Brain-Picking Becky

Gratitude, A Photo Journal: Brain-Picking Becky #14

I just can’t with the news this week – so much violence, anger, fear, greed. I decided that rather than focusing on how awful our world leaders are, I needed to take a break from current events and focus my energy on the little things in my day-to-day life that make me grateful. In the past, avoiding the news felt like I was being irresponsible, neglecting my duties as a citizen, but now, taking the space I need to focus on gratitude seems like the best way to resist the hatred and negativity that’s spreading through our country, our world, like a disease. It’s a lot easier for me to be kind to others and treat them with respect and compassion when I’m feeling full of gratitude, and kindness, respect, and compassion are exactly what this world needs more of right now. So whether you continue to tune into the news or not, I strongly encourage you to also tune into the grateful wavelength. It might take some reminding at first, but we are all capable of making this choice and sticking with it. Here are some photos and thoughts to hopefully get you started.

IMG_1027I very much appreciate green things growing out of rocks. I also appreciate the sound of lapping water and my silly/awesome star tattoos and the way sunshine feels on my
bare feet.

IMG_1019There is beauty everywhere if we allow ourselves to see it, even in steel and machines and concrete. I also love the fact that five different countries were represented on this single subway car; NYC is proof that people from all of the world can live together in harmony.

IMG_1024From the subway to the bay to the ocean. My commute is special. When I look out at this body of water that goes on and on until it reaches another continent where someone of a different race and a different language is, like me, staring into its depths, I feel grateful that I am so small yet also connected to something so tremendous.

IMG_1016Not everyday can be sunny. And that’s okay; I appreciate a gray sky and the smell of rain and the sound it makes as it falls against my umbrella.

Okay, I confess it’s perhaps ridiculous to have this many animals in a Brooklyn apartment, yet at the same time, it’s magical. I love my little menagerie and I love being loved by them. I greatly appreciate that we all make it work.

IMG_1059And, of course, this boy. Every day I am grateful for him; becoming a mom is the most incredible and rewarding thing I have ever done.

BeckyLewCryingAlso, the craziest. But I’m grateful for the imperfect moments, too, for the screams and the exhaustion and the ink stains on towels. I’m glad that life is complicated.

IMG_1077And I’m glad that in the midst of these complications, we find opportunities to relax and reflect. As a child I dreamed of something different than the cow farms and cul-de-sacs I grew up with, and now here I am thriving in New York City. May all people have a dream and the gumption to go for it.

IMG_1084And may all people also have the luxury of a summer afternoon with Prosecco, good friends, and a beautiful view.

Click here to learn more about the ongoing column Brain-Picking Becky.

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Brain-Picking Becky #13: How We Tell (and Edit) Our Stories

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I’ve been thinking a lot about the micro memoir. I’m a wordy writer (and person in general), and I typically fall victim to over-explaining my ideas in an effort to be extra sure that what I’m trying to say is understood. This often results in clunky sentences and unnecessary repetition, not to mention how time-consuming it is. When I edit both my fiction and nonfiction, I try hard to channel my inner Hemingway and delete, delete, delete. Focus on the power of what is left unsaid. Except I’m bad at leaving things unsaid.

I’ve also been thinking a lot lately about the way we tell our stories, the choices we make when it comes to mood and tone, the language we use silently in our minds versus the language we share with our mouths and our fingers. So much of how we see the world, our place in it, ourselves in general, is our own choice, and this is so deeply affected by the way we frame our own stories. Yet how much of this framing really is our choice? How much of our personal narrative comes from our parents, their parents, and their parents? How much comes from early childhood memories we don’t remember but feel like we remember because our family has remembered them for us? From our genetic makeup, from the makeup of our neighborhoods, from the makeup we put on before we go out into the world?

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Last year, Lew loved the ocean water. He would run into it and shout with glee, jump, splash, run away, run back. This summer, he is two-years-old and has developed the capacity to fear. Now when he goes close to the water, he freezes and screams, partly playful, mostly afraid. He loves it when I carry him in, he’ll beg me to go deep enough that the waves splash against his delicious round belly, yet he clings to me so tightly that I can let go of him and he doesn’t even slip down my torso. The other day, as he and I were digging holes in the sand and filling them up again, my friend asked me if Lew liked the water and I said, “Oh he loves it but he’s also scared of it. It’s a new development this year, I hope it doesn’t last long.” Later that afternoon, Lew and I walked to the shore hand-in-hand and then right when we approached the ocean’s edge, he stopped, scrunched his nose and eyes together, reached his arms to me and cried, “Mommy, up, up, I scared of ocean water!” He had never used the word scared before.

In thinking about my story, Lew’s story, the story of my family and the tiny pieces that come together to make up these stories, I am deeply grateful for all the things I get to experience. Yet at the same time, I am deeply exhausted. An editor might say that my story is going in too many directions and needs to be pared down.

