Further reading

I came across this post and thought it did an excellent job of speaking to other steps men can take to be allies to women and wanted to share because it is so, so good.

 

I particularly appreciated how she articulated the war zone of childhood and adolescence which many women experience, and how men’s desire for power over women and ways men are empowered to act on and enforce that desire shape so much of our early experiences.

 

Powerful.

 

http://www.mediacoop.ca/blog/norasamaran/30866

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A follow up to Thursday’s post….

I’m feeling a little bit overwhelmed (and a tiny bit awkward!) writing this, as this blog has morphed sort of all of a sudden from a personal blog I was tremendously inconsistent in keeping that was read by a small number of my closest friends to- a personal blog I am tremendously inconsistent in keeping that has been read by a much greater number of people.  First, if you are reading this because you read my essay from last Thursday regarding my thoughts about the bottleneck that seems to be happening in the conversation around the culture that women live in and the experience that some men have listening to women talk about this culture, thank you so much for reading that essay.  I’ve been overwhelmed (I know I’ve used that word twice, but it’s the only word that does justice to where I’m at, so I’ll probably just keep using it again) but the volume and intensity of the responses I’ve received- from friends who read the essay after I posted it on facebook, to strangers who commented here (and on other blogs and sites).  I’m grateful that so many people resonate with what I wrote, because it is always, always gratifying to know that you are not alone in your experience.

There are a few questions I’ve gotten over and over, so I just wanted to try to clarify a few points that I was originally trying to make.  Also, I totally welcome comments- I have them moderated, so if you post a comment, I just ask for your understanding that it takes me awhile to get back online to get to comments.  Comments that are disrespectful, rude or seem to me to be derailing the conversation I’ll delete, because there are so many places in the world for that sort of thing, I don’t feel the need to let this blog be one more of them.  (So far, knock on wood, this has been a really minimal issue, so that is awesome.).  Already there are some really thoughtful, interesting, insightful comments that I recommend people go ahead and read.

So, ok, some points of clarification in a q & a format (because I’m a little tired and work tomorrow, it approaches!)

1)  Who is the intended audience for this essay? All men?  Everyone?

When I wrote this essay, inasmuch as I had an intended audience, to me it was a somewhat imaginary audience, as I didn’t really think many people would read it.  In some ways, I wrote this essay just to organize my own thoughts about this subject, so I could be better able to engage with my male friends on this topic when I do so in a one on one (or facebook) setting.  But in as much as I had an audience in mind, it was the men I know  (and men in general) who truly want to be allies to women, but are struggling in responding to the stories that women share in a way that is constructive.   It’s not that I didn’t want to share this with women, but more that I felt what I was writing was going to be more useful for men.  It’s an honor to me that so many women (particularly so many of the women in my personal life, who I just hold in more respect and esteem than I know how to say, and who are incredibly hard, powerful fighters against sexism and injustices all around) read this essay and that it resonated with them and that they shared their thoughts about this with me. But I assumed that what I was writing was stuff that most of the women I know already know or have thought about, and, again, I kind of assumed this would just be a few of my friends and, like, my favorite cousin, who read this.

I definitely didn’t (and don’t) see this essay as directed to all men, though.  This is in some ways a very much notallmen essay :P.  For example, I’m not really seeing this as an essay for men who think misogyny isn’t a problem, who think women have more rights than men, or who actively engage in sexual harassment, violence against women, threats of violence against women, etc.  Basically, this essay isn’t for men who wouldn’t see me as a full human being due to my gender, because why waste my time talking to someone who doesn’t think anything of value can come from my brain?  (And confidentially to the men who tried to comment here whose comments suggest that you fall into that category- the internet is *so full* of things you will enjoy more than this blog.  Go find them. You probably won’t like anything I’m about to write any more than you liked anything I have written already, and life is so short.  Be kind to yourself and go find something that you’ll enjoy more than this.)

2) In your essay, you talk a lot about how men turn to women for emotional support and how that can be problematic when guys need emotional support in supporting women.  I’m a guy who doesn’t do that.  I don’t really get why you wrote this essay.

This essay might not be applicable to you.  I wrote this essay for the people it might be applicable to, out of my experience of men who care about me deeply needing emotional support from me in hearing about things that happen to me.

3) Do you really think that misogyny is caused by male isolation?

Oh no!  I can see how I wasn’t clear in my essay about this at all, and I’m glad that I’ve been called on it!  I don’t think there is one single cause of misogyny, and while I think male isolation and alienation is a contributing factor to some men developing misogyny, and a factor for the ongoing cultural maintenance of misogyny, I ultimately think that male alienation *and* misogyny have their roots in something more deeply rooted and problematic in our culture.  To be clear, I wasn’t trying to write an essay addressing the roots of misogyny, mainly because I think there is just so much that has already been written on that topic that is clear, lucid, brilliant, and better than I could write on my best day.  (But if you are interested in reading about that, let me know and I will happily hook you up with some great essays, articles, books etc.  Just not tonight!)

What I do think is that male isolation is a very serious problem in its own right, and a serious contributor to the problems of unrealistic expectations placed on women, which in turn, I think, contributes to misogyny.

4) You have an lot of suggestions for men.  What do you suggest for women?

Honestly, I don’t have anything to suggest to women.  If I somehow stumbled on a way that women could decrease/eliminate sexual harassment, threats of violence, actual violence, derogatory comments, objectification etc aimed at us, I wouldn’t just be writing about it on a blog- I’d be out there doing it, all the time, every second.

The other thing is that as women, we get *so much advice and instruction* on how to avoid getting raped, how to try to deflect sexual harassment, etc- and I don’t want to contribute to that because I don’t think it’s all that useful and because I think that this is a problem that is not ours to solve.  Most women I know- whether they consider themselves feminists or not- have developed an incredible array of strategies for shielding themselves, protecting themselves, advocating for change, telling their stories, coping with the nonsense thrown at us, healing from the more damaging things- that it feels a little inappropriate to me to start offering advice at large.  And ultimately, we aren’t the ones who are committing the actions that are the problem, so I think it’s time for us to step back from trying to control what isn’t ours to control.

