Tag Archives: relationships

MichelleDowd.org

“How do we proceed when there is actually not meant to be a plan, because we are working a way of being, a slowly building conversation between what we want for ourselves and what we are most afraid of?

— DAVID WHYTE

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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?

You shouldn’t.

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.

michelledowd.org

 

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The Fall

 

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Photo by Artem Bali on Pexels.com

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.

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Toward Integration, Part I

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–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.

Dis-integration.

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.

 

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Quiet Street

Once you realize that the road is the goal and that you are always on the road, not to reach a goal, but to enjoy its beauty and its wisdom, life ceases to be a task….

― Nisargadatta Maharaj

Where I come from, like anywhere, there are rules. Some are written, but most are unwritten, passed on member to member, generation to generation, word of mouth, tongue in cheek, morphing as they circulate, like an ontological plague.

Learning the official promise and bylaws at the Organization was easy. At the beginning of meetings, everyone recites the pledge: “I promise by the strength of Christ to be brave, pure and true. I will fulfill my duties at school, home and club; do my part in [the Organization’s] activities, keep all dates and promises and read at least one verse in the Bible daily.”  

It takes a little longer to learn the laws, but anyone who wants to be recognized by leadership, to earn a pin or a neckerchief, to move up into Phosterians or RHLA, strives to live by these, as well:

A member is brave. He/she will not shun duty. He/she realizes that bravery in standing for the right is greater than mere physical strength. Coaxing of friends and jeers of enemies cannot persuade him/her to do wrong.

A member is pure in body, mind, speech and conduct. He/she will not defile his/her body with tobacco, liquor, or other harmful habits. Because he/she keeps his/her mind pure, his/her speech and conduct will also be pure and he/she will choose to go with a clean crowd.

A member is true to himself/herself, to parents, to all leaders, and to God. He/she will not lie, steal, cheat or gamble. He/she will honor his/her parents and be respectful to those in authority. He/she is reverent toward God.

In theory, these were the only rules, but in practice, the parameter of acceptable behaviors was vastly more complex. To thrive in this Organization, you had to learn the boundaries–meaning, the bi-conditional logic of what is and isn’t godly.

The Organization obtained its current property when my mother was a young child, leasing the initial 4 acres of riverbed from a local philanthropic family in 1952, and then acquiring adjoining use rights from the Southern California Water Company and the Los Angeles Flood Control District. My family turned a former garbage dump located at the end of a cul-de-sac, surrounded by suburban homes, into a sanctuary of ballfields, and the bowl of refuse became a worship center to a close-knit homogeneous ideological community that has thrived for decades.

However you approached the entrance to the Organization, an unofficially zoned no-noise buffer emanated approximately a mile in each direction. Upon entering that perimeter, no matter what was taking place prior, everyone would hush, and the participants on the bus would be quiet until we drove down the driveway into the basin of fields. Whatever your age, whether you entered the property by car or bus or bike, the blocks of homes outlining the entrance were all part of Quiet Street. If you wanted to stay in the fold, you made the journey silent as a contemplative monk.

The practice of silence served two purposes, but the second one didn’t occur to me until long after I left.

Ostensibly, we were quiet to respect the residents in the surrounding homes. If they weren’t bothered by our noise, they wouldn’t complain to law enforcement of our presence. We all understood that what we did in that basin was unconventional (and, of course, holy) and only those who fully understood God’s purpose should be privy to it.

I walked, biked and drove through Quiet Street thousands of times from my first memories as a toddler through my teenage years, and each time I did so etched in me an unwitting meditation practice. We left what we called the Outside–a world of commerce, temptation and worldly pleasures–to pass through the silence of those transitional streets, to cross the threshold of the cul-de-sac thoroughfare and burrow down into our spiritual home.

A student asked me today how I learned to drop down into my body, how I learned to be still and practice inner-knowing. I didn’t explain Quiet Street, nor quote how at the end of all our exploring, we will arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. What I did share was a simpler truth: throughout my childhood, the practice of mindfulness was integrated into my daily life. Learning to be silent, learning to be reverent in the midst of chaos, learning to pause and respect the physical space of a spiritual journey, is a practice I am deeply grateful for, and one I continue to honor.

 

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Dark Gifts, Part II

 

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“Let me fall if I must fall. The one I become will catch me.”

–The Baal Shem Tov

 

We have been living in the Mess Hall at the camp for months when Christmas rolls around, and I am excited by the snow.  My siblings and I are all struck silent and still by the prospect of being confined, although we don’t know to call it that.  We are huddled at the top of a dirt road, safe in the Mess Hall, relieved that it is impossible to drive down to get to the main road and make the 95 minute trek to Communion. So here we are.

