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.

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.

(To read the next chapter, click here)

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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New Project: Chapter 3

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(To read the previous chapter, click here)

Three

 

 

Women are taught to give. Their time, energy, and bodies are in service all the time. There is supposed to be dignity in this, even grace. Soft and fluid, women spin the world. They are sustenance, encouragement, and comfort. The depth of their love is the breadth of their worth. Their families come first. If a woman chooses not to have a family, she’d damn well better be extra dedicated to her work. Passion is their lot. To be woman is to suffer, for better or worse.

What women are not taught is how to give in ways that make sense. Instead, they are taught to give to others at their own expense. This, too, is in the recipe book.

Laurie Penny writes, “Of all the female sins, hunger is the least forgivable; hunger for anything, for food, sex, power, education, even love. If we have desires, we are expected to conceal them, to control them, to keep them in check.”

For years, I did this with Steve. He’d ask what I wanted for dinner and I’d say I don’t care. He’d turn on the TV to stream a movie of his choice and I’d snuggle down to watch. His needs were my priority. His desires came first. I could always squish a little more of myself to make him comfortable and prove my worth.

Steve never required this. In fact, he was oblivious. He took for granted his right to choice. I expected this and acquiesced without ever really thinking about it. Like many women, I sleepwalked through life with him and operated by rote. I’d watched my dad dominate, my first husband dominate, and even my sons. It was their birthright like it was mine to pick up their socks. Waking up wasn’t easy on any of us.

At first, I blamed patriarchy for my conditioning. I could lay frustrations and insecurities at Steve’s feet and say, “Here. Look at these, you privileged jerk. You’ve never had to deal with any of this. You’re clueless,” though I seldom did.

Instead, I read feminist books aloud to him while he cooked. Listening, his eyes would wince with hurt. He’d apologize not just for himself, but for all men, and I appreciated that. We were making progress, taking baby steps to change our world. Then, the baby steps faltered. The effort didn’t work. Our fights returned.

I wanted Steve to change. He was the product of male privilege and his sense of privilege made me small. I couldn’t compete with his autonomy or confidence. We spent hours talking about how he could make room for me and what equality meant in our partnership. At first, he thought granting me equality meant he had to relinquish something. Then, he realized he just needed to step aside so I could step up.

Even the language we used was wrong. It wasn’t for him to grant me anything. He didn’t need to make room at the top. We needed a different way of looking at things, but it’s bloody hard to let go of everything you’ve been taught. Patriarchy is evil. So is the economic system it supports. We will not change personal or collective culture as long as we separate the two in our minds and hearts.

In August, 2009, Steve bought a bankrupt shopping center. It was the height of the recession and the world was falling apart. Initially, I wasn’t going to be involved in the project. I had my own business and thought shopping centers sucked souls, but I had a marketing background, had done some event planning, and could do a little desktop publishing. Most of all, I saw the writing on the wall. Business as usual died that year and we had to come up with something new or the project didn’t stand a chance.

The day after we acquired the property, Steve and I walked it again. Three beautiful buildings measuring more than 30,000 square feet sat empty in the summer sun. Tumbleweeds hugged doorways, hiding from the wind. Steve whistled a refrain from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. He could always make me laugh and didn’t fail me then.

Most of the tenant spaces were unfinished. Concrete floors, bare rafters, and exposed insulation taunted us. We were bleeding $25,000 a month. Shopping centers all over the country were failing, banks weren’t lending, businesses weren’t opening, and we had bought this. We either got it going or it would ruin us, but where to start?

The concept I developed centered on making individuals matter again. At the time, with the onset of online shopping, corporate conglomerates, and a political climate that rescued banks instead of homes, people felt lost, disconnected, and unimportant. On top of that, the vast majority were terrified of what might happen next. In our community, many remembered first hand stories of the Great Depression and its incumbent hardships. For us, building trust was more important than initial success.

With this in mind, I used three words to describe our vision. These were connection, convenience, and enrichment. We would build community, bring in businesses that provided necessary goods and services, and commit to enriching lives.

