As signs go, it was an ambivalent one: A bald eagle, the chosen symbol of our country, hunched down in the middle of the road, feeding on roadkill, a dead squirrel — carrion. Is this the best we can do? Is this all we have left?
This morning two leaf grasshoppers, bright green, their bodies the perfect mimicry of spring leaves, of sunshine distilled into chlorophyll, adhered themselves to my driver’s side door. They didn’t let go when I got in, so I drove off, expecting them to leap to freedom at the first stop sign. They didn’t. One got blown off somewhere along the way, but the second made it the 30-minute drive to work, at speeds of 60 miles per hour. He was still there when I got back in my car to drive home for lunch. I didn’t see him until I was stopped at a stoplight, and he hauled his green body, on thread-thin legs like tiny pieces of green stitching, to the top of the side mirror. He hunkered down, face first into the wind, and I imagined him as if he were a dog, enjoying the air folding back his ears—erh, antennae. I became attached to him, somewhere on the drive home. He was cute, for an insect, and I could admire his perseverance. He made it home with me, somehow, improbably, and when I pulled into the drive I wished him well, expecting never to see him again.
A long lunch hour later, I got back in my car, headed back to the office. Again, I didn’t see him until it was too late, until I was on the highway, until he was climbing towards the top of the side mirror, but this time a gust of wind turned him, one thread-thin leg pulled up from the car, his wings ruffled, pushed back towards his face until I was sure they were broken, his illusion of a leaf stripped bare. I found myself slowing, watching the mirror instead of the cars around me. I didn’t want him to die. Finally, though it was stupid, and I was already late coming back from lunch, I pulled over, made a left into the entrance of a green, heavily landscaped subdivision, stopped, got out, shooed him off. He flew away. He could still fly.
It was going to be okay.
Yesterday, or the day before, or sometime recently, or sometime soon, a man walked into a bar—wait, there’s no joke! A man walked into a bar and killed 49 people. He didn’t know them. They had done nothing to him. Whatever rage, anger, hatred, burned him up, he had created it himself, out of thin air, out of malice and pain and conceit. He could have given life, but instead he gave death, and grieving, and loss. We let him do it. We gave his weakness weapons, and he turned them against innocent people.
That will never be okay.
My friend just got a boob job. I don’t really have anything else to say about it.
I think I’m supposed to be judgmental about it. Even my husband sort of expected that from me. I guess I’m supposed to Disapprove, on feminist principles, or something, but I don’t. Here’s the thing: It doesn’t matter what you look like.
I learned that from two of my favorite Famous People: Dolly Parton and Joan Rivers. I judged them for a while. But then I thought: Would Joan Rivers really have been on Fashion Police if she looked like most 81-year-olds — a ruff of wrinkles, a sagging physiognomy, a litter of liver spots — and be permitted to prick with her acid wit insipid, badly dressed, much younger stars? Maybe she accepted something about Hollywood I haven’t. I would have loved to have seen her face, the face she would have had, wrinkles and sags and liver spots. She wouldn’t have, but I would. Joan! I would have said, because she would have looked divine, divinely like herself, and that would have pleased me.
Dolly, too — I would like to see her unaltered face, the lines that would be hers, the age. Not that she doesn’t look good. But she doesn’t look the same.
But what I learned, from Joan and Dolly, is that I still loved them — Joan’s humor, Dolly’s music — because it doesn’t matter what you look like. It can’t change who you are.
I refer to this woman at work as “The Millstone.” Maybe it should have been the Albatross. I’m not sure what ancient code I violated, but I’m pretty sure I’m being punished. How much invective, vitriol, and vituperation should I accept, really, when I’m fairly certain I’ve done nothing wrong.
I’ve been Trying (yes, with a capital letter, I’m that Earnest about the whole thing) to be a Nicer Person, and the Millstone is the inspiration. Not because I think I deserve her denunciations, because I don’t. They aren’t, even, usually about me. She’s angry at someone else, but she can’t yell at them, so she yells at me instead. It’s terrible fun. I think she thinks it means we’re “friends.” Really it means that when I hear her clopping down the hall in her sandals, I want to leap from behind my desk and shut my office door. Or at the very least ask, “What now?” with a withering glare. Instead I rearrange my face into blank pleasantness and answer every comment with a noncommittal, “Uh-huh.” Yes, I’m pretty sure I’m headed to sainthood.
