New Project: Chapter 13

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(To read the previous chapter, click here)

Thirteen

 

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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Twelve

 

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)

Eleven

 

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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Ten

 

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.

Why?

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?

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New Project: Chapter 9

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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.

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New Project: Chapter 8

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Eight

 

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.

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New Project: Chapter 7

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Seven

 

In early July, 2016 a wave of violence rocked the United States. In unrelated circumstances, police officers shot and killed two black men who had done nothing to warrant their deaths. These were not isolated events. Instead, they were part of a long line of murders that documented in blood the racism prevalent in America’s law enforcement institutions. In retaliation, a black man shot and killed five white police officers during a Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas, Texas. Police there opted to execute the shooter via robot after a mere two hours of negotiation.

The country alternately raged and grieved. More protests erupted, inciting more violence, more unnecessary arrests. Political leaders pandered to their constituent’s interests and all over social media the public waged a debate: Black Lives Matter vs. All Lives Matter. The debate is moot. In spite of the fact that both postulates are true and in spite of the inherent racism at the center of the debate, there is little that can be done in the foreseeable future short of firing all police officers everywhere and starting over again.

Why? Because legislation outlawing racism does little to end racism. The Civil Rights Movement had an endgame: pass laws that protect minorities from discrimination and give them the right to sue for damages when their rights have been violated. The movement was successful. People have these rights.

What endgame is possible for people in the Black Lives Matter movement? Police are supposed to serve and protect all citizens while upholding the laws of the land. They do their best. Their best is seldom good enough because laws don’t change cultures. People change cultures and when one group rises up against another that already feels understaffed, underpaid, overworked, and unappreciated, that group will circle the wagons.

This is a no win situation. Training will not save the day soon enough to matter. The only possible legislation that might offer some relief to minorities is a nationwide ban on guns and that isn’t going to happen. So, if an endgame isn’t possible, how do we make systemic change?

Like minorities, women face constant discrimination and abuse from people they are supposed to trust. While black men are 21 times more likely to be shot by police than whites, the actual numbers are miniscule compared to the number of women who face violence against them every day. According to The National Center for Domestic Violence Hotline, “24 people per minute face rape, domestic violence, or stalking by an intimate partner in the United States – more than 12 million women and men over the course of a year.” Between 1994 and 2010, four out of five of those victims (more than 9 million per year) were women. Where are our protests? Why is there no Women’s Lives Matter movement? Why are we not collectively addressing the institutionalized discrimination inherent in law enforcement and the judiciary when women are the victims? I think it’s because women have been well trained.

As the chimera of my father’s creation, opening my own checking account and being controlled by Steve were not mutually exclusive. His control required permission from me that I granted (without his awareness) via silence.  The hypocrisy is astounding. The emotional distress it caused was crippling. If Steve was deliberately controlling me, he would have denied my request. I didn’t ask because I didn’t want to face that possibility. If he said no, I would have had to make a choice and I needed time to prepare for that responsibility. All of this was a game I played in my mind. It was not, as I discovered, my reality.

But it could have been. The problem with systemic oppression is that it lurks behind every façade whether we want it to or not. Women don’t stand up for themselves for fear of facing the monster head on. It’s like a snake in the garden. You know it’s there. You know it probably won’t hurt you if you don’t poke it. You know it may do some good by killing rodents, but it makes you awfully nervous because you can’t quite see the shape of its head in the shadows. Regardless, even if it’s not poisonous, you believe it will bite if provoked. Men are similar, or at least that’s what we’ve been told, and safe is better than sorry.

This creates a problem for both women and men. If women behave in a way that supposes men are, by nature, snakelike – dangerous, unpredictable, and animalistic – then men are being blamed for actions outside their purview and women are relinquishing power to men who don’t necessarily want it.

Most men today believe in women’s equality. They want to do more around the house, help raise their children, and support their wives’ ambitions. Many now recognize traditional masculinity for the toxic stew it is. However, even as women say they are confined to traditional roles by men, men are confined by women’s expectations of them. As long as we perpetuate the myths of our forefathers and mothers, we condemn ourselves to their beliefs and behaviors, regardless of our standing under the law or the progress of our nation.