Trapped, but safe.

I feel like the luckiest girl in the world to be in this winter wonderland, away from the possibility that my parents will be summoned to preach or teach. I don’t want anything for Christmas except for to stay here forever, to stop driving down the hill, to never have to drive down the mountain again, for this cocooning never to end.

The Mess Hall is one large room with a concrete slab floor, and we are fortunate that there is a 1947 stone fireplace, where we can dry wet things and hang stockings. We have stockings made of felt, with felt images, pieced together by women who have been called by the Lord to work with their hands.  We are told that coal or oranges are traditional gifts, relegated respectively to children who are either naughty or nice. Now that we’re living as if we belong in another century, we believe this, having almost forgotten there was ever a world before now, that we once lived on a street, with neighbors, in a house with a toilet and a shower.

The night in our bunks is cold, but we are full of hope.   

“The man in the moon is watching us, Mikey.”

My brother looks at me with droopy eyes, like he’s been ordered to nod off, but refuses. I point out the window, toward the glow of the moon, noticing the pine needles strewn across the field of snow like Hansel and Gretel’s bread crumbs, marking the way home.

“Is that God?” he asks, “Is that where God lives? Or Santa Claus?”

“God lives in Heaven,”  I explain, “Santa lives at the north pole.”

“Is the north pole on earth or in heaven?

“The north pole is where the magic happens on earth.  God saves his magic for after we die.”

“Are you going to die?”

I’m only four years older than he is, but I look at Mikey with maternal confidence, like I know what I’m talking about.  “Santa won’t let me die tonight. But if I do, if I die before you, I will ask God to make sure Santa takes extra good care of you.”

“If God can do that, why doesn’t God just take care of us now?”

Our parents rustle in together, en route back from the outhouse.

“Lights out” our father barks, and darkness descends as if from the hand of God.

We wake up to sun reflecting on snow, the pine needles too numerous to follow in any one direction.

Underneath the stockings are four suitcases: yellow for Lori, pink for me, blue for Wendy and brown for Mikey.  We will live out of these suitcases for the next ten years.

My siblings and I spent the rest of our childhoods (every weekend, most summers, and whenever we missed our ride back up the mountain) at whatever home would take us in. I learned to pack lightly, to come and go, to conform to whatever subculture I entered for the time it took to sleep and be fed, and then to leave and try not to come back too soon. I learned to be polite and ingratiating, but not get too attached. I learned what love looked like, how it manifested itself, how intimacy was expressed in so many different ways in so many different homes, but I also grew to understand that love was for the families who lived there and I was always a visitor. I learned to come and go without asking for anything, to avoid being noticed, to take what was given, whether I wanted it or not. I learned to live with disappointment, without attachment, to travel lightly and to exit quickly, before I could see the visible signs of being unwelcome. My escape hatches were pre-planned and well-rehearsed. At one home, I would jump off the garage roof to slip out the back gate onto an adjoining field. Occasionally, I slept out there on the grass.

The first man in my adult life who loved me made quesadillas with avocado in his mother’s kitchen, food he enjoyed and wanted to share with me. No one had ever done that before. The second man who loved me stocked his refrigerator with foods I liked, so when I came over, there was always something for me to eat, without asking. These were more than kind gestures. These were concrete illustrations that they wanted me in their space.

I returned their love largely because I felt claimed.

I’ve begun a meditation truth practice. For one month, I have been committing to sit with whatever truths come up about myself. This practice doesn’t require me to share these truths with anyone. If something feels relevant, I may write it down. But the practice is merely to show up and feel what comes up, without running away. Every day.

Showing up for myself has been far more difficult than manipulating exit strategies. I’ve always been ready to jump off the roof of my own life. Staying on the ground is harder.

Certainly, there are things I’ve been mindful to build, and I am proud of the home, career and relationships I have spent decades cultivating.  But I am the kind of person who would rather walk than wait for a ride. I am more comfortable with physical discomfort than with nurturing, and I would rather sleep outside in the rain than ask anyone to take me in.

As T.S. Eliot reminds us, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

There is always the return.

I still find it difficult to know what foods to choose for myself, to have any idea what I want or need, to see self-nourishment or self-care as activities worthy of my time.

But I’ve come to know what is mine.

Almost a thousand years ago, Hildegard of Bingen, a visionary who worked in seclusion in a monastery rather than accept the limitations of a woman’s traditional life trajectory, reminds us, “We cannot live in a world that is not our own, a world interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a home. Part of the terror is to take back our own listening, to use our own voice, to see our own light.”