So why Nicer? If I’m already so terribly nice? I never understood the expression, “Wherever you go, there you are,” until I met this woman. She could win the lottery tomorrow (come on, fingers crossed, big money!) and she still wouldn’t be happy. She couldn’t be: She doesn’t know how. She’s the victim of everyone and everything she can’t control (read: the entire universe), and the least little thing sends her into an infuriated panic, about how awful and monstrous every damn thing is, every last person.
I recognize a tiny sliver (read: a generous slice) of myself in her need for control, in her constant feeling as though she never has any. There’s a paradox there, a paradox I am learning to understand, from the Millstone, who, it turns out, is a terribly motivational teacher.
Today has been a DAY, my people. Not the good kind. The first day back from vacation kind. The kind where you want to cry, bang your head against your desk, tell your coworkers to go f*** themselves, and quit. That kind of day.
I must be doing something wrong. Well, I am doing something wrong, in that I’m caring what other people think of me. I’ve heard it said that we shouldn’t care what people think of us, but I don’t quite understand that, to be honest. That’s one step above my enlightenment abilities. I need people to think well of me, don’t I? My boss, for instance? My clients? If they don’t, I can’t quite figure how I would be employed. Which, in spite of how I started this post, is somewhat necessary. I guess what I need to wrap my head around is that I don’t need people to like me. And that I don’t always have to do everything correctly, 100% correctly, all the time. Because that’s impossible, and will make you crazy. I try to sing that song, when I feel myself getting crazy: “You can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself.”
You really can’t please everyone. Everyone comes in with different wants, expectations, desired outcomes … and if you have a spine, or a pair, or whichever anatomical metaphor you prefer, you are going to make someone unhappy.
I guess what I’m trying to do is walk my way around this thought, the thought that “I don’t need to care what other people think of me.” What do people mean, when they say this? That you should be who you are, in spite of other people, their judgments, etc.? But don’t we have to conform, a little? I wear a suit when required, because people expect it. Of course, I’m also the kind of person who doesn’t mind wearing a suit — if I were, I’d need other employ. But certainly I think people should be who they are — I don’t want homosexuals, for instance, feeling like they have to be straight. That’s probably a bad example, but maybe you follow me a little.
But I do feel, all the time, like I’m supposed to be somebody else. Louder, more obnoxious, more unpleasant, more talkative … Generally (to be quite, quite honest) I feel like I should be a man. I haven’t figured out how to be a man, though, and I don’t actually mind being a woman — I just feel like I would be more successful and people would take me more seriously if I were taller, louder, with a deeper voice and a penis. And probably testicles. Although who’s going to check my pants, so, really.
I’m not really getting at the meat of my question, which was, how do you not care what other people think, but care enough to conform enough to be successful? All I know is, today, I was doing something wrong. I got handed the shitty end of the stick and I took it, and I don’t know why I did. I got mad at myself for taking it. I wanted to throw it against a wall and scream, “This is somebody else’s shit, not mine! And I’m not cleaning it up!” but I didn’t. Okay, I did, a little, but there’s no doubt in my mind that when I get in tomorrow, that shit will still be on my wall, and my boss will be in my office, pointing it out and telling me to clean up my shit.
That’s all, really. That’s all I’ve got. Someday I’ll learn to be a better person. But in the mean time, I’ve got shit to clean.
I’ve been trying to give up complaining for a while now. Man, is that ever hard. I never noticed how much of my day-to-day chit-chat at work centered around bitching, until I tried to stop doing it. I once had a friend who tried to give up swearing, and when I pointed out he had just said, “sh**,” responded, “Well, fu**.” It’s kind of like that.
