Family time this Christmas took the shape of phone calls and e-mails. I don’t live near any of my family now, though they are often in my thoughts and prayers. I noticed, during one of these phone calls, a pattern I’d not been fully conscious of before.
When someone asks me what I’ve been doing with myself, what’s occupying my attention and time, I’m tongue tied. Something about that question stops me in my tracks. I hear myself give a stilted what-I-did-during-my-summer-vacation kind of report rather than a true, heartfelt answer. After these conversations, I feel like an idiot. I love hearing about what my loved ones are up to. Why can’t I give an honest answer to the same question? What’s in my way?
The answers to that (so far) are complicated, and interesting, and sad.
One thing I can say is I much prefer listening to others rather than talking about myself. Talking about myself is embarrassing. Underneath the embarrassment is my persistent feeling of being a freak. All my life I’ve felt I don’t fit in very well, and all my life I’ve endeavored to hide that fact. The best way to do that is to keep the focus firmly away from me!
Whoever or whatever I was existed only in a tiny cage in the center of an ongoing hurricane of necessity and demand. I could talk (a lot) about doing. I had few chances to just stop and be, and if I did, I felt ashamed of wasting time and making no contribution to anyone else.
This, of course, is absolutely normal for women in this culture. The expectation is women with children, women with partners, women with family elders, live in just this way. It’s what women are for, and I asked for nothing better. It gave me great pleasure to take care of others, manage relationships, and live up to expectations, my own as well as everyone else’s.
What I didn’t realize until I stopped living that way was the terrible price I would pay for stepping out of that role and choosing to live for myself. Now, when someone asks me what I’m doing with my life, the true answer is NOT taking care of anyone else. NOT managing the lives of others. NOT burning myself out in unending emotional labor. I am able to choose Failing To Please anyone but myself.
Now I’m being. I’m meeting my own needs. I’m still busy, but not with running errands, doing housework, and general caregiving. I’m creating a life plan in the context of holistic decision making. I’m making a writing business plan as part of my life plan. I’m taking SEO tutorials and applying what I’ve learned to this blog. I’m taking tutorials on Excel and making spreadsheets as part of my writing business plan. I’m reading. I’m writing. I’m herding cats. I’m looking out the window. I’m doing midwinter ritual and welcoming the returning light. I’m loving people. I’m loving myself. I’m exercising. I’m searching for an editor and agent. I’m submitting writing for publication. I’m looking through seed catalogs.
The part of me shaped by the overculture is deeply ashamed by these honest answers to what I’m doing with my life.
I was not able to be responsible for myself while taking on responsibility for others. Maybe some women can balance successfully between self and others, but I couldn’t. The demands were too many and too great. For a long time, I chose to be responsible to others without counting the personal cost, but then things changed, my kids grew up, and I committed the ultimate act of selfishness and betrayal.
I chose to begin taking responsibility for myself and let go of managing others. Managing, not loving.
Doing more of what I want to do (and less of what I don’t want to do) seems to be unforgivably selfish.
When my kids moved out to live with their father and finish high school, I was completely lost. Being their mother was my biggest piece of identity. Without them, I collapsed like a wet paper doll. That collapse was also a rebirth. With the help of friends, time, and my community, I gradually began to excavate who I was apart from a single mother, a daughter, a sister, a romantic partner. I discovered a woman I’d never had time to get to know, a complete person in her own right. I liked that woman. I loved her. I wanted to share her, proudly, with my loved ones.
But somehow I couldn’t, and can’t. I struggle with a largely unspoken (directly to me, anyway) background vibe of disapproval, resentment and wounded feelings. For the most part, my needs and choices aren’t openly challenged, yet reclaiming my power to have needs and make choices is met with a feeling of subtle withdrawal and withholding of true connection from some of those who have known me for decades.