5) You suggest that men who need to process their emotions around all of this do so with other men.  Do you know how hard that is?

Honestly, I don’t, and I get that I don’t. There is a lot about the experience of being a male that I can only guess at from observation, and that piece of it- how men connect emotionally with men- is something that I am not an expert in at all.  But (and again, this essay, and the suggestions contained therein, is offered to men who are struggling to find ways to support the women in their life and hear their stories and not respond in way that is detracting or destructive) hard is not impossible, and I think that part of what men are being asked to do as their part of ending this toxic culture is hard, and going to be hard.  I wish it wasn’t hard for guys, and I hate that it is hard for guys, but- at the end of the day, what other choices do you have if you really are serious about being part of the solution for us besides do some hard work?

That said, I think hard work takes time and I think there is a skillset to be learned and some major bravery involved, and I acknowledge that those things don’t just happen overnight.  I’d really love to hear more from men who have developed close emotional relationships with other men about the steps you’ve taken, what that process is like, how you know which men you can trust to make those connections with.  I think that that could be really valuable to your fellow guys who feel really apprehensive and impossible about all of this?

6) This essay seems to be mostly about heterosexual men, not really about queer men or transgendered men.

So true!  I don’t one hundred per cent feel comfortable with this, but I felt like the essay itself was already just kind of elephantine and needed some limitations on it, so that was one.  I would love to hear  thoughts about how queer and transgendered men navigate male friendships and emotional intimacy, and what kind of struggles you face in supporting women, and whether any of what I wrote rings true for you and, if not, what your experience is.  I also know that queer and transgendered men face a very different landscape than hetersexual men when it comes to sexual violence, objectification, etc.  I just didn’t have time in that essay to explore it all.

7) I have a hard time with your assertion that “women aren’t magic”.  I get you ladies aren’t literally made of stardust and tinkerbells, but from a guy’s perspective, women really are kind of magic, and I’m kind of uncomfortable with you denying that.

This was the number one criticism that I got, both from anonymous people and from men in my life!  Interestingly, this was also an area where I got a lot of “hell yeahs” and amens and affirmation from women (anonymously and in my personal life).  I was a little surprised by this, and I’ve been giving some thought to this and hope to have an essay up by Wednesday about this very topic!

Ok, I think that about covers it.  Thank you so much for folks who have been reading, and for people who have commented and brought up amazing points and questions.  If you haven’t read the comments, I think there are some great conversations going on there!

Sarah O

 

 

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Notallmen/Yesallwomen, secondary trauma and relearning everything for the sake of not killing each other

(Hi again!  I’m basically the least consistent writer ever.  But this is on my mind and I wanted to try to write about it if I could.  Warning: I think I’m pretty frank, and also I swear a fair amount.  Also, I am writing from my perspective, not as a representative of women.  Just as a representative of me.  That said, I make the assumption that a lot of what I have experienced in the realm of sexual harassment/assault/intimidation is pretty across the board for women in my culture.  The #YesAllWomen meme resonates strongly with me).

 

 

Like most of my friends, much of the news, and many of the writers I follow, I’ve been caught up in the terrible, horrible killing spree of Elliot O Roger, his misogynist manifesto, and what this event reflects about our larger cultural reality.  And, like many (much better than me) writers and culture observers, I’ve observed that for women, the response is a kind of quick, frustrated rage while for men the response is a kind of shocked surprise.  Terms like rape culture are being used (or studiously avoided).  And the seemingly diametrically opposed hashtags #NotAllmen and #YesAllWomen have sprung into a kind of intensified existence.

 

Driving home today, all of this reminded me of a conversation I had with a very good (male) friend about a year ago.  We were talking about a local writer we both adore, and discussing her increasingly sharp tone in discussing how women were portrayed in movies and television.  My friend observed that he was growing kind of uncomfortable with how unceasing she was in pointing out the objectification of women, the ritual humiliation, and “the general shittiness” of the movie industry in general.  He observed that as a male, he felt both helpless to change the larger culture and also like he couldn’t participate in the conversations that our female friends were having on these topics without being disruptive.  He also felt like there was an undertone that perhaps all men were being tarred with the same brush.  I remember most his comment that it was all so “depressing and fucking exhausting.”

 

Well. Yes.  Speaking as a woman, it is actually all so depressing and fucking exhausting.

 

I didn’t say that to my friend at the time, because he had reached out to talk to me about this stuff and because I wanted to be supportive, and also because I really did agree with him and felt grateful that he, as a dude who really can chose not to feel all of those sucky feelings, chose to feel them.   In fact, I didn’t even think to say that to my friend- I was really focused on listening to him and supporting him and validating his experiences, and it wasn’t until later in the evening, when I feeling kind of irritated and wasn’t clear why, that I sat down and thought about it and realized that there was a kind of frustrating irony in validating to a guy about how horrible it must feel to listen to the general experiences that I, as a woman, just sort of have learned to deal with.   And then I didn’t say anything to anyone about it, because what was there to say?  Yes, it pretty much sucks that a not small segment of the population sees me essentially as an object whose job is to be pleasing to them, and who thinks it is appropriate to punish me if I fail at that job.  Yes, it sucks that I sometimes come in contact with individuals who compose that segment, and I don’t really get to control when that happens, and yes, it sucks that the experience can range from mildly degrading to physically threatening to bodily harm (and, as we have seen, to death).  And yeah, I can imagine it sucks a whole lot to hear about that.  And in a kind of snarky way, it sort of sucks even to support a friend in their emotional process in hearing about your experience.  But since there didn’t seem to be any value in articulating that thought, and also because it isn’t at all my very good friend’s fault that all of this suckiness exists, I just tried to let it go and move on.

 

But today, driving home, thinking about all of what is going on, and about the conversations I see happening and the conversations I don’t see happening, it occurred to me that there was actually a way I could look at that exchange in a light where it could make sense, and where there could be something productive in talking about it.  And I think it ties in to the larger conversation, and so I’m going to try to do my best.  Here goes.

 

I.) It actually really does hurt to hear painful stories.

