Please visit me at michelledowd.org
I have failed at more things than I have achieved. I have made nearly every mistake self-help experts warn you not to make. I am kind and loyal and I have an intense work ethic, but I am also messy, impatient, passionate and unpredictable.
Why should you trust me?
But I want to encourage you to trust yourself.
Because curious people always have more questions than answers, and we don’t always need to know exactly where we’re going to appreciate the climb. If we can learn to navigate by our internal compass, while filtering out the noise of conformity, we can curate a life that inspires us. For me, that means showing up daily for my practice, both on and off the mat. Whatever I get wrong, no matter how many times I fail, I come back to my mat. I show up and do the work. I breathe, get grounded, re-center. I apologize, make amends, learn from my mistakes, re-direct. I forgive myself and others. I invite myself back to the practice.
I created a literary journal several years ago. The phenomenal team I work with is currently curating our 17th volume. From the beginning, our motto has been, join the conversation.
And so I do.
I grew up in a small, conservative, isolated community and escaped to Pitzer College when I was 17. Iquickly married a boy I grew up with, earned a degree in English and World Literatures and moved to Boulder at 21 to teach at the University of Colorado and work toward a PhD I didn’t quite finish. I gave birth to 4 children in rapid succession, began a newsletter/magazine called SmartKids, taught at numerous colleges before earning a tenured professorship, and bought and sold several houses before finding home. I have loved and lost and been so sad, I thought I couldn’t continue. But I was committed to the profession of teaching and to being present for my children every day of their lives, so I showed up for these two commitments with everything I had in me.
I am immensely proud of the young adults my kids have become and of the students, former and current, whom I learn from daily as an adviser of college media.
I am a professor, yogi, writer, aerialist, runner, hiker, mother, sister, friend and lover.
But mostly, I am a student of life.
We’re all just trying to figure out how to build a solid airplane to take off in. We begin again.
–Photo by Andrija Bloom
You remember too much,
my mother said to me recently.
Why hold onto all that? And I said,
Where can I put it down?
I’ve had a lot of strong feelings this week. I’ve tried to allow myself to feel them, to feel the full extent of them, to let it hurt as much as it hurts. I haven’t distracted myself with any of the things that can typically provide escape–exercise, work, food, substances, texting, relationships, touch. I’m not running away. I’ve sat alone with the pain and the darkness. It started with hours. It’s turned into days.
I had no idea how many layers of strength this would take. I had no idea the pain went that deep. Each time I thought I had hit bottom, there was a trap door that opened and there was more underneath.
Maybe there is still more. Maybe I have not yet hit bottom.
But I am staying here until I do.
The Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, rooted in Zen Buddhism, is exemplified by the custom of celebrating cracks rather than discarding the cracked object. If a container is old and worn, cracked and leaking, an artist fills the cracks with gold, showing the broken places, rather than hiding them. In so doing, the container is made distinct and useful again. In this tradition, over time, the vessel takes on a new beauty, and is honored and prized because of (not in spite of) its obvious flaws.
The culture of wabi-sabi celebrates the beauty of imperfection and the wisdom of the experiences that break us. When the cracks are filled in with gold, they are highlighted rather than hidden, celebrated rather than denied. An untrained eye might think such an object is garish or embarrassing, but there is a perverse beauty in dramatizing imperfection. Wabi-sabi embraces this.
I am broken and scarred, but my cracks are where the light gets in.
I like being prepared, so everywhere I go, I carry bags to compartmentalize the clothes and tools I need for the numerous jobs I do. I am a person who over-schedules, over-exercises, over-plans, over-commits, and I have a messy car that dramatizes this. When I’m working on something I believe in, I go all in, focusing so intently, I forget to eat, forget to rest, neglect my friends, push people away, lock myself in a sort of solitary confinement. Sometimes I get physically ill.
But I am more than my worst traits, more than an amalgam of my annoying flaws. Most of the time, I give people my undivided attention, even if it messes with my overbooked schedule. Most of the time, I practice yoga and meditation and peace-making, slowing down, becoming present. I send handwritten notes to loved ones, tend a garden, share the harvest. Most of the time, I follow my heart over my head and actively defy the social barriers of religion, class, gender, ethnicity and age, loving boldly and courageously. I stand up for what I believe in, especially when it’s threatened by something more powerful, even when I know I can’t win. And if what I’m fighting for requires me to go up against something stronger than I am, I step into the ring anyway, and go down swinging, to the very end.
When I lose, sometimes someone will reach down, take my hand, and sit with my brokenness.
Maybe this time, that person is me.
I am loyal, loving, chaotic, dramatic, and broken.
“The world breaks everyone,” Ernest Hemingway said, “and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.”
Photo by Andrija Bloom
Gayle died when we were fourteen. We were roommates in the Hematology/Oncology ward in Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles the spring of our thirteenth year, both theoretically in the eighth grade, though neither of us actually went to school.
