, defend, and nurture the next generation. Then they end. Conscious beings have a hard time accepting they are part of this pattern. Mere survival is untenable. We are born to thrive. Even below the subsistence level this is true. We can laugh or cry, accept or deny, but, as Dylan said, “He not busy being born is busy dying.”

We thrive or we die. Sometimes, this is purely physical. More often, for those of us privileged enough to live without serious lack, it is mental and emotional. In every situation, every relationship, we are making a choice. Are we growing – birthing ourselves again and again as something new, fresh, and delighted to be alive – or are we shrinking, shriveling, and dying inside?

Shakespeare had it right. To be or not to be is the ultimate human question and one we must ask all the time. Should I be in this relationship? This job? This house? This community? Is being here how I thrive or is it killing me one tedious day at a time?

Because we ask, because we demand answers, because just drifting through life is unacceptable for most, all human stories are love stories. This is an inescapable fact. Who and what do I love and why? Do I express love or has it died? Can an ember once cooled be reignited or do I move on and light a new fire?

Our capacity to love enables us to thrive. It makes us resilient, gives us strength, and keeps us excited to be alive. It also kills us sometimes.

Relationships are hard. They go against our aspiration to easy, our desire for safety, our need of status quo. Every time we think we understand our role, something explodes.

In my twenties, I flew home for my brother’s wedding. I’d been living in Massachusetts with a family of my own and hadn’t seen my siblings in a long time. Eager to catch up with each other, we lounged on the deck at my mother’s house and shared a bottle of wine.

Sun-swept needles made brilliant patterns in the evergreen trees. Our laughter startled butterflies. To be adults together in our childhood home was to heal old wounds and write new stories about our lives.

It didn’t occur to us that mom was in the kitchen by herself. That’s where she had always been at this time of day. The space-time continuum had not been disrupted. The sun would set and rise, the seasons would change, and if we were home, mom would feed us at dinnertime. So, when we heard a loud bang and a pitiful cry, we were surprised.

As one, we rose and entered the house. My sister called out, “Mom? Are you okay? What’s wrong?”

In reply we heard a sob. We rushed into the kitchen, filling the tiny space with our grown-up bodies. My mother slouched over the sink, holding a dishtowel to her eyes.

She dropped it and turned to face us. “Did you ever think that I might want to be out there talking with you all? Did it ever occur to you that I shouldn’t be cooking alone? You guys come home and it’s all fun and good times while I’m relegated to the kitchen like I’ve been my whole life.”

Our mouths dropped open. She was, of course, right. All our lives we’d been her children and we’d never seen her in a different light. Coming home as adults, gathering in her house, we’d treated her the way we always had and that was no longer enough. If we wanted mom to be okay, we had to learn a new way to be us.

That’s hard sometimes. The more intimate a relationship, the more difficult it is to respond well when emotions run high. Consequently, we tend to compromise and that erodes our ability to thrive.

Empathy is the antidote for toxic love and compromise. Unlike sympathy – when we share another’s feelings based on our own experience and consequently render some form of judgment – empathy requires us to set our experience aside, step into another’s shoes, and walk a mile in their life.  It means asking questions instead of comparing notes, listening instead of talking, understanding instead of comprehending. It means to accept as truth something we may never experience and allow ourselves the feelings that experience might evoke. Then, when we hug our loved one(s), our sincerity offers hope.

Men will never experience gender-based oppression in the same way women do. Whites will never experience race-based oppression the way blacks do. The Hispanic experience is not the same as the Asian experience. People raised in Texas are fundamentally different from people raised in Massachusetts. Our differences make us rich. They also make us crazy because effective communication is based in commonality. Green means green. Blue means blue. Sad is universally understood. Love is more action than emotion because the emotions that drive the actions are so complex they don’t fit into a single word.

When I encountered my mother crying in her kitchen, empathy came easy. As a mother myself, I could all too well imagine the pain of her experience and changing my behavior was easy. Though my siblings didn’t have children yet, they too could understand my mother’s upset. None of us wanted to cook by ourselves in the kitchen while the others talked and laughed outside.

Empathy is harder when another’s experience is difficult to imagine. Then, the fights are brutal and do real damage over time. After I left my first husband, I stayed with my mother for a few months. My three children were seven and five. They were the joy of my life, my reason for being, the why I’d survived. They were also loud, curious, rambunctious, and hungry. They fiddled, climbed furniture, and ran inside. Their hands attracted dirt like honey attracts flies.

The boys made my mother nervous. It had been decades since she had young children in her house and breakage was a constant concern. So was noise. The sheer energy of their exuberance exhausted her. When my siblings came for dinner, I was forced to compromise. The boys had to watch a movie in a bedroom when the adults wanted their own time.

I did not understand how they could be so cruel. My children were reeling from the divorce. They needed family, a sense of belonging, unconditional love. They shouldn’t have been ostracized. They should have been adored.

On the other hand, my siblings had no idea what parenting entailed or what it was to love a child that much. Neither had experienced a difficult divorce. They both took time from their busy lives to visit my mother and my children were first cute and then a distraction.

My mother wanted to enjoy her grown children in peace and she wanted unmolested belongings. It had taken years to build what she had after her children were grown. In the span of minutes it could be undone by sticky, impatient, boisterous grandsons.

The holiday fight we had that year was worse than we’d ever had and, in some ways, I’m not sure we’ve completely healed. Time passed. My niece and nephews were born. Having kids romp around the living room after dinner became the norm, but the hurt we caused each other cracked trust and eroded bonds.

What if we’d taken the time to understand each other? What if we’d really listened? What if we’d accepted each other’s truths without defense or judgment? Instead, we kept quiet until the fight, unwilling to share hurt feelings and fear. We’d gone along to get along, given a little to get a little, and done the dance of compromise. To this day, when I open my heart and look inside, I see the piece of me that shriveled and died that night and wish I could walk back time.

New Project: Chapter 15


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To read the previous chapter, click here




Kristi Coulter recently wrote, “There’s still no good way to be a girl.”

On an early morning in late August, I thought about that statement while running down a hill. The hard dirt gave little and, despite new shoes designed to minimize impact, every step sent a small stab of pain through my lower back – reminding me again and again of what I’d lost and now hoped to regain. Strength. Confidence in my body. The ability to fit neatly in my clothes. Health. Self-determination. The knowledge that, with discipline, I can achieve my goals.

I felt like a hero to myself. Unwilling to let pain win again, I pounded down that road, Coulter’s words in my head like the chorus of a song I’d learned in childhood.