 

When I began my master’s program in counseling (sorry, dudes.  This is going to be a counseling reference heavy essay.  Counseling, misogyny, the misdeeds of my cat, getting my house ready for summer visitors and how much I love watching Veronica Mars with my husband- those are basically the major themes  of my life lately, so those be the waters I am drawing from.  You’ve been warned) one of my favorite instructors, a decades long veteran of the field, said again and again to us that the dangers of asking a client to share their stories did not lay in traumatizing the client, but in traumatizing ourselves.  “Your client has already lived through there situation- they’ve survived it enough to tell you about it, so the act of telling isn’t going to hurt them.  But you- you don’t know their situation, you haven’t earned the callouses yet to protect yourself from it.  You are the person who is most likely to be hurt at first.  You have to figure out a way to deal with that.”

These incredibly wise words (thank you, Colin Ward!) are, I think (and experience) powerfully true.  If someone is sharing their story with me in a therapeutic setting, they are a) alive and b) have figured out a way to come to terms, at least partially, with the experience.  They have figured out a way, in any case, to get up and out of their house and dressed and into my office carrying that experience.  They’ve probably done a whole host of things- probably paid some bills, probably held down a job, probably experienced a relationship or friendship or parenthood.  Maybe these things are stressed out- maybe these things are seriously affected- but on some level, unless I am meeting my clients in an acute crisis, inpatient situation, they are managing on some level to move forward with their lives.  They might want to move forward better- they might be still experiencing active pain or limitations- but they are not dead.  They are not totally paralyzed.  They’ve figured out some coping mechanisms.

But me, well, I’m a first time listener, each time.  I can make some educated guesses, but I don’t know what their life has been like and in the process of learning, while it’s always a privilege and an honor and a gift (and while there are *always* strengths in there- always), it’s not always easy.    And some of the things my clients have to tell me- some of them are pretty horrible.  Some of them are dark and intense and make me want to go home, bury myself in my blankets and never get out.  Some  of them make me spend a whole weekend crying.

And a big part of that- a big part of the painfulness of that- is that fundamentally, in the act of listening, I’m putting myself in the helpless position of witness. I’m just experiencing their trauma, but with the added guilt that comes from a) it not being my trauma and b) I’m terribly, terribly helpless about it.

This is not something easy to come to terms with.  Helplessness is not easy.  The pain of another’s story is not easy.  There is no part of being human that wants to just accept pain, and there is no part of the empathetic experience of connecting that wants to not try to fix another person’s pain.  It’s a completely uncomfortable situation devoid of peace.

And when there are imbalances- of race, of class, of any kind of power dynamic, it’s that much more terrible.  If someone is experiencing pain as a result of something where I experience privilege, the desire to run away from it, or to hurry up and patch it up quickly, is that much more intense.  Because not only am I in pain from the sheer injustice of it, I also now have to examine my own relationship to privilege, and it becomes that much harder to be a truly innocent bystander.   (And, frankly, my desire to fix the problem becomes a little suspect- do I want to fix it to ease another’s suffering, or to ease my own discomfort?)

This experience of secondary trauma is not limited to being a therapist.  Basically, any human being who is empathetic and hears the story of another’s trauma can be affected by that experience.  And repeated exposure to the stories of other’s trauma, when not managed, can have a devastating effect-  according the National Child Traumatic Stress Network:

“Secondary traumatic stress is the emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experiences of another. Its symptoms mimic those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Accordingly, individuals affected by secondary stress may find themselves re-experiencing personal trauma or notice an increase in arousal and avoidance reactions related to the indirect trauma exposure. They may also experience changes in memory and perception; alterations in their sense of self-efficacy; a depletion of personal resources; and disruption in their perceptions of safety, trust, and independence.” http://www.nctsn.org/resources/topics/secondary-traumatic-stress

 

So I can only imagine (literally, I can only imagine) how hard it really is when the men in my life- my husband, my brother, my male cousins, my dear friends, my colleagues and classmates- hear about the things that I experience, just in the day to day act of being female.  And I think that I can get the act of telling these things on my part is a lot less painful than the act of listening on theirs.  I mean, telling can be kind of a relief, sometimes!  In telling, I get to share my experience and get support, I get to feel validated and less isolated, and I get to work through my feelings, brainstorm ways to handle situations in the future.  Telling can transform the experience!  (I am a professional listeners of tellers, and my whole goal is to get to the point where the telling becomes a transformative experience!)

 

But listening- and I say this as a professional listener of experience who loves my job- listening is not always nearly as positive to experience.

 

And something else- I’m speaking here as a professional listener, but obviously I’m not always a professional listener.  Sometimes I’m just a lady who wants to hang out with her husband or her friends, or ride the bus in peace, or chill out with the cat after we’ve made a truce and catch up on my Veronica Mars.   And sometimes the people in my life want to talk to me about things because things are happening right then, and I don’t always want to deal with it, but I do want to be a good friend/spouse/sister/daughter/neighbor/person on the bus.  And sometimes (hopefully more than fifty per cent of the time? ) I can set aside my not wanting to be talked to in the moment because, in the grand scheme of things, I really do want to support the people I love.  And sometimes, honestly, I just can’t.  But the point I want to make here is that I think I can safely say I am skilled in listening, and I can honestly tell you it can be painful and overwhelming, at times, when people you care about, regardless of the relationship, tell you hard, horrible things.

 

So let’s go back to my male friend, who is also a really good listener, but hasn’t exactly made that his profession of choice.  And he definitely hasn’t had the experience to learn trauma stewardship, and basically while he is awesome for choosing to hear the stories of the women in his life, he really, validly, actually is being hurt by hearing those stories.  Those stories are weighing him down, making him feel helpless and also kind of defensive, because ok, yeah, all of the women in his life are constantly having all these awful experiences and having to be so cautious and having to be mindful and having to figure out how to say “No” in ten thousand different languages and tones (So, in the immortal worlds of Louis C.K., men don’t kill us)- but *he* isn’t that kind of guy!  He honestly, really, isn’t!  And as much as I know he wants to, he can’t go out and just demolish all the dicks in the world.  It’s just not possible.  And he can’t stand between us and intervene between each of the women he cares about (and, because he is a really good human) all the women he doesn’t even know and each of the men who are jerks.  So all he can do is listen and hear and feel awful and helpless and kind of terrible and kind of awful for being a guy.  Which isn’t helping anyone, and he knows it.  So what else is there to do?

