New Project: Chapter 22

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(To read the previous chapter, click here)

Twenty Two

Election Day, 2016. I woke heavy, queasy, afraid. So much was at stake. Would we, as a nation, reward tenacity and experience or hate? I couldn’t fathom the decision we faced or understand how we had sunk so low. Rather than thrill to the possibility of electing our first female president, I tried, without success, to banish dread.

Wall Street held its breath. The world waited and watched, consumed with a drama that could, if things went wrong, have a profound and lasting effect. Everything was a stake – fifty years of civil rights legislation, forward movement to combat climate change, economic security, global stability, even democracy itself was in danger. Would the great American experiment fail? Would fear and anger vanquish its quest? Would, finally, the words “All men are created equal” be laid to a sad and ignoble death? Or would sanity prevail?

I went for a run. I talked with my mom. I paced and cleaned and tried not to look at my phone. I wondered, repeatedly, if I could start drinking yet. At moments like these (and thank God they are few and far between) it is easy to feel hopeless. Powerless. Caught in a web. But we are never powerless. Never. There is always a choice, a way, a path.

I know what it is to feel trapped. I’ve lived it. I can close my eyes and be there again. I have been abused. I have been raped. I have lived poor and lonely and desperate. Once, when it was about as bad as I thought it could get, my mom lashed me with an angry gaze. She stood, stepped close and said, “Destiny, there is no bottom.”

I looked at her perplexed and she repeated her words.

“There is no bottom. You either start climbing or keep falling. You think this is the worst, but it’s not. So you do what you have to do. You dig your fingernails in and scratch your way to the surface. Bleed, cry, rage, but get moving because you’ve got three kids who need you and you can’t quit yet.”

She was right. The only bottom is dead and dead, then, wasn’t an option. It seldom is when I’m honest, but there have been times…

I know you’ve had them.

Still, we’re here. Breathing. Writing and reading. We made it through mostly unscathed, we dug in, climbed out, kept going because there’s always a choice, a way, a path out of the darkness if we’re willing.

Janis Joplin said, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” We experience freedom when we’re cut loose, left to die, floating like balloons unleashed into a wide and empty sky. Grief is freeing. So is joy. They are two sides of the same coin and both require courage and the ability to face and own the fact that we are more than we thought we were. It is from these two sources that we confront our fears, carve a path, or change the world.

On September 17, 2011 a group of people occupied Zuccotti Park in New York City’s financial district. They were there in protest. Three years prior, deregulation of financial institutions had cause the economy to collapse. Millions of Americans suffered catastrophic losses. Rather than help them, the US government decided to rescue the banks which had caused the collapse. Those at the top profited from the bailout and middleclass losses. Three years later, not much had changed. The economy was still stagnant, incomes were flat, and corporate CEOs and Wall Street bankers made millions while a significant portion of the population lost jobs, health insurance, and homes.

The protest, known as Occupy Wall Street, grew into a worldwide movement against greed, corruption, income inequality, and corporate influence on government. Then, without accomplishing much of anything, it dissolved.

Micah White, one of the movement’s co-founders, said, “Occupy was a perfect example of a social movement that should have worked according to the dominant theories of protest and activism; it was a historical event, joined by millions of people across demographics from around the world around a series of demands, there was little violence. And yet, the movement failed.”

White, who now runs a non-profit think tank that studies effective methods of protests and activism, believes the next revolutionary movement will “be a contagious mood that spreads throughout the world and the human community.”

He says, “For me, the main thing we need to see is activists abandoning a materialistic explanation of revolution – the idea that we need to put people in the streets – and starting to think about how to spread that kind of mood and make people see the world in a fundamentally different way. That’s about it. The future of activism is not about pressing our politicians through synchronized public spectacles.”

He’s right. Rioting, marches, and peaceful sit-ins are not making a difference anywhere in the world. The patterns of these kinds of protests, though emotionally compelling, are known and predictable. That makes them ineffective. Opposition knows how to handle them and the public is desensitized because it has seen so many.

We live in a magical time. Never before has the spread of news been so instantaneous. Never before have we been able to create global communities from the comfort of our homes. The indigenous protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline received almost no mainstream media coverage and yet it garnered international attention, raised millions of dollars, and attracted sympathy from agencies including the United Nations and Amnesty International.

