I don’t know about y’all but this week’s been a doozy. Tuesday and Wednesday had me so spun out that I couldn’t find the ground before I fell on it face first (anger, tears, complete inability to deal and use full sentences: a legit case of white-girl “I can’t even…”) I came the closest I ever have to walking out of the office and not coming back – ever! I went home exhausted and frantic, and the only bright spark in my day on Wednesday was having found some Alice Walker talks on Audible. That saved me from total debilitation. Thursday was light and airy, and then Friday was a headfuck all over again.
For the majority of this week on my daily commute I’ve been listening to Brené Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection. It’s very like The Power of Vulnerability and she’s so chirpy it can be difficult not to swear at random intervals just to break up the earnestness but I suspect this is more about my cynical defences kicking in because, overall, she’s dead right. I can’t help but admire her dedication to encouraging people to talk about the damage we do to ourselves and others with shame, and the masks we wear because of it. I know it’s something that’s deeply entwined in my being, and I know from the way my face heats up when I listen to her writings that it’s something that is still present for me. I suppose I was brought up to be ashamed of most of the person I am; that’s an easy thing to have happen when one of your parents doesn’t like you very much, and the other one just isn’t very interested one way or the other. I’m pretty sure that, these days, the number of people whose opinions I value can be numbered on less than my ten fingers but I also understand that this may simply be because I’ve closed a lot of myself off from caring. The whole notion of vulnerability is…well, difficult. Mainly because I think we build up these outer shells for a purpose; no one walls themselves off from the world just because. There’s usually a reason why we feel it’s necessary, and I think we have to be quite gentle with ourselves as to why we did it, and what we stand to gain by chipping away at those walls. So, yes, Brene’s teaching me interesting things. Relevant things. And it’s appreciated, if a little close to the bone by times.
It was especially close to the bone on Friday when Evie woke up feeling dreadful about life, and was found sobbing on our bed at ten past seven in the morning. It was quite clear that she couldn’t go to school, and it was also quite clear that Friday was month end in work, and my boss was sick, which made it nigh on impossible to take the day off. I gathered us up sufficiently to get her to her grandmother’s house, and then I had to leave my sobbing daughter to go into work, and that was a whole new level of guilt and shame. If we follow the definitions of guilt being ‘I did something bad,’ and shame as being ‘I am bad’ then, yeah, we pretty much cover all the bases with that. I don’t know that there was a right course of action to take there but whatever way I played it, I was inevitably going to feel shit about it. Speaking of which…
Dave & I went to a talk in Evie’s school on Thursday night given by Dr. John Sharry who was discussing helping teens deal with anxiety, and he mentioned something that was very interesting to me. He said that there is some evidence to suggest that fathers/male guardians deal better with emotional overloads, rather like E had on Friday. He says that it may be because males tend to be more matter of fact about things, or that they just don’t notice as much as their female counterparts. I think he’s potentially missing one vital point: I think it’s that fathers are much less likely to take such breakdowns personally. I spent most of Friday on edge, working frantically, and straight through lunch so I could make sure I got out the office door as soon as possible. D walked past us huddled on the bed on Friday morning, went to work, and got on with his day. I hasten to add that this is not remotely me having a go at him, although I may have ranted a little internally on the day. He just seemed to assume that it was all under control and so he continued as planned. I don’t even think he was entirely wrong but I know that I couldn’t do that. Thus, my theory on men not taking these things as a negative reflection of their parenting. And while I know it doesn’t help to fret about it, and life goes on, yada yada yada, somehow, on that particular day, it didn’t help.
Oh but what did help? The good stuff, the Alice Walker stuff that I mentioned before, kept me going this week. One of the three things I found was Alice Walker in Conversation With Gloria Steinem which rather annoyingly fails to mention in the title that Wilma Mankiller’s also part of the discussion. The fact that they’re three close friends who have been loving and supporting one another for years make this a beautiful conversation to listen to. If you know me at all, you may know how much I love Ms. Walker, and how much I feel she has taught me through her books: practical things, spiritual things, over-archingly beautiful things; Gloria Steinem has been, thus far, less read but just as admired for her honesty, and her unending belief that we can be more, that society can be fairer. To hear the three of them talk is to listen to the aunts you never had but always longed for, the wisdom and fun of an older generation that I think needs to be heard just as much now as it did in the ’60s and ’70s. I grew up without older relatives of either sex with the exception of my mother’s mother who fell largely out of my life when Dad moved us to Ireland; from memory and hearsay she was a deeply repressed woman. She loved me, and she cared for me but even at such a young age, I never felt a commonality of spirit. I am immensely grateful that she was the person who started to teach me to read when I was about four or so, and who set off a life-long love of books but there was, somehow, never a very strong connection there. She was someone who ‘did their duty’ but I don’t know that she ever had much fun in her life. I suppose two world wars, an unhappy marriage, and a long widowhood could certainly have that effect. Still, there we go. She was who she was. Still, if there’s one thing Clarissa Pinkola Estés taught me, it’s the importance of the guidance of older women, and if I had to choose whose feet to sit at and learn, I’d choose these three any day of the week.
One of my biggest light bulb moments from this conversation was from something Gloria Steinem said when talking about solitude, and her path to finding it. She said, roughly speaking, that when one has been neglected as a child, one often doesn’t feel as real as the other people around, and that there is a notion that one has to be useful in order to be real. I think I may have gone into temporary shock when I heard that because it’s one of those ‘Oh, someone put it into words!‘ things. I always thought my feelings of disconnection and unreality had more to do with not knowing any other children until I went to school at the age of five, and being raised in a pretty much adult-only environment, So when I started school, my first class teacher wrote in my report that I used to do so much for her that she often felt superfluous in the classroom. I didn’t make friends so much as I made impressions. The only way I knew to make any connection was to make myself helpful or to offer something people wanted – being me was simply never enough, and I never expected it to be. I learned that in England, and I learned it in Cork. I learned it in each job I had – do more, know more, take on more, seek signs of approval and then try to live there, in that space where you are seen – until the will to maintain that level of usefulness gets very old, very fast, in which case I have felt guilty because I wasn’t keeping up enough, or doing enough, or for feeling exhausted and enervated. Round and round and round we go… Feeling the need to be of use, and feeling shame and guilt when it’s simply not possible to maintain the necessary energy/momentum. Ugh.
Brené Brown says the best way to combat shame is to talk about it, to connect with other people, tell our story, and accept it for what it is, and to have compassion for ourselves. (Well, she’d say ‘we have to own our stories’ but I only just worked out this week that she really means ‘accept’ in English!) I think these are, as Martha Beck might say, simple but not easy things. In this, as with many other issues right now, I think it’s more important than ever to keep trying. Gently but firmly. From Adam and Eve onward, shame has been a distinctly patriarchal tool for keeping women silent and isolated, which is not to say that women haven’t tried or don’t try to shame other women. I guess it only ends when we get a very clear picture of how we want to be, and then work towards it.