I’ve written before about Baba Yaga, a crone figure from Slavic European folklore. The world is full of women like me, an army of Baba Yagas. We are postmenopausal and no longer objects of sexual or procreative interest. We are a generation of grandmothers, either literally or figuratively. We’ve learned and suffered much, and have a storehouse of wisdom. At our best, we’re earthy, bawdy, rich in experience and texture, honest, and direct. We can laugh at ourselves. We take tears and tantrums in our stride. We’ve made friends with ebb and flow, cycles and seasons, life and death. We are largely invisible and frequently undervalued and underestimated. We’ve played many roles in our time, been many things to many people. We’ve finally reached a stage of life in which we’ve become a whole greater and more powerful than any of our previous single roles.
We have paid the price and reaped the rewards of being emotional slaves to others. Those of us on the road to cronehood have also paid the price and reaped the rewards of insisting on the freedom to be more.
I hate my shame. What kind of a culture, which is made up of individual people, shames a person for self-care and rewards emotional slavery? Are any of us born solely to serve others? Is that the only meaningful contribution we can make? Are women worthy of love only in proportion to our caregiving?
The most evil twist of all in this is caregivers, people pleasers, and performers of emotional labor are quite often overlooked, undervalued, and taken for granted. I frequently felt unloved and unlovable in those roles, too. My choices were socially approved, but that was cold comfort. I want to be valued for all that I am, not just my socially-compliant roles.
So, what to do? Will I be less tongue tied now when someone asks me what I’m doing? Will my shame wither and die, now that I’ve examined it?
Probably not. I can commit to being more honest about what I’m up to in spite of the shame, but I suspect a part of me will always feel I let everyone down in choosing to live my own life. It’s ridiculous to frame it in that black-and-white, either/or way, but we’re all shaped by our tribe and culture, and I’m well aware many onlookers expect (even if unconsciously) women to stay in their place, which is to say remain as pillars of strength, support, and nurture for others to the end of their lives.
Even so, I won’t go back. I have Baba Yaga work to do now, work I was born to do, work life has shaped me to do. I earned my freedom and my own love and respect. My love for others has ripened into a powerful current, but it’s not slavish. It’s a gift I choose to give, not an entitlement or a duty. Loving others is not all I’m for and I won’t prostitute for reciprocity.
That’s what I’m doing with myself. Thanks for asking.
In the old tales, young women are sent on dangerous quests that involve learning to sort one thing from another. One such teacher is Baba Yaga, about whom I’ve written previously. Baba Yaga is a crone, and when she can be bothered, she teaches too-sweet maidens how to sort poppy seeds from dirt, how to cleanse, and how to cook.
This is to be understood metaphorically, rather than as a statement of appropriate gender roles. Take a deep breath, all you feminists!
The idea of discernment, or the ability to tell one thing from another, is essential to living effectively, and, much like restraint, we are losing touch with it in today’s world.
Sorting poppy seeds from dirt, or wheat from chaff, or mildewed kernels from wholesome corn, is not something technology can help us do. It doesn’t require equipment, money, strength, or a college education.
It’s a hopeless task, of course, to sort poppy seeds from a pile of dirt in one night with no light and no help, but in stories it’s a task that must be done if the maiden wants to live. Usually a magical animal or some other helper arrives; symbols of the maiden’s intuition, kindness or compassion. Interestingly, the maiden often sleeps while the helper(s) accomplish the task.
Metaphorically, this indicates that our civilized, rational, logical intellect must step out of the way and allow creativity, faith and intuition to guide us. Fairytales and oral tradition map our subconscious, our shadow, our deepest and oldest foundations, the places where our primal wisdom lies. Sorting one thing from another takes time and close examination. Discernment involves our senses and our feelings as well as our intellect. It demands our consent to peer closely, and accept what we see. It can’t be done in the presence of denial. Fear clouds discernment, as do distraction, an unwillingness to be wrong, ideology, and an inability to think critically. Gaslighting, projection, distortion and deflection all work actively against our ability to see things clearly. Those who are unwilling to venture into terra incognita are unable to practice discernment, which involves learning and adaptation.
Modern life doesn’t require us to sort poppy seeds from dirt, but here are some places in which discernment is vital:
Differentiating between truth and lies
Distinguishing between friends and not-friends
Recognizing the difference between power-with and power-over
Realizing the difference between our beliefs and needs and those of others
Differentiating between love and abuse, or love and control
Distinguishing between kindness and enabling
Realizing the difference between useless and useful
Knowing the difference between what makes life easier and what makes it harder (simplicity and complication)
Understanding where our power is and where it is not
Noticing differences between words and actions (major red flag)
Differentiating between our own ghosts, struggles and wounds and those of others; in other words, do we take it all personally or blame it all on others?