And yet, for all the technological advances that have allowed us to communicate across vast distances in real time, we’re paralyzed. Social media lets us witness and post without compelling us to action. We can complain bitterly, join in solidarity with like-minded folks, and stream news that reflects our values. We don’t really have to think anymore. We revel in the meme and sound bite even as they stoke our fears.

Fear loomed large in my heart the day the US election threatened to erode our rights. I worried about armed insurrection and white supremacists at the polls. Would civility descend into chaos? Would violence ensue? I thought about this book and what I’m trying to do. We must challenge the status quo, but protest and riot aren’t the answer. Only a quiet revolution can change the collective mood. As we give to ourselves and those we love, we must also give to our world. We do this first by wriggling out of corporate control.

How do you spend your money? How does your money control you? Are you the type that saves or do you spend because there’s never enough? Does money define you or do you define yourself?

The answers, for most of us, are complicated. We don’t have the luxury of excess. Some live paycheck to paycheck. A $500 emergency is catastrophic for two thirds of the population and most people are one paycheck away from homelessness, though they seldom look that bleak reality in the face.

Our collective lack of economic independence keeps us bound to jobs and lives we hate. We can, however, make change. Understanding how money influences our decisions empowers us to do things differently. Quietly, softly, we can improve the ways we give and receive. In doing so, we step away from corporate control and into lives we create.

New Project: Chapter 21

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Twenty One

 

In her book, Gender Trouble, Judith Butler says, “[G]ender is an identity tenuously constituted in time, instituted in an exterior space through a stylized repetition of acts.” In other words, we perform behaviors, gendered nuances, and physical movements over and over again until they become the basis of our identity. Women are not, by nature, the better caregivers. They merely behave that way. Men are not, by nature, more rational.

We are taught to adopt a series of attitudes and actions that determine our identity as women or men even though these attitudes and actions may have nothing to do with us. Gender identity can be unlearned. Our best, authentic selves are seldom who we were taught to be. Somewhere beyond the stereotypical definition of women and men are humans longing to be whole.

We can be deeply individual and fully free without compromising each other’s right to the same. My love of cheese does not in any way impede your loathing of it. My competence with power tools cannot emasculate a man or render him powerless. Marriage, friendships, and family need not be sick, twisted, or mundane if we are willing to do the work of embracing ourselves, giving to ourselves, and sharing us with those we love.

By taking my liberty, I granted Steve his. I couldn’t have done that had he not developed real empathy for my plight as a woman in this world. Knowing it, understanding my fears and doubts, hearing me in a way no man ever had empowered me to take a stand and finally kill the idea of romance I played like a fairytale in my head. “You belong to me, I belong to you,” is static, dead, and wrong.

Belong is a strange word. I want to belong to this community. She doesn’t belong here. Belong implies that we are either part of something or owned when, based on its etymology, the word simply means: to go along with. It turns out that belonging is a choice one makes. When we choose to go along with something or someone, we create a relationship based on that decision.

“Hey, I like that idea; I’ll go along with that,” never meant that the idea owns you, that you are part of it, or that it may exercise any form of control over you. It simply means that you’re going along — next to, in dialog with, and wholly your own. Likewise, one cannot belong to another person. One may go along with in friendship or love, but one is not a part of the other and one is never owned.

The adaptation of the word as a method of control carries the threat of ostracization and amplifies our fear of being alone. We use it to welcome, manipulate, or shame so there is always someone else to lean on, share with, or blame.

I no longer choose to belong in this way; to Steve or anyone else. Our culture, and its obsession with a twisted sense of belonging, radicalized me without my knowledge so it could use me as a weapon against myself and everyone else. However, belonging to this culture requires my consent and I now refuse to give it.

Like too many, I’ve spent much of my life trying to be someone I’m not so I could belong to a social construct not my own. I am, to paraphrase David Wong, part of a long line of history. I did not make the problems that choke our society, but I am responsible for making things better. Consequently, I must shed my desire to belong, face the fear of being shunned, and embrace the freedom I demand.

To walk along side the man I love is so much richer than owning or being owned by him. To take time for myself is to give us both the opportunity to rejuvenate, re-engage, and stay in love. To let him go, to trust he will return, gives us both the freedom to grow, love, and learn. Sharing experiences we’ve had alone keeps our conversations strong. Sharing an ever deepening frustration with the limitations imposed on all of us by a political and economic system vested only in its own survival, and that of those at the top, motivates us to do more both individually and as a couple.