(To the tune of Ain’t no Sunshine When She’s Gone)

Ain’t no good way to be a girl

All you do is somehow wrong

Seems they always dissin’ you

Never likin’ what you do

Go along to get along


And yet, there I was, a middle-age woman wearing a purple sports bra and mango-colored running skort that barely concealed the stretch marks on my ample belly, jogging down a dirt road in an upper middleclass neighborhood on the outskirts of Santa Fe at nine in the morning.

The sky was such a crisp blue it would shatter if I touched it. In the distance, the Jemez Mountains rose like islands from sea-like plains and everywhere miniature sunflowers bloomed sun-bright and smiling amid grass gone wild with monsoon rains.

I laughed out loud, thinking I had become the woman I’d ridiculed with friends in high school – plump, jiggling, sweating and past her prime – wearing an outfit that belonged to us and the bodies we’d flaunted without shame. Oh, those were the days.

Except they weren’t. Even then, every one of us hated at least one thing about our bodies and the lyrics to Coulter’s song had long been ingrained. We’d been passed over in class discussions, touched without consent, ogled on the soccer field, at the mall, and in the streets. We’d learned to hide intelligence or risk contempt, practiced emotional expressions in the mirror to mask despair or discontent. We’d mastered the giggle and blush of embarrassment. Most could not bait a hook (ew!), change a tire, or use a power tool. Pretty mattered most – unblemished skin, hands soft to the touch, nails shaped and colored, nothing rough. All sparkles and sweet smells and brimming health. We were not to be bruised, dirtied, or cut. Instead, we were to be viewed and won by boys and men who would do the difficult for us.

The road leveled and curved. I crossed the arroyo, still wet from last night’s storm, and marveled at deep gouges in the red-brown road. Flash flood. Matted vegetation, piles of brush. Pine needles washed down in the deluge sinuous and root-like over clay and sand, their patterns bespeaking their birth. My breath came in gasps as I pushed. My goal was to crest the hill before me without slowing to rest. I didn’t make it. I wasn’t ready yet.

Still no good way to be a girl. Or woman. Or anyone, really, when you stand back and look at it. Coulter also said, “[T]here’s no easy way to be a woman, because, as you may have noticed, there’s no acceptable way to be a woman. And if there’s no acceptable way to be the thing you are, then maybe you drink a little. Or a lot.”




Why do we aspire to such things?

Coulter’s right. If we value ourselves according to what others deem good or acceptable, we’re done. Call it a day. Go home. Have a drink (or seven) and pass out on the couch. Be numb.

Beauty and accomplishment are not acceptable, but they’re essential. Creativity for its own sake is not acceptable, but it empowers us. Loving ourselves first is anathema to a social and economic system that depends on our low self-worth, but do we have a choice? If we want to live, I mean really live, isn’t it time to stop worrying about acceptable? Isn’t it time to toss the old recipe and learn a better way to give and love?

I looked like hell running down that road. That didn’t stop a crew of landscapers from driving a little too slow or a guy in a pickup truck from giving me the look we all know, but I didn’t care about any of it. I loved the wind on my bare skin and would have run topless if legal. I loved the trotting dog beside me, the color of the trees, the way my blood pumped through me and the distance I had attained. The world smelled fresh after the rain and I inhaled as deep as I could, calming my heart and filling my lungs. I wasn’t trying to look good. I was trying to feel good and I did. I reveled in the solitude, the quiet, the beauty of my surroundings, and the sense of safety I felt for a change.

Yes, it hurt. There was nothing easy about it. My legs burned. My back ached. The skin of my too fat arms rubbed against the sides of my breasts and chafed. Nobody looking at me, except perhaps those who had done the same, would have thought me acceptable. I should have worn a tee-shirt and hidden a body sculpted by life and age. I should have carried my phone in my hand or a can of mace. I should not run half-naked and unafraid.

It seemed an eon since I sat at that campfire, watching my husband sleep, and having an epiphany. I heard the words again as I walked up the hill. Like a flash flood, they had eroded my beliefs, gouged my convictions, made raw my emotions, and forced me to bow to the power in them. He loves me. He’s trying. You can’t make him something he’s not. What if you’re the one who’s wrong?

I had been wrong. I had learned the wrong way to give and receive, to love and feel loved. I had swallowed what I’d been fed and passed the recipe along.

The fact is it is my right to run half-naked and unafraid with the wind on my body and the sun in my face. It is my right to stare the man in the pickup down. It is my right to determine how and where and why I belong. My little self-love disciplines add up. One day I will crest that hill. I will finish this book and write the next. I will no longer sing Coulter’s song. Instead, I will sing Amazing Grace and the sound will ring sweet, steady, and strong.

New Project: Chapter 14


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(To read the previous chapter, click here)


I hear arguments abounding.

  • “Sure, easy for you to say. You’re an artist.”
  • “I can’t afford the materials. They’d take food off the table.”
  • “I work full time and have school-age kids. There’s not a second in the day.”
  • “Oh yeah? You’re well off and have the luxury of a spare bedroom. We live in a tiny apartment.”
  • “Fifteen minutes a day? Are you kidding? I’ve got a toddler and a sick mother. If I had time like that I’d be napping.”

In answer, I reiterate; privilege is granted or taken. Excuses justify behaviors that feel risky or downright dangerous. Often they are provided by those who would disempower us to further cement the belief that giving to others takes priority over self-love.

Here are the excuses and realities:

Excuse: “Sure, easy for you to say. You’re an artist.”

Reality: I didn’t start out that way. I discovered sculpture by accident and loved it so much it eventually became my profession.

Excuse: “I can’t afford the materials. They’d take food off the table.”

Reality: Creativity doesn’t require more than a pencil and piece of paper, the voice God gave you, or the Legos your kids play with. If materials are really important than get creative about your budget or how to borrow them.

Excuse: “I work full time and have school-age kids. There’s not a second in the day.”

Reality: Every time you turn on the television, you turn off an opportunity to be creative. Skipping the dishes, or assigning them to someone else, will not end the world. You don’t often complain when you’re child draws instead of watching the news or cleaning her room, do you?

Excuse: “Oh yeah? You’re well off and have the luxury of a spare bedroom. We live in a tiny apartment.”

Reality: Place is more an idea than location. When you create Place, you are committing time and energy to something you love. You can join a writing group, take a class, or walk in the woods.

Excuse: “Fifteen minutes a day? Are you kidding? I’ve got a toddler and a sick mother. If I had time like that I’d be napping.”

Reality: Creativity calms and energizes. In addition, if all your energy is going to care for others, you hurt yourself physically, emotionally, and mentally. Over time, that expenditure can do real damage. I used to land in the hospital on a regular basis because I was so busy taking care of business (family and paycheck) that I didn’t take care of myself.