 

Well, he has to tell someone, of course.

 

II) Men and intimacy/Men and isolation

Also last year, I had a conversation with my brother that comes to mind right now.  We were talking about being adults and how relationships change over time.  I was telling him about a study I had read about how health in men is positively correlated to being married, but this is not necessarily the case with women, and also telling him how I thought this had to do with the way that men tend to get most of their emotional needs met in the context of their marriage, while women tend to get their emotional needs met through a web of relationships- with partners, but also with sisters, friends, parents, coworkers, cousins, etc.  We discussed how men with sisters had better long term health outcomes than men without sisters, but, again, women with brothers fared about as well as women without brothers, and we speculated that this is because, again, because women reach out to so many people, but men with sisters have a slightly greater likelihood of a solid and built in emotional connection than men without sisters.  My brother listened to me telling him these studies I’d been reading, and told me that he could see some truth to them.  Anecdotally, while my brother is someone who has some profound and deep relationships with several key, close male friends, he told me he had noticed that over time, he tended to these friendships less than he tended to his relationship with his wife and his children- particularly the friendships with other married men.  On the other hand, he noticed that his wife continued to maintain her close emotional connections to other people- and we shared the experience that we both have, which is that Mamie (my sister in law) and I are much, much more likely to call each other, to email each other, to mail packages to each other, than my brother and I are.  Through no conscious decision, and despite the fact that Luke and I like each other a fair amount and, occasional tension and rivalry aside, enjoy each other’s company, the natural course of things have tended to be that I contact my brother’s wife when I want to get in touch with my brother’s family. When I asked Luke how he felt about this- was he ok with the trend he was observing in his life to put more and more of his emotional eggs in his marriage basket?  Did he miss his male friendships?- my brother reflected that when he talks about it out loud, he isn’t ok with the distance in those relationships,  but in the day to day of things, they really take a lot of work.  And of course he cares about his friends as deeply as he ever has (and, as a witness to my brother’s life, I will attest that he has been luck’s own favorite child when it comes to solid male friendships- some of his friendships stretch back to when he was eleven, and are with amazing, excellent human beings).  It’s just, as he says, in the day to day of it all. You know?

(I mean, totally.  In the day to day of it all, sometimes I can’t even manage the houseplants, let alone maintaining the enduring emotional connections that make up the bulk of my life.  So I totally know, and I bet you do too.)

This bit of anecdotal evidence is hardly unique to my brother’s life experience.  Last year (shortly after our conversation- I’ve always felt that Luke and I were trendsetters of the laziest sort) an article on the subject of male friendship was published in Salon (http://www.salon.com/2013/12/08/american_mens_hidden_crisis_they_need_more_friends/) which discussed the decreasing levels of intimate male-to-male friendships in white, heterosexual men’s lives, which contrasts, in turn, with the high levels of desire for emotionally intimate male friendships articulated by that same group.  The article (which is well worth the read) explores all sorts of reasons why it might be hard for men to intitiate, cultivate and maintain the kind of emotional intimacy which women seem better able to do.   One of the reasons explored in this article- and which *highly* resonates in my own life- is that culturally, it’s simple more accepted (and feels less threatening) for guys to share their intimate selves with woman.  Be they friends or partners, it simply is easier and less stressful and more desirable to most men to share their feeling selves with women, and their fun/thinking/doing selves with other men.

III) But when the person you go to tell things is the person who just told you things….

The problem I am seeing here- the place where this is unraveling- is that for men who are *hearing* about the traumatic experiences of women, and experiencing secondary traumatization over it, where do they go with those feelings?  Who do they talk about their own (totally valid!) emotional reactions to feeling overwhelmed with the things that the women they care about- or just women in general- have to deal with?

Because if the answer is women, things go downhill.

I see the whole #NotAllMen  http://time.com/79357/not-all-men-a-brief-history-of-every-dudes-favorite-argument// #YesAllWomen https://twitter.com/hashtag/YesAllWomen?src=hash as being basically a conversation that plays out this way:

Woman to man:  Here is my experience!

Man: *Listening*

Man (internal dialogue): Holy shit, that is really awful and I feel really bad about it.  I need to go talk to someone about this.  I’ll go to the person that I usually go to to share intimate/emotional aspects of myself.

Man to woman: Hearing this makes me feel really bad!  And now I’m worried about how you think of me!  #NotAllMen are like that! (Importantly, I’m not!)

Woman (internal dialogue): Wow, I just shared a part of myself and my experience and now this guy expects me to help him feel better about the experience of listening to me?  And also seems to be devaluing the integrity of what I’m telling him?

Woman to man: Fuck off.  Seriously. For Real. #YesAllWomen.

Back to talking about secondary trauma- there was an outstanding, outstanding article last year in the LA Times about how to support people who were grieving.   This article is one you’ve probably seen- it showed up on my Facebook page with strong verbal “YES!” fistbumps by friends who had lost children to miscarriages, friends who were seeing their parents through the last stages of cancer, friends who were going through divorces, friends who lost loved ones to suicide- basically people going through really difficult processes of loss were resonating strongly to this article.  My therapist and social worker friends were also passing it around, as very valuable reminders for how we work with people who are grieving.  If, by some chance, you were absent from social media the month of April in 2013 and you missed the article, I’ll put it right here and strongly encourage you to read it, because it is fantastic and brilliant:

 

http://articles.latimes.com/2013/apr/07/opinion/la-oe-0407-silk-ring-theory-20130407

While I don’t mean to say that the fact of being a woman is any more grief filled than the fact of being a man, I do think that  the notion of circles is extremely helpful in the conversations where women are sharing with men what their experiences are when it comes to being a woman and being harassed/intimidated/sexualized/preyed upon for not conforming to the desires of men.   Women are at the center of that experience.  The emotional energy/listening/comfort moves to the women. Not because we are weak, or because we can’t handle the stuff we are telling you.  I basically assure you, given that are choices are a) deal with it or b) cease to exist, if we are telling you our experiences, we’ve figured out a (however imperfect) way of coping. But simply because in the act of telling you, we are asking for you to listen and witness our experience.  End stop.  And if you are a man who is listening, then, as overwhelming as it feels to you, you are not in the center ring.  The men who are listening are in the next ring.  Just by listening, they are being supportive and doing exactly what they need to do.  Just by listening.