Shedding gender roles means shedding gender identity. I love being a woman and the many differences between women and men, but I don’t need to sculpt myself into an object or caricature to belong. Can you imagine a world where men cry freely and women lead the charge? Where men kissing men isn’t disgusting and women kissing women isn’t porn? Where men and women share the caring, the bread-winning, and the household chores?

In her book, Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg says that if women are to occupy the “C” Suite, they must act like men. Then, when they get there, they can make changes to corporate culture that will benefit women.

This, to me, is insane. I would rather walk away from the steel towers, corporate suites, and glass ceilings. I would create a new way to be, one where women and men are free to determine their own identities and build personal, communal, and economic relationships that that are rich, diverse, and permissive.

Culture dictates that we fit in, do like those around us, and conform to ideas and beliefs that were formed to control or coerce us into performing work, maintaining the status quo, and questioning our own worth. The tenets of our culture ensure we remain insecure and thus powerless.

In the place of power, we are granted the opportunity for civic debate and the right to vote. These lure us into believing we can make change by electing some new figurehead that will embrace the values we were taught to celebrate. Instead of making change, however, we just get more of the same. Our political system has dissolved into a mockery of itself and Republicans and Democrats are waging a vicious culture war that accomplishes nothing.

It does not fix the economy, end hunger, or ensure that we, as a nation, are safe. Instead, it keeps us divided, defensive, and disengaged. As long as we’re vested in winning, vested in forcing our personal morals on everyone else, we are not clear-headed enough to challenge this new norm.

As citizens, we have an obligation to protect our freedom. We are bound, as sentient beings, to ensure that its three tenets – liberty, empathy, and economic independence – are taught, encouraged, and supported so that we have what we need to thrive, but as long as mega-corporations buy our elections and write our laws, we will be forced to compromise.

Corporations sponsor the culture war, spending countless dollars each year to distract us while they secure astronomical profits at the expense of our welfare, the planet’s welfare, and our children’s welfare.

Capitalism with good stewardship built a magnificent nation. Runaway capitalism will destroy it. It’s up to us to reexamine our convictions about how money is made and spent and how business and government enhance our lives or prove relentless. If we can free ourselves from cultural norms and develop empathy for each other, we are also capable of wresting economic independence from those who’ve made it their mission to take it from us.

Many know this. Most don’t know how. Those that do are often shackled by fear, shame, or both. The truth is all relationships can be moral and profitable. Business is no different. It, too, can be good for our individual hearts and communal soul.

(TO READ THE NEXT CHAPTER, CLICK HERE)

New Project: Chapter 20

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Twenty

Marriage is a living thing, a river carving a path, an ocean hitting the shore. Every interaction is a collision, every moment a choice. The minutes, hours, days and weeks of breakfasts and dinners, laundry and chores, missed communication and passionate exchange carve a landscape that is testament to misery, complacency, or joy.

It is not a document, ring, or vow. It is a commitment to rend – through fight and conversation, heartache and lust – the best version ourselves, the people we were before the world and its expectations of who we should become destroyed our confidence. To marry is to see someone for who they are and not let them hide behind cultural norms. It is to bleed in the light, to reveal every flaw, to comfort and scold and hold through terrible nights until dawn breaks cold and pink and the coffee steams, warming the mugs. It’s unlearning everything we’ve been taught and throwing the recipe out and knowing the raw ingredients might make a meal, but being unsure where to start. Marriage begins the moment the contract falters, the vow is broken, or the promise is undone. Until then, it’s a mirage, a social expectation that helps us feel we belong.

Feminists have long decried marriage as an institution. They have been blamed for the rise in divorce, chastised for weakening the family unit, and threatened for their unwillingness to embrace something many believe is a principle tenet of our civilization. Until recently, I didn’t share their view. Now, I do – at least in regard to the idea of marriage we’ve been sold.

Early in our relationship, but after I rejected the liberty he offered, Steve and I talked a lot about marriage. Both of us had been deeply scarred by our prior divorces and the events preceding them. We had failed at marriage, missed something crucial, didn’t do it right. We broke our vows to the spouses we thought we’d have for life and understood that somehow marriage as an entity was at least partially at fault, though neither of us knew how.

