I recently became obsessed with two series: "The People vs OJ Simpson," the dramatized series centered on the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman in June of 1994 and the subsequent trial and acquittal of Nicole's ex-husband, OJ Simpson; and "OJ: Made In America," the Academy Award-winning five part ESPN documentary focusing on not only the criminal trial, but also race, sports, fame, money, power, and the context of these in which those involved found themselves.
The dramatized series is just so-so; the documentary is amazing and makes a great point that how we define ourselves is important in determining not only, obviously, our identity, but also our place, our in-groups, and how we experience success and failure. OJ from very early on was very pointed in his remarks about his identity, saying he wanted to be known as OJ and for his accomplishments as an athlete. He rarely spoke out on behalf of issues of race or gender or income, focusing almost solely on his abilities. He had found tremendous success and likability among white society, and was heralded for the success that he had rightfully earned. Of course, as we know, that was not the end of the story.
My point in bringing this up is that I realized while watching it that I have never really thought of myself as a woman. Oh, I've always identified as female- but truth be told, I never put a lot of energy or thought into being female. And as a friend said today, on International Women's Day, "I realized I had spent most of my life learning how to succeed among men." Our identity is often contextualized by the dominant part of society. "Girl power" was always something for tweens and teens to get some confidence, so they could kick ass in a man's world. I can only imagine that it's a similar experience for many if the word "sex" is replaced by "race" or "class" or "gender identity" or "ability." It's something to sit back and realize that this is the case- I think at some level I always conceptualized identity as a unique, distinct thing- but this notion is naive at best.
Over the past year or so, I've come to identify more and more as a woman and to understand what that really means. I probably can't articulate it all here, but it definitely involves the expression of female-ness in every day life and in the places where I derive most satisfaction- from caring for others, from providing food and nourishment and affection to my dogs, giving a listening ear to my friends, offering partnership and a welcoming home for and with my husband, and building opportunities and support to those in my community. There is a strength that comes in actively forming vital connections characterized by mutual support and respect. These are aspects of embracing femininity- even if I don't identify them as such as often as I should. And motherhood expresses itself in many ways. Of course many men express these same traits and have these needs as expression of their own inborn femininity- a good thing! But as a very fearful young woman, much of my energy was put in to self-preservation in a very volatile world and thus these very nurturing qualities were often put away. I had to put away much of what it meant for me to be female in a male-dominated world. I replaced that with other, inauthentic forms of that similar need- taking care of unavailable men, taking on the pain of others, and masking my own pain with food and alcohol and especially when I was younger, drugs.
My own mother was also a nurturer, and a loving, sensitive, creative soul- she made it easy to like her. On her best days I felt so lucky to be her daughter. On other days I was so afraid that I'd lose her. And on the worst days, I was afraid of her. And most of the time I think she was afraid of her greatness. She shined so bright, loved so hard, put herself out there, took so many risks, made things so complicated, and was so hard on herself when others didn't fully appreciate her efforts. She receded to a very dark place. She didn't have "the capacity to be honest" about this and succumbed to the inevitable deterioration that comes when we don't find our way to the light.
I sat down recently to write a little about her death. It's been almost 18 years since she died from cirrhosis of the liver brought on by chronic alcohol abuse and dependence, at the age of only 50, when I was 25. (I'll be publishing that story soon and will be sure to post a link here when that happens.) That painful chapter hung a very heavy shroud over me for something like 13 years, until I realized I needed to step out into the light and live my own "woman's story." And thanks to the living example of women making a different choice about their own disease, I feel I am just beginning to touch what it means to truly live the life of a woman. And it's an amazing thing.
I'm not an accomplished feminist- I don't even know all the lingo- but what I do understand is that as we liberate ourselves, our capacity to liberate others grows. I wrote in an earlier post about how as I found recovery my own buried value system began to recover too. What was left was a deep need, as my teacher Rolf often says, to live "with an open heart and an open mind, seeking only to know what is true."
These days I'm leaning in- taking in as much information as I can about what it means to be marginalized, to be in a place in society where your very real human experience is denied, minimized, trivialized, tokenized, or silenced.
I saw the above on a sign (it's actually a spirited oldie-but-goodie article) at the Women's March on Washington on January 21. Yes, I actually put a pink knitted cap on my head and walked with the thousands upon thousands of others, men, women, trans, old, young, white, people of color- walking and smiling and shouting and speaking out on behalf of the environment, LGBTQ rights, immigration reform, reproductive rights, income equality- all of which are women's rights too. It was amazing. I felt more like a woman that day than ever.
There's a lot more to say about this, of course. But mainly here I want to say out loud that I stand with you- whatever your struggle or challenge or identity might be. I'm a woman, dammit, I nurture and support and love and I know the strength that comes from knowing someone has your back. I know I was born to live a life that "gives voice to the great heart within." I recently wrote that for so long it was the addict's heart that beat inside my chest- but that heart is growing fainter and fainter and is now being summarily ousted by a deeper heart that knows and trusts and seeks the truth, always. There's a steadiness and strength that was always there- though I lost the ability to access it for a long time- it's back for good. I wish that for every person, female-identified or not. Will it be messy? Will I screw it up? Undoubtedly. But I will not forget that my place is with you, speaking from that "great heart within," aiming for a world that respects and honors every one of us. May it be so.