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 I read Dylan Farrow’s letter, I was sure that she was telling the truth. I’ve heard enough victims of child sexual abuse write about the pain of their experience and the aftermath on IRL that I am familiar with survivors’ shame, reticence, and knowledge that a shitstorm of judgment is likely coming their way from both people in their inner circles and people they’ve never met.
I am strongly biased in favor of anyone brave enough to come forward with her or his story.
And then a friend told me that her husband has been accused of abuse by a young child. I know enough about the logistics of their situation (who is alone with the child and when, how visits are conducted, that sort of thing), that I don’t believe that he could have abused the child.
Maybe someone actually abused her; maybe someone abused her by coaching her into a story that’s not true. I don’t know. I know that she was never alone with him, especially in the ways that she suggests in her story.
In this situation, I am not relying on what I believe about the man’s character or the child’s likely truthtelling. I know that people are not always what they seem.
Now the investigation continues, and I hope that the truth will come out and the child will move on in safety.
But my automatic bias in favor of the accuser is shaken. I can see at least the possibility of another side. That’s probably a good thing.
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.
This morning when I heard the news of the Aurora shooting. I immediately thought of Jeanne, whose son lives in Denver, and who wrote a beautiful post today that weaves a whirlwind of reactions into a reminder to love each other.
I keep thinking about the story of one of the people who was killed. Jessica Ghawi was in Toronto just last month at the Eaton Center, where another shooting took place. She blogged about her experience here.
I say all the time that every moment we have to live our life is a blessing. So often I have found myself taking it for granted. Every hug from a family member. Every laugh we share with friends. Even the times of solitude are all blessings. Every second of every day is a gift. After Saturday evening, I know I truly understand how blessed I am for each second I am given.
I hope she lived the past 45 days with those words in mind. I hope all of us can live with those words in mind.
In Walden, Thoreau wrote, “All poets and heroes, like Memnon, are the children of Aurora, and emit their music at sunrise. To him whose elastic and vigorous thought keeps pace with the sun, the day is a perpetual morning.”
As Women’s History Month continues, I am happy and grateful to share stories of women’s education and empowerment by women who are dear to me.
Of course, the first is by Jeanne Hewell-Chambers.
If you’ve ever been in an abusive relationship (and I sure hope you haven’t), you know how it goes: he asks you out, courts you fiercely, wants to spend every available minute with you. He can’t live without you. He can’t wait to see you again. He’s never seen anybody so beautiful. All this lavishing of attention is endearing, proof of his deep love and affection for you – he see you, he really sees you, and loves you like you never dreamed possible.
But before you know it and without even realizing it, you’re isolated from the world around you. When it’s just the two of you – as it almost always is, except when you’re with his friends or his family – you hear a constant barrage of hissings spat at you through clenched teeth and lips curled back over those animalistic teeth – things like “You are the ugliest girl I ever laid eyes on, and you’re just lucky I’m dating you cause if it weren’t for me, you’d never have a date.” or “You are the stupidest, dumbest girl I ever met, and you’re ugly to boot. Sometimes I wonder why I’m dating you.” Day in and day out you are torn down, stomped on, and reminded of your worthlessness, a horrendous experience made even worse to a girl who sees herself only through the eyes of others.
Oh, he’s always sorry afterwards and nice like he was in the beginning. He always promises he’ll never do it again, and eventually he always wishes you hadn’t done that thing or said that particular thing that caused him to have to behave the way he did. It’s always your fault – always – and there is nobody – nobody at all – to counter his words, his slaps, his . . . let’s call it what it is . . . his abuse.
With you he rules with an iron fist, with others, he’s fun to be around, always ready to lend a helping hand, very easy going. He smiles, he laughs, he agrees with everything anybody says. His friends obviously enjoy being with him. You can almost hear them thinking how lucky you are, and deep down inside you know that nobody will never believe you, even if there was somebody you could tell about how he behaves when they are not around.
Though the situation is all too familiar to far too many girls and women, the “you” in this particular story is, as you may have already guessed, “me.”
The Prom is coming up in a few weeks. The Senior Prom. I’ve asked and received his approval on what I will wear – it’s a dress I’m sewing for myself. I’ve ordered the fabric – black with sparkling gold threads forming geometric patterns. The gold sequins I’ll use to trim out the neckline and cuffs give it definition – and just as I start to lay out the pattern, I decide that I like the looks of the wrong side better, so for my prom dress, the wrong side of the cloth becomes the right side, the side everybody will see.