That’s it. Listening.

But!  Of course, if you are a guy listening and being overwhelmed by what you are hearing, you absolutely need to go talk to someone.  One hundred percent yes.  That is the right thing.
Just (and, in my opinion, this is pretty critical, and also, if this could happen, could be pretty seriously transformative:)

 

IV) If you are a man who is becoming upset/depressed/overwhelmed/hopeless/defensive when you listen to the women in the world/your life talk about their experiences, you need to talk about it.  With another man.

 

I really, really mean this.  Not to complain about how crazy or uptight women are, please.  (I mean, personally, I don’t think that would help you or me very much at all).  But you absolutely need to talk to another guy.  A guy you are friends with and who you trust is ideal.  And if you don’t have that kind of guy in your life- and, seriously, you are not alone in that area- then you have the very hard, critical work of figuring out how to make that kind of friendship ahead of you.  If you are feeling a restless helplessness over all of this, that can be your challenge.  Because I think as women we really, really need you to form those relationships.  We really, really need you to have an emotional connection to each other.   And we need to know you guys can turn and talk each other through these hard things and support each other while you support us.

And if you are a guy who has already figured this out- if you’ve already figured out the circle thing and the male friendship and intimacy thing and how to be supportive of women thing- then my personal challenge to you is to go and find the guys in your world who haven’t totally made this connection, and pull them into your circle.  Mentor them.  Teach them how to do what you’ve figured out to do.  Seriously, I can’t do that.  Your girlfriends and lady friends and moms and sisters and classmates and bosses can’t do that.  But you can, and that is absolutely invaluable.

 

Which brings me to a not altogether linear, but somewhat related, point:

V) Women are not magic.

 

This is the other thing that has been bothering me since Friday, when I read about the killings and then spent some disastrous time on Saturday reading Elliot Rogers screed.   His seemingly dark faith that, somehow, if only a desirable woman would have sex with him, he would suddenly, magically be happy (I mean, beyond the moment of sex itself) just reminded me of ways in which women have simultaneously seemed to be granted dark, mysterious powers of happiness and wellness granting (particularly to men!) which then absolutely need to be controlled (by men!).  This grated uncomfortably with my own personal experience- like the time in college when a lonely guy from my freshman English class began sending me unsolicited stanzas of poetry, and when I tried to politely explain that I appreciated his poetry but wasn’t interested in him romantically, transitioned to daily emails of short stories in which I experienced horrible (and painstakingly graphicly depicted) tortures to rectify the suffering  I was putting him through by refusing to date him.  This was so bizarre and irritating to me that I sat him down and asked him, in all seriousness, if he really wanted me to date him if I wasn’t interested in him, and was told that, well, how dare I not be interested in him?  Didn’t I see how much my rejection was hurting him?  How dare I do that when I could make him *so* happy?

I won’t go on.  I feel like nearly every woman I know has some version of this story- of a guy who sort of imagines that she somehow holds the key to his happiness, and her refusal to provide that goes against some kind of natural law, and hell is to be paid.  I have multiple versions of this story to tell, but it’s frankly not all that interesting to me.  What is interesting to me- and what I really  think needs to be explicitely laid out- are the following basic truths:

 

1) Women are not magic.  Having sex with us will not cure a man’s problems.  Dating us will not cure a man’s problems.

2) Not only are we not magic, but we weren’t created to be magic.  It’s not a design flaw or a refusal on our part if a woman is not interested in any given man or (particularly) able/willing/interested in solving the problems of his life through dating/sex/attention.  It’s not a design flaw if we are dating/sexually involved/adoring of guy and he still has problems.  We weren’t designed to fix them.

3) That said, just as, culturally, men have been trained to wield power confidently, to move through public spaces with some assurance that their genitals won’t be touched and to channel emotions into lust and aggression, women have been trained, culturally, to be emotionally sensitive, to be good listeners, and to be comforting.  So it makes sense to me that some men see us as magic.  (Heavens, as the absolutely amazing article “Your Princess is in Another Castle” beautifully points out, men were raised to see us as magic!  As magic prizes to be won!  And on some level, we women have been raised to see ourselves this way as well.  Observe: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/05/27/your-princess-is-in-another-castle-misogyny-entitlement-and-nerds.html) And it makes sense to me that more men see us as a really good place to explore their own emotions around discovering what our cultural experiences are around sex and violence, for those same reasons.

4) But ultimately, we aren’t magical.  We’ve been trained to make connections in ways men haven’t, but, just as women have been learning how to negotiate male space and take on male roles and learn to do the things that men are taught to do in our culture, men completely have the capacity to make empathic connections with each other, to tend to their own valid, complex emotional processes, and to basically make themselves happy (or, as is the case with most women I know, at least baseline emotionally ok.)

And, finally:

VI) Women need men to do this.

Ultimately, I think this is true.  Women need men to learn how to be emotionally connected to other men.  We need men to learn how to draw emotional support and nurturing from other men.  Not to do that in absence of us, but in addition to us.  Because men being isolated and lonely- it really, really is killing us.

Men and women, it is really killing us.

So, my dear beloved very important to me guy friends- first of all, thank you for listening.  I mean that.  Listening is hard and crucial, and when you listen without being defensive it is a huge gift.  Thank you.  And second, when you are wondering to yourself- what can I do?  What should I do?  Please, don’t ask me.  I can’t fix this or tell you how to fix it.  I am not the one with that kind of leverage.  But I have a feeling that you can make a serious start by finding another man and being honest and open with them about what it means to be male in this culture, and what it means to be female, and what you’ve heard from the women in your life.  I think that can be really, really powerful.