We discussed the patriarchal roles assigned to men and women, marriage equality for the LGBT community, and staying engaged. We spent long hours trying to envision a different kind of marriage, one that wouldn’t consume us whole. We failed. Our marriage became a thing of its own, a stage upon which we, as players, acted the roles. Steve would provide. I maintained the home.

We both worked to preserve our individual identities, to behave as if the marriage had merely cemented our union, but our scripts were written in stone. I became someone I didn’t know – needy, jealous, controlling. Though a self-described feminist, Steve behaved like an entitled boor.

He called me crazy. I called him oblivious, insensitive, and more. We were both right because we had an idea about marriage that was wrong. Marriage, we discovered, must be about the liberation of souls.

For that to happen, we must feel each other’s pain. Take it in, believe it, hold it as our own. Empathy is the language true love knows. Steve could not just call himself a feminist. He had to become one all the way down in the darkest recesses of himself. He had to recognize his contribution to the toxic, misogynistic stew that is our culture and learn what it felt like to be on the receiving end of sexist jokes. He had to get intimate with assault, objectification, and how women police themselves. He had to start having conversations with other men about it, had to witness with fresh eyes how men perpetrate horror on their wives and girlfriends every day in small, micro-aggressive ways and recognize himself in their actions. He had to feel, like a visceral blow to his body, what I felt when I heard Trump bragging about sexual assault and understand that every nude photo shared between men, every off-color remark, every up and down the body evaluation was a knife in my heart.

To me, his job seemed easy. He only had to learn what it was like to be me. I had to learn to let him go.

Marriage between two people is like freedom. It requires liberty, empathy, and the economic independence of each person. In most instances, Steve possessed all three. He had all the liberty white, male privilege affords. Empathy, once understood, came naturally. Economic independence was his from the start. He was all the things I was not, had all the freedom I could imagine or want. As a woman, I was inherently at risk because he would never need me as I needed him. He was all I had and I peppered him with questions in an attempt to hold on tight.

“Where are you going?”

“Who are you talking to?

“What time will you be back?”

The difference between us is that he already had it all. I could step up to meet him, but he didn’t need to step down. His empathy was a choice. Mine was imperative. Women feel deeply because we lack the luxury of apathy. Our emotions are a means of survival in a patriarchal culture that prefers to use us as objects for its own end. We can’t be apathetic or oblivious because at any moment some man might decide we’re expendable. Used, tossed away, left for a newer model, beaten because he’s had a bad day, raped, murdered for rejecting him, murdered for disobeying, drugged, dragged, kicked, addressed with contempt, condescended to, ignored, disrespected, interrupted, bullied, harassed, ridiculed, checked out, found good enough or wanting, a thing at his beckoning lest we endure yet another attack, women must never let their guard down. We must always know what men are thinking and feeling because our safety depends on it.

As a privileged man, endowed with freedom from birth, Steve couldn’t validate my low self-worth, couldn’t see the damage his coming home late without calling did to my heart or feel what I felt when he called me drunk to tell me he and a buddy were bar-hopping.

My empathy did not extend to his liberty because I had none. Though self-imposed in response to stigma dictated by cultural norms, I felt I couldn’t go bar-hopping with a friend. A chaste dinner, a single glass of wine, and I was done. I had to get home to my man. I couldn’t imagine not calling if I were running late, couldn’t posit the repercussions that would have.

Not only did I not want him to feel what I did, I didn’t believe I had the right to act with impunity or focus solely on myself. That province belonged exclusively to men.

Letting Steve go meant taking responsibility for the liberty freedom demands by experiencing the liberty I denied myself after we became a couple. It meant being strong, healing the wound that I had become, and running fierce and free in the mornings with my dog. Only then, only after I had claimed my place at the men’s table in all the ways I wanted, could I find the empathy that a living marriage demands.

(TO READ THE NEXT CHAPTER, CLICK HERE)

Protests are Great, but They Won’t Stop Hate

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love-trumps-hate

I spent the morning in solidarity with One Billion Rising and Love Trumps Hate. The day started cold, uncomfortable, awkward. People brought signs, wore ribbons and pins, and crossed their arms against the chill of November and the coming four years. They sought some kind of connection, peace or a sense of direction, a new way of being in a changed world.

