And Then Oprah Showed Up
It’s been an interesting week, here inside my head.
I write in order to figure out what is true for me. Just the other day I started mulling over a new topic out loud, batted around some ideas, then literally said to my partner, “I need to go write, and see what I think about this.”
I recommend writing for everyone, but I understand why most people don’t do it. One: It takes time, and you’re busy. Two: Uncomfortable things bubble up in writing that you’d rather not confront. Three: Your inner critic will tell you you suck at it and you don’t have anything worthwhile to say anyway. Four: Should I go on? I think you get the point.
But here’s the real beauty and thrill of writing: The place you end up will not be where you thought you were going. It’s a wild ride, full of surprises.
Also, there’s this: Truth is an elusive little creature. When you finally spot it, it takes all your strength and courage to tackle it to the ground. An epic struggle will ensue. You’ll get scraped up and bruised, and possibly pinned on the mat. But in the end, you’ll have a story to tell. Not the one you thought you were after, but a better one. One that’s more honest.
Then you’ll have to decide whether you’re brave enough to share your story with others.
That all happened to me while writing this week.
Let me start by telling you a different story.
On Monday I spent four hours with a friend I’ve known since we were both 18. We’re now 53. (I’ll wait while you do the math.) About four minutes into the visit, this friend was asking about the book I’m writing (who is it for? what’s it about? how’s the writing going?), and about the art classes I’m teaching, about my goals for my business, what I liked best about my studio. I wanted to know, was this friend still writing poems? still trying to get them published? still jazzed about teaching? My friend shared stories about particular students who struggle with their desire to dive into the arts, while their family’s culture pushes them toward engineering or medicine, and we laugh-moaned about how no one asks aspiring engineers or doctors, “What’s your backup plan if that doesn’t work out? What are you going to do when you can’t find a job?”
We talked about the condition of our world, and how feminine and non-white voices have been overlooked and ignored and disbelieved, while white male voices have been centered and take up so much space that, for people our age, anyway, we’ve assumed until recently that they must be right.
I summed up my book, in large part, as an attempt to figure out what the hell happened in the ‘80s. How is it that girls like me who grew up in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Liberation Movement, who were raised with the message that we can do and be anything—why are we just now, in our 50s, realizing that we have a voice and it’s valid? My friend and I spent some time trying to sort out the mixed messages that defined the essence of that decade. The messages that said, “be anything you want, young ladies, as long as you do it in a male-approved body—oh, and you’re still in charge of the kids and all that homemaker-y stuff.” When I noted that relatable role models were hard to find back then—that it was a no-man’s land out there—my friend pointed out the male-centered language we use every day, like “no-man’s land.”
I basked in the afterglow of our conversation for hours. I’m lucky to have friends and sisters and art buddies and daughters and nieces with whom I can have conversations like the one I just described, and the time to have them. I actually have these kinds of conversations almost every week. But yesterday’s stood out. Do you know why?
Because this friend is a middle aged white man.
Surprised? Why or Why Not?
Part of the glow, I realized later, was the novelty of it. Then I started feeling kind of bummed about this—about how unusual it felt to have my views on issues ranging from art to education to politics to parenting to poetry not passively listened to (stifle yawn, try to stay engaged), but actively sought out by a man my who wanted absolutely nothing from me other than stimulating conversation and a glimpse into the life of an old friend. (If you find any part of your brain thinking, “Yeah, sure that’s all he wanted!” then I suggest you examine the narrative that says men only want one thing from women, and that it cannot be insights or wisdom or ideas. Why do we think so little of men and of women, I ask?)
Throughout our conversation I felt smart and interesting! I actually believe that I am smart and interesting—I just don’t feel that way around most men, most of the time, and realizing this made me want to investigate why. Why is it not the norm for me to feel that I’m being valued for my brains and creativity, or that my wisdom is being sought, honored, or appreciated by men, except only once in a while? (And I don’t mean asking me for facts or information, then moving along.) Why is it that, more often, I feel like I’m wasting their time, “droning on” about things that they don’t find all that relevant—you know, “girl stuff” like feelings and family dynamics, people and creativity—the things that I can and do talk about at length with my women friends and relatives because they are important things.