I sold the concept. Steve sold the concept. Newspapers and radio stations picked up the story. At a time when all was doom and gloom, our center promised hope and something more. We held our grand opening in December, just four months after we took possession of the property. Thirteen businesses opened with us and more than two thousand people attended the all day party we threw. It was the marketing coup of the year.

At the opening, people said, “Uh, good luck…”

Six months later, they said, “Wow. This is working.”

After a year, they said, “Look what we did.”

When the community took ownership of the center and what it had become, we knew we’d built something good. We had also taught a valuable lesson to those who would observe: Business thrives when it gives to the community it serves.

The center became our baby and took over our lives. My business took a back seat to its needs and I became a wife. I gave it all and got the prize, but when alone I cried.

To read the next chapter, click here.

New Project: Chapter 2

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(To read the previous chapter, click here)

 

Two

 

 

Home. Open doors, welcoming arms. The place they have to take you when you return. The place you can’t go back to once you’ve gone. Myth and mystery of cold and warmth, slammed doors, silent alarms. The place you run from. The place you belong.

Before my father died, there was a semblance of balance. My parents fought, but they also kissed. If one of them denied me a bra, the other encouraged me to wear lipstick. Then, suddenly, he was gone and my mother couldn’t afford the rent. Pack it up. Pack it in. Move on.

After awhile, my mother had a string of boyfriends. With each of them, she was different. The shifts were subtle, showing up as new interests or convictions, but they were as disconcerting as the men disingenuous. I partied with them sometimes.

“Here honey, have a sip.”

“Take a hit.”

“Wanna come along?”

At fifteen, I met my first love while at a bar with my mom. He was wonderful. He wrote me songs. I quit the track team to be with him and let my homework slide. I, too, was a chameleon changing color for a man. That’s what we’re taught. Lure him then keep him any way you can.

The formula for toxic love goes like this:

 

  1. Empty yourself just a little to make room for what matters to him.
  2. Give up things you love to spend time with him.
  3. Help him.
  4. Expect him to reciprocate.
  5. Resent him and guilt him when he doesn’t.
  6. Take the blame when things go wrong.

 

Though an age-old recipe for disaster, it’s also grandma’s secret to landing and keeping a man. Even when we don’t want to believe it, even when we think we’re better than that, the recipe is handed down and served up on college campuses, at family dinners, and at church potlucks again and again and again. Most movies, TV shows, songs, and books script the same narrative. He’s got a life. She’s got a love interest. If she’s worthy, she’ll earn herself a man. In this way, men are currency. In this way, feminism doesn’t stand.

Feminists would argue that women are perpetual victims. They are written out of history. Their voices are silenced in boardrooms, bedrooms, and courtrooms across the land. As women age, their self-esteem diminishes and their confidence crumbles because, to paraphrase Gloria Steinem, they bear witness to their own absence.

However, in the recipe for toxic love, women are not made absent from their lives. They choose to be absent. Nobody likes this, but once the ingredients are mixed the meal is inevitable and we choke it down.

Fifty years after second-wave feminism took its stand, educated women still choose to be absent when it comes to their home lives. In most instances, these women are not victims. They are perpetrators of their own demise. They are caregivers by choice; sacrificial martyrs who give themselves up to get what they want and then get stuck in a pattern. Feminists would have us believe that the unpaid emotional labor women expend is anathema to a healthy society. I would argue that there may have been a time when a man would let a crying child starve before doing a woman’s job, but those times are, for the most part, gone. Most men do not make women caregive. Women caregive because they believe it’s what they must do to belong.

In her book, Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family, Anne-Marie Slaughter says, “Not valuing caregiving is the taproot, the deeper problem that gives rise to distortion and discrimination in multiple areas of American society.” She believes that focus on care and caregiving will change the way men and women relate. However, Slaughter does not argue for women to care less. She argues for men, corporations, and governments to care more.

