I’m new at this. Not new at experiencing them. But new at knowing I’m experiencing them.
It’s not only that I didn’t have names for my feelings when I was younger,
but that I didn’t fully feel them.
Until I had no choice.
Earlier this week, I found myself humming and singing what has become my tell-tale sad song (it knows I’m feeling sad before I do):
I learned the truth at 17, that love was meant for beauty queens, and pretty girls with clear-skinned smiles, who married young and then retired. And those of us with ravaged faces…
Oddly enough, I was one of those clear-skinned, pretty girls.
But still, this song comes to me more and more as I age, to the point where my youngest, at 15, hears it playing on YouTube for the first time and says: “I like the original better,” not realizing that he’s only ever heard it sung by me.
This is Janis Ian, I say. It’s her song.
I’m relieved when I Google her and find that she’s still alive: and 64, happily through menopause no doubt, even winning a Grammy in 2013!
Mid-life women inspire me. They are such warriors. So full-hearted.
This morning I wake with a crushing weight on my chest. (Well, maybe not crushing. But pressing.)
I’m unable to take a full breath. (I taught yoga yesterday.)
When I consider the day ahead, even the smallest part of the day ahead, I feel immobilized. (It’s a relatively straightforward day.)
I’m expecting my period. And menopause. (Soon, please.)
I stay put and feel into the sensations of weight and panic until they soften enough. I take a shower, pack my work things–while scaling the items shouting for my attention around the house–and I drive away.
I feel lighter.
Until I enter our Co-op grocery store. I decide not to shop first as planned, but instead take a seat in the corner of the cafe and get to work. I always feel good when I work. Almost always. It’s how I’ve kept ahead of anxiety and depression throughout my life, though I never knew that then. I thought I loved work. Until someone said these words:
What you love brings you balance.
Work never brought me balance. It brought me 100-hour work weeks at 20. And teacher burn-out by 30. So I decided to stay home. For two decades.
That didn’t fare well either. I found at-home-motherhood excruciatingly boring. Diapers, dishes, routines. Sitting down on the floor with the kids was the worst. I couldn’t still myself into their worlds. I thought it was play that I resisted, but now I realize that it was me. Without complexity to consume my mind, anxiety devoured me.
I had a window into those years when I went shopping with my son earlier this week. I noticed that if I kept my focus on items that engaged me, say the household aisle of TJ Maxx, then I could keep the anxiety at bay. But if he wanted to talk to me, or worse yet, show me something, particularly something that held no interest for me, my anxiety magnified.
I wonder when it all started.
Is it genetic?
I remember a high fever at the age of 4 and the way the world grew too large and then too small and far away for me to handle.
I remember a fire at the age of 9–the one that took the lives of an entire family except for the boy who went to my school–and how I trembled with that news all night long.
I remember my arm in a sling at age 11, broken on the ice–the result of a mind game that I played often that year–counting down how quickly I could get from place to place–before I blew up.
That would have been sixth grade,
the first year of my mother’s alcoholism,
the year that my father poured the bottles down the sink,
and said, “You have to watch your mother. She’s sick.”
My breath catches on this memory.
The weight on my chest returns.
I see this young girl, and go to her.
I rub her heart, and lift the weight from it.
I’m here, I say. I’ll watch your mother. You go play.
BLUE was my favorite color as a girl. I had a blue coat, a blue 10-speed, and a blue aluminum bat. I’m not sure if I really loved blue or if blue was a statement–AGAINST the color–to which I had been culturally assigned.
When I was 14, we moved once again, and not only was my blue bike stolen, but I was given a room of my own. My very first. (Quite a coup in a family of girls.)
The room was PINK. Not just the walls, and the ceiling, but the floor–a deep shag dipped in every shade of IT.
Each time I stepped inside, it was like drenching myself in a bottle of Pepto Bismol. Even in the dark, and under the covers, I could feel PINK on my skin–sticky and sickly sweet.
We didn’t live in that house for too many years, and I soon had another room of my own which wasn’t pink at all. But in my senior year of high school, when my mother sent me out to pick the Easter dresses (because I always complained about her choices), I surprised us both by returning with matching ones: with tiny pink blossoms.
Later that spring, my prom dress, which had been a deep shade of slinky turquoise the year before, was a soft, airy pink, sewn at home.
In the years to follow, shades of pink continued to slip into my life: a favorite sweatshirt at college that I wore unzipped to my cleavage, a wool scarf bought on the streets of London, a journal with thick pages picked up at a bookstall in France.