You cannot disown what is yours, no matter how many times you walk away. Wounds that heal still leave scars, and sometimes all we have to follow is a trail of blood. I would rather keep moving than sit around waiting to be claimed. Over and over, when things start to settle down, when I begin to feel too comfortable, I look for the exit sign.

But now, when I throw my things in a suitcase, restlessly searching for the next transition, I know how to find my way back home.

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The Throat Chakra

Truth.  The real truth only comes years later, when finally one day your body feels safe enough to feel it. –Tom Spanbauer

The screaming started a year after I had my thyroid removed, and a few weeks before someone I used to love broke into our family home, causing a great deal of damage.

For three weeks, on and off, at what felt like random intervals, the demon would come to me and sit on my chest in the night, dense with the weight of an anvil, and slowly drain the breath from my lungs. Paralyzed, I would watch it compress my chest, pinning me to the bed, syphoning my lifeforce, eliminating my breath in tiny increments, freezing everywhere in my body but my eyes, which continued to blink and dart and roll, furiously fighting against surrender, refusing to accept death at this creature’s gnarled hands.

But eyes aren’t much of a defense against a demon, and I would feel myself begin to fade into the sheets until somewhere in my throat the scream would begin to form and escape my mouth in a barbaric, primal roar that wouldn’t let up until it exhausted me into a little ball of quivering quiet.  

When the screaming began, my family would turn on the lights, and see that nothing was there, so they would shake me, gently, and then more aggressively to wake up, please wake up, while I screamed without words at this thing, at this thing, please, get this thing off of my chest.

At some point I would recognize the person who was actually in the room, but the demon still held me, so that I had no control over the scream, where it started or how it ended. When my senses became alert enough to hear it, it was a sound outside of me, just as the sounds of my family pleading for me to stop were outside of me, instructing me to wake up, trying to convince me I was dreaming.

But it wasn’t a dream. It was an assault.

The voices of my loved ones made familiar sounds outside of me and I could hear them, even as I heard the scream outside of me, alien and intrusive, like an out of sync audio track in a foreign film. The scream was its own entity, and I could hear that sound like the crescendo in an orchestral score, the sound of a woman rising up and fighting for herself.

The throat chakra is the energetic space that pertains to our self-expression, our personal truth, how we define our purpose in life, and our ability to express ourselves to others, with creativity and authenticity. When our fifth chakra energy is blocked, we may find ourselves unable to speak our truth when we need it the most, we may have difficulty expressing our needs and desires, and we may lie to avoid conflict or to keep others from knowing who we are.

Communication is, at base, an act of connection. We may be connecting intellectual ideas, clarifying economic transactions, or sharing intimate feelings, but regardless of tone and content, the action of communicating merges us with our listeners and expands beyond the boundaries of our own minds.

To open our fifth chakra, we practice synthesizing old ideas into something new, something more concrete–through listening, speaking, writing, chanting, telepathy and art forms. When we share these things openly and honestly with others, we deepen our connection not only to them, but to ourselves. When we lie, to ourselves and to others, we create dissonance and distance.

Of course, before we can share our truths, we need to be self-reflective enough to know what they are.

At the time, I didn’t find the the gash across my neck, nor the stitches, nor the healing process, nor the fact that my vocal cords had been stretched apart during surgery, to be of any particular significance. Nor was I able to acknowledge, even afterwards, how the fear of that demon was connected to signs that the past wouldn’t stay in the past. I wasn’t able to connect these dots because I didn’t know myself well enough to know what I was feeling, let alone express it to anyone else or to ask for help in understanding my relationship to these events.

My throat remained constricted, tight, strained and raw during those weeks, even on nights I wasn’t screaming. On the nights I did, I could only whisper my way through work the day after.

I am now committed to a daily spiritual practice of ruthless self-honesty. And when Visuddha, my fifth chakra, is open enough, when I have rigorously practiced communication within my own body and mind, when I have sat long enough with the pain to have built up neural pathways of radical honesty, I will find the courage, strength and will to express these truths to others. And I will be ready to create art.

 

 

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Anahata

For the person who survived on scraps of affection, there may be a lifelong habit of contraction that is only obvious when you are showered in appreciation. Here the heart is challenged to receive at a greater capacity than it has ever known. Bearing the pleasure means beginning to notice those jumpy places which anticipate pain, which expect abandonment, which brace for danger when it’s no longer there. Only then can we begin to invite a gentle exploration of pleasure, allowing life into those areas which have been cordoned off in self-preservation. We must acclimate, often through grief, to the life-giving nature of love which is all around us waiting to be received.  — Toko-pa Turner

When I was Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles for the first time, I was 10 years and 5 months old.  I was put in “isolation” in the Hematology Ward, which means I was housed alone, and medical personnel wore masks and gloves when they came into the room. I didn’t understand what was wrong with me, and neither did they, but I was covered in bruises and petechiae, and I had what looked like a single bug bite near my pubic bone. They drew vials and vials of blood, took my vitals every few minutes, lanced the welt, and discovered that my platelets were dangerously low (below 5,000 per microliter) and I had chickenpox. These may or may not have been related.