Everything we do is a gift to ourselves. We must own that and act accordingly. Sometimes it’s wonderful to put my husband first. I love to make him an extravagant dinner when he least expects it, give him a massage, or simply put on some music and pull him off the couch for a dance. The look on his face is worth every effort I make. However, if my whole life is about what other people need then I’m contributing to my own oppression.

Harsh words, certainly. And yet there’s truth to them. How many times a day can a spouse or child call for you and expect you to drop what you’re doing, walk across the house to where they are so you can hear them, and then give them the attention they demand without wanting to murder them?

When I created my office, I put my foot down. This is my space. No one is allowed to enter without permission. When I’m in it, no one is allowed to interrupt me unless the emergency is kin to the house burning down. I don’t bring my phone and haven’t connected my office computer to the internet. I shut out the world so I can listen to myself.

Initially, my blew me off. My door would crash open and someone would say, “Didn’t you hear me calling?”

The first time I replied, “I’m working. Get out,” I thought surely the repercussion would be ugly. Instead, my son said sorry and closed the door softly behind him.

When I claimed Place, space, and right to take care of myself, I gave my family permission to do the same. I also informed them that if my time and privacy weren’t of value, neither was theirs.

This is what taking privilege looks like. No one in my family was willing to grant it; they had no reason to do so. As long as I was willing to serve, they were happy to let me.

The same is true at work, in a grocery store, at a fine restaurant, or walking down the street. If you wait for people to grant you privilege, they won’t. If you take privilege, most will validate your right to it.

It is my privilege to be an artist and a mother. It is my privilege to have the downtime I need to be whole and happy. It is my privilege to take care of my body, enjoy the company I keep, laugh out loud and sometimes weep. Privilege is, by definition, right. It is my right to be equal and exercise autonomy. It is my right to be free and treated accordingly. The revolution that began in 1775 continues. The ideology that framed The Declaration of Independence is still evolving, but its premise is sound: All of us are created equal and endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

No one gets to trample these – especially us – but we do so all the time. We’ve been taught that sacrificing ourselves for the sake of others is not only our lot, but how we belong. It’s supposed to make us happy, but seldom does. When it doesn’t, society tells us we have no one to blame but ourselves. It’s time to stop listening to that tired narrative and begin thinking for ourselves.

In her book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Sheryl Sandberg says, “[P]eople constantly back away from honesty to protect themselves and others. This reticence causes and perpetuates all kinds of problems: uncomfortable issues that never get addressed, resentment that builds, unfit managers who get promoted rather than fired, and on and on. Often these situations don’t improve because no one tells anyone what is really happening. We are so rarely brave enough to tell the truth.” Sandberg says women need to come to the table, lean in to the conversation, and take their rightful place at home and in the workforce.

That means taking privilege. It means giving to ourselves first and accepting responsibility for that decision. It means making Place, claiming space, and committing to the discipline of loving – first self and then others – by creating lives we choose instead of those we’re expected to want.

New Project: Chapter 13


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(To read the previous chapter, click here)



Steve and I have a large, rambling house ordinary enough to accommodate an active family and its inevitable mishaps.  There are dents and nicks, scratches and stains – the marks of memories in the making. At one point, my computer occupied a corner of a room I call the library. While not a library in its truest sense, it houses most of my bookshelves and some of the African art I collect. Located between our family room, kitchen, and three bedrooms, it’s like the hub of a busy train station. There is always traffic, noise, and interruption. For many years, I didn’t mind. If wanted to write, I wrote at night after everyone was in bed because, at the time, writing wasn’t paramount. I loved it, but had other things that required my attention.

When that changed and I found myself writing on deadline, the noise around my desk drove me insane. I tried to block it out, tried in vain. One afternoon, working on a particularly challenging blog post, it became too much. In the family room, one son played a video game. Another watched a movie in his bedroom. In the kitchen, my husband had an animated conversation on the phone. The cacophony sent a needle of pain through my forehead. I rose in a huff, poured a glass of wine, and went out to the patio in pursuit of quiet. I had just settled myself when the dogs caught sight of something and bounded past me barking and yelping. I couldn’t help it. I started to cry.

Sensing something wrong, Steve hung up the phone and came to join me.

“Honey, what’s wrong?” he asked.

“There is no place in this house for me. The noise is too much. Nobody cares that I’m working. Everybody just does their stuff and it’s like I don’t exist. And what am I supposed to do? Shut everyone up? They have a right to do their stuff, too.”

His face clouded with worry and he looked away, thinking. He tracked horses in the corral, clouds above the hills, and the sun descending before refocusing on me, eyes alight with a solution.

“Why don’t you take a bedroom and make it your office?” he suggested.

“Ugh. It’s fine. It just overwhelmed me for a second,” I said.

“No. Really. I think it would be good for you.”

Some of our six children had grown and gone, but I couldn’t bear to claim their bedrooms. I wanted them to feel they still had a home with us.

“I can’t do that. We need the beds for when the kids come.”

“Take a room. I’m serious. Make a space for you.”

I couldn’t imagine being that selfish and self-indulgent. He didn’t have a room of his own. Why should I? Additionally, if I moved my office into a private room, I would be out of sight and out of mind – disconnected from him and unavailable. That felt dangerous.

“I’ll think about it,” I lied.

A few weeks later, a man fell in love with one of my paintings. Once a passionate and wealthy collector, the recession had cost him. Now, he couldn’t afford to pay for the painting, but would trade if I let him.

I have always believed that if a work of art really moves someone and there is anyway for them to have it they should, so Steve and I went out to his house to view the cabinet he’d offered in exchange. It was massive, ancient, and beautiful. Intricately carved on every surface, it told stories without words. I loved it, but knew we didn’t have room. It was just too big.

At home, I went through the motions – measuring spaces and moving things around to see if I could make it work. I couldn’t and felt terrible. Really wanting the man to have his painting, I avoided his phone calls and ignored his emails while I stewed on the problem. Then it hit me. If I took a bed out of one of the bedrooms and made it an office, I could fit the cabinet. I was elated. So was he. He got a piece of art. I got a piece of furniture, a beautiful office, and my peace of mind.

Giving to that man allowed me to give to myself without guilt and the office is one of my most treasured gifts. Until I created it, I didn’t have Place. My time, energy, and focus were constantly interrupted by those I love. Pulled in multiple directions all the time, I couldn’t find quiet in my heart or mind, didn’t know who I was, or what I even liked anymore. Raising a family, trying to run a business and make a living, navigating relationships, and keeping a home left me exhausted and on autopilot most of time. The office – grounding, quiet, empowering, and inspiring – gave me Place. In it, I had space to figure out who I am and what I need.