By my twenties, ashes of roses was my signature color; and I began to yearn for motherhood.
Early on, my mother warned that I would only be the mother of sons: “You don’t have the patience for girl-like things.”
Intuitives affirmed that my first child was the girl that I wanted, but they were wrong. The second time around, EVERYONE told me that I was carrying a girl, and even when the color blue started streaming through my soul–into my clothes and jewelry–I was certain. But she was a boy too.
When I go to the dentist, I accept the pink toothbrush from our hygienist, instead of the green or purple or blue one, which I would prefer, so that we can easily tell them apart at home.
I’ve had a pink toothbrush now, off and on, for almost 20 years, even when my favorite color returned to blue, and then to purple, and then to soft shades of green.
Just this past week, I decided to invest in another dental care item called a “tongue scraper.” I browsed the aisles of the grocery store until I came upon them, and was relieved to find that these crude looking aluminum objects were softened by colored rubber handles. There were 4 colors available.
Suddenly, I was furious at PINK.
Why me, I thought. Why should I have to have the pink one.
“Mom always takes one for the team,” I recall a waitress saying when I succumbed to sitting at the counter instead of waiting for a table which I preferred.
Suddenly, it occurred to me, at the ripe age of 51, that there was no reason why I should be the one to defer to pink.
I thought back to my nephew, who I spent so much time with before I had children. I took him shopping once and he asked for pink curtains and a potted flower for his new room.
His mom got him a plant and blue shades.
I thought about the baby doll that Santa brought my son at his second Christmas, at how his grandmother bristled when she saw him carrying it around: “Can’t he develop his nurturing skills in some other way.”
There is a green, a blue, a purple, and a pink tongue scraper, and this time around, someone else is taking one for the team.
(except for that new cardigan in my closet)
ps. this video clip arrived in my message box just as I was finishing this post:
I want to write about the 59th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), but I am terribly under-qualified. (When friends ask what I do when I go to the United Nations each March, I say that I’m a CSW groupie.)
Still, I get to wear one of those official badges with my photo, so I feel pretty cool.
I love the UN. The flags themselves thrill me.
My first visit was in the 7th grade.
For me it was like a candy store of all things international.
A colleague of mine, who IS qualified to write about CSW, and actually worked at the United Nations, says that she got chills every time she turned the corner and saw the flags. For three years, Jennifer she said to herself: “I work here!”
I wish I wanted to work there. It was my grandmother Lila’s dream. She studied French and Chinese at Rutgers in the early forties just before the UN was chartered; but motherhood and marriage interrupted her ambitions.
My colleague Jennifer IS a mother and a wife, and she even has a puppy. Times have changed. May they keep on changing!
That’s what I love about CSW–thousands of WOMEN from every part of the globe.
This year, I found myself particularly wowed by women officials.
They’ve pursued years of education, contributed to hundreds of meetings, poured over thousands of documents…
I have so much gratitude.
Take the Minister for Gender Equality from Poland. Note her amazing hair!
I scribbled pages of notes from her presentation, but what I remember most is how she emphasized that there are three parts to ensuring gender equality:
Suddenly, I understood where I fit in: Consciousness!
Now is as good as a time as any to say that everyone at CSW is speaking ENGLISH:
Professor Fusazara of Poland.
All the members of the Permanent Mission of Japan–who co-hosted this side event.
And all those women–from around the globe–who addressed this panel with probing questions–some of which I couldn’t follow–in my native tongue.
There are dozens of meetings, events, talks, briefings, presentations and panels happening at the same time–morning, noon & night–during the two week stretch of the Commission on the Status of Women–with representatives from Member States , UN entities, and ECOSOC-accredited non-governmental organizations (NGOs)–from all regions of the world.
We attended the NGO opening reception together–which is even more female-dominated that the CSW meetings at the UN.) Another man was quickly drawn to Lloyd’s side as we waited in line. Rana was from Bangladesh and he went out of his way to compliment me for something I hadn’t considered before:
“Business men bring their sons when they do business,” he said. “Those in development need to bring their sons too. Well done.”
Neither Rana or I had daughters, but we both had work that we referred to in the feminine. Rana came to CSW on behalf of his “daughter”–Udbastu–an NGO he formed to protect the environment of his homeland.
“Udbastu means refuge in Sanskrit,” he explained.
