I Am No Shrinking Violet

My mother has a saying, “She’s no shrinking violet.” In other words, she’s strong, assertive, outspoken. My parents didn’t raise shrinking violets, not one among us.

My parents raised me to speak my mind. I was a precocious child who often surprised adults with what I had to say. I remember their amusement. I remember them listening. I enjoyed chatting with adults when I was child.

My parents raised me to be an adventurous eater. We ate everything from wheat germ to big fluffy white-flour pancakes on Saturdays. At restaurants we ordered from the menu–no kid’s menu for us–and usually cleaned our plates. Our appetites were not policed.

My parents raised me to make my own decisions. I grew up with reasonable restrictions but great privilege. They didn’t spoil. We didn’t have TVs in our bedrooms or an excess of toys. My parents focused on experiences. We had only to express our interest in something–violin, horseback riding, summer camp in another state–and my parents made it happen. They did not impose their preferences upon us. They allowed our individual ideas, talents, and proclivities to guide us.

My parents, by their example, made it easier for me to parent my own child.  (Try not repeating the patterns of your parents; it is surprisingly challenging.)

My parents’ values run counter to a culture that says women are not equal to men. A culture that says women shouldn’t be outspoken or make anyone uncomfortable with our words. A culture that says we should check our tone of voice. Women shouldn’t have big appetites. We shouldn’t be too big or too tall. We shouldn’t take up space. Women shouldn’t disagree (especially with men) or be disagreeable.

Despite being raised by progressive, supportive parents, the culture did its work on me. I absorbed the messages and I bought into them. Over the years, my voice became quieter. I second-guessed myself. I never felt attractive enough or thin enough or small enough. I couldn’t squish myself into the box assigned to me no matter how hard I tried.

Sometimes these impossible standards for women are communicated to us directly, but more often they come in the form of microaggressions, small, subtle, often unconscious actions and words that marginalize us and serve to reinforce gender stereotypes. From Everyday Feminism:

Microaggressions are a result of internalized biases, presumptions, and stereotypes about marginalized people and groups. They consist of the things you might even know not to be true, but that have been so thoroughly reinforced by our culture that they occasionally (and unintentionally) leak out into our everyday lives through our actions and words.

But, even if you have good intentions and don’t mean something “in that way,” microaggressions are still insidious. Even in their subtlety, all those “unintentionally” sexist comments and actions gradually build upon each other — and they sting.

In the end, they reinforce the problematic societal structures…And that is exactly why you need to listen when somebody calls you out instead of fixating on whether or not you love women or are a feminist.

Microaggressions create hostile environments at home, in the workplace, or in social settings by serving as a constant reminder of their inequitable position in society. They casually put people “back into their place” by reinforcing prescribed gender norms and their shadow of inequality.

They validate a culture where women still make less than the average man doing the same work, and that women of color make even less than white women. They perpetuate the undervaluing of domestic work because of it’s association with femininity. They even prod us to evaluate if our own bodies are up to par with what society deems to be acceptable.

For most of my life, I’ve absorbed these microaggressions with bitten tongue. I’ve pretended not to hear them. That changed when I gave birth to my daughter. Now those microaggressions ring loudly in my ears. I’ve observed just how early they begin–from birth. I’ve had to confront (and continue to confront) the ways I’ve bought into and participated in our culture of inequality. I’ve had to call myself out. And I’ve begun to call out others. Because raising my voice is a catalyst for change. Because I will not remain silent when it comes to my child.

If you call out a microaggression, bring what’s shadowy and insidious into the light, you may be met with open aggression or hostility. You may be gaslighted. You may be told you didn’t hear what you heard, that your memory is inaccurate, that it was intended to be positive, that you’re “making a big deal out of nothing.” On the other hand, you may be met with open-mindedness, a doorway to discussion, an opportunity for change.

While I can’t control the culture, I can set clear and firm boundaries around the interactions people have with my toddler. I can and will call out sexist microaggressions. I want my daughter to know her value lies not in her appearance but her capabilities. I want her to know she be can whoever she wants to be. She is entitled to take up space, eat what she likes, dress how she likes. She is entitled to follow her heart and speak her mind.

My parents did not raise a shrinking violet, and neither will I.

(Post 282 of 365)







Choose Your Own Adventure

My friend T and her ’86 Volvo, Chit (after Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) on a stretch of highway somewhere in the southwest.
I used to wish I was from the Midwest, where people speak in gentler tones and kindly turns of phrase. When I was young, I thought it would be fun to be in TV commercials and wished we lived in California, preferably Hollywood. After spending a week in the waves on Block Island, I thought it would be romantic to live in an isolated community out in the middle of the sea. I was always dreaming of somewhere else.

Even now, I imagine different places, different lives. Like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. If you want to follow the path into the woods, turn to page 61. If you want to venture into the cave, turn to page 21.