Through all the speeches, impassioned pleas, and heartfelt promises, I felt torn. On one hand, Trump will never be my president. Instead, he is my Predator in Chief. Like it was for so many survivors of sexual violence, his election was a sucker punch, a blow of profound effect. He, and those who elected him, made my agony a joke, reduced me to an object, and denied my humanity and hope.

On the other hand, I want to understand. I want to know the hearts and minds of those who voted for him. I want to build bridges and end the divide. I want fear to stop ruling this country. I want there to be no “other” that rises like a bogeyman and sends us scurrying to our insulated social media bubbles so that we may, for a time, feel safe.

I have no idea how to move forward because I am conflicted at core. Love Trumps hate is at odds with my deep rage and desire for war. This is new. It’s real. It’s not going away.

I love my country and my community, but maybe it’s time for me and all women to finally love ourselves more.  It is my prayer that we rise strong and finally achieve the equality and respect we deserve.

 

 

New Project: Chapter 19

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Nineteen

 

Feelings are the stuff of dreams, memories, courage, and compromise. Often, they lead us blind. We are so prepared to trust the emotions our relationships inspire that we create narratives that justify. He’s mean to you because he likes you. He loves me and would never hurt me so it must be my fault. Boys will be boys. Girls are just too emotional to be trusted most of the time.

It takes something shocking to jolt us out of the narrative we create, something powerful to demand critical examination of the relationships we make. That happened to me recently and I ended two friendships inside of a week. I’d known Tom for thirty-two years and John for five. Both defended presidential candidate, Donald Trump, for bragging about sexual assault. Severing the relationships hurt a lot, and yet there was no choice. I simply couldn’t continue friendships with men who share Trump’s thoughts. To them, his words were no big deal, just locker room talk. To me, even “locker room talk” is demeaning and hurtful. Take out the unwanted kissing and groping, the words of sexual assault, and you are left with men who see women as toys with attractive body parts.

Tom and I met in college. He was muscular, proud, and blond. We shared a passion for literature and tree climbing and forged a strong, platonic bond. Early in our friendship he told me I’d be pretty if I lost some weight. I was sixteen, an athlete, and in fairly good shape. Later, as I met boys and played with them, he told me to be careful lest I earn the reputation of slut. Tom was like a brother to me. I winced when he made his comments, but didn’t blow them off because he was doing his job. The recipe dictates that men protect the women they care about.

Over decades, Tom and I talked, encouraged, supported, and fought. One night, shortly after I’d left my first husband, he called me while drunk, asked if the panties I wore were lace, and if I’d ever given him a sexual thought. Though shocked at his lewd behavior, I tittered nervously and let it slide because of the alcohol and, well, boy talk. He called a few days later to apologize and we moved on, the incident a glitch unworthy of the friendship we’d held for so long.

I never thought about any of these instances until Tom defended Donald Trump. The hateful rhetoric of that man’s campaign gave so many people permission to shove aside the proverbial curtain and step out of their caves. In a staggering, shining moment, I realized Tom’s comments over the years were part of a nefarious conviction he shares with much of the world; women are objects so men can be men rather than human. They need us weak so they can be strong,

The fight for equality has raged on this continent since the European invasion bloodied its shores. Freedom from government without representation incited the American Revolution. The fight over slavery separated brothers in the Civil War. Now it seems the fight has taken a broader course. Battle lines are drawn. The nation is in upheaval. There is talk of bloodshed over cultural norms. Women, minorities, and LGBT people are demanding more than has ever been allowed and those who would maintain the status quo are prepping for war.

Hang on to what you know. Don’t rock the boat. Women are women and men are men and that’s the way it’s always been. One female Trump supporter said in defense of his words, “It was a man saying it to another man in a man’s world.” Somehow, to her, that meant his words weren’t wrong. The recipe for toxic love. Coulter’s song. No good way to be a girl. Go along to get along. I cried when I ended my friendship with Tom, though I did it on Facebook and he never saw.

John and I became friends on Twitter. We’re both writers and over the years his critique of my books has been invaluable. We disagreed on many issues, but our dialog had always been respectful. Then Trump came along. John said Trump was no worse than the rappers invited to the White House by President Obama.

I said, “This man’s running for President and bragging about sexual assault. The rappers are writing songs.”

John said, “No. They’re trying to get people to shoot cops and Trump’s words were locker room talk.”