Brené Brown says, “Ironically, the only way to free ourselves from power-over is to reclaim our real power – the power to create and live by our own definitions.” When I created my office, I began to do just that.

Place is a gift that bears fruit again and again. It can be an office, an altar, a garden, or an easel. It doesn’t have to be a room. It just needs to promote wellbeing and encourage creativity. After Place, creativity is the most important gift we give ourselves. When we’re creative, we nurture the beauty inside us so it shines in every corner of our world.

Most think creativity belongs to someone else, but, like beauty, creativity is innate.

One of my favorite stories is of an artist and his daughter at the breakfast table. She had turned seven and was finally curious about where he went every day. He told her he worked at the college.

“What do you do there?” she asked.

“I teach people to draw,” he replied. Her eyes grew round and her mouth opened in dismay.

“You mean they forget?” she asked.

Society tries hard to convince us that creativity belongs to the rare few. In addition, it condemns activities without practical merit. Why draw when we can do the laundry? Why write when we can go to work? Why garden when a neighbor needs a favor?

Our creativity has been pounded to a pulp by a system that values what we give to others more than what we give to ourselves. Service to others is critical to its survival and keeps us powerless.  Creativity empowers because it fuels passion, voice, and agency. When we make things – a piece of art, a strong body, a beautiful garden, or a well crafted bench – we erode the system that keeps us pinned.

For centuries, women were told they couldn’t be artists or, more recently, that if they were artists they couldn’t have children because children would compete with their focus and passion. The myth is that artists must give art their all. They must sacrifice for and be consumed by it. Good artists are unfit mothers — dark, moody, unpredictable, erratic, sexually deviant, fundamentally unstable, and who wants to be that? Better to be normal. The myth helps ensure women don’t empower themselves.

What the myth doesn’t tell us is how creativity works. No one ever went into a studio and said, “I’m going to create a masterpiece today.” Instead, they sat in front of a blank canvas, blank page, or weed-filled plot of land and simply started. Sometimes the work is hard and doesn’t produce much. Sometimes it seems to flow naturally. Regardless, creativity requires commitment and, like a flower from a seed, the commitment starts small and grows naturally.

I set a goal I can achieve. I choose a specific time to write and commit to writing five hundred words in that time. That’s it. Two and a half double spaced pages and I’m done. Most often I write considerably more, but there are days when the magic just doesn’t happen and I refuse to beat myself up for doing something I love.

I can’t count how many times I’ve heard women say, “I would love to paint (insert write, dance, sing, play an instrument, or other creative endeavor), but don’t have time.” Not making time for their creative pursuits gives them yet another way to berate themselves for not being good enough. When they do that, the system wins and they remain powerless.

If you want to give yourself a gift that really matters, commit to doing something you love for fifteen minutes a day (or a time allotment that works for you). Don’t worry about being good at it. Instead, play like a child. Your sentences may sound like gibberish. You might break or eat the crayons, but eventually, if you stick with it, a form will emerge. That form might be a novel or a song, a fabulous crop of vegetables or the stamina and strength to enter a race. It doesn’t matter what the end result is. What matters is doing it.

Years ago, when just learning to sculpt, I used to buy molding plaster in 100 pound bags from a large company in South Boston because it was substantially less expensive than buying in smaller quantities.  The company had a strict policy. They would bring the product to the loading dock. Customers had to get it from the dock into their cars.

I’d show up in my rusted Ford hatchback with three little kids in the back seat. The men at the dock took pity, broke policy, and loaded my bag for me. Embarrassed, I’d flash a weak smile and drive home. Once there, I’d drag that bag out of the car, up a hill, down some steps, and into the house – a trail of white dust marking my progress. After a year, I didn’t have to drag the bags anymore. I could throw them over my shoulder. Telling the guys on the loading dock I could handle myself was a moment to remember.

I wasn’t a good artist then. I knew a piece was done when I hated it so much I never wanted to see it again, but that didn’t matter. Just the act of making brought me joy and physical, mental, and emotional power.

Those first sculptures gave me the courage to end a disastrous first marriage and create a better life for my kids and me. When I created my office and started writing for real, I gained the courage to be honest. Creativity is not a pastime or hobby. It is essential to accepting and loving ourselves.


New Project: Chapter 12


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(To read the previous chapter, click here)



Brown hill, blue mountains, green fields, gray sky. Van Morrison’s Crazy Love on the stereo, Steve’s hand in mine. We sang loud and off key, grinning like kids on a carnival ride. The rain stayed soft, a gentle spatter that made the car a haven, and in that moment I didn’t think about the weight I’d gained or my checking account balance. I was in love with my husband, the quilt-like landscape, the drive.

Unselfconscious, fully present, deeply alive – this is the state in which we thrive and yet it’s rare for most of us most of the time because the recipe for toxic love requires us to put others first and love them more than we love ourselves. It teaches us to give-to-get and that is catastrophic.

Giving must be a conscious act. It cannot be manipulative, contrived, or habit. Every decision we make is rooted in who we give to, how we give, and why. Who gets our energy, our money, our care? Who gets our time and attention? Is our gift genuine, compromise, or sacrifice? Our motives determine the quality of our lives.

For millennia, women were required to give to others, first with their bodies and then as helpmates and mothers. Punished for being proud, outspoken, or selfish, they were limited in their choices. Women today are not. We can choose, but often don’t because choosing is a revolutionary act. To choose is to risk the people we love, the jobs we depend upon, and our ability to belong. It’s safer to follow the recipe and sacrifice ourselves, safer to give-to-get than give with love, safer to abdicate power than accept responsibility, safer to pretend to be equal instead of making it a reality – that is until self-preservation requires us to acknowledge we matter.

Unfortunately, by then we’re often in crisis. Divorce, quitting a job we once loved, or other radical choices seem like our only options – and maybe they are as long as they’re for the right motives, because if they’re not we’ll just find ourselves in a similar situation repeating the pattern.

Have you ever watched a friend make the same relationship mistakes over and over again? She’s drawn to guys who abuse her, drink too much, or use her. Every time, she swears it’s different. Every time it’s the same and she can’t see it until her world falls apart and she’s sobbing in your arms. You see it right away, but don’t say anything because you don’t want to hurt her or damage your friendship.

We seldom admit doing the same thing – choosing people and situations that preserve the way we choose to see ourselves. If we see ourselves as victims, we choose abusers. If we feel like failures, we choose to be around people who validate that world view. Relationships are mirrors that reflect what we give to ourselves. When we don’t give well, they fail.