Leave more unsaid.

I’m reminded of Rivka Galchen’s book Little Labors, a beautiful, unique collection of short essays about new motherhood. I feel like these snippets, these micro memoirs, capture the reality of our existence so well. In the end, isn’t life really just little pieces of memory put together and called a whole?

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Click here to learn more about the ongoing column Brain-Picking Becky.

Brain-Picking Becky #12: On Daughterhood

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As I drove my compact rental car from CVG to my hometown, I counted the ins and outs of my breath – a mostly useless effort to calm my anxiety. In just a few days, a surgeon I didn’t know would cut into my dad’s chest, splay open his breastbone, attach a new valve to his heart and then sew him back up. There was a small chance Dad wouldn’t wake up from it. I doubted my ability to fully support him, to give him what he needed from me, to stay patient enough to manage both his and my anxieties without exploding and yelling at him. I worried about seeing him knocked out on drugs, hooked up to tubes. I’d taken this trip by myself (because of logistical reasons, my husband and son weren’t able to come along), and I felt deeply alone. Legs shaking, heart racing, I sped down I-75 and lamented the reality of growing older, of how responsibilities seem to add up while carefreeness seems to vanish. And then, a momentous thought popped into my brain: Becky, be grateful. You GET to do this for your dad. You didn’t get to do this for your mom.

This thought not only dulled my anxiety but also allowed me to reframe the entire experience. Sure, Dad’s surgery was yet another difficult thing my family had to navigate, another obligation added to my already full plate, another anxious-making strain on my mind and body, but it was also an opportunity to demonstrate my love for him, to give back some of the support he’s given me throughout the years, to show him how strong and capable I’ve become. I didn’t have this opportunity with my mother, I didn’t get to share in her old age and all the struggles that come along with that. You get to do this for him.

And really, shouldn’t we frame every experience like this? We get to do this life, all of it, the challenging parts, sad parts, light parts, confusing parts. It’s beautiful that we get to grow older. It’s beautiful that we get to take on responsibilities like being there for our parents as they age. It’s beautiful that we get to be alive.

These realizations enabled me to let go of the expectations I tend to bring to family visits (a problem I wrote about back in Brain-Picking #4) and enter a place of peace and relaxation, a place that was absolutely necessary for achieving the Herculean task of keeping my cartoon character of a father from overtaxing his heart before surgery. And when I say cartoon character, I mean it; my dad is unique in the way unreal, animated people are unique. For example, the surgery was actually delayed by ten days because, even though he was blacking out from lack of oxygen, he still continued his part-time yard work jobs in the hot Kentucky summer, decided to show a friend what a patch of poison ivy looks like, and ended up with the worst infection of his life. He went to a doctor who put him on steroids, and then the very next day, he climbed up a ladder to fix someone’s gutter and FELL OFF. So yeah, heart surgery was delayed.

This behavior isn’t unusual; my dad is absolutely the busiest person I’ve ever met. He also talks literally nonstop, even if the other person is vacuuming or on the phone or behind a closed door. While this level of vigor and chattiness can be fun and entertaining, it can also be draining. Add anxiety about open-heart surgery to the mix, and that shit got bonkers. We spent three days before the surgery together and by night one, I’d given up on telling him to sit down and let me take care of things and instead tried to preemptively guess what task he might set about completing and then beat him to it (this was fairly effective except for outliers like his scrubbing the inside of the oven at 9pm one night). I also definitely texted my friend on day three about how I was looking forward to his being on anesthesia. But still, we had fun; we haven’t had that much one-on-one time since at least a decade ago when I first started bringing Dave around, and while it was intense, it was truly wonderful. Reframing the visit through the perspective of just being grateful for the time I had with him, no matter what that time ended up being like, was a game-changer, and it actually brought a new sense of calmness that affected both of us. This perspective also created a necessary emotional distance for me; I didn’t take things as personally this visit, I didn’t get as bothered or upset as in the past. And it was absolutely fascinating to observe my dad from this space as opposed to the more sensitive spaces of before. Really, he and I are so similar. Through watching and listening to him without feeling so affected by everything, I gained such an interesting insight into myself and also into my son – we are all such Firesheets! Genetics is a strange and magical thing.

heart.pngAnyway, my brother came down for the surgery, and after nine hours of lying around the hospital in a weird, glazed-eyed, time/space warp, we got the news that everything had gone as smoothly as it possibly could have. That night, my brother and I ate pizza and drank beer and told stories, also the first time we’d been one-on-one in at least a decade, and I was reminded of all the lovely little things about him that I’ve adored since our childhood. The very next day, Dad was up and walking down the halls, to be released only four days later – his strength and motivation have been utterly impressive. I left Kentucky feeling proud of the three of us as a unit, happy to have come together like that, to have tackled this huge thing while also still genuinely enjoying each other. I also left with a lot of pride in myself; I think I’ve finally figured out how to be my dad’s daughter.