Thanks for reading this.

 

Sarah O

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Day 5: Un-perfect bodies.

Hello everyone!  This is a two-fer kind of day.  I didn’t get a chance to post what I wrote on Saturday, so there is that (a tiny little bit of fiction.  Fiction is so frustratingly hard to write, and this was just a toe dipped in a story). Today’s prompt is “my not perfect body”, which I spent a lot of time thinking about yesterday, so here goes:

Yesterday was my birthday!  I turned 35 and spent the day clambering around the Puget Sound with my husband.  We walked along the receding shoreline, chasing the tide out, and climbed a cliff and scaled some bridges and trudged through mud and ferns.  The sky was riddled with clouds and light, and there was water everywhere, splashed on sand, running in rivulets and sprays along down the bluff.  Out of every stoic trunk and clutch of rocks there peeped and sprung and unfurled all the shades of green a person could ever hope to see.

Mike is in a lot better shape, so there were stretches when I was struggling, clambering, huffing and puffing to catch up to him.  This has always been the case between us.  He plays basketball three times a week and rides his bike everywhere and just generally lives fully in his body.  I take my exercise sporadically- I get really into something (yoga, belly dancing, basketball, hiking, swimming) for awhile and it consumes me, but then my regular somewhat more sedentary pursuits (writing, reading, sewing, drawing, sitting with a cat on my lap) demand my attention and I go back to a fairly minimal physical life.  I’ve never been very interested in competitive sports or even all that interested in exercise for the sake of exercise, and so over time the cumulative effects of my general anemic interest in moving + an increasingly sedentary career+ a deep appreciation for food have left me pretty out of shape.

At this point, I feel like what is expected is that either I defend my body as perfect and fine as is, or I write about the deep shame of being an overweight woman.  But neither of those would be true to my experience.

First, I don’t feel a lot of shame about my body.  It would be great if it moved a little easier, and I certainly could take better care of it, but I like my body.  I like the places it’s taken me, the experiences it has allowed me to have.  I liked being a young twenty-something woman whose body was slender and sexy and I like being a thirty five year old woman who body is solid and soft and still sexy.  I like that I get to live a life that allows me to have experienced both, to be honest.

I like being inside my body when I’m paying attention to how great it feels to move and stretch and take deep breaths.  I like being inside of my body when I’m paying attention to how amazing it feels to drink the first sip of coffee in the morning, or to share a bowl of ice cream with Mike after a crazy long day.  I like sitting with the cat in my lap, or stretching out on a blanket outside under a tree.  I like my body held by Mike’s when we fall asleep, and I like the way  sun hits my face or cold water shocks my fingers or how I get a tiny bit giddy going fast downhill.

I like the things my body has taught me.  Having never had a very perfect body- having always been the slowest in gym class, the clumsiest on the dance floor- my body has taught me about limits and empathy and that worth is not contingent on being beautiful.  Growing into myself in a body that is composed of baby-fat knees and stubby fingers and a ridiculously round face, I’ve had the chance to, first hand, find out how distorted and mythical a lot of the received truths we get about what it means to feel good or be desirable or be happy.  At my absolute thinnest, I was also the most deeply unhappy in my life.  I wasn’t thin because I was unhappy, and I wasn’t unhappy because I was thin.  These two conditions just happened to exist at the same time, and that taught me something valuable about that particular myth.  Corrolarrily, though my life contains a lot of craziness and unknowns, I think I have more consistently joyful, forgiving, kind and hilarious days now than at any point in my life- and I certainly am the fattest I’ve ever been.  And that has taught me something valuable as well.

At the very end of the day, I want to climb higher and run faster and farther; I want to always be excited and curious about the world, and what is just beyond any next corner.  I want to touch all the leaves with the back of my hand and the tips of my fingers, and to cradle flowers and sand dollars in my palm, and to jump because I am happy and to be fearless in my exploration.  But at the end of the day too, I want to be around people (like my husband) who appreciate that I have things to offer other than speed and a slim silhouette, and who love my body because it contains all of me- the beautiful and the weird and the ugly and the gentle and the funny and the ridiculous.

And I only want to do these things in this body of mine, this me-ness.  In this shape whose imperfections make the moments of balance and grace and speed and strength feel that much more miraculous, that much more dear.

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Day 4: “Start a story (fiction)”

Today’s prompt is: Fiction!  Start a short story!  This is kind of a cheat, it’s cribbed from notes which are in turn cribbed from a character from a story I wrote almost ten years ago.  But it’s the day before my birthday and I am kind of cheating a little.

The sign said:

First, the feet.

Well, Ellia thought, actually, not first the feet.  Not first the feet at all, not in any meaningful adult sense, not as Ellia experienced it. For Ellia, the world was something she experienced first in her head- through her eyes and ears, an onslaught of it all coming at her at once, and then later in the privacy of her room, or in a car filled with people and Ellia pushed to the side, her face against the window, eyes tracking the landscape that moved past without talking, without making a single intelligible communication, Ellia would try to take all that noise and jarring pieces and make sense of it in her head.

It had been years ago- and only a few years  into her adult hood when- (the precise moment involved standing in front of a mirror in the bathroom of a man who wasn’t her husband, completely naked, tracing the outline of her own body in the reflection, feeling a sense of unfamiliarity that was disorientating in it’s completeness)- it occurred to Ellia that there was this whole range of experiences she was missing, this whole literal body of knowing she was cut off from. Standing in the mirror, she had looked at her whiteish red skin, and the dark speckling places- over her collarbone, across the back of her neck- where this man who was not her husband had left his markings, the night before.  Ellia investigated them, this miscolorings, and was unable to tell if what she felt was pleasure or shame, delight or grief. Sunlight from a young and hopeful sky filtered through the window, which was scummy from dirk, and half covered with an old quilt. Ellia was composing sentences in her head, jotting it down, this act, this transgression, and she could tell that the sentences had a beauty to them, a precision, and she could tell that someone would read them and catch their breath, stumbling on something that rang true for them; but she could not tell if these sentences were true for her.  She had sat down on the bed then, listening to the man in the other room; he was fussy about his clothes, he cleared his throat repeatedly in the morning, and tried up some basic sentences.  I love him. I hate him. He means nothing to me. He loves me. He hates me.  The blanket below her gave her warmth and softness. Ellia felt it radiate up through her, a gentle holding of her nakedness, her total lack of dignity, and seized on it, sitting still, letting herself, marginally, sink into that warmth, that softness.  She listened to the  man in the other room finish his preparations, listened to him shout a brief goodbye, listened to the rattle of a chair as he grabbed his backpack from it and slung it over his shoulder, and listened to the shook of the door hitting the frame. Then she sat for a minute longer, tracing her finger over her thigh. The whole room seemed dirty to her, as if something inky-black had been smudged everywhere, and she knew that she wouldn’t be returning.  All of these sentences, so pretty in my head, she thought to herself.  All of these sentences, but all I know for sure is this blanket feels nice beneath my body, and I think I’m kind of a fucking mess.

