Diego-Catto-B+W

Spitting Out the Patriarchy

It’s hard to sit down without knowing what I’m going to write. Hard, only because there is an expectation here, an unspoken one I carry around with me all the time. Ready for it?

It has to be good. 

I don’t think of what I do as teaching, but I’m also beginning to see the cracks in this dismissal of myself. And one of the things I teach, if I am to not only state but take pride in the fact that I do, in fact, teach something, is this: You don’t have to be good. Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” has become an anthem of sorts, and my commitment to encouraging you to do that, too, in your own ways, as you can and choose to, is the unpinning of everything I bring to the world.

That doesn’t mean I’m good at it. Ironically or not, it’s the thing I struggle most with, this not being good business. I think there may be a hint in the word “business” here, since the last thing I want is to be a cog in the billion-dollar self-help industry, that preys on women believing we can be better, even if “better” means “you don’t have to be good.” It’s not a sales pitch.

It’s the real life stuff of days when the sun is shining but you feel off, unable to pin down why. It’s a racing mind at 4:00am. It’s a vague feeling of not being all the present, but also knowing there’s nowhere you could possibly be but right here, and the rest is a rabbit hole of overthinking.

After last weekend’s Unfurl retreat in Wisconsin, one of the participants who’d rented a car gave me a ride back to the Minneapolis airport. We stopped in Maiden Rock, one of the wonderfully quirky, artsy towns along the Great River Road, picked up a couple of still-warm, buttery scones from a small, crowded bakery, and quickly did some shopping for our peeps back home in a store bursting with Mexican and Peruvian art.

In the car, driving along the Mississippi and ooh-ing and aah-ing at the brilliant foliage on both sides, we had a chance to reflect on many aspects of the weekend. At one point, I pointed out that I wasn’t sure I’d “done” all that much. She lovingly and powerfully pointed out that this was the patriarchy talking, and I was startled by but appreciative of her keen ear.

Why patriarchy? Because we’re conditioned not to take too much credit, not to draw attention to ourselves, and by all means not to take up too much room.

“So tell me what you’re proud of,” she said, an invitation that at once made me feel shy and seen (oh, how these so often go together).

And I did. I told her I was proud that the nine women who’d spent three days on a hilltop farm together, writing and connecting, all seemed genuinely glad to have come. I told her I was proud of myself for letting my other work wait, trusting that all would be well and bringing my wholehearted attention to every individual in the room. I was proud, I realized, that I’d set aside my own judgment and expectation, truly opening to the experience and allowing it to unfold.

This was a lot to be proud of. And none of it diminished my gratitude for the woman who hosted us, without whom there wouldn’t have been a midwest Unfurl retreat in the first place. It didn’t overshadow my awe at the fact every single woman there co-created the experience by showing up and stepping into the unknown, not letting fear drive the bus. Why on earth would I have hesitated to feel proud of myself?

Self-doubt is a learned behavior, one that’s reinforced by cultural norms and capitalism. We grow up steeped in comparing ourselves to others, expecting more and more and more, always trying to get somewhere else, somewhere bigger and better. This seeps into our souls. It corrodes our inherent creativity and dampens our spirits; it keeps us silent and second-guessing rather than shining, taking risks, and growing more confident. It teaches us to be careful lest we slip and offend someone, to hold back lest we overstep, and to curl inward upon ourselves rather than unfurling outward into a messy and broken world that needs us. The world needs us.

Listening deeply — when it’s derived from a place of presence — is not the same as swallowing your voice. And being proud, when it’s borne of the recognition that we get to be proud of our work, our bodies, our choices, our families, our rough drafts and our imperfection, is not arrogant. It’s self-worth. It’s love.

I teach. I do. I am proud of my work. There is still some discomfort here — a not-so-small voice in my head saying: Fine, but why do you need to make an announcement about it?

That voice is why. Because this, too, is my practice. The practice not only of writing but of acknowledging the places that I’d sooner not mention. Every time I delete my own words, every time I wrestle with a single sentence trying to perfect it rather than just writing some damn thing and moving right along, every time I belittle the impact of my work, I am modeling shame. And that, my friends, is the opposite of what I’m here for.

I’m here to celebrate myself exactly where I am today, which is recalibrating and reflective (not to mention unshowered), keenly aware of how it feels to hold so much, and also knowing that we are designed to do one thing at a time. I’m here to remind myself — and maybe you reading — that what I’m doing here counts. It will change and grow and deepen and evolve, yes, but it is also, already, real. The tyranny of always getting somewhere else? It’s a racket.