Click here to learn more about the ongoing column Brain-Picking Becky.

Writer’s Note: I edited some typos hours after publishing this piece. Otherwise, I stuck to the rules.

Brain-Picking Becky #11: Good Morning, Anxiety, Sit Down.

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This has been a profound month for me and my anxiety disorder. Fortunately and unfortunately, there are three big reasons for this. Fortunately because it used to be that my entire existence was one big OCD attack no matter what was going on, so the fact that I only get like this for real reasons now is a great thing; unfortunately because in some ways, it’s easier to deal with generalized anxiety, to convince myself that nothing is wrong, than it is to convince myself not to stress over things that are actually truly wrong.

Trigger #1: My father is having an aortic valve replacement surgery next week, and while it’s a very common procedure with a 99% success rate, we were given the date over a month ago and this kind of waiting period wreaks havoc on the anxious. Trigger #2: My husband’s place of employment is closing on August 9th, and we don’t know what he’ll be doing afterward. He’s experienced, connected, educated, friendly, hardworking – it shouldn’t be difficult for him to get something. But the anxious brain hears the mouth say, “He’ll find a gig, we’re not worried,” and laughs heartily. Trigger #3: The state of affairs in our country right now is overwhelmingly scary and enraging, two emotions, like most emotions, that transform into anxiety inside of me.

It somehow feels childish that I can’t just be a little worried or mad and then set it aside and move on. I feel like I should’ve outgrown anxiety by now, or at least be farther along in the process of dealing with it. But I have to remind myself that this disorder is powerful, mean, and tricky, that it creates these negative, self-critical thoughts in an effort to keep me in its grip. It doesn’t give up easily. But neither do I.

billieholiday“Might as well get used to you hangin’ around.
Good morning, heartache, sit down.” ~Billie Holiday

I started therapy back when I was fifteen-years-old, and throughout all of high school and most of college, my sessions focused on my eating disorder, specifically on cognitive behavioral therapy to retrain my brain surrounding food and not so much on the underlying anxiety. Even when I’d reached a point where I honestly wanted to be healthy and eat like a regular person, my body just wasn’t used to it. I had to wear an ugly, bulky sports watch that did not at all go with my cute hippie skirts, and set multiple alarms that would beep at meal times to remind me to eat. I also had to work on identifying the voice of my eating disorder and separating it from my own voice, then replacing an “Ed” thought with a nicer, more positive one (e.g., Ed: You are so ugly. Me: That’s your eating disorder talking. You are not ugly.) This was a long process. Yes, I wanted to get better, but it was hard to believe my thoughts over Ed’s. In time though, I did it. I distinctly remember a moment from my senior year of college, six years after I’d first started therapy, when I was wiping down the surfaces at the coffee shop I worked in and caught my reflection in the refrigerator door. For the first time in my life I thought, Oh my god, you’re actually pretty. That evening at home in my bedroom, I examined my naked body at length in the mirror and thought, Wow girl, you ARE pretty! And then I burst out crying; past examinations in the mirror had been the exact opposite of this experience. It was a huge leap in my recovery.

Therapists at the time were big on reminding us that we’d have our eating disorders forever and the goal was to manage it and stay healthy, not recover. Jenni Schaefer, a mental health activist who coined the “Ed” concept in her transformative book Life Without Ed, wrote in a later novel of hers, “I would not encourage you to go through the sweat, blood, and tears of the recovery process only to reach some kind of mediocre state where you were just ‘managing’ the illness. It is possible to live without Ed.” I agree with her, especially now that my eating disorder is a decade in my past and I love to cook and eat. But I also still agree with the therapists. Eating disorders tend to develop as a result of other things, like anxiety, depression, or environmental situations, to name a few. Ed is no longer a part of my life, but the obsessive thought loops, the heart racing and stomach churning, the desire to be perfect and make everyone happy, are always there in some capacity. And I would never do something like a juice cleanse; it’s not that my relationship with food is that precarious, but rather that avoiding any kind of cleanse/diet is an offensive move on my part. I know how easily I obsess over things and how easily I act compulsively on these obsessions. I also know how sneaky my disorder is. OCD has an excellent memory. Once it sets in, my whole system reverts backwards; my body seems to like it in a way, like, Yeah, we’re so good at being an anxious mess! It’s familiar, and it tricks me into thinking that because it’s familiar, it’s comforting. In fact, it can set in without my even realizing it. I’ve had many moments where I’m playing catch up, where I find myself furiously scrubbing behind the stove while rapidly repeating the same thought about a conversation I had earlier in the day. Then I stop myself like, Becky, it’s 11 pm, why are you doing this? What are you actually upset about? There are also other moments where I’m fully aware of the trigger and the progression of the process, but my efforts to stop it are slower than the OCD’s efforts and I end up in the midst of it all despite my awareness. And then there are moments where I succeed before it sets in (high five!). So, when I say that I agree with both Jenni Schaefer and the therapists, I mean that I’ve recovered from anorexia, I no longer focus on my food intake or my thoughts surrounding food, but OCD, the underlying reason for my anorexia, is like high blood pressure – I will never “recover” from it but instead will always be managing it.

meincollege (1)Me in college. Cheers!