I started my bitch-fast because I noticed how drained and unhappy the constant complaining made me. Or should I say, I had given up complaining — not intentionally, just as a byproduct of not having coworkers or bosses to complain about (unemployment did have its perks). I was happy, and grateful, for things like food and shelter and puppy dogs. But here I am, working full-time again, feeling like Bambi after his mother gets shot, wide-eyed and horrified by the never-ending stream of complaint coming from my coworkers.
It’s impossible to be happy and continually complain, I’ve decided. It just is. You can’t constantly be identifying everything wrong with everything in your life and then turn around and feel great about it. It just doesn’t happen. It doesn’t matter if nothing is wrong with your life. You just walk around feeling drained, and annoyed, and despairing. Or I do, at any rate. Somehow through my years of un- and under- employment I had rediscovered the inherent joy of not hating everything.
Of course there’s a villain in this story, the co-worker who can’t open her mouth without invective leaking out of it. I decided she wouldn’t be happy until I was dead and she was sucking the marrow from my bones. She wants everything from me, and she’s not content just to complain to me, at me, she wants my agreement, my complicity that everything is terrible, RIGHT?! Every time she says that word I picture it just like that, capital letters, question mark, exclamation point. I feel that exclamation point, right between my eyes.
Did I just complain about my co-worker? Well, fu**.
What is life? A painting, blue mixed with red, slashes of brown, all come together, intertwining threads of color, made into her mantle, laid across her knees, and in her delicate, parchment and alabaster hands, a book.
The book of life? Not really. The book of death, one of several, a collector’s edition, the final copy, a heavy black ledger, and somewhere, written in gold, her name.
On her temple, above one eye, the gold feather: Crown of the eagle, crown of the chief, painted over satin brown skin, sun-creased, knit, worn, a patchwork quilt of her people and all their many days.
Over the water, ships in the water, the hull creaking and here we row together or we die, sun and the sun-warmed backs and this bark, over the wide ocean, like a prayer.
That is what I used to do—pray for you. That somewhere, behind the snow-capped mountains where you hid, you would hear me call, the cry, up in the sky, curled up in the wing of a shore bird, my voice, falling from the sky, unanswerable but heard—my voice.
In the beginning there was only time, first of the gods’ great gifts. All our shoulders huddled, curled together in the middle of the vast sea, strengthened by the touch of laughter, before the storm tossed us each out, into the water, this bark, rowing hard against the ocean, terrified, exhausted, brave.
I waited a long time, to hear your voice, back over the water, but the squall ate it, a greedy throat of foam ate it, and I could not surmount these monstrous tides to get to you. You over there, the other side of the moon, I thought—so far that even dreams can’t reach it, can’t imagine it.
The dark night curled above the house, shooting stars, and we three were all together, and I was strong, but only because you stood there with me.
Music becomes another language, one without vocabulary but with grammar and syntax. It becomes our language, though it has always been your language, will always be your language. The words were lost, dropped one by one like pearls into the water, but the song came back to me. The shorebirds gave it to the osprey who, quiet and circling, gave it to me.
Every journey is a prayer, every destination, hope. I can’t explain. Those who crossed the water, long ago, they prayed. Not for survival but for discovery, for the destination, the arrival. We pray for discovery.
I washed up, from my broken up bark, on terrifying sands, the desert of Amin, or Sahar, the desert of my ancestors, the nomads. Did they really once inhabit these God-forsaken places? The oasis nearly beaten in by drought, no place a refuge.
Refuge is what we seek, Good God Almighty: shelter. To know where we are is a greater gift than to know where we’re going.
The woman wears red satin, and pearls. In my mind she has been arrested, halted, the whirling of infinitesimal atoms only just contained.
Out of the water came mermaids, spitting jewels.
I watched the clouds in the sky, hurried by the wind, forming and reforming, no compulsion but compulsion itself, to end and start anew. I dreamt of harmony, the moon pressed white and full against the window.
Up in the sky rose the osprey, curled around the note, tucked beneath its wings, diving fiercely into the groundswell of the music, being lifted, thrown, joy in the exertion. That was my voice, a lone brown in the long blue, up and away to you—where you might hear it, and know it, and sing, too.