It is common knowledge that relationships only work if we love ourselves. It is also common knowledge that loving ourselves too much is taboo and we’ll be punished for it. Whether the relationship is personal or professional, the double bind exists and renders us powerless because we give others power over us when we don’t give generously to ourselves. Once we’ve given away our power, the relationship starts to sour. Then we blame ourselves for the failure and buy into the twisted conviction that if we give more to the relationship it will get better. Instead it gets worse and we become people we abhor.

So how do we end the cycle? How do we stop repeating the pattern? It’s simple. We change how we give to ourselves.

Every decision is a gift – every word we speak, every action we take. Positive and negative self-talk are both gifts. The food we consume is a gift. Do we tell the mirror we’re pretty or fat? Do we give our bodies healthy snacks? Exercise or a night on the couch? A massage, new blouse, or healthy bank account? When we look at what we’re giving ourselves and why, we begin to make different choices. Consciousness about our choices creates awareness about how we love (or don’t love) ourselves. That awareness is empowering. It also informs future choices about what and how we give, to whom, and why.

Most of us have been conditioned to see ourselves through society’s lens and value ourselves accordingly. If we’re fat, we’re ugly. If we don’t have a nice car, we’ve somehow failed. A childless woman is unnatural. Real men are strong. When we buy in, we allow society to define us. Then, we give ourselves things that maintain that definition. This is how the recipe for toxic love is spread. Society says real women sacrifice themselves for the people (or careers) they love. I would argue that women who love themselves and give accordingly do more for their families, careers, and society as a whole than those who can’t or won’t. Unfortunately, it’s really hard to convince anyone of that, especially ourselves.


New Project: Chapter 11


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(To read the previous chapter, click here)



An unknown author recently said, “In a society that profits from your self-doubt, liking yourself is a rebellious act.” Liking yourself is dangerous, just look at Psyche and Arachne. It is also necessary, even when done in secret, because if we didn’t like ourselves sometimes we wouldn’t make it through most days. And a little rebellion is good on occasion. It’s revolution that makes us afraid.

Revolution occurs when the imagined is less terrifying than the reality we endure. It requires we defend our position, stand up for our convictions, and prepare for radical change. Liking ourselves is the first seditious act. Giving to ourselves severs the chains.

To give is to yield to pressure. It is also to bestow. It is from the Latin habēre meaning to have, to hold. To give is an honor, an obligation, a choice. It is where the revolution starts and where, if misguided, it folds.

In her book, Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit says, “Revolutions are first of all ideas.” She explains that for all the recent attempts to roll back legislation and relegate women to the kitchen, the genie is out of the bottle and won’t go back in. The idea of woman as equal will never be contained again.

That idea is planted in all our heads, regardless of our position on its premise. Every morning I wake up certain of my autonomy. There are days when one episode after another erodes my conviction and wears me thin, but I never forget the world I should live in, the world promised by those who fought for my freedom and continue, however slowly, to win. Unfortunately, it’s one of the reasons liking myself is an act of sedition.

Finding things to dislike is easier than taking responsibility. I didn’t get that promotion because X is prettier than me. My husband isn’t paying me any attention because I’m always exhausted and can’t keep up with his needs. My son won’t do his homework because I didn’t make enough time for him when he was little. I’m overweight and hate it, but don’t have time, energy, or discipline to change it. The refrain, “I’m not good enough,” rings across this nation all day every day because, while profitable, it’s also a convenient excuse for staying the same. A little sedition is okay, especially when we like ourselves enough to buy a product, but revolution makes us unsafe.

Most women and men in this country do not identify as feminists. When asked why, they recite propaganda that defines feminists as man-hating, radical, or deviant people hell bent on destruction. In reality, a feminist is anyone who supports equal rights for women. That’s it. It’s so simple that when the same people who didn’t identify as feminists hear that definition, they often change their position – as long as their position doesn’t require them to participate in the revolution.

And what, exactly, is the revolution? There are no armed militia taking the hill, no smoke-filled skies or burning fields. As Gil Scott Heron wrote, “The revolution will not be televised,” because the revolution is live.

The revolution is a woman telling her family not to interrupt her writing time. It is a teenaged girl deciding to shine. It is an old woman wearing a miniskirt. It is a group of women talking about their lives without the sugar-coated niceties of, “Everything’s fine.”

The revolution is dancing and kissing and laughing loud. It is hands in the soil, paint on a canvas, a song from tone deaf lips. It is a million, then a billion voices saying I’m not good at this yet, but there’s time. It is a Zumba class and a misstep, a long walk with a friend, a night without the television and its 24/7 opinions. It is allowing yourself to cry.

More, the revolution is getting that promotion if it matters or owning up to why it doesn’t. It is deciding to lose the weight or tell your body you love it. It is opening a bottle of wine, putting on some music, and embracing your husband like you did before you served the recipe that killed the romance in your lives.

The revolution is taking responsibility for our actions and stories even when that means discomfort, upset people, and disruption. It is owning our desires and acting upon them. It is giving ourselves what we need and want instead of blaming ourselves for not being good enough. The revolution is crying out “I matter,” not just to those who would listen and empathize, but to ourselves when we’re in the shower.

It is calling out those who tell us we can’t or shouldn’t. It is saying yes when we want it. It is recoiling from people and circumstances that leave us numb. It is embracing the joy of what it means to become.

The revolution is living over being alive. It’s ours if we’ll have it and will destroy us if we ignore it. The genie is out of the bottle. The idea of equality – liberty, empathy, and economic independence – can become a reality. We just have to try.

Giving is prerogative or prison. It is prerogative for those who are genuine. It is prison for those who compromise. How we give determines our allies, opposition, and battle cry. To take the field, we must be terrified – not of what’s in front of us, but of dying inside.

Imagine a hurricane hitting an island. The winds are so intense palm trees snap like twigs. That cabana you love collapses in seconds. A tin roof sails through the air, severing power lines. Glass shatters. Waves sink ships on their way to the shore. You take cover where you can, ride out the storm. All night you shiver and flinch at the noise.

This is how most of us live most of the time. The world we know is in constant upheaval. We can’t control anything. Everyday we face an onslaught of trash, debris, and sharp objects whipping toward our heads. At night, we try to sleep and can’t. Worse, we dream and wake scared to death. There are headlines and deadlines, relationships, commitments, and obligations. There are those few, dear people we love who weigh on us even as they warm us because there’s not enough time. This is our norm and our nightmare. We’re so accustomed to the storm we disavow our terror for a narrative that justifies: Our actions determine what we get and what we get determines our worth. Get more and escape the storm.

The narrative is false. Clinging to it ensures continued onslaught. Only giving silences the wind.