We kept up a constant chatter about blood counts and needle marks, bone marrow tests, cafeteria menus, diet soft drinks, jealous siblings, and the trials of our wayward hair, even as hers fell out daily in clumps, while mine grew curly and unkempt. We discussed what our chances were of ever growing up, whether we would get to go to high school, whether we would ever get to kiss a boy.
People said we could be sisters, twins even. We kept our window shade open, grateful for our tiny corner view of the mountains, the television conspicuously off, our dialogue dramatic, until one day, after multiple blood transfusions and an experimental splenectomy, I was discharged with high hopes of a full recovery. We waved goodbye, said our girlish goodlucks, and I tucked her picture into my wallet, her cursive writing wide and smiling on the back, dotted with purple hearts: here’s to a happy high school.
We wrote to each other with devoted regularity, until she died nine weeks later. I secured her letters and picture in the back of my makeup drawer and moved on. I didn’t like to think of her in the months or years after that, of why God apparently wanted her next to His side, certain that she was more of an angel than I would ever be, but not daring to question that line of reasoning. I closed that chapter definitively, turned away from the memories, tried desperately to acclimate to a life where people didn’t talk about white blood cells or platelet counts. My drive to be normal (fueled by what I now recognize as survivor’s guilt) kept me from contacting her parents, from offering her letters to them, from ever acknowledging their perpetual grief. I left her and them behind, sprinting toward what I assumed would be an early finish.
Here is her picture. I still look at it from time to time, at the frozen child she will always be in a world I have long since outgrown.
I remember her blonde wig, designed to look like Farrah Fawcett. I remember Gayle’s father kneeling at her bedside, his trembling prayers to our Heavenly Father, uttered aloud, prayers that ultimately would go unanswered. Can I still be angry at that God, even now?
I spent so long repressing anger.
When it comes to hospitals, I have no idea what is normal. But I know what is true.
I didn’t earn my life. Gayle and I were interchangeable. There was no method to the madness of our illnesses, no reason why I got better, why she did not.
We didn’t kiss, but the first boy who held my hand did so in Children’s Hospital when I was 16. Since the veins in my inner wrists and the inner creases of my elbows were blown out, he curled his fingers around the needle taped onto the back of my boney hand. I let him, because he was the only one there.
In the hospital, we were a number. Our wristbands dictated what could and couldn’t be done to us. Gayle and I had no agency, no ability to rebel. We weren’t integrated into a school or class or pop culture. We thrived on imagination and hypothesis. Gayle talked of love and I told her we would have it. We wanted out of those lonely twin beds. We wanted someone to love us enough to invite us into their world, to be introduced to their friends and family. We wanted to know we were real.
I am still fighting to be real.
During my first year of college, I received a registered letter in the mail from Children’s Hospital, suggesting I get my blood tested immediately. The blood donated in the eighties was not screened for AIDS. Some children from those months in those wards were now HIV positive. The letter informed me about testing options and recommended I seek appropriate counseling.
This didn’t frighten me in the least. As a virgin, I felt no stigma. I went to the clinic with barely a thought of the past or of the future. If my luck had run out, I had lived more years than I had once hoped for. I had made it out of the hospital, into college, and I trusted in all my youthful naivete that I had already lived a bigger life than Gayle.
Now I know how finite life is. Now I know there are things I haven’t done, things I hope to experience before its my time to leave this earth. There are things Gayle and I talked about that I still haven’t done. There are ways I still want to grow.
As grown up as we thought we were, I know now that our lives had barely begun, that the decades since have changed everything we once knew. I see my son and my daughters and my heart crushes the air from my chest for Gayle’s parents.
I have four adult children older than I was when I got the call to get tested.
I answer a new call, now. And no matter what the outcome, I know my death would do more harm to them than it would to me. There are milestones in their future that would be tragic without the presence of the woman who bore and raised them. I may be easily and immediately replaceable as a lover and life partner, but I am not replaceable to them.
Gayle has no children. Gayle has an eternal adolescence looking back at me from her angelic photo. Is this any consolation to her father and her mother, for whom she will always be a child, their beautiful and innocent teenager, stuck in a dated hairstyle, without even the luxury of hair?
I don’t know what my next hospital stay will include, or whether I will ever have the integrated life she and I dreamed of. But I know the memory of Gayle will be with me, and I know if she were in the room, she would hold my hand until the very end, and she would say, with her sweet demonic smile, “at least you got to kiss a boy.”
It is not as if what is true, right, urgent and necessary is a light, and what is harm is darkness. They are both darkness; they are both lights. –Anne Boyer
There are very few phrases my father has ever spoken aloud to me. “I love you” is not one of them. “Never depend on a man” is. And I don’t, in fact, rely on men for emotional sustenance, for income, or for praise. Sometimes men provide these things for women, but sometimes they don’t, and I resist disappointment like a used handkerchief.