This thought is actually encouraging, believe it or not. I’m fairly good at dealing with anxiety by this point – my awareness of it has increased exponentially, I’m familiar with many effective techniques (meditation and acupuncture being the two most useful), I have a wonderful support network, and, most importantly, I’m not as scared of it as I used to be. It still frightens me sometimes, but I’m able to recognize that even this fear is a part of the disorder and that my job is to simply chill out about it. I’ve come up with a new mantra that I really love: Just let yourself be okay. I feel like this responds to all aspects of my anxiety, the over-analyzing, the worrying, the intrusive thoughts, the expectations and criticism. I don’t need to be perfect or always joyful or on the up-and-up in every aspect of my life. Even in the middle of an anxiety attack, I am okay. Just let yourself be okay.

So what does anxiety actually look like for me? On a day-to-day basis, I experience only very mild symptoms that don’t affect my life at all, like I get startled easily and my heart swooshes and sinks into my stomach and then races for a few seconds before going back to normal. Most often it doesn’t phase me; I’m used to it by now, and for this I am grateful, to myself, my therapists, my practitioners, teachers, friends and family – getting to this point took a lot from a lot of people. I’m also able to see how my OCD brain can be a huge boon to my life; it gives me motivation and energy, allows me to productively analyze and act accordingly across various situations, and enables me to multi-task effectively. But the spells are a different story, and while I’m grateful they only happen for specific reasons nowadays, they’re still very challenging.

And this is where my frustration comes in. Anxiety is a hot topic in the media, Twitter, even fiction right now, yet most people don’t actually understand what it really means to live with it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad people are talking about it. But I want people to see it and get it, not just talk about it. Therefore, I feel compelled (haha) to describe it for you, so here’s my attempt at explaining a recent morning.

5 am. Your heart swooshes and sinks, waking you up with a jerk. It’s racing and pounding against your chest as if you’ve just finished sprinting. Your throat is tight and you’re having trouble breathing. A short gasp. No, no, don’t gasp, you’ve got this. Breathe in deeply, it’s hard, you’re still gasping, that’s okay, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out. Your heart is slowing down now. You’re fine, try to sleep.

7 am. You shoot up to a sitting position, heart racing. The baby is awake and screaming from his room, “Mommy, get up!” Breathe in, breathe out, slow down your heart. You love his little voice. Just listen to it for a minute. Such a wonderful sound. Now go squeeze him. You feel a little nauseous as you walk to his room, so you reflexively do that weird tic cough thing that drives you crazy (it’s so strange and it doesn’t even help the nausea, why do you do that?). No, you’re fine, just let yourself be okay. Breathe in, relax your neck. Remember how in college you used to throw up every morning on your walk to class? How you knew all the trees on campus with trunks thick enough to hide behind so no one would see you? You’ve come a long way. Don’t be mean to yourself. Mornings are the hardest and you’re strong. Be here, be present, get out of your head and just be with this little creature and all this love. Also, you actually fell back asleep for a bit, so that’s a win.

7:15 am. Why did your Facebook comment piss her off? You were just trying to help. Women should not turn on each other so easily. If we don’t support each other, who will? Should you reply? Yes, you have to. No, no, don’t, it’s dumb, you don’t even know this person.

Your heart is racing again. Get off the phone and focus on your kid who’s so patiently reading a book by himself while you waste time on this bullshit.

LewReading
7:25 am
. Why did your Facebook comment piss her off? You were just trying to help. Women should not turn on each other so easily. If we don’t – Stop it, you
’re thought looping, and your heart is now pounding in your throat and you feel nauseous again. Don’t cough, it doesn’t help.

Wait, when did you even pick up your phone again? Just reply and be done with it.

7:35 am. Why did your comment piss her off? You were just trying to help. Women should not turn on each other so easily. 

Stop the loop. Slow down your heart. Breathe.

Why did your comment piss her off?

Stop it stop it stop it!

You shouldn’t have replied. Should you check for a response?

NO, YOU IDIOT!

And seriously, do not look at the news right now. Don’t do it. It will only make things worse. Don’t you dare do it. Put the phone down NOW.

7:40 am. Oh come on, “Meh, whatever,” is the best reply that asshat could come up with in response to your very understanding reply? Your heart is pounding in your face now. This is fucking stupid. Why do people have to be so mean? Women should not turn on each other so easily. If we don’t support each other, who will?

PUT DOWN YOUR PHONE AND GET OUT OF THE APARTMENT RIGHT NOW.