Recently, at a women’s group I attend, I spoke briefly about giving as a method for making positive change because it is one thing we can do as individuals to empower ourselves.

Immediately, a woman challenged me. Her daughter gave all the time to her best friends. She was always there when they needed her. She gave support when they broke up with their boyfriends, failed a test, everything. However, the friends failed to reciprocate when her daughter succumbed to chronic illness – which means giving doesn’t work as a strategy for getting by in the world.

This example is a great one, especially for women. We’re told that if we’re caring and kind the world will take care of us in the form of husbands, children, and friends. We’re also told we have to give a little to get a little and most of us do this rather well. The flaw in both these examples is that giving to get will always backfire and render us powerless, but, since many of us are nervous about power, we perpetuate the myth.

Brené Brown says, “Power is a difficult topic for women. The majority of women I talk to are uncomfortable with the idea of a ‘powerful woman.’ Many of them quickly associated the concept of a powerful woman with being unliked or being a ‘bitch.’ On the other hand, every woman I interviewed was quick to acknowledge how scary and desperate it feels to be powerless. This ambivalence about power poses a serious threat to our ability to be our best selves.”

Being liked is often more important than having power and giving is a great way to be liked – or so we’re led to believe. Unfortunately, giving to be liked eventually erodes us so completely we can’t even like ourselves. When we get to that stage, our inherent beauty doesn’t matter and we have no power. Reclaiming ourselves from this state is a matter of honor.

New Project: Chapter 10


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(To read the previous post, click here.)



Women give. That is their prerogative or prison.

At first, the giving is sexual. In his essay, Toward a Performance Model of Sex, Thomas Macaulay Millar writes, “Women are guardians of the tickets; men apply for access to them. This model pervades casual conversation about sex: Women “give” it up, men “get” some.”

Women’s bodies are currency, their kisses coins. They learn early to maximize value by twirling skirts, curling silken hair around tiny fingers, and casting eyes to the ground. They are pretty or cute, but never beautiful or accomplished because beauty and accomplishment have power and power is something they should never claim if they want to belong.

In her article, Why aren’t We Allowed to Think We’re Pretty, Kate Fridkis says, “I’m ugly. Why? Because beauty feels important; even when I’d like it not to, even when there are a million other, bigger, more pressing things in my life, beauty feels sensitive, because we know, let’s be honest, we know it matters.”

Ugly has never started a war, broken a marriage, or angered the gods. Ugly women have good friends. They make people laugh. They’re one of us. Beautiful and/or accomplished women are dangerous. This knowledge, buried deep in our bones, goes back at least two thousand years when the myths of Eros and Psyche and Arachne were revisited by the Latin poet, Ovid. His interpretations marked a cultural shift that aligned with the onset of Christianity and the cementing of a patriarchal world.

What is interesting about Ovid’s interpretation of the myths is this: in both instances goddesses punished women for being too beautiful or accomplished. Women oppressing women is that old.

In earlier versions of the myths, the goddesses demonstrated more kindness, more empathy toward the women. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the goddesses were cruel. I won’t go into the scholarly work around either of these myths or how others believe they have influenced us. I am merely interested in the fact that women punished women two millennia ago for qualities that should have been celebrated, and would have been had the unfortunate victims been men.


Three months pregnant with my third child, my then husband and I attended his partner’s wedding. I wore a red dress with a belted waist, long skirt, and plunging V-neck. Pregnancy suited me, clearing my skin and glossing my hair, and, for the first time since morning sickness ended, I felt beautiful.

The reception was held at the groom’s house, an old Victorian with a postage stamp yard and U-shaped floor plan. The place was packed. My husband headed toward the kitchen while I stopped to relieve my insistent bladder. When finished, I made my way through cramped rooms ringing with women’s laughter. Eyes narrowed to disapproving slits and tracked my progress. Voices whispered. I heard the word, “slut” as I rounded a corner. By the time I found my husband, tears threatened my mascara.

After the birth, my mother came to visit. With two toddlers and a newborn, I seldom had time to shower much less keep up my appearance. Money was tight, the house a mess, the marriage strained. I lived in leggings and sweatshirts and hurried through my days as the wife of a police officer who had definite ideas about how things should be done.

Like my husband, my mother’s opinions had weight. Consequently, when she told me the biggest problem with my marriage was how dowdy I looked, I believed her. I washed my hair, put on a better shirt, and applied some makeup. Then, referencing my leggings, my mother said I looked like a slut.

She meant no harm. In fact, her intention was the opposite. She really wanted to help, wanted my marriage to work and me to be happy, so she did what she’d been taught. Her judgment stung.

Beauty is permissible if it’s unattainable. We can pursue the ideal as long as we don’t get too close to the reality. In fact, it’s our job. Advertisers depend on this and women buy their products in pursuit of perfection and the possibility of rest. Women are exhausted and beauty can land husbands with big bucks, personal promotions, and greater financial success. Beauty has power. Get some, but not too much. Too much or too little causes women to denigrate and police themselves.

Like the women at the party, my mother called me a slut because my appearance threatened the status quo. In each moment, I was inappropriate. Young mothers are still mothers. Their days as sirens and temptresses are over. The red dress would have been fine without the neckline. The shirt, makeup, and freshly washed hair would have been perfect without leggings that emphasized my butt. In each instance, I was a threat to the other women present, regardless of my actions or intentions, because in that moment I appeared to have it all. I was a married woman and a sexy mom. I had the house, the man, the bright young sons and, because I retained some sex appeal, wasn’t entirely dependent upon them. Beautiful women can get unstuck. They can take what another got and, worse, don’t need to belong. They are free to move unilaterally.

The problem is most of us don’t consider ourselves beautiful or, for that matter, accomplished. There is always something we lack, something more we can do, something we should have that keeps liberty (and thus equality) at bay. In addition, desire to belong to a social construct keeps us hiding and lying to ourselves in order to maintain a semblance of normalcy and an arbitrary status that can be taken away without notice. So how do we change the game?

There are several ways. The first is to understand that beauty and sexy are not the same. They both have power and may embody qualities of the other, but they are distinctly different. Sexy invites attention, stirs sexual desire, and offers the lure of possession. It can be playful or serious, harmless or dangerous. However, regardless of intent or desire, it is temporal. Sexy requires substantial energy and one simply cannot be sexy all the time.

Beauty is different. Despite popular opinion, it does not reside in the physical alone. The particular aesthetic of a face or body is irrelevant to our understanding of beauty and especially pleasing faces are often cold. The etymology of beauty indicates its definition has evolved according to culture.

In its earliest incarnation, beauty meant to do, perform; show favor, revere. As late as the fourteenth century, beauty meant physical attractiveness and goodness and courtesy.