Back when we were all small, before our family fell off the ledge, my sisters and brother and I shared a bedroom in the only house we would ever own, a soon-to-be foreclosed 800 square foot shelter bordering the city dump. Back when we lived on dreams and loans, I used to rise early, when it was virtually silent, to watch my father get ready for work.
I would sit on the counter in the bathroom while he lathered his face with Noxzema, heating the water until it fogged the mirror, watching while he slid his razor across his preternatural white face. Sometimes I would dip my fingers into the cream and softly, tentatively, quietly mold it onto my girly face. My father tolerated this in silence, without so much as a nod. One time, when he was finished shaving, before he splashed on his Old Spice with a virulent shake, he took the blade out of the razor and handed me the empty shell. I carefully stroked my tender cheeks with the vacuous metal, until each white row had vanished and I looked like a little girl again. Then I splashed my face with water and looked to him for approval. He didn’t comment, but he held my gaze, and I felt something akin to respect. There was validation in the motions I had sequenced, almost in tandem with his, the rituals of manhood like a handshake between us.
My older sister later told me that girls don’t shave their faces, but that wasn’t of particular interest to me. Our home was a man’s world, where brute strength still ruled, and I was proud that I had stood there next to him, doing what men do. I loved watching his calm face in the mirror, as every errant hair was meticulously removed. My sisters often claimed he looked like a bear, that they were frightened of him, of his gruff manners and his guttural growl. And to be frank, I was often frightened of him myself–but not as I sat on the bathroom counter, not during his morning ritual, not while I could see my face in the mirror next to his.
It’s simpler to remember the brutality, to focus on the slaps and the slugs that came later, on the random anger, the cage of violence, the tightening spine of fear. It’s simpler to negate moments like these, to dismiss early morning reflections in a mirror, to see them as the anomalies they certainly were.
And yet, I wonder now if he shared mornings like these with his own father when he was small, before his mother took him far away on a bus in the night, away from abuses he never spoke of.
My father is turning 81 this week. My sister tells me he is still strong and athletic, that he swims daily and has a mean golf swing. She says he’s still taller than everyone around him, but he doesn’t bow his head to listen, that he carries himself regally, with no real expressions. She says he’s calmer with age, and he’s gentler when he blows his nose on the handkerchief he still keeps folded in his pocket.
My father was twelve when his mother executed their stealthy get-away, when the two of them rode on a bus across the entire country to forge a new home. She didn’t tell him they were leaving, so he never said goodbye to his friends or his father. Long before he could become my grandfather, my father’s father died of alcoholism and pneumonia, a man alone in his early 40’s, estranged from his wife and teenage son. He made it to California, but my father didn’t know his father arrived here or that he died here. Not until many years later, when he visited the military grave, long grown cold.
My father never speaks of these things.
The first boy who loved me called me a cat. His father died when we were in our early teens, and my father became his coach and mentor. We grew up together in a strange, small world. We escaped in different ways, and both married and had children young, though not with each other. He told me later, “girl, your dad pushed me to be a man, but he just pushed you away.” He laughed, and then stopped laughing. He said that when I was pushed, sometimes it was from skyscraper heights, that he’d seen my fear, but didn’t step in to help, that I’d squirm and screech and hiss and flail, but I would land on my feet. He said he grew to respect me for that.
I told him that sounds like a form of torture, that people shouldn’t take cats up to skyscrapers, let alone drop them off ledges. He said I could handle it, that it was my lot in this world to be brutalized, that I would survive.
During a particularly difficult juncture not long ago, he called to remind me of this. I assured him I had come to the end of my nine lives, that my luck had rampantly run out. “Ahhhh, but it’s not luck,” he assured me, “it’s in your training. It’s so well-rehearsed, it looks like instinct, but I know you and I know where you come from. Fact is, you know how to fall.”
Maybe so. But I think it’s time to stop letting men push me off buildings.
There are two mistakes one can make along the road to truth: not going all the way, and not starting. – Buddha
We often think of yoga as a body practice. And I love yoga for the way it encourages me to drop down into my body and create more strength and flexibility and space in this container through which I experience the world.
But yoga is also a spiritual practice. And right now, yoga is reminding me to stop playing caregiver, to stop abandoning myself, to pause for a moment to listen to my inner voice about where to go next on this journey.
As human beings, we have an extraordinary ability to to be rooted and flowing at the same time. As we flow through our practice, we can celebrate the literal and figurative changes that are an integral part of our life path.
And change is inevitable, whether we are open to it or whether we resist it.
Sahasrara, the seventh chakra, asks us to transcend our habitual, sensory ways of knowing and open our awareness to the infinite unfoldings of the world beyond that which we know.
Meditation is essential to the practice of seeing beyond the habitual patterns of our minds and the maze we move through, mostly by rote.