I spent a lot of time alone in the hospital.

For the next 3 years and 3 months, my life revolved around my illness. When I wasn’t in the hospital, I often slept on my grandparents’ fold-out chair, because they had a phone and lived less than an hour from Los Angeles. They were old and my grandmother had had a stroke a few years prior. The house was quiet and I often went days without speaking to anyone, or anyone speaking to me. I didn’t go to school, and for a long time, I had no access to books. I spent a lot of time on the fold-out chair, looking at my grandmother’s accordion desk. When she died, it’s the only thing I wanted.

I rarely talk about any of this.

It wasn’t really the illness that broke me. It was the isolation, the distance from the community into which I was born, the inaccessibility of my siblings and my parents–who all lived far away in the mountains, and for whom visiting wasn’t convenient or a priority.

Three years is a long time at that age.

The girl in that hospital bed has begun appearing to me lately, asking for my help.

This may or may not be related to learning to accept love.

In the chakra tradition, the heart is the center, the essence, the spiritual core, the source from which energy flows in each direction, from the lower three chakras that represent physical matter, to the ideologies of the higher three chakras that house our spirituality. The heart chakra integrates and balances the various aspects of our being, including what we long for and what we fear.

As we age, we continue to hold awareness of all the ages we’ve ever been. We might think of the entity comprised of mind/body/spirit as a container that houses all parts of ourselves, from the needs (met and unmet) of our bodies to the needs (met and unmet) of our spirits.

The task of the heart chakra is to recognize and integrate the disparate aspects of ourselves, from the performing parts we embrace to the shadow selves we fear. For most of us, it is a challenge to have compassion for all of these selves, especially those we believe are broken.

Rather than seeing love as an extension of need or desire, when we develop unmitigated compassion, we can begin to build an empathetic connection, starting with ourselves, and extending to others.

When we work to balance the fourth chakra, we begin to transcend ego, and loosen our self-defined boundaries. While strong boundaries are necessary to protect ourselves from abuse, they are also an attempt to shield ourselves from pain and vulnerability. But pain and vulnerability are central to the human condition, and denying them keeps us closed off from reality. Meditating on the heart chakra helps us recognize the people, places, events, commitments and emotions that scare us the most. Facing these with with an open heart is central to our well-being and to our growth.

The world I grew up in was the only world I knew, and it was so normalized, it has taken me a very long time to understand what I gained and what I lost from my isolation.

I wish I could go back and hug the girl in the hospital bed. I would tell her I love her, and I would sit with her and hold her hand and read to her, and I would assure her that whatever happens, I won’t leave.

 

 

 

 

 

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Infinite Game

…every love story is a ghost story…

Last week, a friend brought me 80% Dunkle Schokolade from Germany and I couldn’t taste it.

He opened the packaging like performance art, broke off a shape resembling a scar. I watched him do this, grateful for the gesture, mesmerized by the movements. I reached out, tried to appreciate the taste and quality and texture of his gift, but it felt cold in my mouth.

I wondered if it was his kindness that scared me.

This morning, I made coffee and I saw the bring pink hues of the Haitian art packaging that protected the leftover chocolate on my desk. I turned it over to read the history, looked at the list of ingredients, curiously fingered the ridges of the foil. Then I wrapped myself in a red wolf blanket, warmed my hands on the coffee mug and held the chocolate next to the heat of the drink, softening around my fingers till it was pliable, like clay.

I licked the chocolate and a wave of resistance sprung up like a flavor, unspoken goodbyes choking me as I swallowed, a machine gun of memories punctuating the background, loud and violent, like a backdrop of war. My parents, my grandparents, the Field, Phosterians, Chapel, the Trip, Quiet Street, Devotions, driving through grooves of mud so thick, getting out is more than dark and dirty.

I hadn’t thought to tell him that Europe is not always a college playground, that sometimes abroad is the only place you can think of to go, but it’s not far enough away.

I dipped the chocolate in the coffee and rolled it around with my tongue and the coffee and chocolate calmed me, like a cigarette. I sensed the taste of fig, with a touch of floral and a tinge of nut, and it was warm and layered and acidic inside of me, the way a lover moves inside of you, and the bitter sweetness alternated in syncopation, like a heartbeat.