I like to quip (even though it’s not grammatically correct) that I’m a judger who judges. And I’m not sure most people I meet would even know this about me, because I’ve learned to bite my tongue. There’s a whole lot in my head that never makes it out of my mouth. To be honest, I’m not very chatty.
A lot of my job is making judgments—analyzing information, presenting an argument, trying to convince people I’m right, going on the offensive if I don’t get my way. And I’ve thought, well, that’s just who I am, that’s just what I do. But at this point, I can’t turn it off, and I wonder if there isn’t some better way to be, some better way to act.
Are my constant critiques a defense mechanism? Am I missing an opportunity to connect, by distancing myself, by holding myself above others? And didn’t I just judge someone else, saying, “The mouth speaks what the heart is full of”? What is my heart full of? Ridicule and contempt, and, God help me, self-righteousness? Because even though I don’t totally, 100%, ever believe my critiques—I sort of do, or I wouldn’t be making them.
Can I change? I doubt it. As Pop-Eye used to say: “I yam what I yam.” Don’t judge me.
The other day one of the admins said to her boss, “Behind every great man is a great woman.” She meant it as a compliment to herself, but it just made me want to pick up a pencil and stab myself in the eye with it. If the woman’s so great, why is she standing behind some man?
But I don’t feel like a rant today—that kind of rage takes more energy than I can muster first thing in the morning. I have been thinking about women and leadership lately, as I try to take on more responsibility at work. Mainly I think for me it comes down to learning how to do it and then making it a habit. You know, the habit of making the decisions, of accepting that I can’t be perfect, can’t try to be perfect and still have the necessary forcefulness to have people respect my decisions. Also the habit of being the one in front, so to speak. (Get it? In front, not behind—har har.) Women do seem to be conditioned to stand in the shadows. I feel like I can pinpoint the year when I learned that girls don’t take charge, learned it from other little girls. I don’t know where they had learned it from, and honestly I wonder. Their fathers? I didn’t have one, at least not one that was around. Their mothers? I can’t remember mine ever correcting my behavior as unfeminine. But that’s certainly what girls did.
It was fifth grade, for me, when I tried to take charge of the girls in my class—lead, if you will. I get a bit squirmy just thinking about it, even now. Who did I think I was? That’s certainly what the other girls thought. “Who do you think you are?” Girls collaborate, create consensus, and no one is above anyone else, no one leads, there is only, sort of, a first among equals. It’s all become a hazy memory of sitting in one of the wooden cubbyholes on the playground, feeling as though I’d let my girls, my group, my clique, down. I didn’t want to be thought mean. There was some disagreement … I can’t even remember, have absolutely no recollection, what it was about. But the other little girls called me mean. And I knew girls were supposed to be sweet, were supposed to be nice, were not supposed to be stuck-up and full of themselves.
I was a naturally shy child, but I was smart, and I knew what I was. Not the prettiest, which girls were encouraged to be. I wanted to be pretty, to have long blond hair and a pretty round face, instead of brown hair and brown eyes and the face I had—long, thin, cheekbones where the other girls still had plump faces—a horse face. Not the fastest, because I hated sports. Not the sweetest, because, let’s face it, smart and sweet don’t usually go together. Not the funniest, though I tried. But the smartest. I felt, for a long set of years between the beginning of puberty and say, 22, that I wasn’t girly enough. I couldn’t be girly enough, because even though I wanted to be, it never fit. I didn’t care about boys, or what they thought of me, but I felt as though I should, and it only confused me. Boys were almost all stupid and immature and knew no more about anything than I did, but we were supposed to defer to them, so I did. I loved clothes, but not girly clothes—I liked jeans and boots and sweaters and blazers. You should see the dress I picked out for my confirmation at 13. My best friend wore a pink and lavender floral dress with a lace bib and a ruffled hem. I wore a navy and white shirt dress with navy and white spectator heels. My sister’s friend later borrowed the ensemble for a job interview.