In her book, I Thought it was Just Me (but it isn’t): Making the Journey from “What will people think? To “I am Enough, Brené Brown suggests that one reason we don’t make a connection between personal struggles and larger cultural issues is that we don’t talk about shame. Shame is a driving force for many of us because society expects so much.

Not only are women to be beautiful, sexy, intelligent, and capable, we must be compliant, soft, endearing, cute, generous, caring, educated, and successful. Our homes must be clean, the laundry folded, the cupboard organized, and the wine relatively untouched. God forbid we drink too much. Laurie Penny says, “The best way to stop girls achieving anything is to force them to achieve everything.” For those of us who try (and fail) shame can be excruciating.

While I lived with a constant fear of poking the beast, I also lived with shame that prevented me from speaking. How could I ask Steve for access to his checking account when I wasn’t contributing an income? It took building a new business and having confidence in its success before I could broach the subject and prepare myself for the consequences of my action. Until then, had I asked and Steve denied me, my lack of economic independence would have kept me tied to him. I couldn’t face that any more than I could face his potential wrath. The prison I created for myself, though imaginary, was profoundly effective and deeply unnecessary. Its walls were made of memory, its bars of shame and fear. I alone possessed the key that would get me out of there.

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New Project: Chapter 6

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Six

 

In this country, men are given the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Women are told if they do it right and give enough they’ll live happily-ever-after.

I knew better. Really, I did. Happily-ever-after is a convenient myth to keep girls under control. Since I never was “good,” I never expected happily-ever-after, but that didn’t mean I didn’t want it or think I could eventually earn it.

Steve was home to me. I belonged with him. Everything felt right in his arms. He loved my mind as much as my heart. He cheered me, bragged about me, bolstered me, and supported me in all the ways I’d ever wanted. Smart and good looking with warm dimples and slim hips, he was perfect. I scarcely believed I deserved him. Still, I’d fought hard for independence and success. I knew what I’d done and could do it again. That made me worthy of him.

Unlike most men I’d met, Steve wasn’t looking for a good housekeeper. Though he enjoyed my meals, he didn’t expect me to cook. He loved that I used tools and thought my welding cool. My scars were jewels that adorned me. He had favorites – the long, lean ridge across my right shoulder blade, the crisscross of fine white lines that covered my forearm – but he loved them all. In short, he was everything I’d hoped for and happily-ever-after was in my grasp. He just had to choose me again and again.

The moment I told him he was my world I abdicated liberty and threw equality to the wind. His choosing became my be-all, beginning, and maybe end because after a short time I didn’t think I could breathe without him.

“The greatest sources of our suffering are the lies we tell ourselves…”

I gave to Steve in every way.

In spite of this, we remain together today.

Some of that is love. Some is luck. Some might be the ring he eventually put on my finger, but I don’t think so. I think we’re still together because he was smart enough to tell me I can’t have it both ways.

I hated him for saying it. From my narrow, feminist lens, our problems were his fault, not mine. I felt powerless in our relationship. I’d studied the Duluth Wheel and knew without a doubt that he controlled me, intentional or not, and our fights were my attempt to combat that.

Like most men I’d met, Steve exhibited some controlling behaviors. When I lost my income, I had to ask him for money when I needed to pay bills. I didn’t sign on his personal checking account and wasn’t on record as an officer in his corporations. When I objected to minimizing behaviors, he made light of them, denied them, or made them my fault. Instead of asking me to stop what I was doing to serve him, he bellowed a command from the couch. Thankfully, he never said, “Bring me a beer,” but it was bad enough.

In my mind, I had the right to pick fights over these issues. Each time I did, Steve proclaimed I did the same things. If I objected to his picking up his phone while we were talking because something else crossed his mind, he’d argue that I’d done it earlier that day. He’d admit he did it more frequently, but, because I did it too, that made it okay. Then, he’d point out the difference between us: when I did whatever it was, he didn’t get mad. He just thought it cute.