 

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The F Scale

“She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.  It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.”  – Toni Morrison, Beloved

I have never understood the phrase, “just friends.” Friendship isn’t a a consolation prize. Friendships can be the most cherished, solid and enduring relationships we have, a chosen space where we can be intimate and vulnerable and seen.

Of course, it depends on how you define friendship.

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle describes friendship as reciprocated goodwill. He suggests that in a healthy friendship, friends love each other for the sake of the other, as much as themselves, and they wish good things for each other, whether or not it directly benefits them.

I believe all my friends wish good things for me, but without a certain degree of closeness, I think it’s difficult to know how to participate in “reciprocating goodwill.”

One day, on a road trip, in an attempt to understand exactly what we were talking about when we mentioned a “friend,” my companion and I created an F-Scale,  It was a long drive and we worked on this so thoroughly, I sometimes forget that these terms aren’t a codified language. For example, sometimes I assume other people know what I’m talking about when I say, “Yesterday I had lunch with Wendy, an F2.”  

This whole idea of a scale may appear callous, but it’s astonishing to me that we don’t have more nuanced variations of the word “friend.” As someone who takes friendship seriously, I recognize that at least two of these categories would be better labeled as acquaintances–but in the interconnected era of social media, it feels necessary to use at least cop a nod to the F word. The base concept here is that anyone who actively wishes good things for another person is in the generic sense, a friend, but we might value our connections in some sort of vertical order, like this:

F 5 –  Those I know the name of, and respect details I am aware of about their lives, but this information has mostly been garnered through other people in our shared social spheres, and is really more an illusion of connection.

F4 –  Those I interact with publicly on a semi-regular basis, enjoy their presence and their stories, but our interactions are primarily through shared commitments, not specific intent.

F3 – Those with whom I share a meaningful connection, with whom I schedule to spend time and/or have multiple points of contact, but our in-person interactions are significantly limited by geography, conflicting schedules or otherwise disparate social systems.

F2 – Those with whom I have had many consistent, meaningful interactions, choose to prioritize time with, and care about the details of their lives–but we have not yet found a rhythm to our mutual interactions, so there is a degree of uncertainty, irregularity or question of sustainability.

F1 – Someone I care for deeply, with whom I have an ongoing conversation, mutual trust, respect, and honest disclosure.  I care about their hopes, dreams, opinions and goals, as well as their faults, fears and failures and can read many of their thoughts and moods. I feel free to express genuine concern, without fear of reproach, and we can count on each other’s responsiveness. We both initiate and prioritize our connection, and give deliberate time and energy to each other’s welfare.

At a Writer’s Conference, I once had lunch with a woman who had her own friendship barometer and we eagerly exchanged notes. Her view was gloriously simple:

  1. I will have coffee with you.
  2. I will have a drink with you.
  3. I would bury a body for you.
  4. I would kill for you.

I told her I thought there was a pretty large leap between categories 2 and 3 and she laughed. “Thin love ain’t love at all,” she said, “that there is the line.”

And this got me thinking. Since love is definitely something exchanged between genuine friends, what do we mean when we say we’re in an intimate relationship? Is a healthy romantic relationship significantly different from our closest friendship? With an F1, I am personally open, willing and expecting to be transformed. If that’s the case, is romance an F1 with sexual attraction? Are there quantifiable differences between a lover, a girlfriend/boyfriend, a spouse or a partner? Is there a differing degree of loyalty inherent in each term? How often do people intuitively agree on how they prioritize their connections?

For many people, a romantic relationship requires more time and attention, as well as a commitment to and integration of shared values and experiences. But I would argue there is a similar element of interdependence between the closest of friends. And both friends and lovers can break our hearts.

Most Americans define an intimate relationship as one in which they’re sexually exclusive–but certainly not everyone does. And plenty of people are in long term marriages rich in friendship, shared interests and values, in which they no longer have sex.

Perhaps people who are in intimate relationships that work for both parties don’t play within sexual boundaries, but with sexual boundaries.

I think with romance, we often lose the delicate balance between effort and air. In most of our relationships, we don’t do the proverbial slow dance. We bob around each other, mirroring each other’s movements, holding hands, spinning in and out each other’s orbit, engaging with whichever person brings us the most pleasure or meaning in the moment. We make effort, then give space, and as we find ourselves getting closer, we tend to do more of the former and less of the latter.

In romantic relationships, however, we often expend and expect effort, without the grace of air, and with a possessiveness that can feel claustrophobic. While I respect and value the idea of mutual surrender between intimate partners, we are often less genuine and generous with our romantic love than with our Filia love. And because we are less attached to the fear of loss, we are frequently more committed to a practice of honest communication with a friend than we are with someone with whom we’re sexual.