This is a fundamental problem. Even Slaughter acknowledges the fact that women don’t like to let men caregive and will often convince themselves and everyone else that the men are doing it wrong. Women do this to be indispensable. If men pick up the slack then women aren’t important, grandma’s recipe won’t work, and love won’t last.

The morning after my epiphany, I told Steve about it. At first, he didn’t understand. Defenses kicked in because he thought he was under attack.

“I can’t do anything right,” he said.

The morning was clear, the sun bright. Tall, yellow grass bent in the wind. In the distance, the lake sparkled like a gem. I took his hand, squeezed it tight.

“No. You do most things right. I need you to hear me this time. I realized something last night. I gave up my garden to hold your hand. I quit reading to sit on the couch next to you. I gave up things I love to be close to you.

You didn’t ask me to do any of that. You accepted it, didn’t question it, because in your mind, I’m autonomous, but somewhere along the line I lost that sense of myself. I want you to tell me I matter, to show me I matter because I somehow lost my self-worth. I keep asking you to prove your love by doing things that are not in your nature. You keep trying. You keep failing because they’re not in your nature. But you try. That means I do matter to you. It means I have worth in your eyes. I’ve been so focused on what I don’t get, I missed what you give. That makes me wrong. It also means I have to reclaim my life and I’m terrified.”

Steve shook his head. “Of what? Why?”

“What will you do with my absence? How will you fill the time? Will you miss me or will you forget me? Truly, honey, I’m petrified.”

Steve cupped my face in his hands. He kissed me and wiped a tear from my cheek. “I fell in love with a strong, independent woman. I am still in love with a strong, independent woman. You think you’re lost, but I see you and you’re amazing. You will never lose me by taking care of yourself. I might get annoyed sometimes, but hell, I’m a man.”

He laughed, blue eyes bright, when I slapped his arm.

To read the next chapter, click here.

The New Project

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For the last month, I’ve been putting words to paper every chance I get. The new project is challenging in that it’s not linear and it introduces ideas about how we might move forward individually and collectively.

I promised I’d share this project with you, so here are the first two installments. Enjoy and, of course, share your thoughts.

Prologue

 

I sat at the front of the bus eating warm yogurt with a plastic spoon. At the back, Rock music blared from an over-sized boom box. Cool kids gathered round it, all gleaming skin and silky hair. Their limbs stretched across each other — leg on leg, arm on arm — in a tangle of languid bodies. Muscled and tan, they writhed and stretched to a beat I couldn’t hear.

I watched them in the driver’s mirror. They seemed perfect. Natural. As if they had somehow skipped the struggle the rest of us endured. A full two years younger than them, I didn’t listen to Rock, shave my legs, or wear the right kind of perfume. They were a school of brightly colored fish. I was a hermit crab at the edge of the lagoon.

Out the window, the land dropped away from the road. In the valley below, the Rio Grande wound through green fields and cottonwoods beginning to turn. Ahead, vast cliffs rose like God’s castles – red and majestic against a sky deep blue. O’Keefe’s home. Rattlesnakes and cow skulls. Cactus and ants. Cumulus clouds like cotton candy and ridges to stop your breath. The land would kill you if it could.

The bus crawled up the hill bellowing diesel fumes. A car, impatient, passed on a curve and I sucked in my breath. Northern New Mexico: land of enchantment, land of death. In the hour and half since we’d been traveling, I’d counted more than a dozen Descansos. The little crosses marked the passage of souls. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. Plastic flowers and shattered liquor bottles to decorate our roads.

I’d lost my father in June. The fact hadn’t sunk into my bones. I couldn’t feel it. Mourn him. Cry at all. Instead, I counted crosses at the sides of roads. The school community had been kind. They’d brought more food than we could possibly eat and left it on the porch – a whole smoked turkey, a roast leg of lamb, casseroles galore.

Now September and the start of a new school year, the kids pretty much ignored me and teachers left me alone. I went through the motions, did what I had always done, but I was numb.