Knowing the difference between our authentic selves and our pseudo selves
Recognizing the difference between what truly makes us happy and what the culture insists should make us happy
Discernment is not prejudice, hate or bigotry. The ability to tell one thing from another is a basic skill. I remember watching Sesame Street in the 60s when I was a child: “One of these things is not like the others. One of these things doesn’t belong.“
In this era of “alternative facts” and postmodernism, our ability to discern is taking a beating, and those of us who persist in attempting to clearly see and understand our world, ourselves, and others are often targeted on social media. Interesting, that a skill four and five-year-olds can learn is becoming demonized.
This morning, as we cooked breakfast together, My partner informed me about the new trend of buying dirty jeans at $425 a pair.
Photo by Andrew Loke on Unsplash
As usual, I feel painfully out of step with the culture. I feel angry. I feel lonely. I feel flawed in some deep, irrevocable way because of what I want. I grieve for the loss of connection with what I can touch, smell, taste, look at, hear and be held by.
Yet there was a significant response to last week’s post, which indicates to me I’m not as alone as I feel.
It seems to me we’re increasingly distanced from one another, increasingly divided. The culture says we’re more connected and have access to more information than ever, and in a manner of speaking that’s true. We’re more technologically connected than ever. We’re more connected with word and symbol than ever. In fact, our heightened connectivity is creating new languages of emojis, emoticons, like and dislike buttons, and shortcut language that accommodates the limitations of tweets and texts.
Yet we live in technological enclaves that are every bit as rigid as physical neighborhoods and districts in a city. If, like me, we don’t have a cell phone — well, we’re out of the texting conversation. We’re invisible. We don’t count. We’re silenced. Ditto if we don’t have access to Internet or aren’t on social media, or don’t have an email. If we don’t play on the technological playground, we’re depersonalized and disconnected — literally.
But words, pictures, profiles and emoticons can lie. Language includes communication that only occurs with physical presence. Without physical presence, we can’t discern lies from truth. Our power is so damaged we routinely swallow just about everything the culture, media, advertising and our “friends” tells us.
For example, professional women can’t succeed if they don’t adhere to social standards of businesslike attire, clothing and makeup. If you don’t believe me, look it up on any of your tech devices. It’s not hard to find this “fact,” both directly stated and implied. Let me just repeat that, to make sure you got it.
If we’re a woman who doesn’t buy and use makeup, we can’t succeed in the business world. Everybody says so. Everybody believes it. Everybody makes it true by enforcing it each and every day with words, buying choices, advertising, blogs and articles, all courtesy of technological connectivity and manufactured consent. In 2015, the United States was considered the most valuable beauty and personal care market in the world, with a market value of 80 billiondollars.
I’d say that’s pretty successful manufactured consent, wouldn’t you? Pat yourself on the back if you wear makeup, because your hard-earned money is somewhere in that 80 billion dollars. Well done. Do you feel successful and powerful now? Someone does.
If we’re on Facebook, we have friends, a community, a popular vote of “likes.” We don’t have to deal with morning breath, a wet spot on the mattress, different schedules and rhythms, dirty bathrooms, greasy stoves, or any of the small idiosyncrasies and habits real people have. We don’t have to reveal our physical bodies, our insecurities and our wounds. The worst rejection we risk is being blocked or unfriended. We don’t have to learn how to accept, live with and perhaps even appreciate (perish the thought!) different points of view or opinions. We don’t have to be challenged, stretched, or have our dearest beliefs threatened.
Pressing a button is so much easier than all the messy consequences of authentic connection.
Photo by Alessio Lin on Unsplash
We never have to risk being real at a technological remove. No one can blow our cover. We never have to face ourselves; take responsibility for our words, views or choices; or endure the difference between the way we wish to be and the way others actually experience us. Or, alternatively, we can come out of hiding, feel safe behind the screen, and finally allow all our hate and rage off the leash.