That infuriated me. I didn’t want to be cute. I wanted to him to take me seriously. I used metaphor to win the argument and compared the situation to shaving. If I didn’t shave my legs, he suffered no ills. If he didn’t shave, he tore my face up when we kissed. Just because he didn’t mind me not shaving didn’t mean I had to suffer him not shaving. He retorted. That was a physical issue and my discomfort with things like phone calls was a choice. Oh, he made me mad, but at the time I would only acknowledge hurt. Women are not supposed to get angry with men. Anger is reserved for disciplining children and, if placed elsewhere, might end (or change) the world.

Women live in fear of violence against them. In her book, My Life on the Road, Gloria Steinem says “Violence against females … has now produced a world with fewer females than males, a first in recorded history.” Every day, women are beaten, raped, and murdered in numbers that cause those intimate with them to shudder. Collectively, we ignore a crisis so deep and systemic as to alter the balance of nature because challenging it escalates it.

To compound the problem, the conviction that women somehow deserve the violence inflicted upon them is not gender specific. Women also believe they’re to blame. It’s our fault for being women. We are original sin. We failed to remain virgins. We will never be like Mother Mary. Our plight is that of Magdalene. Women are shamed and abused for their sexuality.

As of this writing, over 3,000 women and girls ranging in age from eight to thirty are enslaved by ISIS. They are sold repeatedly and raped multiple times a day. Rescue efforts had managed to free more than a hundred women a month, but costs exhausted available funds. Now, the world watches and does little to help. Can you imagine any other group of hostages treated with such disdain? Where are our world leaders offering humanitarian aid? Where are the protests and petitions? Why does abuse of women so seldom take center stage?

That rarity, that lack of justice, keeps women worldwide emotionally enslaved, even when the captors are, at least partially, figments of their imaginations.

The day I asked Steve to put me on his personal account, he did. He had no idea that opening that account had caused me such distress. He opened it because he changed work locations and wanted a closer bank. His actions weren’t malicious or even thought out and yet they caused me consternation so severe it took me years to talk about.

On the way to the bank, he reminded me that he didn’t sign on my business account either. His words were a slap in the face. I’d done exactly what he did at exactly the same bank for exactly the same reason and it never occurred to me to put him on the account. More, that fact didn’t bother him. This time, I had no choice but to pay attention. Why weren’t our viewpoints the same?

New Project: Chapter 5

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Five

 

Equality requires three things: Liberty, empathy, and economic autonomy. When single, I controlled my finances, moved easily and freely in society, and surrounded myself with people empathetic to my situation as a single mom, artist, and business woman. Equality wasn’t something I sought. It was my privilege as a daughter of second-wave feminists and, as such, I seldom gave it a second thought.

That changed when Steve and I merged households. Slowly, like water seeping through a crack, all three components disappeared and my sense of self evaporated. I never saw it coming (and would never have admitted I was responsible in part) because everything I did, including reducing myself to a needy, weeping pulp, I did for love.

It began almost at once. Early in our relationship, I had been invited to participate in a prestigious art show by the director himself. Steve offered to join me in La Jolla for the weekend, help out at the show, and keep me company at night.

The day after we arrived, we went to set up my booth in a hot, asphalt parking lot. The director came over with a packet for me that delineated rules, emergency procedures, and the regular rigmarole. Although he knew me, something in his makeup required him to give the packet to Steve. Had Steve not been there, everything would have been fine. Instead, a comedy ensued that demonstrated my place in the world had declined. Silently, Steve refused the proffered packet. The director withdrew his hand. Small talk continued. The director tried again. His hand went up. Steve pantomimed and then pulled back. This went on until beads of sweat popped out on the director’s forehead and his underarms went dark.

Finally, tired of the game, Steve grinned. “I’m just the boyfriend. You should give that to her,” he said. The director looked at me as if for the first time. He shook his head, thrust the packet at me, and took off with few words.

Here’s what’s amazing about this event. Not once during the entire exchange did I say anything. I didn’t step in and take the packet from that poor man. Instead, I let my boyfriend have his fun. Equality could have been mine, but because I was no longer single I relinquished it. I did this unconsciously, naturally, and gracefully. Instead of making my presence felt, I remained statue-like.