The issues are complex, certainly. One can argue there is no right or wrong, there is only how we feel and what we do in response, but that conviction only works when rooted in the narrative we’ve been taught.

A draft reader of this book read Chapter 14 and sent me a note. Shaken by my words, she recounted a story of her own about a woman who had taken art classes from her a long time ago. The student was sweet, quiet, and dedicated to learning the craft. She came in the afternoons while her children were in school and then suddenly stopped. The teacher called and got no response. Finally, after much persistence, the student explained that her husband, who had forbidden her to leave the house, had found out and it was dangerous for her to continue the lessons. After that conversation, she never heard from the student again.

The teacher told me, “Women’s lives are often much more complicated than what you describe. Often excuses hide secrets, secrets others (women included) don’t want to know. This happened in 1985. Still happening to too many women today: women keeping secrets, hiding their secrets behind ‘excuses’ because they are unable to tell their truths, even to other women.”

When I first read this, I felt terrible. Nodding my head, I silently agreed with the teacher’s words. Safety is paramount for women. The student did what she felt necessary to preserve it for herself and her kids. And then it hit me. This is the narrative we’ve been taught. There were so many possible endings to the teacher’s story, but we both accepted the traditional version, the justification that keeps women powerless: “Don’t do that or you’ll get hurt” is how we’ve been controlled for so long.

Consider an alternate version. We know the student was dedicated enough to her creativity to risk her husband’s wrath. Perhaps that dedication continued at home in spare moments and over time gave her the confidence and courage to leave him. Perhaps she eventually called the cops. Or, had the teacher not accepted the conventional narrative, she could have continued the lessons at the woman’s house, brought her books and materials so she could continue on her own, or called the cops herself  to prevent or report an assault.

Until we saw a video of Trump bragging about sexual assault, millions of women had kept millions of secrets for far too long. Then Trump’s cavalier attitude challenged the conventional narrative. Assault victims realized they are not the ones who should be ashamed. Our country learned that assault is all too common and is perpetrated not just by some monster lurking in the dark, but by classmates, close friends, and those seeking the highest office.

In response to Trump’s attitude, and the way his campaign minimized his words, women began sharing their sexual assault stories. The stories flooded the internet and news media. They became the thing people talked and cried about, the thing over which friendships were forged or destroyed.

Collectively, we hurt. Collectively, we were no longer afraid of slut shaming and blame. By running for President and defending his words as just locker room banter, Trump inadvertently changed our narrative and, for the first time, a “women’s issue” dominated the Presidential debate.

All over the nation, men and women began to talk. Wives confessed to husbands, revealing – in some cases after decades – the truth about the assaults they had experienced. They spoke candidly and men did too. In some instances, relationships imploded. In others, the partners became closer. Men said things like, “I knew it happened to women, I just never imagined it could happen to you.”

In doing so, they came face to face with the insidious nature of rape culture. They realized they had perpetrated the myth that rape and sexual assault only happen to “those” women – the other ones, the ones that brought it on themselves because of what they wore, how they behaved, or the race and class to which they belonged.

Until Trump opened the dialog, too many men believed that only loose women get assaulted. Good girls – girls like their wives, girlfriends, sisters, daughters, and moms – don’t. Now more men finally understand that all women are victims. While not every woman has suffered a violent abuse of her body, she certainly knows unwanted touch, street harassment, and the vicious effects of “locker room” talk.

Virginity, church, and prayer are supposed to protect us, but they don’t because men – even well-meaning men – continue to assault. They talk about us, size us up, rate us like beef in a yard. All the things designed to keep us safe – Federal and state laws, chivalry, even marriage – fail because men don’t stop.

(TO READ THE NEXT CHAPTER, CLICK HERE)

 

 

New Project: Chapter 18

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Eighteen

Anne Marie Slaughter wrote, “Work and family will be framed as a women’s issue, never as a mainstream issue.” She goes on to say that critical issues about work culture, gender bias, and family policy are defined through the lens of the harried, working mother. She suggests that a better lens would be of the harried caregiver, and best of all would be, “Recognizing the failure of modern American companies to adapt to the realities of modern American life.”