Our culture tells us power and success equal carefully constructed pseudo self profiles, the latest technological gadgets, social media accounts, likes, followers and “friends.”
The culture teaches that power and success are achieved by buying things and the possession of money. Now there’s a circular game of empty addiction we can never win and sellers never lose!
Power and success are ours if we participate fully in manufactured consent. Would anyone like to buy a pair of dirty jeans? Guaranteed power and success!
Yet how many of us truly feel powerful and successful? Are we there yet? If we’re not there, we will be after we buy just one more thing, right? Or perhaps we need to make just a little more money, or lose a little more weight, or finally find the “right” mate.
If we’re well connected technologically, our needs are all met, yes? We have a tribe, a community in which to laugh, cry, celebrate, mourn and share our authentic selves. We have physical reassurance and bonding. Our relationships are based on authenticity, reciprocity and respect. We feel seen, heard and known.
Photo by freddie marriage on Unsplash
I don’t think so. I don’t think tech meets all our needs for authentic connection. I think it more often swallows us up and absorbs us. It’s a toxic mimic for the real thing, more controllable and less risky, and we the sheeple have been groomed to buy every toy that’s put in front of us. We’ve forgotten to look up and notice there’s another human being in the room, in the bed or at the table. That’s the power of manufactured consent.
It doesn’t surprise me that Baba Yaga spoke to so many last week. We’ve sterilized what she represents right out of our modern culture. All her outrageous, provocative, profane, rebellious, insubordinate, irreverent, passionate, authentic attributes have been pushed underground, where her spirit lurks, watching, cackling, stirring her cauldron, sucking on bones and waiting for us to remember her and summon authentic power and connection again.
Authentic connection has a scent of living tissue and breath. It’s texture and heartbeat. It communicates with word, action, and the silent language of the body. It doesn’t allow us to shut our eyes, stop our ears or press a button and dismiss uncomfortable tension.
Authentic connection reveals us to ourselves and to others. It isn’t muffled, sterilized or distorted by keyboard or touchpad. It’s defined by visible action and choice. It demands priority and time. It requires real participation, with heart, body and presence. Authentic connection makes us weep. It makes us bleed. It makes us laugh. It awakens our rage. It heals us and makes us whole. It’s messy, unpredictable, confusing, demanding, imperfect, and reminds us at every turn of the limits of our power. It forces us to communicate and then holds us accountable for what we say — and what we don’t.
Most of all, authentic connection is not something we can buy — ever. No one and nothing can give it to us. Our only access to it is through ourselves. We’re a nation of prostitutes, viewing, clicking, scrolling, buying and surfing, but the only ones profiting are the pimps who cash in on our hunger for something real and our addiction to everything not-real.
Yet Baba Yaga is on the move, sowing seeds of divine rebellion into the cancer of manufactured consent and patriarchy, deprogramming one woman at a time. Even now she’s flying on the spring wind in her mortar, using a pestle as a rudder, searching for all those women who long for something real.
I came across a prayer to Baba Yaga recently. I’ve spent a lot of time with Baba Yaga, who is a supernatural female figure out of Slavic European folklore. I’ve told stories about her for years, and she’s an important character in my book. She’s a powerful life-death-life-death figure and has many names, among them Storm Raiser, Primal Mother, Lady of Beasts and Mother of Witches. In spite of our long acquaintance, I’ve only lately begun to love her.
Photo by ivan Torres on Unsplash
Sometimes I think the most important thing to understand about life is power. It structures every single relationship, most of all our relationships with ourselves. Power creates wars, cults, murderers, abusers, tyrants, rebels and perhaps angels.
I believe we have a great longing for our individual mislaid power, such a longing that we’ve lost track of what it is or how to recognize it in our hunger and desperation. I don’t know how else to explain our mindless obedience to the media, to our culture, to our religions, to the almighty “they” who instruct us how to live, how to eat, what to believe, how to look, how to buy and how to be.
At this time in my life, and at this time in my country’s history, I cling to Baba Yaga, because she represents sanity in a world becoming more insane by the day. The prayer reminds me of what true female power is — and is not.