The land leveled. Rock striations in yellow, white, and red jutted from the plain, made mesas like paper cut-outs against the horizon. The bus shuddered. A teacher groaned. A foul odor made my stomach turn. Red-faced and laughing, a boy denied responsibility for the aroma. Someone opened a bag of Doritos. I wanted someone to open a door.

At the campground, we pitched tents, laid out sleeping bags, and unpacked food. Kids were sent to gather wood. Alone, I wandered about, eavesdropping on conversations like a ghost. Darkness rose. A hand clapped my shoulder and I looked up to see a teacher I hardly knew. He pointed toward the cliffs and asked me to come along. Surprised, and not a little grateful, I trotted behind the small group he’d collected up a narrow trail. Pinon and juniper trees delineated the path, but his flashlight bobbed on the ground – a bright spot in the twilight illuminating rocks and weeds that would snag our toes. After a short climb, he flicked it off and gestured. In front of us, a sandstone amphitheater carved by millennia gaped wide and inviting. Above it, the last vestiges of sunset glowed.

He said nothing. Instead, he began to sing. His voice, low and mellifluous, rose like the dark into the sky. “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, to save a wretch like me…”

One by one, the kids joined him, their voices a chorus of angels. As they sang, the amphitheater caught their notes, built upon them, echoed them back so the air was alive and tingling. The harmony caught me, hooked me, pulled open something stuck and my tears spilled. I didn’t know the words, but as they sang I hummed.

As the sky lost its color, the last notes faded. We stood, silent and awed. My wet cheeks stung. In silence, we headed back to camp. As we descended, sounds of laughter and cooking broke the spell. Campfires dotted the darkness. Someone yelled.

Thirty-five years later, that moment still gives me chills. What made that teacher do what he did? Why did he tap me to go along? I hadn’t taken a class with him yet and wasn’t one of the chorus kids. Thinking back, thinking it over, I believe his invitation was simply a gift. He will never know what he did. I never told him, never revealed my tears or the fact that until that moment I hadn’t been able to shed them. That man was the first to teach me that Amazing Grace is more than a song. It is a state. It is an experience. It is an act of love.

 


One

 

 

It was my birthday weekend.  We’d gone camping and the trip had gone wrong. I poked the fire and glanced at him. He slept with a half-full glass of whiskey tilted precariously in his hand. Firelight flickered across his face, highlighting day-old stubble and age and I wanted desperately to wake him up, shake him up, and start all over again. Then I realized he would never change.

Perhaps the campfire conjured spirits. Perhaps the moon was to blame, but something happened on that late May night. The epiphany came in waves. He loves me. Sip of whiskey. He’s trying. Add another log. You can’t make him something he’s not. What if you’re the one who’s wrong?

The lake spread like silver fingers across a dark land. The wind rose, sending a shower of leaves to the ground.  I set my whiskey down, pushed the hair off my face, and let loose the tears I’d been holding too long. Amazing Grace – that moment where you give up or give in – is the crossroads, the dangling fate, the beginning or end.

The song was written by a man named John Newton in the eighteenth century. A slaver, Newton had little religious conviction until a storm at sea nearly cost him his life. That night, he called out for mercy. Ten years later, he gave up his profession to study theology and write songs. Amazing Grace speaks to his redemption, promises salvation regardless of sin, offers forgiveness for those who have wronged.

My marriage was at the soul level. No vows could do justice to the depth of my love. No words could define the breadth of it. Steve was my-end-all be-all-everything-all-the-time-oh-my-god man and my undying, raging, over the top love was consuming us like the demon product of a Hindu god.

I could never get enough, never let go his hand for too long. He was home and air and nourishment all at once. With him, I belonged

We met through our kids at the YMCA and first we were friends. When the demise of our respective relationships made us both single, fate broke a computer and let us bump into each other again. In the thirteen years since, we’d been through a lot. Still, as I fed the campfire and listened to him snore, I understood we were, like Newton, adrift in a storm. I cried for mercy, cried for the storm to stop, cried for the love that was killing us both and the lover I might have lost.