And that’s as far as I got this morning when I began this post, before the day spooled out in ten different directions. Certain items on my list resist being checked-off, mainly those that require sustained attention, like writing my friend T a letter for her 40th birthday, which was a month and a half ago. Determined to finish and mail it, I wrote the letter in scraps of time throughout the day.

I started to write about our road trip, the one we’d always dreamed of as little girls. We played her dad’s 60s records, Joe Cocker, The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, and imagined driving out to California in a VW bus. As it turned out, we chugged along in her ’86 Volvo over the course of a month from New Mexico through Arizona to southern Cali, camped in Joshua Tree. In San Diego a friend took us across the border to Rosarita and Tijuana. Then we headed up through Cali. L.A., the Pacific Coast Highway, the Redwood Forest, Yosemite, Death Valley. Then we cut back in to Las Vegas, Zion National Park in Utah, past Shiprock and back home to Santa Fe.

I know, I’m listing all the places and skipping the stories. But anyway, I was writing memories to her like, remember when we drove away with the book of CDs on the roof of the car in Joshua Tree and lost all our music? Think about that for a minute. A month on the road, desolate highway stretches with no radio signal–and when I say signal I mean antenna. We had one cassette tape, a 70s disco mix from college, and damn if disco doesn’t still make me think of winding our way around the sharp curves of Pacific Coast Highway at night.

And then I wrote, remember how we read Barbara Kingsolver out loud in the tent at night by flashlight or in the car on those afternoons the road seemed to go on forever?  We read Small Wonder, and I want to say we had The Bean Trees along with us, too. Or maybe I’m just remembering The Bean Trees because we both loved it so much as teenagers. Either way, I’d forgotten all about Kingsolver and reading aloud to each other until I began writing her that letter. That’s the funny–and magical–thing about writing. You can have an idea about what you’re going to say, an idea about what you think you remember, but when you set pen to paper, you will surprise yourself every time.

Backcountry in Zion, hiking to “The Subway.”
Inside “The Subway,” where the monoliths meet and form a tunnel with pools of icy blue-green water. Just as I slipped, T rescued me. There is another story here, the one about the person who took this photo, a man our age named John who we happened to meet the night before in the pitch black, all of us gathered with a group of astronomers and massive telescopes. I saw the red ring around Saturn, crisp and clear. John had just arrived and had nowhere to camp. We told him he could camp at our site for the night. In the morning we saw his pick up with the custom cabin he’d built himself. It was outfitted with gear and functioned as both a bunk and storage. He decided to venture with us into the backcountry. No trails except for the odd cairn, no park rangers. A 700-ft drop into the canyon and up a rocky, winding river. In his pack, John had a water purifier and iodine drops, and throughout our trek, he pumped and purified water for all three of us. There was no way to carry all the water we needed for an 8-hour hike, and without him, I suspect we would’ve gulped river water and hoped for the best.
(Post 253 of 365)

I’m with Her

During the primary I could #feelthebern on issues like healthcare, paid family leave, corporate welfare, the cost of higher education, and GMO labeling. But when I got to my polling station, I felt torn. Because how could I not vote for the first madam president?

We think we’ve come so far, that we can do anything, be anything, even if it means getting paid 78% of our male counterparts’ paycheck; 64% if you’re African American and 56% if you’re Latina.

Then I’ll stumble onto an article like this one. Author Catherine Nichols hadn’t been getting much of a response to her new manuscript and decided to conduct an experiment. She sent out her query letters under the male pseudonym, George Leyer, and received almost nine times more manuscript requests. “Even George’s rejections were polite and warm on a level that would have meant everything to me, except that they weren’t to the real me. George’s work was ‘clever’, it’s ‘well-constructed’ and ‘exciting.’ No one mentioned his sentences being lyrical or whether his main characters were feisty.”

Of course that’s nothing compared to the news item circulating almost nonstop on all my social media feeds, the Brock Turner case. Hail the victim and her courageous letter. Hail Buzzfeed for publishing it. This letter goes viral and still, Brock Turner will maybe serve 3 months in jail. For raping an unconscious woman. People are posting about this all over Facebook, well-intentioned people who want to shame Brock and support the victim. Except even the well-intentioned are so conditioned to rape culture, they don’t see it when it’s right in front of them. Like a woman in my feed who shared a post by a white man, a post intended to support the victim, that begins, “I’ve been drunk many times, even in the presence of promiscuous women…” and I get that far when my brain goes STOP. Here we are. Here’s where it begins. With a word like promiscuous, an adjective ascribed solely to women. As if promiscuity belongs only to us. As if promiscuity has anything to do with rape. I should probably comment on this stuff, but I remain fairly quiet on Facebook. I “like” family photos and wish people happy birthday. But lately, I feel my voice rising in my throat, difficult to suppress.

