Life is easier, in some ways, when things are neatly divided into them/us, bad/good, never/always boxes.
When those boxes crumble, when the lines between certainties blur, our assumptions and givens shake. Things get trickier and more interesting.
A few box-crumbling events have happened in my world over the past few years:
a friend’s husband was accused of molesting their granddaughter. I believe that he did not do it.
another friend was attacked in her home and brutally beaten. She found her way to deep forgiveness.
a trusted employee was arrested for domestic violence. I decided to pay for his bail.
In an either/or world, I believe in accusers/victims no matter what; I want my friend’s attacker to go to prison for as long as the law allows; I draw a hard line and fire the batterer.
In the grey zone, I can be open to the possibilities of believing in the accused, marveling at forgiveness, and hoping for the batterer’s change.
My bias remains toward accusers and victims. I believe there is no justification, ever, for emotional or physical violence and also that it is very, very difficult to stop learned behaviors like battering.
Living a little bit more in the grey helps me better understand my own story. Living in the grey is expansive. Challenging my assumptions makes my ultimate conclusions–or what will be my interim conclusions–more nuanced, more complex, more allowing of further refined understanding.
Living in the grey allows the possibility of telling and hearing all the stories.
When Mr. Z. and I were in Paris last month, our hosts, the Scotts, took us to one of their favorite restaurants, Chez Denise. Even though my own lunch was delicious and satisfying, I openly coveted the os á moelle that the French couple next to us ordered. My companions, veterans of French food and committed to their low-fat diet, declined to order it with me, Mr. Z wasn’t game, and I wasn’t quite ready to commit to eating a plate of roasted beef marrow bones by myself.
When the woman caught me watching her prepare her next bite–scooping marrow out of the bone and spreading it onto grilled bread with a butter knife, then sprinkling it with salt from a bowl with her fingers–she gestured that she would be happy to share. Our friends accepted in French on my behalf, and we watched as she made me a bone marrow toast. I gratefully took the toast from her hand and ate it all. She would have continued to feed me from her plate if I had not been too full already.
I remember that lunch as my favorite meal of the trip not because of the bone marrow’s rich, buttery deliciousness (and itsbenefits), but because of the unexpected intimacy of taking food from a stranger’s plate and hand.
Where were the rubber gloves, the hand sanitizer, the caution and fear, the reminders of the woman’s otherness and separation and the potential danger of her body? Erased as I accepted her offer and ate her food.
When I think about the terror attacks at the Charlie Hebdo office and Kosher market last week, and I see the pictures of people holding the “Je Suis Charlie” and “Je Suis Juif” signs and posting under those hashtags on social media, I remember the woman in the restaurant, and her willingness to share and my willingness to take and eat her food, and I think of the ways “Je Suis” the Parisian woman. I feel warm solidarity with the people of the world, standing up and speaking out against violence and fear.
But at the same time that I say to myself, yes, Je Suis Parisians, Je Suis Charlie and Je Suis Juif, I have to acknowledge that (more subtly and without obvious violence–I add disclaimers to be able to bear to write this–see below) I also must say Je Suis the silent, and Je Suis the terrorists, and Je Suis the fearful censors of public speech and private thought, and on and on and on.
I wish I could say or write “Not Afraid” with honest confidence, but I am frequently afraid–of offending, of overstepping, of being factually or morally or (most ridiculously) socially “wrong.” I censor my words and even thoughts every day. I could say that “no one dies” as a result of my desire to censor, but how do I know? What if my failure to speak out about, say, domestic violence, does in fact indirectly lead to someone’s death?
Maybe saying “Je Suis” about each other also requires saying “Je Suis” about the other. Sharing responsibility as well as food, blame as well as credit. Speaking out, using the space created by satirists like the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo (whose work often makes me cringe) to tell the truth of our own lives.
I repeat the mantra “lifeisshort lifeisshort lifeisshort.” Sometimes I add “getbusy hurryup domore lifeisshort ticktock.” I check an online calculator again—254 days until my 50th birthday.
Lifeisshort, I chant as I rush from my office to the Women of Tomorrow event before heading back to the office again. I talk with a group of high school girls about dating violence. I want to make a difference in their lives. Lifeisshort lifeisshort.
I tell my story of being in an abusive relationship, and the girls share theirs. One girl feels pressure to continue her relationship with her controlling boyfriend, and one of the other women in the room says, “Girls, you can take your time to find the right relationship, the right career, the right life. It may not seem like it now, but life is long.”
“Life is long”? Hmmm. Maybe for 16-year-olds. I am nearly 50.