He stirred, almost spilt his cup. I pulled it from his fingers and set it down without waking him up. I wanted to stroke his hair, climb into his lap, snap him, me, us, out of it.

The epiphany sang.

He loves you. He’s trying. You can’t make him something he’s not. What if you’re the one who’s wrong?

I didn’t want to hear it, didn’t want to own it, and didn’t want to change. The night wore on. The moon rose. The fire cackled like a vicious witch and I swallowed hard. All the fights through all our years boiled down to one damned thing. What I needed from him he couldn’t give me and what did that mean?

In her fabulous book, Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies, and Revolution, Laurie Penny says of women, “We are the ones for whom biology is not just destiny: it is catastrophe.” She is speaking of patriarchy, rigged systems, and the systemic oppression and abuse that keep women worldwide in a constant state of vulnerability and flux. Through these we learn to accept and express toxic love.

When I was ten, my father tried to teach me to sing. At his command, I stood next to the piano in our living room. He played a few bars of My Funny Valentine and said, “Sing it.” I nodded and began. Only a few lines in, he stopped me. “No. Not like that. Sing it like you.” I didn’t know what he meant. I tried again. He got frustrated and left.

It took me years to understand that his push for my authentic voice was at odds with his push for my conformance to his ideals. His lesson lingered. At the campfire that night, I heard it again.

I was taught to be a perfect chimera of what woman should and could be – a wolf in a sheep’s body, a pig with the heart of a bull.

When I first met Steve, I was autonomous, but as my love for him grew, so did my need of him. As my need grew, so did my fear of losing him. I gave up my garden to hold his hand. I emptied myself to make room for his goals, hoping our fusion would keep me whole. The trade sucked life from us both.

A log popped. An ember burst free, flared for a minute, and went out. I sipped my drink, savoring its heat. If he couldn’t give me what I needed did that mean we were done? I watched him sleep, watched the light play in the little bit of drool at the corner of his mouth, watched his chest rise and fall, rise and fall.

He loves you. He’s trying. You can’t make him something he’s not. What if you’re the one who’s wrong?

I matched my breath to his, imagined the beating of his heart, and felt my own slowing, calming, steadying. I heard a voice in my head. It said, “You can’t control what you get. You can only control what you give.”

To read the next chapter, click here.

 

#yesmetoo

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Like most, I’m looking for a path forward, a way out, a different way of doing things. I want hope to be sturdy, love simple, peace possible, and change easy. I hunger for thunderclouds, a storm surge that might wash the muddied plains of despair momentarily clean.

I hope for revolution.

Pray for justice.

Read the news and weep.

Democrats have nominated a woman to be President, but Brock Turner got six months.

The statement of his 23-year-old victim went viral for its brutal, beautiful humanity, yet she remains anonymous – a figurehead, an ideal, a faceless poster child for what some consider a lost cause.

We hide her to protect her, to save her from additional shame, but I want her to be a hero.

I want her face plastered across my Facebook feed.

I want to celebrate her resilience and free her from the stigma of rape.

Rape happens. It’s awful. But it’s not something of which we should be ashamed.

If we’re going to challenge rape culture, if we are really going to make concrete change, then the victims of rape need to be seen, stand straight, and reject shame.

Can you imagine #Iwasraped? Can you imagine a flood of photographs accompanied by #yesmetoo? Can you imagine a world where the reality of rape and the faces of its victims become that surging storm that wash clean the muddied plains?

I wish every woman who has experienced rape or sexual assault would come forward and inundate the media with their humanity.

We are not abstract statistics. We are not faceless victims. We are not damaged irreparably or victims in perpetuity.

No.

We are strong.

They would deny us our dignity, but it is not theirs to deny. Today, in solidarity with the faceless victim in the Stanford case, I share my face. Maybe you will, too. #yesmetoo #Iwasraped #nomoreshame

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