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.
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.
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?
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.
Meanwhile, I’m asking myself how my memoir stands up as a story, not only my story.
I ask myself, Does it have the necessary ingredients for the heroine’s journey? Have I written a main character who faces obstacles and, as a result, changes just as much as a well-drawn fictional character?
In a recent nytimes.com piece called “Make Me Worry You’re Not OK,”, Susan Shapiro writes, “My favorite [personal nonfiction] essays begin with emotional devastation and conclude with surprising metamorphosis.”
We want metamorphosis in the stories we read and the stories we live. We want to find beauty and meaning in what we have shed.
Clarissa Pinkola Estes writes, “Secrets, like fairy tales and dreams, also follow the same energy patterns and structures as those found in drama. But secrets, instead of following the heroic structure, follow the tragic structure. . . . The secrets a woman keeps are almost always heroic dramas that have been perverted into tragedies that go nowhere.”
How do you or do I change our stories (lived and written) from tragedy to heroine’s journey?
We tell secrets, particularly those kept in shame.
Estes writes, “[T]he way to change a tragic drama back into a heroic one is to open the secret, speak of it to someone, write another ending, examine one’s part in it and one’s attributes in enduring it. These learnings are equal parts pain and wisdom. The having lived through it is a triumph of the deep and wild spirit.”
Telling my stories to an ever-widening audience transforms me from battered woman to proud member of the Scar Clan; it changes my story from tragic to heroic.
Today’s Nest-Making guest post in honor of women and Women’s History Month is by Bindu Wiles. It’s a milestone post for two reasons: it’s the blog’s 500th post, and more importantly, Bindu is one of the first people I met online to become dear to me offline as well. I’m very happy to have her words and images here today.
In honor of all the women who have given their bodies
as a soft place to fall
to rest upon
to enter into the world
to bear witness
We are all mothers of some sort.
Bindu Wiles is in a deep mid-life crisis that she is walking, writing and photographing her way through. She has an undergraduate degree in fine art (photography) and 3 graduate degrees because the one she really wanted all along was an MFA in writing, which she finally received at 47 years of age from Sarah Lawrence College. The tattoo on her left forearm sums up her life motto: Art Saves Lives. She has completed a 300 page memoir, her essays have been published in various literary journals, she is bringing more of the under 12 years of age crowd into her life, and is always up for a good laugh. In fact, she is trying to stay in a state of silly as an approach to aging.
I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Cheryl Ives primarily through Twitter, and today I’m very happy to share more than 140 characters of her writing. I find in her story a mirror of my own, and I hope you, too, will feel honored and seen in this latest Nest-Making post for Women’s History Month.
I have a mixed relationship with women.
I noticed early on that my mother seemed to do the most work, receive the most complaints, get the least praise, and take the short end of the stick in the family. I got the impression that being a woman means always giving more and taking less. Maybe I unconsciously judged my mother weak for putting up with it. I wanted no part of that for myself, my life.
Besides, girls made me nervous. They had strange rules no one explained, and they wouldn’t tell you when you broke them. They ostracized you and then claimed they were your friends. They were always whispering and giggling. I found girls consistently interested in boring things and bored by interesting things. I had no idea what to make of them.
Teenaged girls were worse – make-up, clothes, crushes, pin-ups…I felt pretty impatient with all of it. I faked what I could to fit in, but I never did. Then in University, the so-called Feminists I met made me mad with their demand that we all think the same, and their judgments of choices women made. I felt out of step with all womanhood, on all sides.
Bisexuality only complicated an already confusing relationship with the females of the species.
Workplace women presented another side of the creature. In the professional office environment, I saw undercutting behind faked support, overdone kindnesses masking shared smirks, resentments, and even sexual manipulation of men. That wasn’t all I saw, and many competent, respectable women rank among my former co-workers. But I felt that each of us, in our way, forged our own path. Women as community, in these workplaces, tended towards the social circles I thought I’d left behind in grade school – cliques with very specific expectations of each other. Even the most supportive team of women I’ve ever worked with often succumbed to the schoolyard dynamic. In this environment, success became isolating for women. For me.
So, to recap – I grew up thinking that being a woman meant being treated as less and asked to do more. I grew up without a sense of shared community with other girls. I made my way in my career without a sense of shared community with other professional women. Frankly, I didn’t really respect most of the women I met. I wouldn’t have believed that at the time, but looking back, I see it’s true. I saw most women as weak for being willing to do more and get less, and as mean for holding each other to that same reducing standard. I saw women restricting each other with judgements at any sign of “selfishness” or ambition.
And then, I had a baby.
Women who had never bothered with me pulled me into the fold. Baby showers, hand-me-downs, advice, cupcakes, casseroles, hugs – the side of women’s community that had always left me out suddenly surrounded me, drew me in, called me theirs. Women I didn’t know shared smiles and supportive words. Co-workers cooed over pictures. Women fussed over me pregnant, and as a new mom, in a way I’d never imagined. It felt like a cocoon of female support. It felt like…mother’s love.
When women tune into their mother, even women without children, everything changes.
When women tune into each other with love, it changes the course of history. I know, because it changed the course of my history.
The women of Twitter rode the heels of the mother-culture for me. In this world of non-physical interaction, I found myself enveloped with a community of seeking women, wise women, loving and giving women. Women creating and birthing, not babies but ideas, beauty and trust. A community of women surrounding and nudging each other, cheering each other on, clapping with joy and weeping tears together without even meeting in person. In this community, women of different ages, backgrounds, cultures and beliefs seek the common and share widely. In this community, I feel nurtured as my shoots of inspiration grub up through the soil.