True female power wastes no time on despots and bullies who conceal their fear and impotence behind dishonesty and the willingness to use force. It’s not her business to prop them up. They have nothing she needs and they’re not worth her attention, for they shall not endure.
True female power is real. It’s authentic. It’s not bound by chains of political correctness, manners, fear or ideology. A woman in her authentic power is, according to need and whim, a child, a wild woman, a bitch, a seductive temptress, a crone, and a creature of magic. Obedience and compliance are not in her nature.
True female power seeks the hidden thing, within and without. She pares away layers, stories, masks, facades, dreams, visions, expectations, and shoulds. She’s a persistent poker, prier and meddlesome busybody in holey tennis shoes. She opens drawers, boxes and jars, looks behind forbidden doors and never stops asking questions. She refuses to shut up, close her eyes or pretend, and views everything by the stark light of a fiery skull without flinching. She doesn’t need anyone to agree with her, and she doesn’t need everyone to agree with her. She doesn’t argue with what is. The truth cannot escape her.
True female power doesn’t prostitute for love and validation. Baba Yaga eats sulfur to make her farts more momentous and fertilizes her body hair to make it grow more abundant. She’s hairy legs and iron-tipped fingers and teeth sharpened on bones. She takes a lover when she feels like it, but she kicks him out of her bed before dawn and doesn’t offer breakfast. Her body is not for sale, her hair is the color it wants to be, and she has no use for a painted mask over her face.
True female power is a teacher of magic. She teaches the sorting of one thing from another, cleansing, lighting a fire, the alchemy of cooking. She’s the power of the cauldron, the cup, the womb and the growing seed. She’s the wisdom of bone and blood, seed and water, life and death. A woman in her authentic female power learns to feed and nurture the magic of her intuition and creativity. She knows they are the most priceless jewels she will ever have.
True female power feels huge, deep feelings of rage, grief, joy and lust. When fear accosts a woman in her power, she spits in its eye and knocks it down on her way forward. An authentically powerful woman knows how to cause earthquakes with her dance, bring rain with her tears, melt rocks with her passion and sow stars with her joy. She allows no one to make her small.
True female power expresses all her fine feelings. She shrieks, curses, cackles, stomps, grumps, slams and mutters. She will not be silent. She stays up all night drumming and dancing if the mood takes her, and sleeps all day when she wants. She collects secrets, stories, marbles and insults with equal enjoyment. In fact, she says and does exactly what she wants to do and say.
(Yes, I said marbles.)
True female power is ancient and enduring. It’s coarse silver hair, aching bones, pearly stretch marks, lumpy thighs, scars and wrinkles and cracks and crevices. A woman in her power bleeds, first red and then the invisible silver blood of wisdom that arrives when the children of her body have become ghosts living only in her memory. A woman in her full authentic power smiles kindly on the young and beautiful, because they are not yet capable of her wisdom.
Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash
True female power knows how to live through the night alone, how to wander in the desert, how to go underground and live in a cave among the roots of life when necessary. She survives the conflagration, the invasion, the prison sentence, the betrayal, the loss, the beating, the chaos, the flood. A woman in her authentic power is rooted in the stars, in the trees, in the mountains, in the sea and in the earth. She welcomes cycles and seasons. Change is her strength. She knows how to bide her time and let die what must, because she knows her power will endure in women who come after her.
A woman in her power is not confused. She knows there’s no authentic power in money or position, youth or beauty or hairless legs. She knows her wellspring of power is internal and if she can’t find it, no one will. True feminine power defines her own success, her own goals, her own agenda, her own spiritual practice, her own beauty and her own rules.
Baba Yaga’s specialty is too-good maidens of all ages. That’s how I met her. When the Baba is finished with such a maiden, she’s either saltier and wiser or dead. Baba Yaga eats the dead ones with vinegar to cut the sweetness.
It’s a good time for prayers. Perhaps it’s always a good time for prayers. Here’s mine:
Baba Yaga, Grandmother, we offer you our sweat, tears, blood, milk and urine. Initiate us into life and death with our own blood and bone. Lead us back into love for ourselves, our bodies and our earth. Help us, your daughters, find our authentic feminine power again.