Two days later, I sit at my dining room table, coffee within easy reach, Sunday’s New York Times spread out in front of me. Frank Bruni’s op-ed about maturity and Peyton Manning, the Denver Broncos’ 37-year-old quarterback, is a celebration of experience: “With a bit of age has come a better grip on the fact that a game, like a life, is long. Stay calm. Hang in. Wait for the inevitable break. Trust your training.”
Now we know that the inevitable break never came for Manning on Sunday night, but I remember Bruni’s column. “A game, like a life, is long.”
I google “Frank Bruni age” and smile. Of course. He’s 49 and he’ll turn 50 fourteen days after I do. 268 to go, Frank. Do you really think lifeislong?
The next day I read, as I do most days, Andrew Sullivan’s Dish blog, which linked to a story about Janet Yellen, who, at 67, has just become the Chairwoman? Chairman? Chair? of the Federal Reserve. “Life is long,” says the article, which continues, “It’s a liberating notion, really, to think that you don’t have to accomplish everything in your life – or ‘have it all’ – simultaneously; that leaning back during one life stage doesn’t preclude leaning in later.”
I haven’t had it all, at least not in any conventional sense or in any conventional order, but I notice that phrase again. Lifeislong. And Janet Yellen, at the top of her game, the beginning of the peak of her professional life, at 67, inspires.
Okay, if Anyone is coordinating this onslaught of “lifeislong,” I’m listening. I’m thinking.
But maybe this is mere coincidence; maybe everyone is saying “lifeislong” now and I’m just noticing. Is this the new YouOnlyLiveOnce?
I google again. The search leads me not to urbandictionary.com but to this quote from a Chris Rock movie, I Think I Love My Wife: “You know, some people say life is short and that you could get hit by a bus at any moment and that you have to live each day like it’s your last. Bullshit. Life is long. You’re probably not gonna get hit by a bus. And you’re gonna have to live with the choices you make for the next fifty years.”
And then I click on stanza V of T. S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”:
Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
Life is very long
Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
So. A woman advises girls. A man praises Manning’s long game. Janet Yellen has it all, in her own time. Chris Rock calls “bullshit.” I shake my head at the beauty of Eliot’s words. I pay attention.
Lifeislong invites exploration, slowing down, mixing in at least a little rest and reflection with the urgent drumbeat of “getbusy hurryup domore lifeisshort ticktock.”
Over the next 254 days, I’ll write a series of 50 posts. 50 posts before 50. They’ll be less “lifeisshort” bucket list and more “lifeislong” what’s next?
I hope to have some guest posts, too, maybe even 50 of them, from women who have already looked 50 in the eye, as well as women who still look forward to it 500, 1000, 2000 or more days from now.
Is life short or long? I don’t know yet. I hope to have a better idea by my birthday.
Things get weird pretty quickly when your search term on a stock photo site is “feminist.” Women with ropes, women with boxing gloves, women with their stiletto’d feet on the throats of men. Try it and see. Here’s a strange one. What does it mean?
To me the word has meant something simple and basic: pro woman. Women can or cannot be feminists. Men have the same options.
I am a feminist; I happily take the label.
When the pop singer Katy Perry said last year that she wasn’t a feminist, she elicited reactions ranging from “Katy Perry is an idiot” to “maybe if feminists didn’t think Katy Perry was an idiot she would be more likely to identify as one.”
I rely on the recommendations of Mr. Z (who calls himself a feminist, by the way) to read a tiny fraction of the articles in the issues of The New Yorker that pile up on the coffee table. A couple of days ago, he suggested that I read an article by Susan Faludi about Shulamith Firestone. I recommend that you read it, too.
Firestone’s name is familiar to me, but by the time I was reading feminist theory in the 1990s, she and other “second-wave” feminists (Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Kate Millett, for example), no matter how influential, were already sort of “vintage.” I didn’t know her ideas and I didn’t know her story.
Firestone’s ideas are still radical and fresh and needed forty years after she first wrote them.
Firestone’s story is tragic and compelling and all too familiar.
If more women and men knew about the feminists on whose shoulders we climb, would more people be honored and humbled to share their label, identify as members of their tribe?
I met Alana Sheeren via my friend Jeanne, that great connector, and for the past couple of years I’ve followed Alana on her blog and social media.
She’s doing a series of interviews called “Transformation Talk.” Here’s what she writes about them:
Every Thursday for a year, starting in September 2012, I’ll post an interview with someone who is a force for good in the world. These men and women have either deepened their passion or found their calling after experiencing a loss, trauma or diagnosis
I want to broaden the conversation around grief and its transformative power. My hope is that in their words you’ll find echoes of your story. In their inspired actions, you’ll see yourself and your immense possibility.
About a week ago, I had the pleasure of being the “someone” she interviewed. Here is our conversation.