Let’s opt out by encouraging each other to recognize where we’ve internalized so many lies, so much damage to the psyche, and death by a thousand cuts of our innate gifts. I want nothing more than this realness, this place to practice., this permission to be proud of myself.

This is how we spit out the patriarchy. This is how we become truly free. Now tell me: What are you proud of?

* * *

Let’s practice together! The next 2-week online group, Over Our Heads, is now open for registration.

Diego-Catto-B+W

Free Associating and the Analyst’s Couch

Photo: Jimmy Bay

I’ve been clicking away from this screen on and off for a while now, maybe half-hour or so. I’m reminding myself of a moth — the way it will flutter and bang up against the same light over and over again. What is it trying to do or get, anyway? And why is “The Moth” storytelling show called “The Moth”? This, my friends, is what we call free associating.

I had a great therapist back in Burlington. Well, I had a few great therapists back in Burlington, but the one I am thinking of now was actually an analyst, with a couch for lying on facing away from her and everything. After my initial self-consciousness faded, I loved it. I loved her disembodied voice behind me, and how I could lie down there and just start sobbing, or be quiet for a long time. I loved how we unraveled some things that have remained deeply instructive to me, some fundamental ways of relating to myself and life that I came to see, during that year or so, I no longer needed.

Free associating has its benefits.

Friends with benefits, for example, is the next thought I have. The woman I launched into relationship with when I first came out — we tried that for a while, as a way of tempering the fact that being in a capital-R Relationship kept not working, but on the other hand we couldn’t seem to stay away from each other, either. But it was too murky for me, that territory. Turns out I didn’t much want to have sex with my friends — and that she and I weren’t really friends at all.

Stretched out on Jeanne P.’s couch is where I began to understand that I was deeply conditioned to look inward. All my life, I’d had the sensation that my internal landscape was something of a kaleidoscope; you could look and look and look and get lost in there, always more hidden, more to seek, and an inherent sense of something being missing. In a way, this was my safest place. I could maintain a focus on relationships with other people, but at the end of the day, I was alone with myself. Life with someone else, truly being seen and met and known, felt wistfully impossible.

It’s no coincidence that one of the poems I related most to was Emily Dickinson’s #640, which begins:

I cannot live with You –
It would be Life –
And Life is over there –
Behind the Shelf

The Sexton keeps the Key to –

I wanted more than anything to be alone, or so I thought.

I still love being alone. As I write this, my wife is sitting across the room. Her back is to me; she’s at her computer, too. We are in the same room, breathing the same air. The kids are at my sister’s house with their dad, celebrating the Jewish new year with a potluck feast. I got sick this week and had to forego services and gatherings.

Our third anniversary is in six days, though we’ve been an item for closer to six years. In those six years, I have learned how to maintain my relationship with myself AND to wholly give myself to another. To get to have room for my needs, my experience, my desire, and my emotions AND be present for hers. That these aren’t mutually exclusive was a learning curve for me.

Bottom line: We all have real lives. There is no greener grass. And for the first time perhaps ever, I am not locked up inside of myself but rather right here. I’m free associating and giving myself permission — to to write, to free associate, to ramble, to see what happens when I explore the connections between things without an agenda. Permission is cool that way, isn’t it? And even cooler is that we get to give it to ourselves. Thanks, self!

Much of my writing about my kids these days happens behind closed doors, i.e. in secret spaces where I can write freely about my experiences as a parent without risking my kids’ trust or betraying their privacy. It’s such a huge part of life, and yet not one I write terribly much about publicly at this point. I know this is true for many women who started out blogging years ago when our little ones were, in fact, little. Now, they are not little. They are big. They are 11 and nearly 15, and there is plenty I know I don’t know about their complex inner lives and their day-to-day experiences. I try to be present to and available for them without hovering or smothering, though the latter can be a challenge for this Jewish mama who favors hugs and sharing.

See? That was a complete non sequitur. The inevitable has happened: I don’t know what I’m writing about. Kind of like towards the end of the therapy session when you can’t quite track how you got here, what you came in thinking about. I stand up and pop my sternum — it’s sore from so much sneezing and coughing over the past couple of days, but I’m on the mend.

I’m getting hungry. I glance at the clock. There is no billable hour here, no astronomical fee, and no analyst sitting behind me taking notes, nodding, occasionally making an observation or asking an insightful question. There is just me and the sound of the keys and the quiet in the room and the acceptance that this is it. This is not only what I said I wanted — it’s actually what I want.