But it is not just companies that have failed to adapt. We have failed to adapt. We continue to act according to a script written generations ago about what love means and how it should be shown. As a result, toxic love is everywhere from intimate, sexual relations to parenting to job performance expectations. Rewriting the narrative takes exceptional courage and a great deal of compassion for ourselves and the people we love. Once the first steps have been taken and someone has been generous enough to say, “Stop, enough!” they have laid the foundation for trust. Until that happens, trust is often confused with loyalty and that creates problems of significant scope.

Companies, kings, and countries demand loyalty and a swearing of oaths. Lovers don’t. This goes against the grain, I know, but swearing fealty is one way we are manipulated to behave according to the norm. Loyalty is demanded, trust is given. Sometimes they go hand in hand, but loyalty without trust is merely obedience and that is a key ingredient in the recipe for toxic love.

Oaths and contracts do not build trust, guarantee a desired outcome or prevent people from being irresponsible, careless, or cruel. They merely ensure the possibility of financial recompense should an agreement dissolve. One can sign a contract with an employer and commit to a particular job, but the contract doesn’t prevent that person from quitting if the boss is a sexist slob. A vow cannot stop the apathy that tears a marriage apart. An oath doesn’t mean a soldier will follow an order when the shit storm is happening and everything’s gone wrong.

When Steve offered me liberty all those years ago, he understood something I had failed to grasp. Safety is something we pursue to evade a frightening reality: Security is an illusion, control a fabrication, and love, like fire, is something we can nourish, appreciate, and never hold. We can stoke it, keep the embers warm, but if we stop paying attention it will go cold.

Steve and I wrote our marriage vows. One of things we promised was to kiss constantly. This seemed simple and natural to us. We’re passionate, deeply in love, and love to touch, but when stress overtook us, Steve didn’t want to kiss as much. Then I accused him of breaking his promise. The broken promise threatened my trust because that’s what a contract does. Our marriage became about the vows, not the daily interaction of people in love.

Because my focus was on the promise, I believed the creep of marriage had worn thin his desire for me, that he was falling out of love, and that I would soon be abandoned. The story I told myself was the story of movies, books, and songs. I was tradable, not enough to keep my man involved. I got so caught up in this narrative, and was so convinced of its truth, that I forgot to ask Steve what he felt.

To credit Brené Brown, the stories we tell ourselves are often wrong. They are the walls we lean on when we feel our world falling apart, but they are seldom what’s going on. Until we dig for truth, empathy is impossible. Without empathy, trust is impossible. In the absence of trust, most contracts dissolve.

He loves me. He’s trying. Maybe you’re the one who’s wrong.

Steve breaks promises. He doesn’t do it on purpose. He just gets distracted, busy, consumed with life. I used to think that meant he didn’t care and that belief ate me alive. Every broken promise was a fist in my heart. Trust was elusive as smoke.

At first, I excused him and took on the traditional role. I picked up his slack at work, around the house, and in our romance, but eventually that made the hurt worse. I came to resent him, came to believe that nothing I did would ever be enough.

Then I fought him. Tears and fury and words I regret. Hours of turmoil, heartache and exhaustion. The slamming of doors, the hurling of want, the knot in my stomach as big as the earth. An onslaught.

We wore each other out, reached across the table and tenuously clasped hands. I crawled into his lap, cried in his arms, apologized, forgave, and moved on until it happened again.

What I failed to see, what almost cost me the love of my life, was how I held him to a false standard and wasn’t honest with myself. I bought the bullshit. I swallowed it whole. I consumed what society fed me without examining it at all.

The promise was supposed to be mine. It was all I had. My whole value was determined by it. Those vows, the vows we wrote together over drinks in a bar, the vows we meant from the bottom of our hearts were my due, my reward for being a woman. When he broke them he shattered the illusion. Cinderella returned in tatters from the ball.

Eventually, sitting by a fire on a late May night, I learned that contract and vows are not marriage. They are entities unto themselves, separate things that often push people apart because they are static and we are not. Love is fluid. Like us, it evolves. It must be tended, and protected from elements until it is raging. Then it must be fed to stay strong. It will flicker and threaten to go out in a storm, but underneath the ashes it is warm.

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New Project: Chapter 17

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Seventeen

 

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.

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New Project: Chapter 16

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Sixteen

 

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.

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New Project: Chapter 15

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Fifteen

 

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.”

Good.

Acceptable.

Easy.

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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Fourteen

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 family 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.