Strout’s narrator says, “…recording this now I think of something Sarah Payne had said at the writing class in Arizona. ‘You will have only one story,’ she had said. ‘You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You have only one.'”
I started blogging right after President Obama’s inauguration, participating in optimism and a sense of community here and in my little corner of the early days of Twitter. Vice President Biden championed victims of domestic violence and sexual assault and the Violence Against Women Act was strong and enforced.
But life–my life, your life, the life of the country–goes on, gets in the way, changes everything. And here we are.
My brother-in-law’s cancer fight over; my sister’s grief is a little bit less fresh.
Mr. Z and the dogs and I have moved house and reshuffled priorities.
My book is still in revision. I’m back to it now.
It’s time for me to start talking again, with anyone who will listen.
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.
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.
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.”
On March 1, I had an idea so clear and bright that before I knew it, I was sending out this email:
“I’m putting together a month of blog posts for National Women’s History Month. This year’s theme is Women’s Education–Women’s Empowerment. Women’s stories are near and dear to my heart, and I believe they are important to you, too. I admire your writing, and I would be honored if you would be willing to share a story and/or photos in a guest blog post at www.angelakelsey.com. I’d love to read your stories of women who’ve contributed to your education and/or your empowerment, in whatever way(s) you choose to define the words and convey your stories. Poetry, prose, and photos are welcome.”
After the initial email, I exercised no more control over this series than I did over the hydrangea pictured here, and the pieces worked together just as beautifully, just as organically. With the exception of knowing that I wanted to contain the posts within the supportive bookends of Jeanne and Julie, I posted them in the order I received them, and if you read them in order, I think you will see that a whole, greater than the sum of its parts, was formed.
Part of me, not wanting to impinge upon the nest that’s been created of its own accord, wants to post an awestruck retrospective that simply says, “Wow.”
Wow to the synergy and the dance of the posts with each other. Wow to the openness and the willingness of the writers. Wow to the women they honor, the personal journeys they share. Wow to those who continued the conversation through their comments.
Another part wants to acknowledge the generosity of each woman who gave of herself and her life and her stories. Another part wants to highlight some of the themes that emerged.
So, in awe mixed with gratitude, I do a little of each, although these pieces are so tightly interwoven that they touch each other in many more ways than I can show here.
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 exquisite guest post by Alana Sheeren is the latest in Nest-Making, a series honoring women and Women’s History Month.
My grandmother was born Laura Lee Weisbrodt on July 16th, 1903 in Georgetown, Ohio. Her father abandoned the family while she was still young, leaving her to help her mother raise four younger siblings, the youngest, my great-aunt Sarah, ten years her junior. I don’t know much about her childhood. There are memories of stories held in my mind, like broken shards of glass I desperately want to piece together. She met my grandfather, Ora Smith, when they were both graduate students. He was immediately taken with the five-foot-nothing spitfire. They were married on June 13, 1927, right after she earned her Master of Science in Chemistry. She was a food chemist and the first woman to graduate with a PhD in Nutrition from the University of California at Berkeley in 1930. The first time I drove up from Los Angeles to visit my brother and his wife there, themselves new PhD students, I made a wrong turn and drove past the house my grandparents had lived in 75 years prior.
She was a stubborn woman; opinionated, driven, some would even say hard. Both she and my grandfather had full careers as professors at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. A woman of integrity, she demanded excellence of her students. When asked once to boost the grades of a certain favorite football player who was failing her class, she refused. The story I remember is that he thanked her in the end, but that could be my childish memory romanticizing the details.
Though my older cousins had more difficult relationships with her, as a child I adored her. I remember waking as the light of summer mornings crept into my room, wanting to race downstairs and be with her while everyone else slept. We would feed the fish together, make breakfast, set the table. I don’t remember what we talked about but my mother tells me I thought of her as my “second mom.” Every so often a bird would fly into one of their picture windows and they would collect its body and put it in the freezer in the basement until they had enough to take to the Cornell Ornithology lab. When I was old enough to be sent for the ice cream sandwiches, I remember having to move their stiff bodies aside, not realizing this wasn’t something every local family did.