About two weeks before the Prom, I show up in the office where I work fourth period of every day. I go quietly about my work, always alert to any boys who might enter the office because months ago when he – let’s call him Bob because that’s not his real name – walked by and saw another male student in the same office where I sat working, I received my first fist to the cheek. Now I am constantly on edge, trying to do my job without encountering any boys or men, without engaging with anybody, male or female. Instinctively remaining close to open doors, always trying to put as much space as possible between me and anybody else, all the while trying to take up as little space as possible. This particular day, the two school secretaries – we’ll call them Fran and Marcia because those are their real names – wait for me, usher me into a private office, close the door, and ask, “Who’s taking you to the prom?” They are smiling. I tense up. I can’t help it, it’s an involuntary reflex by now – smiles scare me because smiles portend meanness and pain. I tell them “Bob,” strangely unaffected by the question which they surely must know the answer to. Their smiles grow larger. I back up towards the door. They follow. “Oh no, you’re not,” they tell me, and they look pleased. Excited. “We’ve made other plans.” They tell me that they’ve contacted a friend of mine who graduated the previous year. He’s in the Marines now, and thanks to the pocketbooks of Fran and Marcia, he’s already got his plane ticket and his dress blues. He is coming to take me to the prom. He will call me tonight.
I shake uncontrollably. Tears well up. I open the door behind me, backing out. “No,” I say. “No. No. Thank you, but no.” I can’t breathe. There is no air in the room, there is no color. My stomach is one big, painful, somersaulting knot.
“Oh yes,” they insist, “and we’re going to tell Bob right now. Right this very minute.” And with that they each take a shoulder and turn me around gently. Fran holds one hand, Marcia holds the other as we walk down the central hall. On any other day the hall would be a constant bustle of sound as entire classes go back and forth to lunch, but today there is only the sound of stylish pumps clicking against the linoleum. I feel their hands squeezing mine tightly, I see their chins raised resolutely, defiantly, confidently. These are women on a mission, and they will not be dissuaded or denied. The buzz of the lunchroom grows louder. We turn left, enter the open doorway, and easily spy Bob laughing and cavorting with a table full of his friends.
“Bob,” Marcia says as we stop at the end of his table, “Jeanne has something she wants to tell you,” and when not a single word will fall out of my mouth, she says firmly, her chin lowered only enough to make eye contact with him over the top of her glasses, “Jeanne will not be going to the prom with you.” With his fork in midair, still full of round green peas on the way to his mouth, he shrugs and says “Sure, okay.” He is just as nice and agreeable as ever. Nobody will ever believe me if I tell them things he’s said and done to me. His smile, his bright, toothy, friendly smile remains unwavering. Only I recognize the subtle shift of the eyes and the smile, shifts that warn of what awaits me after school.
“There,” they say on the walk back to the office, smiling, still holding my hands but more relaxed now. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?” asks Marcia. “I think it went very well,” Fran agrees. I still shake. Back in the office, Fran opens her purse, takes out a set of keys, and hands them to me saying, “Here’s my house key. Nobody’s home, so I want you to go there and spend the rest of the afternoon. Fix yourself something to eat. Take a nap. Watch tv. Do whatever you feel like doing. Just stay there all afternoon, and don’t come back to school today.”
I drive to her house, let myself in, sit in the chair closest to the door, and let the silence wrap itself around me. With only these two women knowing where I am, with the entire afternoon stretching before me, the shaking stops and the tears come – enough tears to put out a burning 42-story building.
I cry for the girl who suspected that something was amiss, the girl whose bones were too young, too inexperienced to know for sure. I cry for the girl who, with so much constant coaching, believed herself to be so totally, thoroughly, woefully unworthy. I cry for the girl who thought everything that happened, everything he said, everything he did was her fault. Eventually I cry for the kindness of Fran and Marcia, for the courage they showed that day in taking a stand against abuse. Fran and Marcia didn’t stand back and wait on me to ask for help, they stepped into my life unbidden. They didn’t worry about the political correctness of their plan, they didn’t worry about being scorned – they simply knew that this girl needed them, needed their support, needed their shelter. And that was enough for them to take action.
So how do I thank Fran and Marcia? I thank them, in part, by introducing them to you in this teensy little bit of my story. Occasionally I thank them in ink on paper sent in a stamped envelope. Mostly I thank Fran and Marcia (and all the other women since then who have held me and encouraged me and nourished me) by supporting other women – and not just abused and violated women, though that surely is a pet cause of mine – but women who sometimes feel alone and in the dark and empty and powerless. I don’t have a checklist or a treasure chest of The Right Answers, but I do know how to listen deeply and without judgment. I don’t have a key to press into a palm, but I sure do know how to make people laugh just when they thought they’d never hear that beautiful sound again. And I can’t pick up the phone to find a replacement prom date, but I can bear witness to women claiming, reclaiming, and proclaiming their gorgeous genius and genuine glory so they can take themselves to the prom. And it all feels like gratitude to me.