Much of the male oppression that exists today exists because women allow and encourage it. They do it in a thousand tiny ways a thousand times a day all over this nation. Women are not equal because they continue to mimic behavior that no longer serves, even when they know better.

Some readers may be incensed at my words. They might cite advertising and media that reinforce systemic cultural norms, social and economic disadvantages, and fear generators as reasons for women’s behavior and they wouldn’t be wrong. However, once one has become aware of a destructive behavior and does nothing to change it, they become part of the problem. For generations, women’s survival depended on their subservience. For women in the 21st century, subservience is moral and metaphysical suicide.

This is not to say that change is something that occurs in a day or deny that some women still live in situations where subservience equals survival.

In this country, three women a day are killed by men who they love or once loved. A rape happens every ninety seconds. Women are still paid less than men in most markets. They do the vast majority of housework and childrearing, even when they also work fulltime outside the home. They are sexualized, marginalized, and idolized all at the same time. Many have given up hope.

New legislation helps. Courts that strengthen existing legislation help. School programs can help. And yet, none of these efforts will succeed as long as women continue to see themselves as victims of a social and economic system that does things to them.

The current feminist narrative runs like this: Rapists rape. Men mansplain. Old white men control the system. The war on women is real and is a backlash against female autonomy and independence. If something awful happens to a woman, it is never her fault. Intersectional awareness and inclusion policy will create solidarity. Discrimination is real and we have to fight for what we want.

Except we don’t. Outside feminist blogs, books, and classrooms, many women go along to get along because, damn it, life’s hard. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Like people the world over, they just want food on the table, a roof over their heads, to love and be loved.

If the world weren’t in danger, if the fabric of our society wouldn’t tear, if the global climate crisis wasn’t threatening our very existence, there might not be reason to change anything, but right now we’re at the precipice. Women are the last great hope and everything is at stake. When we are willing to look that in the face, take the responsibility our liberty requires, and embrace the very femininity the world works so hard to control or erase we will have a shot at equality and Amazing Grace, but first we must learn to give an entirely different way.

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New Project: Chapter 4

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Four

Nobody does it on purpose. We don’t consciously sack souls or dim spirits. We don’t fall in love with the intention of hurting anyone or choose to die inside. And yet, the distance between thrive and survive is a hair’s breadth, a spider’s line.

Recently, a friend dropped a love note to her husband on Facebook. He’d been traveling and wasn’t due home for a couple of weeks. She missed him, but instead of letting the statement sit, she made a list of all the things that had gone wrong in his absence. The swamp cooler broke. The dog got sick on the rug. A snake slithered through the living room. She hadn’t been sleeping and wasn’t getting along with her mom.

The list screamed, “I need you,” more than it said, “I miss you.”

It implied, “What you do for me is more important than who you are.”

While women give, men get, but they also fix. This is part of the unspoken compromise, a recipe for domestic tranquility, a sharing of the load. A woman may fall apart, dissolve into tears, and find comfort in her lover’s arms. Men must solve the problem and fix what’s broken. Reading my friend’s post, I had to wonder if her husband ever dreaded coming home.

In her book, Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit says, “I think the future of something we may no longer call feminism must include a deeper inquiry into men.” When we assail men for their privilege, shame them for behaviors that no longer serve us, and blame them for our lack of progress toward full equality, we do a disservice to our quest. More, we undermine the fragile fabric of our relationships.

Love matters. It’s not the steamy pulp of romance novels or the beneficent charge that love is all things. It is more than life long commitment or sexual exchange. Love is that which requires us to stay engaged.

When the recipe for toxic love or the recipe for domestic tranquility becomes the method through which we communicate, love begins to fade. Then we substitute expectation for experience, physicality for romance, apathy for intimacy, and contentment for joy. The resulting effects are resentment and shame. Nevertheless, most of us would rather use a known recipe than experiment on our own.

One of the lesser known tenets of The Declaration of Independence states, “All experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”  This document, this call to freedom, is the foundation of our country and yet we continue to ignore the wisdom of its words.

Those shackled by convention must, by definition, relinquish their freedom. Without freedom, they can only express and accept toxic love. And yet women and men continue to go through the motions, clinging blindly to cultural expectation and communal history in spite of the work done to create civil change.