Meditation isn’t an addition to yoga; it’s the essence of yoga, and woven into the foundation of the practice. Through meditation, we can systematically tune out the outside world and cultivate sensitivity to the inner. Through that sensitivity, we can connect with all things. We are the vortex of all that we experience. We are the center from which our perspective flows.
Sometimes we forget where we are going and have to reset our compass. I am at such a juncture. One of the things my practice has taught me is that falling out of a pose is human. The choice to get back into the pose, over and over, is the path of the yogi.
Katherine Hurst offers these mantras, which I take with me as I find my way:
My practice is taking me off the mat. I am leaving on a journey for the next few days and will be temporarily unavailable and unreachable. This is difficult for me to do, but as Brene Brown says, “Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.”
The divine light in me sees, recognizes, and honors the divine light in you. Until we meet again, may you treat yourself with kindness, compassion and unconditional acceptance, just as you would your very dearest friend.
“When you get to a place where you understand that love and belonging, your worthiness, is a birthright and not something you have to earn, anything is possible.” Brene Brown
Several years ago, I began practicing yoga at a local gym. I was a busy woman, juggling a full-time ascending career and a burgeoning bundle of children’s activities. I was battling chronic back pain, so I conceded to what, at the time, was a gargantuan gesture of self-care. I signed up for a yoga class. I rushed into the gym once a week to get my stretch on, and then I would rush out to proceed with the obligations of my overbooked schedule. When it came time for the final resting pose at the end of class, I would roll up my mat and leave. I didn’t have time for savasana.
In a gym, you can do that without seeming inordinately rude.
Or, at least, I thought you could.
At the time, I would have told you I didn’t make room for stillness in my chaotic days because I literally couldn’t find the time to squeeze it in. And that was certainly part of it. But the larger truth is, I couldn’t live with the pain that came up in the quiet, so I avoided it at all costs.
I had been running non-stop since I was 17. I didn’t drink or smoke or have any recreational habits that slowed me down. I was intentional and purposeful, productive and efficient, building a secure life for myself and my family. I had never taken a nap in my adult life.
But I kept showing up, once a week, to stretch. And I started to feel better, to feel more at home in my body, to move a little differently throughout my day, to breathe a little more mindfully, to pause a little more reflectively, to notice the stresses I was putting on my body, to ease up a little, soften, slow down, to notice when I was hungry and what I was hungry for. Eventually, my commitment to my yoga practice yielded an invitation I felt ready to accept. After two years of consistent practice, I stayed on my mat for my first savasana.
It was worse than I predicted, in every way. Inexplicably excruciating. I left the gym in tears.
I tried to drive, but I was crying too hard to see. I pulled over on the side of the road, locked the car doors and dialed my mom’s number.
I was surprised when she answered. We hadn’t spoken in well over a year and I struggled to find words. Finally, from the quiet of my sealed car, I said, “Mom, I’m not blaming you, I know you did the best you could, but what happened when I was a kid, why didn’t you protect me? Why didn’t you try to help me when you found out? Why did we just keep having those men babysit us and live in our home? Why did you let it keep going on? It’s caused me decades of pain, mom. I’ve made so many poor choices. I feel destroyed by…”
She answered abruptly, “Michelle, what’s the point in talking about this?”
I took a breath. “Are you busy? Is there a better time?”
“It was a long time ago,” she said, “you need to get over it.”
“But I felt so unprotected. Why didn’t you protect that little girl? Why didn’t you say you were sorry? Why didn’t you love me?” I was crying audibly now, but she had already hung up. My mom hung up on that conversation and neither of us have spoken of it since.
I forgive my mom. But we don’t talk. She doesn’t reach out and neither do I. What more is there to say?
I’ve thought a lot about love since then. How to give it and to receive it, what I want and how far I am willing to go to protect my loved ones.
For me, loving someone means staying for those painful conversations, even if you don’t have answers. Loving someone means you can sit with pain and not turn away.
This week, someone I love hurt me. We all know the pain of being let down or betrayed, and we know that sometimes we hurt those we love the most.
But it hurt more than I expected.
I sat with the pain and it felt hauntingly familiar. I thought of where I come from and how nothing is ever talked about or resolved. The abuse in my childhood wasn’t personal. A celibate man in his twenties needed touch. There were limited women available. It wasn’t personal. I was just there. He took my innocence from me when I was seven because I was the one who was there.
It continued because no one noticed how much I hurt.
I thought of the years and years of covering up for my family, of saying it’s not their fault, of understanding they were trapped in their own heads, their own fears, their own flawed systems, a swirling ecosystem of unmet needs, a drama in which I was just collateral damage.
In the past, I would apologize when someone would hurt me. I would say I was sorry for being too sensitive or needy, for wanting too much, for having unrealistic expectations. I would say, “Don’t worry, I know you didn’t mean to hurt me. I’m fine.”
It takes more vulnerability and more love to say, I’m not fine. It’s not ok and I want better.