I’m taking this trip down memory lane just trying to understand what happened, why I gave up on that early sense of “take charge” for a life in the shadows, a position behind that hypothetical, theoretical, “great man.” I think I felt like everyone expected me to fit into this mold that no part of me fit in, and the only thing I could think was to just disappear. I can’t be that girl, but I can give up that belief in myself, I can carve it out of me, that self-confidence, and hand it over. I can believe that you know how I should be, and that I’m less of a person because I can’t be. Neither a great man, nor a great woman.
I worry about my niece, now that she’s getting closer to puberty, to that age, to a realization that there is a way girls are “supposed” to act, and that it doesn’t always conform to who she is. She’s prettier than I was, and blond, but she’s also whip-smart, likes comfortable clothes, no fuss, and is a natural-born leader. I worry she’s about to be gutted, as I was, made to pay the price I paid for not being a proper girl—her self-confidence. And I hate for her to think she’s anything less than amazing, just by being herself. I can already catch a glimpse of the woman she’ll one day be—a great woman, I hope, one who doesn’t want to stand in anyone’s shadow.
Sometimes I think that I, like Gandhi, have never met a Christian. I hear in the gospels stories about humility, forgiveness, tolerance, rejection of violence, acceptance of those who are different, and learn that all of us are equal before God. What I hear, out of the mouths of self-proclaimed Christians, is judgment. Make that: Judgment, with a capital J. These Christians are just plain better than other people, and they pity the rest of us, who are unsaved and hell-bound. They’re happy to try to save you, but please don’t talk about any of those deal-breakers for the righteous, like evolution, equality between the sexes, or, God forbid, for homosexuals. I mean, come on, Jesus wasn’t talking about those people. And sure, he forgave that adulterer—but he was a man forgiving a woman. That’s the divine process—woman sins and man forgives. End of story.
This particular rant is brought to you by a conversation I overhead at work, between two righteous, Christian men. “Do you know,” started the conversation, “it’s the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz?” If you aren’t scared already, wondering what two middle-aged, affluent, white Christian rednecks are about to opine about the Nazi internment and attempted extermination of the Jews, you should be. “We think we’re so high and mighty here, but we have abortion, tens of millions of babies killed, right here in America. It’s ten times worse than what the Nazis did.” “Sure, I mean, Planned Parenthood.”
At that point, I had to get up and shut my office door. Did I … Did they …? Could they really have …? I couldn’t change the expression on my face for something like ten minutes. The first part of the conversation should have warned me, but I’m used to this coworker talking about his church, and all the wonderful, Christian things he does there. Apparently, there is some Christian novelist, who writes thrillers about terrorism, and Muslims, and somehow works in the gospels. So, I thought (sitting in my office, trying to ignore him and not succeeding), like 24, only … Christian? So, torture, murder, mayhem, death, but … wait, what? This author had spoken at his church, and made this startling comparison between Planned Parenthood and the Nazis, and he just had to share.
It’s hard for me to pinpoint what bothers me most about this exchange. I’m not offended people are saddened by abortion—I get it. In a perfect world, all pregnancies would be wanted, and all people who wanted children would have them. Okay. Unfortunately, we don’t live in that perfect world, and we never will. Women will want abortions, and unless we think women should die trying to get an otherwise … Okay, let me sum up: “God forbid you ever had to walk a mile in her shoes, ‘Cause then you really might know what it’s like to have to choose.” (Thank you, Everlast.)
As for Auschwitz … Really? That was the best thing you could come up with, to say about concentration camps? “The mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” (Luke 6:45) That was the only thing you could find, inside your heart? Abortion in the US is worse than the holocaust? I feel certain you have no real understanding of what happened—I know you don’t. And that’s when I decided what really bothered me: Such willful, self-righteous ignorance. Willful, because he could educate himself, but he’s certain he already knows everything there is to know. Self-righteous, because he smugly condemns Planned Parenthood and all those abortion-wielding Nazis, with no sense of compassion or humility. And ignorant, rendered incapable of learning.
Maybe Jesus overestimated the intelligence of his followers. There’s no parable, after all, about a woman ending a pregnancy—not even for health reasons—so really, how could we know how to treat people we think did something morally reprehensible? Our only options, clearly, are hatred and condemnation. Yes, we heard that in the gospels, right after Jesus went all Jack Bauer.