We might do well to shift our expectations, and hold our romantic relationships to the same standards we hold our deepest friendships. Perhaps when people ask us what’s up, and we find ourselves having to categorize someone we may or may not be dating, we might more effectively explain, “We’re just romantic.”

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Let’s Talk about Enthusiastic Consent

 

 

it was when i stopped searching for home with others

and lifted the foundations of home within myself

i found there were no roots more intimate

than those between a mind and body

that have decided to be whole

 

— rupi kaur

 

A couple weeks ago, four women I know, three of whom are students at Chaffey, handed me or quoted or asked me if I had read Rupi Kaur. All on the same day. How do you not know this poet, they said, she’s everywhere! Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. So of course, I began reading her. And I see why at this particular moment in time, she may be the zeitgeist.

Women are angry. Women are trying to find a way to declare ownership of their own bodies. Instead of looking to the authorial voice of men, women are looking to other women for answers.

Uma Thurman recently wrote a searing editorial in The New York Times, ending with, “Personally, it has taken me 47 years to stop calling people who are mean to you ‘in love’ with you. It took a long time because I think that as little girls we are conditioned to believe that cruelty and love somehow have a connection and that is like the sort of era that we need to evolve out of.”

In a New York Times’ Magazine article, “What Teenagers are Learning from Online Porn” Maggie Jones profiles a high school porn literacy program. At the start of the program, 27 percent of the teenagers agreed that “most people like to be slapped, spanked or have their hair pulled during sex,” and 45 percent of the teenagers said that porn was a good way for young people to learn about sex. She argues that “you don’t have to believe that porn leads to sexual assault or that it’s creating a generation of brutal men to wonder how it helps shape how teenagers talk and think about sex and, by extension, their ideas about masculinity, femininity, intimacy and power.” Cindy Gallop, creator of an online platform called MakeLoveNotPorn, says: “Pornography didn’t create the narrative that male pleasure should be first and foremost. But that idea is certainly reinforced by “a male-dominated porn industry shot through a male lens.” And Al Vernacchio, a sexuality educator who talks to his high school students about sexual pleasure, mutuality, and the ingredients for healthy relationships, says that the problem with porn “is not just that it often shows misogynistic, unhealthy representations of relationships….You can’t learn relationship skills from porn, and if you are looking for pleasure and connection, porn can’t teach you how to have those.” Yet 93 percent of boys and 62 percent of girls admit to watching porn before they turned 18, internalizing the pervasive narrative of male prerogative in heterosexual copulation– without affirmative consent.

The media send women mixed messages when it comes to sex. Advertising teaches women that to be sexy is to have power, but if a woman overtly dresses or acts sexy, she is often slut-shamed, and if she is a victim of sexual assault, she is often judged culpable for own attack. This is part and parcel of the Madonna-Whore schism through which women are sifted and compartmentalized. In A Uterus is a Feature, not a Bug Sarah Lacey depicts how the deification of “family values” is a sociocultural lens purportedly protecting women from social ills –from rape or working motherhood or even from single motherhood– but is actually a form of benevolent sexism that comes at a high cost. Peter Glick, a professor of psychology at Sarah Lawrence University says those who score high on benevolent sexism are more likely to blame women when they accuse men of sexual assault. He says “The protection racket of benevolent sexism gives women a lot of incentive to either forgive men, or blame women. The alternative–acknowledging that the system is broken, and that virtue can’t protect you from violence–can be too terrible to contemplate.” Lacey claims that it is a tool of the patriarchy to make a woman feel like she is the problem, not the culture we’re living in.

Many Americans believe that feminism isn’t needed because women are already equal. I want to move beyond the accepted definition of feminism as the belief that women and men should have equal rights and opportunities and borrow a wider understanding of feminist consciousness from Gerda Lerner. For the purposes of this discussion, feminist consciousness consists of the awareness that as a gender, women are subordinate to men; the recognition that this subordination isn’t natural, but culturally determined; the development of a sisterhood; an autonomous definition by women as to the nature of their current condition; and the development of an alternate plan.

We spend a lot of time teaching a woman that she needs to protect herself from men, but we seldom acknowledge how much strength or agency she already possesses, and we rarely procure a paradigm where she can envision what it would look like to seek her own narrative, including articulating both desire and pleasure, in or out of the bedroom.

rupi kaur:

what’s the greatest  lesson a woman should learn?

that since day one, she’s already had everything

she needs within herself. it’s the world that

convinced her she did not.