As I entered my teen years we skirmished over my desire to wear makeup and there were times when, with typical teenaged selfishness, I wished my family could go to Hawaii instead of making the triangular trek to visit both sets of grandparents every school holiday. She was 68 when I was born and her health was good well into her 80’s. By the time I was old enough to grasp her place in history, old enough to want to know the details and hear the stories, a stroke had hampered her speech. After my grandfather’s brilliant mind left him and care at home became too difficult, she lived the last two years of her life without him in the home they loved, with the Scottie dogs, the birds and the deer, and her beloved flower garden. He died in early February 1993. They waited to tell her, until her children could be at her side. She was devastated. A week later she went into the hospital, a week after that she slipped into a coma. Three weeks after his death, my mother told the doctors to take her off life support and let her go. With him gone, it seemed, and after 65 years of marriage, she no longer had a reason to live.
As I write this, tears are streaming down my face. It feels different from this vantage point, on the eve of my fortieth birthday. I understand her life in a new way and wish she were here to answer my questions. What was it like to be one of the few women in the sciences, one of the first to be getting advanced degrees in the 1920’s? What was it like to raise children in the 1940’s, and juggle a career when the Ivy League was very much an old boys’ club? What was it like to lose so many babies?
My connection to her has grown alongside my attempts to have children. She had several early miscarriages. Two? Three? I can’t seem to keep it straight in my head. I know that as she and my grandfather drove across the country from California to start their new lives, somewhere on the side of a road in Texas, my grandmother, who was 8 months pregnant, gave birth to a stillborn child. And I know that later, in Ithaca, there was Robert, who lived 24 hours and was buried in an unmarked grave. Eventually she gave birth to my uncle, and five years later at the age of 40, to my mother.
I know that my grandmother did not talk about these things – her dead babies, her lost father. I know that her life informs my grief, that in some way I am healing a wound in my lineage as I mourn the stillbirth of my own son. I believe that when others describe her as hard, or distant, it is her grief they are speaking to, for I knew her as love. It has been almost twenty years since her death and I often feel her presence. We are connected in a way I’m not sure I understand. I am proud to be her granddaughter and my heart – oh my heart – knows that the work I do now, helping people soften into their ache, is work that heals her spirit. And with her unseen hand on my back I know, without a doubt, that she is proud of me.
Alana Sheeren is a writer, speaker and emotional alchemist. When in doubt, she always chooses love. You can find her at LifeAfterBenjamin.com, on the beach in Ventura or in the mountains and coffee shops of Ojai, CA.
I remember my elementary school teachers’ names and faces and words and clothes–Mrs. Gaddy (1st grade), Mrs. Stephens (2nd), Mrs. DePuy (3rd and 6th), and Mrs. Tabachi (5th)–but 4th grade is a blur.
Meredith Shadwill remembers 4th grade in today’s Nest-Making guest post Women’s History Month, and celebrates the empowering influence Mrs. Notowitz.
My fourth grade teacher Mrs. Notowitz was nick-named “Not A Witch” for a very good reason – she was just about the sweetest teacher you could ever have. Aside from reading us Roald Dahl’s The Witches and bringing in delicious chocolate-coated cookies dipped in nonpareils, she taught me a very valuable lesson about self-worth.
I was always the shortest girl in my classes until sometime in middle school, and kids picked on me as a result. One particular day, the boys were teasing me in the classroom about how small I was, and my uncontrollable tears spilled forth. Seeing my humiliation, Mrs. Notowitz took me into the hallway.
“Great things come in small packages,” she said, “like rubies and diamonds.”
She comforted me, and I cheered up thinking about being compared to such shiny objects. Whenever I’m feeling less than fabulous and less than capable, her words remind me to continue shining brightly.
She encouraged me to embrace myself for who I am regardless of what anyone else thinks of me.
Meredith Shadwill is an English consultant, part-timer, wife, and mother of three living in Northwest Georgia near the Chattanooga metro area. She studied English at the University of Florida, learning about electracy directly from Dr. Gregory L. Ulmer himself during her final year of undergrad. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in English in December 2006. When Meredith’s not writing, editing, proofreading, or tutoring, she’s lounging, baking, cooking, doodling, dancing, reading Hemingway, enjoying music, or just generally going with the flow of life.