But you haven’t packed anything, and now you’re walking frantically around the living room picking up objects you don’t need, and Lew thinks it’s a game and is laughing, and you wish it were just a game, and now you’re shaking.

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7:45 am. Hooray, you have successfully straightened every single knick-knack on every shelf while simultaneously singing songs with Lewis. Now you get to enjoy the peace and calm of an apartment filled with straightened objects! Except that your heart is racing again. Because this has absolutely nothing to do with Facebook or women or having an organized home. Really this is about Dad. You simply can’t lose another parent right now, you cannot become an orphan. 

Ugh, why do you have to go to the most morbid place imaginable? What is wrong with you? 

Shit, you’re nauseous again. Sit down. Breathe in, breathe out. Everything is going to be fine.

HA! You wish. No seriously, it is reasonable to assume it will all be fine. But you know what’s not reasonable? Losing both of your parents before you turn 33. You could deal with it, you have to, you have a kid and you have Dave and your writing and your music. You could write and sing through the pain, maybe even help someone else deal with their grief.

Come on, don’t be so dramatic. No one is dying. It’s like, a statistical improbability. Your neck is so tense is hurts. Relax a little, let yourself be okay.

7:50 am. So, you just texted like, ten people to see what they’re doing today. You cannot hang out with ten people today. You also somehow read three books out loud to Lewis while sending those texts. Wait, did you make any typos? Go back and reread them.

No. Get outside! It always helps to just get outside. Grab the bag and go – it doesn’t matter what you’ve packed.

7:55 am. Excellent work! Those books Lew ripped yesterday are now all nice and neatly taped up, and look at how happy he is reading them! I can’t believe it took you so long to repair them. Anyway, what can you do next? Yes, prop up the stove and clean around the burners, you love doing that.

todolist
8:00 am
. Beautiful! The stove is cleaned and also you made a to-do list with 36 items for your week off of work, including ‘shower’ just in case you forget. But that’s silly because you love showering. Cross it out. No, don’t cross it out, you haven’t done it yet! Oh and also, you
 haven’t applied for that tutoring job, don’t forget to add that to the list.

Ahhhhhh, what the hell are we gonna do if Dave doesn’t have a job come September?

Heart swoosh, sink, throb throb throb.

Oh no, your eyes are glazing over, you’re doing that thing where you’re pulling away again, where it feels like there’s an immeasurable distance between you and your surroundings, where you have trouble interpreting other people’s body language and expressions and then just analyze it all on repeat. You’re getting dizzy, your throat and chest are tight tight tight. Don’t do this, don’t float away. Lew finished his puzzle. Put him in the stroller, get outside. You are fine. Just let yourself be okay.

8:05 am. Phew. We did it. But you’re walking really fast. And dammit, you forgot that you have to move the car today!

Swoosh, sink, thump.

Dude, seriously? Your heart’s doing its whole thing over something as simple as moving the car later on? You need to slow down. Feel the sun, hear the birds. Smile at your beautiful baby boy. No matter what happens, you will be okay.

Breathing in, I calm my mind. Breathing out, I smile. Breathing in, I am dwelling in the present moment. Breathing out, it is a wonderful moment. And yes, it truly is.

The most fascinating thing for me is that most of you can probably relate to much of what I just described; it was a huge breakthrough in my process when I realized that everyone has these thoughts and fears, just not everyone has the same physical reactions to them as I do. I’ve really worked on viewing my anxiety disorder as a set of physical patterns and not as a reflection on my sanity. This separation allows me to observe it without feeling lost in it. But it can be difficult, especially in a society that devalues women and the mentally ill.

I see it as a personal mission to be honest about my experiences so that people can better understand and empathize with hopefully everyone who suffers from a mental illness. Please, keep in mind that you have no idea what a person is going through based on their outward appearance. In fact, people are often shocked to learn that I have OCD; because I’ve worked hard to maintain it and incorporate mindfulness and relaxation into my life, I often come across as laid-back and easy-going even when I’m having a spell.

I guess what I’m saying is, try to be more understanding. We need to love and support each other right now. No matter what happens with my dad, Dave’s job, the Senate, Supreme Court, or the White House, we all need to practice more compassion for one another. An act of kindness can multiply and multiply and make a tremendous difference. Just let everything be okay.

bexndaveinLA

Writer’s Note: I totally broke the rules and spent over four hours on this piece and then edited it again later for at least 30 minutes.

Click here to learn more about the ongoing column Brain-Picking Becky.

Women of Color on Feminism Part 2 – “Can It Be That Your Tent Ain’t It?”