Women have gained access to education and jobs, but our bodies are often colonized by patriarchal values. Here are just a few cultural myths about the gender we assign to female bodies:

  1. Our primary cultural myth, taken from the Judeo-Christian Bible is that Eve was created for Adam, out of his rib, as a helpmate. When she gave Adam the apple, her punishment (from God) is to have pain in all things related to childbirth and to accept her husband as her master.
  2. The voice of authority is male, from the voice of God, to the majority of our current political and economic leaders, to nearly every figure we have ever learned about in history.
  3. The ideological apparatus sanctifying women for their motherhood, for nurturing, and for their role as caregivers, encourages women to see themselves in the role of the Other, and put herself last.
  4. Penetration is the only “real sex.”

Dominance is not always gendered, and people of any gender can pleasure one another and hurt one another. But men are disproportionately the perpetrators of violence and women are disproportionately the victims of sexual assault. In her novel Power, Naomi Alderman explores what a society would look like if women had an advantage in physical strength men didn’t have, creating a world in which women’s superior strength catapults into wealth, world leadership, and gendered violence. She suggests that the nurturing role women play has less to do with the biology of reproduction and more to do with power. In the world as we know it, men’s physical power evolved into social power and then to economic power. And women have been socialized to accept this as natural. Even though physical strength is no longer the way most of us earn a living, chances are, if you’re a woman, you have less economic power than the men in your immediate social sphere.

If you’re hungry, you’ll accept crumbs.

Today, I want to address why women accept crumbs. I want to talk about equality of affection as an alternative plan to our current sexual paradigm. I don’t want to focus on where the line is on rape or assault. Like so much of this movement today, I’m not calling for legal action or restitution, but rather asking for social accountability. As women, I think it’s time we set the bar higher in our sexual experiences than being relieved or grateful we weren’t raped.

I want to address how women see themselves, their bodies and their value. Much has been written on why women don’t say no, and on the array of socialization we receive to be accommodating, nurturing, smiley and nice. In fact, we have had this conversation enough times that affirmative consent is now California Law in public colleges. A woman doesn’t have to say no. She has to say yes.

In 2014, Senate Bill 967 added Section 67386 to the Education Code relating to student safety. California has created a standard that requires affirmative consent — affirmative, conscious and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity — throughout the encounter, removing ambiguity for both parties. The law protects both partners by ensuring a mutual understanding. A person who is incapacitated by drugs or alcohol cannot give consent. And California colleges are being held more accountable for prevention, evaluation and a consistent protocol surrounding sexual assault. It could come in the form of a smile, a nod or a verbal yes, as long as it’s unambiguous, “enthusiastic” and ongoing.

This may seem radical, but discussions of what constitutes consent aren’t new. Sexual Consent policies at Antioch College were presented in 1991 as follows:

Consent is defined as the act of willingly and verbally agreeing to engage in specific sexual conduct. The following are clarifying points:

  • Consent is required each and every time there is sexual activity.
  • All parties must have a clear and accurate understanding of the sexual activity.
  • The person(s) who initiate(s) the sexual activity is responsible for asking for consent.
  • The person(s) who are asked are responsible for verbally responding.
  • Each new level of sexual activity requires consent.
  • Use of agreed upon forms of communication such as gestures or safe words is acceptable, but must be discussed and verbally agreed to by all parties before sexual activity occurs.
  • Consent is required regardless of the parties’ relationship, prior sexual history, or current activity (e.g. grinding on the dance floor is not consent for further sexual activity).
  • At any and all times when consent is withdrawn or not verbally agreed to, the sexual activity must stop immediately.
  • Silence is not consent.
  • Body movements and non-verbal responses such as moans are not consent.
  • A person can not give consent while sleeping.
  • All parties must have unimpaired judgement (examples that may cause impairment include but are not limited to alcohol, drugs, mental health conditions, physical health conditions).
  • All parties must use safer sex practices.
  • All parties must disclose personal risk factors and any known STIs. Individuals are responsible for maintaining awareness of their sexual health.

These requirements for consent do not restrict with whom the sexual activity may occur, the type of sexual activity that occurs, the props/toys/tools that are used, the number of persons involved, the gender(s) or gender expressions of persons involved.

At the time, men like Rush Limbaugh made fun of every aspect of this policy. Talk show hosts ridiculed it on nearly every station.

But just for a moment, imagine: what if these conversations were baseline expectations? What if it were common practice between new partners to ask for what you want and wait for a reply? What if developing a shared sexual language was the norm? What if equality of affection was as common as the right to vote?

Equality of affection is when there is a balance of support and respect between two people where each person’s needs, desires and expressions of affection are considered equally.  

If we want both affirmative consent and equality of affection, do we know what that looks like? The old saying that “no means yes and yes means faster” is no longer applicable or defendable. So what does yes look like from a woman? What does mutual pleasure look like between men and women? How can your partner please you if you don’t know how to please yourself? How can you enthusiastically consent to pleasure you haven’t come to expect or require?