Sometimes I’m scrambling to make sense of my career choices for men, to put myself into a box that they can recognize and evaluate. I often feel like a complete entrepreneurial failure when talking to men about my business, even though/maybe because I’m learning to define “success” in a non-standard, non-masculine way. Sometimes I just feel like a freak, which is usually related to trying to describe my life as an artist. Sometimes I feel invisible, or like a prop whose purpose is to let men hear their own thoughts and arguments—a mirror to reflect them back to themselves. Part of the scenery.
What makes me feel this way? Lots of things, the first being my own insecurity and cultural training (I’ll unpack that later). Next, non-verbal cues I pick up that tell me they’ve checked out of the conversation, or were not really interested to begin with. Dramatic sighs are an effective clue (a favorite of my ex). Sometimes a man will reflexively shut down my idea, then the next day that same thought resurfaces as their idea. Maybe they change the subject while I’m mid-sentence, or nod and agree before I’ve had a chance to finish my thought. (What are they agreeing with? I haven’t made my point yet. Oh, not listening, ready to move on, I get it.) Sometimes they actually admit that they stopped listening, or lost track of what I was saying. My partner says sometimes my soothing tone of voice lulls him, such that he tunes out the words and drifts away on the sound … zzzzzz. (He does a lot of good listening, so I also want to give him credit.)
Being Heard is Soul Fuel
Sometimes I think about writing down all the questions I’d like to be asked. Then I realize that’s why I’m writing a book—to explore my answers and then ask more questions. :) It’s a way to interview myself, because secretly, I’d love to be interviewed.
My conversation with Bob was reminiscent of the weekend with my female relatives that I wrote about in the last post, called Recipe for a Wisdom Potluck. That is, we had the experience of being heard and seen and implicitly valued, and intellectually challenged at the same time. I felt free to wonder and ask questions and explore topics without justifying the logic of those questions or the importance of those topics, or the completeness of my wonderings. I did not censor myself out of worry that I might be boring my listener with irrelevance. I felt steeped in enoughness. Fully alive.
I wish this for every single person. It’s delicious to be savored.
Rare, But Not Special
Now, I don’t want Bob thinking he’s something special for having the conversational skills of a typical woman. Lord knows we females don’t get credit for it! I’m pretty sure he’s got his ego in check, and is aware of how (ironically) by giving a voice to others lower down the false hierarchy of human value, he ends up in the center again, being patted on the back for being a good example of white maleness, while still being the one deciding who else gets to be heard. He said as much in our conversation. But notice that all he did was treat me like the worthy human I am, like a person interesting enough to ask thoughtful questions of. That’s how low the bar is now for white men. So this isn’t really about Bob at all, is it?
I was going to to launch from here into some helpful tips to the men in the audience about how to value women’s contributions—about how you can up your game, so to speak—because that would really help the rest of us out, but… WAIT! Men, come back, come back! I changed my mind!
That’s when things got really interesting, and the true story emerged.
What happened next was that for three full days I twisted myself into knots, trying to say what I wanted to say to (white) men, but dialing it back again and again for fear of offending them. I wrote and edited and censored myself at the keyboard for Three. Full. Days. (Remember, I don’t have a job to go to. Writing is my day job now.)
I “confessed” to my partner what I’d been writing about. I felt kinda guilty, like I was implicating him. At one point I decided not to publish any of this as a blog post, but to maybe bury it in a chapter of the book I’m working on instead—a book that will surely be read by relatively few men. Ah, safety! Yes, try not to provoke. Think of all your white male friends and relatives, Pam, including the very sensitive, lovely ones—you don’t want them thinking …
Hey, what the heck? What is going on with all this self-silencing? I started asking myself.
That’s how brilliant and highly skilled my inner misogynist is. She instinctively knows to put the needs of white men above my own and everyone else’s. I caught her buying into and perpetuating The. Entire. Game. Telling me that I’m probably being too harsh, and what if I’m wrong? And what will they say? And I don’t want to sound preachy. And who am I am to weigh in on this, anyway? And this really doesn’t apply to all men—I should gather data first. Maybe I haven’t thought it out enough, and… and… and.
Geez. See how the game keeps rolling? (I’m always prone to over-editing, but this was an outright battle.)