Two weeks ago, I shared my thoughts in Brain-Picking Becky #10: Still a Feminist on the feminist movement’s inclusivity problem and the danger of defining what a feminist is. I began by describing my experience of feeling criticized for of my choice to embrace domesticity, then concluded with the incredibly pressing issue of racism in feminism. White feminists have been talking about the movement’s race issues for over a decade now, but this conversation hasn’t changed anything at all. Instead, we need to be listening to people of color, practicing more empathy and open-mindedness, offering not only our ears and support but also our willingness to change. In an effort to promote this type of dialogue, I posed two questions to women whose voices we need to hear: 1. What does feminism mean to you? and 2. What is your advice to white feminists on how to create a more inclusive movement? I received some incredibly thoughtful, smart, and important responses from these women, and shared the first two in a post yesterday. Here are the final three today. PLEASE read and respond and share freely. It is time for us to listen.

Twisting It Up.jpg“Twisting It Up” by torbakhopper / Creative Commons

Abdula Greene, Civil Rights, Family & Criminal Lawyer:

I liked your article. I’m glad it pointed out that one can be a feminist and still embrace being either a working woman or a homemaker. Too often women are categorizing and excluding other women based on their political or religious beliefs. To me, being a feminist means not being afraid to accept a man’s help or compliment and to enjoy being a woman, knowing that I deserve to be treated equally in employment and status and not being afraid to acknowledge that there are just some things I’d rather leave to men! As to your second question, it is too complex to answer in this short format [a Facebook neighborhood group]. However, to sum up my answer to your second question, white women and black women have different issues. It would be a great task.

A writer and educator who wishes to remain anonymous:

Well, as a woman of color born from women who’ve had to be mothers/providers/friends/etc, feminism for me and my two daughters (who are half white/half black and identify themselves as girls no color attached because they’re still too young to understand), it’s being able to be independent and most importantly able and comfortable with charting one’s own path as you see fit. Feminism is being able to speak out on what you believe in and stand firmly in your truth. My daughters are young, but in our house I believe in giving power to their voices and concerns and supporting everyone – even if you don’t believe in their beliefs or choices. No one has the right over anyone else to make THEIR choices.

Gosh, I really don’t know [how to create a more inclusive movement]. I think it’s important to remember that for women of color, there is always extra work involved. As a woman, no matter your shape, size, education level there is always that need to prove that you are good enough for whatever it is that you want to achieve. For women of color, there is an extra layer – to have to prove yourself because not only are you a woman – you’re a woman of color. Just be open-minded as everyone’s struggle is different.


jessicamingusJessica Mingus, Social worker, Educator, Writer and Founder of In Our Own Skin (pictured left):

In my opinion, “mainstream” feminism has become interchangeable with advancing the priorities of white, cis-gendered, able-bodied women with economic privilege. Countless women’s realities don’t fit within that framework. Because that feminist ideology is underwritten by so many sources of privilege, it gets treated as if it’s the definition of feminism. Let me be clear: Feminism with white supremacy floating around unchecked will not heal what ails us.

Do I consider myself a feminist? Yes. But do I treat it like it’s the single most important component of my politics? No. Patriarchy is everywhere, everyday and I butt up against it everywhere, everyday. But feminism is incomplete unless it incorporates how race, class, sexual orientation, ability, age, nationality, culture, religion impact our experience as women.  Feminism can’t be concerned only with gender. Intersectionality is critical.

Some of the most harmful racial microaggressions I’ve experienced came from straight, white cis-gendered women who waved the feminism flag with deep pride but had no critical consciousness when it came to their race and class bias. The more I have reflected on those experiences, I came to see that the feminist flag they waved so zealously was staked on whiteness and affluence.

My conception of “being a feminist” is propelled by Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s assertion that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” I try to hold myself accountable to continually deepen my understanding of what real justice would look like and to ensure that my personal fight against the forms of oppression that impact my daily life doesn’t push aside, minimize, or otherwise silence other folks’ experiences of oppression and my responsibility to take that on in addition to what limits me.  I love Cornel West’s definition that “justice is what love looks like in public.” I try to evolve my politics with that core belief at the center.

feministfist.jpg“Feminist Fist” by Eva the Weaver  / Creative Commons

So, what’s my advice to white feminists to make a more inclusive movement? First and foremost, step back from that question and examine it. What’s so essential about “your” feminism that the goal is to bring everyone else inside that tent? Is white feminism a common denominator? No way.  I encourage white feminists to ask themselves what is it about holding on to this power of invitation, this sense of entitlement to define the terms? I want white feminists to talk less about how they can make everyone “feel more included in their movement” and unpack how “their” feminism adversely impacts all the women who aren’t inside that tent right now. I think the conversation about inclusion in feminism often winds up supporting rather than subverting other sorts of oppression. Can it be that your tent ain’t it? Where would we all meet if you challenged yourselves to move outside and join the rest of us?

How can white feminists engage multiple forces of oppression in a shared struggle for equity and justice? I would caution white feminists against tapping women of color to tell them how. Authentic relationships with people that don’t look like you or live like you are some of life’s great teachers. But white feminist women must be sure not to tokenize difference or absolve them of the struggle and discomfort that’s needed to figure out a way forward. I urge white feminists to engage in continual self-reflection around privilege. Race privilege is their intergenerational knot to untie.