Rana’s passion helped bring mine into clearer focus: I came to CSW for my grandmother, Lila, and for her namesake, my work–the divine lila–the play of consciousness.
Play was a theme I heard echoed at CSW, which was surprising, given the serious nature of activism and advocacy. “Your commitment is sustained when it comes from the heart and when you make it fun,” said Dr. Jean Shinoda Bolen at her event: The Indomitable Spirit in Activists and the Archetype of Artemis.
My son teased me about the events I chose to attend during our time at the UN. My choices were based on “feel” and “sense”–a favorite country, a cool angle, a rare connection; while his were shaped around region, policy and planning.
Another event that caught my eye was: Cool Feminism–Exploring Ideas from the North, hosted by the country of Iceland.
The women of Iceland certainly know how to have fun with their activism. When their protest against the Champagne Clubs (that popped around Reykjavík after the 2010 law prohibiting strip clubs) was met by silence from the media and city officials, they got creative.
“We didn’t just whine around the kitchen table,” said Guðrún Jónsdóttir, Founder of Stígamót, a woman’s right organization. “Stígamót opened its own Champagne Club, as a parody.”
They sent invitations to the mayor, to the police commissioner, the ministers, members of parliament, city counselors, and the media.
82 year old Jónsdóttir acted as the club owner and offered to dance. Others offered to sing, tell stories about rape, read the Declaration of Human Rights, and even teach customers how to knit.
Shortly afterward, the Champagne Clubs were shut down and criminal prosecutions ensued.
In her presentation, The Indomitable Spirit in Activists, Dr. Jean Shinoda Bolen focused on this capacity that women have–how it grows–over time–and how women learn–from each other. She highlighted the difference between the male and female brain–how women have more connective fibers between the left (analytical) and the right (creative) hemispheres.
‘When the masculine is the only one holding power,” she said, “There can be a lack of empathy and imagination.”
Nobel Peace Prize winner, Leymah Gbowee, spoke to this imbalance when she addressed the the rally at the March for Gender Equality at the opening of CSW on International Women’s Day:
Right now the world is functioning like a person trying to see the whole picture with one eye covered. That person is bound to miss some very important details.
Up until this time, I often viewed feminism through the lens of fairness and relational politics so I was a little taken aback when I heard Gertrud Åström, President of the Swedish Women’s Lobby, at the Cool Feminism event, say: Sharing housework is a feminist issue.
But then I got it.
When women’s voices are kept from the conversation–political, corporate, cultural–there are serious human rights ramifications.
Suddenly, issues like equal pay, domestic violence and female leadership came into sharper focus for me–as global and moral imperatives.
Even in a place like Iceland, where gender equality tops the charts, there are outrageous gaps in rights that eclipse the voice of the feminine.
These gaps were brought into stark relief by the speakers at a CSW evening celebration at the Manhattan Center. The Hammerstein Ballroom was packed–floor to ceiling–with representatives, dignitaries and delegates from NGOS around the world.
The beloved UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, addressed the audience of 2,000, followed by UN Women Executive Director, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka; and soon after, the President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson.
Former US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, then took the stage, crediting Johnson’s leadership for stemming the tide of the Ebola epidemic in her country, and then shared information from the Clinton Foundation initiative, Not There Yet—a data driven analysis of gender equality.
Clinton was followed by actress Meghan Markel, the UN Women’s Advocate for Women’s Leadership & Political Participation.
The statistics Meghan shared silenced the room:
At the current rate, the elimination of gender INequality will not be possible until 2095. And when it comes to women’s political participation and leadership – the percentage of female parliamentarians globally has only increased by 11% since 1995. 11 percent in 20 years.
But it was Markel’s personal story of how she “accidentally” became a women’s advocate–at the age of 11–that revealed a deeper truth about gender inequality to me.
There in the balcony, I found myself inexplicably brought to tears when she shared a tagline from a nineties television commercial:
Women all over America are fighting greasy pots and pans.
Markel drove home a bias that was punctuated at CSW: Gender inequality is often dismissed as a cultural issue, while in fact it is form of deep discrimination.
“Women make up more than half of the world’s population and potential so it is neither just nor practical for their voices, for OUR voices, to go unheard at the highest levels of decision-making,” said Markel. “Women need a seat at the table, they need an invitation to be seated there, and in some cases, where this is not available, they need to create their own table.”
1100 organizations and 11,000 individuals participated in the 59th Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations this month, on behalf of the 7+ billion women, men and children–around the world.