So, What IS Going On With All the Self-Silencing?
A) I don’t like telling people what to do, and no one likes unsolicited advice anyway. It’s not an effective way to make change or encourage growth, I told myself. (Still not sure whether I believe this, or if it was just a safe “out.”) So I got preachy, then toned it down, then fired it up, then chickened out. This is what I mean by the epic wrestling match that is writing: Say it! No, don’t say it—it’s wrong and no one cares! Wait, you have to say it! Be honest! Just don’t say it that way. Etcetera. Not saying anything is the easier choice. No one asked my opinion to begin with, right?
B) The scenarios I describe do not only happen with men, but yeah, mostly. I feel weird about it, too, because I’ve had lots of close, easy friendships with boys/men throughout my life, sometimes more than with girls/women, ever since junior high school. Why am I dissing them like this? Honestly, I think it’s because I’m over 50 now. I’m tired of putting up with stupid stuff I used to go along with—that we all were raised with. And yet, they’re still my friends.
C) (the real answer) I am HARD-WIRED, it turns out—as in, down to the bone, on a cellular level—to assume that men are better than me. To believe that I have nothing to offer them other than being a side-kick in their stories, if I show up on their radar at all. I might be a speck in their orbit (if I’m lucky!), appearing when they have use for me, vanishing when they’re about the business of running everything. I’ve had decades of training in this mentality, soaking the message in from 95% of the movies/commercials/TV shows I’ve watched in my lifetime, plus all those song lyrics, plus absorbing an entire college-education’s-worth of white male voices as Wisdom, plus being steeped in a religion that conveniently centers an all-male trinity, then another one that explicitly says women are not worthy of being priests, and on and on and on.
Do you know how effed up this is? This is some deep sh*t that is really, really hard to unlearn. Our world is topsy-turvy right now, completely out of whack, and this is why—this imbalance. It’s anti-the-nature-of-everything. Not good, not sustainable, not healthy.
Yes, it’s true that there have been plenty of voices also saying “women can do anything!” and we’ve made progress. Amazing recent progress, in the scope of human history. (That’s why so many white men are freaking out.) We can own property now—woohoo! We can vote! We can even get elected to congress in numbers that are starting to have an impact. I grew up in a female-centric household, and then after my divorce, I raised my two daughters in a girl-power home. But here we all are in 2019. If you think I’m exaggerating about the existence and effects of women’s suppression, look around. We’ve got a ways to go.
Let The Grappling Match With Truth Begin!
So that was a big eye-opener, but it wasn’t the hardest part.
Here’s the truth I had to wrestle to the ground—or that wrestled me to the ground this week:
The answer is never them, it’s always me. Gosh darnit! Even when it really seems like it’s them, and maybe there really are bad actors out there, blaming and shaming will accomplish exactly diddly-squat. It’s a deflection tactic away from the real work that needs to be done. ‘Cause remember, Friend, we can’t fix other people.
I’m not blaming the victim here. Not that old, tired story line of “she asked for it.” And I’m not actually letting men off the hook. (More on that later.) Instead, I’m learning to dig down below the trigger, to find the wound that was touched, the one that caused me to blame others and get defensive and mad, and to protect and feel sorry for myself. Then I ask, What’s raw here, and why? How do I feed into this dynamic, and what can I do differently to shift it? Above all (and hardest to remember), I offer myself compassion. It’s ok, Baby, you’re doing your best. You are worthy. We got this.
Looking inward to identify and heal my own wounds (not just lick them) has been the hardest lesson to learn as a grown-up, and I’m not done learning it. It’s easier to point the finger at all the ways other people are behaving badly, and just wish that they would change. That would solve everything, right? If only my partner would ___________ and wouldn’t ____________! Scapegoating is modeled daily by our political leaders: That person/group is really the problem—we need to get rid of them, and everything will be better!
Yes, it might be better, but I’ll still be me. I’ll go on me-ing myself in all the ways I do to stay small and unheard. Nothing will change until I fully believe I am a valid human, worthy of taking up space. When I finally do, I won’t give a rat’s ass about who is or isn’t giving me the attention I want, will I? I’ll have seized control of my own story. How Nelson Mandela emerged from 27 years in prison, with guards working to humiliate and dehumanize him every day, and still felt worthy enough to become president of South Africa is completely beyond me. It’s the most astonishing—and inspiring—feat of human self-love I can imagine. My obstacles are puny in comparison.