A 1977 Miriam Webster New Collegiate Dictionary defines beauty as: The quality or aggregate of qualities in a person or thing that give pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit.

Beauty is not solely a physical attribute, nor is physical aesthetic a prerequisite for beauty. Beauty is what we do and give. The doing and giving light us up and bring happiness to those fortunate enough to observe us. We are beautiful for who we are, not for our appearance.

I don’t know how many times Steve has snuck up on me while I’m working and whispered, “You’re beautiful.” I never feel beautiful while working. It honestly doesn’t cross my mind. I’m busy thinking about the task at hand and not conscious of my appearance. For years, I shook my head and denied his compliment without understanding he meant every word. I didn’t have to be groomed or dressed, paying attention to him, or being anything more than myself for him to revel in the beauty I possess.

Writing the last sentence, I cringed. Was that thunder in the distance? Lightning? Will God strike me down for my unexcused arrogance? Who am I to be beautiful? Or talented? Or accomplished?

Marianne Williamson answered those questions in her book, A Course in Miracles. She wrote, “Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

This passage is quoted so often it is almost cliché, but I repeat it here because it means something. We are beauty embodied. Beauty is not an attribute awarded to us for physique or social status. It is the manifestation of our love of self and others. We can spice it up, add a little sexy when we want, but beauty is inherent, not an accomplishment. So where did its concept go wrong?


New Project: Chapter 9


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(To read the previous chapter, click here)


On a hot summer night in 1982, I got a taste of my future. On stage, Jimmy Cliff strummed his guitar, beads of sweat on his forehead. A dense crowd packed the small arena. In front of me, a woman undulated to the reggae beat, bare midriff glistening and long, brown hair swinging. Pot smoke curled toward the ceiling and bodies pressed against me, trapping me in place. A man edged his way through the crowd, intent on the woman. His eyes didn’t waver from her naked flesh. Finally, his hands encircled her waist and he thrust his hips against her butt. She stiffened, glanced behind her and, for a moment, horror crossed her face. Then, she grinned, tossed her hair, and turned her attention back to the stage. They danced together, bodies tight, for the duration of the song. When it ended, the man turned and disappeared. I couldn’t see where he’d gone.

At fourteen, I didn’t understand what I’d witnessed. I hated the man, burned him into my memory – all scraggly hair and unkempt mustache hanging loose over yellow teeth. I hated her, too – body slick with sweat under a crocheted halter top, curve of hips above low slung jeans, ass swaying like a finger beckoning. He wanted. She gave. He got.

I glanced at my mom, who stood next to me. Her expression registered no complaint. I took that to mean the event was harmless, but it stayed with me. So did the song.

You can get it if you really want

But you must try, try and try, try and try

You’ll succeed at last…

This is the problem with the American Dream. We are guaranteed the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Inherent in those rights is the ability to rise beyond our station and be equal under the law, but over the years equality has become less important than liberty. In fact, our system is designed to ensure equality never happens. In her book, Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality, Danielle Allen says, “Equality has always been the more frail twin, but it has now become particularly vulnerable.” She goes on to say, “Matters have gone so far, in fact, that we have even failed to notice the disappearance of the idea of equality from our interpretations of the Declaration [of Independence].”

The promise of our forefathers has been twisted into a fairy tale: you can get it if you really want, but you must try. Should you fail – at marriage, in business, as artists or lovers, daughters or mothers – it’s your fault because you didn’t try hard enough.

Today, neoliberal capitalism has honed the fairytale, added new monsters, and promised greater glory than the Declaration ever did. The Free Dictionary defines neoliberalism as: A political theory of the late 1900s holding that personal liberty is maximized by limiting government interference in the operation of free markets. It favors free trade, privatization, minimal government intervention in business, reduced public expenditures on social services, etc.

In a nutshell, uninhibited capitalism is how to actually achieve the American Dream.

It’s a lie, of course. Uninhibited capitalism fosters unbridled greed, radical abuse of power, and governments on bended knees. The free market has replaced traditional aristocracy with corporate kings, but the endgame is similar. The feudal system is rising again, even as the allure of neoliberalism blinds us to its reality. Feudalism is entrenched in our collective memory. Its order makes a sick sense that we permit because neoliberalism promises us a way out or, rather, a way into the new aristocracy. We, too, can get rich if the government will just get out of our way and do its intended job of policing the ne’er-do-wells that threaten our very liberty. Wealth, power, and happiness are ours if we work hard, play the game, and understand the rules. Our actions determine what we get and what we get determines our worth.

You can get it if you really want – the husband, the promotion, the raise, the house and two-car garage, the child, the dishwasher, and sweet young dog. Neoliberalism promises that skills and experience are less important than attitude. Nobody’s gonna give you a goddamn thing. You got take it, baby. As Seth Godin says, we’re in a connection economy and you have to choose yourself if you want to get ahead.

Except the system is rigged. The ne’er-do-wells, those people, are always at our backs trying to take away our liberties and prevent us from getting what we want. For conservatives, those people are women, minorities, the poor, the intellectuals, and LGBT  communities. For liberals, those people are the rednecks, ignorant illiterates, corporate tycoons, and faith-based communities. At war with each other via Facebook barbs and Twitter bombs, the lower and middle classes are lost. The country is a tinderbox.

Religious freedom. Reproductive freedom. Freedom to marry. Freedom to go to the bathroom unmolested. Freedom to carry a gun. Freedom to not get shot. What I want destroys what you want. If I get it (whatever it is) you lose it. In order for me to get it, someone’s got to give it. If they do, I’m worthy. If they don’t I’m not good enough. The situation is no-win.

Neo-liberalism depends on the population valuing liberty over equality for its existence because equality requires liberty, empathy, and economic independence. As long as people are valued according to what they get, they will be controlled by those with the power to give. So what if we shift it? What if we take that power for ourselves? What if we endow ourselves with the same privilege and attitude that forged our Declaration of Independence? What if, instead focusing on what we get, we focus on what we give?

The system that oppresses us is also the system capable of liberating us. The tenets of our Declaration and Constitution are a bedrock for equality if we are willing to accept the responsibility equality demands. Every time we focus on what we get, we give someone or something power over us. If I want more romance in my marriage and expect my husband to give it to me, I give him power over me and my marriage. If I want to get more business, get that raise, get into that exhibit, or get that job, I give my power to the people who can make it happen. Often, they don’t want that power. Often they don’t know what to do with it. Often, they’d give it to us but don’t know how. Regardless, power over is dangerous. If we want equality, we must empower ourselves.

To read the next chapter, click here.