That was years ago.  She’d left that house that morning, committed to getting out of her own head.

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Day 3: Topic- Yoga

(Ok guys, just a heads up.  I’m starting this at ten pm after a busy buy kind of crazy day, and while I’m not tired exactly, I might be in that so tired I don’t even feeling stage, which usually lends itself to some crazy stuff.  So, you know, this might be a little bit bumpy or incoherent or really, really boring.  I don’t even know what’s going to happen.  Just so we are clear.)

A couple of months ago, I was feeling really down on myself for not being more physically active, and Mike asked me if there was anything he could do to support me in my goal of just getting up and moving more.  Not one to let an opportunity like that slide, I asked if we could attend yoga weekly and go for a hike once a month and Mike, not being one who makes offers in vain,  agreed, and so we’ve been attending yoga classes weekly since January.

 

The yoga class is an all level class held in the neighborhood across the river from us, in a studio above a tavern, overlooking a railyard to the west, a plane test field to the south and a series of brick buildings and little courtyards to the north.  The sky always seem grey and thick with water on Saturday mornings, and the air is always chilly, but J, our yoga instructor, welcomes us with lit candles, soothing music and an almost surreal attitude of welcoming calm.

I’ve done yoga off and on for years, and while I’m not good at it in any sense of the world, I know the poses well enough to follow.  J begins in starting off focusing on our breathing, settling into ourselves and dedicating our practice to someone or something outside of ourself to whom we feel grateful. Initially, that felt a little bit hokey, but I do like gratitude a lot, and I’ve started to really look forward to this part of yoga- the time to settle into the rhythm of my own breathing and quiet down that chattering part of my brain that composes to-do lists like there was some kind of Olympic Medal in to-do listing at stake, and to see who raises to the surface of my awareness, who I owe a debt of gratitude to, whose strength or kindness or grace I have been leaning on, knowingly or not. Usually it’s mom mom or my omma or my cousin Jessica or my Aunt Jeanine, but sometimes it’s Mike and sometimes its a client and sometimes it’s something just kind of general and hard to put into words, like “that color in the sky the other day” or “the dj who played that amazing song on the way home last night” or “people who are really, really patient with people I have no patience for”. Anyway, whatever or whoever it is, that process of quieting myself down to see them is powerful.

J leads us through the poses.  He is a big believer in making yoga sneaky-hard.  I start out spending forever on breathing and sort of relax into it, then all of the sudden, without me even knowing about how we got there, we are  doing crazy balance and strength poses that seem to defy both gravity and my own innate lack of athleticism.  At this point, whoever I have dedicated that day’s practice to becomes incredibly relevant.  I picture my grandmother’s eyes twinkle as she sort of laughingly encourages me on, and I see my bad ass cousin’s calm and expectant face, and I hear my mom’s words urging me on, and I picture that beautiful color that didn’t quit, and I don’t want to let them down, any of them, even if I now hate yoga.   It becomes very very important to me to offer this up to them, even though the people in my life are filled with grace and, where I to just collapse in an exhausted huddle, they’d encourage me to drink some water, calm my breathing down, and try again next time.

 

So sometimes I soldier through and sometimes I modify what I’m doing and sometimes I just hang out in child’s pose.  But the entire time, nothing feels wasted.  Nothing feels like quitting or disappointment.  I return to my breathing.  I return to my breathing again.

There are times in yoga when simply the change in perspective is enough.  Just the fact that my body is doing something so far from what my body is used to doing is a kind of pleasure, a kind of play or makebelieve.  Sometimes a pose involves a stretch or a movement or a way of balance that feels inside of me like wind or water or music, and I cherish that, cherish that glimpse of what it would be like to live in my own body more.

Sometimes the room is filled with the sound of labored breathing, exhalations that sound like gratitude and pleas all at once, and that is a sustaining thing too- to hear that honest bodily response to effort and difficulty, the doubt implicit even as the next breath is drawn. Sometimes we chant the chakras together, and even though I can never really do half of them, I love the way the sound opens us all up, aligns us to each other.  I love the sensation of being in tune with everyone in the room, for this moment.  I love the echoes inside of me.

At the end, when we lay on the floor and J covers us with blankets and walks quietly among us, the most amazing, communal silence covers us too, and we exist in it. This period of time always feels like an eternity that doesn’t last long enough, and when we come out of it it always feels to me like waking from a dream.  Like slipping back into my regular every day self, who runs things efficiently but doesn’t spend enough time contemplating her breathing, enough time synchronizing with the beautiful vowels exhaled by the world all around her.

 

41 minutes.

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Day Two: So a crazy thing happened at the bank the other day…

Recently I left one job to start another.  Because I don’t really like lingering in states of abeyance, I gave myself exactly one day in between my end date and start date, during which time I planned on taking care of the sort of tasks that just get neglected in a rich and fulfilling life, like getting a hair cut and changing the oil in my car.  (Ha ha.  In truth, even during the periods of my life when what is going on is Facebook and an obsessive re-watching of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I still can rarely be bothered with car or hair maintenance. I will probably be reincarnated as a very irate mechanic.  Or a much neglected wig).