So…Yes: Be feminists. Challenge patriarchy every damn day. But recognize it as but one form of oppression that must be deconstructed if justice and self-realization are the ultimate goal. 

Women of Color on Feminism, Part 1 – “Every Woman is Going to Have a Different Experience”

Two weeks ago, I shared my thoughts in Brain-Picking Becky #10: Still a Feminist on the feminist movement’s inclusivity problem and the danger of defining what a feminist is. I began by describing my experience of feeling criticized for of my choice to embrace domesticity, then concluded with the incredibly pressing issue of racism in feminism. White feminists have been talking about the movement’s race issues for over a decade now, but this conversation hasn’t changed anything at all. Instead, we need to be listening to people of color, practicing more empathy and open-mindedness, offering not only our ears and support but also our willingness to change. In an effort to promote this type of dialogue, I posed two questions to women whose voices we need to hear: 1. What does feminism mean to you? and 2. What is your advice to white feminists on how to create a more inclusive movement? I received some incredibly thoughtful, smart, and important responses from these women, and will be sharing them with you over the next two days. PLEASE read and respond and share freely. It is time for us to listen.

raquelRacquel Henry, Writer and Editor (pictured left):

“Feminism to me means the right to choose. I frequently discuss this particular subject with my students. When I ask them what they think of when they think of feminism, the response is usually something along the lines of radical women who hate men. They think of women who prefer to work and don’t want to stay at home to take care of their families. I never tell them what to think, but I try to guide them to the idea, that feminists are not radical. Men can be feminists, too. A feminist is someone who believes that women deserve to have equal rights/pay, but can also choose whether they want to be a stay at home mom or be the CEO of a fortune five company. To me, a true feminist believes in empowering women to be the best they can be without judgement and regardless of their career choices.

My advice to white women on how to be inclusive would be to understand privilege. I myself didn’t feel that I fully understood what that meant until the recent political elections. I was always fed the idea that everyone has the same opportunity. But the truth is that there’s a gray area there. In fact, despite the fact that I’m a black woman, I’ve had a degree of privilege myself. I’ve experienced a lot of racism, but I am certain my experiences are totally different from another black woman’s. And it’s not just race. Women face inequality based on sexuality or because they’re disabled. I’d like white women to understand that my experience with gender inequality is probably different from my white counterpart’s. Every woman is going to have a different experience. We need to recognize that. There is so much more that women of color have to face other than simply not getting the job because they’re a woman. If we were all to examine our privilege and really listen to each other, then I think we could make real progress.”

vivelaresistance“Vive la Resistance” by Letisia Cruz

Letisia Cruz, Artist and Poet (who identifies as Cuban American rather than woman of color):

“Many of the struggles that we as women face and have faced are, of course, rooted in the issues of our time. But they are also rooted in our culture. And our culture has largely been one of exclusion, of suppression, and of judgement toward women. Currently, many of us are divided politically. Given the recent political climate and how passionate we all feel about our positions, this can strain the most rock-solid sisterhood. In my own family, we do not all see eye to eye. It’s a challenge (to say the least); even simple communication becomes difficult. But what I’ve come to realize is that we are women first. We must cultivate love toward one another. We must practice compassion. We must accept, protect, honor, elevate, and embrace one another. There can be no presumption, no ego, no superiority. We are women first. This is everything.

So, in answer to your question about what feminism means to me, as a Cuban-American girl growing up in a typical Cuban household, I was raised to respect tradition. But what is tradition? Tradition is the ritual that we instill in our daughters. Tradition reminds us that we carry the strength and will of our grandmothers. Tradition calls us to return to our roots—so that independent of race, religion or political affiliation, we are women first. We must stand together. This is what feminism means to me.”

Leave your thoughts in the comments section and check back tomorrow for part two.

Brain-Picking Becky #10: Still A Feminist

There’s no shame in craving domestic order, only shame in genderizing its production.”
  ~Sarah Curtis Graziano

From when I was a baby until I was in middle school, dolls and stuffed animals were my favorite toys. I talked to them constantly, brushed their hair and washed their faces, made dresses for them out of leftover scraps from Mom’s and Granny’s sewing projects. When I turned eight, Granny hired me for my first job, cleaning her house from top to bottom once a month for $50, and I saved up all of my profits for our biannual trips to the flea market in Louisville where I splurged on Madame Alexander porcelain dolls (the seller told me I was the best bargainer she’d ever met). I displayed all 30+ of these dolls on a shelf in my bedroom, and I’d often lie on my Pepto-Bismol-colored carpet and stare at my collection, admiring how beautiful they all were.