New Project: Chapter 8


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(To see the previous chapter, click here)



Privilege is defined as, “A right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed by a person beyond the advantages of most.” It is dispersed by those in positions of power according to gender, class, and race. It is also given in response to attitude. Privilege is something one can take.

This is the premise behind the American Dream, the promise of neo-liberal capitalism, the great disgrace that keeps us individually and collectively mean.

Once upon a time (or so we’re told) a man could learn a skill, take a job, and work his way up. Along the way, he’d pick up a wife who, with luck, would bear him a son. The job would pay enough to support his family, buy a car, house, and washing machine. The company would value his work and contribute to his retirement fund. Cue the theme song, roll the credits, this good life is done.

The story works in theory until some uppity thing cops an attitude and tries to join the fun. Maybe it’s the niggers. Maybe the chinks. Maybe the illegal Mexicans, radical lesbian feminists, or fags who want to fuck things up. It doesn’t matter. The problem group is a flavor of the week.

When I left my first husband in 1997, I became the dreaded single mom. That year, a Justice Department study determined that children raised by single mothers were, “[M]ore likely to have behavioral problems because they tend to lack economic security and adequate time with parents.” It went on to state that, “The most reliable indicator of violent crime in a community is the proportion of fatherless families.” According to the report, children in fatherless households are more prone to use drugs, be gang members, be expelled from school, be committed to reform institutions, and become juvenile murderers.

Most of these assertions have since been proved wrong, but they set a dangerous and difficult precedent for women in my situation. I wasn’t a welfare queen, but I was right on the edge and my very existence was a threat to families, mothers, and kids community wide.

On a warm September afternoon, two weeks past the start of the school year, I sat in a tiny seat in my son’s third grade classroom. Drawn shades made the room gloomy. The sweet-rotten smell of half-eaten apples hung heavy in the air. Colorful crayon drawings graced cinderblock walls.

The teacher, a sweet woman with silver hair and bright blue eyes, pursed her lips. I folded my arms. It had been a year since I left my husband. I had learned some things in that time.

“Your son has ADHD,” the teacher said. Her announcement was made with all the formality of a doctor delivering news about cancer.

“Excuse me?” I said.

“He can’t sit still. He fidgets. He’s a distraction to other students.”

“Then you need to challenge him. He’s bored.”

The teacher sat up straight, concern shifting to defense at my words. “I do challenge him.”

“Then when does he have time to fidget?”

“He finishes his work before the other children and then he makes an airplane from his clay and zooms it around his head –”

“This is what you call fidgeting? Isn’t that what the clay is for?” I gestured to a little round ball at the edge of a desk near me. The soft, brown clay was dented on one side where a finger had pressed too hard.

“He won’t be quiet,” the teacher said. “I can’t control him. He has ADHD and this is serious, Ms. Allison.”

At the time, diagnosis of ADHD was up dramatically and use of psycho- stimulants to treat mental disorders was up more than 700 percent. Though a true diagnosis could only be made through a complete neurological exam, teachers, doctors, and parents nationwide were caught in the thrall of a disease few knew anything about. I was one of those few. Since becoming a single mom, I had to be up on everything.

I narrowed my eyes and uncrossed my arms. Softly, so softly, I said, “Let me be clear. It is illegal for you to make a medical diagnosis about my son. You are a teacher, not a doctor, and if you so much as suggest it again, I’ll sue.”

The teacher smiled sweetly. She patted my arm. Then she said, “Well then. It must be worms. They can do that to young boys, too.”

That year, settled finally in a decent home near the school, I decided to join the PTA. I felt my kids could use the support and I needed to be more involved with the school. When I approached the PTA president, she looked me up and down, raked long, manicured fingers through long, blond hair and smiled.

“You have three boys? You seem so young. Are they all by the same father?” she asked.

I flushed. This question had been asked by many. The assumption that I was sexually promiscuous because I didn’t have a husband was all too prevalent among parents and teachers at the school.

“Yes. My husband and I divorced last year,” I said.

“Oh. I’m so sorry. It must be terribly hard on your children.”

It had been, still was. Guilt over their suffering consumed me. “Yes. It’s been hard, but they’ll be fine. They’re good kids.”

“Well,” the president said, drawing out the word and looking toward the parking lot where a line of yellow school buses was forming. “The PTA isn’t looking for new members at the moment. Why don’t you check back next year.”

My stomach hit the sidewalk and the air went out of me at her words. I was at best a nobody, at worst a pestilence worrying the otherwise healthy cells of a white, middleclass community school.

Two years later, the former PTA president (who I’ll call Samantha) sat in my office holding a tissue to her tears. Her marriage had dissolved, money was tight, and she’d been a stay-at-home mom for years. She’d managed to find a job and needed after-school care for her kids, but couldn’t afford to pay for it. Could I help her?

I had become the executive program director for the local YMCA. Listening to her, the irony was almost too much to bear. As it turned out, her husband had left her for a woman who looked just like her, minus about fifteen years. I wanted to say, “Wow. Must be hard on the kids,” but didn’t. I gave her a scholarship instead.

In that moment, I understood a truth about privilege. One can be given privilege and one can even take it, but losing it, regardless of circumstance, is unacceptable by societal standards. One who has fallen from grace is one who never deserved it and that conviction helps keep women (and other oppressed groups) in their place.

Samantha had been at the top of the food chain. Her husband owned and operated a successful business in town. She had been able to stay home with her kids, was respected in the community, and had all the money she needed. White, blond, and slim, she had the physical attributes necessary to command the attention of both women and men. Then, through no fault of her own, she fell victim to an age-old sin and was no longer young.

Samantha’s beauty determined her privilege. When it began to show signs of wear, her husband opted for a newer model. Wife one out, wife two in, the cycle begins again. Crushed by his decision, Samantha lost her self-confidence and what power she wielded in the world. Her situation, though sad, is classic.

She did it right. She kept her figure, bought and used the expensive beauty products, mothered her children and stayed loyal to her man. In return, she was supposed to get financial security, social status, and enduring love. What she failed to grasp is that her husband bought into the same narrative. His sense of self, his perceived privilege, was dependent on a younger version of her. According to the story they both read, if a guy can’t bag a young babe then he is no longer a virulent (read powerful) man.

Had Samantha opted to take privilege rather than have it bestowed upon her, she might have built her own business, developed a career, or ensured financial security in the event of divorce. Any of those choices might have helped her to retain status. Instead, she invested her time and energy in marriage and  family and trusted that if she did it right the marriage would work. She inherited the recipe for toxic love, mixed the ingredients, and served the meal without ever realizing it would poison her world.

To read the next chapter, click here.