Another item on my to-do list was to go to the bank, which is generally a pretty straightforward, even pleasant, experience.  The tellers at my local branch are all extremely polite, kind of young woman and men who giggled when my husband used to write me checks out of a hello kitty checkbook (fact!), always find something pleasant to say about my appearance (once it was “your cheeks look so scrubbed!”) and blink a lot.  I kind of adore them.  I also like going to a bank that is frequented by a white haired aristrocratic looking lady who literally clutches her pearls as she attends to business, day laborers, immigrants of all nationalities, and many, many taxi drivers.  It’s like the economic United Nations of banking, and I like to go in and think that the meager money I’ll be passing over for the tender caretaking of the earnest, youthful tellers will mix and mingle with the fruits of labor and wise pre-birth choices of parents alike. A melting pot of an entirely different sort, even as we live out our separate and segregated human lives.

So, because I am a pretty simple person who has apparently decided that renting for life and avoiding car ownership are the keys to happiness (so far, yes!), my banking needs are usually basic and handled within minutes.  Sometimes the tellers try to give my life tips like “Seriously, maybe you might want to eat out less?” or “Have you ever considered getting a job that actually pays you money, like, for real?” (which I kid you not are pieces of advice these tellers, or their youthful forbears, have offered me over the years.  Which I love.  These 22 year olds are probably right about a lot of things, and I appreciate that they tend to take me under their wings), but mostly even that is brief and things go well and I leave and go on with my day.

Yesterday, it all started pretty well.  When I got to the bank, I was feeling kind of rushed because I did have a hair appointment scheduled at a place that is sort of geeky-trendy (they sell endless loop decorative scarves with Star Wars prints along side some seriously sexy platform shoes and long flowy dresses with Octopus tentacles screen printed on them), and while I knew my normcore outfit  (this is a new word I learned this week. Normcore.  It is a word that describes a new hip trend amoung people for who new hip trends are a thing, and it means that a person is choosing to dress “aggressively normal”.  I am not sure, but I suspect this is the one and only fashion trend I can legitimately say that I am a pioneer in.  I am one aggressively normal dresser!) and rapidly assembled ponytail wasn’t going to be impressing anyone, I hoped to at least demonstrate my commitment to exploring fashionable styles by showing up on time.  So I was relieved to see that there were two tellers and three people ahead of me.  Awesome!  A cinch! Total in and out and on with the rest of my day.

Nope.

Directly ahead of me, there was a very adorable older couple.  Maybe you know this about me, but I used to work as a case manager for seniors who were disabled or otherwise struggling with independence, and then later I worked as a case manager for the family care givers of seniors who were trying to make it so their loved one can stay home.  While a lot of that work wasn’t my cup of tea, the ability to occasionally spend time with people who had spent a life figuring out how to live together and be devoted to each other was a powerful, amazing, humbling experience, and whenever I am out and about and I see an older couple patiently leaning in to each other, helping each other along, I feel touched, and also immediately they get all my attention.  This couple talked to each other quietly in whispers, moved very very slowly, and the gentleman of the pair (this was a male/female coupleship) carried what looked like a battered woman’s purse, a huge shapeless kind of fake black leather thing like the sort of thing a mom with young kids might carry with her to tote around a small portion of her household.

When it was their turn, the couple moved together to the teller’s window.  The gentleman hefted up the purse, which kind of seemed to be heavy to him, and out poured out stacks and stacks of banded together hundred dollar bills.

I mean stacks and stacks.  I mean, they overflowed off of the window shelf and onto the floor, and the teller looked shocked (and I was shocked, and also was like “oh my gosh, this is a real thing that actually happens?” and also like “have I ever seen this much money at one time before? ” (answer: no)) and the gentleman said something and then the lady said something and it became immediately clear that they did not speak English.

So we have two bank tellers, a gigantic and uncomfortable amount of cash, and two very frail, whispering elderly people who don’t speak English.  And me, watching this from a respectful distance, trying to be circumspect. (Again, not ever having been around a large pile of money, but my general sense is that the etiquette is to maybe pretend it isn’t there?  Or at least pretend that you have absolutely no knowledge or awareness that it’s there? Seriously, if someone knows the agreed upon decorum in this situation, let me know! ) .

The tellers tried to ask questions, like “Do you have an account here?” and “Is this your money?” and also, but really more aimed at each other, and less a verbalized thing and more a sort of shared air between them, “What the fuck?” But the couple just kept pointing to the money, which was clearly the salient feature in the experience but also really the one feature which everyone got.  Everyone got that there was a fricking huge pile of money in the middle of the room.  The couple seemed pretty serene, and also possibly used to young people tragically not understanding them.  The tellers were kind of tag teaming this situation, and it became pretty clear to me that I had nothing to offer by way of a pressing claim on anyone’s time, and also that a hair cut, and possibly a few days of looking like the sort of woman who knows how to manage the top of her head, were beckoning.  So I kind of quietly just sort of backed away and then sort of gently tiptoed out (I don’t know why, but I felt very, very weird drawing attention to myself.  Almost like I was trespassing or something?).  And one of the tellers noticed me and followed me to the door and after it shut behind me she locked it and that was kind of that.

But obviously, that *isn’t* really that at all.  Because, guys, what is going on?  Was that their life’s savings, which one day for reasons not explained they decided to just- rehouse?  Was this something they found in a lot behind their house?  Was this the result of drug deals?  Money laundering? Extortion of their grandkids? A life time of winning bingo at the local parish? Tips? A grand heist? Was this a good thing or a bad thing?  Were they trying to just make a deposit?

Whatever it was, they didn’t seem flustered or unhappy, so I can only conclude that this is just a day in the life of this extraordinary couple.  You get up, you put on your dentures and find your tri-focals, you stretch out the aches and pains, you negotiate into clothing and you hold the hand of your beloved and you take a gigantic bag of cash out into the world and you see how it goes.

Mazel tov, dear couple who blew my mind yesterday.  I hope the beginning and the ending of that story was/will be as incredible of the tiny little sliver of the middle I got to see.

Thank you for reading!

43 minutes (give or take, I had to deal with an anxious cat).

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