I survived this week, but I want to hold my close relationships to a higher standard than survival. In love, fine isn’t good enough.
We can forgive without an apology. But that forgiveness will be from a distance. We let the person go and move on with our lives, without wanting to hurt them or wishing them ill. I love my mom. I understand the culture she was raised in and how she was unable to transcend it. But as much as it breaks my heart, I have stopped trying to get her attention, and I have given up on closure.
Forgiveness comes easy to me. Sharing my pain makes me feel weak and small. But I’m starting to realize being honest about what hurts is less about whether the other person changes and more about acknowledging what is and isn’t acceptable. And that’s not weak at all. Apologies matter. Apologies matter because when someone sits with the pain they caused us, it honors our journey, heals our relationship, and helps us regain our self-respect.
Savasana helped me recognize there was something terribly wrong with my childhood. Savasana helped me hear that quiet voice in my head, saying, “You didn’t deserve that. It wasn’t right. She should have protected you. She should have said she was sorry. It wasn’t your fault.”
Now it’s my job to protect myself.
I respect myself enough to recognize when something is terribly wrong. And I am finally healthy enough to see that it is my responsibility to set boundaries to protect myself from further abuse.
When I protect myself and ask for what I need, when I treat myself with respect and kindness, I show those who love me what love looks like to me. And this is a gift not only to myself, but to anyone who chooses to love me.
Every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger potentially useful against those oppressions, personal and institutional, which brought that anger into being. Focused with precision it can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change.
Every day a student tells me a story that broadens my world view.
Last week, a young woman told me about working at a bakery counter in a chain restaurant. Every single day, women come up to the counter and look through the glass with wide eyes. Alone, or in pairs, they pace back and forth, talking to each other (or themselves), as if they’re about to commit a crime. The ones who come up to purchase something look at her with pleading eyes, asking her not to judge them. They are buying for their children, they say, or an office party or their book groups, and they explain the details. If they’re buying just one or two items, they offer a rationalization,”I worked out this morning,” or “I’m just going to have this one macaroon,” or “I’m celebrating” or “It’s my cheat day.”
I asked her what men say if they ponder over a baked good. She tossed her head and laughed out loud. “Never. I have never heard a man give me a reason why he’s buying a pastry. He gets one or he doesn’t, but there’s no explanation or weird ass shame.”
The next day, a student told me she’s in cognitive therapy to cope with a persistent sadness left over from childhood trauma. Her therapist suggested maybe she’s depressed because she’s overweight. My student told the therapist she’s trying to lose weight, but when’s she’s depressed, all she wants to do is eat. Instead of encouraging her to see her emotional eating as a strategy to manage repressed anger, the therapist put her on her scale and recorded her weight. Every time she came in, she would weigh her, and if the number on the scale didn’t go down, she would scold her for not making more of an effort. My student asked me if I think it’s ok that she stopped going to therapy.
In her newest book Hunger, Roxane Gay details the way she is treated publicly for living in a fat body, “where the open hatred of fat people is vigorously tolerated and encouraged.” She tells the story of being gang raped at age 12 and how it changed forever her relationship with her body: “I was marked after that. Men could smell it on me, that I had lost my body, that they could avail themselves of my body that I wouldn’t say ‘no’ because I knew my ‘no’ did not mater. They smelled it on me and took advantage, every chance they got.”
It’s nearly impossible to feel safe in our bodies after we’ve been sexually assaulted. Most victims initially react by turning their anger inward and blaming themselves. Whether the perpetrator is known or unknown, it feels too dangerous to fling it outward, even among family or friends. There are centuries of social conditioning to keep us quiet.
Anger is difficult for many of us to recognize or name. Because it’s more socially acceptable for a woman to be sad than angry, female anger rarely looks like the “norm” of male anger. Other than the rare times women snap and “lose our shit” (coming across as a raging, crazy woman), we frequently turn our anger inward, registering as depression. And sometimes we construct a blockade of protection against whatever it is that has made us angry. This protection can be layers of extra body weight, self-medicating through various addictions, or overcompensating to make a bid for love (codependency).
Psychologist and columnist Avrum Weiss argues that “Men have always had a problem with anger in women.” He quotes studies that show how “boys are socialized to feel OK about their anger, while girls are taught to feel ashamed. Angry women make men feel uncomfortable, even threatened. Sad women make men feel gallant and protective.”
Through a yoga practice, I have worked to recognize and acknowledge my feelings, positive and negative. But even after years of dropping into my body to feel, I still struggle with anger. When it begins to surface, I panic.