Once dubbed a “wonder bra for the human spirit”, Jeanne is a complicated simple red dirt girl fluent only in English and Southern, Charming and Cranky. She feels most beautiful when wearing earrings that dangle and skirts that caper and most at home when making other laugh or holding cloth in her hands.
Married long enough that the mere mention of her wedding anniversary sparks applause, Jeanne has survived two teenagers, a Cesarean delivery without anesthesia, a mugging on the sidewalks of New York, hanging wallpaper with her husband, and Christmas 1993.
Though she’s received many awards and honors for her work as a professional speaker and community volunteer, and though she has a Bachelor of Science in Education and a Master’s degree in Transformative Language Arts, Jeanne’s most proud of the fact that she’s never, ever had to attend a PTA meeting under an assumed name.
Seeking comfort, I opened a book, only to find Thomas Merton asking, “Will there never be any peace on earth in our lifetime? Will they never do anything but kill, and then kill some more? Apparently they are caught in that impasse: the system is completely violent and involved in violence, and there is no way out but violence, and that leads only to more violence. Really–what is ahead but the apocalypse?”–January 26, 1968, VII.47 A Year with Thomas Merton
Really–what is ahead for women?
I found the comfort I sought when I walked into the room for today’s Domestic Violence Symposium to find purple table cloths, purple-ribboned cake, purple dresses, and purple-and white orchids.
Seth Godin brought my lizard brain to my attention, but awareness hasn’t been enough to help me ignore the fears and rages and drives of my amygdala.
Last fall when I read that Jonathan Fields had a new book coming out called Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance, my lizard brain impulsively pre-ordered it. When it arrived, I read the first twenty pages, and put it down–not because of any failure of the book but because I was distracted (probably by some fear or doubt).
Yesterday, knowing that I would blog about uncertainty today, I started reading again. As is often the case, the book is tailor-made for me this weekend; I wouldn’t have responded to it the same way four or five months ago. And so today I am marking up every page. Tonight I will finish it and order copies for friends.
Fields writes, “The ability not only to endure but to invite, amplify, and exalt uncertainty, then reframe it as fuel is paramount to your ability to succeed as a creator.”
The lizard brain advised reconsideration of this post. Couldn’t I just write about this once I was finished with his process? After I had mastered invitation, amplification, and exaltation of uncertainty?
I preach and preach again, to my workshop and to myself, that writing doesn’t flow fully formed from my hand in the first draft. Why should I expect my life to flow fully formed without any process? Okay, my lizard brain said, But do you really have to let anyone see it? This Shitty First Draft of a part of your life?
Fields anticipates this amygdala question and shrugs: “The more you lean into uncertainty and the greater the risks you take to create something that didn’t exist before, the greater will be the potential for you to be judged and criticized.”
Okay. Creation, here come my lizard brain and I. And we’re going to learn to turn uncertainty into fuel.
I’ve had a bad case of holiday blues this month, and two remedies: baking cookies and reading Christopher Hitchens.
Nigella Lawson has been my guide to the former; Andrew Sullivan to the latter.
It’s easy enough to explain the cookies–butter, flour, sugar, and I are old friends. My near-obsession with Hitchens since his death is a little more complicated, its causes still percolating, not yet clear enough to write about here.
But my admiration for his commitment to writing is simple enough.
To my writing classes I used later to open by saying that anybody who could talk could also write. Having cheered them up with this easy-to-grasp ladder, I then replaced it with a huge and loathsome snake: “How many people in this class, would you say, can talk? I mean really talk?” That had its duly woeful effect. I told them to read every composition aloud, preferably to a trusted friend. The rules are much the same: Avoid stock expressions (like the plague, as William Safire used to say) and repetitions. Don’t say that as a boy your grandmother used to read to you, unless at that stage of her life she really was a boy, in which case you have probably thrown away a better intro. If something is worth hearing or listening to, it’s very probably worth reading. So, this above all: Find your own voice.
Voice again. How I have struggled with it. But really, read the whole essay.
Consider the mix. Constant pain, weak as a kitten, morphine dragging him down, then the tangle of Reformation theology and politics, Chesterton’s romantic, imagined England suffused with the kind of Catholicism that mediated his brush with fascism and his taste for paradox, which Christopher wanted to debunk. At intervals, Christopher’s head would droop, his eyes close, then with superhuman effort he would drag himself awake to type another line. His long memory served him well, for he didn’t have the usual books on hand for this kind of thing. When it’s available, read the review. His unworldly fluency never deserted him, his commitment was passionate, and he never deserted his trade. He was the consummate writer, the brilliant friend. In Walter Pater’s famous phrase, he burned “with this hard gem-like flame.” Right to the end.
My partly edited manuscript sits in the corner of my desk, Nigella Christmas on top of it. I cough from my holiday cold. And I know I’m right when I tell myself, Just write.