Activists in the 1960’s paved the way for civil rights. They paved the way for women’s rights. A generation fought and bled for equality and, by some remarkable stroke of will or luck, succeeded marginally. Still, we have a long road to travel. That road is made longer by the fact that while we legislated people’s rights to equality, we failed to teach them how to be equal. We changed the rules, but not the game. As such, people continue to perpetuate behaviors long ingrained. Misogyny, racism, and homophobia lurk beneath the thin membrane of political correctness, reptilian remnants essential to the survival of our neo-liberal economic and social system. They are the fight or flight response, the last ditch efforts by a subconscious mind to keep the system intact.

In his book, The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel Van Der Kolk quotes Elvin Semrad, a teacher he once had. Semrad said, “The greatest sources of our suffering are the lies we tell ourselves.” This is true for individuals, couples, and the community at large.

The biggest lie I told myself was also the lie I told my husband. I said it over dinner, at the grocery store, while watching a movie, or lying in bed. I’d touch him – stroke his hair or grab his hand – and proclaim with all sincerity, “You are my world.” He’d meet my eyes and respond in kind. “I am yours. You are mine. You are my everything till the end of time.”

When Steve and I first met, I wanted commitment. What I received was something greater and far more terrible. He offered me liberty while claiming his own. That, for many women, is death by a thousand swords.

Women and liberty are almost an oxymoron. To presume liberty is to demand responsibility and most women are not trained for that. Oh, we can be responsible for our children and homes, employees and jobs, but not for our emotions or the way we’re perceived and treated by the world at large.

It was morning the first time Steve brought liberty to me, all shiny with possibility on a platter made of love. The sun streamed through a grimy window high above the bed, making cobwebs glisten and dust motes glow. He lay naked, the bedclothes in a tangle near his feet. I stroked his belly and pushed the agenda I wouldn’t let rest.

“I used to believe in forever, but we both know it’s a lie,” he said.

“I don’t think so. I think you just have to find the right person,” I replied.

I didn’t want him to hear the longing in my voice or make him fear me, but I had no choice. I had to know where he stood because he was the home I’d looked for all my life.

“Maybe, but I don’t think so. Most marriages end in divorce and I don’t know if I can count on one hand the number of happy couples I’ve met.”

“So what’s that mean? Why do you think that is?” I asked.

He rolled over onto an elbow and met my eyes. “I love you. You know that.”

“Yes. And I love you. More than anything, but that’s not what we’re talking about. It’s different for women. You get accolade and high fives because you’ve got a girlfriend and aren’t stuck with a wife. For me, I’m the one who couldn’t win you. I’m the one who’s not good enough. People don’t take me seriously. They think I’m easy or something. It sucks, but it’s true.”

“I don’t see that.”

“Christ, Steve, even my mother does it. Do you want to know why we’re not going to her house tonight? Because she told me your kids aren’t welcome. She doesn’t have enough room to invite them, but that’s okay because they’re not family. Oh, you can come because if you don’t, I won’t, but they can’t. Don’t you see? We’ve been living together for two years and it still doesn’t matter.”

“Your mom’s your mom. Ignore her. I don’t believe in marriage, but I love you. And I choose you, every day. I don’t want to be with you because of some obligation or formal commitment. I want to wake up every morning and decide if I want to be with you today. I want you to do that, too. We have to choose each other all the time if this is going to last and we have to do it consciously. It can’t be something we take for granted. Marriage makes taking you for granted too easy. I did that once. I won’t do it again.”

I pushed him onto his back and cuddled against him, my head in the crook of his arm. The musk of him was like warm hay in sunshine and I inhaled it like a drug.

“So it’s not me. It’s the institution?”

“Yes,” he said. “I choose you. You choose me. If one day one of us no longer does – and I don’t see that ever happening – then we need to be free to go our own way.”

“That’s it? That simple? Today I choose you, tomorrow I don’t and we’re done?” I couldn’t control the edge in my voice.

“Of course it’s not that simple, but you can’t still believe that a ring on your finger and some magic words will make us last.”

I didn’t say it, but I did think those things would give us a better chance.

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