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This passion for taking care of things didn’t stop with inanimate objects. I regularly played with the little kids at church while the girls my age played their own games, I started babysitting when I was 14-years-old, I got my Bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Education, I taught in a daycare after college, and I always dreamed of having my own baby one day. While the environment I was raised in may account for some of this, a large portion of it is just something that’s been inside of me ever since I can remember.

I’m gonna get even “girlier” on you: I also love to cook, and even to clean. Some of my favorite memories are of Mom, Granny and me making big dinners together in the kitchen. I baked my first strawberry pie when I was seven, took it to a church potluck and hid near the dessert table so I could watch people eat it without them knowing I was there. The enjoyment in their faces, their generous second portions, their unsolicited compliments, all filled me with so much pride that I decided I was going to be a baker when I grew up (spoiler alert: I didn’t). And when I say I like to clean, I mean it – the act of it in addition to its results. This is probably connected to having OCD, but it’s also connected to those sweet memories of long Saturday afternoons cleaning Granny’s house, smelling her shirts as I folded and put them away, rubbing my fingers over her silk pillowcases as I made her bed, dragging dust rags across framed photographs of her in younger times. I remember feeling so satisfied at the end of the day, especially when Granny showered me with compliments (and, let’s be honest, also when she gave me that $50 bill).

Dolls, cooking, cleaning… Some people might say I was trained to be a perfect little wifey. But you know what? Those people are wrong. I wasn’t trained to take care of a man – I was trained to take care of myself. I was taught how to be independent, to make my own choices and feel good about them. These ideas of independence, freedom, and confidence are at the root of feminism, yet I hear over and over how being domestic means I’m not a real feminist. All of this infighting and nitpicking amongst modern feminists is killing the entire movement, and, in my perspective, is exactly the opposite of what the movement is (or at least should be) all about.  

So yes, Mom and Granny did all of the cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing. But that doesn’t exempt them from being feminists. While they always wanted me to get married and have kids, they didn’t want me to need this. They never once positioned marriage and motherhood as opposed to my dreams of pursuing my education and being a writer. In fact, I wasn’t allowed to cook with them until I finished my homework, and they often told me to stop washing the dishes so I could go write a story I was blabbering on about. And guess who else also had to cook and wash the dishes? My older brother. But he was so lazy and annoying about it that while they still made him regularly contribute to the chores, they didn’t take his food to the potlucks or hire him for the big cleanings. And they encouraged me to get married and have kids because they wanted me to be happy, not because they saw this as the only path available to women; they equally encouraged my brother to get married and have kids. Turns out, they were right. I love being a mom. I love being a wife. I love it when my husband tells me I’m beautiful and I love watching people eat my food and I love when my kitchen is neat and orderly and smells like fresh mint. None of these loves of mine have anything to do with whether or not I’m a feminist.

I think a lot of this current backlash against domesticity comes from that idea that second-wave feminism in the U.S. revolved around the renewed, forced domesticity of women post-World War II. But the key word here is “forced” – the deeper-rooted issue was that women didn’t have a choice. They were shoved into a role based on their gender and were held back from other opportunities as a result of these roles. To me, feminism is about equal rights between men and women, about having the same opportunities and the same options to make our own choices, not about whether we as individual women are traditional, domestic, radical, or rebellious (or, crazy as it sounds, all of these things simultaneously). Women should have the same freedom as men to forge our own way. Some of us will choose domesticity, some of us won’t. That doesn’t mean that some of us are worse feminists than others. Feminists come in all kinds of shapes, colors, sizes, and forms, and it’s time that the greater movement focused on how to embrace this rather than argue over it.

Mural: Las Milagrosas: Tribute to Women Artists by Franco Folini / Creative Commons

Earlier this week, a friend of mine, Leigh Hecking, tackled modern feminism’s inclusivity and race problem though analyzing Hulu’s recent release of The Handmaid’s Tale, and she came to an insightful, eloquent conclusion that sums up my sentiments exactly: “We need to approach feminism from a place of empathy, openness and inclusivity. We need to challenge our own views of what it means to be a woman (women don’t need to have a vagina or breasts, for example). We need to stop viewing other women’s lives as fiction and ours as reality.” I LOVE the way she phrases this. Honestly, everyone in the world needs to practice more empathy right now, but it feels especially awful to hear women attacking other women over if they’re a good enough feminist or not. The fact that feminism is super white is a real issue, but you know what won’t solve it? White women yelling at other white women over what is and isn’t a feminist. You know what will solve it? Practicing this empathy and openness that Leigh is calling for. Being supportive instead of overly critical. Listening, honestly listening, to each other.

So on this note, I’m asking some friends of mine who identify as women of color to answer two questions: 1. What does feminism mean to you? and 2. What is your advice to white feminists on how to create a more inclusive movement? I hope you check back next Friday for their answers, and please feel free to offer your own answers, as well – as long as you’re nice!

Click here to learn more about the ongoing column Brain-Picking Becky.