I am daily deepening my understanding and participation in the primal nurturing care that women protect in this world of hard ideas and incomplete logic. Women have allowed the masculine to dictate what is valuable, and our systems have consistently failed to value caring and human life. Now, it lies with women to re-value caring in our societies through how we live and create community together, and how we support each other to carry this wider and higher until it infiltrates every system of government and economics.
It’s together that women can remind the world: Every Life Has Value. It’s together that we can nurture love and support for every shoot of inspiration, every shoot of creative life that reaches for sun. The mother-love inside us, regardless of whether we have birthed a human, can reach beyond our petty fears to love each of us for how we matter to the world. This is power unique to us.
And that inspires me.
Provocateur by trade and nature. After 16 years in the corporate sector and a two year non-profit experiment, I have decided to only seek work that I’m interested in doing, with people who are interested in doing it. In the meantime, I’m photographing, painting, speaking and writing about the things that matter to my heart. Website in progress athttp://www.ivesagency.com. Blog at http://mrs-which.blogspot.ca/ and open source novel at http://www.holdonhope.ca/timeless.
This month we’re remembering and honoring and celebrating women who’ve gone before us by telling their stories.
Today’s Nest-Making post by Ann Wijkstrom takes a slightly different tack, thanking a man who reminds us that our mothers’ work is not yet done.
Would I like to honor someone during Women’s History Month?
Well of course!
I come from a family full of fabulous and strong women. And I have always been a feminist. Although, more of a feminine feminist than a bra burning, hairy-legged one. I figured my mother and her generation got that all out of the way back in 1968. My view on the subject has always been that I am pro-women as opposed to anti-men. A “Feminist Light,” so to speak.
As I tried to figure out whom I wanted to feature in a column about women, I got somewhat stumped. And confused. And the two conclusions I finally ended up with surprised me:
I think being a Feminist Light is naïve and that today’s debates require going back to our mothers’ fights; and,
I want to thank Rush Limbaugh and dedicate this column to him.
You see, Mr. Limbaugh actually managed to clear up a topic that had had me thoroughly confounded:
Ever since the debate regarding the requirement for religiously affiliated hospitals and colleges to offer insurance coverage for contraception for their employees started, it was constantly referred to as a question of freedom of religion. And I couldn’t understand the logic: surely it is up to the individual to, according to their religious beliefs, decide whether they will use contraception or not. Or did the new insurance rules state that every man and woman had to use contraception unless they were planning to have a baby?
I know, I know, the commonly agreed on definition of church vs. state is that it is the institution itself, not the individual, that receive the freedom when it comes to core values. But I still found it confusing, as I would have thought that the institutions in return would give the same kind of respect and religious freedom to their employees. Especially when receiving federal funding. Or does religious freedom supersede the separation between church and state?
Anyway, back to Mr. Limbaugh: it wasn’t until his rant and verbal abuse of the female Georgetown law student who testified to the congressional committee that the issue was brought to the plane where it should live: this is not a question of religious freedom. It is one of women’s rights. By calling Ms. Fluke names that I will not repeat, as it is not how I was raised, Mr. Limbaugh shone the spotlight right in the issue’s ugly face. The fact that he continued and said the poor woman, by simply asking for women’s health to be included in her insurance, owes the male population filmed documentation of her sex-life, distributed on-line, kind of signs the deal in my mind. Where in the Bible does it say that we should watch porn, Mr. Limbaugh? Don’t get me wrong: I think people should watch whatever makes them happy as long as it is within the law. But I’m not one who has built her reputation on claiming moral superiority the way so many of the men on this bandwagon has.
I could go much further here and explain how, even though it might seem like a highly domestic issue, this has implications on women all over the world as the Pope and the US are two of the biggest power-houses when it comes to the international arena. Just think of the effects it will have on women in the third world when women’s health and sexual education/contraception information become this political and the consequences it will have on its funding. Or wait: you don’t have to go overseas to see the implications. Just look at Texas and what happens to the women’s clinics, serving over 100,000 low-income women, when they lose its federal funding as a consequence of the state implementing a new law that cuts state funding to Planned Parenthood. But I understand: it is secondary that 100,000 women lose their (in many cases only) health care provider to prove a point.
Am I a hardcore feminist to think this is wrong?
Here’s what I do know: words matter. And the political debate that is going on right now is claiming to own morality when in reality it is rewinding the work done by so many women of my mother’s generation. We slipped up, girls. We got comfortable. I don’t care where you stand politically, but do we really want to go back to a time where women are the lesser sex and the head of the household is the strong man who can steer us, the immoral rib, on the right track? Where women are being called prostitutes when asking for adequate health care?
Here’s one thing I’ve never heard though: I have never heard a call to action, or even seen a badly produced PSA, from those men who presume to preach high morals telling young men to Man Up and not have sex until they are ready to be fathers. Because that’s one important factor that Mr. Limbaugh forgot to bring up in the midst of all that vitriol that he was spewing: if we stop having sex there won’t be any kids. And, if the sex thing were out of the picture, would it then be OK for women to receive their health care?
In a world without sex, no religion will risk losing its freedom. No one will have to call women derogatory names. And Mr. Limbaugh won’t have to explain how come, after all his marriages and all that subsidized Viagra, he still has no children.
Ann Wijkstrom is a freelance writer living in Miami.