After being molested repeatedly as a 7 year old child, I learned to live outside my body. I no longer possessed the ordinary sensors healthy people do. I could withstand hunger and thirst and other sorts of deprivation by watching the girl who felt them, as if from a distance. For years, when I would get injured, I did very little to defend myself or to heal. When sick, I never took time off. And when confronted with violence, I made myself small, burying the feeling part of me so deep, I didn’t recognize it as mine. I compartmentalized myself so completely, the girl who was being abused wasn’t me. I could feel sorry for her, and sad, but not angry. By 16, I struggled with anorexia and a suicide attempt. After two hospitalizations, I learned to perform normalcy through the more subtle self-abuse of bulimia.
I had become caught in a cycle of repressed anger and self-punishment. I had so much unresolved pain, when it began to hurt, I didn’t think about how unjust the situation was that brought me there. I just wanted it to go away. And so I ate whatever I could find that would fill the gaping hole in me. Then I would experience intense feelings of guilt and shame and vomit it up. Guilt and shame reinforced self-hate, which told me I deserved the pain. I didn’t know how to be angry at the pain in my past; instead, I was angry at myself for causing pain in the present, and that feeling of anger would send me right back to shame.
Audre Lorde says that “Anger is loaded with information and energy” and we can “tap that anger as an important source of empowerment.”
In my second semester of college, I took a course in the humanities and the assigned reading included The Bell Jar, Surfacing, The Women’s Room, and The Feminine Mystique. The professor made us write an analysis that required us to look back at the past 100 years of women’s magazines, including Ladies’ Home Journal and Good Housekeeping (circulating since 1883 and 1885, respectively). The products advertised in these publications varied over the years, but the majority of the slogans and hooks were frighteningly similar. She encouraged us to to notice how the advertising was aimed toward getting women to feel inadequate so they would to spend money. I began to see the the institutional ways we are taught to feel bad about ourselves. And I got dramatically angry.
I haven’t counted a calorie since.
When I began to acknowledge the systemic cause of my anger, something significant shifted. Recognizing the rationale, I was freed from its control. As a result, I adopted a more intuitive eating style. Since early college, I haven’t gained or lost more than 10 pounds (except during pregnancy). I eat what I want, when I want, and I never step on a scale. I’m not perfect about my choices. Sometimes I binge on sugar or forget to eat altogether, but I no longer allow my weight or anyone else’s perception of it to dictate what I put in my body.
Both genders suffer from the scripts we’ve been handed. When we perform gender, we limit access to our full humanity. Our expectations that we should narrow our field of emotions to those we’ve been told are appropriate for a good woman (or nice lady) limits our ability to combat shame and to integrate disparate pieces of ourselves into a cohesive and healthy personhood.
I asked the two students this week what they thought about their scenarios. They both declared vehemently that it was fucked up. I told them I didn’t have the answers, but the first step toward healing is recognizing there is something wrong.
–Sculpture at Sam Maloof’s house, photo by Michelle Dowd
Shame is a bad thing, you know. It keeps you down. You want to know why I quit school? Because I didn’t have nice clothes. No clothes, but I had brains. — Sandra Cisneros
Most of my women friends are over-scheduled, frazzled, frustrated and nearly always at their wits’ ends. Scheduling time to hang-out can be months in the making. The men in our lives go with the flow and call us crazy. We call ourselves crazy. When I suggest perhaps we have taken on too many asymmetrical moral support roles (which Kate Manne defines as performing giving, caring, loving and attentive roles to those around us–including students–who do not reciprocate this emotional labor), my friends agree, but imply that patriarchal social structures are so embedded in our system, they can’t rely on anyone else to do what needs to be done.
Even though I understand the implications of systemic patriarchy, and even though I know I’m clearly not alone in navigating this chaos, sometimes I feel like I’m falling apart, that I can’t breathe, that I’m drowning, that I’ve taken on too much, that I’m dizzy with the intermittent demands of hundreds of people I’ve nurtured over the years.
But I still participate in this world, as does every working woman I know.
I am grateful for the myriad choices I now have as a woman, but being able to have it all usually means doing it all, and I no longer want to shoulder that burden. Part of the reason we take on so many asymmetrical roles is because we’re conditioned to think that’s what good women do. We police ourselves. We have thoroughly internalized the ideological apparatus that keeps us working so hard, we unconsciously accept that these social relations are just the way things are.
I think it’s time we redefine our gender.
The woman I strive to be is not integrated with the woman I am. In my professional life, I teach young women to value themselves and their labor. I tell them they teach others how to love them by the way they treat themselves, that they get to decide their own boundaries, and that they should pursue excellence in their fields of interest and prioritize their own goals.
And yet, in my personal life, I continue to uphold the expectation that I should nurture and buoy the emotional life of everyone in my world, and put their needs above my own.
Sometimes, I feel like I’m disintegrating.
This work we do is referred to as emotional (or invisible) labor, and includes, but is not limited to, the organizational work we do to keep our homes and workspaces running smoothly, and the time and attention we give to regulate the emotions of the dominant men in our various social spheres. Even when we have earned professional success, even when we outrank colleagues or are the larger wage-earner at home, the men in our shared spaces feel entitled to (and often receive) our care and attention, without having the skills, experience or expectation to offer us what we most need in return. And when we do ask for it, they can’t hear us. They have been socialized to see our needs as irrational (crazy), and we have been complicit in this.