Saturday is a softer day to arrive in the city.
Less honking, less sirens, less helicopters circling, less rushing, less children whining.
And yet, almost immediately, I feel engulfed by the enormity of the population here, lives stacked upon lives, in high rise after high rise, while my closest neighbor in the Vermont is a pond or a hill or several acres away.
My thoughts go to trash.
At how travel is a muscle.
At how I must come to the city more often before my aging awareness becomes brittle with fear.
I’ve traveled to cities on four continents, including this one, several times before, but something about this trip, just past 50, with a growing awareness of the future–beyond me–leaves me feeling hopeless.
I crawl into an unfamiliar bed before dark, feeling crowded, and alone; intruded upon and abandoned; seriously homesick; until a familiar friend greets me high in the sky out this fourth story window.
Even here, hundreds of miles away from my mountain home, the moon’s glow soothes me to sleep.
Sunday is a sweet day to wake in the city. So much coffee. So many bagels and newspapers. So many kind, traveling faces. Such a slowing of the hustle and bustle.
I cross Central Park. I cruise the Impressionist Wing at the MET. I register at the United Nations. I march in a parade for International Women’s Day. I buy crusty bread and cheese. I ride the subway and think: Look at ALL these people living harmoniously together.
I stay up too late.
I crawl into bed excited for a new day of exploration.
Just before I drift off, I look out my fourth story to window to see not one, but two moons in the sky, until someone turns out her lights in the high rise across the street.
I wake up thinking about Kelsey.
She was my son’s favorite swimming teacher at the community pool.
Beyond her competency and kindness, I remember particularly liking her name because it combined both mine and my husband’s names–Kelly & Casey–which would have been the perfect name for our own daughter, if we had one, and if that name hadn’t already been a favorite of the man I loved before my husband. Awkward.
Life is like that. A bit of a comedian. My son’s first “girlfriend” from daycare had the first name of my husband’s ex and the last name of my ex.
I don’t know what this all means, but something, somewhere, must be paying attention. How else can I explain that our son was born on the anniversary of our first night together? Which just happens to be celebrated by Catholics as the Assumption of Mary. Which is only vaguely worth noting even with our mothers’ heritage; unless you combine it with the fact that my husband himself was born on the Feast Day of Mary and I was born on the Immaculate Conception of Mary–making our family a trifecta of the Divine Feminine; without even needing to mention that we happened to buy a piece of land and build a house across the pond from a summer camp owned by the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception.
But back to beautiful Kelsey who is the true inspiration of this piece.
What was stunning about the news that September, 2006, after the god awful loss, was the proximity. My husband and sons had been on that same road, just moments before, heading in the same direction. Toward that intoxicated driver. The one who confessed to shooting up 3 bags of heroin before he got into his truck.
Route 12 in Swanzey, New Hampshire, past the Cheshire Fair Grounds, is not a road our family typically travels. But there’s a Honda dealership down that way, and we had just received the bad news that our old car needed to be replaced, so my guys headed there to find one.
That new car, is now 9 years old, and yesterday, we got the same unexpected news, about it needing to be replaced, so we put in a call to that same dealership.
Which is how my mind drifted to Route 12 in Swanzey, and to the awful accident that took Kelsey’s and her boyfriend’s life. And to the roses that my son and I brought to the pool and weaved through the fence there.
Which wouldn’t have inspired this post, until I opened the newspaper and saw Kelsey’s picture, on the anniversary of her birthday.
My son returns to college this weekend so I’m thinking about death.
Mainly my own.
How everything good ends.
And how life is such a trickster.
Sucking us in by love, disarming us of our defenses, distracting us with the infinity of doing, and then VOILA–death! Ending. Finality.
Having a family is the worse (or is it “worst.”) Simply because it seems so permanent. Particularly in the trenches. Like the diapers and the feedings and the messes will never end. And when they did, I was HAPPY.
But now, I’m 51. With a second foot into the decade that took the lives of my beloved mother and the grandmother I adored.
Plus it’s winter. A particularly hard and cold and frozen week of January in Vermont. The darkest time of year. And in Paris, a bunch of people were butchered.
“We’re ready to die,” said the terrorists.
A friend relays that he had a moment on his mat this week where he felt that it was okay to die. Really okay.
I had that once too. On my knees. In the garden. Rain soaked. My hands in dirt.
What if we woke every day with this aim?
Without saving any love or expression “for later.”