So, Then What?
My yoga friend Dapo reminded me last night of a quote by Eleanor Roosevelt that says, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
And my niece-in-law Marie reminded me yesterday how important it is for women to hear the experiences of other women, which helped me summon the courage to publish this piece after days of second guessing myself.
And I finally remembered this important question: Who benefits from my silence?
Also, there was my dream about Oprah.
Oprah? Tell me more.
In my dream, Oprah and I were both at a small event in Oakland, and somehow I knew her from a previous project we’d worked on together. I had a chance to tell her, “Hey, last week I submitted a poem to your magazine!” [That part is true, I really did!] She said, “You still have my phone number, right? Give me a call and…” she went on and told me what to do, assuring me that my work would be seen and read by many. She let me know, without saying so explicitly, that my voice was worthy.
That’s so Oprah, right?
Now are you gonna preach?
In a word, yes. (Permission granted by Oprah!)
I have one brief (ok, not that brief) message for the white men in the room, then for my white sisters, then a challenge for all of us.
Ahem, Your Attention Please, White Men!
Dear white guys: You might not feel powerful and domineering personally, we get that. But the rest of us have had ninja-like training in looking up to you and staying quiet and out of your way, as I was reminded this week by my ridiculous behavior. Even those of us with the same white privilege you have—even we struggle to speak up to you, all the time. And if it’s hard for us, how is it for those further down the false-but-real ladder? This is the cultural water we all learned to swim in, and it’s still mostly invisible to us near the top. Every day scales are falling from my eyes, as I understand more about how the game works.
Don’t you dare say, “Aw, that can’t be true. I’m harmless.” Respect us by believing our experiences. When you tell us we’re wrong, that’s not how it is, you’re patronizing us. Accept the truth of this whole situation, so that we can move forward.
Note: You did not create this system, and you are not evil. Neither did we, and neither are we. Still, here we all are. You’re top dog up there on the false hierarchy and everybody knows it. Frankly, it sucks for all of us, including you, because it keeps you less human than you probably want to be. Definitely less healthy and whole than you could be. It keeps you “other” and lets you “other” the heck out of us when you’re not careful.
So I hate to tell you this, but if you’re as strong as you’re perceived to be, you should be able to handle it: Going along with how things have always been because you’re a pretty nice guy and you mean well and it’s comfortable for you, well, that’s not good enough anymore. Not if we’re going to dig ourselves out of this mess we’re in. That’s called basking in what you’ve been given, blinders securely on. We need you to step out of your comfort zone, for the healing of humanity and our planet. Get awkward with us. Squirm. (We can show you how ‘cause we’re expert squirmers! Master shape-shifters! We know how and when to disappear!) Ask. Listen. Talk less. Mostly, ask.
And to My White Sisterhood
A lot of what I just said applies to us, too, because we’re positioned so close to the Seat of Power. I get caught basking with my blinders on, too. To remedy the situation, I’m seeking out indigenous wisdom, and reading books by women of color and people from other silenced groups. I’m asking younger women—and older women, and women my age—about their lives. But I’m a beginner. I alternate almost daily between feeling on fire with insights, then so humbled by my ignorance that I want to tell myself to just shut the f*ck up. That’s ok, it’s part of the ride. We have to start where we are, which is way behind most people on earth in figuring this stuff out.
Most of all, start listening to yourself. Reconnect with your body. We’ve been sold a lie that says our bodies exist for the pleasure of men. We’ve forgotten that our bodies contain vast stores of knowledge, deep wells of truth, so many miracles. The answers are within us already. We just need to remember how to listen.
Now For All the Brave Ones Out There
To all of us, wherever we fall on the gender spectrum (we’re all needed!) here’s my challenge: Let’s turn up our feminine side and tone down the masculine. I don’t mean girls win, boys lose, or that women are better than men. That’s a silly, meaningless competition, and it’s exactly the problem with our current mindset. We’re all in this together, folks. It’s not a contest. (But if you need it to be one, then yes, I’ll give you a prize for amping your feminine side up the highest. Report back to me with your accomplishments at the end of the month, haha.)