When I entered the Twitterverse this morning, and I saw the words “History Made” with Hillary Clinton’s picture, I thought, YES! I’m with HER. Let’s break that last glass ceiling. Let’s show my daughter that she really can do anything, be anything, even hold the highest office in the nation. It is time.

Time to Celebrate Hilary Clinton’s Victory (and Get Ready for the Backlash), Jane Caro

“Women have very little idea of how much men hate them.” – Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch

“According to the people keeping score, arithmetic dictates that Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic candidate for the 2016 Presidential election. It is all over bar the shouting.

Trouble is, the shouting will go on … and on … and on … for as long as Clinton insists she has the right to contest the Presidency. If she wins, no matter by how much or how little, she will continue to have to fight for her right to be President – as did her predecessor, certainly in his first term. But, for her, the shouting will not stop. Not ever.

She must know this. People have been shouting at her since she first appeared in the public arena. She has been vilified, ridiculed, insulted, dismissed, scorned, demonized, shamed, belittled, defeated, betrayed, interrogated and investigated (and investigated and investigated and investigated) for decades now.

She had a tiny moment in the sun when – after she had conceded defeat to Barack Obama in 2008 and become his secretary of state – she suddenly morphed from shrill Hillary whom no one likes to funky Hillary with her blackberry (and even that has come back to bite her). We love a woman who puts herself second but woe betide a woman who dares to put herself first.

Many women will allow themselves a moment to celebrate Clinton’s claim of victory. Some of us will gird our loins and do so publicly and unapologetically in the full and certain knowledge that we will be lambasted, patronized, lectured (and endlessly mansplained) for being so bold. We will be told that we are only supporting Clinton because she is a woman (unlike men, who apparently cannot “see” gender and never vote for a man because he is a man) and all her supposed crimes will be thrown at us in an attempt to shut us down.

We will be told she is (among many other things) a warmonger, corrupt, in the pocket of Wall Street, a war criminal, weak, vacillating, a homophobe, a creature of the establishment, about to be indicted by the FBI (no, really, any minute now) and a candidate who “stands for nothing”. We will even be told she just represents “more of the same”. All this will be said without a scintilla of irony.

No wonder most women who support Clinton keep quiet about it. They kept quiet about supporting Obama too, which is why almost every pollster wrongly predicted he’d lose the last Presidential election to Mitt Romney. (Interestingly, women voters are also keeping quiet in the Australian election. According to Fran Kelly on RN Breakfast 30 per cent of Australian women voters are undecided.)

Even among those who accept we will see a Clinton versus Trump Presidential election come November, there has been only grudging acceptance. We are told that this is a contest between two unlikable candidates. This criticism almost offends me the most. The fact that any sensible human being could see hard working, moderate, indefatigable, sane Clinton as being as unlikable as Trump can be explained by only one phenomenon – our extreme, millennia-long neurotic fear about women in power.

Clinton is not perfect. I do not agree with her on everything but – so what? She has certainly worked harder, for longer and in the face of more vilification than any other politician I can think of. That she has survived to clinch the nomination and so make history is an astonishing tribute to her courage and determination. I wait (no doubt in vain) for her to at least be given credit for that.

If she wins the Presidency – which she must for the future of the world – she will not be given credit for it. We will be told that she only won because she had a lunatic opponent, and because the Republican party was riven with division and so she was “lucky” to get such an easy ride.

Far from an “easy” ride, I am lost in admiration for Clinton’s ability to get up every morning and face more of the same. Trump will pull no punches when it comes to attacking her for her major weakness – and that is her gender. It will backfire on him. Women are the majority in the US (as they are in Australia) and because the US has voluntary voting, women are more likely to vote than men. Which makes sense; you are more likely to value something you had to fight for.

Clinton has fought for the rights of women and girls all her life. She has dedicated her life to them. If she becomes President it will be a victory, not just for her, but for all of us. She will have opened one of the most important of doors. That is why her indomitable march towards the White House has been met with such vitriol and nastiness. Those who assume power is their rightful domain understand just how much of a threat a Clinton win implies.

A black President followed by a female one? What is the world coming to? Fingers crossed we get there.”

(Post 142 of 365)

Roxane Gay in NYC

First blog post from a train. First time back in NYC since before I was pregnant, almost three years ago. New York’s not my home, but I still feel at home in New York. And that feels so good.

A cold and rainy Sunday night in the city to see the luminescent Roxane Gay, who delivered the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write lecture at the PEN World Voices Festival. She is truth, beauty, and brilliance, with a speaking voice that sounds like song. I feel so grateful and so inspired.

Also, she retweeted my tweet, a virtual hug. I’m walking on air all over again.

(Post 103 of 365)