I don’t blame men. Most of them have no inherent knowledge of their bastions of privilege. Why would they willingly give up a system that serves them?
If we are unhappy with the status quo, we are responsible for changing the terms of our relationships.
As a recovering codependent, I have been guilty of over-giving as a negotiation for love. I am aware, even now, of how often I feel guilty for not giving enough, how obligated I feel to say yes to random requests for my time.
Sometimes, I feel resentful.
I observe the men in my life benefitting from the women in their social spheres who nurture them.
And I wonder if we have become our own worst enemy.
How do I change the terms of engagement?
I don’t know where this starts or ends. Am I so accustomed to playing this nurturing role, that I’ve created a wall of expectation that isolates me from the generosity of those who could care for me?
In their professional lives, men are often surrounded by women who serve in support roles. They benefit from their kindness, their attention to detail, their nurturing energy, their compliments and their emotional care. I get why women are an asset.
When I communicate with men professionally, I often find myself caregiving, as well. Just because I don’t want the paradigm we have been handed, doesn’t mean I don’t feel obligated to play the part. But then I am ashamed of myself for internalizing social codes that no longer resonate with me.
Where does that shame come from?
I am ashamed partly because, as Kate Manne puts it, I have inherited the system of misogyny, which punishes me socially if I’m not compliant.
And I am no longer compliant. As Michele Wolf says, I am not a nice lady. Part of the beauty of growing older is, I no longer want to be.
I have been shamed my whole life. Shamed for my breasts, my legs, my smile, my girly laugh. Shamed for dressing unconventionally, for having too many children, for working full-time while raising said children, for putting my work first, for putting my children first, for not putting a man first, for having desire. Even when I don’t have to, I continue to push myself mentally and physically. I have dared to want more and I have been shamed for this, over and over. As Ariel Gore says, “My public shaming is not merely designed for my own benefit, but rather serves as a sermon and a warning to other girls and other women who may hope to escapes the confines of a system designed to support and enable the white-supremacist capitalist war machine.”
I don’t think Ariel is being hyperbolic.
I don’t have the answers. I have no ability to change the system under which we live. My men friends work with women who adore them, who vie for the privilege of serving them. I can’t change this, or even judge them for accepting this attention.
I will never perform the female gender role as fully as I used to.
If I want to change the world as we know it, I can’t participate in the system. As Anne Lamott says, “Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.”
The parts of me I’m ashamed of are the parts I most need to embrace. The only way out of the shame is to name it and hold it up to the light.
I am ashamed that I no longer want to be a wife or girlfriend by the standard definition of helpmate, but I am not ashamed of my light. I am proud of the work I do. I have invested in the security of my future and I will happily pay more than half of a partner’s living expenditures, both in and out of the home. I love hard and will continue to love hard–with passion, purpose and commitment–supporting and defending a partner’s right to live his life on his own terms, whether or not those terms directly benefit me. I will support his choice to travel where work or friendship or spirituality lead him, with or without me. I will love openly, enthusiastically, loyally and even defiantly. But I no longer want to be a woman who walks on eggshells to protect a man from the vicissitudes of his own habits, or bolster his ego when he has earned the right to be humbled.
I am a woman committed to nurturing myself and my work as a human being on this planet. Let the envious gods take back what they can.
If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away. – Thoreau
For the past few months, I’ve been training with a woman we call J. She’s an accomplished athlete, dancer, performer and business owner, and every time I see her, she pushes me out of my comfort zone.
Last fall, I agreed to dance burlesque and pole with her troupe. Two weeks before the show, right before I knew she was delivering the program to print, I came to my senses and realized I wasn’t ready. I spent hours drafting the perfect text message, apologizing to her for inconveniencing her, assuring her that she could take me off the program and adjust the performance timing to accommodate this beneficial change, thanking her for taking a risk on me, and then apologizing three more times, in different ways, to assure her I knew I had been delusional when I had initially agreed to do this.
I pressed “send” right before I taught my regularly scheduled vinyasa flow yoga class, relieved I had done the right thing, realizing I had jumped in over my head, and was now safely exiting the metaphorical pool before I drowned.
I taught my class, secure in the rhythms of language and instruction, sequenced to my well-rehearsed musical playlist.
After class, I looked at my phone. There was a text message that read, “This isn’t a decision to make through text. I’ll be at the studio at noon. See you there.”
I stared at my phone is disbelief. I became mildly angry. I had done the right thing. How dare she make me question myself. Did she need an apology in person? Why? And how dare she make me any more uncomfortable than I already was.
I typed, “I’m sorry I’m not available. I hope you’ll forgive me for wasting your time. I’ll see you after the show.”