Our culture—and most of civilization—has ridiculed feminine values as “weak” and worshipped masculine values as “strong” and “right” for so long that it’s literally killing us and the planet we live on. We are competing each other to death, and we are all losing. If you’re trapped thinking, “But it’s always been this way. How can it be otherwise?” then I recommend this mini-book about goddesses, as a start. :)
Here are eight specific ideas for making a shift toward the feminine. I made these up, and so can you. Just take our dominant cultural messages and turn them upside down. Give yourself points for each effort, until you no longer need the points. Then you’ll know you’re on the right track.
Dance. Stretch. Do yoga. Move in a way that makes your body feel good, because bodies deserve to feel good. They work so hard for us every day!
Listen to what your body is trying to tell you. That pain? That ailment? That deep well of sorrow? Those are messages. Pay attention before you reach for the numbing agent. You probably know exactly what would help heal you. Trust your intuition. Honor the package you came in. All the wisdom you need is right there.
Make art—and not just craft projects with your kids, though those are cool, too. Make art that forces you to look inward and learn something about yourself. Grapple with your issues around worthiness, but don’t give in to your inner critic. Don’t cop out and say, “I’m just not creative” because that’s a big fat lie. It’s just a safe place for you to keep hiding. We need your art, whether it’s a new business venture, an oboe solo in the park, or a magical fairy garden. Bring something interesting into the world, something unexpected. Show us what you love.
Seek beauty in the imperfection of things. There’s a Japanese word for this: wabi-sabi. Find it in nature, folk art, the music of middle school jazz bands, old wooden fences, rusty hinges, the faces around you. Perfection is a trap and it’s damaged enough women already, so let’s please stop airbrushing and Botoxing things and start appreciating the flaws, because flaws are what unite us in our humanity. Flaws and suffering (and the desire to cover them both up).
Lean into messy stuff. Have hard conversations. Be brave and admit when you don’t know the answers. Do things that might make you look kinda stupid in front of others, which is different from acting stupid on purpose. Take good risks, the kind that require truth-telling and integrity.
Be honest about small things, so you can learn to be honest about big things. I struggle with this all the time as a Recovering Good Girl. It took me 15 years in a dysfunctional marriage to discover that I’d become a skilled liar, in denial of my own truth. Now every day I practice being honest about things like “Do I really want coffee today, or is it just part of a mindless routine?” Sometimes the answer is Yes and sometimes it’s No, I want yerba mate, so it’s important for me to check in and find out, to stay attached to my own compass. If I can’t detect whether I want coffee or mate (or both), how can I be honest about whether the relationship I’m in is healthy, or if my career path feels aligned with my values?
Learn by watching little kids and babies. They’ve got the right idea. Their priorities are straight. They’re the real deal as far as communicating desires honestly, and paying attention to what matters. Try not to mess them up too much. Underneath their tantrums, they’re usually just hungry, tired, or frustrated. Just like us, only more transparent.
Learn to ask interesting questions, of yourself and of others. Vanessa Van Edwards can help you. She’s a self-proclaimed “recovering awkward person” and her website, The Science of People is full of tips and videos about body language, conversation starters, and fascinating research about human interactions. Join me in my quest to start asking—and hopefully, answering—better questions. Better questions make for better connections.
With practice and intention, a day will come where women assume they are taken seriously by men, and are no longer stunned when it happens. A point when we’re all equally human and equally full of ourselves.
There, I Told Some Truth
I took you all over the map on this one! Did you find any take-aways? Things I said that you think are full of baloney? What questions do you wish someone would ask you? I’ve love to know, so leave a comment below.
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A Bonus For You
My edge right now is trying to live up to the line in the Lakota Prayer about loving beyond my fear. I recite this prayer every day (thanks again for sending it, Patti!), out loud in my studio after I light a candle and before I sit down to write.
I’ll leave you with it, along with my best wishes for our collective healing:
Teach me how to trust
my inner knowing
the senses of my body
the blessings of my spirit.
Teach me to trust these things
so that I may enter my sacred space
and love beyond my fear
and thus walk in balance
with the passing of each glorious sun.