I realized this morning that today is April 11, a day that for me has become a day of unexpected transformations.
April 11, 2007 was the day my ex-husband was arrested. April 11, 2011 was the day I gave my first public talk to a group. And now April 11, 2013, through no foresight or planning on my part, is the day of my first interview.
I really appreciate the work Alana is doing with respect to grief and loss and their transformative power. Thank you, Alana, for being part of my ongoing transformation.
This morning I happened to be reading Deborah Tannen’s Talking from 9 to 5, the chapter on women bosses.
Tannen critiques a Newsweek review of Margaret Thatcher’s memoir for its handbag image: “The image of Thatcher ‘clobbering them with her metaphorical handbag’ undercuts the force of her actions, even as it gives her credit for attacking her opponents. A woman clobbering men with her handbag is an object of laughter, not fear or admiration.”
Thatcher died today, and this afternoon’s New York Times article about her life references the handbag metaphor, too: “Brisk and argumentative, she was rarely willing to concede a point and loath to compromise. Colleagues who disagreed with her were often deluged in a sea of facts, or what many referred to as being ‘handbagged.'”
Regardless of any reservations I might have about Thatcher’s policies, and these are subject to revision based on this piece by Andrew Sullivan, I have to admit that I admire her force, her commitment, her political will. I think for a moment that I wouldn’t mind having it said about me that I “handbagged” someone. I like a good handbag as much as anyone, and I have been known to resist conceding when my convictions are at stake.
But I’m thinking again. In between this morning’s coincidental reading of Tannen on handbagging and this afternoon’s reading of the Times on Thatcher, I had an intense conversation with a man about another man’s use of the word “rape” to suggest “plunder” in casual conversation. I believe with Tannen that words matter, and that “rape” is a very specific kind of sexualized violence and a word that should not be used lightly. The man I was talking with invoked dictionary definitions and said that I have a chip on my shoulder.
He’s right: I do have a chip on my shoulder about rape.
I honored Jeanne, who honored Nancy. It was complicated.
And we listened to other women read their essays, and viewed the art they offered. We took turns, moving around the room, reading about the famous poets and singers, the sisters, neighbors, friends, mentors, teachers, mothers and grandmothers who have inspired us individually and collectively.
Women choked up as they read. Listeners’ eyes filled with tears.
As I heard women who read about women now gone from their lives, I felt grateful to be reading about a friend who could give me a hug when I was finished, who could know how much she means to me right now.
I was also honored to read on behalf of Ileana Tolibia, a Miami woman who wasn’t able to be there, a woman I haven’t yet met except through the complicated magic of the internet, a woman who wrote about her beloved grandmother, whose drawings she displayed.
First, my television confession: Nip/Tuck, an FX show which ran from 2003-2010, streamed from Netflix, is perfect for a rainy hour on the couch or the treadmill. It explores, sometimes clumsily and sometimes gracefully, the contradictions between internal and external reality.
The two main characters are fictional Miami plastic surgeons Sean McNamara and Christian Troy. McNamara, pretty-much-ethical-family-man-barely-keeping-his-life-together, is not as complicated or interesting as Troy, cad-who-will-do-anything-including-trade-his-girlfriend-for-a-Lamborghini.
I hoped for an illuminating back story for Christian, and finally got it in the eighth episode of Season 1.
When Christian realizes that he has removed a birthmark from the genitals of a pedophile priest, a birthmark that the priest’s victims have cited to identify him as their abuser, he confronts the priest in his confessional.
He confesses, “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been twenty-two years since my last confession. These are my sins: I’ve lost my faith, Father. I’ve dank. I’ve done drugs. I’ve fornicated with women and discarded them like trash. I’ve lost my soul. The boys you raped will be saying the same thing in 20 years.”
After he threatens the priest into confessing his crimes, and the police lead him away, he sits in the church’s pews with Sean.
Christian: I’ve been praying to forgive but I can’t do it. … Not him. Me.
Sean: What did you do?
Christian: I let him touch me, for years. I let him touch me.
Christian: Mr. Troy.
Sean: Your foster father?
Christian: He’s dead and I thought that would end it. But it didn’t.
Sean: Christian, you were just a boy. If he abused you, it was his fault. He had the power. He’s the one.
Christian: I didn’t have anything when he took me in. I wanted to be somebody. He said he’d give me money. I let him touch me. And I did, I bought things. I sold myself. Oh, God, I sold myself.
The Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal continues. The Pope resigns. Every day on In Real Life I hear real-life versions of Christian’s experience. And I applaud anyone who tells stories, fictional or autobiographical, that bring sexual abuse into the light where it can be fought with all our might.