I sat with that for a moment. I looked at my phone. I didn’t press send. Instead, I looked at the time. 10:30. I had plenty of time to figure out a better way to say that. I set the phone down and packed up my things. I changed my clothes. I walked to my car.
I looked at my phone. 11:00. I didn’t press send.
I put my bags and yoga mat in my car and walked to a cafe. I ordered tea and sat down. I looked at my phone. 11:22.
I deleted the text message. I told myself that I respected her as a person and I should be courteous and face her. I decided to apologize in person.
I drove to the studio.
She looked at me casually when I walked in and told me to get dressed, that we needed to go through the routine a couple more times to see what changes we should make.
She told me to warm up.
I fought the urge to argue and didn’t respond. Instead, I walked out.
I stood outside the studio, shaking.
Then I went back to my car, grabbed my pole shorts and changed in the bathroom. She had turned on the music by the time I walked back in and I grabbed a mat from the stack and began to stretch. She adjusted the lights and the tempo and said, “Ok, just let me see a quick run-through so I can gauge where we are.”
Two weeks later, I put on high black boots, a camisole, and short shorts. I let the girls adorn me with tribal make-up and symbols. I was still shaking, but I performed with the troupe, two nights in a row, to loud applause.
As Sri Aurobindo says, “In order to see, you have to stop being in the middle of the picture.”
J has never mentioned my text message. Neither have I.
Who marches to the beat of their own drummer? Who is the marcher? Who is the drummer?
Whose judgment was I afraid of? And why did I let that the fear of that judgment infringe on my attempt to challenge myself and do something outside of my comfort zone, something I had obviously felt compelled to try?
I worried that the other women in the troupe thought I was embarrassing. I worried about other women in my social spheres who might find out I was doing something inappropriate for my age. I worried I was being self-indulgent and ridiculous.
We still have subtle punishments for women who insist on who they are and what they want. Kate Manne argues that misogyny is not about hating women, but rather about controlling and punishing women who challenge male dominance. Misogyny rewards women who reinforce the status quo and punishes those who don’t. We are all complicit.
I judged myself for playing whore in a world in which I had previously chosen to play madonna. I didn’t agree with this unilateral bifurcation, but here I was, afraid to upset the status quo by switching roles.
So how do we pay attention to what we want, and listen to our own intuition? How do we support other women in doing the same?
We can consider the space of ajna, the sixth chakra, which engages inner and outer seeing. The sixth chakra is found in the cone-shaped pineal gland, located in the geometric center of the head at approximately eye level, derived from a third eye, which begins to develop early in the embryo and later degenerates. The pineal gland acts as a light meter for the body and is sometimes called the “seat of the soul.” To develop a more intuitive form of seeing, we need to look at fields of energy, not at objects themselves, reaching with our minds to see beyond what we’re accustomed to looking for, developing a wider lens to capture what is outside our ordinary field of vision.
One way we can learn to listen to ourselves and develop clairvoyance is by embracing an art form. At its fundamental core, art provides a vehicle for resistance. While our practice will undoubtedly include supporting professional artists and the work we admire, we must also join the conversation by creating art ourselves.
Oppression exists in so many forms, many of which are not easily detected. Art does the difficult work of identifying those things.
Jeanette Winterson reminds us that “the process of art is a series of jolts, or perhaps I mean volts, for art is an extraordinarily faithful transmitter. Our job is to keep our receiving equipment in good working order.”
J chose to be an artist because it was the only career she knew of that would allow her to speak her truth at all times. Some people wear their hearts on their sleeves. She wears hers in the spotlight.
I don’t make a living performing with my body, but I have made a career out of performing with my mind. There’s something empowering about stepping out of that comfort zone, widening the definition of what I think I can do, who I am, how I see and let myself be seen.
I’ve decided to inject myself with the unpredictable, and this new way of moving in the world is a lifestyle I seek and often regret seeking. This tension is part of the discomfort.
The healing power of art is not a rhetorical fantasy. Art opens the wound to clean it, and then gradually teaches it to heal itself.
As Beth Pickens says, “You have something to contribute to anything to which you feel committed. Right now, as you are, with what you already have, you can contribute…. Have a clear view of your relative vulnerability and risk level in the world. Feeling scared does not equal being unsafe. Feeling fearless does not equal safety…”
In the past four months, I have engaged in arenas I didn’t think were possible for me to enter.
I spent my young adulthood thinking I wanted to be with an artist. It’s taken me a long time to realize, I am an artist.
"To hold a pen is to be at war." -Voltaire
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The Collected Poems of Dennis McHale: 1981-2016
Transracial Adoption from one black girl's perspective
\ˈprä-JECT-oh-fahyl\ (noun) 1. A lover of projects, especially those derived from scavenged materials and made more beautiful through paint, thread and sandpaper.
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"To hold a pen is to be at war." -Voltaire