We know that women have been socialized to be nice, to be deferential, and to be of service. Studies verify that it’s far more difficult for women to say no than for men to say no. But when we don’t have affirmative models, it’s also difficult to say yes. It’s difficult to know what we desire, to identify what feels good in our bodies, and to know what we want, let alone ask for it. How do we say yes when we don’t know our own minds? When we don’t know how to listen to ourselves? Most women have no female voice of authority in their heads. Who do we listen to when the voice of God is male, and the version of God we’ve been handed down has taught us to see ourselves as a helpmate rather than the protagonist of our own story? As Sally Kempton says: “It’s hard to fight an enemy that has outposts in your head.”

To explore and experience sexual pleasure, we must first recognize our own desires and our right to explore them. It’s an act of resistance for a woman to recognize that her body exists primarily to serve herself rather than other people. And this is particularly challenging in a culture that is uncomfortable with people talking about their own pleasure.

Jocelyn Elders, appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1993, was asked if she thought teaching children about masturbation might reduce unsafe sex. Yes, she replied, “I think that is something that is a part of human sexuality, and it’s a part of something that perhaps should be taught. But we’ve not even taught our children the very basics.” Conservative outrage erupted, and Bill Clinton asked her to resign.

How can anyone know what they want if we shame them for safely exploring what that might be.

Recently, I’ve been asking nearly every woman I know how frequently she experiences pleasure during partner sex. Not necessarily orgasm, but consistent pleasure and a feeling of well-being throughout the entire sexual encounter. This is an unscientific sample, but over half the women admitted the majority of sex they have had hasn’t been physically pleasurable to them–even though they often felt emotional pleasure through pleasing their partners. That most women enjoy pleasing someone they care for isn’t a problem. The question is, why is it so difficult for women to seek mutual pleasure for themselves during these encounters, and to ask their partners to facilitate their pleasure. And why don’t we socialize men to ask?

Maybe because many women don’t even ask themselves what they desire, in or out of the bedroom. Most women aren’t accustomed to seeing pleasure as necessary, and in the process of earning a living and caring for the needs of our families and communities, it often drops low on our priority lists. Sex-positive language that affirms women’s desire is not a sociocultural norm in The United States. To develop one, we will have to envision a new paradigm.

I think it’s no coincidence that Dr. Elders was dismissed for promoting self-pleasure. It’s a radical statement and a radical act for women to take their pleasure into their own hands.

Audre Lorde says, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” As part of a feminist consciousness, I want to end this presentation with proposing practices for a path to pleasure.

It starts with listening to our bodies.

Think about a situation you are looking for clarity around and play a simple game of what if. Ask yourself, what if I said yes to this…pause…breathe…notice what sensations you experience in your body, and feel out what a yes brings up for you. Feel it in your body, not as intellectual analysis. What does it feel like to say yes in this situation? And then do the same for the no. Compare notes. Compare sensations in your body – tightness, strain, pains or lightness, relaxed shoulders, an ease to your breathing a calm sensation. Notice how your body reacts when you imagine a yes versus imagining a no.

  1. Show up for yourself. 
  2. Know what kind of touch feels safe to you. Start there.
  3. Court what it feels like to be safe in your body. Practice feeling this. Whether it’s through yoga or meditation, know how to be alone with and in your body, what if feels like to be fully present.
  4. Shame can’t stay alive inside of you unless you believe the story you’ve been told. Write a new story.
  5. Take time to check in with yourself and ask yourself, what do I need right now? Practice self-care.
  6. Know your body. Know what feels good to you. Know your pleasure points.
  7. Notice what lights you up. What makes you feel light, spacious, tingly.
  8. Do more of that.

Maybe if women practiced self-pleasure, there would be more enthusiasm in their consent. Maybe once we know what feels good to us and feel we deserve it, we will know how to tell our partners what brings us pleasure, and expect our encounters to reflect our mutual needs.  

rupi kaur:

i will not have you

walk in and out of me

like an open doorway when

i have too many miracles

happening inside me to be

your convenient option

not your hobby

I realize that both genders are victims of abuse–emotional, psychological, sexual and physical–but recognizing and penalizing abuses of power is only half the solution. We need a paradigm that recognizes women’s experience and pleasure as equally relevant in all sexual encounters. Until recently, sex from a woman’s perspective has been so marginalized and obscured, it hasn’t even entered the common discourse. For patriarchal hegemony to come to an end, women must overcome their internalized feelings of mental and spiritual inferiority and speak up. A woman must be encouraged to know her own body, her own pleasure and her own story–and then learn to tell it. Only then can she know what yes means, and enthusiastically consent to mutually pleasurable sexual play.

 

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