When I was in high school in the mid-late eighties, I was pretty socially aware. Well, I thought I was at least. I mean, I knew about the “secret” wars in Central America and about homelessness. I knew that racism existed, though as a white girl who lived in a white community it was all theoretical and not something I thought I ever witnessed or experienced. I was a little punk rocker with my black hair and black clothes and leather jacket and I would argue about how horrible Reagan was and how he and Bush Sr. would destroy the world. I was in high school when the Berlin Wall was torn down. This means in middle school that horrifying scare-tactic show The Day After was aired on prime time (my dad wouldn’t let me watch it, or the movie Red Dawn when it came to the theaters) and my freshman year of high school we had “air raid” and “The Bomb” drills where we would all congregate and sit against the walls of our middle school, and in the words of my poetic English teacher, kiss our young asses good-bye. There was a lot of anti-communism propaganda and a lot of looking out to the outer world and all the evils there.
The evils were never at home. They weren’t in my home town. They weren’t in my family. My family wasn’t racist. The women in my family weren’t oppressed or silenced. Feminism was something that happened in the 1960s and 70s and wasn’t a thing of a modern 80s girl like me.
I assumed the history I was taught in school was true and accurate and complete. I assumed the world was safe and that thanks to my mother’s generation I could do and be anyone or anything I wanted. I didn’t have a clue what a glass ceiling was. Women’s “power suits” with the huge shoulders were ugly, but I simply saw them as part of that whole being an adult and working thing that people do, not as a costume women had to wear to try to “fit in” and be taken seriously in the corporate world.
My first week of college was an eye opener. Hell, it was mind blowing and boggling for me. And it shut me down from the enormity of the evils in this world, because if I continued to think about it all, it may have quite literally killed me.
There was an exhibit in one of the galleries on campus of the atrocities committed by Christopher Columbus and his crews. I remember looking at the images and reading the descriptions and the history and being in total disbelief. I honestly could not believe that these things were true or had happened. I had chosen the college I attended (big shout out to the Evergreen State College) because it was a liberal arts college. But that first week, as I was standing there staring at horrifying images and reading even more horrifying descriptions I started to wonder if perhaps I had chosen too liberal of a school to attend.
At 18 I had never heard of the atrocities Europeans had committed against the Native Americans. I didn’t know about Columbus or the pilgrims. I didn’t know about missionaries stealing children in the name of God. I was in a state of shock that first week and month and probably year.
In high school I wanted to be as socially aware as possible – I wanted to change the world and right all the wrongs. After that first week of college I stopped watching and reading any news and buried myself in partying and socializing and doing the bare minimum I had to do in my performing arts program. The enormity of the lie I grew up with was too huge. “Privilege” wasn’t a thing that was discussed in the early 90s and it certainly wasn’t a thing I was ready to examine or admit to. I had to run and hide from the horror of it all—my young and clearly innocent mind couldn’t grasp it at that time. I needed space to breathe and changing the world would be put off for others to worry about. My world was just fine as it was, thank you very much, no need for me to stir the pot so to speak.
For the next twenty years I would not be terribly socially aware. I knew things happened and I heard the news, but it didn’t affect me and it happened in far enough away places that I could hold my view that it was either rare or something special to that particular location on a map. It didn’t affect me or the people I knew or loved.
I’m not sure what has happened in the last five or six years to help bring my head out of the sand. Graduate school helped. Having friends who had a social justice bend to them helped. No longer being a lonely female in a male dominated profession just trying to survive and climb that corporate ladder helped. I have gained perspective and can look at the system I had been entrenched in and start to see some of the double standards and the glass ceilings and mixed messages.
Something has changed and shifted in me in the last handful of years.. I feel like I can see things clearly for the first time in my life. It may be age and perspective which contributes to a willingness to learn and to want different for my own kids and for all children that is feeding this awareness. It could be the simple practice of being aware of my Self has the side-effect of becoming more aware of the experiences of others.
Regardless of the whys, here I am. Forty-four and a half years old and being willing to claim feminism as mine for the first time. There’s a long list of whys to this, and what is most important to me right now, is the work I had done for myself, and for others, in becoming self-aware and understanding all the shame and guilt and stories of too much and not enough and how they eat at us and tear us down and realizing, having that a-fucking-ha moment of where all these damn stories come from.
These stories of how we are too much or not enough didn’t start with our mothers. It didn’t start with how they raised us or didn’t raise us. It didn’t start with how they shamed us for being too loud or too quiet or not dressing “appropriately” (whatever that means). These stories have been being passed down for millennia.
These stories are how we survived. These stories have, in some ways, kept some of us safe. We bought into the stories as a sort of bargaining chip so we could actually go out into the world. The long list of shoulds (how we should act, dress, talk; how our homes, children, and lives should look) we internalized because if we did then we’d be okay; we’d be accepted; we’d be lovable; we’d be allowed to live.
Our mothers bought the stories (and their mothers, and their mothers) and they passed them down. How “good girls” dress and act. How if we only did x, y, or z then we wouldn’t be raped or murdered. How we need to be silent so as not to anger a man into beating us. How if we act just so and do just right, we’ll get to live to a ripe old age.
We were taught, they were taught, all of us were taught, to close our throats and stuff our rage and bit our tongues. We were told over and over how we aren’t worthy or deserving. How we don’t matter. How we need to try harder and be different. How shameful our very being is. How we cause sin and depravity in men. How we can’t play the same game as men without being called a bitch or a slut. How if we don’t play the same game we will be trampled and ignored and dismissed.
Closing our throats, stuffing our rage and biting our tongues is one way to survive. It is one way to get by in a world that is truly stacked against us. Yes, it will eat away at us and we will be miserable in so many ways, but we will live and have babies and pass down the same lessons to our children and the system will continue to feed off our terror and tears.
We can connect to that rage, open our throats and let out of roars. We can allow the anger and frustration and sadness to be our fuel to make change in this culture instead of doing what we have to in order to get by.
We can connect to our body. To feel her. To hear her. To know her wisdom. We can become aware of what is bubbling and brewing and boiling inside us. What was passed down and what is ours. What is history and what is our own lived experience.
We can speak out. We can tell our experience and listen to the experience of others. We can walk and march and stumble alongside others who are also oppressed, held back, tied down. We can fight with them and create change, slowly and quickly, tearing down this culture that feeds off our shame, brick by brick.
We can honor the truth that not everyone is in a place to stand up and open her throat yet. We can hold space for the very real fear and terror that courses through her blood and bones. We can let her know she is not alone, she is okay just as she is, and we will be here to help when she wants it :: we will not add to her torment by forcing her into the world she is unprepared to be a part of.
We can stop feeding the stories of too much and not enough by stopping our own judging and condemning of other women and our self. We can learn empathy. We can STOP FEEDING THE SHAME BEAST. As we stop feeding these stories, this deep shame, they will die. Slowly, and sometimes quickly, in fits and starts as we each find our way to allowing our Self to be.
And the walls will come tumbling down. They will shake and begin to crumble with our roars. And as we each, one by one, add our roars to the chorus, more will find their own ways of awareness and will join us.
And we will be the change we want to see in the world.
Did you enjoy this? It’s from a love letter I sent out in April 2016. If you’d like to receive future love letters from me, you can subscribe right over here.